Social Media: The Renaissance Self-Expression and Community.. or is it?

I have spent the last few hours pondering what Micheal Wesch would say about the changes in spaces like Youtube and other social media since he made his video on Web 2.0 and his anthropological study of Youtube. Once upon a time, (though really it was not that long ago) vlogs and other personal videos were absolutely the predominant videos and content type on Youtube. Looking all the way back at 2006 we see much of what was being discussed by Wesch in simple user generated videos with just a few thousand views sitting on the front page.

youtube 2006 screenshot.png

Credit: Graphitas

I am sure if we used The Way Back Machine then we would see many response videos, even to these front page entries. If we take a peek at the front page of Youtube today, the field has completely changed. Every front page is tailor made for the person who is consuming the media, especially if you have any viewing history or an account linked to your Youtube habits.

Youtube Today.png

As you can see, the trending videos look like a Hollywood catalog; they are almost completely comprised of massive company sponsored channels or the titanic channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers making professional content for our consumption. Now, I am not saying that this is necessarily bad, since millions of hours of entertainment have arisen from the ability of an individual to monetize their videos on Youtube, but the community of videos that was so exciting to Welsh ten years ago is dying if it is not completely dead already. It seems that a significant amount of social media is moving away from being a way of interconnectivity toward being a way to create or popularize a brand. Even my own Facebook feed has become more of a space to see updates from news and entertainment sites than just seeing what a friend is up to on any given day, resulting from giving a page or website a “Like.” Is there a new social media that has replaced this phenomenon? Maybe Vines? Snapchat? My experience with these new medias are limited so I have no real idea if those kinds of apps are filling this void.

Moving to a slightly different sphere, in “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Network Sites,” Amber Buck examines what she calls, (finally…at the end of the article) “a rather extreme case of social network site use.” Throughout this study, her subject, Ronnie, is shown to be trying to make a “brand” much like the celebrities that we see on Twitter, Facebook, and other networking websites. I feel that this discussion is a bit disingenuous as a result because it is not indicative of most students practices on a social networking site. While we all create an online identity, I do not believe that most people are developing as complex rhetorical skills that Ronnie is displaying and Buck is discussing nor do I think most people are trying to generate fans and fame from their social media exploration. To me this kind of study just screams outlier case.

(As a side note her abstract mentions that the literacy practices we explore include navigating user agreements, which means that she thinks that many young adults read them.)


Now this is not to discount that rhetorical  and genre learning is going on and we as teachers cannot take advantage of that, but social media and how people, especially youth, interact with that media evolves faster than we can build data and studies on how to incorporate it into pedagogy and the classroom. We have read many papers examining Myspace, but that website is now a wasteland with most people’s profiles sitting derelict, an interesting photograph of our past social media lives. It makes me wonder how much of that study is still relevant as things so rapidly change. I am extremely interested in what the next few years hold and how social media and literacies will continue to evolve.

Will we see another website emerge to replace Facebook? Or has the evolution of social media begun to settle and slow down? If students are as active as Ronnie and I am just ignorant of this, then how might we best bring this to the forefront in the classroom?

I think I have rambled like a terrible cynic for long enough today. So I shall do what I always will and leave you all with an OC remix of the day. This is a remix by FoxyPanda of the famous “Aquatic Ambiance” Theme from Donkey Kong Country. Cheers!


Tech Identities: An Evolution of an Old Problem in Academia

As I read “Becoming Literate in the Information Age” and considered my own development in my own identities in technology and literacy outside of the “norm,” I began to think on the struggle for teachers in the composition classroom to effectively instruct different speech and discourse communities; a Sociolinguistics subject I studied in undergrad and, currently, the reading subject of the Introduction to Composition class Theory here at SFSU. Students from these different communities have no issue with  conveying ideas or constructing communication; they simply don’t communicate in the specific way desired by those in power. Because the prestige language is not in their own primary or secondary discourses, these students are told that their language identity is incorrect either directly or subversively and the result can be the inability to succeed in academic institutions. Now, with technology creating further expansions and fragmentation of discourse and speech communities, not to mention becoming more important globally than traditional literacy, more students have the potential to fall through the cracks if composition teachers cannot find a way to incorporate some of these new literacies and recognition of tech identities, as well as language identities, into the classroom.

one-does-not-simply-a - One does not simply become fluent in a Secondary Discourse

This felt especially relevant in the case study of David John Damon explored in “Students Who Teach Us,” who, despite being an early adopter of web design, seemed extremely practiced, skilled, and talented at not only creating websites, but also networking people, failed out of college because of his non-academic language used in his speech and composition courses. Growing up in Detroit, he did not have the background in the “standard” Academic language discourse communities that the institution he took classes at wanted him to have skill in. His other talents were never considered or really observed by those that only saw his inability to construct traditional literacy by writing formal papers.

