Introduction     By Chance    By Choice    Theory     Results      References

At the Doorway of Invention

Of the five canons of rhetoric, invention stands at the front of the line. Its job is to open the door to idea, creativity, and meaning; however, in its more stubborn moments, invention keeps that door closed with a miserly grip. These are the moments when a heuristic is summoned—not to bully invention—but to placate, to massage, and to gently prod or persuade an opening: a wonderful opening where composing of any kind can begin.

For today’s composition students, heuristics come in many forms, from classroom discussions to brainstorming activities (oral or written) to free-writing exercises, graphic organizers, bulleted lists and more. Largely alphabetic in nature as are their subsequent counterparts (traditional written assignments), heuristics provide the nudge needed to open the door to the writing process. But what if that “nudge”, that heuristic, took on a new form? A form that reflects changes in not only the definition of composing in the 21st Century but also of how literacy is defined?

This article recounts the inclusion of a digital heuristic, first by chance, into my entry-level college writing class, and then by choice into my College Writing II course at The University of Findlay. The initial placement of the digital activity to before the students’ traditional writing assignment rather than after it or in place of it was motivated by frustrations (on the part of instructor and students) with topic invention as well as essay organization and audience awareness. Thus, my first incorporation of a digital heuristic occurred “by chance.” However, when students’ invention strategies as well as their traditional assignments demonstrated some marked success following this activity, it spurred me to incorporate a digital heuristic “by choice” into another writing course. In addition, this strategy was shared with a colleague who also agreed to implement digital heuristics into her own writing courses and then share her findings for the purposes of this article.

The genesis of the first digital heuristic activity, along with theories regarding multimodal composition and the benefits of multimodal pedagogies, is discussed in the “Heuristic by Chance” section of this article. “Heuristic by Choice”, then, describes a more sophisticated pedagogical design to digital heuristic implementation—one where instructors can support students’ learning in a movement from invention to metacognition and eventually to critical thinking. In Fall 2009, such a design was introduced to my College Writing II class, and the implications of that pilot study are also recounted in the “Heuristic by Choice” section. The “Theory” section looks at the digital heuristic through the New London Group’s Design Theory lens in order to argue that digital heuristics stand as an appropriate Redesign of the classic invention form. Likewise, the “Theory” section argues that digital heuristics provide more than just a means for invention; instead, they can play an integral part in an attitude that composition instructors should support and advocate “all available means” for rhetorical effectiveness. Finally, the “Results” section includes instructors’ and students’ reflections in regard to the strengths and limitations of digital heuristics.

While this digital heuristics project warrants further research, the initial findings here suggest that students and instructors stand to gain in a number of ways from such an approach. Increased motivation among students to explore topics, organization, and audience is one possible benefit. Another is a heightened awareness of rhetorical choices as well as the affordances of various mediums for composing. Findings also suggest that when elements of metacognition and written reflection accompany the heuristic, the potential for practice in critical thinking also grows.

Thus, in a “by chance” encounter, digital heuristic met ancient invention at the doorway of idea and creation . . .


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