Social Media, Digital Rhetoric and the Composition Classroom (When 140 characters won’t do)

digital rhetoric


What most of us can agree on when we talk about “digital rhetoric” and the “digital humanities” is that there are no concrete definitions of these terms. Part of the excitement of this brave new world we are approaching is that it is organic, constantly being molded by those who are actively participating in its codification in academia. The other side of this exploration is that the practice of incorporating the digital in our classrooms can be at times bumpy, confusing and perhaps frustrating (for us and our students). What I want to do here is detail my foray into this wide open space of possibility in terms of what is particularly exciting about teaching composition with a digital humanities approach. I also want to consider the various pitfalls/things I have learned along the way and think together about how we can use the digital more effectively in our teaching practice.

Digital Rhetoric is broadly defined as:  the use of technology of various forms to communicate ideas and arguments for public consideration. With digital rhetoric, readers often analyze the use of the medium just as much as the actual content that the medium allows to be presented. One effect of the current manifestations of digital rhetoric (via blogging, tweeting, comments sections, etc) is that it has broadened new considerations for audience, especially among academics who are often used to directing their thoughts to smaller, more clearly defined groups.

Here is a brief video from someone who distills it quite well. Of course this terminology is continually evolving.

As I thought about how to incorporate the digital into my classroom, I was particularly interested in social media websites. I find it fascinating that there is so much public discussion around issues of all stripes that can be catalogued for future consideration as we think on how to define eras and cultural shifts. Readers no longer have to write letters to the editor in order to be heard. They can share their thoughts online, sometimes directly to the writer they are responding to. I was also interested in the impact that social media websites have on how we connect to one another. S. Craig Watkins’s essay in Inquiry “From The Young and the Digital” offered an opportunity for my students to explore these ideas specifically. Focusing on the demographic make up of Facebook and Myspace, Watkins discusses how our use of social media is largely reflective of how we sort ourselves and connect with each other offline (i.e. in the “real world”). His discussion of boundary maintenance (and how we often create online gated communities) on the basis of class and race was especially helpful in explaining why certain groups form and why people connect with specific kinds of people in specific kinds of spaces. Here is what I assigned: Continue reading

Appearance (and Gender) in the Classroom

I confess that I have been stewing over this topic, in one form or another, for quite some time.  Several weeks ago, a former colleague brought this blog post, by UCLA graduate assistant Natascha Chtena, to my attention:

It’s a well-meaning attempt by a graduate teaching assistant to provide style help for other graduate teaching assistants, partially in response to K. David Roach’s 1997 study, “Effects of graduate teaching assistant attire on student learning, misbehaviors, and ratings of instruction.”  In addition to including links to style-minded blogs and web sites, Chtena writes, 

Of course, I still greatly value clothing as a form of self-expression, but I’ve also realized that more burning than my desire to have fun with clothes, is my desire to do my job well and protect myself from anything that can potentially undermine my status in class.  And I’ve come to accept that safer is always better:  teaching simply is one of those jobs where you have to be really conservative and pulled together. 

I wonder, how many of us consider ourselves, as teachers, to be engaged in a profession “where you have to be really conservative”?  In my personal experience, I’ve seen quite a range of styles of dress amongst my coworkers, and my own choices regarding dress and appearance vary considerably depending on a variety of factors, including weather, classroom environment, and how far I’m likely to have to walk from my car to my office on a given day.  I decided to do a little research to discover what university policy is regarding professional attire.  It turns out that the employee handbook does have a brief section addressing attire and personal appearance.  Since the handbook is meant to cover all university employees, however, its guidelines are incredibly broad, and basically summed up in the statement, “Montclair State University’s commitment to excellence requires standards of personal appearance from staff that are consistent with departmental needs and with the expectations of our customers” (“University Policies”). 

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