Opinion Editorials, New Media, and Participation in Real Public Discourse

Opinion Editorials, New Media, and Participation in Real Public Discourse

Katherine Cowley

Rosa Eberly paints an ideal picture for the composition classroom, a picture in which writing becomes more than just a set of tools for students to use during their university education. Eberly writes, “Realizing classrooms as protopublic spaces and encouraging students to see themselves as actors in different and overlapping publics can help them realize the particular and situated nature of rhetoric and the need for effective writing to respond to particular needs of particular publics at particular times” (167). While writing classrooms can never be true public spheres of community deliberation and action “because of the institutional supports and constraints that allow” their existence, creating the classroom as a protopublic space —where “students can practice [real] public discourse . . . by thinking, talking, and writing about and for different publics”—adds weight to the writing process and invites students to use communication to be effective contributors to their communities, their publics (172). While personal writing has value, as does learning the conventions of the academic discourse community, this public approach to writing places students in actual writing situations, with visible audiences and enacted issues, providing students with writing experience that will transfer to any new writing situation.

Through use of the opinion editorial assignment, the topics readers, and the issues paper, Brigham Young University’s general education Writing and Rhetoric course inherently takes many steps towards defining the composition classroom as a protopublic space in which students can begin to participate in real public discourse. Yet as Kathleen Yancey argued in her keynote address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), the world of discourse is changing, and as a result, we must develop “a new curriculum for the 21st century” that “has as its goal the creation of thoughtful, informed, technologically adept writing publics” (308). Rather than using the traditional model in which widespread influence is available to a select few—those with money, political influence, or the handful of writers whose work the publishing industry is able to publish for profit—the internet and other new media technologies have created a more democratic system in which almost anyone can self-publish to a large readership. Today, public discourse on any given subject can be influenced by millions of voices. This is new media writing, writing that is both developed via online discourse and is shared and read through new technologies by communities that are not only physical, but also digital. While opinion editorials are still published and read in today’s new media age, if we ask our students to write in this genre without having an awareness of how new media has revolutionized public discourse, then we do our students a disservice. The opinion editorial can be an effective assignment within a protopublic classroom if we require students to use new media venues of expression throughout their writing process.

New Media and Public Discourse

If taught traditionally—in which the printed version of the local newspaper becomes the end-all to public discourse—the opinion editorial may very well be an antiquated genre. In her book Composition in Convergence, Diane Penrod argues, “It would be wrongheaded for Composition to retain 19th-century writing models and early 20th-century assessment plans in light of the rapid changes in writing and communication occurring in the world” (15). The barebones approach to the opinion editorial in BYU’s Writing and Rhetoric classroom produces a text that is available only in print form and read only by the writing teacher and perhaps one or two of the writer’s peers. Unless modified by the instructor, the assignment does not even require that the editorial be submitted to its target audience, The Daily Universe. Yet as Kathleen Yancey explains, in a real “writing public,” a student writer is a “member of a collaborative group with a common project linked to the world at large and delivered in multiple genres and media” (310). With the shifting of the venues and approaches used by actual public discourse communities, a shift in pedagogy is also required.

Most composition instructors, when they see the changing world of discourse, try to find opportunities to analyze new media in the classroom. For example, in teaching the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos, instructors (myself included) often show examples that range from online ads to film clips to blogs. In and of itself, this approach to incorporating new media is insufficient. First, we run the risk of engaging or entertaining our students without any in- depth analysis. Even more problematic, we may fall into the trap of feeling that through new media analysis we have sufficiently engaged our students in real-world public discourse. Yet standard publics theories require the coupling of analysis and production. Rosa Eberly explains, “Indeed, for a public to recognize itself, action is required; a public . . . requires that people not only consume communications that convince them of their common interest but produce communications about that interest” (169). Thus, to participate in contemporary public discourse, our students must not only analyze but also create (or create through) new media.

