General comments on the book

To evaluate the work as a whole, readers may wish to respond to these review questions. (To comment on a specific essay, please go to that page.)

  1. What is the purpose of the manuscript, and how well does it accomplish this goal in its current form?
  2. Who do you envision as the intended audience of the manuscript, and does it address their interests and needs?
  3. Is the manuscript based on pedagogical experience, insightful observation, and sound scholarship?
  4. Is the overall presentation clear? Is the text well written? Does it make effective use of its digital format?
  5. Could the organization be improved? If so, how?
  6. Overall, what are the strongest -- and weakest -- features of the work in its current form?

19 general comments

  1. Amanda Seligman October 9, 2013 at 9:48 am

    I’m enjoying reading the essays and learning from them. One thing that keeps striking me is that in assembling the final volume, the trick will be to tip the balance to the “web” side of “web writing.” Many of the papers are so much about composition and the teaching of writing that the general purpose of reflecting on the web could be very easily submerged.

  2. In retrospect, I see how the essays I read (the “Rethinking” section) were geared toward improved thinking and learning, and enlarging the notion of “composition” to encompass non-traditional media like computer programming and the integration of video and graphics–but I would stop short of saying that any of them addressed the craft of writing (which I distinguish from composition involving multiple media, as in Thomas Burkdall’s project). In fact, they mostly shied away from what I perceive as a real need for many students: learning how to communicate clearly in traditional word-based writing, whatever the genre. Knowing what words mean, intuiting how to choose the most effective word among close terms for a given context, developing a sense for the fluid arrangement of phrases, and being able to join clauses together into a well-wrought daisy-chain of ideas–that’s what I look for in good writing, and it means spending a lot of time with written language.

    So while I see the pedagogical value at large for the projects I read about, I would be concerned about the Ozymandias effect of building ever-more complex levels atop the clay feet of students’ struggles to express themselves in a clear and well-organized way. I don’t know if the other sections focused on this particular topic, but my impression is that this volume is more about web-based *composition* and learning strategies, and not about writing per se.

    1. Shelley Rodrigo October 27, 2013 at 4:28 pm


      Although I appreciate your call for students to spend more time improve their traditional alphabetic literacies, I do want to draw your attention to the decades old movement within English studies to broaden the definition of “writing” to include more than just alphabetic texts (in other words how you are using the term “composition”). Even with a focus on traditional alphabetic writing, there are still heavily technologically mediated requirements (for example, how many college professors do you know accept hand written papers? how many people know how to do page breaks, headers and footers, and/or hanging indents for MLA and/or APA citations without being explicitly shown how to do so?). This acknowledgment of the impact of digital technologies in “writing” is why the Council of Writing Program Administrators added the “Composing in Electronic Environments” section to the WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition in 2008.

  3. Amanda Seligman October 22, 2013 at 7:43 am

    1. Purpose of the manuscript

    The purpose of this project is to engage college-level liberal arts instructors in a conversation about how the ability to have students write in online environments transforms how to teach and how students learn. Like the previous digital age history project, the volume succeeds in raising many questions. A key question implicitly raised is how to rethink the purposes of everything that happens in a traditional FTF classroom with traditional on-paper writing assignments. Many of the entries reflect recent faculty experiments with a variety of on-line possibilities; I would have liked to see one from someone that said something to the effect that I’ve tried online stuff and am using it for much of my teaching, but in these specific circumstances I feel compelled to continue traditional methods, and here is why.

    The one area in which the volume threatens to veer from its goal is that the bulk of contributions from authors in the rhetoric-composition area may appear to tip the balance of the project into their disciplinary framework. Several of the essays rely on insider rhet/comp jargon and may be read as more engaged with internal questions than the fundamental questions about web writing posed for the volume.

  4. Amanda Seligman October 22, 2013 at 7:46 am

    2. The intended audience for this volume is college-level liberal arts instructors. It is valuable both for faculty who have not taught using any online writing and for those who are already engaged, for it helps us think about how to make decisions about running our classes. My own feeling is that the more valuable contributions are the entries that concretely illustrate creativity in student web writing (such as Tweet Me a Story). I am personally less interested in the theoretical elements of web writing, but perhaps others will disagree.

    I personally am also planning on using some of the contents in my graduate teaching. In spring 2014 I will be teaching a graduate seminar on digital history and will invite students to read some of these essays as shortcuts to the kind of thinking that they could find out the hard way by doing similar assignments.

