I often begin the semester with a stack of blank pages, asking each student to freewrite about their experiences with writing, including anything they know, think, or feel. We then tape these pages on the wall and talk about what we notice. I open with this activity primarily because discussing shared experiences helps our class begin to build into a community of writers. However, one consistent trend among these experiences also helps me set up the frame for our class. These pages are always filled with rules: “write three to five sentences per paragraph;” “include a works cited page;” “don’t use contractions.” This stands out because my research in digital rhetoric makes me attuned to the ways that rules and procedures, as the structuring principle of 21st century technologies and communication, are expressive and persuasive. Although students may expect to add to their list of rules in my class, I instead encourage experimentation and reflection with the ways that rules, including those now hanging on our walls, affect their lives.
My central goal is to teach for the demands of 21st century literacies, including procedurality, multimodality, and the rise of writing. Because I believe learning happens by doing, I ask to students to experiment with composing, in textual, procedural, and other multimodal forms. After my Introduction to College Composition students have drafted a short literacy narrative, I then ask them to remediate their story into a hypertext game, and this means that students tell their story not only with words, but also rules that shape a reader’s experience of those words. One student’s literacy narrative explored her frustration with writing an essay’s concluding sentence as she wondered “how many times can a person write and rewrite a single sentence?” In her game, she places the player in front of that daunting final sentence and wrote a “click-replace” procedure that causes words, when clicked, to turn into synonyms. As the words change and refuse to settle into a final sentence, she procedurally expresses frustration for her audience and shows how the rules of digital spaces have expressive potential. This experiment in writing with procedures matters because 21st century writers need to understand how expression and persuasion occur not in each individual digital media form, but through the underlying procedures themselves.
Experimental compositions such as this are supported in my teaching by an emphasis on reflection. Because I recognize the risk students must take in new compositions, particularly in multimodal forms, I prioritize student reflection on their composing processes and goals when assessing portfolios. I also make reflection central to the final assignment for my introductory and intermediate composition courses to stress the importance of these 21st century literacies to their writing futures. After finding a job listing for their desired profession, students put together an application, including a resume and cover letter. In this cover letter, I ask students to draw on only their experiences in the course as evidence for their qualifications. After some brainstorming activities, students are able to break down the elements, skills, or experiences that might speak to their future writing lives. This reflection allowed one nursing student to make connections between creating an infographic with communicating patient information to different audiences, such as doctors and patients. By stressing reflection across my course, I aim to give students not only the confidence to experiment with multimodal forms but also to help them anticipate the demands on their writing lives posed by the rise of writing.
But I want my students to do more than explore procedurality and multimodality; I want them to learn that writing itself is a system shaped by rules. In my teaching, this means that I often focus on genre, particularly by pushing on the edges of a genre’s rules to help us understand how it works. In a sequence on information literacy, I asked students to compose a piece of “fake news,” which as a relatively new genre, can be difficult to define. We then develop a definition through attention to the rules students had followed, knowing or unknowingly, in their compositions, to develop genre awareness. I further emphasize that writing rules themselves are rhetorical—they have authors, audiences, histories, contexts, and purposes. The capstone assignment for my Intermediate Composition course, “Bad Writing,” asks students to explore the rhetorical force of a particular writing rule, such as to “be clear” or “don’t plagiarize.” One group considered why profanity isn’t allowed in academic writing, but their inquiry led them to broader social norms on gender and profanity. This led them to reflect not only on how writing rules are contextual including having different rules than men in their families and particular social and historical contexts of profane language about women. This project exposed the rhetorical forces of a rule that is so accepted in their everyday literacy practices as to be invisible, and this matters because looking at writing through its rules not only challenges what writing is but also what writing does.
My research on digital rhetoric also leads me to see the value of technology as a tool for teaching and learning. As the Digital Studies Teaching Assistant, I helped design a semester-long assignment that asked students to actively engage by tweeting during a large lecture course. By using technology as a learning tool, students could ask questions, provide examples, and discuss lecture content in a new way. More recently, when students in my Intermediate Composition course expressed concern over divisions among students in a particularly politically charged climate, one action I took was to incorporate survey software into our discussions. By posing a discussion question to the class first via anonymous survey, students had a new way to participate. I then used these answers to springboard conversation and amplify the voices of students who may not have otherwise been heard. By approaching technology through its pedagogical affordances, I was able to encourage more equitable participation.
My commitment to teaching has grown deeper thanks to the wide variety of experience I’ve had at UW-Madison and the University of Alabama. I’ve designed introductory and intermediate composition courses and led discussion sections for a variety of topics. My commitments to digital pedagogy have given me further teaching opportunities, such as designing and leading the UW-Madison English department’s first online large lecture course and serving as Assistant Director of English 100. These experiences have shown me the centrality of teaching to my scholarly identity and challenged me to understand that experimentation and reflection are central to both learning and teaching.
On the final day of the semester, we end with one more blank sheet of paper, freewriting again about writing. This time, however, I also return their first sheet of paper. Rules appear on both pages, but instead of a list of commands, rules now appear much more contextualized, often appearing next to qualifiers like “sometimes” or with notes about how a rule can also have negative consequences, such as exclusion of certain voices. Ultimately, I believe that I’ve helped students prepare for the demands of 21st century literacies if they can recognize and interrogate the rules—digital and analog, obvious and invisible—at play in their rhetorical and writing lives.