Creating new media in the composition classroom may seem a daunting task, and rightfully so. Many composition instructors feel unqualified to teach emerging forms of new media. Yet as Simmons and Grabill argue in a recent article in College Composition and Communication (CCC), “The spaces in which public deliberation most often takes place are institutionally, technologically, and scientifically complex”; as a result, “in order to participate, citizens must be able to invent valued knowledge” which “requires using complex information technologies . . . to access, assemble, . . . analyze . . . [and] produce” (419). In a recent College English symposium article, Jeff Rice similarly argues, “When we ask ‘What should college English be?’ I want to respond, ‘College English should be new media’” (127). Rice explains new media as both ideological and technological networks. These new media networks provide a process of working with information in an ever-evolving, conversational space (131). While many debate the premise that new media writing should be elevated as the ultimate writing form, new media is increasingly becoming one of the main spaces for public discourse. Further, new media forms are inherently conducive to true public discourse, conversation, and deliberation.

New media forms can liberate the individual writer by creating interactive discourse communities. Diane Penrod argues that “computer-assisted writing pedagogy” may actually be one of the most effective means of moving away from the “banking concept of education” criticized by John Dewey and Paulo Freire (3). Rather than having the teacher as the authoritative judge in an artificial rhetorical situation, new media allows students to interact in a real public space and to receive real responses from other discourse members, allowing them to see the actual effects of their rhetoric. Penrod explains:

It is the “public” characteristic of online writing that infuses the words with meaning and elevates them to a communicative act. To write publicly means that student writers make their words available to all in the course or in cyberspace, not just for the exclusive private classroom relationship built on paper between student writer and instructor or the semi-public partnership peer groups evoke. . . . In genuine public discourse settings, such as those found online, the instructor is not the sole authenticator for student thought as he or she most likely is in private classroom contexts. . . . The polysemic quality and the concept of transforming the classroom writing experience into a real, communicative, public activity are two critical aspects of what writing instructors value about online writing. (3)

The genuine discourse provided through participation in new media writing outweighs the challenges that learning new media may pose for the composition instructor. The back-and-forth nature of new media writing exemplifies the discussion always taking place in true public discourse and teaches students that writing does not occur in an artificial vacuum.

Yet new media writing is not simply an effective alternative we may or may not choose to use. If we believe writing classrooms to be protopublics, places where students participate in real public discourse, then we must use new media in the composition classroom. As Simmons and Grabill argue, “Teaching writing with advanced information technologies is required. It is not an option. It is not a special topic. It is not something to be left to more technical disciplines. Indeed, it is too important to be left to traditional technical disciplines” (440–41). In order for this approach to be fully realized, composition instructors need training in these advanced information technologies and resources that provide patterns for implementing these technologies into the classroom. As of yet, no practical solutions have been proposed to ensure this training on a widespread level. While this is discouraging, composition instructors can begin to take advantage of the public aspects of new media writing, even without technical training. The opinion editorial—a genre which inherently invites the participation of individuals in public discourse—must be taught in conjunction with both new media analysis and new media writing. After all, the greatest value of our work as composition instructors may be in enabling our students to effectively participate in real public discourse.

Practical Possibilities for New Media and the Opinion Editorial

Using new media analysis while writing within an existing opinion editorial assignment both enhances and validates the writing experience by moving it into the realm of real public discourse. BYU’s Writing and Rhetoric class already specifies a particular discourse community: the readers of the university’s newspaper, The Daily Universe. Because of this ready-made connection to real public discourse, new media can easily be integrated into the opinion editorial unit without modifying the main opinion editorial assignment or its grading rubric. There are at least three main ways to integrate new media in the composition classroom: (1) by teaching rhetorical principles through student participation in new media analysis; (2) by using new media during the writing process to help students develop ideas and begin to share them with an audience; and (3) by publishing the final opinion editorials through new media.

Teaching rhetorical principles provides a perfect opportunity to introduce students to real public discourse and actual discourse communities through new media texts. Rather than placing the burden of finding and analyzing new media discourse on the composition instructor, new media analysis assignments can be given to the students to supplement their reading on rhetoric. For example, in addition to reading an introductory chapter on writing and rhetoric, students can be given the following assignment: “After completing the reading, consider where rhetoric is being used to shape people’s opinions. Find an example posted this week on the web, type a three- to four-sentence analysis, and bring your example and analysis to class.” Similar assignments can be given for readings on rhetorical situation, kairos, rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos), fallacies, style and delivery, and elements of an argument (claims, reasons, and assumptions). In addition to encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning and helping them to synthesize their reading through application, these small assignments help students develop an awareness of the immense amount of rhetoric around them and how actual members of discourse communities use rhetoric to create change.

