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:

Do you see evidence of “gated communities” in current social media sites as described by S. Craig Watkins’s in “from The Young and the Digital“? Consider that his work was published in 2009. In “web years” the time frame can be represented as much longer than 4 years ago. Select a social networking site that is popular today (ex. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.) and formulate an argument as to how it proves out or disproves Watkins’ assertion that social disconnection and inequality (along the lines of things like age, class, race, gender, etc.) are present as much in the digital world as they are in the “real world”. (You can think about analyzing this in terms of an issue like online bullying, social activism and collaboration, formulations of cliques, commentary including hate speech, etc.)

The assignment had a number of successful responses. I had one student write about Oreo’s Facebook page and their decision to create a cookie with rainbow filling to celebrate Gay Pride Month in 2012. The student remembered the controversy, found the original post on Oreo’s Facebook page and analyzed the comments in response as a way to think about where we are as a society on our acceptance/rejection of LGBT individuals and issues. I was impressed that the student was able to use a past event on social media that resonated with her and process it in an essay for our course. Another student examined tweets about President Obama, Marc Anthony’s singing of the national anthem at the 2013 MLB All Star Game, and the crowning of Miss America Nina Davuluri as a way to understand how people still operate in narrow definitions of American citizenship. Needless to say, I was happy to see these kinds of approaches to the assignment but the assignment wasn’t without its pitfalls.

What I learned:

  • Students do not often critically analyze the various mediums they use to be social online. Nor do they always WANT to analyze them. Before our assignment, many students had not thought about social media beyond its facility in their own lives. Many of them were glad to have done the activity but I had to do some prodding to make them think critically. “But I love Tumblr! I don’t see anything wrong with it.” – was a response I received.
  • Students’ use of social media is in many cases very personal and they can be reluctant to share their experiences. When I did an in-class activity in prep for the essay, I had students log into their social media accounts and share findings with others. They were reluctant to search the sites using their own logins because they used some of the spaces (like Tumblr) as personal journals.
  • Also, not all of our students use social networking sites. A few of my students explained that they have either deleted accounts or never started ones to begin with. One student described social networking as a “useless time suck”.

One truly valuable thing I came away with after having students analyze social networking sites is the realization that I made many assumptions about their relationship with digital technology that weren’t always reliable.

A few assumptions to avoid:

  • We can’t assume all students are digitally literate or engaged. Some students have trouble navigating the complexities of digital communication and formatting. It is something we have to teach to ensure the students have the tools to carry out what we want them to do.
  • The digital divide is still a very real thing. In teaching this unit, I had students bring in their laptops. However, I did not consider that many students did not own laptops and some grew up in homes with limited/inconsistent Internet access. Fortunately the activity I had planned was a group activity so students without laptops could look on, but I learned that I can’t assume that all of my students have access – both in the sense of physical hardware as well as the knowledge base.
  • We need to be just as savvy as we expect our students to be. Incorporating the digital requires average or better knowledge of the mediums in order to help students navigate them. We have to teach multiple things at the same time.
  • Lastly, one of the benefits and drawbacks of the information age is that students are not content to dwell in ambiguity – they are not content to be uninformed. They google search for answers and then they parrot material back to us without understanding how it constitutes an inappropriate form of borrowing, patch writing or, to be more direct, plagiarism. When having students analyze what happens online, we have to stress the idea of independent thought and analysis. It is difficult to do this when they are immersed in the act of analyzing information in a space where information abounds. For example, one of my students remembered a controversy on Twitter, couldn’t find it and had to search for it. She also stumbled upon other people blogging about the same controversy. I had to show her how she could put herself in conversation with those already discussing this issue and to not simply rely on their ideas.

While my practice is still evolving, I am excited about the idea of using the various ways that students write and engage with writing outside of the classroom to teach them how to use those rhetorical modes more effectively within the classroom. It is my hope that putting these worlds in context with one another has a positive impact on our students, making them better writers in all their methods of communicating.

How are you implementing digital humanities/digital rhetorics approaches in the classroom? What successes have you experienced? What pitfalls? Any other things that we should not assume about students and the digital?

Note: The University of Texas’s Digital Writing and Research Lab is an incredibly helpful resource for assignment ideas incorporating digital rhetoric.


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

  1. All of my papers are submitted and commented upon electronically. I use Track Changes to make my comments. As far as I can see, there are no disadvantages to this, and several advantages, such as the following.

    1. Turnaround is quicker. A student can have a paper back within a couple of hours if necessary, but definitely before the next class, and if I have not been able to comment on all papers (or if some are turned in late), students don’t have to wait until the next class to get them. The next class might be five days away.

    2. I have a record of all student drafts. I keep them in a separate folder and label them: “Smith 1 1” for the first draft of the first essay, for example. I know exactly what papers students have emitted and when.

    3. Since I am not writing by hand, I can comment much more extensively. I find myself doing a bit of a flipped classroom — commenting at length on student papers, which they review at home, and doing reading and writing in class.

