My Paper for the Southern Colorado Rhetoric Society’s Symposium

In about a month, I’ll be attending my first professional conference.  I was only planning to attend.  Then I saw the title for this year’s symposium: “Agency in the 21st Century: Evolution, Collaboration & Activism in the Digital Age.”  And I thought, well golly, I think I just might have something kinda cool to say in this conversation.  They put out a call for papers, and I answered.  To my great delight, they accepted my paper and scheduled me a presentation slot.  In attendance will be peers, professors, scholars, and possibly the keynote speaker, Analouise Keating, whose work I studied in depth last year (cue butterflies in stomach).  I’ve posted my paper here.  I’m going to need to edit it for the conference (average conference-length paper is about 8 pages, and this sucker is closer to 11), and I would more than welcome any thoughts/comments/suggestions.   I’m also going to need to turn it into a snazzy PowerPoint pres, so any thoughts there would be helpful also.  So anyway, here it is, for those brave enough to slog through my writing when I’m in full-on, no-kidding academic mode.  🙂

Reframing the Rhetorical Situation: Social Networking in the Composition Classroom

While few would disagree that technology impacts the ways we teach writing, many debate the best practices for implementing technology in the classroom.  Some assert that composition classrooms lag embarrassingly far behind in terms of technology usage and that they need to “get with it” or risk losing relevance.  Others caution that teachers are implementing technology too haphazardly, without first considering its proper role in the classroom.  The recent explosion of the popularity of social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, has added a new dimension to the conversation about technology in composition.  Students compose frequently and prolifically for these sites—with a strong sense of their rhetorical situation and a high volume of feedback.  Recent studies in technology and composition have argued for increased incorporation of Web 2.0 applications, such as social networking, but many voices in the field of technology and composition have long argued for more careful planning (Hawisher and Selfe 35). While planning is essential, changes must be made.  New developments in technology have made it imperative that we reframe our students’ rhetorical stance, and I argue that one way we can achieve this goal is by meaningfully and efficiently using social networking sites in teaching writing.

An ever-widening gap currently exists between students’ academic and personal writing, and social networking can be an effective means of bridging that gap.  The report on the Pew Internet and American Life Project opens with the provocative quote, “Teens write a lot, but they do not think of their emails, instant and text messages as writing. This disconnects matters because teens believe good writing is an essential skill for success and that more writing instruction at school would help them” (Lenhart et al. 1).  Importing social networking into the composition classroom can help students see all of their writing as connected and strive to improve both the content and form of many diverse types of communication.  Kathleen Blake Yancey also addresses this issue in her article “Writing by Any Other Name.” She opens her argument with a discussion of the proliferation of writing students are doing outside of the classroom setting; they are writing as never before.  However, they fail to see a connection between the formal writing they do in school and the informal writing they do outside of school.  As Yancey states in her article “Composition in a New Key,” “Don’t you wish that the energy and motivation that students bring to some of these other genres they would bring to our writing assignments?” (298).  Writing for social networks can be the motivating factor for students by giving them a clear sense of audience and purpose and the opportunity to see how their peers respond to their writing.  This is a part of the “new model of composing for the 21st century” for which Yancey argues in “Using Multiple Technologies to Teach Writing,” a model that encourages students to view all writing as connected (27).

An essential feature of that 21st century composition classroom ought to be the social network.  Social networking sites have created students who are used to writing for an audience, writing for a clear purpose, and writing in dialogue (Pascopella and Richardson 44).  In other words, students are accustomed to writing for well-defined and engaging rhetorical situations, and they will find it difficult and perhaps de-motivating to write in abstract, monologic environments.  Some researchers argue that because peer feedback is such an essential factor in student motivation, and because it so significantly increases students’ confidence as writers, teachers have an obligation to create opportunities for regular peer feedback to occur (Lin and Chien 79).  The old ways of thinking about writing must be expanded to accommodate new media.  We as composition teachers must be aware of the abilities and interests that new media creates in our students and find ways to adapt our classrooms to meet those needs.