David spent a large portion of his time creating, learning, honing and developing websites for the various communities on campus he participated in. This is basically Tapscott’s dream student who is, “hungry for expression, discovery and [his] own self-development” (Buckingham 13). He showed all of the traits of a person who knows the importance of computer literacy in an increasing technocentric world and spent his time developing these skills much like the two people examined in “Becoming Literate”, but the difference was their upbringing, creating an academic as well as technological identity that helped to lead them to success. Sadly, while David’s teachers expressed concern for his issues with formal writing, nothing is said on attempts to work with him, nor do we find out what happened after his year at college.

It is too bad that these teachers had not also read the “Students Who Teach Us” chapter of Writing New Media since it contains some interesting ideas on how to create a culture of tech literacy and identity awareness in the classroom. These kinds of writing exercises can help students realize their own authorship and literacies that they have already developed, which might make an English class less threatening. As I explore further into this fascinating and evolving world of English Composition, I have to wonder how it is possible to incorporate even elements of everything that I am learning that seems like it would benefit student learning. In addition, I have concerns about students moving forward into other classes with teachers who are still very much traditionalists and a student’s ability to succeed coming out of a class that I teach and even more how the hell teachers can not only get away with these different ideas but begin to change the departments that they reside in, but maybe that is just me overthinking things.


Finally, to emulate one of my favorite YouTubers TotalBiscuit, here is an OC remix track that I feel emulates the wonder (and possibly a little fear of the unknown?) of this world of technology and literacy that we are exploring:

If A Blog Gets Created And There’s No One To Read It, Does It Make A Sound?

With the use of blogs and wikis, students may reach unexpected audiences and collaborate at unexpected moments in contrast with traditional reading and writing experiences.

First in regards to audience, Charles Tryon advocates using blogs to help students gain an identity as global citizens in “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition.” The unlimited reach of blogs makes student writing available to a global audience. When students receive comments and feedback about their writing from the greater public, the writing they have done for the public sphere in the blog gains a more profound validity than classroom writing.

While blogging may open up student writing to a global audience, some dangers come with that level of access. In “Learning to Write Publicly,” a qualitative research study done by John Benson and Jessica Reyman, the authors note that only about one or two students out of sixty-seven, who were observed blogging in a first year composition class, had concerns about the public nature of blogging, and the other sixty-five viewed blogging as totally anonymous or like talking to a “close friend.” Despite the propensity of students to over-estimate the amount of personal information that can safely be shared (a phenomenon well known by now and mocked on websites such as Failblog or in this SNL sketch), the authors of the research study still note that the exercise in rhetorical awareness is hugely beneficial to students because even just going through the motions of having fellow students comment on their work (albeit required comments by the teacher) expands a student’s notions of audience.

Coming from more of a K-12 perspective, Will Richardson proposes many methods for limiting the audience of student blogs, so that students can practice writing for a larger audience (even if it’s just the whole class) without risks of allowing students to overshare or discover unsavory content. Richardson sees the blog as more of a pedagogical tool that should be managed so that students can use new media tools more effectively outside of the classroom. Richardson’s perspective, that of the private class blog, is training wheels for real-world blogging. I, in any many instances think it’s more appropriate for the classroom to be a safe space, but many students will learn the harsh lessons of over-sharing outside of the classroom one way or another.

Take me for example, long ago (2005), I e-mailed a letter to the editor of SF Weekly about iPods. The newspaper had run a story about how podcasts were a “medium for dissent.” I received notice that they were going to print my letter and I became excited. I eagerly waited for the next edition of the weekly to come out, and when I raced to the page where the “Letters to The Editor” were, I discovered that my letter had been saddled with a sarcastic title “Manifesto from the Outer Sunset.” My glee turned to disappointment as I realized the editors were making fun of my letter, one containing a few too many Marxist sounding words (common man, upper classes, dissent).

