Hot or Not: Invisible Transgressions in Composition(s)

I was absolutely thrilled to be assigned this week’s topic, as I have long been fascinated about form and content, or the idea of form being content (a comment I made that Kory so brilliantly rephrased into a more eloquent form — go figure!), and how might we teach it. After all, integrated reading and writing is nearly everyone’s Kool-Aid and the general attitude (and I say this, very generally) is that we can’t separate reading and writing processes because they are symbiotic; in that manner, form and content are likewise entwined. I’m today’s Jim Jones and I wish to highlight the complex relationships and challenges that instructors of composition must surmount in order to spread the gospel of visual literacy, and situate ourselves as druids/priests/brothers/sisters/moderators in the cult of new media texts.

Wysocki’s article “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” takes an interdisciplinary approach to the question of visual appeals and how they might present themselves in the various visual compositions with which we are confronted. She examines graphic design texts, art theory, and even our homeboy, Kant (who, I am convinced, along with Nietzsche are indispensable in every humanities-related field), as sources of inspiration and as possible ways to “decode” and inscribe values to the semiotic challenges that visual texts present to us as readers, viewers, and consumers of “texts” — the audience.

burgerking_7inch

^^_____ Take a look at exhibit A. What are your impressions of this image? Which alphabetic words come to mind? What concepts? What sort of feelings does this visual composition evoke?

…..

……..

Now consider the complete advertisement below:

omg1

How does the entire advertisement change our perception of it? To what extent, do you think? As discussed in class and emphasized in the reading (Selfe 70), this is a postmodern culture in which binaries have been disregarded (therefore, we should not pit form against content), and so we can see how alphabetic text/numbers and pictures are manipulated for a specific purpose.

If we were to consider this visual composition as just a “text” isolated and limited to its compositional qualities — its form — how would we be able to evaluate the underlying social, cultural, and historical values of this piece? If we can read traditional, alphabetic texts and cut straight to the content, why are we not affording visual compositions the same consideration of its content, in other words, doesn’t the form itself — the placement, the contrast, the lighting, the angle, even the proportion/ratio of the sandwich vis-à-vis (no pun intended… well, OK, perhaps a little bit) lipsticked, (blow-up) dolled-up model, convey messages and ideas without any alphabetic text. Throw in the alphabetic text, and you have a complete “package” (oh, no, I’m on a pun spree), which brings us back to a tension that Wysocki highlights repeatedly in her article: communication. We are analyzing and composing vials of “communications,” little repositories in which meaning is bottled up and contained, waiting to be uncorked by the audience (OK, OK, no more sexual puns).

However, how do we interrogate this fictionalized “reality” and how do we take this “visual grammar” and go beyond form (or rather, refiguring it) the way many of us have learned how to do with traditional, print-based texts during our educational careers? We know what to do with giant blocks of monolithic texts. And yet we separate form and content in visual “texts,” something that Wysocki regards as a dangerous practice and one that allows us to perceive “content” (in the case of the “Peek” ad, p. 148 as well as the above Burger King ad) in an “unremarkably disembodied” manner, one that in itself encourages the objectification and dehumanizing of said subjects in these Photoshopped, visual compositions, and works “against helping students acquire critical and thoughtful agency with the visual” (149) because a strict emphasis on form cannot account for what Wysocki terms, all the “reciprocal communication” in the work.

Selfe’s article “Toward New Media Texts: Taking Up the Challenges of Visual Literacy,” naturally raises the next question that I am certain many of us have asked ourselves as we plan(ned) our courses and are asking ourselves as we are learning how to teach writing and maintain its relevance an age where just about everything is intertextual, interwoven, and intersectional, including the very nature of composing “texts” themselves or rather, texts as artifacts of constructed meaning. We just don’t know how to approach them. As a field we have focused on alphabetic texts, and as we can see from Wysocki’s article (and the example advertisement I provided) that such adherence is outdated and perhaps even obdurate in the face of practical realities (72). But of course we would do so, as we are just comfortable with alphabetic texts. We feel confident that we can teach it because we ourselves have “developed a comfortable, stable intellectual relationship. We know… how to approach a book or non-fiction essay… we have developed many strategies for reading and understanding such texts, for analyzing and interpreting them, for talking about them” (71).

