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Head, Samuel L. Burke’s Identification in Facebook. C&C, Mar. 2016. Posted 05/10/2016.

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Head, Samuel L. “Teaching Grounded Audiences: Burke’s Identification in Facebook and Composition.” Computers and Composition 39 (2016): 27-40. Web. 05 May 2016.

Samuel L. Head uses Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification to argue for Facebook as a pedagogical tool to increase students’ audience awareness in composition classes.

Head cites a range of scholarship that recognizes the rhetorical skills inherent in students’ engagement with social media, particularly Facebook, and that urges composition specialists to take up this engagement with “very real audiences” (27) to encourage transfer of this kind of audience connection to academic writing (27-28, 29). Noting that, according to the National Research Council, new learning depends on “transfer based on previous learning” (qtd. in Head 28), Head contends that, while much scholarship has explored what Facebook and other digital media have to offer, “the pedagogy of transfer with students’ previous experience and prior knowledge of audience in social media requires more scholarly analysis” (28).

In Head’s view, among the skills developed by participation in social media is the ability to adjust content to different audiences in varied contexts (28). He offers Burkeian identification as a means of theorizing this process and providing practices to encourage transfer. Further analysis of transfer comes from work by D. N. Perkins and Gavriel Salomon, who distinguish between “low road transfer” and “high road transfer.”

Low-road transfer occurs when a learner moves specific skills between fairly similar environments; Head’s example is the use of cooking skills learned at home to a restaurant setting. High-road transfer, in contrast, involves using skills in very different contexts. This kind of transfer requires abstract thinking and reflection in order to recognize the applicability of skills across disparate domains (30). Burke’s theory, Head writes, offers a means of evoking the kind of reflection needed to facilitate high-road transfer from the very different contexts of Facebook and a writing class (30, 31).

Head reports on Burke’s identification as a means of persuasion, distinguishing between classical rhetoric’s focus on deliberate efforts at persuasion and the “subconscious” aspects of identification (32); without identification, according to Dennis Day, persuasion cannot occur (cited in Head 31). Identification allows communicators to show that they are “consubstantial” with audiences, thus “bridg[ing] division” (31). This process invokes shared values in order to win audience adherence to new ideas (32).

Head explores aspects of identification theory, including “cunning” identification in which the values shared between audiences are not genuine but are rather created to generate persuasive identification and therefore work to the extent that the audience believes them to be genuine (32). In particular, he notes analysis by George Cheney that discovers “three main strategies” in Burke’s theory: “[t]he common ground technique,” which focuses on shared aspects; “[i]dentification through antithesis,” or the establishment of a “common enemy”; and “[t]he assumed or transcendent ‘we,'” to create group allegiance (qtd. in Head 32). Current scholarship such as that of Tonja Mackey supports Head’s claim that components of identification inform regular Facebook interaction (33).

Head reports on Facebook’s algorithm for determining how users connect with friends. This process, according to Eli Pariser, creates a “filter bubble” as Facebook attempts to present material of interest to each user (qtd. in Head 33). Head suggests that students may not be aware that this “filter bubble” may be concealing more complex combinations of ideas and information; introduction to the theory of identification in the classroom may make them more alert to the strategies that both link them to like-minded audiences and that direct them away from more challenging encounters (33).

Postings by an anonymous “example Facebook user” illustrate the three Burkeian strategies pointed out by Cheney as they inform a Facebook timeline (34). This user establishes common ground by sharing photos and posts that reflect a religious affiliation as well as an interest in fantasy that connects him to many friends. He establishes a common enemy by posting and then collecting likes in opposition to “mandated health care” (34). Finally, he generates a sense of the “transcendent ‘we'” by appealing to group membership in a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) experience (34). These examples, in Head’s view, demonstrate the degree to which identification is a natural component of Facebook interactions.

For Head, the transfer of this inherent identification to an academic environment involves explicit instruction in the theory of identification as well as reflection on the students’ part as to how these actions can be applied in more formal or novel settings. Students can recognize the strategies and moves that constitute identification in their own Facebook interactions and then can locate similar moves in other types of writing, finally applying them consciously as they connect with academic audiences (35).

Head contends that more teachers need to use platforms familiar to students, like Facebook, to teach rhetorical skills and awareness; he urges teachers to share their experiences with these media and to publish analyses of their findings (36). He reports that his own students enjoyed beginning their rhetorical curriculum with a medium with which they were already engaged, using their own work as a starting point (35). He concludes with a schedule of suggested assignments for making the tenets of identification visible in Facebook and transferring awareness of them to academic projects (36-39).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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