Long story short, it has taken YEARS for that letter to the editor to stop showing up in the top 10 results when you Google my name (and yes I know that by linking to it in this post, I am counteracting that effect). The lesson I learned from all of this is that—the internet follows you. I’m sad to say this is not the only lesson I learned about discretion in regards to the internet and new media, but it was a valuable learning experience, and in retrospect, a shareable blunder.

Students are invariably going to make mistakes when trying to take part in civic discourse, and eventually we do have to take off the training wheels and let them ride their internet bikes into ditches. Especially nowadays, there is more recourse for internet blunders (privacy settings, delete functions) so most of the time students will bounce back unless they do something as profoundly shocking as UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posting a YouTube video containing a racist rant about Asians in the UCLA library. Wallace had to publicly apologize and withdrew from UCLA, but I think cases like hers are an extreme example.

Extreme examples aside, students must get used to the fact that when they write online, audience changes. Wikis provide an intermediate experience, and one distinctly different than blogs. With wikis, students collaborate on a document or web resource. While the wiki can be changed by anyone, the wiki retains a history of all changes made so that the wiki can be reverted back to previous versions. A student will experience a different type of audience on the wiki, not that of commenters, but of authorial discussions about the nature of the content on the wiki. Students must feel bold in changing the work of others, but also be comfortable with the fact that their writing will most likely be edited and/or deleted. The notion of authorship and audience completely changes on the wiki: from singular to shared authorship, and simultaneously an unlimited audience (on the internet) and a limited audience (fellow authors of the wiki). In “Erasing “Property Lines”: A Collaborative Notion of Authorship and Textual Ownership on a Fan Wiki,” Rik Hunter observes these phenomenons regarding audience and authorship in the context of a World of Warcraft Wiki, WOWWIKI.

I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that it is beneficial and possible crucial to teach students how to use these tools critically. We might not save them from a few badly written letters to the editor, but we might save them from life altering viral video status if they are a little more aware of the power of these tools. We can show them how to use a tricycle and maybe someday, they will build something like this.

Say a 1000 Words About a Picture…What Will Your Words Say About You?

Anne Frances Wysocki’s, “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” was a difficult read for me. Wysocki argues that the contemporary approach to helping students critique visual texts is incomplete and may prevent students from being able to thoroughly critique those visual texts. What is missing from our approach is the realization that we, us, as viewers are culturally accustomed to seeing form in particular ways, ways informed by Western conceptions of universal beauty, and because we don’t realize how our judgments are culturally informed, we divorce form from content. In divorcing form from content, we objectify whatever material/media makes up that content. In Wysocki’s argument, her example is the body of a women used in an advertisement. The woman’s body has been divorced from the content, and is used to enhance the form of the visual ad. The objectification of the woman’s body goes unnoticed because her body is presented in a visual form that is pleasing and in line with our cultural ideals of “universal beauty.”

Wysocki borrows this term of “universal beauty” from Kant’s Critiques. I admit I was lost in much of her explanation of Kant’s theories, especially when she notes that Kant states that our judgments of beauty “should be disinterested” and that Kant himself is always gendered. I thought maybe what she meant was that since we all partake in the judging of “universal beauty,” we are all like Kant and are all gendered in our judgments of beauty (and beauty could easily be replaced with the words “truth” or “goodness” here).

Wysocki proposes that we strive to present visions of beauty that highlight how parts of the everyday fit into a larger and more communal ideas and activities. She posits, “How then, might we learn to appreciate—see the beauty of, take rich pleasure in—the particularities of our experiences and those of others within this shared day-to-day?” (171) (My immediate response to this was, “Wow, that is a very intellectual form of beauty. Will the whole country get on board with that?” Images of Susan Boyle come to mind. People were so shocked that a woman who didn’t fit a visual ideal of “universal beauty” could produce something so “universally beautiful” She disrupted the whole process of objectification and people were shocked.)  ImageI think that Wysocki’s goals are ambitious, and I find myself a skeptic because of the sheer scope of the problem she presents. I want violence against women to be less reified by society, but I don’t see the presence of sex leaving advertising anytime soon. I was troubled by how hard it was for me to envision what she is talking about. What Wysocki proposes definitely falls into critical pedagogy (pedagogy that has an aim of social justice), and I have to remind myself that in discussing what art should do she is not expecting that a composition student would perform a visual rhetorical analysis and immediately be cured of biases, but its easy to get overwhelmed when reading this kind of scholarship.

