Tag Archives: digital rhetoric

NCTE Assembly for Research Materials

Headed to Elmhurst College for the NCTE-AR Midwinter conference — looking forward to it! This is actually the second time I will have been to a conference at Elmhurst College; I attended CEE 2009 there as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to the same place twice for a conference. This career first goes to Elmhurst!

I wanted to provide conference participants with my talk materials in case they find them helpful. I also link to these materials in my CV. I made a Prezi for the first time for this conference — don’t judge my Prezi skills. The non-linear presentation is one digital literacy I am definitely still working on.

And here is a link to my talk transcript, as well.

Pimps, Social Networks, and Education: Oh My.

Sometimes, I get to spend most of my day at home. Today became one of those days when mother nature decided to dump much snow on my little corner of the earth. This was our backyard this morning:


Isn’t it so pretty? (note: I only think it’s pretty when I get to sit inside and hide from it).

On these days that I get to spend at home, staring out the window and thinking about how lucky I am that I can sit and write all day, I make lunch for myself. And one of my favorite things to do when I eat said lunch is to read the headlines and click around on CNN.com. It makes me feel like I’m aware of things that are going on in the world, even if only for the brief moments when I am eating my amazing homemade lunch (today: udon noodle soup in homemade turkey broth. yum.)

One of today’s headlines, front and center on CNN’s main page:

Pimps hit social networks to recruit underage sex workers!

Alright, yes, I added the exclamation point for rhetorical effect. But it was a pretty shocking headline. Given my recent complaint about tech fear run rampant in the media, I had to read the article. Would it be yet another manifesto on the evils of social media? I had to find out.

The piece chronicles a problem that is evidently rampant on social networking sites in which pimps are finding 15-and-up girls to traffic to men. These pimps attract young women with alluring (grammatically twitch-inducing) messages like this:


…and girls are falling for it. The author gives the example of one girl whose mother had been recently arrested for “financial crimes.” Apparently, this girl’s “deteriorating family life left her with a sense of desperation. She was smitten, and willing to do anything for the man she thought loved her. So she stayed.”

My tone so far might suggest that I’m poking fun at girls like “Nina” here, who fall for men like “Rain” (seriously? and that’s the actual name he used!) because they are looking for father figures or are trying to right some sort of horrendous wrong that has happened in their lives. This is not my intention. I do, however, mean to point out the ludicrousness of situations like this, situations that I think could be in some way remedied by teaching today’s students how to be critical users of online spaces like Facebook or Twitter, which are apparently two of the prime sites for these pimps’ recruiting operations.

Would these girls have fallen into similar destructive situations without the help of social media? Without the intervention of adults (often teachers) who pay attention and care about them, it seems likely. Teens who are this desperate for love and affection will often find ways to get it, even if those ways are as tragic and as horrifying as selling themselves or obeying the orders of some jerk named “Rain.” This article actually didn’t annoy me as much as some of the ones I noted in my previous post, mostly because the author takes the time to point out that the use of social media is really an old trick using new tools, and that web companies like Facebook “take human trafficking very seriously” (…uh, I should hope so?!) and have instituted means to detect it and shut it down. In other words, the article isn’t solely blaming social media for the ills in our society, but actually seems to suggest we might be responsible for some of our own nonsense (novel, eh?).

What I detect in news stories like this, though, is an undercurrent of fear in our society about social media corrupting the innocence of children. I mentioned recently that I’m reading Nancy Baym’s book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. In it, Baym notes that one of the common discourses in the early take-up of new technologies is one of moral panic,  or fears that “form in dystopian rhetorics” and “can lead to important policy decisions at personal, household, governmental, and design levels” (41). Such rhetorics, Baym argues, “often focus on the well-being of children, and especially on the well-being of teenage girls (my emphasis). 