Many of us, I am certain, are cooking up our technoliteracy narratives this afternoon, evening (and tomorrow morning?). In those very narratives, I would expect some discussion of this topic, if even in an oblique manner. Based on the forum posts I read a couple of weeks ago, it seems many of us feel a need or pressure or expectation to teach visual literacy, yet so few of us feel intellectually and occupationally equipped to do as much,  and in no small part due to the fact that “many of these technologies… are thus unevenly distributed in schools along the axis of material resources” as Selfe claims (71). Both Selfe and Wysocki, echo a post-Saussurean obsession with a transcendent, floating meaning determined by sociocultural contexts. So how should we position all of this? As an interchange of “symbolic instantiations of the human need to communicate” (74).

Yet how does communication occur in a vacuum? It doesn’t. Wysocki writes about graphic design and its ethos: “[graphic design] aligns the values behind many of the formal principles taught in the texts [she has] discussed… with the political and economic structures of industrialization, structures many of us find problematic” (158). Soyoung-man-eating-banana-multi-racial-36025215und familiar? It should, if we read Ohmann’s article. We simply cannot escape the power dynamics and structures that permeate the various compositions to which we expose our students. The “monopoly capital,” in tandem with the postwar intellectual coterie, has continued to work from and support a top-down model in which those who wield power determine how the masses “consume” content. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect the above Burger King ad to depict a man doing the same thing, would we? Although, allow me to remind you, there are many men who would do the very activity the article implies but does not come out and say (all right, last bad pun, I promise). Yet such an ad would be considered controversial, perhaps even transgressive — why?

Expanding our thoughts beyond alphabetic literacy to include new media is perhaps the perfect juncture to overthrow this pyramidal dissemination of knowledge, meaning, and the “old school” compositional skill sets that determine the way (or non-way) we prepare our students for the critical thinking tasks in today’s world.

With our instantaneous, almost ubiquitous access to information and collaboration, and the dialogue that is brewing and of which we are a part by virtue of reading and discussing such concepts in class and on this blog, we owe it to ourselves and our students to find some way to sharpen our own multimodal literacies and to gain the confidence and comfort needed with these forms (and the way they deliver content) in order to successfully integrate them in our classrooms and teach the habits of mind that are relevant not only under the auspices of the institution, but in the present. So to that top-down crap, I say bottoms up (cue tasteless “Peek” ad)!

And with that, it’s time for my Kool-Aid: a bottle of Anchor Steam and a tablespoon of DayQuil.

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Some Notes (and Questions) about New Media Activites

In my class (first-year composition) next week, I’m dedicating all three days to visual rhetoric to try out some of the things I have gathered from various readings and discussions with people. My class is between formal assignments and I want to take a break from all the essay writing they have been doing. Plus they are going to need this visual rhetoric background later on in the course for something else. While trying to create a lesson plan, I searched through the activities included at the end of Wysocki’s “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” (Writing New Media) since I was reading it anyway, but I felt resistant and came up empty. I think that many of these activities are not accessible because they require a lot of planning and scaffolding. Sometimes they include multiple components that are completed over a larger series of classes or they require a certain skill set from my students that I can’t help them with. Some of them also seem to require a certain class “theme” or at least more attention to a certain “theme” or subject.

I know the author’s state that the activities can be adapted, but I’m having trouble with that. So of course after I had this reaction, I had to kickstart my reflection process, as I’ve been trained to do, and think about why I feel this way when I (think) I am eager and willing to include visual rhetoric and new media in my classroom. Am I too lazy, or intimidated, or scared to put in the effort? Did I not give myself enough time to think about what I want to do? Am I not creative enough? Do I feel unqualified? Do I think my students can’t handle it? I find myself falling back on viewpoints and excuses that the authors in this book tell us (teachers) not to have, and then I feel guilty and frustrated.

