So, I’ve been trying to read Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, & Steel for months now. I’ve got the big paperback, the audiobook, and the National Geographic miniseries at my disposal. I’m trying to connect with what I’m told is a valuable–albeit difficult–read. The thesis of Diamond’s work is about how the literal geography, the landscape, of various places directly determines their historical success. Societies in agricultural latitudes that promote biodiversity allow for advantageous changes to take place over time. These small changes, Diamond argues, are what eventually determined which societies were literate conquerors and which were nomadic tribes spread far across the continents.
Last week I was mailed an advance copy of the latest National Writing Project book, Because Digital Writing Matters by Danielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Troy Hicks. There are several other more detailed reviews of the forthcoming text out there if you’re looking for something explicit. I spent my time reading the book thinking about the larger landscape surrounding the society of composition being discussed.
In Diamond’s book, the acquisition of the three titular objects is paramount to success. They made me wonder what three counterparts there might be concerning the success of teaching and engaging in writing. If guns represent technology, maybe germs would represent the microcosmic actions and thoughts that permeate the minds of writers and writing teachers: the things we aren’t often conscious of as we go about practicing our craft. And steel…well, this has other technical implications of metallurgy.
Steel is the combination of two other materials, melted in the right proportion at the right temperature for the right amount of time. Steel made right is harder, more flexible, and more durable than anything used before its time. Steel isn’t just technology and isn’t just the thoughts of writers and teachers. Steel is the perfect combination of the two for the task at hand.
Because Digital Writing Matters speaks to the important idea of balance in many ways; talking first about the value of using writing to organize ideas in new and useful ways and then about the significant role that tinkering with technology plays in learning. You can do too much of either and the communication event fails to have an effect. Too much technology and not enough methodology and the writer or writing teacher becomes encumbered like a soldier whose sword has a one ton hilt. It won’t matter how sharp the blade is if you can’t lift the weapon.
Both books focus on landscape and ecologies. Farmers and writers aren’t so different in this respect. There is the crop of ideas in the classroom that many farmers (learners and teachers) are trying to cultivate. The farmer is affected by her environment just like the teacher. One might be trying to grow organic fruit not affected by synthesized designs, but the wind might carry in spores from a neighboring field. The crops become intermingled and eventually can’t be separated. The classroom of networked students is just as susceptible to influence from outside ideas, habits, and traits.
Ultimately, both crops and kids will grow on their own in some fashion. This book helps to frame an important question: As a society of writing teachers, what will we do with the tools in our landscape? Will we try to diversify our methods to include new digital tools and practices or will we follow the buffalo across the plains because it’s what we’ve always done?