My concern is that stories like this do lead to policies that could potentially be counter-productive to curbing situations like this, where young girls are targeted and taken advantage of by online predators. I see this in multiple schools where certain social media sites are banned or blocked by the school’s servers, or where teachers are discouraged from using social media in their work with students for fear of somehow damaging authoritative relationships with students. Concerns I understand, but feel are counter-productive to the instruction of digital literacies.

In case you’re wondering what these media outlets want us to do to protect children, the piece links to the FBI’s tip sheet for protecting kids from these online predators.

I have news for the FBI: this list is kind of unrealistic for the parents (or teachers) of teenagers. Here are a few of my favorite bits of advice from our friends down at the Federal Bureau of Investigation:

  • Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep your Internet computer in an open, common room of the house.
  • Only allow your kids to post photos or any type of personally identifying information on websites with your knowledge and consent.
  • Make it a rule with your kids that they can never give out personal information or meet anyone in person without your prior knowledge and consent. If you agree to a meeting between your child and someone they met online, talk to the parents/guardians of the other individual first and accompany your kids to the meeting in a public place.
  • Check your kids’ profiles and what they post online.
  • Don’t forget cell phones! They often have almost all the functionality of a computer.

No — none of these are “bad” things to do. Heck, if you can manage to accomplish all of these things as a parent, I applaud you. Have you met a teenager? The whole “your knowledge and consent” thing tends to go against the standard operating procedure of most teenagers. Furthermore, I tutor teenagers who have their own computers and smartphones and who are perfectly responsible digital citizens. Having a single family computer in a communal area of the house worked when I was a kid and needed to type a grand total of one paper per semester — it’s completely unrealistic today, when students have their own tablets and laptops and in many cases need them to do their schoolwork. Keeping an eye on every single one of your child’s accounts and profiles, requiring access to your child’s devices and accounts, and constantly checking everything your kid posts online is becoming less realistic for today’s parents. And, I would argue, it’s not entirely necessary.

Instead, how about paying attention to the few nuggets of advice the FBI gives us that are actually worth listening to:

  • Instruct your kids to use privacy settings to restrict access to profiles so only the individuals on their contact lists are able to view their profiles.
  • Educate yourself on the websites, software, and apps that your child uses.
  • Visit social networking websites with your kids, and exchange ideas about acceptable versus potentially risky websites.
  • Encourage your kids to consider whether a message is harmful, dangerous, hurtful, or rude before posting or sending it online, and teach your kids not to respond to any rude or harassing remarks or messages that make them feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused and to show you the messages instead.

When it comes down to it, we don’t need to police kids’ uses of the Internet. While some supervision is certainly necessary, especially as kids are just beginning to spread their digital wings (so to speak), 24-7 policing of kids’ digital activities is downright unrealistic, if not impossible. And this approach definitely would not have helped “Nina,” whose Mom was in jail when Nina got recruited for prostitution.

Instead, maybe it’s time digital awareness became part of the curriculum at school and part of the conversation at home. As the CNN article states, throwing one’s hands up and saying they “don’t know how” to use the tech our kids are using is no longer an acceptable excuse. We live in a digital world, folks, and just like in an analog world, the tools we have can be put to horrifying uses when we don’t help kids learn how to integrate them into their lives in smart and responsible ways.

Am I worried about pimps online? Not as worried as I am that we’re not teaching these young teenage women, and their male counterparts, how to be good digital citizens.

Digital Composition in the Teacher Ed Classroom

I have needed — wanted — to blog this past week, but haven’t for two reasons:

  1. I felt like I should blog about the Chicago teacher’s strike, but haven’t been keeping up like I should be.
  2. Time. Hence, (1).

So I’m not going to blog about the strike, but this morning granted me a drizzly day and a little bit of time (that, yes, I should probably be spending elsewhere) to check my feeds and wait for the green radar blob to pass over Ann Arbor before my run, so here I am. And instead of blogging about the strike, I’m going to engage this post from Sweetland’s Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, “Creating an Ebook and Mobile App Multimedia Authoring Course: Getting Started.” Murray’s been tasked with designing a course for his department surrounding the development of ebooks/mobile apps, and as we all do when we design a course, needs to ask: “What do I want students to learn and why?”

