MLA 2018

“Hacking Grading”
Instructor feedback on writing can have an immense impact on students. Research on writing pedagogy demonstrates that students need and appreciate thoughtful feedback on their drafts in order to grow as writers. Ideally, we would be able to have one-on-one conferences with every student at every stage of writing every assignment. But due to heavy teaching loads, increasing class sizes, and limited office space/time, this is not possible for a vast majority of instructors. Therefore many – if not all – of us who teach writing intensive courses are constantly in search of grading hacks. Not only is grading student writing time consuming, it is often frustrating when the time spent seems to be ignored, misunderstood, or not internalized. These struggles are not in your head – a quick Compile search will show you hundreds of studies documenting that students have difficulty transferring the revisions suggested in written comments to future assignments. Furthermore, the traditional methods of writing in the margins using ink or electronic commenting features (for example Track Changes in Word or Suggesting mode in Google Docs) are not effective, or possible, for multimodal writing assignments including blog posts, timelines, videos, infographics, etc. After exploring a variety of approaches throughout my teaching career, I am sharing my grading hacks here as part of the 2018 MLA panel on “Hacking the Scholarly Workflow.”

The hack I describe will include pre-writing exercises and video feedback, but will focus primarily on the second phase. These tips will work for any assignment collected digitally, including Word documents, LMS posts, or media-rich compositions created in an online forum. After years of trying many platforms, I now exclusively teach using WordPress blogs. The multitude of reasons why is fodder for another post (see posts by the CUNY folks who converted me: Jim Groom, Joe Ugoretz, and Matt Gold), but can be summed up as a dedication to teaching students to learn tools that are useful and applicable outside of academia, and to have control over my own domains and data. Also, all of my assignments are to some degree multimodal, meaning they combine text-based writing with images, videos, hyperlinks, graphics, or other media. I actually wrote my dissertation and this article on the importance of teaching multimodal writing if you want to know more. One of the questions I receive most often about assigning digital compositions, is how I grade assignments that are multimodal and “turned in” on a blog. Here, I offer my response, and hope it will translate to a wide variety of writing projects.

Pre-writing exercises
Teaching students to compose in any form requires careful scaffolding. For major assignments I provide students with time to draft in class, using a variety of techniques from Pomodoro writing sprints, to design thinking brainstorming sessions, and of course lots of daily journaling. Almost all writing projects also go through peer review, organized differently for each assignment. Approaches include reverse outling, guided questions, or formal editing sessions with style sheets for upper level courses. For major – or “high-stakes” –  assignments, I serve as their peer reviewer in face-to-face conferences (my institution encourages us to cancel up to 3 class sessions to be replaced with conference time with students). Therefore, when it comes time for my feedback on final drafts they should have spent a good deal of time considering previous comments and re-writing. This allows me to focus on the top three elements to prioritize in future assignments. Yes, I really try to limit myself to discussing only three areas of revision to focus on for each student.

In order to provide personalized feedback on multimodal blog posts I use screen capture videos that allow me to talk through and visually highlight elements in a student’s work. The field of composition and rhetoric has explored the benefits of audio feedback across decades of scholarship: You can see that some of the articles listed in the Compile Bibliography, compiled and annotated by Shannon Mrkich and Jeff Sommers, date back to 1958 when audio feedback was done via cassette recorders, so clearly this is not a new approach. In comparison to written feedback, audio feedback gives the students a chance to hear the voice of the instructor, adding clarity and a personal touch to the comments. It also eliminates the scary and often difficult to decipher “red ink” that has been scrutinized extensively in composition studies. You can see many of the more recent articles included in the Compile Bibliography explore screen capture or video feedback rather than solely audio feedback. The video element of the screen capture gives the extra dimension of the visual walk-through, so the student sees their post while hearing me describe the points where they excelled and the areas they need to work on.

Before recording, I read the paper carefully and make notes when I encounter lovely writing, brilliant insight, and careful reflection on the assignment topic, as well as moments of ambiguity, problematic logic, and mechanical errors. These notes are then prioritized and used as a rough transcript for my video feedback to avoid rambling or disjointed commentary. Each video begins by highlighting positive attributes of the student’s work, and then leads into explaining two or three areas of improvement with examples. I end the videos with their grade, which ensures every student must watch the video all the way through (the grade is not available to them anywhere else for a couple of days). I aim to keep videos under five minutes long, ideally hovering around the three minute mark. Keep in mind, I use this for undergraduate papers from 3 to 10 pages in length. I have not attempted the same for longer, more in-depth research papers at the graduate level. I do however know that several of my colleagues and several of the articles on this process show its efficacy for basic (or remedial) writers.

The image shows a sample ofstudent writing accompanied by a image of Maryland. A portion of writing is highlighted in blue.The image above shows screenshot from a sample video in which I am highlighting an area of a student’s paper while verbally explaining my advice.

This method also allows me to switch tabs on the browser during the recording in order to show the student additional resources, such as OWL at Purdue exercises, language from the assignment sheet, or specific areas of the rubric that correspond to my comments.

The image shows a screenshot from the site OWL at Purdue. The page provided instruction on using commas.The image above shows screenshot from a sample video in which I indicate which exercises on OWL the student would benefit from reviewing.

Connecting my observations to online tools they can use to improve their writing in the future provides students with further explanation and alternative language in case they have trouble understanding my comments.

A grid in various shades of blue labeled "ENG 151/152 Common Rubric" is displayed. The image above shows screenshot from a sample video in which I am describe how my comments correspond to the department rubric.

