It’s Digital Writing Month, and part of the purpose is for us, as writers, to reflect on (and take advantage of) all of tricks and tools at our disposal when we write digitally, tricks and tools that we don’t have access to when we write using ink and paper. I don’t take advantage of the tools nearly as well as e-literature  does (seriously, this stuff is amazing), but I am aware of how my writing differs when it comes to what I can do when I blog versus what I can do when I write an essay for traditional publication.
For me, as a writing instructor, one of the biggest differences is the question of design . Writers have some many more choices when it comes to layout and design, choices that were largely cost prohibitive (images, fancy fonts, etc) or almost impossible (animation, sound). Way back when I was an undergraduate student, learning how to do HTML encoding and basic web design, we were taught that simpler was better; we needed to keep our layouts neat, uncluttered, well-spaced. I’d show you what our old webpage looked like, but it has disappeared; even the Way-Back Machine doesn’t have it (although I could have sworn I’d bookmarked it in the past). Anyway, lots of white-space, avoid animated gifs, offensive color schemes, and strategically placed visuals.
With the commercialization of the web, more-is-better seems to be the proper approach. Ads pop up, scream at you, flash at you, follow you around the page, and otherwise assault you when you read. Many students adopt that same attitude when designing their own webpages, filling it with as much stuff as they possibly can, as garishly as they can. The popularity of web apps like Readability would seem to indicate that for many people (perhaps all of us old and raised on print, rather than the so-called “digital natives”), simpler still is better.
I’ve seen many lament how the web, with its infinite possibilities, recreates what happens in print. But what worries me more is that, in response to falling sales, textbook publishers have started making their textbooks more like the worst parts of the web: garish, busy, and visually over-stuffed. The impetus for this post was receiving my new desk copy of a Intro to French textbook I am using in the Spring (oh, I’m teaching one section of Intro to French in the Spring. Sacré Bleu!). I couldn’t get past the first pages. The first “lesson” is about saying Greetings in French (Bonjour! Comment ça va? Bien, merci, et vous? Etc.). For some reasons, it needs 17 pictures, 12 different fonts and sizes, and four different colors. I had no idea where to start or even how to use this as a teaching tool.
I’m all for integrating media into teaching, and that includes useful and relevant visuals in a textbook. But to include pictures and “visually interesting” elements to try and appeal to the “born digital” generation is short-sighted and wrong-headed. My students are not the stereotypical “born digital” students , first of all, but we also know from the research that students are not tremendously critical consumers (or interpreters) or the digital. So why are we overwhelming them with the same style, especially when trying to introduce them to something as complex and potentially intimidating as a new language?
I’m not sure what I’m going to do. The textbook also comes with a laundry list of extras (workbooks, access to webpages, CDs and DVDs, etc). Heck, we just got an email from the bookstore saying that we might not even get our textbooks on time next semester due to Hurricane Sandy. My plan for the first week? Icebreaker exercises, in French, to get to know one another, and learn how to say hello, how are you, what is your name? Maybe I’ll ask them to design their own section of the textbook to teach the same lesson. If their pages look strikingly like the pages in the textbook, I’ll know that this was just the ranting of someone who has crossed over to the wrong side of the generational divide.