  5. Amanda Seligman October 22, 2013 at 8:42 am

    3. The basis of the manuscript

    Most of the manuscript is primarily based on pedagogical experience. One or two exceptions, most notably Kate Morgan’s paper on “Visuality and Vital Information,” are based more on theoretical scholarship than classroom practice (reflecting the early stage of the author’s career). In most cases, the authors bring good insights based on their teaching to their essays. There is less scholarship used, but it is used effectively in some cases.

    A notable absence is reflections on how to use existing web writing in teaching. Most of the essays are about having students write for web environments. Perhaps instructors are not using the web for reading; or perhaps no one thought that a notable direction to follow up on in response to the CFP. I used the page’s search function to look for the word “read” and came up with only 10 hits: all of them were material extraneous to the core manuscript–except for the two essays but editor Jack Dougherty. Only Anita DeRouen’s essay “Engaging Students with Scholarly Web Texts” takes on this problem. Interestingly, she appears not to use the word “read” anywhere in the essay (or the search engine is limited). To me, this alone is an argument for retaining DeRouen’s paper in the final volume.

  6. Amanda Seligman October 22, 2013 at 8:48 am

    4. Overall presentation

    Yes, the overall presentation is clear and the writing in good shape. As suggested by my earlier comments, I find the theoretically-driven essays a little hard to follow because of the insider rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean the writing needs work–more than I need greater familiarity with the language and authors under consideration. It seems to me that one of the great strengths of the open review process is that the readers can make very specific comments on sentences that need improvement.

    The digital format is well used. Some of the essays rely on the digital presentation of material, which is suggested by the use of the comment function to engage directly with the images.

  7. Amanda Seligman October 22, 2013 at 8:54 am

    5. Overall organization

    I read the manuscript backwards (without intending to answer this question), so my thinking about the structure of the volume is a little upside down. It seems to me, though, the the sections are well conceptualized and grouped, with the “crossing boundaries” section being particularly coherent.

    The one change I would suggest is moving the “rethinking section” earlier and/or putting the annotation section last. I can see that by being at the end, “rethinking” opens the web writing project back out to the wider word. But to me, annotations and citations belong logically at the end–even in the looping world of the internet.

  8. Amanda Seligman October 22, 2013 at 8:59 am

    6. Strongest and weakest features

    The strongest and most useful features of this volume are the essays that offer concrete examples of how to use web writing in class, such as the essays in the “engagement” section. These offer very specific ways for less experienced instructors to visualize how they can transform their teaching to account for the questions the volume raises about student web writing.

    As should be clear from my earlier comments, the weakest features are essays that are more engaged with rhetoric/composition than they are with the web per se. It is possible, however, that others will see value in these approaches that my own proclivities as an empirically-driven historian cannot appreciate.

  9. Amanda Seligman October 22, 2013 at 9:01 am

    To the question about strongest and weakest features, I would also like to mention that having the drafts of the book indefinitely available is also very much a strength of this project. I will be using several of the essays in my upcoming digital history class, even though the project is not “published” yet. Additionally, I will be teaching about the project as an experiment in peer review that upcoming scholars need to be aware of. My gratitude to all involved in making it available.

  10. Just a thought as I go through the book: would a pop-up glossary be feasible? Some terms that might be unfamiliar (or defined differently) depending on audience could have a rollover or pop-up definition to provide clarity & consistency of usage. Examples that I’ve noticed include multimodal, annotation, wikis, Moodle, etc.

  11. I realize there are many different ways to organize the book (or to think about the different sections).  Here is one possibility to consider:  to organize the contributions according to how they fall along the private/public spectrum.  This approach would help instructors to think about how and with whom they would like their students to engage, or what type of broader audience they think would be appropriate for their course.  Issues concerning how public a project should be can be part of the larger conversation in the book, and something the introduction could touch upon based on the final essays chosen for the book.  This organization may also help students who use the book to think about different levels of audience.  I don’t know if this is possible, but this type of approach might be combined with another organizational rubric (such as type of platform).  In this case, the public/private divide would help to order the essays within a given section.  
    One thing that I kept coming back to was the question about loss — namely, what is lost, or sacrificed, when a digital assignment/project is adopted?  I thought about this first when I read Mike O’Donnell’s essay.  He noted that with the new collaborative wiki approach to lab reports no student writes a complete report.  This made me think about whether anything was lost in terms of student learning (especially as he explained that grades did not improve even though students’ engagement was greater).  The answer might very well be “nothing,” but it left me wondering.  In other cases, I can imagine that some course material had to be eliminated or condensed to make room for the project (training students or whatever).  The trade-off made may be worthwhile and lead to greater learning overall, but in some essays I felt that such a discussion was missing.  There may be also some more subtle losses that would be good to share with the reader.