The other reading this week, “Between Modes,” by Madeleine Sorapure, answers a very straightforward and prescient questions in the context of new media assignments like the ones that Wysocki would have her students participate in, and that question is how do we assess works in the composition classroom that contain visual imagery? What is a success and what is less effective? Sorapure presents the notions of the metaphor and the metonym, a metaphor being a substitution for an idea, and a metonym being a trope that evokes ideas that are in proximity to the image being used. I really appreciated the simplicity, and the practicality of her method of assessment. It’s not foolproof–teacher assessment can still be subjective when a student is assessed on their use of these tropes—for example, I didn’t think that world on a hook was so bad.

The Wysocki reading was REALLY difficult to read at times, but it did get me thinking about how I could perform similar analyses with students. I nominate this picture of Nancy Reagan sitting on Mr. T’s lap as a possible photo to analyze, but it might be too dated for my students.

This is a good example to me of a photo that has a lot going on in it, and the metonyms and the metaphors you could draw from it would be evocative even though they may not be intentional due to the context of this photo.

Photo Credits:

Susan Boyle:

Mr T and Nancy Reagan:

Ah Violetta! A different kind of Multi-Tasking? Collaborative Function as an Index of PostModernity

Recently, at a desk bestrewn with empty coffee cups, a half-dozen books, digital audio equipment, handwritten lists, old syllabi, and class notebooks, I’ve found myself multitasking. Similarly, my typically tidy virtual desktop has become cluttered with quite a number of pdf articles, garage band files, electronic “sticky” notes in all colors, word documents in various states of editing or abandonment, and a slew of photos awaiting sifting and sorting.

Given the mundane/virtual dust-devil of texts I’ve been interacting with and generating these days, I’m very interested in the discussion of multi-tasking I’ve been encountering in critical discussions of digital and new literacy.  After all, if my desk/desktop is any indication, shouldn’t I, as a multi-tasker with a laptop at the heart of it all, be able to find myself represented in articles discussing digital textuality and new media?

Lankshear and Knobel, in their 2004 plenary address to the NRC, “New” Literacies:  Research and Social Practice, commented glowingly on the work of Angela Thomas, noting her interest in the “ways in which children construct their identities in multimodal digital worlds,” and held her research up as “an excellent exemplar of how weblogs and chat spaces, among other online media, can be used as research tools.”

When I cam upon Lankshear and Knobel’s discussion of Thomas, I was drawn to the words of Violetta, one of the digital insiders interviewed online by Thomas:

I need to make a confession right now, I am talking to you but at the same time I am talking to this cool guy Matt who I know from school, and trying to do some homework – an essay for which I am hunting some info on the web – you know, throw in some jazzy pics from the web and teachers go wild about your ‘technological literacy skills’ skills.  Big deal.  If they ever saw me at my desk right now, ME, the queen of multi-tasking, they’d have no clue what was happening.

Re-reading Violetta’s last line gives me, a teacher and older user of technology, pause.  Don’t older or less frequent user-creators of new media, many of us latecomers to the party, multitask too?  Are our styles of multitasking really so different from Violetta’s?

In “Sampling the New Literacies” Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel write:

Multitasking has become ubiquitous among digital youth.  Moreover, the multitasking mode is not seen simply [as] some casual kind of modes operandi confined to interactions with one’s closest friends – as when chatting, roleplaying, updating a weblog, IM-ing, etc. simultaneously . . . . Rather it is widely seen as a way of operating that applies generally in everyday life at home, at school and at play. (15)

On the basis of such input, I’m still not convinced that Violetta has anything on me.  I like to sneak a text out to a friend during class at least as much (hell, perhaps more than) most of my students.  And, to be sure, I’ll leave facebook open while paying bills, g-chatting, answering professional correspondence, writing for fun, emailing my parents, taking notes for a role playing game, listening to music, or playing/recording a guitar.

Through coordinations of self/technology/and context, we perceive ourselves, and intuit how others may read us.

However, Lankshear and Knobel do have more to offer.  In positioning their concept of new literacy into the discourse theory of James Gee, they cover the idea of coordinations through which our situated-selves enact literacies within discourse.  This catchall phrase reminds us to consider the myriad elements bound up with incarnating literacy:  thoughts, feelings, rules, institutions, tools, accessories, clothes, language, etc.  “Within such coordinations,” according to Gee, “we humans become recognizable to ourselves and to others and recognize ourselves, other people, and things as meaningful in distinctive ways.”