A much harder question, when teaching with digital media, than it might sometimes seem, and one I’ve been grappling with since my move from the composition classroom into working with pre-service English teachers.

It’s a difficult question in part because there are so many potential goals one might have for authorship in digital, hypertextual spaces, and these goals depend on one’s teaching context. These goals could be functional; when you ask students to set goals for themselves on projects like this, they often set functional goals first. “I want to learn how to use iMovie” has been a common one in my classroom — okay, but how do you know you’ve “learned how to use iMovie?” is my typical response. But perhaps the teacher’s goal really is to teach students “how to” do something in a digital authorship space. For example, this semester my pre-service English teacher folks are designing WordPress sites where they will archive teaching artifacts, blog about their experiences in their field placements, and post things like CVs and teaching philosophies. One of my goals is for them to actually learn “okay, here’s how I navigate WordPress” and “holy cow, there’s this thing called WordPress that I could totally use in my classroom!”

Or your goals might be rhetorical. As Murray notes,

Students who author in any kind of digital environment are being especially asked to compose in more than one mode, forcing them to think about rhetorical issues of design as well as content. The more practice students get in doing this, the better. Students must be aware of and be able to manage discursive AND non-discursive textual production.

The follow-up question is inevitably and of course, “why?” For my pre-service teachers, headed into teaching environments where making time for assignments that require students to engage in rhetorical decision-making gets eclipsed by time spent preparing students for the ACT, they will need to not only be able to say this is important, but to say why it’s important. Which means I need to be able to say why it’s important for pre-service teachers to learn. Which I still struggle with.

I suppose in part I engage my students with digital composition in pre-service courses because I want them to think rhetorically about how they present themselves as teachers to the world — today, teachers either get upheld in heartwarming films that depict the teacher as self-sacrificing hero (there’s a new one coming out… sigh), or they get denigrated by a media that wants to blame teachers for the world’s ills (see: all coverage of CPS strike). My students need to know how to present themselves as teachers to the public in ways that are both professional and personable. Teachers make rhetorical decisions all day long — in the graphic organizers they design for third period, in the presentation they prepare for staff members at the end of the day, in their correspondences with parents, in the design of their classroom websites, in the way they word and present assignments to students. These things get eclipsed in a lot of teacher education classrooms, but engaging with digital media composition makes those decisions more conscious, more surface-level.

Or, your goals might be critical. You might want students to question the role of particular technologies/apps/etc. in their lives. As Murray puts it, you might want students to “think more critically of the applications they see daily and ask questions regarding their purpose, intended audience, design, functionality/usability, and, ultimately, rhetorical affordances. The app may function, but to what ends and for whom?” This is a very real part of teaching — so many teachers are faced with moments where administrators or other teachers present a new program, a new technology, accompanied by “oooo check out this cool new thing we’re now going to use in all the classrooms!” Too many terrible technologies are being lobbed at teachers these days. I’m thinking, in particular, of my own experiences with Criterion, an automated essay evaluator/grader that I was told I must use during my first two years of teaching. At first, my critical digital literacies weren’t up to snuff — I didn’t have the skills to look at the technology and ask “to what ends and for whom?” By the time I had earned a master’s degree and worked with it for two years, Criterion all but made me nauseous. My hope is that it won’t take my students two years and an advanced degree to ask questions like this in their careers.

Alright, drizzle has subsided — time for a run. As always, DRC has given me much to think about today.

An hour and a half later…

It rained on me anyway. Oh well. 🙂

Focusing on the Background

This interesting article about the role of language in the search results we get from online engines like Google caught my attention today as I was meandering through my RSS feeds (something I shouldn’t have been doing, especially on the first day of the semester when I have so many other things that I should probably be taking care of).