    Lastly, I liked the idea very much of having each essay begin with a brief intro (one short paragraph) written by the editorial team. (This idea came up at the workshop.)  The paragraph would help the reader to place the essay in the broader conversation/framework laid out in the introduction of the book and would highlight the specific/unique contribution of that particular essay.

  12. Shelley Rodrigo October 27, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Many of the comments I have seen above and in the chapters I have read try to get people to distinguish between “writing” and “writing for/on the web.” I want to toss out considering differences between traditional digital writing (aka, most of us do that since we do most of our writing on computers) and writing for the web. Expectations of many web readers might include things like pictures, video, hyperlinks, as well as formatting, graphic design, and aesthetics.

    I also wonder about the definitions of privacy as connected to the word “web.” Is writing in an LMS writing on the web, or is writing in an LMS still writing in a classroom? In other words, is MS Word to writing as LMS is to classroom? If so, if we don’t consider writing in MS Word writing on the web; should we consider writing in an LMS writing on the web, as different for writing for the classroom?

    I have also been surprised that there has been less mentioned about the other key term of the title: “Liberal Arts.” One of the reasons Jennifer and I were so excited about proposing for this collection was because we understand one of the traditional objectives of “liberal arts” education is for graduates to appreciate “difference” in others. So I guess I’m curious to how authors were juggling both the “web” in “web writing” as well as the distinction between teaching and learning in “higher education” versus teaching and learning for “liberal arts.”


    1. Shelley poses two great questions here that challenge us to carefully define what is — and is not — included in the scope of this book. As one of the editors, I acknowledge that we have not fully addressed whether “web writing” by definition must be “public writing” beyond the password-protected walls of a LMS (Learning Management System) for one’s course (such as Blackboard or Moodle). One of my essays strongly implies that expository writing for the public is always preferable, but see also Holly Oberle’s essay, paragraph 11, where she argues “for web writing that is closed rather than public,” such as student reflections on gender and privilege, which should not be “at the mercy of the depersonalized and often knee-jerk nature of public web discussions.”

      Furthermore, as Shelley points out, we editors have been very loose with what we mean by the term “liberal arts” in this volume, and I’m surprised that no one has called us out on it so far (as far as I can recall). In one sense, we could have simply used the phrase “higher education” in the title, to signal to readers that our focus was beyond K-12 sector. But on a deeper level, the book also tries to carve out a more assertive stance for what liberal arts learning does best to distinguish ourselves from the mass-scale MOOC debates. Still, I suspect that many readers see the phrase and think “elite private liberal arts colleges,” such as Trinity College, the primary sponsor of the volume, which may give the false impression that what’s described here cannot be accomplished at larger public institutions. I hope that essays by authors at state-funded universities such as Old Dominion (Rodrigo & Kidd), George Mason (Sharpe, Sleeter, and Schrum) prove otherwise.

      1. I was thrilled that so many people defined “liberal arts” liberally and didn’t think merely in terms of a particular kind of institution. To me, liberal artss is not the same as elite, but sadly it often is framed that way (sometimes by elite instituitons themselves).

  13. Amanda Seligman October 30, 2013 at 8:02 am

    In regular closed peer review, once you finish and send it off, you’re done. I’m noticing that I have been drawn back here several times to see if there are additional edifying comments I might want to read!