In addition to general assignments related to rhetorical principles, students should be directed toward new media genres that perform similar functions as the traditional print opinion editorial. Professor Cynthia L. Selfe recommends that students be given generic examples of conventional print texts (in this case, actual printed versions of opinion editorials in newspaper form, even if the editorials are also available online) and then assigned “to select texts that seem different from conventional print-based documents—some combination of still photography, video, sound, animation, and/or alphabetic text” that have similar voice-giving power as the opinion editorial (63). Selfe lists questions the students should consider and answer:

What makes this a new media text? How does it differ from a conventional print text? What particular elements make this text most effective for me as an audience? Why? What particular elements make this text least effective for me as an audience? Why? Who composed, designed the texts and why? What is the author’s/designer’s/ composer’s purpose? Who is the audience for these texts? Who is not? How can you tell? . . . Can you tell what kinds of software and hardware were used to create this new media text? (63)

Selfe further recommends “[compiling] a class list of the characteristics that effective new media texts have and [comparing] these characteristics to those of effective print texts” (63). This assignment may even be done as part of a class session held in a computer classroom; it need not provide extra homework for the students. This and other similar activities help fulfill Kathleen Yancey’s charge of developing a cross-generic sensibility in our students, something she sees as fundamental to writing in a new media age. As students “consider how to transfer what they have learned in one [writing] site and how that could or could not transfer to another [site],” they are better able to apply the skills they learn in the classroom to writing in the future and are able to “think about how these practices help prepare them to become members of a writing public” (311).

The students’ analysis of rhetoric within new media should be used to transition into using new media within the writing process of the opinion editorial in order to develop ideas and begin sharing them with an audience. Instructors should emphasize the discursive, interactive nature of ideas within new media forms, and give examples of how the ideas of one individual both develop and change as a result of his or her interactions with other members of the discourse communities. Throughout the writing process, students should participate in this same interactive process with their classmates and wider communities. This can occur either through Blackboard discussion boards or through a class blog by assigning students to post at various stages throughout the writing process. Students can post their topic choice, thesis statements, main support, argument development, and full drafts. In order to facilitate a “model of discourse,” instructors should require that students “read and respond to one another’s posts, and even . . . respond to one another’s responses” (Fernheimer and Nelson 18).

Perhaps the most desirable aspect of using online discussion boards or a class blog is the extended discourse and interaction it can create. Janice Fenheimer and Thomas Nelson argue that this technology can be employed to “[increase] student interactivity and engagement and collaboration between both instructors and students and students with other students” (20). Because fellow classmates are readers of The Daily Universe, they are part of the target audience for the opinion editorial. Online discussion with these classmates will help a student writer explore their ideas and their effect on an actual audience, moving the assignment into a real discussion and away from an activity with an artificial rhetorical situation that a student can dismiss by thinking, “Only my professor will ever read this.” This past semester, many of my students avoided major problems with their opinion editorial arguments simply because their peers were able to point out important counterarguments and give helpful suggestions after they posted their first paragraphs online. Sharing paper progress online makes it easier to get more comments from more students on each draft. Rather than bringing three or four copies to class and having other students spend twenty minutes reading and commenting on the draft, students can spend ten minutes outside of class continuing the discourse to significantly help their peers.

Another way to help students develop their arguments for the opinion editorial is to ask them to make their argument in a new media form. This should not be a time-consuming assignment; rather, it should focus on developing the argument and considering its strongest elements. One configuration of the assignment could read, “Take or find a picture that represents your strongest appeal to ethos, pathos, and logos. Each one of the three pictures can be accompanied by one sentence of text. Post the pictures and sentences along with your thesis on Blackboard/the class blog.” Like other posted elements of the opinion editorial, this becomes the starting point for online discussion with classmates. Discussion guidelines for this assignment should encourage students to help their peers develop their appeals and to consider both the effective and ineffective parts of the argument. This concise expression can also help students distill their ideas and help them to literally visualize the direction they hope to take the reader.