Since I feel this way, Cynthia L. Selfe in “Toward New Media Texts,” tells me that I should start with visual literacy, so I think great…problem solved! Then I flip the page and look at her activities, and again I feel kind of defeated because they involve some larger lessons, a lot of  planning, and a good chunk of class time, which starts a whole new round of self-reflection. So what is the problem? Right now, I think it might be that I didn’t leave enough time to plan. I can’t just haphazardly throw together a visual rhetoric lesson at the last minute, or if I do I’m just going to have to accept that the lesson won’t be as productive as it can be. I’m starting to think that visual rhetoric is not something you can just include one day out of fifteen weeks, and claim you are pro-visual rhetoric. Of course it’s a start, but I think it needs to be more deeply embedded in a curriculum to  allow  for a series of  effective class discussions and homework assignments. Maybe this whole thought process is what Wysocki and Selfe’s are arguing in the first place.

I’m still going to go through with my “visual rhetoric week,” but when I design my next class I need a better approach then dedicating a week to visual rhetoric with the idea that I can just pull something together the minute before. Probably not the best method for me or my students.

Top Ten Tips for Avoiding Reductive Lists

In Richard Ohmann’s 1987 chapter in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, his rather dire reading of the tea-leaves in Section 4 is titled simply “Computers.”

As Phil Kraft puts it, “all the skill is embodied in the machines”- in fact, that could be a definition of the term “user-friendly.” (“Designing for idiots is the highest expression of the engineering art,” in David Noble’s words…Operators seldom become programmers; programmers seldom become systems analysts; analysts seldom become designers or computer scientists (Corson 35). Graduates of MIT will get the challenging jobs; community college grads will be technicians; those who do no more than acquire basic skills and computer literacy in high school will probably find their way to electronic workstations at McDonald’s. I see every reason to expect that the computer revolution, like other revolutions from the top down, will indeed expand the minds and the freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been hallmarks of monopoly capitalism from its onset. (708)

While I think he’s probably right, and that this sums up the current trajectory of most students, he also wrote that near the beginning of the seepage of visible computer technology into everyday life, and that some of his predictions are dated.  Sure, the department secretary is the only one who used a computer back then, mostly for typing up flyers; but I would hope that these days are long behind us and that many of us are using computing technology for a whole host of other things.

Therefore, I also think that part of our job is to ensure that students have their own choices about where they end up at the end of compulsory schooling, in composition or otherwise.  And now that the computer revolution is 30 or 40 years in the making, we – all teachers – should be able to get down to the business of critically involving technologically mediated curriculum at this remove.  Writing New Media attempts to do exactly that, and in the process demonstrate to teachers what their new media classroom assignments might look like and look for in student competency.  There’s always a danger in this, of course: Helpful handbooks on writing became the constricting Five-Paragraph Theme after what seems like a cosmic game of “Telephone” between the comp theorists and the practicing classroom teachers.  We should resist anything that boils down to a “Ten Top Tips” list and perhaps just get “start[ed] nonetheless” (WNM 45).

Additionally, I fear, as a teacher who has been in this rodeo for a while, that the neat and orderly control mechanisms Ohmann described are going to circumvent and then circumscribe my wish for an educational way of being that is not neat and orderly, one which challenges its students’, their teachers’, even its own “agency and materiality.”  I still have to teach the five-paragraph essay.  When my students post things in their academic blogs that they shouldn’t, we adults swoop in and scold them (and it has already happened).  This is the nature of the beast we seek to tame.

Some interesting ideas. Also, this.

At any rate, we walk a fine line, which is, I suppose, what this class is about.  I wouldn’t hesitate to use a few of the templates Selfe offers in her chapter titled “Toward New Media Texts: Taking Up the Challenge of Visual Literacy.”  These are outlines for dealing with a “new” type of essay, the “visual essay” (OH MY GOD are you kidding me?  It has already begun…).  But for teachers who aren’t ready to walk this dark path without a flashlight, this chapter (and others in this book) provides practical ideas for traversing this treacherous ground.  Got it?

The Medium and The Message

In “Opening New Media to Writing”, Wysocki invites teachers to use new media as an addition to their composition-based pedagogy, and to allow new media to inform the composition classroom in new ways. In “Composition in a New Key”, Yancey does the same, and Cynthia Selfe joins in as well in “Toward New Media Texts: Taking up the Challenges of Visual Literacy”.

There is a call to arms in Wysocki, Yancey, and Selfe’s articles to push composition into a future of public writings and readings, visual analysis in addition to text, and examination of the construction of self, identity, and place through the lens of the internet. Ohmann, a skeptic, offers some minor cautionings and perhaps occupies a similar mindset that I do in “Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital”: New Media and technology have the potential to be incredibly beneficial to education as a whole, but our goals and purposes will ultimately decide whether it is successful or not.