  14. For my part, I think this is a wonderful collection of essays that pose both innovative praxis and reflection on the state of web-based writing pedagogy at liberal arts institutions.  I’m very much taken by the provocation that such a volume would not only serve SLAC teachers but other kinds of writing instructors and students more generally because of the careful attention to both pedagogy and the state of the digital.  I didn’t necessarily think that the purpose of the volume needed to be further defined as much as the “results” or case studies, i.e., the group of essays as a collection. 
    It does seem as though there is a tendency in these essays to define “liberal arts” more along the lines of fostering community-based learning or global citizenship rather than the more hermetic critical thinking drive of many elite SLACs.  I see this in many of the essay’s attention to wider audiences and public for a for writing.  I personally would have liked to hear a bit more about how digital venues are changing writing itself and thus the teaching of writing, as a means of getting at how web writing might engage with critical thinking about writing on the web.  In other words, how can teaching writing on the web help distance students from digital media so as to be critical/thoughtful of it.  Perhaps there is room in the conclusion for these sorts of meta-comments?  Regardless, as other commenters have suggested, I do think some attention to how these essays define the special place of the liberal arts college would be helpful.
    For me, the best essays included:  “Sister Classrooms,” “Indigenizing Wikipedia,” “Science Writing,” “Tweet Me a Story,” “Public Writing and Student Privacy,” “Curation in Writing,” and probably most of the Annotation/Citation section.  I was most drawn to these during the reading process because of the way each described a project or technology to use with students and included reflective analysis about “web writing.”  This last category encompassed analysis and observation about how certain technologies have changed the writing process, the quality of writing, or the use of language and rhetoric.  (While the “Science Writing” essay was, I think, one of only non-humanities one of the bunch, I would still keep it because it is so strong and because it helps humanities teachers understand how their science students might understand the writing process through the genre of the lab report.  Similarly, I “Getting Uncomfortable” presents a different sort of analysis of these issues, using statistics, and I’d include it if there could be a bit more elaboration about the possible interrelations between the statistical results and the tagging or writing done.)
    I think the more strictly theoretical essays—and those that have less description of classroom praxis—would need revision to attain the quality of those essays that do both.
    I also liked “Code-Switching” for its rhetorical approach to web writing, and it seems appropriate to place it either at the front or back of the collection, as a kind of meta-commentary.  I might also place “Engaging Students with Scholarly Web Texts” in this meta- category too, because it helps to explain the interlocking practices of reading and writing via the web.
    Section headings were useful but at times a bit nebulous (as others have noted).  It was also a bit confusing to have one section as a specific technology/tool (annotation) while the rest were characteristics of web writing.  Some characteristics appear in most of these essays (e.g., engagement or boundary crossing, even variously defined).  One easy, though perhaps derivative, way to split the essays into sections would be to do it by technology (blogging, wikis, annotation tools, other).  I think there’s still a lot more to say about how the structure of each technology lends itself to certain types of writing exercises, genres, digital mediation, etc.  I’m not sure I can offer an alternative organization strategy, but I will, instead, suggest a few broader ideas and concepts that seem to arise from these essays as a collection.  These might be (in no order of importance):  the broadening of audience, especially the interplay between academic audiences and writing and the wider internet public; civic engagement and global citizenry, whether offering increased awareness (of environmental issues, race, slavery, etc.) or action (Super PAC, privacy, canon formation); a sense of networked culture and information; collaboration in writing and revising that leads to a heterogeneity and dialogism of rhetorics, styles, or voices within a single piece of writing; an intensification of self-reflexivity (aka, critical thinking) when it comes to the writing process itself.
    These are my general comments this far.  I look forward to seeing the collection come to fruition!

  15. I really enjoyed reading all of these essays. I’m going to be lazy and respond to the review questions in a completely literal way.

    What is the purpose of the manuscript, and how well does it accomplish this goal in its current form?

    Reading this collection felt like being at a workshop faculty from across the curriculum sharing teaching ideas – and having enought time to think about why as well as how to teach. I particularly enjoyed the variety of disciplines and kinds of courses represented here. I also like the liberal interpretation of liberal arts – not as a kind of institution or even as a rarified set of subjects so much as an orientation to teaching and learning, what the AAC&U calls “liberal learning.” One of the reasons I find the variety of disciplines so valuable is that it reminds us that our undergraduates deal with this discursive tower of babel. Having to think about how and why we teach using language that isn’t embedded in particular disciplines and their codes and secret handshakes is immensely useful. In a curious way, it illustrates the tall order we give students when we ask them to “invent the university.”

    Who do you envision as the intended audience of the manuscript, and does it address their interests and needs?

    I imagine this anthology would interest a wide range of college teachers who care about pedagogy and who are curious about ways to use technology effectively as a platform for writing and as a subject to explore. The ways we express ourselves these days range far from the traditional research paper assignment and the argument-based essay. There’s so much writing going on in public spaces that we have both an opportunity to practice writing in public and (I would argue) a need to prepare students to engage with the world this way.

    Is the manuscript based on pedagogical experience, insightful observation, and sound scholarship?

    Yes, with each individual author choosing their own balance between experience and scholarship, between why and how. There was loads of insightful observation throughout, though the voices were varied and distinct. I felt that was actually a strength because it demonstrates the varieties of discourse available to us.

    Is the overall presentation clear? Is the text well written?

    I’m not sure I always appreciated the categories in which the essays were placed, but I’m not sure that’s because it’s unclear; I think it was more a function of my dipping in and out when I had time and the fact that I find those larger navigational issues (if that makes sense) much more difficult online than in print. I have always found it trickier to see the overall shape of things when I can literally measure the chunks of text with my fingers or see the relative size of chunks of text. I also suspect some of the essays could just as logically live in “communities,” “engagement,” or “rethinking.” (Citation and annotation was a more distinctive category.)

