MLA Seattle 2012

I have just returned from the Modern Language Association conference in Seattle, WA. This was my third time attending MLA, but my first time presenting. To my surprise our panel (abstracts found here: Conference Program) had a huge audience, in which every seat  was filled and many people were standing in the back. The audience was also extremely receptive and asked pertinent, thoughtful questions after our roundtable presentations. I must say that I strongly encourage you to contact Steven Alvarez if you are interested in digital pedagogy; his presentation was impressive to say the least.

Before I get to my presentation, I would be remiss not to mention that I had an wonderful experience at this conference. I met several senior scholars whose work influences my own, and not only were they not dismissive (as the myth of MLA goes), they took the time to speak with me at length, and offered valuable insight to me in our discussions.  I am especially grateful to Stacey Lee DonohueAlex Reid, Liz Losh, Andrew Stauffer, and Bethany Nowviskie for their guidance. I also attended some excellent panels on the digital humanities, the future of publishing, alt-ac (alternative academic careers), and digital pedagogy including electronic roundtables which proved that a traditional academic conference can be interactive and engaging.

As one final note, congratulations to all of the Graduate Center students and alumni who both presented and interviewed at the MLA 2012. I believe we had a powerful and positive presence.

Now, without further ado, here is the text and accompanying media of my presentation:

Revolutionary Methods: Effectively Integrating Web 2.0 Technologies in the Composition Classroom

 In their collaborative text The Future of Thinking, Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg argue that “many of the current conventional institutions of learning (both K–12 and higher education) do not fully, creatively, or completely address their students’ needs and interests. We continue to push old, uniform, and increasingly outdated educational products on young learners at their—and, by implication, society’s—peril” (24). When I hear faculty members admonishing students for using Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in the classroom, I am concerned about the long-term effects of these policies in higher education, especially in writing-based classrooms. I am not alone in this concern, James Purdy and others have argued that by dissuading or forbidding students from using Web 2.0 technologies we are missing an opportunity to capitalize on student’s experiences (1). Many college students use these sites both as sources of information and as places to compose. Often, because these sites provide a discourse community the student has come to recognize as familiar, students develop important literacy skills through their use of Web 2.0 technologies. Recently, research on digital or media literacies has shown that expert opinions vary as to what aspects of digital literacy are actually valuable to students; ranging from a critical consumption to being able to use the tools of production (Hobbs 2004, Livingstone 2004). In my experience, students who regularly participate in social networking have a working knowledge of audience awareness, contextualization, persuasion, and attribution.

Davidson and Goldberg rightly ask what the implications will be if we do not address the way our students learn and interact in a Web 2.0 world, but more importantly I wonder what the consequences are when we forbid, ostracize, or worse, punish, our students for using Web 2.0 technologies for academic purposes. Frankly, the rise in plagiarism, especially the frequent occurrence of Frankenstein papers cut and pasted from various online sources without citation, seems to me a clear result of these closed-minded policies. These results stem from not only the “outdated education products” we ask our students to produce – the traditional research paper for example – but also the outdated methods we ask them to employ when creating those products. Scholarly research (and writing) in our Internet-enabled age is unmistakably different; from inception to completion, from the undergraduate level to the professional level. If we are no longer conducting our own research as academics in the same way, why are we insisting our students do so? This question is not unique to this panel, but I am hoping that my response in the form of reimagining the research process in my undergraduate composition course will provide an example of how we can address our student’s needs in the Web 2.0 world by inviting rather than forbidding the use of social networking sites in the classroom.

Literacy is the primary goal in my composition classroom. Manipulated, appropriated, and redefined, this term no longer holds an agreed upon meaning within academia or in our culture at large. I would like to move beyond Steven Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics, “a version of cultural rhetoric studies that focuses on the tropes, arguments, and narratives constituting the interpretations of texts at specific times and places” (41), to Scribner and Cole’s notion of a “literacy practice,” as the situated use of a “combination of technology, knowledge, and skills” and the application of this knowledge “for specific purposes in specific contexts of use” (235). I particularly like this language because I believe students benefit from a multimodal literacy practice in which they analyze both traditional and non-traditional texts for the purpose of forming a multivalent understanding of the event, conflict, or problem they are exploring. This conception of literacy as a practice then trains students to analyze both verbal and visual rhetoric and then compose a response through synthesis; this is an interdisciplinary approach that strives to develop sustainable, life-long skills.

Understanding and negotiating the balance between my student’s cultural awareness and their limited experience analyzing those cultural influences seems of particular importance during this time of world-wide political unrest. When teaching in Northeast Pennsylvania, my students were isolated and therefore separated from centers of political unrest both geographically and ideologically, while my students in New York City are immersed in demonstrations physically and mentally without escape. In my experience, neither urban nor rural composition students are equipped to analyze the cultural influences that control their rapidly changing worlds, and therefore are reluctant to participate in these critical conversations. To empower my students, I designed a composition course that exposes my students to the riots and revolutions that have drastically altered our world, culturally and politically, throughout the last fifty years, and invites students to analyze the rhetoric and situation surrounding these events as conveyed through the use of both traditional and new media sources.

<Here I distributed OWS posters, played the videos, etc>

This assignment sequence works to scaffold the learning process by integrating the skills many students practice outside of the classroom into a critical literacy practice that can be used to produce focused, sophisticated, and well-developed research projects. By focusing my composition course on radical political movements, I am able to direct attention to the ways in which cultures produce and consume these materials.  My students – particularly those isolated geographically – have trouble identifying major political movements of the last 50 years, so as you can see, I have distributed material produced by the Occupy Wall Street, specifically the Occupy CUNY movement in order to demonstrate this exercise.  Consider the riots and revolutions that have occurred world-wide in your lifetime, and perhaps make note of your answers to these questions:

○        Who was involved in the protests? Was a specific demographic in terms of age, race, or sexuality dominant or absent from these protests?