Perhaps Violetta’s statement suggests a refined sense of how the various coordinations invoked in her digital literacy present (or interpolate, in the Althusserian sense) her as a subject, one with creative agency, but one who also may be seen, even studied, as such.  After all, she casually mocks teachers for praising even a cursory expression of “technological literacy.”  That is, to take up Gee’s reasoning, she has a subtle awareness of how the coordinations that frame the ongoing practice of her own literacy simultaneously enables her generative self-styling of a public persona and provides surfaces through which others may find her persona legible.

Thinking through Gee’s coordinations again, which include thinking and feeling, I’m led to consider the possibility that, even if people like Violetta and I each use some of the same technology, perhaps even in somewhat similar ways, perhaps the way we think and feel about our respective digital practices are what matter.

In Lankshear and Knobel’s charting of the ethoi underpinning the practices of typographic and digital textuality, we find a wide range of theory suggesting that typographic literacy and digital literacy carry with them a number of rather different assumptions, such as the way in which ideas are given value – such as through scarcity (typographic) or sharing (digital).  I grew up in a world in which the economic model of scarcity-derived value gave ideas and academic credentials their feeling of worth; not everybody had them.  This kind of thinking is of course still with us, and I hear it expressed whenever a student expresses worry that someone might “steal”  his or her ” idea.”

Lankshear and Knobel quote Barlow’s perspicacious claim that “dispersion . . . has the value and [information’s] not a commodity, it’s a relationship and as in any relationship, the more that’s going back and forth the higher the value of the relationship” (11).

Perhaps this point isn’t so different from being, in the years before before GPS, lost with someone who checked a paper map versus being in the same situation with someone who was happy to ask for directions.  Is it worth starting a face-to-face relationship with someone when what you want is a bit of information? (Yes, this opens a fertile line of gender-based inquiry generally absent from the more accessible layers of the theory Lankshear and Knobel cite).

Barlow’s  idea, that information is conceptualized differently by practitioners of differing literacies, helps me to infer a possible difference between my own approach to the web and that of someone like Violetta.  Let me illustrate the point with a problem that came up during a recent period of multi-tasking heavily weighted toward my current academic commitments.

A few days ago, I encountered a problem using a forum a professor had set up using SFSU’s ilearn for a class.  I’d asked my professor to modify the default settings for the forum.  One of the side effects had been that all of the group members ended up locked out from posting to the forum.  Before alerting my instructor to the problem, I tried to query ilearn’s online help several times, and quickly came up against an electronic brick wall, a invitation to search that kept resulting in:  “There are currently no QuickGuides in the system that match your search criteria. Please try again.”

Reflecting on the matter now with Barlow’s statement in mind, I realize that I tried to solve the ilearn problem from a scarcity-model informational standpoint; the smart money would have been to solve it relationally, to find someone who could help me step by step through the situation, perhaps through the obviously displayed email or chat support options.  Seeking that kind of help isn’t as comfortably in my playbook.   Looking back, I realize I  also have a few people in my networks (both professional and social) with whom I might have interacted in order to solve my problem.

Why didn’t I?  I bet that, in terms of digital  literacy, I am several, even 10s of thousand of hours short of Violetta’s time online.  If indeed, as Walter Ong famously wrote, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Violetta and I may very well negotiate such problems differently.   I bet she would have gotten the results, and probably through a more social source than the help files I looked at, which are simply digital analogues of mundane owner’s manuals — a typographic solution.  A digital insider might ask: why open the manual when you can instant message an expert?  Perhaps Violetta might have started by asking that “cool guy Matt” she was already chatting with, and he might have had the answer.

I think that we might be in the midst of a social change that dethrones, or destabilizes, our traditional view of a narrowly defined executive function as the preeminent organizational skill.  It may be that this concept was formulated in an era of, or under the influence of values generated by, typographic literacy.  Perhaps collaborative function, an ability to effectively access collective sources of knowledge, is a more apt descriptor of the underlying capability for problem solving in the digital era.

Where is the collaboration in this executive function model?

Lankshear and Knobel note how wikipedia, for example, “leverages collective intelligence for knowledge production in the public domain.”  The literature on digital literacy that has come across my workspaces of late suggests that some kind of collaborative function will increasingly trump the sort of executive function that typically is associated with students’ ability to focus.  If we fail to recognize this, we not only impair our own digital literacy, and misunderstand the classroom presence of our students, but also, even while using digital and new media, stage our attempts at problem-solving with a scarcity-based model of information lurking in the wings.

