Yancey, “Looking for sources of coherence in a fragmented world”

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Looking for sources of coherence in a fragmented world: Notes toward a new assessment design” Computers and Composition 21 (2004) (13 pages)

Yancey claims that the overlapping of print and digital media has invited new values and, thus, prompted us to consider new languages “that allows us to speak to these new values. Without a new language, we will be held hostage to the values informing print, values worth preserving for that medium, to be sure, but values incongruent with those informing the digital” (89-90). In the context of assessment, it is often the case that “we use the frameworks and processes of one medium to assign value and to interpret work in a different medium” (90). Yancey notes that “the fact that something is create for and delivered on the screen doesn’t’ make it unlike print” (90). Thus, it is imperative to understand where the values of print and digital diverge and to assess such compositions accordingly—for Yancey, the divergence may lie in our understanding of coherence. “The construction of coherence in U.S. culture, then, tells us much about we value in wiring and, accordingly, much about what we assess” (91).

Yancey points to two ways that print texts achieve coherence: through words and through context. If we think of coherence as creating relationships, coherence through words refers to the relationships among words to words and words to context. A coherent text is one that connects. For print, the coherence is achieved, typically, from front to back, in a linear fashion. However, looking to poetry, we can also see a shift towards a third source of coherence, the page: “writers of poetry and alt.texts use the page as a partner to create meaning; in this sense, the context of the page becomes an explicit part of the text” (92). It is this kind of partnership between page and content that Yancey begins to attend to.

However, it is often the case that the technologies, software, and word processors that we use to compose our texts often already assess the work of students in a way that configures the sources of coherence. Referencing Whithaus, “are our systems of reading, responding to, and evaluating student work in electronic portfolios doomed to reproduce current-traditionalist models of writing instruction when students are already receiving detailed feedback on their sentences from their word-processing softwares?” (92). As Yancey writes, “we can only assess what is produced, but what is produced is increasingly something not only assisted by technology, but as Whithaus showed, created by technology and in ways that can be at odds with the desired effect” (93). Yancey further notes that while technology is not the villain, it is not innocent: it is shaping and assessing the work we want to assess. “Online assessment is ubiquitous, and yet we do not often observe its effect” (93).

In terms of digital texts, coherence is created in a number of ways. For instance, Yancey points to how digital technologies afford the ability to arrange and re-arrange content: as she writes, for these digital texts, multiple arrangements is key. Links also facilitate coherence by showing connections: “these links provide the structure we associate with coherence” (94). Patterns and patterning of information—such as employing consistent visual designs, repeating visual formatting to denote connections—is used to show how elements are draw together visually. Succinctly, she writes that coherence in a digital space contends with the following: “digital texts permit and require attention to space and canvas, context, and soring potential and linking. New relationships are pluralized within a new space. The space itself provides a background and simultaneously represents a culture against which the screen is plotted…its design is plural by definition: It is composed by more than one element, and its arrangement tends to come in at least two forms” (95).

Yancey develops a four points heuristic, compromised of a set of questions, that is meant to move us to think in terms of pattern/arrangement as functioning in both design and reception.

  • What arrangements are possible? In terms of how one navigates through the content of the webtext, the paths available, facilitated by linkages.
  • Who arranges? Includes the technologies complicit in the arrangement, the composer who has facilitated different arrangements, and the viewer who makes choices about how to view the text.
  • What is the intent?
  • What is the fit between the intent and the effect?
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