Referring directly to the assignment sheet and/or rubric demonstrates exactly where the assignment explains the required elements I am requesting be strengthened or improved, reminding the student to read closely and follow instructions carefully (this also eliminates the “I didn’t know we were suppose to do that…” response). As a instructor, constantly connecting my comments back to the learning objectives outlined on the rubric forces me to reflect on how clearly my assignments adhere to the goals set forth by our program.

In order to record and share these videos with students there are several options for free – or freemium – tools. As a Mac user, I rely on Quicktime to record videos. I also teach in a Mac lab, so I can use the same tool to instruct my students to make their own videos. It is important to consider which tools your student demographic will have access to when choosing your platform. For PC users, I recommend JING or SnagIt by TechSmith. There is also an Adobe option for those – like members of our film department – who teach this suite of products, and many LMS platforms include an audio feedback option (I hear Blackboard’s version is fairly user-friendly). For audio only options, most smartphones come preloaded with a free audio recorder, and Audacity is an open source tool that will do the trick.

Aside from considering which tool to use to record the videos, it is also essential to ensure that students can listen and save the videos on a variety of devices. Therefore, I save each video to a (carefully labeled) Dropbox folder using AssignmentTitle_LastName as the file name for each student. This keeps all of the videos organized on my computer, but also allows me to access them via my phone or any internet-enabled device. I use Dropbox because of the ease of link sharing across platforms. The only drawback is that you can quickly hit your storage limit if you teach multiple classes a term. This can be remedied by paying for extra storage, or by deleting old videos each year.  Alternatively, you can use any cloud storage service – such as Google Drive – or save the videos to your institution’s network if there is ample storage and link sharing capabilities enabled. Just make sure that each student can only access their own video. It would violate FERPA to share an entire folder of videos with the whole class. I find it best to share individual links via email (or your LMS) with a personalized note. I typically type out a form letter, and then customize when needed. Sharing the link in an email, rather than attaching the video as a file, is much more effective for getting around size limits and spam filters. But, it is a good idea to remind students to save the video to their personal computers for future reference.

I must thank my friend Andrew Lucchesi for first introducing me to this process back in graduate school when we were both balancing a heavy class load on top of working toward graduation. Andrew convinced me of the benefits the videos offer to students with disabilities, who may struggle to read handwritten comments or digital marginalia when using screen reading technology. If you have a student who is hard of hearing, I recommend either providing captions for the video, or writing out the transcript in the email you send. I’ve also found this to be a useful technique for instructors who have disabilities and need alternative methods of grading. In fact, several of my colleagues have adopted my method after hearing rave reviews from students. It helped one of the instructors to overcome difficulties in physically dealing with large piles of papers, and it aided another in cutting down on time when teaching a 5/5 load.

Student Reactions
I have noticed that providing video feedback has improved responses on my institutional course evaluations, as these specifically ask if the course meets the learning objectives. But perhaps more significantly, students constantly refer to the video feedback in both their anonymous course evaluations comments and in their final reflection letters. It is the overwhelming gratitude and enthusiasm from the students that solidified this “hack” as a regular part of my teaching practice. As evidence, here is a small selection of unsolicited comments from the anonymous evaluations voluntarily completed by my students in Fall 2017:

“For the first paper she sent us each an individualized feedback video going over the paper, which was nice for people like me who are too shy to ask for direct help. All of her feedback was always reasonable and attainable and I feel as if I have become a better reader and writer, solely thanks to her.”

“[…] the video of comments on my essays were very helpful. Most teachers just write notes and it may be hard to understand or just isn’t explained fully. The videos actually explained what should be fixed and how it can be fixed.”

“[…] the grading videos were the most helpful and engaging because it allowed me to see the whole process and how everything comes or should come together…”

“I really appreciate the videos that show us how to improve our writing!”

As an unintended benefit, I found out that students share my videos with the writing tutors in our Academic Link tutoring center. Several of these professional tutors have emailed me thanking me for the useful feedback that helps them tailor their writing sessions with my students. Between the positive responses from students, faculty, and the writing tutors over the last five years, I can say that my experience using video feedback does match the case-studies that explicate the advantages of similar pedagogical approaches.

Although this method will take some time to get accustomed to, it is well worth the benefit to students. I’m happy to answer questions via twitter @amandalicastro or via email.


Here are the materials for my presentation at DH 2017 in Montreal. Feel free to contact me for questions or feedback.



A Faculty Focus video produced by Stevenson University.


200-level literature course –

100-level writing course –

Assignment –

Tools mentioned:



Storyboard THAT

Teaching Empathy Through Virtual Reality


In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the U.N. secretary proclaims, “[m]ankind needs more empathy” (1968). The poignancy of Dick’s novel is its accurate expression of the social challenge of diminishing human empathy. The author offers empathy as the defining characteristic of humanity. As is often the case, science fiction foreshadows our future: longitudinal studies show decreasing rates of empathy in college students over the last three decades. If we believe that empathy is indeed a vital quality, then humanists are uniquely qualified to address this decline: extensive research suggests that empathy can be taught, specifically by reading fiction. Furthermore, preliminary trials indicate that virtual reality (VR) effectively evokes feelings of empathy in viewers. In both cases, the medium can provide the audience with access to situations outside of their everyday experience, offering a perspective into the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader/viewer. Take, for example, the work of documentary filmmaker Chris Milk that immerses the viewer in war torn villages in order to impact immigration policy (see “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine,” 2016) or the content of the New York Times VR application which addresses a wide variety of social justice issues from all over the world. However, as critics such at Janet Murray rightfully argue, the impact of VR is dependent on the execution, which is still in development stages: “[t]he technical adventurism and grubby glamour of working in emerging technologies can make it hard to figure out what is good or bad from what is just new” (“Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine,” 2016). As the digital humanities has encountered with other emerging technologies – most notably data visualization techniques – these new forms need to be critiqued as they evolve (Drucker, 2012). Inviting students and educators to collaborate with industry professionals in the process of consuming, critiquing, and creating open access VR content creates the opportunity to design thoughtful immersive experiences that may address the decline in empathy in college age students. This presentation will explicate a study-in-progress devised to measure the pedagogical impact of VR content in combination with design thinking assignments used to combat desensitization and evoke empathy across the disciplines.