After working to develop their ideas through new media approaches, students should also be required to self-publish through new media. As a protopublic space, the end result of an assignment in the composition classroom cannot be a pile of papers on a professor’s desk. Unluckily, The Daily Universe cannot publish thousands of opinion editorials, nor do all of our students’ editorials deserve to be published in such a form. But they do deserve to be published in some form as part of real public discourse. This past semester, I required students to “publish” or share their opinion editorials in an online form of their choice. They then did a short write-up explaining why they choose this venue and the responses they received. One student sent his opinion editorial on “the parking problem” to a student running for vice president for BYU’s student association; his peer, who may soon be in a position to enact actual change, responded positively to his argument. One student—who argued about the role students need to take in fighting for Utah’s state parks—posted to a BYU sports forum that has a discussion thread about the outdoors. Another student simply continued a public discourse that she had started earlier in the semester. She posted the rough draft of her paper—on problems with the BYU Bookstore— on our class blog, and the director of the BYU Bookstore commented on her draft. As a result of this online comment, the bookstore director met with my student and helped her strengthen her paper. For the publishing assignment, she decided to email the bookstore director the final version of her paper. He responded to her with the following: “Thank you for the time you have taken to listen and consider the issues that face us all (faculty, students, and bookstore). With your permission, I would like to share your document with my marketing staff and textbook leadership. Let’s see what the bookstore can do with your suggestions. I appreciate your thoughts and perspective” (Reynolds). Another student was initially unhappy with my assignment to publish her work. She ultimately posted her opinion editorial on her facebook account, and “tagged” all of her friends that attend BYU so they would read it. In her post-assignment write- up, she wrote:

Actually publishing my opinion editorial makes me realize just how important writing really is. If you are writing an essay to be turned in, you do not think that it is that important. I mean, honestly, the only people reading it are you, your teacher, and maybe a small handful of students who edit it. Big deal. That does not mean anything. But if you actually go out there and make it so others can read it, you realize just what an effect your writing . . . can have. It’s kind of cool if you think about it. (Blake)

Taking advantage of students’ preexisting proficiencies in certain new media technologies both motivates students and provides them an opportunity for participation in real public discourse. This three-fold approach (teaching rhetorical principles through student participation in new media analysis, using new media during the writing process to help students develop ideas and begin to share them with an audience, and publishing the final opinion editorials through new media) supplements student learning through simple, new media options that teach them to be aware of the very real rhetorical situations in any public discourse.


Incorporating new media into the opinion editorial unit does place new responsibilities on instructors: to learn about and use new media, to redefine “what is good writing” within new media, to define grading expectations for new media assignments, and to give the students access to and instruction in new media technologies (DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill 17–22). For example, Fernheimer and Nelson spend pages exploring the problems of using blogs in the classroom, particularly when the classroom’s blog rules are not “clearly articulated and also enforced” (17). Few scholars have offered practical ways to grade new media writing; I personally have resorted to a simple weekly participation score (see appendix A). Another unresolved challenge facing composition is how to train instructors in these new technologies and then how these advanced technologies should actually be incorporated into the curriculum. In order to teach new media literacy, instructors must possess new media literacy.

Yet despite the challenges new media may present, if recent articles in College Composition and Communication are any indication, the world of composition is moving in the direction of new media, and we must move with it. “Low bridge” approaches to using new media in the classroom are available; new media analysis and writing can be incorporated into preexistent units and assignments such as the opinion editorial (Anderson 40). Yet when we begin to make the transition to new media, we must avoid the temptation of using new media for its own sake. Instead, we should focus on the qualities inherent in new media that magnify the potential of public discourse communities. As Kathleen Yancey emphasizes, we must consider “how these [new media] practices help prepare [students] to become members of a writing public” (311). New media creates great potential for the composition classroom if we take advantage of it. By participating in real public discourse through new media writing and publication, students can become active citizens in their communities and engaged writers in real public spheres.

Appendix A
: Sample Blog Assignment and Grading Rubric


This is an academic blog—posts and responses must conform to the standards of written, academic English. While this writing is not supposed to be polished to perfection, complete sentences are necessary, and errors in basic capitalization are unacceptable.