While I am enthusiastic about the potential benefits of such an application, I conflict with the purpose of inserting new media in a classroom.  Each reading contained a specific kind of reasoning for this shift, however I still struggle to except justifications at hand.

So, by adding new media into the composition classroom, are we training students for future jobs? Ohmann seems to think that this is an exaggeration of the future state of technology. He relates this ‘age of technology’ to previous ages of economic revolution; in this, technology is a tool of workforce stratification where only a few will need the specialized skills of technology.  By no means is Ohmann alone in his skepticism of the political implications of technology.

Certainly there are niche jobs in technology, and training for them is done in specific classes that may even happen in specific technology-centered schools. And, if future students are becoming proficient with new technologies earlier than ever, then how are we, who may often be behind their skills, going to help them with future jobs?

While there are those who would argue that even the most recent generation is under-prepared for jobs involving even the slightest technological skills, I’m not sure I understand the task of training for technological jobs in the writing classroom. Based on my job technology-related job experience, I envision composition classrooms working in Excel, Word, Outlook, and alike. And this seems like a challenge to me, even if Yancey does detail an interesting idea for using PowerPoint in the classroom.

Then, if we are not training a future workforce, are we leveraging new media as a means to engage students and motivate them? Yancey offers different points in her articles where she details several moments in history where writing and reading activities were done on a large scale outside the classroom. She asserts that not only do people not need formal instruction to participate in different forms of social reading and writing practices, they especially do not need assessment to validate these acts.

Ultimately, people don’t need grades to be active readers and writers. If we then decide to pull things from technologies that drive people to read and write more into the classroom and assess them, are we just going to slowly suffocate their joy?

Ok, so we’re not trying to be kill-joys and grade your favorite internet activity. Continue to make Willy Wonka memes without fear. Then, is this move into a related, but seemingly separate field a last-ditch effort to give composition departments a fighting chance in the academic world? Yancey, Selfe, and Wysocki spend a lot of time detailing how composition should be moving into the future–presumably so that we don’t get left in the past.

There’s been plenty of concern about the direction of composition studies over the past couple of decades (See: End of Composition Studies by David Smit– the title says it all). And so, it’s no wonder that we want to make sure that we’re presenting something fresh and appealing to colleges. But I think some of this progress has the potential to dismantle the field and place it in the realms of other disciplines. I think this is why Yancey mentions WAC classes and their new importance to composition teachers.

Ultimately, I’m conflicted with what our purpose is or could be, even if I can see all of these justifications as potential benefits. The answers I have are certainly a product of being here and now for me, grappling with teaching myself for the first-time, and generally doubting everything I do in the classroom. Perhaps though, others have more insight for the use of New Media in the classroom and the choice, like inserting anything into your teaching, is a personal one based on personal reasoning. Clearly, I’m not quite there yet.

The Value of New Literacies in the Composition Classroom

We’ve all been there.  At least once in our academic careers we have spent the first 20 minutes of a class period watching the teacher or student presenter battle it out with the technology they were dependent on for that days lesson.  Does the occasional misfire of technology signal its unwarranted place in the classroom?  Are we wasting our time, or are we wasting the potential of the tools we have before us?

You have also very likely sat behind (and quickly learned to sit in front of) this guy:

who has been perusing his Facebook and email while typing a paper on the effects of Hurricane Katrina all throughout the lecture on poster propaganda in Berlin.  Bravo on the multi-tasking skills, but will he be fully present for the ensuing group work?  I’d rather not take my chances.

While these are two examples of many unfortunate drawbacks to technology in the classroom, they certainly cannot justify excising technology from schools.  Not only that, but they bring up very important questions surrounding digital literacy and our own agency.  What is the current role of technology in the classroom?  Is it effective?  Should we throw it out, work within it, or transform it to what we need it to be?