Given the frequency with which New Media theorists invoke Jameson, Derrida, and other postmodern luminaries, it has become difficult to disassociate digital textuality from postmodernity itself.  Lankshear and Knobel note that the 2.0 digital mindset may be seen “as an aspect of the postmodern spirit.”  In “Blinded by the Letter:  Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola contrast, in a line of inquiry somewhat parallel to the scarcity/dispersion dichotomy, the private linearity of printed consciousness and the spatialized intertextuality of digital thinking.

Perhaps the world where the full implications of “an unseen network of reference” that is “visible, navigable, writable and readable, on our computer screens” is also the world of collaborative function, where users not only see/access links between texts, but are much more free to see/access the social relationships based upon textual exchange, the affective and informational networks through which texts, reified artifacts, useless in themselves, are transmitted and granted meaning.

In my youth, fan-generated responses to Star Wars often looked more like this.

Where Violetta and I may well overlap, in terms of our digital-literary consciousness, though, would be in our appreciation of fan-generated media.  Consider this fan-generated video of a Star Wars space battle, which reveals  the fervor and technical prowess of the normally faceless imperial pilots that form part of the menacing backdrop  of the films.

Sleigh Bells

Although my information-seeking instincts may be still been conditioned by a youth of scarcity-consciousness, at least I’ve come this far – I can admire fan-fictive remixing, and don’t want to see either Lucasfilm (or Sleigh Bells, which someone other than the fan-author added to the vid as a righteous musical backdrop)  pull down the video by flexing their scarcity-derived intellectual property rights.  I’d go further, and assert this fan-creator’s right to draw upon these sources to make new texts.  Many of you are probably already familiar with Larry Lessig’s TED talk on Read/Write culture, so I won’t belabor the matter.

One last takeaway from Violetta’s statement, I think, is that we don’t want, by studying digital and new medial literacies, to fetishize their demonstration.  Users like Violetta are aware that their practices are the subject of academic/pedagogical inquiry and appropriation.  They may know all too well that scholars like Lankeshear and Knobel dedicate works like “Sample ‘The New’ in New Literacies” to “the young (and not so young) digital insiders who inspire people like us.”   In that spirit, let’s make sure we do our best, then, to listen to what student-users have to teach us about working collaboratively with new media.

Teaching Critical Literacy in a Digital Age

For those of you interested not only in how and in what ways new media and information and communications technologies can be adopted and used in educational settings, but also in how to teach students to become more aware of and able to critique the numerous social, cultural, and ideological functions that rhetorics of technology serve, here is a list of some books and articles you may find useful.

I highly recommend Mark Andrejevic’s iSpy as a must read.

Ebert, Teresa L. The Task of Cultural Critique. Urbana/Chicago:

University of Illinois Press, 2009. Print.

Andrejevic, Mark. iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era.

University of Kansas Press, 2007. Print.

 Gee, James Paul, Glynda Hull, and Colin Lankshear. The New Work Order:

Behind the Language of the New Capitalism. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996. Print.

Thomson, Iain. “From the Question Concerning Technology to the Quest

for a Democratic Technology: Heidegger, Marcuse, Feenberg.” Futures of Critical Theory: Dreams of Difference. Ed. Peters, Michael, Mark Olssen, and Colin Lankshear. NewYork: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003. Print.

Selber, Stuart A. “Technological Dramas: A Meta-Discourse Heuristic for

Critical Literacy.” Computers and Composition Vol. 21 (2004): 171-95. Print.

Toscano, Aaron A. “Using I, Robot in the Technical Writing Classroom:

Developing a Critical Technological Awareness.” Computers and Composition. Vol. 28 (2011): 14-27. Print.

Warnick, Barbara. Critical Literacy in a Digital Era: Technology, Rhetoric,

and the Public Interest. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

Should we be cautious of a rhetorician’s ability to map best practices in Comp pedagogy onto digital terrain?

