This interactive graphic is a provocation about writing instruction in the digital age.


This framework allows you to explore writing program options based on five questions:

1. Who teaches?

2. Who learns?

3. What kind of writing is taught?

4. How is writing taught?

5. Where does instruction take place?

These questions emerge from the literature on writing programs. The first question is motivated by increasing concerns about the labor conditions associated with writing instruction (e.g. Schell 1998, Strickland 2011). Whereas tenure-track faculty were once the norm in teaching writing, a variety of economic and sociocultural factors have increased reliance on adjuncts. Digital technologies have the potential to destabilize this further.

The second question engages with composition scholars concerned with language, race and structures of superiority (Matsuda 2006, Shuck 2006). If America's population is becoming more multi-lingual and flexible in terms of goals and ages, how could that affect writing programs we might design?

The third question arises from fragmentation in what students learn to write (e.g. Fulkerson 2005). This is very inflexible at the local level - former students feel attachment to the books, essays, and assignments they suffered through - but when designing a program from scratch it is important to consider the variation available.

The fourth question sets up applications of Berlin's (1987) ep class="item-w-pic-body"istemological framework for writing instruction. Berlin takes a historical approach, arguing that in any phase of history, we can see three strands of writing pedagogy that correspond to how the teachers see truth: people with an objective epistemology (labeled "obj" here) treat truth as prior to language, and teach writing as a matter of correctness and clear reflection of the obvious truth of the world; people with a subjective epistemology (labeled "subj" here) treat truth as something that can be known and shared but not communicated, and teach writing with an emphasis on personal discovery; and people with a transactive epistemology (labeled "trans" here) treat truth as socially emergent, and teach writing by focusing on the interaction between the world, the text, the social and the personal.

Finally, the fifth question is a new topic of immersion (although an old topic for long-distance creative writing programs). Do students need to learn to write while in a dedicated mode of knowledge absorption and creation?

This set of five questions is obviously non-exhaustive, leaving out important questions such as how writing is assessed, how students are thought to be motivated, and how students interact with the instructor. Still, this model provides considerable power to distinguish among potential writing programs, and the areas associated with these questions take up the whole visual space.

Details and food for thought

For each question, there are three answers. One set of answers I call the "liberal arts ethic"; another set I call the "pre-professional ethic." I draw broadly in characterizing these two institutionalized programs on Wright and Halloran's (2001) and Berlin and Inkster's (1980) histories of American writing instruction. A third set I have called the "digital ethic," based on Gee and Hayes's (2011) exploration of "passionate affinity spaces," Ito's (2012) application of this philosophy in the form of "connected learning," and Jewitt and Kress's (2003) collection on multimodal literacy. The key and color scheme indicate that I see these as three distinct sets of answers.

Each ethic loosely corresponds to historical periods, such that some of the "answers" that the liberal arts ethic provides may seem old-fashioned, and some of the "answers" the digital ethic offers may seem avant-garde.

Gradations between ethics are not well represented in this mapping, although of course they can be significant in practice: a program might answer the fourth question "What kind of writing is taught?" by combining goals of essayist literacy with instruction in professional genres (and a day on PowerPoint to boot!). The value for me in making such coarse distinctions among the three ethics is that this simplification of the perspectives delays haggling and fine-tuning. This allows the exploratory tool to be used as a heuristic for invention, as a starting point to explore considerably different options.

I hypothesize that the liberal arts, pre-professional and digital ethics can be mixed and matched across categories. In other words, I suggest that what I am calling the "liberal arts," "pre-professional," and "digital" ethics are actually congealed sets of values rather than theoretical commitments. (In this sense the successful compromises in real writing programs that we observe within a category corroborate this hypothesis.) In the exploratory tool I express this argument in two ways.

First, I've designed the user interface so that categories are set individually. Thus, mix-and-match options are allowable, and this opens the possibility to the user that they are also valid. In fact, mixing and matching is not merely available, but almost required: settling on a choice for any category consists in passing through other choices. Thus, the "finished" state of the map is visually indistinguishable from a work in progress. This resists closure and facilitates experimentation.

Second, I have included in each answer a characterization of values that the ethic may be aspiring to. This is a textual argument for segmentation, in that it momentarily backgrounds the ethics to provide a smaller choice between which values to prioritize.

  • Use this exploratory tool to characterize your university's writing program. What about the university you got your degree from? Is there much difference?
  • If Khan Academy, famous for YouTube explanations of math and science, created a writing program, how would it likely look?
  • Say you had to design a writing program for your neighborhood. How would you design it? What about designing a program for people who use a particular website, like Reddit?
  • Choose a random configuration and try to write a description for it - what social, economic, and cultural conditions would call for that arrangement?

I encourage you to use this concept map as a resource. If you've enjoyed it or have comments, shoot me a quick email:


Berlin, James. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing instruction in American colleges, 1900-1985. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Print.

Berlin, James and Robert Inkster. "Current-traditional rhetoric: Paradigm and practice." Freshman English News 8(3):1980. Print.

Fulkerson, Richard. "Composition at the turn of the twenty-first century." CCCC 56(4): 2005. Print.

Gee, James Paul and Elizabeth Hayes. Language and learning in the digital age. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Jewitt, Carey and Gunther Kress. Multimodal literacty. Bern: Peter Lang, 2003. Print.

Matsuda, Paul Kei."The myth of linguistic homogeneity in U.S. college composition." College English 68(6): 2006. Print.

Schell, Eileen. Gypsy academics and mother-teachers: Gender, contingent labor, and writing instruction. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1998. Print.

Shuck, Gail. "Combating monolingualism: A novice administrator's challenge. Writing Program Administration 30(1): 2006. Print.

Strickland, Donna. The managerial unconscious in the history of composition studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. Print.

Wright, Elizabethada and S. Michael Halloran. "From rhetoric to compositioon: The teaching of writing in America to 1900." In A short history of writing instruction: From ancient Greece to modern America, ed. James J. Murphy. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. Print.

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