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Digication interview with Professor Joseph Bizup

Joseph Bizup, Director of BU’s CAS Writing Program, was recently featured in the monthly newsletter for Digication, the ePortfolio software BU uses. We’re including the text of the interview here, by kind permission of Digication:

Professor Joseph Bizup is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Boston University, and Assistant Dean and Director of the CAS Writing Program. His outstanding career encompasses distinguished scholarly contributions to literary criticism and rhetorical theory, as well as academic service positions, and writing program administration in some of the country’s most prestigious institutions: Yale University (97-99, 2001-2002), Columbia University (2002-2008), Boston University (2008-present).

Digication Learning Director: Professor Bizup, let’s start by talking a bit about your career’s trajectory. You started as a scholar of Victorian literature, but your research took you close to questions about technology, and the ways in which technology is relevant to human culture more generally. You discussed the often-invoked divide between technology and culture, and explained how the opposition can be dissolved. These questions are more than relevant in the present cultural and educational context. Could you tell our readers how you see the current interplay between technology and culture in general, and especially, what you consider to be the benefits of technology for humanistic education?

Professor Joseph Bizup: The trajectory may look odd at first, but since my undergraduate years I have been interested in both science and literature. My B.A. was in mathematics and English. My interest in Victorian poetry led me to discover Victorian prose writers deeply concerned with the relationships among technology, society, and culture. The biggest change in my career took place in 2002, when I became Director of the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia. With this move, I became a full-time writing program administrator, and the focus of my work shifted from my own research and teaching to building and sustaining a program in which others could teach and learn well. I do not have a grand statement on the relation between technology and culture. Technology does not dominate my teaching, but it does help me pursue my teaching goals. I found that students find it helpful: I’m currently using Digication in my teaching, and students like working with ePortfolios. Today so much writing is for the web, and Digication allows students to prepare to become better writers in that environment. They can organize and present their writing in compelling ways. I have found the organization feature of Digication makes a lot of difference in my teaching. The fact that students can now move modules around and reorganize their writing at the end of a course is invaluable. I have them to upload their work throughout the course to ePortfolios that serve as archives, and then at the end of the semester, they produce final portfolios by copying these archives and rearranging the materials in them. This turns out to be a wonderful experience for students. My students don’t assemble final portfolios; they shape and edit their way to them. This editing process—what belongs, what has to go—is part of what they need to learn.

Digication Learning Director: Given the current debates about the relevance of humanistic disciplines, do you think that further integration of educational technology in writing programs and humanistic courses would aid the teaching activities of these programs and facilitate student retention? Can the adoption of educational technology, and of ePortfolios in particular, demonstrate to students that humanistic disciplines are relevant today, and not at all opposed to technological developments?

Professor Joseph Bizup: The extent to which technology can help with the problem of student retention is really an empirical question. We have seen transformations in education with the rise of MOOCs, blended approaches, and on-line classes. All these new approaches should in principle allow institutions to retain students, but whether they in fact do will be proven empirically. I think it is important for institutions to maintain and ensure face-to-face interactions between students and teachers. Certain kinds of learning demand this kind of contact. Digication can be used in face-to-face classroom contexts, and, as I said, it proves pedagogically valuable in classroom settings.

Digication Learning Director:  How do you understand the role of writing programs in an educational institution? Would the adoption of ePortfolios help writing programs’ efforts to maintain and even increase their importance within the institution? Would they become more attractive to students? Have you seen an increase in the writing program’s effectiveness after ePortfolios implementation?

Professor Joseph Bizup: Over the course of my career, I have worked at and led writing programs at several selective research institutions – Yale, Columbia, and now Boston University – and so I will talk from my personal experience and restrict my answer to the role of ePortfolios in writing programs at this type of institution. The overarching goal of the writing programs I have directed is to facilitate students’ entry into the intellectual life of the university, which is carried out through arguments, and usually written arguments. Writing is the currency of exchange in academic life. This is why writing centers and writing programs are essential: they help smart, capable students enter the intellectual community of their institution. And ePortfolios can facilitate this process by helping students to reflect on their writing and academic performance. It is very important to allow students to step back and examine their own performances and become reflective about their work. ePortfolios are one mechanism through which students can conduct this important activity. I consider this one of the primary values of ePortfolios – it permits students to develop their critical posture toward their work, and to become aware of their abilities and possibilities for improvement.

Digication Learning Director:  Are there risks associated with emphasizing technology in the context of teaching writing? Can the uses of technology turn into misuses and detract students from developing the kinds of skills their literature and writing teachers expect them to develop?

Professor Joseph Bizup:  Writing as an activity, in its most basic sense, is always technological. There is no writing that is not technologically embedded, from writing on cuneiform tablets, to writing with ball-point pens, to typing on a computer. ePortfolios are another medium that permits writing activities. But technologies can also get in the way. I’ve seen wonderful writing teachers who do not lean on technology, as well as wonderful teachers who teach in high-tech classrooms. Technology, and ePortfolios specifically, offer different affordances to students from traditional writing technologies, like pen-and-paper or word-processors. When students need to present their work in a virtual space, they think differently of the rhetorical acts in which they are engaged. ePortfolios can be seen as collections of traditional papers, but they are not only that; they can also be seen as a new genre. This is why students need to learn different rhetorical skills to use them and communicate with them, skills they cannot develop as easily when they work only in a linear format. The writing for ePortfolios is not entirely distinct from other kinds of writing, but it does require students to think differently about their work.

Digication Learning Director:  I would like to end with a question about the rhetorical dimensions of ePortfolios as writing teachers understand them: have you and your colleagues found ePortfolios to open up novel possibilities for faculty self-expression, possibilities that ultimately lead to richer modalities for presenting arguments in classroom settings? That is, have you and your colleagues found ePortfolios to be rhetorically useful devices that can convey meaning effectively and compellingly to students?

Professor Joseph Bizup: I think in practical terms about the role of ePortfolios in teaching. There are two questions here: 1) what pedagogical goals that I already have can ePortfolios help me meet, and 2) what new goals can they enable me to adopt? These questions are raised by every new pedagogical technology. Some faculty in the program I direct at BU find that ePortfolios help them achieve their existing teaching goals more effectively, helping students revise, for instance. They may likewise find that ePortfolios make it is easier for them to provide comments to students. Others find that ePortfolios interfere with their teaching or make commenting too time consuming. But these kinds of considerations need to be balanced against another set of considerations: what new things do ePortfolios allow teachers to do that they could not do before, or that they could only do with great difficulty? Every technology has pros and cons: it makes some things easier and some things harder. Sometimes, it’s worth adjusting some existing goals to take advantage of the new affordances and possibilities a technology offers. For example, I like to comment in pencil on my students’ papers. I just enjoy the physicality of that kind of engagement with their work. But I don’t do that so much anymore because the benefits of commenting electronically are so great.

Digication Learning Director: Professor Bizup, thank you for your insightful remarks! I think we inhabit a more interesting and richer world when humanists welcome technology, and they start straddling the overemphasized divisions between humanistic values and technology.

WR100, Framing Encounters: Intersections Between Art and Travel