As Robert points out, Scott Warnock’s objective for writing Teaching Writing Online: How & Why is to encourage composition teachers to adapt thoughtfully conceived, model writing pedagogies for use in online environments as a means of exerting influence over how distance and e-learning technologies are adopted and used within institutional settings. While Warnock certainly makes a strong case for all the reasons why teaching composition in digital environments reinforces and perhaps even epitomizes the primary learning goals of writing instruction, I found the book’s perspective on the need to develop a particular (and ultimately quite constrained) teaching persona somewhat at odds with the argument that it is possible to translate one’s face-to-face teaching methods for online use—primarily because of the perceived need for members of the online community (both teachers and students) to begin consciously auto-censoring their identities and personas because of their growing awareness of the fact that all exchanges and interactions are now officially “on the record”. I think this raises interesting questions about human development and the ability to change, “revise”, or “re-see” oneself over time. As educators, are we convinced that having the record of one’s conduct in a formal educational setting is beneficial? repressive/stifling? a blend of both? Writing to learn models would suggest that making our students’ learning visible and thus available for reflection is a good thing, however, that model is predicated on the use of informal or low stakes writing, where students express themselves and explore their thoughts and ideas without reservation or the need to perform a particular level of understanding or engagement. I’m curious what others think about this.

I’m also curious about the drawbacks of making writing the (near) exclusive mode of discourse within writing classes. Although the goal is to teach writing (among other things, like critical thinking and reading), I don’t know that I agree that that goal is necessarily best accomplished through more writing-intensive forms of instruction. Although there would seem to be a logical, one-to-one correlation, what about the fact that so much of the way our students learn to negotiate and construct meaning comes not only from their writing to or for one another (or for us for that matter), but from the informal (and more free-form) hashing out of ideas through discussion and debate? What happens to our students’ willingness to take intellectual risks (off the record, during class discussion where bodily language, physical proximity, facial expressions, and tone combine to make navigating tension or emotionally-charged discussions of complex and/or controversial material more manageable or even editable in a way that a follow up utterance can be used to revise or even help erase past comments from immediate memory)? Given the need to exercise certain constraints in order to maintain adequate control over the online learning environment (in order to prevent it from becoming too informal, at least according to Warnock’s recommendations), are we potentially at risk of over formalizing–or even to a certain degree inadvertently standardizing–our students’ responses?

Perhaps my preference for discussing ideas prior to engaging in written forms of exploration and/or reflection can be chalked up to a difference in learning style, but I do find that I’m a bit disturbed by Warnock’s emphasis on rhetorical performance—on the record, in writing—as opposed to the messiness of thinking/learning that we are supposedly encouraging our first-year students to embrace. I’m interested in kicking off a more in-depth discussion around this topic.

Consumer, Producer, Critic (Not necessarily in that order)

In her article, “Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives: Critical Lessons on Literacy,” Jennifer Stone analyzes eight popular websites that adolescents commonly use outside of school.  What’s incredible (or maybe not so incredible in this age of NCLB, that is, based on what I know about it from The New Yorker) about her study is this:  she found that students who were labeled “struggling readers” in school, spent hours outside of school reading websites full of complex sentences and vocabulary.  What’s more, these websites contained much more complicated vocabulary and syntax than the reading they were doing in school.  Her point is not to convince teachers that they should be using popular websites to teach reading and writing.  Rather, she is arguing for an expanded view of literacy, one that includes the popular websites that students read and interact with regularly. According to Stone, acknowledging students’ use of these websites as a valid literacy practice would lessen the social divide between what counts as “inside” versus “outside” the realm of school.  That is, between what counts as “real” reading and what counts as a lesser version in the minds of teachers, parents, school officials, and even students.

Stone’s push to modify the definition of reading isn’t anything new, especially in terms of critical literacy (Defined here by Ira Shor).  Rather, what has changed is the type(s) of texts that students are often reading. What Stone refers to as “intertextual connections,” is the norm in online writing and reading. Yet, she admits, “we cannot merely celebrate these literacies; nor should we destroy the pleasures of popular culture,”  but in terms of a classroom practice, she argues, “At the same time, there is certainly a need for schools to start helping students to unpack what these texts do and how they do it” (p. 61).  To me, this sounds similar to critical literacy.  In her 1994 book addressing critical reading, The Culture of Reading and the Teaching of English (link to the Google book here), Kathleen McCormick suggests that students learn to read “symptomatically.” That is, “to look for the symptoms or signs of the power and contradictions involved in that culture’s ideology” (p. 77), something Stone asks teachers and students to do more of.