    4. While I don’t frequently take advantage of this, I have access to all student papers back to when I began teaching at Montclair State eight years ago. I can access either especially wonderful or especially awful papers for illustration purposes, and if I ever was inspired to do some research, I have a mountain of data.

    5. I don’t consider this a major advantage, but it does cut down on clutter in my house, and lessens the chance that I would lose a paper.

    Come to think of it, there may be a disadvantage:

    1. Sometimes I open an email, thinking I will work on it that moment, and get interrupted. When I go back to my email list, that email is not in bold, so I might forget to work on it. This is remedied when the student reminds me I have not returned her paper, but it is a risk that hard copy papers do not incur.

  2. I think your point that “Students do not often critically analyze the various mediums they use to be social online” is an especially important one, Stacie. Students do quite a bit of writing and reading on a daily basis in social media spaces. But they often see these spaces as arhetorical–as if what happens on Facebook is free from politics or prejudice or persuasion. They’re often surprised when I describe to them how I use Facebook and Twitter as ways to share political information, teaching strategies, etc. This is why I think it’s especially important to engage our students critically with these online spaces. They might not be able to change someone’s vote or alter their perspective on a major social issue by writing an online post, but increasingly, they will be networking for jobs or organizing for movements that they care about online. Students also need to be aware of how discrimination and stereotypes (in terms of race, class, gender, ability, and sexuality) are circulated and perpetuated via online mediums in the guise of humor or satire. Our students’ online presence is a major part of their literacy practices, and that is not going to go away. Through assignments like the one mentioned here, we can help them negotiate these spaces in savvy and responsible ways.

  3. Thanks for this post Stacie. I’ve used a handful of media clips and documentary segments to illustrate various points over the semester, and have also graded most of my essays virtually with the exception of two assignments. Surprisingly, most students have so far said that they prefer comments on paper. (Given my handwriting, this is especially surprising.) About using different digital modes, I found one segment from a Frontline documentary on digital natives to be especially helpful in illustrating the need for an introduction, and then a gradual progression from context of the topic and finally, to source material. Given that the experts were not brought in until 4-5 minutes into the piece, and then they were integrated to support claims and offer analysis, the students seemed to make connections to their papers. Clips and short tutorials were also helpful in demonstrating ethos, pathos, and logos. Students watched brief commercials and we dissected them. We also watched a few critical responses to the government shutdown and I had them ID each mode in the monologue. Last, I’ll say that I have used a “Millennial Lens” assignment in a few courses, and students have responded to charges against their own generation. I’ve found that many admit to being frustrated with social media and the constant distractions that most of us face today. They’ve also admitted to being annoyed that meeting with friends in person now is sometimes awkward after so much virtual interaction. Many admitted to wishing they were more present in time, but they don’t know how to disconnect. What I’ve learned this semester is that I shouldn’t assume that digital is always better and to not make assumptions, which seems similar to your findings. Again, thanks for this piece! Tara

  4. (Been meaning to respond to Stacie’s awesome post for a long time but, perhaps appropriately enough, all the digital papers and rewrites I take in have kept me away from it.)

    From last semester I’ve gone totally digital in my collection and returning of papers and, like Ann above, I can’t say that I find any disadvantages to it–except possibly that it encourages me to respond in even more detail than I already did, and that’s great for students and not so much for me. My students almost unanimously prefer the digital submission and feedback model, and they did so in the semester when I had some written and some digital feedback, as well as in the semester(s) when I had all-digital feedback. Considering the response Tara’s students have had, this either indicates the uniqueness of our individual classes or simply shows that my handwriting is way worse than hers!

    Regarding the one potential disadvantage Ann mentioned, the way I deal with that is by maintaining a Word document where I keep track of every paper that I have yet to return, which I add to whenever a paper is submitted to me. Since I may simultaneously be looking at and returning Paper 3 while also looking at rewrites of Papers 1, 2 and 3 from various students in different classes, having a master document is invaluable to me and has ensured that no papers have been returned late or out of order.

    Like multiple people above, I’ve found that students tend to have a significant disconnect between the sort of writing they do online and what we require of them. As Tara mentioned, I also find them to consistently have a large number of reservations about digital communication, often considering it “shallow” or “fake” even as they are immersed in it (the subject of online dating, for example, makes them sound amusingly like old curmudgeons complaining about ‘kids nowadays’, as I’ve pointed out during discussions).

    Like Caroline, I think helping them to be more critically aware of the digital spaces they inhabit is important. Not only does it provide one more way to get them thinking about writing and rhetoric (and allows us to draw connections back to the academic writing/reading that we have them do), but it is provides them with vitally important life skills for the world they will (and already) inhabit, whether as employees or friends or (hopefully) engaged citizens.

  5. The other responses have said it all so well, so I’ll only affirm all here…THANK YOU, Stacie, for getting us thinking on this crucial factor in our students’ writing lives!

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