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Vetter, Matthew A. Editing Wikipedia as Pedagogy for Cultural Critique. CE, May 2018. Posted 05/22/2018.

Vetter, Matthew A. “Teaching Wikipedia: Appalachian Rhetoric and the Encyclopedic Politics of Representation.” College English 80.5 (2018): 397-422. Print.

Matthew A. Vetter writes about a study in a junior-level rhetoric and writing course in which he used Wikipedia as a focus for the course and as a primary teaching tool (399). He argues that designing a curriculum in which students actively participate in Wikipedia editing can serve dual goals of meeting general education and composition learning outcomes while also introducing students to cultural critique (400).

The course, which took place in a university in a region of Ohio that is considered part of Appalachia, used depictions of Appalachia in media and in Wikipedia to introduce issues of cultural representation while also allowing students to gain from the particular affordances Wikipedia offers (399).

Vetter notes that while Wikipedia is often excoriated by college and university instructors, scholarship in composition has credited the project with important qualities useful for teaching writing (397, 402). Scholars claim that Wikipedia provides an “authentic” writing environment that engages students with real, potentially responsive audiences in the collaborative construction of knowledge (397). Students working in this environment can “deconstruct authority in public and ‘published’ texts” and can gain firsthand experience in the process of editing and revision (397).

Vetter recounts as well critiques that challenge Wikipedia’s claim to provide “universal access and representation” (398). He cites statistics indicating that the “editorship” is “overwhelmingly make and homogenous” (398). Further, the site marginalizes certain geographic and cultural locations and issues through lack of representation and often through representation from an “outsider perspective” (398).

For Vetter, this disparity in representation affects the ways Wikipedia addresses marginalized areas of Western culture, such as Appalachia. Involving students with Wikipedia’s depiction of Appalachia, in Vetter’s view, gives them access to the ways that representation functions through media and rhetoric and allows them to see their ability to intervene through writing as a potential force for change (399).

Vetter found that a significant minority of his students considered themselves connected to Appalachia (407); 17 students participated in the study (401). The course design allowed all students to engage both with the issue of representation of Appalachia in media and with the rhetorical nature and “cultural politics” of Wikipedia as a source of information (416), with implications for how rhetoric and writing construct realities.

Students began by examining depictions of Appalachia in mainstream media, moved on to group genre analysis of Wikipedia articles, and finally chose Wikipedia pieces on Appalachia to edit, drawing on their research as well as their personal experiences as residents of an Appalachian region (400). Students also wrote two in-class “process logs,” one asking them to reflect on what they had learned about rhetorical treatment of Appalachia and one calling for consideration of how their engagement with Wikipedia had changed as a result of the course (401). Coding of the process logs allowed Vetter to detect themes shared across many responses.

Vetter explores scholarship on teaching with Wikipedia within composition studies, finding an interest in the ways using Wikipedia as a site for writing can enable a shift from consumption to production (403). He argues that Wikipedia is an example of a “[c]ommunity-based pedagog[y]” that, by offering “exposure to multiple authorities and audiences,” contributes to students’ rhetorical knowledge (403). In Vetter’s view, scholarship has tended to focus on the contribution to general learning outcomes enabled by Wikipedia-based assignments; he contends that this focus “should be expanded” to exploit what the site can teach about the rhetorical nature of representation and about the processes that result in the marginalization of “cultures and identities” (404).

The first class project, examining representations of Appalachia in mainstream sources, asked students to examine Appalachia as a “social invention” created through writing (404). This “symbolic construction” (404) of the region, Vetter argues, shifts attention from the “material realities” experienced by inhabitants (405). Study of these material realities, Vetter contends, can lead to more nuanced awareness of the diversity of the region and to a greater appreciation of a range of literacies that characterize individuals (405-06). Vetter’s course and study transcend the “denaturalization” that scholarship begins by encouraging a “method of critical praxis that contributes to the reshaping of cultural narratives” as students not only study how stereotypes are created and persist but resist these stereotypes by actively editing Wikipedia’s Appalachia sites (406).

Analysis of the first process log revealed that students recognized the effects of problematic representation of Appalachia; 88% also noted “the social-epistemic functions of rhetoric and writing” (408, 409). Their study of media depictions of the region also emphasized for students how reliance on outsiders for representation erased the realities experienced by people closer to the region (411).

Vetter notes that developers in Wikipedia are aware that work remains to be done to improve the depiction of Appalachia. Wikiprojects, “dedicated task forces” that strive to improve Wikipedia, list “more than 40 articles in need of development or major reorganization” within Wikiproject Appalachia (412). Students were able to draw on these articles and on resources and support provided in the Wikiproject’s “talk” page to meet the course requirements (412-13). Vetter discusses the need to move beyond word counts in order to assess student work, because Wikipedia encourages concision and because students must collaborate with other editors to have their work included (413).

The second process log suggested that genre analysis and exposure to Wikipedia itself had given students better understanding and familiarity with the exigencies of working in the site. Some students wrote that professors in earlier classes who had imposed “outright bans” on the use of Wikipedia for research failed to understand how a critical understanding of the site could make it a productive research source (415-16). Vetter contends that a more nuanced understanding of Wikipedia and a well-structured curriculum using the site could allow academics to encourage the kinds of improvements they believe Wikipedia needs, including an increase in the diversity of contributors (416).

Three of the 17 students reported difficulty getting their edits accepted, reporting that experienced editors served as gatekeepers on “popular” topics while more marginalized topics were hard to research because of a lack of well-documented information. Vetter contends that Wikipedia’s insistence on “published and verifiable sources” will always tend to exclude the important insights that come from the direct experience of those familiar with a region or topic (419). While the “distributed model” of “Commons-Based Peer Production” in place at Wikipedia does allow many users to “come together to collaboratively and incrementally build a global knowledge source,” this model simultaneously “deemphasize[s] and devalue[s] the place of local knowledge production” (419).