Unlike critical reading in print texts, however, when students are reading on the Internet, they may comment on their friends’ and peers’ Facebook pages, or on blogs, discussion boards, and articles. They are shaping their identity through online sites via what they read, subscribe to, and post. Online, they are both consumers and producers of text.  But this doesn’t ensure that they’re acting as critics (self- or otherwise) in the sense of critical literacy. Since most, if not all, students are already using new literacies online (is that redundant?), it seems like we should be helping students to move from being consumers, to producers, to critics, in reflective, rhetorical, and reciprocal ways.

If we look at teaching critical reading in the context of new literacies, it does seem similar to critical literacy; it’s about empowering students and building their metacognitive skills.  Here, however, it is also to raise their awareness of what they’re doing on the Internet, how it works, who it benefits, and in what ways it is (and is not) beneficial to their face to face and online presence or identity.  This seems especially important in a world where “social” is not contained to an in-person community of peers, but rather, almost uncontained in an online world where each and every person is simultaneously negotiating their identity to different ends.  I think it’s important to teach and maintain a balance and an awareness of the differences between online and face-to-face worlds.  We don’t want students to believe, like Allie Brosh, that adulthood is something that can be won in one fell swoop, like a trophy, and that once won, they can go back to an unrestrained life on the Internet (see my favorite blog for Brosh’s self-reflection, “This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult”).

That said, I think that Jennifer Stone is right: it is crucial for teachers to understand how online texts “are shaping students’ literate lives,” and to be aware of institutional views of online texts that “[push] these literacies into unofficial spaces and renders them invisible” (p. 61). When these literacies are invisible, students, teachers, and school officials see them as less valuable than traditional texts (possibly even those that Stone proves to be less critical or complex than some online). This makes me wonder: if students’ understanding, reflection, and articulation of the rhetorical moves they and other online authors are making was to improve, would online literacies (even those related to popular websites) be given more credibility and become valued as school-based literacies?  For some reason, I doubt that schools will broaden their view of what it means to be literate any time soon.

Reading DIY U

Just got finished reading Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U. On the whole, I found it a worthy read, sloppy in places, but also usefully provocative. Its main value, I think, is in the early chapters, where Kamenetz traces out the causes of skyrocketing tuition costs. The upshot: a broken system of state/federal aid and loans plus the costs of “bundled” services that have nothing to do with learning. I agree that both of these things need to be fixed.

Where things get dicey is when Kamenetz starts offering recommendations. She believes that technology will save us all, both by creating more efficiencies at the institutional level and by allowing people to go all “edupunk” by bypassing institutional middle-men and going straight to all the juicy knowledge available online. Inside Higher Ed‘s “Dean Dad” has done a nice job opening up — and critiquing — Kamenetz’s brand of myopic anti-institutionalism.

My main concerns with the book have more to do with pedagogy. Kamenetz too often mistakes the delivery of static content with “learning.” Yes, there are moments when she breaks out of this pattern and advocates for “personal learning networks,” but for the most part DIY U is a love letter to things like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which collects materials from courses taught at MIT. I’ve got nothing against OCW, but access to course materials is not the same as taking a course. As I wrote in an earlier post, bad pedagogy is bad pedagogy, whether it’s in a classroom or online. The worst f2f college courses involve a professor standing in front of a large lecture hall, monotonously reading from yellowing notes that haven’t been revised in decades, and then providing no opportunity to discuss or practice what’s being “taught.” Having online access to course materials is like having access to those lecture notes, and it would be generous to call that “learning.” Continue reading

New Technologies Make Bad Teaching Slightly Worse

Okay, I know Al already linked to this piece in the Chronicle about “online learning,” but I thought I’d follow up on it. In case you missed it, there’s an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, titled “Video Lectures May Slightly Hurt Student Performance,” which reports on a published study that apparently compares learning outcomes between students who attended live lectures against those who watched the same lectures online. That study was titled “Is it Live or is it Internet? Experimental Estimate of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning,” which may explain why the Chronicle originally titled its write-up “Online Learning May Slightly Hurt Student Performance.”

Why did they change the title? Perhaps it has to do with all the subsequent reader comments to the Chronicle article pointing out the rather obvious fact that comparing outcomes associated with live lectures and video lectures has almost nothing whatsoever to do with “online learning” (I highly recommend reading the comments, which are quite entertaining). What the original study’s authors have “proven” (too generous a term without the scare quotes) is that students who watch lectures online don’t seem to get as much out of them as those who come to face-to-face lectures. Forgive me if, at this point, I can only say “well, duh.” Continue reading