Experimental Course: Media Writing and Online Audience Interaction

New Media Writing and Online Audience Interaction

Katherine Cowley


This experimental section focused on incorporating new media writing into the English 150 classroom by teaching students to analyze and write new media. New media consists of new forms of rhetoric and communication, often found online, that rely on multiple modes of persuasion (for instance, using a combination of words and images) and often focus on collaboration between audience and author. The course used new media tools to create a workshop environment (through collaborating with peers and receiving feedback from readers throughout the writing process), used new media principles to enhance writing (through layout and design, integration of images into writing), and used new media to reach an audience (through online distribution and publishing of writing).

The blog: Throughout the semester, students contributed to a shared class blog. This was a blog focused on the process of writing and developing ideas, and receiving feedback through discussion with peers. Students posted 1-3 entries every week, and were required to constructively respond to the posts of at least three other peers for each entry. Blog assignments included paper brainstorms, examples of rhetoric, writing reflections, and introductory paragraphs. The online writing format also made our class blog open to the general public. All real world writing has an intended audience, but in addition to these intended readers, real world writing is also read and commented on by unintended audiences.

Google Documents: The blog format is not conducive to all the needs of writing collaboration, especially in longer forms and detailed peer review. For full paper drafts and many of the issues paper segments, students shared their writing as a Google document with their instructor and their peers. Students were required to use the commenting function within Google Documents.

Opinion Editorial/Opinion Writings: During the first semester in which I taught this experimental section, students wrote a standard opinion editorial, developing their ideas through the collaborative class blog. Students were then required to “publish” or distribute their editorial to an actual audience; this could be through posting to an online forum, emailing the individual with an ability to make change, posting it on a dorm notice wall, etc. During the second semester students wrote a collection of shorter opinion writings which totaled 3-5 pages. These included comments on news stories and articles, persuasive paragraphs and letters (to senators, letters to the editor) and other short persuasive forms commonly used online. In their written reflections, students shared how they distributed these forms to real audiences.

Rhetorical Analysis: Students analyzed an online, new media text for written, visual, and interactive techniques and overall persuasiveness to an audience. In preparation for the rhetorical analysis, students learned to analyze audience and literary techniques, as well as those techniques specific to visual and new media rhetoric. Students wrote the analysis not as a traditional printed paper, but as a formal, more-developed blog post; students were required to incorporate visuals and use blog formatting conventions (use of spacing, heading, bullet points, and short paragraphs). Students were also invited to show an awareness of blog audience by making the analysis interesting, readable, and relevant.

Issues Paper: Students wrote a traditional 8-10 page research paper, with MLA conventions. Students chose a focus within a new media issue/topic.

Multimodal Composing Project: In groups, students took one of the group member’s issues papers and turned it into an interactive, multimodal webpage.

In addition to the standard textbooks (Writing and Rhetoric and The Penguin Handbook) students were assigned Seeing and Writing 3, a collection of texts—word-based, image-based, and mixed form—to be used as a topics reader. This text included examples of new media writing and introduced new media issues for the issues paper.


Cicero wrote that the purpose of rhetoric is to teach, to move, and to delight. More and more, this communication is happening online and/or in new media forms. New media literacy is necessary in order for individuals to participate purposefully in meaningful debate and conversations. Simmons and Grabill argue this point in their 2007 CCC article: “The spaces in which public deliberation most often takes place are institutionally, technologically, and scientifically complex…in order to participate, citizens must be able to invent valued knowledge” (419).

Teaching an experimental section allowed my class to focus more on new media texts, new media issues, and new media writing in a more general sense. In sharing their writing online, students were meant to experience the power of rhetoric in action and learn to respond to and engage with actual audiences (their class and others). Process, peer review, and workshopping were focused on throughout the semester through the sharing of writing and responding to feedback.

Students also had the opportunity to practice analyzing and incorporating visual and new media rhetoric throughout the semester rather than just in the final project.

While certain aspects of each assignment were modified, the overall structure of the course was maintained, as was the purpose of each major assignment. The goal was to integrate new media writing into the existing curriculum. The issues paper remained the same—it is a valuable, standard style of academic writing that requires rigorous research and thought that sadly is not often seen in new media writing.

Many of my ideas for the experimental section were found during the research for my master’s thesis, on using new media in the composition classroom. Recommended scholars for further reading include Fernheimer and Nelson, Gouge, Penrod, Rice, and Yancey.


The focus on new media writing engaged students and made the writing they were doing more relevant to their lives. Students produced excellent work in traditional genres—opinion editorial, rhetorical analysis, and issues paper—and enhanced both the process and product through new media approaches. Students also successfully produced their own new media writing.

At first students were intimidated with the prospect of sharing their writing with peers and online audiences. Ultimately they found it fulfilling and rewarding; at the end of the semester, most students praised the online collaboration facilitated by the class blog and sharing the opinion editorial with an audience. As always occurs in peer review situations, the comments of some students were more helpful than others.

Integrating visuals and blog principles into the rhetorical analysis was in many ways more challenging for students, but it also produced the most thoughtful, interesting, and analytical rhetorical analyses that I have received. Students in the second semester of the class had the advantage of good examples to follow. Having already worked with images and design also made the final multimodal project easier for students, and allowed some of the groups to move into more complex and persuasive forms of new media rhetoric.

New media was a fertile topic for the semester; students were easily able to find topics they cared about for the issues paper. The new media writing that occurred throughout the semester did not replace traditional writing, but rather worked together with it to help students achieve the course goals. Overall, students were grateful for the integration of new media writing into the curriculum, and the things that this integration taught them about writing and rhetoric.

Future Directions

If I teach this experimental section again, I will further refine blog post assignments, and experiment with other ways in which the blog can be used to develop writing skills. One writing classroom tradition that I believe would enhance my class blog is that of the writing journal.

I would also like to give more rigorous and useful feedback on new media elements of assignments. This will require a better development of a shared new media vocabulary between students and the instructor which allows for constructive, in-depth feedback.

In teaching this experimental section, I learned that it is worth taking risks as an instructor. If an instructor has a strong theoretical basis and a willingness to respond to student feedback throughout the semester, she can try new things and by doing so reach course outcomes and goals. After teaching this course, I truly believe that new media writing is essential for students and for writers generally. While new media writing should not replace what we do as 150 instructors, we need to take steps, even if it is at times uncomfortable or challenging for us, to incorporate new media into our teaching and our assignments.

Works Cited

Fernheimer, Janice Wendi, and Thomas J. Nelson. “Bridging the Composition Divide: Blog Pedagogy and the Potential for Agonistic Classrooms.” Currents in Electronic Literacy 9 (2005): n. pag. Web. 22 May 2009.

Gouge, Catherine. “Conversation at a Crucial Moment: Hybrid Courses and the Future of Writing Programs.” College English 71.4 (2009): 338-62. Print.

Penrod, Diane. Using Blogs to Enhance Literacy: the Next Powerful Step in 21st-Century Learning. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print.

Rice, Jeff. The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2007. Print.

Simmons, W. Michele and Jeffrey T. Grabill. “Toward a Civic Rhetoric for Technologically and Scientifically Complex Places: Invention, Performance, and Participation.” CCC 58.3 (2007): 419-48. Print.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” CCC 56.2 (2004): 297-328. Print.


View the course syllabus here: Cowley_Syllabus