This research is supported with a case study of students in a series of linked courses at a small liberal arts college in Baltimore, MD. Students were exposed to VR content intended to increase their feelings of empathy for people who represent the “Other” in various ways, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and social class. This study was created through a cross-campus collaboration between faculty from the humanities, social sciences, and school of design alongside the theater director and librarians. Using empathy as the central question, each course integrated VR content and related readings into the curriculum. In each case, VR provided access to experiences not possible within the classroom space, for example an immersion into a refugee camp, a simulation of the human brain, and a documentary depicting gender bias across cultural contexts. The VR was scaffolded into each course in discipline-specific ways. For instance, the literature courses focused on readings that depict representations of virtual bodies in tandem with theory on posthumanism, particularly the work of Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway. At the same time, the theater program produced The Nether by Jennifer Haley, which raises questions about the laws governing virtual spaces through depictions of pederasty and the murder of young children. Simultaneously, courses in psychology and human services integrated VR to discuss the impact of immersive content on social justice reform, and nursing courses looked at the application of VR for patient care and education. To varying degrees, this work was supplemented with readings on feminism, race theory, and disability studies in order to support discussions of “othering” with students. After analyzing the VR content in conjunction with the course materials, students were  asked to design a VR experience intended to evoke empathy in the context of a discipline-specific audience. Additionally, members of a local VR company contributed as guest speakers and offered internships for interested students. Surveys were distributed at the beginning and end of the semester which prompted students to define, discuss, and debate empathy. At the end of each course students were interviewed to identify which methods of engagement increased their empathy toward people (in some cases characters) they felt were unlike themselves in significant ways.

As a part of this submission the syllabi and assignments will be shared. Ideally, the speaker will bring a VR headset and gaming laptop so participants can experience and consider how this emerging technology can evoke empathy by providing access to geographical, cultural, political, and biological content unfamiliar to the viewer. The goal is to receive audience feedback on the first stage of this study in order to improve and refine the methods before executing the plan on a larger scale. This study is IRB approved and student consent will be obtained for any student work that is presented.

#MLA15 Presentation

Tales from a Silver Medalist: Publishing an Interactive, Collaborative Article in JITP

The following post contains the slides and transcript from my presentation at the Modern Language Association convention held in Vancouver in January 2015. This presentation was accepted as part of a panel on scholarly communication, here is the call:

What Does It Mean to Publish? New Forms of Scholarly Communication   

Combining the immediacy of a blog post with the rigor of a refereed journal, “middle state” publishing is gaining ground in the humanities. How does middle-state publishing — also known as “grey literature” — challenge our notions of what makes something “published”? Scholars wrestle with the import of this question for hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions, while librarians, archivists, and the MLA International Bibliography struggle to document and preserve emerging forms of scholarly communication. This session seeks papers that will engage with the question of what it means to publish. How might institutional repositories constitute a form of publication? How do new tools and methodologies suggest new categories for indexing and analysis? How do new categories of scholarly publication challenge and change how we keep the scholarly record? How do we archive emerging material?

[slideshare id=43176797&doc=mla15jitplicastro-150103183341-conversion-gate01]

After a brief introduction and series of thank yous that accompanied my first slide, here is the text that accompanied my visuals:

First, a little about the journal in general. The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (JITP) is open access and entirely online, built on a customized site on the CUNY Academic Commons – which may be a familiar form to many of you since it is the same platform as the MLA Commons. JITP was founded at the Graduate Center, CUNY as a potential space to showcase the work of doctoral students in the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate Program, and as a student in that program I was invited to be a member of the editorial collective before the first issue launched. The conversations that we, the editorial collective, have had over the past three years have challenged and expanded my conception of scholarly production. Theses issues range from philosophical and ethical, to practical and structural: for example, we grapple with questions of copyright, permission, archiving, and indexing, but also issues concerning what types of media to accept, how to stipulate “article length” in new media submissions, what citation style to maintain, and how to mentor authors whose submissions show potential but don’t quiet meet our criteria. As a new journal in the relatively new world of open access publishing, many of these questions have very few or no examples to provide precedence. The journals we do look to include Kairos, whose editor Cheryl Ball as been very generous in her mentorship.

JITP is working to remix the scholarly journal in a myriad of ways, concentrating on enacting a publication model in which both the form and process adapt to meet new modes of composition. The image here is the JITP mission statement – itself an evolving text – and you can see here, as in our title and twitter handle, our emphasis is on pedagogy. Focusing on a transparent and collaborative peer-review process, this presentation will chronicle the production of the article “Digital Literary Pedagogy” as an example of how editors of online academic journals can work with contributors to expand the definition of publication in innovative ways.

Let’s start with the way our Editorial Collective works. We maintain a balance of students, faculty members, and staff (including librarians, deans, and administrators). We also strive to have two members edit each issue, with one student and one full-time faculty or alt-ac member paired together. This isn’t as easy as it seems considering many of our students have landed excellent jobs across higher education. Which is wonderful! However, this goal remains central to our mission because it is through these relationships that we model the mentorship we hope to extend to our authors.

