New Media and Writing 150

New Media and Writing 150:

Same Principles, New Platforms

Courtney Beesley

Email. Text messaging. YouTube. Google. Facebook. Wikipedia. Everyday, our students spend hours exposed to these and other technologies. They scour YouTube for the latest hilarious low-budget Claymation video. They text their friends about the cute new physical science TA. They upload pictures from last weekend’s basketball game to Facebook and painstakingly add captions for each one. If our students dedicate so much of their time to new media, shouldn’t we at least acknowledge that in our writing classrooms? Of course, students usually use technology recreationally; they procrastinate writing our papers by reading some celebrity’s Twitter feed or by wasting time with any number of other media distractions. But couldn’t it potentially help our students to understand writing and the processes behind it if we harness some of the power of new media to teach composition?

Our students use these forms of new media already, and I believe that incorporating them on a more daily basis into the first-year writing classroom, specifically Brigham Young University’s Writing 150, would help students to both understand the principles of composition and to apply them in real-life situations. To most instructors of the younger generations, it is clear that new media can be an effective tool if used wisely and carefully; I want to convince more established instructors that they can also use new media techniques in their classrooms. We can use new media platforms to teach the same principles we already have in our curriculum; not only will this provide a way to capture the interest of our students but we will also be able to introduce them to digital literacy and how to become more fluent in the language of technology. While more traditional techniques (hand writing, collaborating in class, etc.) can still be effective, using new media activities to teach the same principles allows students to become more academically familiar with the technologies they already use everyday. For each unit of the Writing 150 course, we can apply new media principles to teach important, though sometimes abstract, concepts.

A Definition of Terms

I am focusing here on the concept of “new media,” but this term may be somewhat foreign or unclear. For my purposes, new media includes internet genres which have a writing component, like social networking sites, Wikipedia, blogging, Google documents, email, and instant messaging. In many cases, these internet genres also feature other visual modes, allowing the creator to embed videos or make specific design choices. I also want to include music and video technology in my discussion of new media; I have found that students respond favorably to lessons that ask them to analyze commercials or YouTube videos, but I think I can refine this by choosing videos more thoughtfully. By using these technologies in the classroom, students would be able to work with multiple modes on a regular basis.

I will also discuss the concept of digital literacy, as differentiated from alphabetic literacy. We have traditionally focused on the reading and writing of words, but, with new media technologies, we can also read and interpret online texts which are composed of many different elements, from sidebar ads to hyperlinks to website soundtracks. If we educate our students in digital literacy, they will be better prepared to use new media to its full capabilities.

Discovering New Literacies

Though the push for teaching multiple “literacies” in the classroom has existed for many years, we are now facing great pressure to show an interest in visual or digital literacy, especially in courses with a rhetoric bent. We are most familiar with alphabetic literacy, our experience with the written word. As instructors in the humanities, and in composition specifically, we find comfort in old technologies, like books. Books are always there, and they have become so conventional that “our recognition of the material conditions associated with books have faded into the background of our imagination” (Selfe 413). Students don’t need any training in how to use a book—there is no button they need to push to start reading. We have become complacent in existing technologies, which means we generally ignore the newer literacies that emerge.

This ignorance could be harmful to our students, though. What if digital literacy is the next alphabetic literacy? Students encounter rhetoric everyday online, in banner ads or in Facebook status updates; they see these displays and they might recognize that they are rhetorical, but they might not know how to treat them critically, which is where we as composition instructors come in. Though we might be wary of this concept, our students “have a much richer imagination for what we might accomplish with the visual” than we currently address and understand (George 12). While it can seem daunting to try to learn a new mode of teaching, it is also clear now that digital rhetoric is here to stay. Some may say that teachers cannot teach everything in the course of a semester; it is important to focus on the most essential topics and skill sets. We have to beware of overburdening the students with what we think is important information. But, at the same time, I believe that we can also provide students with options, tools they can choose from. If they have many options from the array of literacies, alphabetic, digital, and whatever else, they will be better prepared to communicate what they want or need to say in any situation.

New Media: Is It Our Responsibility?

Though it seems almost obvious to me that we should be thinking about ways in which we can introduce new media into the composition classroom, it so not so obvious to some. Is it really the responsibility of the writing teacher to teach his or her students digital literacy? Should we just assume that students come to the university with this knowledge and let them figure it out on their own from there? Or should computer classes teach students about new media? Should we really be asking questions of the instructors themselves, who just might be too lazy to learn something new? Granted, there may not be concrete proof that new media helps students to learn how to write. Most teachers do not feel the urgency to adapt their curriculum to a concept whose worth is really only speculative, which is understandable.

