When Shift Happens: Teaching Adaptive, Reflective, and Confident Writers

by Matthew Kilian McCurrie

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As we prepare students for a future where change itself is the only constant, we need to prepare writers who are adaptive, reflective, and confident. To do this, we must make change central to our curriculum. As we create opportunities for students to experience and respond to new contexts for composing, they will develop attitudes and strategies that  will help them succeed as writers in a future marked by rapid change.

The Accelerated Pace of Change

In their viral video Shift Happens, Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod document the “exponential” growth in information, connectivity and human resources that has marked the 21st century. Both the amount of information and our ability to share seems to be endless:

  • 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the last 2 years;
  • Globally, 10 billion devices are connected to the internet;
  • People conduct 6 billion searches each day using Google;
  • The number of text messages sent every day is double the population of the planet.  (Shift Happens)

The shift they describe highlights that change itself will exercise the greatest influence in our lives now and in the future. The rate at which new information is being created and shared will continue to affect all aspects of our lives.

How Has Education Policy Responded?

Recent educational policy like the Common Core has sought to address this rapid change by focusing on making students “college and career ready,” but what does “readiness” mean when “the U.S. department of Labor says today’s student will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38 or that 65% of those students will have jobs that don’t exist today” (Shift Happens)? The makers and marketers of standardized tests and curricula have ignored this reality, basing their approach on the flawed assumption that we have a fixed and stable body of knowledge and skills that are easily transferable to new contexts. We need to challenge this flawed thinking.

The teaching of writing, at any level, is about more than job preparation or problem solving, but how do we prepare writers for a future we can’t fully anticipate? Recent attempts to answer this question have had varied results. A shorter document, the Association of Writing Program Administrators’ Outcomes Statement, may have been revised to reflect the importance of digital and multimodal composing, but its concentrated form doesn’t allow for discussion of how writing and the teaching of writing has changed and needs to continue to do so.  The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing sought to show the range of skills, experiences and dispositions writers need to practice over time in order to become literate citizens. Overall, however, the authors still narrowly define writing, emphasizing argument, and single authored alphabetic texts.

Our teaching must shift. Teaching the mastery of genres and texts we agree are important today does not prepare writers for the future. We do, however, know at least one thing that students will need to know in the future: how to learn. We need to set students up to learn outside of school for the rest of their lives. A writing curriculum that highlights change, and the transformational energy it produces, would better equip writers for the future to learn to read and write the texts that none of us are even imagining now. The new curriculum we’ve developed for first year writing at Columbia College Chicago tries to accomplish all these goals.

At the start of my composition classes I now find myself telling students: “Welcome to Writing and Rhetoric where you will learn how to learn about writing.” We organize our course around 10 key concepts, but three that seem most important for understanding writing in the 21st century are kairos, ethos, and affordances.

Kairos is an ancient Greek rhetorical concept that literally means “time,” but not the linear sense of time we associate with the Greek word chronos. Kairos refers to a qualitative sense of time, as in timely or appropriate. A moment is kairotic when something happens that couldn’t happen at any other time or place. When we are able to find the kairotic moment, we can seize it and put our ideas out there. Students are already assessing kairos when they tweet or “like” something.  They know that if they hit on something that responds successfully to what others are thinking and doing at a particular moment, they stand a better chance of making an impact, getting retweeted or “liked.” Learning how to locate or even create the right moments for communicating with others will enable writers to assess the changing contexts for writing.

Affordances refers to what one resource for communicating (genre, image, sound, platform, to name a few) allows the writer to do that another does not. Like the concept of kairos, students already think about affordances and constraints when, for example, a group of students consider how to advertise their bands’ next performance. Twitter and Facebook posts circulate widely, but the novelty of a carefully designed flyer or invitation can be more effective at capturing an audience’s attention, especially if it’s delivered by a friend. Both the social media post and the flyer will allow students to communicate about their band in specific ways, but it’s only when students learn to carefully consider the affordances and constraints of each in relation to their purposes that they make the most informed decisions.

Ethos is another rhetorical concept that refers to ways of persuading or connecting with others that derive from the speaker/writer’s credibility or trustworthiness. Authors can persuade their audience by communicating their virtue, their understanding of the issue at hand, or their good will toward the audience. One person can communicate some or all of these qualities, but so can a college, a website, or a corporation. One way of thinking about ethos today is to consider the design of something like Facebook. When my students complain about the many constraints of Facebook, they are really questioning its good will towards its audience or its ethos. Still, we continue to flock to Facebook and other social media sites because they offer us ways to connect with others and construct an identity. What’s important for our students is that they are able to see how the choices they make using social media affect their ability to communicate with others. When I polled the students in my class to see how many had posted something to social media that they regretted, almost everyone raised their hand. In most cases, students regret these posts because others let them know they sounded “stupid” or “mean.” It’s easy to see that students already know something about constructing ethos as well as assessing other’s ethos, but the opportunities for conveying our messages and the means to do so continue to expand. As the contexts and resources for communicating continue to expand, ethos will become more complex and varied, and understanding how it works more important than ever.