Screenshot 2015-01-16 10.52.38

As you can see from this graphic, authors are brought into our process as fully as can be expected considering the many layers of labor that occur behind the scenes. Each submission goes through a minimum of three stages of review – all of which are as transparent and open as possible – starting with a double “not-blind” review. The authors receive letters from their reviewers that suggest changes, and then many are assigned to a specific collective member that works with the author to enact those revisions. This is followed by copy-editing and style and structure reviews, which is a subject for another talk. This talk is about a project inspired by the relationship between authors and editors. Roger Whitson, an assistant professor of English at Washington State University, (coincidentally presenting at this same time in another session) wrote to JITP asking if we would like to collaborate with him on a semester-long undergraduate course he was teaching on technologies of reading in the nineteenth century. Roger’s original pitch was grandiose but exciting, and really appealed to our desire to be innovative in both form and process. Along with Kimon Kerimidas, Assistant Professor and Director of the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center, I volunteered to be a part of this experiment.

Screenshot 2015-01-16 12.46.45

The timeline you see here is actually the active navigation for the resulting webtext – and will help me provide a narrative for this presentation. You can go to the live site on your own to see this in action. In the first week of class Roger introduced the assignment: the students were to create a collaborative digital project based on the course content as a mock submission to our journal. Then Kimon and I used Google Hangout to speak with the class about the basics of academic publishing, digital scholarship, and JITP. The class then went to work reading, writing, and building webtexts to showcase their work. At the end of the term Roger shared the student’s projects with us (they are publicly available on the course website), and Kimon and I critiqued them as if we were reviewing them for our journal. The students then presented their projects to us live over Google Hangout, and we then explained our feedback to the class in response. Meanwhile Roger, Kimon, and I documented this entire process in a co-authored text done via Google Docs. Although these are essential three single authored sections reflecting our individual experience and expertise, you can see how significantly we influenced each other’s writing through the comments and revision history on our Google Doc drafts – all of which are available as part of the final product. The conglomeration of these elements – the course site, videos, student projects, drafts, and article text – was reviewed by the issue editors and members of the JITP review board in the same way all other submissions are treated.

Screenshot 2015-01-16 12.50.18

Subsequent to publication, “Digital Literary Pedagogy” was nominated for a Digital Humanities (DH) Award. The nominations and votes are all crowdsourced through social media – meaning anyone can nominate a submission and anyone can vote, but it is anonymous. I do not know who nominated or voted for our article.

Screenshot 2014-12-28 16.00.48

To give you some perspective, in 2012 there were three winners in the category our article was nominated for – which is “Best DH blog post or short publication.” You can see that even in the category title there is ambiguity in the amalgamation of form that for me represents the shift in scholarly production that is happening in the digital humanities. All three of the 2012 winners were very innovate in their form – continuously evolving, interactive, public sites of scholarship. As you can see in the example I provide here, Will Self and his collaborators created an interactive network visualization as the navigation for this webtext, which also includes social media integration and other interesting features that explore the affordances of the digital space.

Screenshot 2015-01-16 12.58.24

In 2013, the year we were nominated, there were far more texts featured on the DH Awards site, and the winners represent a much very different view of digital humanities production. Almost all of these do meet the requirement of being short – they are either blog posts or brief articles in journals, and as is necessitated by the process of the choosing a winner – they are all accessible online. Also, all but two include some kind of multimedia, and some are very mutli-modal such as the “Songs of the Victorians” project which incorporates images, sound, and text in novel ways . However, the winner is a 43 page pdf of a book chapter. It is not interactive or mutlimodal in any way. That isn’t to discount the smart, engaging content, which is well-researched and written. But I do question what its inclusion and eventually winning says about the state of the digital humanities.

Screenshot 2014-12-28 16.02.26

And this brings me to the crux of this presentation. In my research I have found convincing scholarship calling for a revolution in academic publishing dating back to 1996, with a huge spike in the early 2000’s when the “crisis” seemed to peak under economic pressures just as the blogosphere gained momentum. However, despite the many grant-funded investigations that have reached the same conclusions regarding the unsustainable trajectory of scholarly monographs in both book and journal form – we still return to these forms as our primary measure of evaluation in the humanities. Why? Because of the three points made by Risam:

Three principle differences between digital and print scholarship in the humanities require a radical revision to how we review and assess scholarly production and to how scholarly work accrues value: digital scholarship is often collaborative, digital scholarship is rarely finished, and digital scholarship is frequently “public.” (“Rethinking Peer Review in the Age of Digital Humanities,” Roopika Risam.)

It is difficult to evaluate scholarship that is collaborative, public, and perpetually in beta. But I want to take this one step further. What can we, as academics producing digital work, offer that the consumer-driven world of publishing, technology, and new media aren’t? It is difficult to compete with the sleek, user-friendly products made by tech conglomerates – but what they aren’t offering is transparency.

And this brings me back to our article. Roger, Kimon, and I did not include the videos and drafts just for the sake of adding technology. Our intention was to show our process so that other instructors could learn from this experience. This goal extends across the journal – which is particularly evident in our short-form sections – Teaching Fails, Assignments, Tool Tips, and Reviews. These sections are meant to be instructive, show process, and focus on pedagogy. I believe this is what we, in higher education, should aim for in the future of scholarly communication, because now we can achieve this goal at a deeper level. We can make our work open access and open source, allowing audiences to reuse, remix, and rebuild our work for educational purposes. We can engage with process at a meta-level, through text and code.

Just this week, Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library, was quoted in Harvard Magazine as saying, “We are still in the Wild West of sorting out how we will communicate our academic developments effectively.”

