Karl Stolley In Search of Troublesome Digital Writing: A Meditation on Difficulty


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Scaffolding the pursuit of digital writing is a whole galaxy of software tools that automate away difficulty. WYWISYGs. One-click installers. Hosted applications. In a computing culture of "There's an app for that," digital writers are attuned to obvious difficulties that software can simply solve. Point. Click. Done.
Abstracted away from technological concerns, difficulty presents itself in many different forms as part of education and learning generally and writing instruction more specifically. Some difficulties are written into the challenges of a course or curriculum; others are deferred to more advanced study, or simply ignored. Whether the product of conscious effort or not, the structure and content of courses and entire curricula form complex orbits around different points of difficulty. 
Institutional structures such as course numbering, sequences, and prerequisites are familiar approaches to managing those orbits. But technological difficulty does not fit neatly into those commonplace institutional structures: What distinguishes, for example, a graduate-level web-design course from an undergraduate one? More subtly, what distinguishes a web-design assignment for a gen-ed writing course from a course in the writing major?
In this talk, I offer a meditation on difficulty, unpacking the "troublesome knowledge" (Perkins) behind a proposed set of threshold concepts (Meyer and Land) that I believe emerge around digital writing, given a certain set of conditions. Significant effort is required just to establish the conditions for an extended encounter with difficulty in digital writing. Yet there is much to discover in the personal and professional movement away from "solving" or avoiding obvious difficulty, and towards seeking and dwelling for extended periods among more troublesome difficulty.
The kinds of difficulty that I have in mind aren't easily solved or even necessarily solvable; instead, they reveal themselves as a more complex, nuanced, and beautiful set of challenges that integrate with the broader projects of writing instruction--and not just those that are obviously marked as digital.
How we as digital writers encounter and recognize difficulty amidst pressures to automate away problems before we even understand them will come to define the growth and trajectory of computers and writing. Difficulty is a condition relative to the relationship we have with difficulty itself, and by extension, the kinds of problems that we identify as difficult.