In “Students Who Teach Us: A Case Study of  a New Media Text Designer” Cynthia Selfe points out that English comp teachers are becoming more and more interested in new media texts because not only do they see more of them and have more access to reading and authoring these texts themselves, but their students are paying noticeably more attention to these texts as well.  Selfe argues here that teachers should be paying more attention to them, as well as using them systematically in the classroom to teach about new literacies.  In the chapter Selfe uses the technological and traditional literacy narrative of one student to explore how this contested landscape effect students working in specific English comp programs, the role new media literacies play in the negotiation of new social codes, and what English comp teachers must do with this knowledge to squelch the risk of composition studies becoming increasingly irrelevant (or politicized as such).

As hard as it is to believe that something so absolutely necessary for the educational (read: professional, personal, future) career of American students (read: communities, future leaders, country) as the critical thinking skills learned through composition could be devalued by anyone with the power to support it, the sub-topic of the use of technology in the classroom comes with a built-in debate which could serve to bolster a positive view of the necessity of comp studies or derail it.  David Buckingham explains in “Introducing Identity,” how the long debate on the impact of media and technology on children has always served as a focus for much broader hopes and fears about social change.  The idea that technology is transforming social relationships, the economy and sprawling realms of public and private life is recycled in popular debates, drawing on its long history of public opinion ranging from celebration to paranoia.

Research like that of Kristen Drotner, who believes that schools need to more directly address the new forms of competence needed today and is concerned with the implications of young people’s emerging digital cultures and the role of schools, along with the digital literacy case studies carried out by Hawisher and Selfe can help us put together an informed picture of how new literacies can or should play out in the composition classroom; one not overburdened by celebration or paranoia, but balanced by the real emerging needs of students.  Though Hawisher and Selfe are (rightly) hesitant to apply their ethnographic research to form a larger narrative, their approach points out how little English teachers know about the numerous literacies their students bring to class, and calls on them to seek out and embrace a broad understanding and valuing of multiple literacies in schools to cooperate with those at home, in the community and in the workplace; the literacies their students shape and are shaped by in other (social, professional, educational) aspects of their lives.

Of course this “unique position of the teacher to make a difference in the literate activities of students” requires an aspect of pioneering bravery on the part of teachers (especially those who do not consider themselves tech savvy), and it will certainly include a learning curve (occasionally we will spend some of our precious class time searching for a dongle).  Introducing the specific strategies and activities she suggests to take this road, Selfe explains that these strategies will depend on the teacher’s willingness to: experiment with new media compositions, take personal and intellectual risks as they learn to value different types of texts, integrate attention to such texts into the curriculum, and engage in composing such works themselves.  Not to mention on computer resources, tech support and the professional development that they have available at their specific institutions.  This is clearly a risk for teachers, not only in their own dynamic with their students, but in breeching this learning curve quickly and smoothly enough to justify the value of new literacies in the composition classroom while the composition classroom itself is still in the process of being contested, questioned, and possible threatened.  The successful use of a range of literacies in the classroom may keep composition studies relevant to students, the students’ skills relevant to future academic and professional work, and therefore the composition classroom relevant to the university.

Digital Literacy and the Generational Gap

 

 

In reading the case studies from Hawisher and Selfe’s Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology, I became reflective of my own digital literacy practices as well as those around me.  The two research study participants, Melissa and Brittney, separated by an age gap of over 20 years, show the advantages of a “digital native” (someone who grew up surrounded by technology) over someone who had to acquire the skills later in life.  Both participants came to age in a time when the digital culture was undergoing a radical transition.

I can’t help but be reminded of the frustrating hours spent helping my mom on the computer.  My mom, who is part of the Baby Boomer Generation, sees computers as a foreign concept.  As an elementary school teacher, she wasn’t required to use computers for her day to day job beyond taking her class to the “technology lab” twice a week (where there was a dedicated librarian/lab technician to answer student questions and troubleshoot any network errors).  She has only recently discovered the virtues of email, but hasn’t quite mastered the distinction between the reply and reply all functions.  It was an inside joke between my brothers and sisters when our inboxes became flooded with chain letters and “true” stories verified by snoopes.comuh-oh, mom has discovered the fwd button. I once received a panicked call from her because she couldn’t access her bookmarks, only to have to explain that bookmarks did not transfer from browser to browser and computer to computer (she was at a friends house trying to access her own bookmarks).