The first aspect of composition influenced by social networking sites is audience.  When students write for Facebook, they know their audience and they view samples of their audience’s writing on a daily basis.  When they write for composition class, their concept of audience is often vague and abstract.  Students who are accustomed to writing with such a strong sense of audience because of social networking will be more motivated when given the chance to write for specific rhetorical situations in the composition classroom.  As Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede state in their article “Representing Audience,” the audience is what “enables and constrains” the writer (814).  This enabling and constraining power is much better represented in rhetorical situations where the audience is clearly defined.  One group of researchers examined problems with student motivation in writing and found that students wrote more effectively when they operated with a sense of “social responsibility” and less effectively when motivated by desires for personal gain in the form of extrinsic reward (Hijzen et al. 673).  Writing online creates this sense of social responsibility and can therefore increase writing effectiveness.  Some would argue that the downside to this is that users feel freer, under the aegis of anonymity, to make vulgar, offensive, or deprecatory comments.  However, a private social network, such as a Ning, in which the teacher can censor user input and require users to identify themselves removes anonymity and can reduce or eliminate hateful rhetoric.

Second, social networking sites create opportunities for students to write with a purpose.  Because these sites give students such a strong sense of audience, they always write with the community in mind.  They post items that they know will receive the most comments.  This encourages them to be challenging and relevant (or sometimes arbitrary and ridiculous if they are writing solely for attention). They choose topics that are of the most concern to their community.  They write, in other words, with good kairos.  If we do not import a strong sense of rhetorical situation into our classrooms, our students will write poorly because they lack purpose.  The researchers who conducted the Pew Internet and American Life Project took an in-depth look at what motivates students to write and to want to improve their writing.  The result?  “The short answer is that writing is instrumental.  [Students] write to make something happen.  Whether for school, themselves, or a social audience of friends and family, they write to achieve a desired goal” (Lenhart et al. 64).  For many students, the desired goal is a good grade in the class, but for others, grades are too abstract; they are an insufficiently motivating factor.  And I believe that most teachers want their students to move beyond GPA and write in order to persuade, challenge, inform, argue, dialogue, and otherwise upset the status quo.  In the world of social networks, these provocative purposes hang ripe for the plucking.

Third, social networks provide a chance for students to write in dialogue.  A student who posts something on Facebook might receive a dozen comments for each sentence s/he writes, and s/he then has the opportunity to respond to those comments.  Ideas are developed, changed, or refined through this discursive dialogue.  Compare this to the typical composition classroom, where a student might receive one comment for every twenty sentences s/he writes and has no opportunity to respond to these comments.  This places a needlessly heavy burden on the composition teacher—the sole source of feedback—to leave an exhausting number of comments in order to help students improve their writing.  Social networking is a place for students to write in partnership, and the benefit of this collaboration, as Cathy Hsu explains in “Writing Partnerships,” is that it “…foster[s] frequent student-to-student conferencing, substantially increasing students’ practice with critiquing writing and with recommending actions. In a nutshell, it is flow and feedback” (153). This dialogue differs significantly from classroom discussion or even small-group work, because it is a chance for every student’s voice to be heard.  In a typical classroom setting, three or four students tend to dominate the discussion.  Social networking sites are a place where voices that are usually silent get a chance to be heard without feeling like they are being put “on the spot.”  Broadening the scope of interaction and giving voice to those who feel too intimidated to speak up in a large-group setting can greatly benefit any classroom.