Students will be required to post on average three times a week. These posts should be about a paragraph long. Students will also be required to post at least six comments per week. These comments should be at least 1–2 sentences long. If someone comments on your post, it is recommended that you respond to their comment—this helps create dialogue. Posts and comments should not repeat what other class members have said; new insights should be given.

This should not be time-intensive—your three main posts per week should take you only 15–20 minutes each, and will supplement work or reading that you are already doing for the class.

Blog Specifications:

Our class blog page is rhetoriclog.blogspot.com. Assignments are posted on a separate blog, yourblogassignments.blogspot.com. The posts for the following week will be available each Friday afternoon.

Your “signature” should be either your first and last name (for example, “George Washington”) or, if you prefer more web anonymity, your first name and last initial (for example, “George W.”).

Your posts must be made before class on the day they are due. All of your comments must be made before Saturday at noon. However, you will receive more points if you post your comments throughout the week instead of all at once. Comments must be made on the current week’s posts.


Each week you can earn up to ten points on your blog.

10 points This is awarded to excellent blog contributions. The student made three main posts that completed the assignments, provided good analysis/insight, and were at least one paragraph long. The student made at least six comments, but more importantly, they participated in genuine discourse, real dialogue with their peers. The comments were posted throughout the week in order to facilitate real dialogue. In sum, a ten is awarded for stellar performance not only in regards to the number of contributions or their length, but also in regards to quality.
8–9 points This is awarded to very good blog contributions. The student completed the assignment with three main posts and six comments of the right length. The comments were mostly spread throughout the week. These contributions were insightful and contributed to dialogue with peers. In addition to meeting the number of contributions and their length requirement, the student’s contributions were very good in regards to quality.
6–7 points This is awarded to average contributions. The student made at least 2 main posts and at least 4 comments. If the student did make 3 posts and 6 comments, then the student either submitted work of poor quality, did not engage in community dialogue, or did not truly complete the assignment. The student may also have waited to post most of their comments until the very last minute. In regards to number of contributions, length requirement, and/or quality, the student’s performance was only average.
Less than 5 This is awarded to poor contributions, such as 0–1 posts and 3 or fewer comments, or any work which does not fulfill the assignment.

Note: To see examples of student blog posts, visit rhetoriclog.blogspot.com. To see examples of blog post assignments, visit yourblogassignments.blogspot.com.



Works Cited

Anderson, Daniel. “The Low Bridge to High Benefits: Entry-Level Multimedia, Literacies, and Motivation.” Computers and Composition 25 (2008): 40–60.

Blake, Cara. “Publishing (I was not feeling creative today, do not judge).” Rhetoric (B)log. 10 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009. <http://rhetoriclog.blogspot.com/2009/02/publishing-i-was-not- feeling-creative.html>.

DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole, Ellen Cushman, and Jeffrey T. Grabill. “Infrastructure and Composing: The When of New-Media Writing.” CCC 57 (2005): 14–44.

Eberly, Rosa A. “From Writers, Audiences, and Communities to Publics: Writing Classrooms as Protopublic Spaces.” Rhetoric Review 18 (1999): 165–78.

Fernheimer, Janice Wendi, and Thomas J. Nelson. “Bridging the Composition Divide: Blog Pedagogy and the Potential for Agonistic Classrooms.” Currents in Electronic Literacy 9 (Fall 2005). 22 May 2009. <http://currents.cwrl.utexas.edu/fall05/fernheimernelson. html>.

Penrod, Diane. Composition in Convergence: The Impact of New Media on Writing Assessment. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005.

Reynolds, Roger. “Re: Opinion Editorial.” E-mail to Nicole Petersen. 11 Feb 2009.

Rice, Jeff. “Networks and New Media.” College English 69 (2006): 127–33.

Selfe, Cynthia L. “Students Who Teach Us: A Case Study of A New Media Text Designer.” Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. Ed. Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc. Logan: Utah State UP, 2004. 43–66.

Simmons, W. Michele and Jeffrey T. Grabill. “Toward a Civic Rhetoric for Technologically and Scientifically Complex Places: Invention, Performance, and Participation.” CCC 58 (2007): 419–48.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” CCC 56 (2004): 297–328.