The digital disruption of the print world is transforming both commercial publishing and scholarly books and journals—and is changing structures for teaching, research, and hiring and promoting professors. Obviously, Roger Whitson assigned that project to his students because he believed it to be a valuable scholarly engagement that would help his students build the skills they need to succeed both within and without the academy. Many of us engage in similar practices in our classrooms everyday. But what are we preparing students for if two decades of discussion, research, and calls for change have yielded such incremental impact on our own methods of reward in the academy? What can we do to make these forms of scholarly production count? Well, as many others have called for – notably John Unsworth – we can pledge to only publish in open access journals, we can work on publications like JITP and Kairos, we can negotiate within our institutions to change hiring and tenure practices, and we can continue to teach multimodal, collaborative composition across the disciplines. But we also need to start talking about all of the issues I mentioned at the start of this presentation. The nitty-gritty details of digital production that need to be addressed and adopted on a large-scale in order to ensure the reliability and longevity of our work.

Screenshot 2014-12-28 14.48.41So let’s chat! Tweet, post comments, email, post on list-servs or facebook! Let’s continue this conversation, and work together to find sustainable solutions.

I want to thank everyone who attended our panel and for the provocative conversation that occurred in the question and answer portion. I’d also like the thank Dawn Childress for her excellent organization and moderation, and Harriet Green and Barbara Chen for their presentations in this panel.

Overall, this was a truly wonderful conference. Vancouver is simply breathtaking, and the location of the convention center allowed us to take full advantage of the natural splendor of British Columbia.

2015-01-12 11.02.26

Also, I really feel that the panels I attended were some of the most inspiring of all five MLA conventions I have attended. I saw a great attention to pedagogy and innovation that excites me and holds tremendous potential for the future. I am also thankful for my friends and mentors who took the time to offer guidance and support at #MLA15. You know who you are, and it means the world to me.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


#AAEEBL2014 Presentation

Here is my presentation for the 2014 AAEEBL conference, complete with text. Thank you to those who came, to Macaulay Honors College for their support, and to those reading this for their constructive feedback.


After over a decade of integrating eportfolio technology into the post-secondary classroom, where do we stand? The pedagogical practice of asking students to compose in open, online, multi-user spaces has grown rapidly in recent years. There are a host of advantages that support this practice, including that writing in public venues cultivates digital literacy through broader audience awareness, facilitates interactivity and collaboration among peers, and supports the creation and integration of multimedia artifacts into the writing process. Addressing the lack of systematic study of students’ preparedness to write in online spaces, and evidence that these practices foster the development of long-tail, real-world skills, this presentation will demonstrate qualitative and quantitative approaches to investigating these assertions. Rather than focusing on administrative measures of success, this investigation focuses on the learning process of students.

Full Text (note slide advance prompts are included):

When this call for papers came out, it was if I created it to match my dissertation project, since the research track – “Data-driven Evaluation of ePortfolios in an Age of Increased Accountability” – expresses my topic exactly. In fact, I am going to use the prompts provided by the call to outline my project in order to present my hypothesis, data, methodology, and initial findings.


  1. What are the best practices for evaluating the “value-added” of a particular course or program?
  2. Which types of eportfolios are more successful in measuring learning outcomes?
  3. Effective methods of analysis and evaluation
  4. What do we know so far from research? What are the important questions still ahead?


What are the best practices for evaluating the “value-added” of a particular course or program?

From blog posts, to scholarly journals, and of course the rising interest of popular media outlets, everyone seems to have an opinion of the integration of blogging technology in higher education. Even a cursory Google search produces a host of constituent assertions that support the use of online writing platforms, such as eportfolios, in college-level courses. Claims in favor of this integration include that writing in public venues cultivates digital literacy through broader audience awareness, facilitates interactivity and collaboration between peers, and supports the creation and integration of multimedia artifacts into the writing process. However, most of these assertions are based on anecdotal narratives or survey results that focus on the experience of the faculty and administrators involved.


What I am seeking is evidence derived from the content of the compositions created by students in online, open spaces, and the value of this experience as articulated by the students themselves. Therefore, this project seeks to address the lack of systematic study of students’ writing in online spaces, the multimodal aspects of digital composition, and evidence that these practices foster the development of long-tail,[1] real-world skills.

This study is an attempt to investigate the assertions made about the integration of digital writing in higher education through a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. By applying digital humanities methods and composition theory to almost a decade of student writing produced in an online, open eportfolio system, I will look for evidence of the “value added” through the adoption of a well-supported, cross-curricular implementation of eportfolio technology.


Which types of eportfolios are more successful in measuring learning outcomes?

The research is drawn from a case study of six consecutive years of eportfolios, culled from the Macaulay Honors College (Macaulay), a unique honors program within the City University of New York system that spans eight public university campuses. This group was chosen for study for a number of reasons, involving the particular set of benefits afforded to these students, as well as the demographics of the population itself. Each student is provided with a new laptop computer, dedicated advisors, and full tuition, theoretically eliminating some variables with regard to access and availability of tools and support. The Macaulay student population is notably diverse, consisting of students from a wide range of ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds, with a significant portion being first-generation college students. These students take the same four seminars in their first two years of the program, and learn the same software in the course of their studies. The program is supported with Instructional Technology Fellows (such as myself) who run workshops, immersion events, and are available for consultation throughout their coursework. Therefore, although the test group is made up of a diverse sample of students, since they are provided with equal – and exemplary – resources in the pursuit of their studies, the Macaulay students represent a strong case study.