Another important reason for introducing social networking into our classrooms is that it helps regain some important aspects of writing that have been nearly lost in composition instruction.  In the article “Rediscovering the ‘Back and Forthness’ of Rhetoric in an Age of YouTube” Brian Jackson and Jon Wallin argue that the dialectic nature of online writing is rapidly making the academic essay a dated mode of communication, and is reviving the deliberative aspect of rhetoric.  Teachers should infuse this “participatory culture” into instruction by providing means for dialoging about ideas (375).  I disagree with the authors that technology is making the essay outdated—the formal essay is still the centerpiece of the academy and therefore deserves a presence in the composition classroom—but I agree with the claim that dialectic argument meets the needs of a technology-driven culture.  Realizing that some might argue that the quality of expression in these online environments is superficial, Jackson and Wallin concede that teachers should not try to simply transplant online exchanges directly into the classroom.  Instead, they should find ways to implement the principles of dialogic writing that we see in the “back-and-forth rhetoric,” that takes place online (391).  With guidance, direction, and occasional correction from the teacher, students can benefit from a social network environment in which these principles thrive.  One student makes a post; another responds affirmatively.  A third student reads both posts and disagrees with them, offering a reason or two as to why their thinking is incorrect.  The first student restates her opinion more clearly and offers a counter-argument.  A fourth student allies himself with the third and presents a new aspect to the debate.  And so goes the pattern of argument plus evidence, followed by rebuttal and counterargument that creates a dynamic conversation with the added benefit of giving students the chance to carefully craft their responses before posting.

Some teachers may wonder what benefits social networking sites possess that other Web 2.0 technologies do not have.  Why a social network?  Why not a virtual learning environment, such as BlackBoard? Why not a blog?  The answer is that social networking sites are among the most practical, widely used, and dynamic classroom technologies currently available.  In his article “Implementing E-Learning and Web 2.0 Innovation: Didactical Scenarios and Practical Implications,” David Durkee argues that instructors ought to be using various Web 2.0 applications in their classrooms to facilitate learning, encourage dialogue, de-center the classroom, and enhance the technological skills that will be needed in their future professions.  He provides as evidence three examples of successful Web 2.0 integration at the University of East London: a virtual learning environment, Skype, and Facebook.  He concludes that Facebook is the most effective of these three technological tools because it allows for such a wide audience and makes possible the publication of works-in-progress that can receive feedback (299).  While I do not believe that Facebook comes equipped with all the features necessary for classroom use (its purpose is exclusively social, not academic), I do think that of all the Web 2.0 applications teachers have at their disposal—blogs, search engines, wikis, video sharing sites, etc.—social networks have the most potential for creating a dynamic, relevant classroom environment.

I am not suggesting that composition teachers should use social networking sites to replace more formal types of writing, such as essays and research papers.  However, I do think that teachers have often neglected to use technology as a means of invention—a place to form ideas, present them to an audience, get responses, hear potential objections and criticisms, and re-shape arguments.  Nadene Davidson and Jody Stone argue that technology in education needs to help students innovate, not just provide them with more information (52).  For too long, composition teachers have used the Internet almost exclusively as a tool for research and publication.  Students gather articles, pore through database results, and sometimes publish polished, essay-type blogs, but rarely do they take advantage of dialogic online environments to create, shape, and revise ideas.

Social networking sites provide a place to practice listening to and joining the conversation.  For example, one application that has gained popularity in the academic community is the Ning, a combination of blogging and social networking with complex privacy settings that make it ideal for classroom use.  In her article “Adventures in Web 2.0: Introducing Social Networking into My Teaching,” Dr. Honor Moorman narrates how she incorporated a Ning as a tool in the internship program at the International School of the Americas.  In her quest to make learning more “individual” and “authentic,” Moorman used a Ning to create a collaborative and dialogic learning environment that would help students reflect on their learning experiences as interns (1).  It was a supplement to traditional composition assignments, not a replacement for them, and made students much more engaged in and excited about the subjects of their discourse[1].

Social networking can be an asset to the classroom, but it certainly has its drawbacks and pitfalls.  First of all, unless teachers carefully plan the integration of social networks into the classroom, those networks will yield no academic advantage.  Students are accustomed to using social networks for purely social purposes, and they will continue to do so in our composition classes unless we instruct them otherwise.  In the article “Do Web 2.0 Tools Really Open the Door to Learning?” the authors argue that instructors must carefully match the technology to the appropriate pedagogical situation.  They discovered that when teachers were careless about planning the ways in which they integrated Web 2.0 tools into their teaching, the result was an environment in which “only a small number [of students] were engaging in more sophisticated activities” and that there were “only a few signs of criticality, self-management, or meta-cognitive reflection” (Luckin et al. 87).  In other words, our students are not responsible for turning social networking sites into tools for critical thinking; we are.  We must consider carefully the task we wish to accomplish through social networking, taking its limitations into account, and making it work for us and our classrooms (not the other way around).