Hale points out that the language we use to search for something matters, because the way many images/documents/pages are indexed are specific both to the search engine and to the actual language used to conduct the search (i.e. English, Chinese, German) — he gives the Tianaman Square Google Image search example, which is quite striking (check out the piece to see his example). I like stumbling across pieces like these because they serve as reminders of just how much of our online/digital experiences get filtered through the creations, imaginations, and even manipulations of others. It’s something that’s surprisingly easy to forget.

For example, here I sit, writing this post in my WordPress blog, and though I can change some of the settings (I know a little html — *polishes nails on shirt*), I am still restrained by the “theme” I chose, its parameters, and the options granted me by the wonderful people at WordPress, wherever they might sit. I have chosen this platform for my blog from among many other platforms, but by choosing it, I give up some of the freedom I might otherwise have by html-ing the whole darn thing (which I have done and have decided is not worth my time). I save time, but with that saved time comes a price; I filter all that I say through the options granted me by my this space and my moderate knowledge of how to manipulate it.

This “filtering” is perhaps even more evident to me in my teaching, when I make choices about which platforms to use with students. Michigan just “went Google” (and trust me, it was indeed a “going”… some people feel like we “went” a bit too far). Google docs is a major part of my teaching. GoogleSites could be, but I don’t use it often because of accessibility limitations (apparently it’s not intuitively laid out for people with visual impairments who use screen readers. This is something I learned recently). WordPress is a major part of my teaching. All free services, which is great for teachers — but with freedom comes a price, and I always wonder about the filters out there that influence our web experience — background information that we don’t even think about… like language.

So this post is a call for teachers and researchers out there to keep in mind, as we head into this new year, that there’s no such thing as “free,” that somewhere someone is making decisions that will influence what kind of webspaces your students can create for themselves, what images will pop up when you do a Google search, or what web-based capital gets extended to which people. I’m not suggesting anyone throw up their hands and quit using these “free” resources. Nor am I arguing that we should all learn html and code our own websites (because let’s face it, we’re not gonna). I think it’s important that we ask ourselves, as we make decisions about technology, why we’re making that decision; who we become beholden to as a result; what limitations we place on ourselves; and what motives, interests, or ideologies might lie in the background.

Words I/We Use to Talk About Tech & Text

In a post on Sweetland’s Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, Claire Lauer discusses the difficulty of “pinning down” the words we use to talk about digital media/new media/digital writing/multimodality/multimedia texts. I share her interest in investigating the definitions we use — as a PhD student, I’m constantly asked to explain what I mean when I say anything. Words I’ve had to try to define in the process of defending my ideas include:

  • Identity (ugh, so much time spent on that one)
  • Space
  • Navigation
  • Practice
  • New Media
  • Digital Writing
  • Digital
  • Writing (yes. together and separately.)
  • Relationship
  • Interaction
  • Experience

…Among others. Definitions matter. What you mean when you say particular words matters for your readers and listeners. Much as we sometimes want to scream when someone says, “what do you mean when you say ___?,” this is a valuable question to ask ourselves and others. We position ourselves in particular discourse communities when we choose to say “digital writing” instead of “new media,” when we say “multimodal” instead of “multimedia,” just like when we say “identity” instead of “subjectivity.” Indeed, I found myself recently asking a few of my colleagues to explain what they meant when they used the word skill instead of strategy, because these words mean two different things to me, but in other contexts are used interchangeably. I’ve caught the definition bug of academia, it seems.

Lauer, at the end of her post, challenges us to grapple with questions about why these definitional differences matter so much in our field. 

  • What technology-related terms do you use in your research? Teaching? Administration?  How do you define those terms?  How have those definitions evolved?
  • What are your reactions to what is being said in these excerpts?  What can you relate to?  Agree with?  Disagree with?  Approach differently?
  • Should we reach consensus on our understanding of these terms, even partially?  What do we risk by doing so?  What do we risk by NOT doing so?
  • Why are definitions important?  Why do they matter?

