Digital Underlife and the Writing Classroom

In a 1987 paper, Robert Brooke argued that instructors needed to pay attention to the ways that students didn’t pay attention, like passing notes in class or whispering conversations. Building on the work of Erving Goffman, Brooke argued that these behaviors represented a writing “underlife” that was a means for students “to show that their identities are different from or more complex than the identities assigned them” in the classroom or school as a whole (p. 230).

Fast forward to now. In a recent paper, Derek Mueller argues that the underlife needs to be reexamined, as mobile technologies have transformed classroom spaces and presented teachers with new ways of thinking about the positive learning outcomes that can be produced through students’ “digital underlife.” While Brooke’s paper was well-received at the time, it is easy to dismiss this type of writing as being unimportant and not worth an instructor’s time. And, unfortunately, many teachers similarly dismiss the digital writing genres that students frequently engage with. In describing the nature of these genres, Mueller argues that we can no longer think of classrooms as being either digital or not—represented by the “computer-mediated classroom” versus the “traditional classroom” (p. 245)—because with the rapid development of mobile computing, the network space intrudes on all classrooms, wired or not. Second, unlike offline writing underlife activities, students participating in a digital underlife may be “composing in more outwardly social venues” and participating in “highly interactive exchanges” even though they “may appear to be writing by themselves” (p. 244). In other words, a students’ digital underlife encompasses a new space that pervades the classroom and engages a (frequently) public audience in interactive ways.

For Mueller these changes alter how teachers must think about “the porous and distributed” nature of “attention structures” under the influence of networks (p. 245), and he suggests some helpful methods for thinking about both student and teacher attention in the context of the digital underlife (pp. 248-249). Yet the digital underlife isn’t a panacea for the problem of teaching writing. Writing teachers can’t simply try to harness student enthusiasm for their own writing and apply it to  school work (p. 243), nor can they simply assert the superiority of school-based genres—for learning, for simply getting a job—because, as Mueller notes, for these students the “reigning social system” has become the network, not the school (p. 244).

But the digital underlife does offer writing teachers a tool for thinking about writing instruction. The digital underlife gives a name to the flowering of writing activity that has been encouraged by digital networking, and one of the most productive responses to it is for teachers to get students to recognize it for what it is: writing. The genres may be different and the goals for students may have very little connection to the goals of academic or professional writing genres. But if we can get students to acknowledge that they are already writers, then it is a much simpler task to teach them the important skills of writing for different audiences and different purposes.

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