Literature Review

The landscape of technology professional development (TPD) in the teaching of writing

In their article contextualizing the revision of the WPA Outcomes Statement, Dryer et al. (2014) explain that one of the primary objectives of the updated statement was to “model certain ways of thinking and talking about writing and reading in the hope that those ways would eventually permeate textbook selection, curricular design, job descriptions, assessment priorities, course titles, hiring practices, faculty development, and—of course—college students’ writing abilities” (p. 136, emphasis mine). Several computers and composition scholars, however, have cast doubt on whether this “permeating” has actually happened in practice since then (Bearden, 2019; Blair, 2014; Mina, 2020). Mina (2020) has argued that “unless higher-education institutions invest more in the TPD of faculty, teaching with technology becomes more of an idiosyncratic choice made by a few invested teachers than a curricular or programmatic need. Ultimately, the WPA Outcomes Statement 3.0 and other national and local curriculum reform efforts have created a landscape where, as Denecker and Tulley (2014) put it, “instructors in various places and at varying levels are facing mandates to include at least elements of multimodal composing in their curriculum” at the same time as they have “scant professional opportunities to study, let alone integrate, the theories and practices of composing through a variety of modes.”

Although empirical research in the area has admittedly been limited, the few comprehensive surveys that have been conducted on the technology expertise of writing faculty (both before and after the WPA OS 3.0) have confirmed that, in general, writing faculty make limited use of or have limited access tTPD. In their national survey of writing programs, Anderson et al. (2006) report that all of their respondents primarily taught themselves the skills necessary to provide multimodal composition instruction. Takayoshi and Huot’s (2009) survey of their writing program instructors as they transitioned to a digital writing curriculum corroborates this finding, with 94% of respondents indicating that they learned to use computers as teaching and learning tools “by figuring it out on my own.” Robinson et al.’s (2019) recent attempt to map the landscape of technology use by writing teachers found that this trend has continued: Most respondents in their national survey relied on their own knowledge, published research, or online resources for acquiring technology expertise; less than a quarter sought support from other people or institutional structures, and only 6% cited using professional development for this purpose.

Meanwhile, instructors don’t seem to be receiving this training through graduate coursework before being hired. Hauman et al. (2015) report in their survey of rhetoric and composition doctoral programs that slightly less than 25% of programs had required coursework in teaching with technology. Since the majority of people teaching college composition courses are contingent faculty without PhDs in rhetoric and composition (Gere, 2009; Hansen, 2018Laurence, 2013; MLA, 2014), it seems likely that far less than a quarter of composition instructors nationwide completed graduate coursework in teaching or composing with new media or digital technology. Where TPD is happening, Hauman et al. (2015) question whether much of it goes beyond functional technology literacy. Mina’s (2019) recent survey of writing teachers at a variety of institutions echoes this concern, concluding that when survey respondents did use technology in their teaching, they often did so “instrumentally rather than critically,” suggesting a lack of preparation in the ways the field of Computers and Writing has advocated for over the last several decades.

There hasn’t been enough research published to say for sure why most writing programs have not moved actionably toward cultivating multimodal composition expertise among instructors, but lack of time and resources in the face of many other competing priorities is one common obstacle. Blackmon and Rose (2005) draw explicit parallels between longstanding challenges associated with preparing teachers of writing and providing professional development in teaching composing with technology. Given how much other writing pedagogy education WPAs are already responsible for providing (Dobrin, 2005), TPD can seem like an overwhelming additional burden, especially for WPAs not confident in their own technology skills (Faris, 2019; Rice, 2005). However, several scholars (e.g., Blair2014; Hauman et al., 2015) argue that other institutional units (such as educational technology offices) cannot adequately meet all the needs of writing programs, since they may focus on purely functional literacy, may not be familiar with teachers’ pedagogical context, and often cannot incentivize instructors to make use of their services in the first place. 

What should TPD look like?

Mina (2020) notes that although “leading organizations in the field have invested large resources to clearly articulate the conceptual, pedagogical, and technological expectations of teaching writing with technology,” there still isn’t a clear idea of what the “characteristics of robust [TPD] programs for in-service writing faculty” should look like. Much of the situated scholarship that exists has taken the form of narrative accounts and success stories published by the organizers of such initiatives. One common approach, described by Fordham and Oakes (2013), Hocks (2001)McGrath and Guglielmo (2014), Fodrey and Mikovits (2020), Sabatino and Blevins (2018), and Summers et al. (2018) is the faculty workshop model, which resembles the seminars and retreats commonly employed in the early Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement. Faculty in these programs are typically tenured or tenure-track, and participation is voluntary (though often incentivized through stipends). Another model that powerfully influenced the program studied in this chapter and countless others is the intensive institute, iconically exemplified by the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC) held yearly at the Ohio State University.1 Intensive institutes like DMAC are usually residential (participants stay on-site for the duration) and may span more than a week, giving participants the chance to develop nontrivial expertise through sustained projects (Boyle et al., 2015). Though such intensives have demonstrated the potential for lasting and transformative change for participants (Voss, 2015), they have been described as a “professional luxury” (Conaster, 2015) and generally cost-prohibitive in most local contexts. A third strand of research covers TPD linked to graduate student education, either as linked to writing pedagogy education courses (Klem & Moran, 1992; Duffelmeyer, 2003; Blackmon & Rose, 2005Micciche et al., 2012Bourelle et al., 2015) or the program curriculum (Yancey, 2009; Graupner et al., 2009). In writing programs with a significant population of part-time or full-time non-graduate instructors, such preparation will not benefit these teachers, though it can still be critical to developing discipline-wide expertise.

This body of research has so far failed to address how to design TPD structures that can develop expertise for instructors of all ranks across an entire program, as the WAT Institute studied in this chapter aimed to do. More fundamentally, while existing scholarship is enormously helpful to WPAs and others invested in developing faculty expertise in multimodal composition, it is not always well positioned to provide rich or transferable insights based empirically in the needs and contexts of the people TPD is designed to benefit. In the rest of this chapter, I take modest steps toward this goal by presenting findings of a qualitative study of instructor experiences in a burgeoning TPD institute. Rather than seeking to comprehensively assess the WAT Institute (which was being run for the first time against the unstable backdrop of a changing curriculum), I used ethnographic methods to learn about what stakeholders found significant in their experiences. I use the themes that emerged from analyzing these accountto frame the challenges of TPD in writing instruction and develop heuristics for designing and assessing better programs. 

© Gabriel Morrison, 2021