Students are most successful when they have the opportunity to practice these concepts, compose, and reflect on the process. Students learn how to learn the new forms of reading and composing they will encounter in their future lives when they work with new and emerging platforms and technologies and apply concepts like kairos, affordances, and ethos. One way I do this is by challenging students to learn to use digital editing tools and social media as new forms of writing, production, and circulation. For example, we began a unit on Chicago by studying three websites for popular local music festivals (Lollopolooza, Pitchfork, and Riot). Students pointed out how each festival’s website relied on the affordances of alphabetic text, sound, and image to create a unique ethos designed to enhance fans’ engagement and participation. Then in a series of smaller assignments, students produced their own multimodal texts focused on some aspect of Chicago that interested them. Through their drafting and collaboration, students considered how the range of platforms, tools and modes might work together with arrangement and design to circulate their text.

Even if I haven’t quite figured out how Pinterest works or fully understood the ethics of representation in a video essay, students benefit from thinking critically about the choices we make as writers and the interrelated strategies we use to compose and consume texts. If we simply continue to tell students what we know and expect them to master it, we’re failing to understand the role of education in the 21st century. As Fisch and MeLeod put it, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist . . . using technologies that haven’t been invented . . . in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” As we prepare students for a future where change itself is the only constant, we need to prepare writers who are adaptive, reflective, and confident.

Kscottmba. “Did You Know? Shift Happens, 2014 Remix.” Online video. YouTube. YouTube, 6 July 2014. Web. 9 March 2015.
Matthew Kilian McCurrie is an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in composition.


5 thoughts on “When Shift Happens: Teaching Adaptive, Reflective, and Confident Writers

  1. The focus on those three areas – Kairos, Affordances, Ethos — makes a lot of sense on this day and age of the Shift. And I like how the idea is to teach them how to learn about writing, not just how to write. That will have resonance in the years ahead …

  2. Once again, I find that I’ve joined a field of writing studies that’s filled with scholars who denigrate writing itself, who dismiss it and the scholars who would like to make writing itself — the teaching of prose to students to meet their practical, rhetorical, and aesthetic needs — the center of their inquiry. It’s bizarre, frustrating, and powerfully lonely. Imagine being a mathematician who’s constantly told by other mathematicians that math has no future. Actually, I can’t imagine such a thing; it would never happen.

    By the way: the claim that the written word has been displaced by technology has been made again and again. Yet it has proven wrong again and again. In business, in law, in politics, in policy, in academic, in education, in art and cultural criticism — in each of these places, prose arguments remain a privileged, essential form of engagement. In fact, the internet has seen an enormous RISE in the amount of prose arguments that are written, disseminated, and read. There have never been more people reading or writing prose arguments than there are today. We have an insatiable professional writing industry and an insatiable audience for that writing. To claim that writing in the traditional sense has no future simply flies in the face of all evidence. That this argument comes from people who are trained and employed in the specific domain of writing is a sad, sad statement.

    • Freddie, I think you’ve misunderstood this post. As part of the editorial team, I assure you that we would not publish anything that would denigrate writing. Writing in a traditional sense does have a future, and that is why our blog exists. In fact, we aspire to teach writing to students that will meet their practical, rhetorical, and aesthetic needs instead of teaching them to conform to testing-era writing that will not later serve them. Matthew McCurrie’s post asks us to consider what the future writing needs of our students might be, and to think about genres that don’t even exist yet. By asking students to think about ethos and kairos, we are preparing them for writing in any rhetorical situation, in any genre, for a variety of purposes. You are correct; the Internet has created even more opportunities for writing, and we want students to write successfully with technology. We want students to write poetry and letters to the editor, but we also want them to write blogs and advertisements on social media. This post encourages us to think about the skills students will need to master new genres of writing so that students are prepared to write and publish in any rhetorical situation. I hope you would agree that helping students learn to write in all genres, both traditional and yet-to-be-discovered, is a critical part of education.

  3. Pingback: When Shift Happens: Teaching Adaptive, Reflective, and Confident Writers - Literacy & NCTE

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