    The writing in some of the essays appealed to me more than others, and some are in a more finished  state than others. I particularly enjoyed the reading experience with Indiginizing Wikipedia, Student Digital Research and Writing on Slavery, Consider the Audience, Tweet Me a Story (these last two have already changed my plans for  course in the spring), and Learning to Write at a Distance (which is just plain fun to read). Oh, and The Secondary Source Sitting Next to You and There Are No Directions in Annotations and probably others . . . In part they worked for me because they were well framed and engaging and partly because they contained ideas that I found particularly exciting or useful or both.

    Does it make effective use of its digital format?

    Erm, well . . . a lot of the essays are pretty much words. They seem to work, regardless, which perhaps confirms the notion that it’s all about expression and not so much about technology itself. I think in some cases more illustrations of work or links to assignment prompts or other material provided to students would be valuable.

    I do wonder about the aparatus of footnotes in ditigal texts in situations where links using DOIs, WorldCat records, or those weird new things that start with http:// would make more sense, but I’m an outlier on this issue.

    Could the organization be improved? If so, how?

    I can’t think of anything. I am looking forward to the conclusion-to-come.

    Overall, what are the strongest — and weakest — features of the work in its current form?

    I love the variety of voices, the border-crossing mix of disciplines, and the fact that it’s full of deep thoughts about teaching and learning and writing but also ideas that readers will be able to borrow and remix. I really like the conceptual, public process, the open access commitment, and the way that IP issues were thought through in advance.

    One gap that I saw repeatedly (that is, I saw places where these questions came to the fore for me) had to do with the 2st century intellectual property regime and the significant issues it poses both for the sharing of culture and scholarship and for the ways we use (and are used by) technology platforms.

    Caution: rant ahead.

    Many popular tech platforms are like carnivorous plants, presenting attractive spaces that simultaneously fill with content donated by the public and (after becoming even more attractive because of that vast amount of content) suck personal information up out of our identities, mixing it with other data sources, using it to “improve the customer experience” – meaning to target advertising with precision (and to sell it to other aggregators). The size of the companies we have come to rely on and the libertarian-neoliberal philosophies that are embedded in them are pretty terrifying to me – and that was before we learned they are being used in an extraordinary state project to build an infrastructure that would be just dandy for totalitarianism. That sounds like crazy paranoid talk, but what they have created (both the companies and the state) is unprecedented and troubling on so many levels. The fact that the people refused Total Information Awareness a few short years after 9/11 (the event that started the war that won’t end all wars but simply won’t end) but then met Facebook, founded shortly after TIA was axed, and decided privacy wasn’t important after all – that’s frightening. I didn’t see much acknowedgement of that.

    The other, more practical and vexing issue is that so many of the things authors describe are impossible if using most cultural artifacts created since 1923. Sure, we can annotate the heck out of books and films and images – the technology is terrific, and it’s what scholars do – but what if the rights-holding corporation objects and claims you’ve made a deriviative work or are using an unauthorized copy? What if you aren’t sure who holds the rights or wether the object is even under copryight (a huge portion of work produced in the 20th century falls into this legal black hole) – do you just take the risk that somebody won’t go after you? Even an innocent infringment has ridiculous penalties – $50,000 per infringment. Fair use helps, and pushing the boundaries of fair use helps even more, but it’s tricky to make those interpretations and many institutions just don’t want to take those risks.

    (Even rantier rant ahead …)

    I personally am particularly frustrated when faculty members who ask me about these issues and are put out that the thing they want to do is extremely cool but unfortuntely a copyright violation are the same people who blithly give their copyrights to corporations (or societies that outsource their publishing to coprorations, or societies that have become profitable corporations – ACS and APA, I’m looking at you) and have absolutely no sense of responsibility or concern that they participate in a highly profitable system that turns knowledge into corporate intellectual property that is only valuable so long as its scarce or so long as third parties foot the bill. One of our humanities professors asked me about an article she’s publishing this week, knowing I’m a fan of open access. The fee she (or someone else on her behalf) would have to pay to ransom its freedom was as close to $3,000 as dammit. That’s totally insane. That issue doesn’t especially bear here, unless the thing you want to annotate or remix is a scholarly article or book or book chapter that is coprorate propery (and most are), but it is both complicated for users and largely unnecessary. It’s a massive transfer of what we once thought of as a common good – knowledge – into private control.

    I’m not sure what use these ranty bits are for this book, which is admirably open, but it surprised me a bit that the issue of copyright and the burden it puts on us all when it comes to do things with texts and other cultural objects came up so little. Maybe if we ignore it, it will go away, but I rather doubt it.

    On the hand, I have a bumper sticker in my office given to me by a journalist – “ignore your rights and they’ll go away.” And the truth of that statment is clearer every day.


    1. Sheesh … all the typos. Sorry about that. I was talking about the 21st century, not the 2nd. Sorry about that.

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