Just as this is a particularly strong sample of students to study, this eportfolio system also presents significant advantages. Not all eportfolio platforms are created equal; many proprietary programs are walled gardens available only to those within the university (often only in the class) and do not allow the students to access the backend in order to experiment with functionality and design elements of the site. These skills are in high demand,and selecting a system that bars this level of engagement in digital literacy is a missed opportunity for long-tail education.


The eportfolio system this investigation focuses on is run on WordPress, a blogging platform with BuddyPress, a social networking function, built-in. As of the end of 2013, an estimated 20% of the Internet was built on WordPress, so working on this platform in an educational setting provides students with the opportunity to develop real-world skills.

From a usability standpoint, WYSIWYG blogging platforms are a desirable content management system for use in higher education. With lower barriers to entry, and the familiarity of the basic composing functions, users comfortable with desktop publishing can transition to the online space with minimal instruction. In WordPress, the capabilities of the platform that extend beyond composing deal mostly with the design of the front-end: the choice of theme, the information architecture of the site, and the ability to draw in outside information to be displayed in the widget areas of the site. The skills needed to control these elements can be outsourced to a site administrator, which in the case of Macaulay Honors College is typically a combination of the instructor and the Instructional Technology Fellow. But, both the platform and the mediation by the administrators distance the student from understanding how the technology works, and denies them unimpeded control of their compositions. Essentially these mediators are doing the work that makes online publishing different than composing on paper or in a word processor for the students. This is a missed opportunity currently being addressed by many innovative instructors in higher education.


For example, Karl Stolley has his students compose entirely in code, setting up their own servers and designing their own sites from the metaphorical ground up. As Stolley argued in his keynote address at the 2013 Computers & Writing conference:

 Given the opportunity for extended encounters with difficulty (rather than the software   tools that route around it), digital writers can become specific intellectuals: people whose deep technological expertise rivals that of their command of rhetoric–who are                     therefore able to learn, teach, and build things that scare the living crap out of others.      (

Stolley’s assertion includes two supporting points worth mentioning here: first, that even though all digital writing is difficult, if we can avoid “excessive mediation” (an example of which would be a content management system that does not grant access to the backend, like Blackboard) then we can avoid the second pitfall, which is the need to “keep up” with impediments such as platform upgrades that can delay progress. The remedy for these common pitfalls in digital writing pedagogy for Stolley remains command line level learning.

Although Stolley’s practice represents one extreme, albiet admirable approach, it is representative of a turn away from remediation back toward the fundamentals of computer programming (“In Search of Troublesome Digital Writing: A Meditation on Difficulty”). That the future of rhetoric is an ability to communicate with computers is at the heart of this movement.


Returning to Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, I believe a digital writing platform can serve as a “zone of proximal” development for the student of digital writing. In fact, a site created for the purpose of playing and learning is called a “sandbox” by the WordPress community. The middle ground between the command line and the word processor represented by a WordPress Dashboard functions as a learning environment in which student can develop skills that could be applied to more advanced system engineering. At Macaulay the curriculum committee committed to extend programmatic learning objectives beyond this first stage of development by having students create WordPress sites as a class for the final project in the second seminar. Positioning this project in the second semester of their first year gives students a chance to acclimate to the WordPress interface before embarking in the advanced work of designing a site. The website project teaches the students to understand several critical digital literacy skills, encouraging them to see the relationship between the content and design of their site by working through information architecture choices and usability design decisions as a group. This collaborative engagement mimics a professional environment, and allows students with technical aptitude or design proclivities to guide those whose strength may be in research and writing. Since over 20% of the web is built on WordPress[1], knowing the difference between a page and post, widget and plugin, or understanding how to choose and customize a theme, are “real-world” skills attractive to employers. This curriculum-wide scaffolding prepares Macaulay students to create their own personal portfolios as well, an option many students embrace in order to build their online presence in preparation for the next stage of their career. This study aims to explore the connection between the course sites and the personal sites in order to identify the transference of skills from the teacher-directed content to the student-directed content.


By inviting Macaulay students to participate in the design of their course sites, create web-based projects in conjunction with traditional research and fieldwork, and by further encouraging and supporting them in building their own eportfolios that exist outside of their formal coursework, the college aligns their education philosophy with the increasingly wide-spread “Maker” movement happening both within and around the academy. “Critical Making,” as defined by Matt Ratto and Stephen Hockema, “is an elision of two typically disconnected modes of engagement in the world — ‘critical thinking,’ often considered as abstract, explicit, linguistically-based, internal and cognitively individualistic; and ‘making,’ typically understood as material, tacit, embodied, external, and community-oriented” (52)[Ratto, Matt and Megan Boler, eds. DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (In press; forthcoming January 2014)]. The claim then, is that an education based on building and making will lead to a combination of practical proficiencies, experience working with others, and critical thinking skills that can be adapted to meet a variety of complex tasks. It is a future-thinking mode of learning, that positions students not just to accomplish the mission at hand, but be prepared to envision the next problem, and solve it.

As Roger Whitson writes, “making enables us to rethink how a different combination of methods and practices could create different gadgets, experiences, and histories.[…] Making is not simply a way of understanding; it is also an investigation of what could have been” (“Steampunk”).

Hosting the eportfolio system on WordPress not only allows the undergraduate students to take on an active role as makers, it also enabled me, as a graduate student, to access the data they produced and engage in the act of making new as well. Since Macaulay owns and operates these sites on their own server, and because the large majority of these sites are public, I was able to download the content of over 3000 sites in a MySQL database, which can then be manipulated and reformatted in multiple ways.


