From Positive/Negative to Affordances/Constraints

Yesterday, the International Business Times reported on a couple of studies regarding the relationship between memory and the Internet. Like many titles, the purposefully evocative title of this article, “Google Effect: Changes to our Brains,” was misleading. Instead of “changes to the brain,” the article reported some of the new ways people use their memory capacity and use digital devices as external memory. One of the studies conducted by a team at Columbia University found that people remembered where they saved things rather than the items themselves. The researchers dramatically described the ways the Internet is being used currently:

We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers — and lose if they are out of touch.

Again, the use of the digital devices hasn’t changed our brain; rather, we use computers much like our the friends and coworkers with whom we chat, the notes we jot, the diaries we fill. We have another external memory device, and since we load so much on these devices, we often refer to them when thinking.

Regarding this article, Carol Jago, past-president of the National Council of Teachers of English, recently quipped in a tweet:

I like Carol’s response. Yes, all the tools we use and all activities in which we often engage definitely affect how we think and approach our lives. Recently, my friend and colleague Tim purchased a 1938 manual typewriter. Not only did it look stylish, it worked. I demanded that he help me find my own. On a bright Saturday afternoon he and I went to a flea market in Brooklyn, we made our way to a booth that specializes in reviving the classic composition tool. I walked away with my very own ROYAL Signet portable manual machine–complete with a carrying case lid.

Tim's 1938 ROYAL Model O Series and Anna's 1960s ROYAL Portable Signet

Like riding a bike, it didn’t take me long to remember how to press the keys with intention, if I wanted a letter to be left on the page. I tried, first, to revise a piece I have been working on in my writing group, Harlem Writers’ Circle, and immediately I found that I could not compose as I had. If I wanted to change a word, I backspaced several times and XXXXX-ed out the previous word, and then I continued. [Sidenote: The piece soon looked like the cards my grandmother used to send typed each birthday.] In the time it took between XXXXXX-ing the offending word and typing the new one, I often considered new directions for the story. If I went in one of those directions, I found myself typing the entire piece from the beginning, and in that act, found myself–again–entertaining new directions. Neither with a computer nor with pen and paper did I do either of these acts. Because of the speed with which I could change direction with these composition tools, I would have never considered the options for the piece that I found myself considering when using a manual typewriter. The typewriter was changing my brain.

Obviously, it didn’t actually change my brain. I just have another tool for composing that affords and constrains different composing practices. Most technological changes (i.e. from ink to pencil, and typewriter to computer, and now to digital networked communication) have been framed as a issue of the “ruin” of previous forms of communication. Rarely, if ever, has the new compositional tool completely supplanted previous forms and ways of composing. Instead it has been a “both/and” experience—old practices remain, are influenced by new forms of composing. Instead of positive and negative effects to existing ways of thinking, I’ve found it generative to frame the question as affordances and constraints. Instead of worrying about the effects of new tools, what if we asked questions such as:

  • What kinds of compositional decisions, practices and challenges do digital, networked communication afford a developing writer?
  • What are the constraints of composing with networked and/or digital devices (not necessarily the same thing)?
  • At the same time, what are the affordances/constraints of composing with a pen and paper?

Each of these affordances and constraints has implications for the rhetorical, compositional and framing decisions we make as we compose. Conversations about the affordances and constraints, as well as conversations about the implications for compositional decisions are generative for both teachers and their students to investigate.

What affordances and constraints have you noticed when using particular digital tools? How have you found these to relate to your compositional practices?

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5 thoughts on “From Positive/Negative to Affordances/Constraints”

  1. I teach Special Education and what I have noticed with 2 of my 5th grade students is that when it comes to state testing is that when they are required to type their writing responses on the computer, they are not able to “think to type”. In their computer classes which have been primarily keyboarding, they have been programed to “see to type”. Most students will write out an outline on paper and then “think to type”
    These two students need to have it written out in it’s entirety before then they can type it. So, it is crutial for them to be able to have time to practice “free typing” “Thinking to type” without a model.

    1. Several of my First Graders will attempt to scroll the screen (tablet style) when using the lap top or desk top computers. They get frustrated having to use the mouse and keyboard. This behavior slows them down as they seem to have to make a “brain-shift” to continue with their writing project, but eventually it comes back to them, and their fluid creating returns.

    2. I noticed 2 different approaches with my 6th and 7th grader at home. They are both straight A students. My 6th grader goes to a charter school/technology school where there is a lot of “free typing” going on, where my 7th grader goes to a public school. My 6th grader just likes to start typing his report/essay or whatever is required. He just goes for it and thinks when he types. My 7th grader on the other hand, likes to write everything out first (composing his thoughts/brainstorming). Then types it out on the computer. They are only 16 months apart yet so different. I’m not sure if it’s the school setting as to why they are so different or is it just whatever is more comfortable for the child/student. Not sure. I think that with the brainstorming stage, like someone else had commented, my 7th grader does prefer paper and pencil first then types his rough draft/final draft on the computer.

  2. I really like the word choice of “affordances” and constraints”–what a great way to look at the many options we have with digital and pen/paper writing. As a woman in my mid 30’s, I started to use digital writing in high school and use it all of the time now. I found that it was faster as I learned to type as quickly as I thought. Writing seemed cumbersome. When I am writing creatively or professionally, digital writing is my go-to. Plus, it makes it easy to share and edit. I found that I evolved as a writer, I began to edit as I go. This affords me much needed time and quicker final results. However, I don’t have the advantage of really seeing a draft in progress. I do notice that I use traditional writing for practical purposes (grocery lists) and when I really want to leave a personal touch (like a thank you note). For me, digital vs. traditional is all about purpose and time.

    Being a 7th grade English teacher, this concept is fascinating to me. Student writers are products of a digital age, many prefer to type because they are familiar with the keyboard. They also like the idea of sharing, editing in real time (think Google Drive) and being able to read what others write easier (many students have pretty poor handwriting). What I have noticed is that when my students brainstorm, they prefer handwriting. I wonder if this is because of the immediacy of digital writing in their lives–texting,tweeting, social media. There is something about the act of a pencil on paper and the time you can take that seems appealing to them. There is a shift in education for schools to be one-on-one with digital devices to students–I’m curious to see how more school accessibility to digital writing will effect students.

  3. Reblogged this on TCH 432 and commented:

    With our discussions this week on how technology mediates learning in particular ways, and specifically as we think through technologies we use in our teaching and their affordances and constraints, I am remembering this old post from my website.

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