Brick Walls: “The Uses of Difficulty” and the “right” obstacles


The Economist has just introduced a few phenomenal articles from its sister publication, Intelligent Life, free to DL @ moreintelligentlife.com.This morning, I enjoyed reading “The uses of difficulty,” which I was excited to see has direct correlations with the research I’ve been most recently engaged in re: writers’ uses of technology, the organization of pedagogies informing those uses, and the development of new and innovative strategies for synthesizing writing, technology, and rhetoric to achieve significant and sustainable affect.

I strongly agree with Bill Hart-Davidson, that “writing isn’t just writing anymore, it’s networked and therefore a different composing process, a product with different implications.” Writing occurs in far more spaces, with far larger audiences, and with extremely rewarding, and unfortunately sometimes extremely dire, consequences. Writing is fast, pervasive, affective, powerful. All because of the media through which it occurs – the media that enables its agency to DO things – to do things faster, bigger, stronger.

But not without implications … as Hart-Davidson argues.
The implications I’m most concerned about, from the perspective of my research and pedagogy pertaining to writing center theory/practice and, more casually, writing mentoring, can be traced to teaching and the ways in which the use of technology as a primary tool for writing is imbued with consequences that are immediate (i.e. the “real-time” nature of web publications) and much farther-reaching (“open”: available to any user with Internet access).

From Hart-Davidson’s position,

teaching [writing] can’t continue to occur as it does currently, in a way that is
detached from the reality of a networked mode of writing; teaching needs to
respond to the (vastly different) rhetorical aspects of technological writing and the much
more vast audience which constitutes the digital scholars’ audience (Hart-
Davidson, Bill et al. “Why teach digital writing? The WIDE Research Center
Collective.” Kairos 10.1(2005): n.p. Web. 10 Oct. 2012).

Because we (writers/writing researchers/writing professors) see the value in using technology to enhance writing, researching, and teaching, what’s most important is that we do so based on a solid theoretical foundation of theory that reinforces its intelligent use and challenges its practice. This is where the Economist‘s article, “The uses of difficulty” comes into play for me.

As someone who has almost exclusively – until October of this year – composed on paper (using a laptop literally as a tool for formatting, editing, and communicating my writing) I was initially conflicted to read Ian Leslie’s argument that:

As the brain attempts to force the unsteady hand to do its bidding, the tension
between the two results in a more compressed, psychologically denser
expression … handwriting activat[es] more of the brain than keyboard writing,
including areas responsible for thinking and memory … our brains respond better
to difficulty than we imagine (4).

Leslie’s argument matches my own (former) reasons for handwriting my work for so long … so the question, now, after I’ve just committed to composing on-screen … is does it work? Can I write as effectively – densely, as Leslie would have it? If the difficulty involved in the act of handwriting produces “better,” more critical writing, then why would I or anyone else (Hart-Davidson, in particular) advocate composing on-screen?

I’ve found that composing on-screen enables distinct advantages for: space, time, and most importantly, appropriation of a “real” (digital) audience.

Concerning space, what I’ve enjoyed most about transitioning to digital composing is my access to research – whether it’s via the university library, or a link posted on Twitter, composing on-screen enables me to access and then think-through and analyze many more resources than if I were to copy and then write-through this analysis by hand. Leslie’s counter-argument to this point would likely be that, yes, maybe it’s more efficient to access research and compose writing in the same space, but that doesn’t ensure that I’m thinking-through that research/composition as deeply as if I were to write-through it by hand. Possibly. But what about the possibility of having access to more perspectives to think and write about? What about the benefit of researching more, faster, and thus extending the usefulness of “prewriting” and drafting?

Regarding time, for me, composing onscreen enables my writing to “keep up” with my thinking … and it allows me to use my time more efficiently because as I write, I talk aloud to myself … rehearsing my writing, conversing and arguing about meaning, etc. The ability to type as quickly as I can think/speak narrows the gap between thinking and writing in a very positive way, at least for the way in which I write/communicate.

Lastly, and most importantly, is Hart-Davidson’s argument that digital composing as it’s then produced/dispersed digitally (given that most publications are available online) ensures that the documents produced are “appropriate to the global and dispersed reach of the web”. Essentially, Hart-Davidson is arguing that teaching technological modes of writing prepares students for the reality of writing in a networked world. This is a large-scale change, he argues, in the “rhetorical situations that we ask students to write within, the audiences we ask them to write for, the products that they produce, and the purposes of their writing.” If we are to really engage in teaching students writing, we must respond to the pervasiveness of technology as it is used for writing in the “real” world. This isn’t to argue that writers of the “real” world aren’t using pen and paper. But it is to argue that writing in the 21st century is networked writing … Whether that involves pen and paper at moments throughout the composing process, or whether composing takes place exclusively on-screen would be at the discretion of the writer, I suppose. But I would argue that although the act of pen-and-paper writing is incredibly useful primarily because of the difficulty involved in coordinating thinking and writing, so is the process of typing, the skill involved in researching, and the writer’s attention to the rhetorical -networked- situation they’re composing in.

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About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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