Why would I want to delve into thousands of lines of messy data? Because I strongly believe that we, as educators, should reclaim ownership of the digital material we produce. Rather than allowing corporations to mine own data in order to sell it back to us through advertising and expensive long-term contracts that lock us into products that limit us in a myriad of ways – we should be building, maintaining, and mining our own sites. This study is grounded in the philosophical belief that if we view writing as data, and use it as such through the use of digital humanities tools (distant reading, data mining, and data visualization), we can improve our pedagogy based on what we extract from this data. This meta-approach to research is experimental and experiential – as Kathleen Fitzpatrick put it, I am “doing the risky thing” by attempting a methodology that requires a high degree of technical difficulty as is still met with skepticism in the humanities. Perhaps, if I can show what is possible to discover when we control our own course management systems and use them for research and assessment, my study can be used by others to argue to the move to open source platforms in higher education.


Effective methods of analysis and evaluation

The data for this research is being collected in three phases, with each phase investigating a stage of development in the learning process of Macaulay students exposed to the eportfolio system as part of their undergraduate coursework. This investigation utilizes both data triangulation, and method triangulation. The first stage is a survey of incoming students to Macaulay Honors College, examining their online reading and writing habits prior to enrollment. The second is a data analysis of student work on teacher-directed course sites (with particular attention on student writing, tagging, and citation practices), and the third, a series of interviews with the winners of an institution-wide eportfolio contest, with in-depth analysis of the corresponding student-directed sites.

The first stage of this study is a voluntary online survey presented to first year students focused on understanding their online reading and writing habits prior to entering MHC. The survey was distributed in Spring 2014, and will be disturbed again to the incoming class in Fall 2014. The purpose of this survey is to assess how prepared the students are to compose in open, online spaces when they begin the honors program by revealing how often and to what extent they have engaged in online writing practices in their personal, professional, and educational lives before entering college. The survey asks the students to identify the sites they use to communicate on the web and their degree of interaction within these online writing spaces; for example whether they used the Internet to gather information, create original material on a website, or to design and manipulate the infrastructure of a website.


*survey findings*


The second stage of this study involves data mining material from six years of teacher-directed eportfolio sites. These course sites consist of content generated from the four seminars required by MHC: Seminar 1, The Arts in New York City; Seminar 2, Science and Technology in New York City; Seminar 3, The Peopling of New York City; and Seminar 4, The Future of New York City. The Associate Dean of Teaching, Learning and Technology, Dr. Joseph Ugoretz, worked with me to extract any of the data that was marked private, therefore providing data from sites on the network that are completely open to the public. This is the stage I am working on now, and this is why I am attending this conference. Thus far, I have been working with my Micki Kaufman, a Digital Fellow at the Graduate Center, to clean this data in usable chunks. First, we selected specific classes that contained robust data, such as content-rich posts. Uses this test cases, we were able to look at relationships represented in the data – such as this chart showing frequency and length of post by each contributor. This graph is done in Excel as a proof of concept, but for large-scale visualizations this work will be done using Gephi and D3. We are also removing extraneous material such as the html markup present in the text so that I can filter it through concordance software such as Voyant.

Much of my work distant reading the sites is informed by a combination of composition and rhetoric and new media theory. I am drawing from process theory and cognitive psychology, as well as case studies that implement scientific methods and the history of portfolio-based instruction, to structure and define my study of student writing in online open spaces.


For instance, I am using case studies that “code” student writing, such as those performed by Janet Emig and Sondra Perl. In “The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders,” Emig identifies the “two dominant modes of composing” are the reflexive and the extensive:

The reflexive focuses upon the writer’s thoughts and feelings concerning his        experiences; the chief audience is the writer himself; the domain explored is often the affective; the style is tentative, personal, and exploratory. The extensive mode is defined here as the mode that focuses upon the writer’s  conveying a message or a communication to another; the domain explored is usually the cognitive; the style is assured, impersonal and often reportorial. (4)

I wish to make use of Emig’s terms while complicating the idea of public versus private as applied in the digital space. The description of the reflexive mode as “affective” and “exploratory” are hallmarks of many of the assignments found in portfolio based classes, however in the case of online, open eportfolios the intended audience is not the self, but an external audience of their instructors, peers, and anyone searching for the topic on the Internet. Emig defines the reflexive mode as internal, what she calls “self-sponsored” writing, whereas writing in the extensive mode, or “school-sponsored” writing, is intended for an outside audience. However, when considering writing in a public online space this designation falls apart, since the blogosphere invites the writer to mesh both of these modes. The personal, confessional style6 of the blogging genre matches Emig’s description of “reflexive” writing, but the public audience not only suggests, but goes beyond the concept of extensive writing.


Similarly, the digital space complicates the notion – coined by Peter Elbow – of “low” and “high” stakes writing. Now fairly ubiquitous across the education system, low stakes writing assignments tend to be short exploratory exercises that build toward formal “high stakes” assignments, which carry a large percentage of the course grade. On paper, this practice can take many forms, such as in-class free writing, out-of-class journal entries, or ink shedding – a timed pre-writing exercise. This writing can be private or public; the key is that it is not graded or assessed in terms of error. Online, low stakes assignments manifest in familiar forms, such as short reviews and reflections on a course site, but in new formats such as blog posts, discussion forum threads, comments, or as contributions to a social media site (such as twitter, facebook, tumblr, etc.). In the digital realm, low stakes writing is almost always public, even if just to a limited audience. From my work examining student writing in the Macaulay setting, blogging assignments tend toward reflection and self-evaluation. In many of the course sites examined for this study, student posts were meant to express the individual’s response to a text, event, or experience. While some contain the marks of scholarly work, such as research and citations, the content conveys a personal context, rather than an academic one. However, while these short written responses may only be assessed in terms of completion, many would consider the venue to be a high stakes environment. Since the writing is public, and it is often read by their peers, teacher, and potentially the general public, the pressure of an audience raises the stakes.