However, many scholars are in agreement that composition instructors should not be ignoring the steady rise of new media. If our students are constantly connected to some technology, we should probably take advantage of that. In her chair’s address at the 2004 Conference on College Composition and Communication, Kathleen Blake Yancey compares current trends with those in nineteenth-century Victorian England which led to the first writing circles and communities. Now, those same concepts have moved to the new media sphere; writers have self-organized into “newly imagined communities…that cross borders of all kinds—nation state, class, gender, ethnicity” (Yancey 301). Writers can compose in chat rooms, on blogs, in Facebook comments, on Wikipedia, and they can get feedback from people all over the world. New writing practices are emerging, and we can capitalize on that. As Cynthia Selfe argued in 1999, the issue is no longer whether we should incorporate new media into our curriculum but how much it should be a part of our classrooms. She accuses composition instructors of being complacent with the old technologies they are familiar with and urges them to pay attention to the trends around them. We can actually use new media to our advantage, since it is possible that students really do learn better using technologies they use everyday. And if it can help our students, we should probably try it.

But, the argument has been made that the writing classroom is not the place for a lesson in how to use the internet or how Wikipedia works. We are supposed to be teaching writing, not spending the whole semester letting our students play on Facebook. In some cases where the composition classroom is completely online, students have reported feeling isolated. They feel they benefit more from face-to-face interaction than from an online discussion board (Boyd 226). However, I am not proposing that we take Writing 150 to the web and nothing else; rather, we need to have more of a balance between the “communal richness and face-to-face complexity” and the innovations of technology (Anson 263). As it is, the majority of our time in class is spent practicing the technologies we have been using for decades (pen, pencil, paper, textbooks), and maybe it is time for us to catch up to the present.

But what if addressing the issue of new media is actually going to teach students about writing? What if “digital literacy” really relates to other, more traditionally accepted literacies? In fact, as Cynthia Selfe says, we cannot afford to ignore the relationship between technology and literacy any longer. She points out that, quoting a Digest of Education Statistics figure, “approximately 70% of jobs requiring a bachelors degree or an advanced college degree now require the use of computers” (415). As composition instructors, we have a responsibility to make sure our students are literate in the technologies they will be expected to know once they leave the university and move into the job market. I would like to extend Selfe’s argument and provide specific ways in which we can utilize new media in the writing classroom and actually teach valuable writing skills. Students today already have different skills than those who have come before; if we can put those skills to good use, students should only benefit.

What We Are Doing Right

Our current Writing 150 curriculum includes a multimodal argument assignment, which asks students to create a persuasive poster, brochure, proposal, or website using two or more “modes” besides writing. Every other writing assignment in our class relies on alphabetic literacy, so the multimodal argument serves as our nod to the burgeoning digital and visual rhetoric movement. The assignment is also based on the fact that students have already learned, in our class, about rhetorical strategies and the art of crafting an argument, on paper or word processor. The multimodal argument allows students to apply what they have learned in a setting that is probably more accessible to them than the traditional academic paper; they model their arguments (a website, in my class) from other successful arguments they have encountered in their everyday lives.

In many ways, our Writing 150 curriculum is ahead of the curve. Many writing programs still do not incorporate new media into their basic courses at all. We have acknowledged that digital and visual literacy are important and that our students can learn something about writing (or at least argumentation) from new media assignments. On top of that, the students seem to enjoy working on an assignment that allows them to be creative, even if they aren’t completely familiar with the medium. For example, only two students in my class had any prior experience with creating or maintaining a website or website design, but all of them have become immersed in the assignment. They quickly figured out the website designers they were using and then started putting things together, and they actually seemed excited about being persuasive, which was something new for me.

We have a great assignment that incorporates new media and allows students to practice creating in a familiar space, but could we be doing more? It seems clear that alphabetic literacy will remain important, and I don’t know that we’ll ever replace the academic paper with an academic website. However, it also seems clear that new media is here to stay; our students will continue to use new technologies everyday, and if we don’t keep up with that growth, the writing classroom might be left behind.

New Media Lessons and Activities for Each Major Unit

I have just discussed the benefits of the multimodal argument and how we can further incorporate new media into our teaching in that unit. However, I also believe that we can use new media to teach and solidify concepts in each of the other three units in the Writing 150 course. We teach several difficult concepts, and new media can help our students better understand those more elusive principles.

We begin the semester with the opinion editorial assignment, where students first learn and apply rhetorical strategies to identify a problem and present it to the BYU community. They must try to convince this audience that something is wrong and that their solution is the best one. In this unit, we introduce the rhetorical triangle—writer, reader, and issue—and composition concepts, like thesis statements and revision. To teach the rhetorical triangle, I could ask students to find a blog post, possibly from one of their own blogs or one they visit, and identify its audience, author, and the issue that is being addressed. Then, a few students could share their blog post and what they came up with. This would then lead to a class discussion about how, in writing, we have to be aware of ourselves as authors, our audience, and the ideas we are trying to present. When we talk about thesis statements, after each student has chosen a tentative topic for the Opinion Editorial, I would have them post their theses as a Twitter tweet (a maximum of 140 characters) and ask for feedback—how do people react to the statement? Is it initially unacceptable? Are there counterarguments that become apparent? Not only would the theses have to be concise, but this would also introduce the students to the benefits of being a part of a writing community where ideas are shared and tweaked with little fear of looking foolish. These are only a few ideas, but we can use new media to pique our students’ interest and help them see that writing and writing principles are all around them.

