Composition in an Off-key?

“Today, we are witnessing a parallel creation, that of a writing public made plural, and as in the case of the development of a reading public, it’s taking place largely outside of school—and this in an age of universal education. Moreover, unlike what happens in our classes, no one is forcing this public to write” (Yancey 300).

The screen is the language of the vernacular…if we do not include it in the school curriculum, we will become as irrelevant as faculty professing in Latin” (305).


Yancey is very persuasive, erudite, and eloquent in this essay—her connection between the technology-facilitated development of a reading public in 19th century Britain and the emergence of today’s digital writing public is keenly insightful and (I believe) totally accurate. Her insistence on incorporating the tools of our time—the screen, the blog, the word processor, and more—into the composition classroom, along with promoting an ethos of circulation and social interconnectivity, is thoroughly sound and substantiated.

Why, then, did reading her essay give me a headache?

The formal and stylistic deviations within the text—the nontraditional use of margins, the subversion of the footnote, the inclusion of quotes, poems, and anecdotes parallel to the body of the essay, the atypical insertion of images—were intended, I imagine, to embody or demonstrate the radically new and dissenting composition model that Yancey promotes. I can understand and appreciate that decision, as it lends credence to both her rhetorical and ideological claims. But with that being said, I found the experience of reading this essay to be a test of my patience. The layout and design of the pages—the excessive number of images, quotes, or commentaries that crowded the page, the sometimes seemingly haphazard placements of those items, the unproductive disruption it caused in my reading process—reminded me of nothing else so much as the early days of personal websites, when internet neophytes created Angelfire homepages jam-packed with text columns, pixelated photographs, confusing navigational links, and flashy animated text, all competing simultaneously for the viewer’s attention. I am in full agreement with Yancey’s call for an actively multimodal writing classroom, but does that necessarily entail composing essays that look like this?

I of course acknowledge that this is a highly subjective response that I cannot justify other than saying that the essay simply did not agree with my rhetorical and aesthetic tastes (obviously I am very interested to hear what others thought of this essay). I support the disruption of traditional academic genres and forms, and encourage my students to challenge the dominant standards of “good” writing whenever they can, but the formatting of Yancey’s essay distracted and frustrated me far more than it excited and motivated me.