While social networks are a prime place for invention and debate, the thinking and writing that they encourage are often fragmentary and full of errors.  On the one hand, creating an informal environment can remove the stigma of “school writing” and help students write in a creative, natural, unfettered manner.  On the other hand, part of our task as teachers of English is to teach students the language of the academy, which is the language of power and access.  In “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse,” Lisa Delpit writes, “Members of society need access to dominant discourses to (legally) have access to economic power,” (1317).  This involves mastery of the rules of correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, none of which are very evident in most online exchanges.  James Billington decries the influence of emails, instant, and text messages on our language by suggesting that these technologies are “damaging ‘the basic unit of human thought—the sentence’” (qtd. in Lenhart et al. 2).  I propose that composition teachers take a middle ground.  It would be foolish to insist that students adhere to all the rules of proper English while communicating in an informal medium; we have to relax the rules a bit if we want to use these sites as a motivational tool.  I would not go as far as Billington and say that new technologies are damaging English.  They are certainly changing our language, but that is nothing new; English has been changing since its beginning.  If we provide a venue for students to express themselves comfortably while also helping them elevate their prose to the level the academic community requires, we can motivate them to write while helping them to become better writers.

Another issue that composition teachers must consider before implementing social networking in the classrooms is the issue of access.  Social networks are meant to be a tool of inclusion, giving normally reticent students a chance to be heard.  However, if used incorrectly, social networks can be a tool of alienation and exclusion.  As ubiquitous as cell phones and ipods may seem in most teenagers’ lives, not all teens have equal access to technology.  The Pew Internet Project found that while 94% of teens use the Internet or email, only 86% of those whose household income is less than $30,000 a year have Internet access.  The numbers are even more troubling when it comes to those with broadband access, which is almost a necessity for navigating the Internet today: only 48% of those from low-income households have broadband access, compared to the overall average of 66%.  Technology can also ostracize minority students, as only 56% of African-American students have broadband access at home, compared to 70% of white students.  The Internet has the potential to promote equality and diversity, creating a space for all voices to be heard, but it also has the potential to alienate students who have not always had technology in their homes.  The problem is that since most teens are more comfortable around technology than many adults, we have come to expect students to enter our classes with a thorough knowledge of basic software and web applications.  As the Pew Internet Project Report states, “technology is increasingly found in the classroom, and teachers and schools often expect students to have access and prior exposure to technology in addition to the training they receive in school” (Lenhart et al. 14).  This hasty generalization on our part can create a frustrating or even embarrassing situation for the student who has not grown up around technology and is therefore unfamiliar with it.  Conversely, a teacher who walks into a classroom where a majority of students are unfamiliar with technology will find herself frustrated or embarrassed if she implements social networking too hastily.  A thorough understanding of students’ prior exposure to technology is essential.  This can take the form of an informal, in-class survey, parent-teacher conferences, or a form that families submit prior to enrollment.  In any case, it is essential that teachers take into account each student’s previous experience and provide students with the opportunity for adequate training in technology before using it in the classroom.

It is also essential for us as composition teachers to not ignore what is happening on the Internet and to try to find ways to bridge the gap between what’s happening in the world of Web 2.0 and what’s happening in the classroom.  Most students are writing online as never before, and we have before us a golden opportunity to harness the enormous motivational power of this online writing for the composition classroom.  We must avail ourselves of every chance to reframe the rhetorical situation in response to changes in culture, because we have a responsibility to learn the language of our students and to teach them in ways that reach them where they are today.


[1] In the Ning I use in my composition classroom, students watch videos and follow links that I have posted.  By watching, reading, and listening to this material, students get a feel for the current conversation on a particular topic and then have the chance to voice their own opinion.  They comment on the links or videos they found most intriguing, add to and begin discussions in the forum, and reply to each other’s comments.  What happens is a lively, class-wide, discursive discussion that gets students writing in earnest dialogue with the sources and with each other.

Bibliography available on request.

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