What do we know so far from research? What are the important questions still ahead?

As Collin Brooke points out in Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media, we look to the rhetoric of old media to answer our questions about new media practices. So, when asking about the drawbacks and benefits of blogging, we cannot define the results through the language of old forms, such as the academic essay, journal article, or scholarly monograph. Instead, there should be an effort to examine the new technology in order to determine how its form and function shape the writing process. For that we must look at how people use the technology, and how the technology uses us.

While building on the process theory can provide a context for identifying the stylistic content of student writing on online, open sites, this ignores the other essential element of composition in digital spaces: the space itself. When investigating the writing process in digital spaces, the interface design must also be considered as an active agent. As Doug Rushkoff said in a 2014 presentation at the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative “I could teach more by through analyzing the design of the Blackboard interface than by teaching with Blackboard.” As research in the area increases it becomes increasingly evident that design mediates our composition process in significant ways that need to be accounted for and articulated. In their 2005 case study presented in “Movement in the Interface,” Synne Skjulstad and Andrew Morrison work through the difficulties of articulating interface design in their attempt to describe the process of building a multimodal site (BallectroWeb). They write:


 Studied in terms of human-computer interaction (HCI), interfaces have been  thought of as intermediary to communication. However, interfaces have   come to be understood as more than a static, graphical layer lying between system and user. They exist as devices for shaping and spatialising the  organization, selection and articulation of what is to be communicated electronically. As a result, interfaces are now an integral and dynamic part of communication design as a whole. (Skjulstad 415)

Drawing from Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the mediating artifact from Activity Theory, Skjulstad and Morrison conclude that the “constructedness” of the interface mediates the content. If taken as true, the content management systems on which eportfolios are built and managed affect the content itself, and therefore no two systems can be taken as equivalent. The decisions made for the writer by the interface design are as important to the final product as the choices made by the authors themselves.


Students compose in WordPress using the “backend” of the platform, an area not visible to a viewer who does not have editing privileges. Known as the “Dashboard,” the control panel for the site obviously resembles a word processor, with icon based action buttons that represent common tasks. The remediation at work in the iconography of word processing programs, such as a floppy disk image for the save function, has been discussed elsewhere but the transference of these structures to the blogging interface carries further implications. Designing the backend of the blog to look like a blank page to be filled with text signals to the composer that words should be the primary mode of creation. Most of the icons offer options to manipulate the text, including font styles, font sizes, and color options, along side functions that directly apply to the delivery of text such as spell check, line spacing, and paragraph formatting. The majority of the elements that encourage the composer to experiment with multimedia also match those found in word processors – such as the ability to add hyperlinks to other webpages, internal bookmarking features, and a WYSIWYG insert media function which uploads images, info-graphics, or videos from files on your computer. All of these align themselves with the word processor rather than with the practice of original bloggers who used the command line to write – requiring code. This move away from composing with mark-up languages such as HTML and style sheets such as CSS is an interesting one, with long-tail benefits and drawbacks.

An amalgamation of classical rhetoric, new media theory, and critical pedagogy, participatory design proponents argue that by developing an understanding of the mode of delivery through which we communicate, we are better able to craft our message and reach our audience(s). In their article “Toward a Public Rhetoric Through Participatory Design: Critical Engagements and Creative Expression in the Neighborhood Networks Project,”
Carl DiSalvo, et al write:


Taken together, critical engagements with technology and the creative expression of issues through technology begin to form a public rhetoric: They constitute the activity of discovering, inventing, and delivering arguments about how we could or should live in the world. The artifacts or systems conceived or created become rhetorical by their persuasive   intentions and capabilities, and by the way they inform and/or provoke a response from or dialogue with others. (48-49)

In its ideal form, an eportfolio system built on an open platform enables learners to make sophisticated design choices; in the process of conceptualizing, implementing, critiquing, and revising the digital space, students develop a deeper comprehension of the relationship between content and delivery. Scholars such as Collin Brooke and Ben McCorkle have already made the connection between design in digital publication and delivery as a canonical rhetorical mode. Both scholars claim the field of writing studies has neglected the rhetorical modes in recent years, and call for a return to theorizing particularly the role of delivery in the age of digital publication. This call is echoed by DiSilvo et al, who argue,

Positioning design as rhetoric does not claim some essential or deterministic quality of technological artifacts or systems. Nor does it suggest that design is fundamentally duplicitous, as contemporary pejorative notions of rhetoric might imply. Rather, positioning design as rhetoric calls attention to the ways in which the built environment reflects and tries to influence values and behavior and explicitly recognizes the capacity of people to design artifacts or systems that promote or thwart certain perspectives and agendas (DiSalvo, 48-49).


Last stage: understanding student-directed design and delivery choices

The third phase involves a detailed study of five or six (based on availability) student-created eportfolios that were selected as Eportfolio Expo[1] winners. The Eportfolio Expo is a self-nominated contest of student-directed sites judged by a panel of professionals who rank the submissions based on preset criteria. In the Fall of this year, I will conduct an interview of each of the student winners and perform a “close reading” of their sites, to assess how the use of eportfolios in their coursework influenced their personal sites.[2] What I am looking for here is evidence of transfer – or the application of skills learned in the classroom to activities performed outside the boundaries of assigned coursework.

Lines of further inquiry:

– Interface design/remediation

– Rhetorical mode of delivery

– Students as Designers

– Re-evaluate collaborative work

– New form of the blog – static vs dynamic

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.