Well, when it comes to tech-related terms, I talk about “digital writing” in my own research, and I tend to agree in general with Anne Wysocki’s definition of new media from Lauer’s webtext (note, this is spoken word) (another note: check out this webtext. It’s awesome.):

So new media result from digitization, entail using code to control the presentation and distribution of media, so I needed to pull in code; depend on digital networks, so pulling in the networked aspect of it. Because again, I worked on this sort of backwards: what are the texts that technical communicators need to know about, what characterizes them? So digitality, networks, are faster than print media, that seemed, I mean it seems sort of trivial, and yet that feeds into what comes next: enabled different kinds of interactivity than print media, are becoming ubiquitous, and that’s it.

I have read other definitions from Anne Wysocki that contrast this one considerably, notably in the book Writing New Media, where new media is defined more aesthetically/materially, but this is the one I like. Why? Because I’m interested in the digital aspect of new media — not the materiality of multiple media (which could include, say, chalk), but the digital, networked media of our modern world. The fast, interactive “stuff” of our plugged-in 21st-century society. That’s the “part” of “new media” that I study (if new media has parts), so this is the term I cling to.

I deliberately do not use the term “new media” in my research. This is a conscious choice. I don’t judge those who do use this term (I have good friends who do), but I don’t use it because it doesn’t serve my purposes. First of all, I don’t consider a lot of the “new media” that get called “new media” very “new,” at all, so I don’t understand the term on that level. But, perhaps more tellingly, I choose not to use the term “new media” because I work primarily in a secondary education / social science world, where terms like “new media” are not as widely “understood” (whatever that means) as are terms like “multimodal” or “multimedia.” I don’t like these two terms, either, though — they are not specific enough for me, and I’ve struggled forever to figure out what the difference is (I’ve had it explained to me a number of times and know where to look for the distinction — but it just won’t stick). So I straddle the fence, choose the term “digital,” tack on the word “writing” (because I do mean to emphasize practices that involve self-expression via the written word), and call it a day. Sometimes when I find “writing” too constraining, I’ll say “digital media,” but I often use the word “digital,” partially to distance myself from conversations about materiality (which I think is very important but which is not part of my immediate project) or to avoid the (perceived, by me anyway) nebulousness of the term “new media.”

Lauer asks us: do we need to reach consensus? I don’t think so. I think we risk losing some of the nuance of exactly that internal battle that I just described when we try to decide “what to call” any one thing. However, my position assumes that these battles are valuable in some way. Are they? If we all just agreed, “this is what new media is,” “this is what digital means,” and “this is what counts as multimodal or multimedia,” wouldn’t that make our lives easier? Well, first of all, that might be a futile question. After all, humanities scholars and social science scholars eventually agreed to disagree about the words subjectivity and identity, and the literature I’ve read on both sides still hasn’t reached a consensus about what those two words mean. “Partial consensus” might be possible, and I think that in some circles and some subgroups of new media studies/new literacy studies/digital literacies/digital media — whatever — some of this is beginning to happen. For example, in my consideration of which term to use, I position myself within the world of new media scholarship by choosing instead the term “digital writing,” more common in conversations about secondary English teaching.

I think what’s most important is for us to recognize the benefits and drawbacks of the terms we use to talk about new media/digital media/digital writing/multimodality… and so on. We need to carefully consider what we mean when we use one term, define what we mean by it, and acknowledge its limitations. We need to work together as a community to develop more robust, meaningful definitions of these terms, engage in friendly debate about their usefulness, and (as Lauer has encouraged), even engage in friendly debates about how to have friendly debates about these terms. I enjoyed working my way through her digital text, contemplating her questions, and hashing my way through this response. Reflections like these drive the community, I think, to new ways of thinking about writing and its many media.