○        What language stands out to you as representative of these protests (such as catch phrases, headlines, song lyrics)? Through what mediums were these messaged conveyed?

○        Did these riots or revolutions have a lasting cultural or political effect in the country in which they occurred?

Through examining these cultural artifacts, students begin to identify the ways in which they are influenced by texts that convey a situated rhetoric.

In this course I model this work with Anna Deavere Smith’s one-women play Twilight Los Angeles,1992; a play that highlights questions of dialect, authenticity, and representation due to its complexity of its formal elements. In this book, Smith strives to present a more complete, accurate, and unmediated account of the riots following the Rodney King trial in 1992 through a sampling of interviews which showcase a range of perspectives on this historic event. The play juxtaposes the highly publicized statements of politicians and Hollywood celebrities with the underrepresented and marginalized voices of the gang members and store owners, which appear verbatim in colloquial language with phonetic spellings to preserve their authenticity. By weighing  the book and documentary against outside sources such as news coverage found on YouTube, and accounts of the riots found through scholarly databases (for example the critical responses of scholars such as Cornel West) and online searches, this first assignment provides an alternate methodology that works to create a histographic account. The students must assess the reliability and bias of each source when constructing their response, a skill that becomes essential as they begin to create their own historiographies.

The next phase of this assignment sequence asks students to enact similar methods to those used to compose Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 in order to examine the 2009 Iran elections. However, instead of personal interviews, the students use social media outlets as their primary research material. Called the “Twitter Revolution” in the mass media, this particular social upheaval lends itself to integrating social media into the composition classroom. As a class we discuss the conventions used on social media sites like Twitter, such as the identity formation evident in a user profile, the creation of categories through hashtags, the integration of outside sources through hyperlinks, and the system of attribution found in standard form of retweets. We also explore similar conventions on sites such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and Myspace.  Studying social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook  helps students draw on the “tacit skills of rhetorical analysis” which has been proven in studies such as those done by Jane Mathison Fife (561). In addition, it helps them to develop a more critical stance toward a popular literacy they participate in regularly and to appreciate its complexity.

Through this investigation students are able to identify the major points of conflict and the leaders of the movement, while establishing a timeline of events associated with the revolution by noting patterns in what information disseminated rapidly across platforms. By comparing the conflicting sources the students evaluate the authenticity of the information. Most of this work happens when students follow links from social media post to the blogs, news channels, and government sponsored sites from which they originate.  Essentially they are employing the tools of traditional rhetorical analysis by evaluating information based on the logos, ethos, and pathos of these non-traditional sources. The hope is that students will see how critical it is to investigate the information they encounter outside the classroom – be it generated by the media, their peers, their community, or their government. It also demonstrates how powerful these modes of communication can be in our current political climate. After exploring a wide swath of sources, the student must narrow their focus to a particular perspective: an individual “Tweeter” or blogger, a specific reporter or photographer, an American or Iranian politician, etc. and examine the motivations and desired outcomes from this point of view. The essay assignment asks them to employ Smith’s methods by articulating the role this individual played in the revolution, exposing the assumptions and reliability behind their rhetoric, as well as focusing on how the individual used technology to influence the riots.

Ultimately, students create final projects by investigating a riot or revolution of their choice, using both traditional and digital research methods to create annotated bibliographies, research papers, and multimedia presentations. While I choose the subjects of the first two series of assignments purposely to expose the students to controversies that are foreign to them, this final series allows them to investigate a conflict they are personally invested in. I scaffold this narrative relationship to the events by assigning reflective work throughout the course which asks students to apply the questions of social and institutional injustice raised by the revolutions to their experiences. Due to this personal connection to their research,  not only does the project lead to discoveries about the nature of freedom in our current political climate and the power of social media, it also enhances the student’s ability to use persuasive rhetoric – both written and visual. For example, one student presented on the genocide in Darfur as preparation for applying to volunteer in Africa, another student presented on the White Night Riots because he had been persecuted for being gay in his community and wanted a future in politics, and yet another student who was in ROTC facing deployment to Afghanistan presented on the Kent State riots to defend the actions of the students.

Even more amazing are the discoveries students made when researching and composing their multimedia presentations. One student discovered that the logo of the Weatherman is an exact match to the iconography of the Obama campaign, and another discovered that their family was present when the Berlin Wall was torn down (and brought in a piece to show the class).

The process helps them develop critical skills that enhances their academic and professional practices as they move forward in their careers; many student take acquire enhanced reading and writing skills as well as new technological skills. The value in teaching these multiple literacy is not only evident in the course evaluations in which students explicitly express gratitude, but also through the responses of their professors in other courses who have invited me to hold workshops for students and faculty after witnessing the abilities of my students in their classrooms.

4 Replies to “MLA Seattle 2012”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Amanda! I’m going to point my colleagues at COCC here next week to illustrate your use of social media as a way of having students do “real” research. Look out for MLA13’s call for papers: i know that the Committee on Community Colleges and/or the Two Year Discussion Group will be seeking proposals on new approaches to the traditional researched essay: I suspect you have many “new” approaches in mind!

  2. Thanks for posting this as it’s food for thought. Directed here through Stacey’s tweets (Grad Center classmates). I teach at BMCC, so incorporated OWS into my comp course as well. One thing I find is that many of my students in NYC are not as techno oriented as I am. Many are on FB, but Twitter, Tumblr and other sites are grey areas to them. I do like to introduce them to Twitter, and we often spend time following links, but in a less formal manner. I suspect I’ll be piggy backing on many of the ideas I see here in the context of our department’s composition course outlines.

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