I find myself repeating the mantra of “patience” in my head when it comes to helping my mom navigate her computer troubles.  I’ve come to realize that maybe there is somewhat of a generational gap, or at least a gap in experience.  And it isn’t just my mom–frighteningly enough, many of her coworkers are the same when it comes to the uses of computer technology–and when I help them with a simple task like uploading a picture, they see me as a technology guru, though I am far from it.  I’ve noticed that the knowledge that many of us who grew up using computers would consider intuitive (links and search engine functions), aren’t so intuitive for people like my mom.  For her (sorry mom, hopefully she never reads this), technology is just a big enigma, shrouded in mysterious powers.

Circling back to Hawisher and Selfe article, it points out that “people are constrained by any number of influential factors: age, class, race, gender, handicap, experience, opportunity, and belief systems” (667).  How do these factors conflict with our notion about an open, universally accessible world wide web?

TWinaDA Means “I Love You” Even If I Don’t Understand You

In “Introducing Identity,” David Buckingham identifies an argument that supports the view of today’s new media technology as “a force of liberation for young people–a means for them to reach past the constraining influence of their elders, and to create new, autonomous forms of communication and community” (13).  But I’m not sure how “autonomous” the younger digital generation can really be.  They are definitely empowered to break away from traditional opressors–parents, like the argument suggests, and perhaps also institutional (at least in its traditional forms).

Still, are they (or any of us) really free from controlling forces in digital media?  One of Buckingham’s concerns points to “the undemocratic tendencies of online ‘communities'” (14).  In fact, if we look at one such online community like Facebook, it’s quite apparent that there is a lot of follow-the-leader activities going on.  One day about a month ago, women (and girls) on Facebook started putting up colours and patterns on their statuses.  Some men even joined in, many without knowing what exactly they were participating in–their favourite colours?, the colour of their current mood?, or what?  And when many asked those who participated, the resulting elitism and reluctance to reveal was met either with participants’ own lack of understanding, or a cliquish desire to keep that knowledge from more people.  Only after a whole day, or even longer, did many find out that it turned out to be the colour of the bra you are wearing at the time in support of breast cancer awareness.  Nevermind the irony esoteric knowledge/practices against the purpose of awareness, what disturbs me more is the antisocial, anti-democratic behaviours that arose from the event.  And this is but one example on Facebook, while many others include the so-called “doppelganger” profile picture week, viral gaming like Julianne has noted, etc.  And these behaviours are certainly not limited to Facebook.  Go to any site that has social interaction–MySpace, Twitter, even markets like Amazon and eBay–and they’re all there.

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What good is identity?

Reading about the various methods of identity construction people use has been perplexing. I have a tendency to try and directly apply what the theory we are studying to a hypothetical classroom, and it was initially difficult to see the specifics of how knowing students’ histories will change the types of assignments I would give or the teaching approach I would take; how would I move beyond the problem of just having students type a five paragraph essay on Moby Dick on a computer instead and declaring them to have technological literacy.

I’m not sure I have a good answer yet. But to start, although this may be too simplistic, I see identity and literacy issues as fodder for the types of class discussions about situatedness that we have read about from many different theorists. I used to see my own reading and writing practices apolitical and closed for debate. I never used to think that my appreciation of classical Western literature was informed by any specific value system; Shakespeare was simply what I should be studying; Watchmen was just for fun. But graduate school has forced me to change my world view and start looking at the ways everything I do carries some sort of loaded meaning, and our job as teachers may be to get students to understand this. This brings students personal histories into the mix, and technology is an increasingly important part of most students’ personal histories.

Learning to see this way is It seems like demonstrating how these experiences are value-laden is the window into using students’ understandings of technology and identity. I may be speculating wildly here, but it seems likely that until they are questioned about it, many people may not see technology use as something that carries “values” with it. Knowing how to appropriately respond to your friend’s Facebook status and embed videos in the comment sections of blog posts doesn’t seem like it has any relation to a debate on health care reform. But examining how you respond to your friends, what kinds of videos you post, and how your economic, social, and historical situatedness has allowed you to do engage in those activities can make connections in ways that our students may not have seen before. And it is seeing literacy as Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe define it, something where “the practices involved in reading, writing, and exchanging information in online environments, as well as the values associated with such practices–cultural, social, political, and educational” are relevant, that can help us to use this. Continue reading