Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Digital Rhetoric

My first website
I am a geek.  In 1998 the professor of my American Women Writers course announced that our final course project could be submitted in a creative format and flippantly gave the suggestion of creating a web page.  My ears perked up.  A web page?  How hard could that be?  So I signed up for a free Geocities account and sat down to learn HTML programming code. What can I say?  I enjoy a puzzle, and that’s exactly what designing my first website was for me - a puzzle.  I researched other sites, looked at the placement of text and images, learned the code to add in backgrounds, lists, and most importantly to add in hyperlinks, and hit publish.  It likely took me three or four times as long as my fellow graduate students, many of whom put together traditional literary analysis essays or lesson plans, to complete both the design and the writing that went along with my project, but I can now point to that moment as the start of something significant.  As I worked on that first site, I not only wrote and revised a traditional essay, utilizing what some might think of as the more traditional rhetoric and composition skills, but I also had to reflect on how my medium affected my message.  Taking into consideration who my anticipated reader was and how that reader would engage with my website, I made revisions to the images that I used, the introductory message, the organization of my pages and ideas.  I was forced to think critically about my audience and about my purpose.  And in making those considerations about the digital components, I also went back and revised my composition while keeping in mind my audience and purpose.  My medium informed my message.

Bringing digital writing into our classrooms opens up new opportunities for students to write and engage with authentic readers.  As teachers we can guide our students to think critically about the choices made by the authors of digital texts.  We can address a variety of learning styles through the use of digital texts, meeting the needs of verbal, visual, and aural learners. Through careful selection of digital mentor texts by teachers, students use digital models to help them craft and produce writing for real audiences in ways that engage readers outside the walls of the classroom.  Digital writing extends our learning about rhetorical choices. Technology opens up a world of writing possibilities.

And our classrooms are filled with technology.  The smartphone in the hoodie pocket of my student sitting in the front row of class has more memory than my first computer. Students are eager to use technology to learn both inside and outside of our classrooms.  Yet, perhaps the most commonly voiced frustration about incorporating technology into instruction is “I don’t have time.” I don’t have time to add in another thing to my already packed curriculum.  I don’t have time to learn Screencast-o-matic, and then teach it to my students.  Technology should not be an addition to what we are already doing to teach rhetoric and composition. Instead, digital tools help us engage students more deeply and critically in their examination and creation of texts.  It is not an addition; it is a refocusing.  As Mary Hocks writes in her article "Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments" published over a decade ago in the journal College Composition and Communication, “I believe that teaching digital rhetoric requires profound changes in how all of us think about both writing and pedagogy: Critiquing and producing writing in digital environments actually offers a welcome return to rhetorical principles and an important new pedagogy of writing as design” (632).

Hocks outlines how digital texts, more so than linearly printed texts, offer opportunities for the readers to more readily examine their stance as an audience for the reading.  She states, “Audience stance describes how the work visually gives the readers a sense of agency and possibilities for interactive involvement” (635). We take this for granted in printed texts.  Similarly, the ideas of transparency and hybridity, as shown through her example texts, demonstrate how use of digital texts can call student readers and writers to examine rhetorical choices that are often overlooked or taken for granted in traditional print writing. As such, Hocks asserts that through the critique of digital texts, students are more readily able to examine the rhetorical stance of the author/creator. It is through use of visual rhetoric in addition to more traditional textual critique that students have opportunities to engage more deeply in the critical examination of text production. Using these digital texts as models for their own work, students move from simply being consumers of knowledge to designers of it, and as such engage in those higher-order thinking activities teachers strive to facilitate.

But technology can be daunting for the uninitiated teacher and student.  Yet as Hocks’ essay points out, it’s not really about the tech.  Her focus, like ours as writers and teachers of writing, is on the craft and critical thinking that goes into writing and the production of meaning. Her essay does not delve into how to move images on a website or how to code.  Yet this is often what will shut educators down from attempting to use or create digital texts - the fear of tech.  How do we help those new to reading and creating digital spaces understand that it is not an additional app that we need to learn/teach but a changing set of rhetorical skills?
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