After the opinion editorial, we move on to the rhetorical analysis, asking students to look at an article in our topics readers and pick apart the argument and rhetorical strategies of the author. In this unit, we talk about evaluating arguments, introduce specific rhetorical tools like diction and figurative language, and discuss the differences between analysis and summary. Once each student has chosen an article to evaluate, I would have them post a summary of the main points of the article on our class blog. Everyone would be able to look at the different articles and evaluate whether the author’s argument was successful or not. Students could comment on the summaries, which would help each individual student author to know which points to bring up in his or her rhetorical analysis. This would also help the students to distinguish between summary and analysis; when they write the summary, they see that they aren’t making any judgment calls about the validity or effectiveness of the argument. When they read student comments, though, they will be able to see what generally works and what doesn’t in their article and begin to think about why that is. Because many songs have poetic lyrics, I might ask students to find a song with an example of diction or metaphor and why those choices are important. Why does the composer or lyricist choose that specific word? What does the metaphor mean and how does that meaning relate to the rest of the song? This was one of the concepts that was hardest for me to explain and adequately cover in this unit, and using music to illustrate the use of rhetorical strategies would help students to see that authors have multiple rhetorical tools available to them.

Our last major paper is the issues paper, where students must create an argument and present evidence to support that stance. I like to explain that they are doing the same things they did in the opinion editorial, but now they can bring outside sources to back up their own ideas, and they can also rely more on their own authority because they have learned how to create an effective argument. To illustrate the importance of evaluating sources before using them, we could look at Wikipedia, which allows multiple users to add or delete information on a page. Because anyone can say whatever they want on Wikipedia, it might not be the most credible source. However, Wikipedia authors are often required to cite the sources they use, so we can use Wikipedia as a source for sources. In one lesson this semester, I introduced the class to scholarly research by showing different features of Google, like the Wonder Wheel, which suggests other topics related to the original search terms, and Google Scholar, which pulls up articles that have been peer-reviewed and that students can access through the Harold B. Lee Library. We also spend a few days on peer review and revision. I would have students upload their drafts as Google documents; first, they would review each other’s papers in smaller peer review groups. The reviewers could make comments and changes directly in the draft, allowing the author to see what suggestions they have. The instructor could also access these drafts and add comments or just monitor the peer review itself. Then, because each student is looking at other papers and observing which strategies work and which don’t, each student can also take those observations back to his or her own draft.

These are only a few suggestions, but they show that new media can be incorporated into the Writing 150 classroom to help teach the core principles we want our students to learn. With some effort and thought, we can use new media platforms on a more daily basis to show students that writing isn’t just something they do for a college class; they write everyday, and those skills they already know can help them in the classroom and can be used to our advantage.

The Case for Balance

Writing 150 at Brigham Young University is an effective class. Our program administrators have worked hard to provide students with opportunities to develop many different skills in many different situations. Our writing assignments focus on various things, from a more creative opinion editorial to the more formulaic rhetorical analysis, which teaches students to think about and read a text critically. We end with the issues paper, in which students demonstrate their understanding of persuasion and research. And, of course, we have the multimodal argument, for which the last two weeks of class are spent learning frantically about visual design principles and various new media.

I feel that we need more of a balance between the traditional writing classroom activities and the less familiar territory of new media. If we work to incorporate these new media principles into the curriculum of the entire course or semester, our students will not only be more prepared for the multimodal argument but they will also be better prepared for real life, which will most likely not be filled with rushwrites or written rhetorical analyses. In reality, the job market and beyond will require our students to have a functioning knowledge of the capabilities and nuances of technology. By adding new media lessons and activities into our daily lesson plans, we will be able to introduce students to digital literacy and also better teach them how to write.



Works Cited

Anson, Chris M. “Distant Voices: Teaching and Writing in a Culture of Technology.” College English 61.3 (1999): 261-80. Print.

Boyd, Patricia Webb. “Analyzing Students’ Perceptions of Their Learning in Online and Hybrid First-Year Composition Courses.” Computers and Composition 25.2 (2008): 224-243. Print.

George, Diana. “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing.” CCC 54.1 (2002): 11-39. Print.

Selfe, Cynthia. “Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention.” CCC 50.3 (1999): 411-436. Print.

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