In Vetter’s view, student engagement with Wikipedia can alert them to the ways that various types of representation can misinform while empowering them to recognize their own writing and rhetoric as interventions for change.

 


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Dush, Lisa. When Writing Becomes Content. CCC, Dec. 2015. Posted 02/21/2016.

Dush, Lisa. “When Writing Becomes Content.” College Composition and Communication 67.2 (2015): 173-96. Print.

Lisa Dush compares the concept of “writing” that has historically grounded writing studies to the new forms of written communication engendered by technological change. In these new forms of communication, what has always been thought of as writing must now be understood by keeping in mind its nature as “content.” Extant ideas of what “writing” means, she contends, should not “be erased”; rather, the field should understand and acknowledge the tensions created by writing’s migration into new spaces and forms (183).

Dush argues that “writing” and “content” are metaphors with “attendant bundles”; those surrounding writing can be hard to identify (179). For Dush, writing implies an “agentive composer” producing what Jodie Nicotra calls a “discrete textual object” (181); an audience that can be analyzed and known to some degree (177); specific spaces; and specific and known social and professional roles such as “author, editor, and publisher” or relationships such as “famous author to fan, good writer to bad” (179-80). For Dush, this metaphor does not capture the emergent features of writing for digital spaces and does not furnish the conceptual tools to adequately critique or respond to the changes (181).

Dush defines “content” as “conditional, computable, networked, and commodified” (176; emphasis original). “Conditional,” she writes, refers to the degree to which creators of texts cannot easily know exactly where and how their work will be used; content is “characterized not by being finished or published, but rather by [its] availability for repurposing, mining, and other future uses” (176). It is “computable” in the sense that it is composed of numeric data, a form that allows “machine audiences” to “mine, rank, process, match, reconfigure, and redistribute it” (176); its format may change and fragments might appear in such places as search-engine lists (177).

“Networked” denotes the relationship of content not to the “speaker-audience dyad of classical rhetoric” but rather to audiences so vast as to call for machine analysis; because the audience cannot be authoritatively known, texts must tend toward “adaptation” to various audiences rather than “prediction” of an ideal fit (177). Dush cites Clay Shirky to note that the networked nature of content favors the production of more rather than less text, and “more arguably, democratic participation over hierarchy” (177).

Finally, content is “commodified.” Dush builds on John Trimbur’s distinction between “use value— . . . how well a thing meets human needs— and exchange value—value based on profit” (178; emphasis original). She illustrates this feature by noting that a tweet is not valued for its utility but for “the number of clicks and retweets it accumulates,” thus metamorphosing into advertising revenue (178).

Dush argues that recent attention to multimodal composition has not abandoned the metaphorical implications of “writing” as opposed to “content” (181), an approach that is not attuned to “what Jim Ridolfo and Danielle Nicole DeVoss call ‘rhetorical velocity'” (qtd. in Dush 182): that is, the rapid circulation of material via the manipulation of managers and strategists, both human and machine. Dush points to the ways in which this shift from “writing” to “content” risks a “disempowered” view of writers (183). She quotes Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina, authors of Content Strategy: Connecting the Dots Between Business, Brand, and Benefits, who recite a list of the ways that “[w]riters can’t be expected to be experts” and should therefore be subordinated to managers versed in content manipulation (qtd. in Dush 184). Dush responds that writing-studies professionals should take up this challenge: “[T]o avoid being written out of the work of writing, perhaps writers must indeed become experts at working with writing-as-content” (184). Such a focus, she argues, should be part of the curriculum at all levels of writing instruction (184).

This refocus, she writes, should embrace the fact that some of this approach already appears in some writing curricula, and, moreover, central aspects of writing-as-content lend themselves to applications and critiques grounded in rhetorical theory (184-85). She examines the “quad,” a figure from Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s Content Strategy for the Web, that surrounds a “core strategy” with four quadrants: substance, structure, workflow, and governance (185-86). Substance, Dush states, involves choices about the appropriate information in a message; she relates structure to James E. Porter’s arguments addressing the relation of circulation to delivery and cites work “in writing studies about composing in networked space” (187). Workflow and governance are the “people components” that echo writing studies’ emphasis on the “social and material nature of writing” (188).

Dush suggests that in considering where elements of content management are already being taught, for example in technical communication and in courses such as Writing for the Web, compositionists can move beyond document design to considerations of platforms and the rhetorical concerns that arise as information moves across them (188). Course designers should consider including more “content” vocabulary both in curricula and in course titles in order “to better signal to employers that our students are prepared to do content work” (189). Multimodal courses can move beyond applications that limit students’ ability to apply strategies central to content creation like tagging and search-engine optimization (189).

Dush addresses challenges raised by the shift to “content” such as inadequate working conditions imposed by the need to be constantly connected to social media and the disparity between the “humanistic” values of writing studies and the profit- and efficiency-driven impulses of the content-oriented workplace (191). She sees as important concerns the degree to which writing itself may be “devalued” and the possible corollary that writing as traditionally understood will no longer be “a feasible profession” (191).

For Dush, in order to foster the values of writing studies while addressing the shift to content, the field should determine appropriate “core strateg[ies]” to place at the center of Halvorson and Rach’s quad. Using knowledge of content management to further humanistic organizations and causes, developing critical language to interrogate such phenomena as the effects on working conditions and consequences for users, and resisting the naturalization of the changing relations between writers and industry should direct the field’s response to the shift (192-93). Ultimately, Dush writes

the risks of ignoring writing-as-content or, likewise, dismissing it, are that we may miss an important opportunity to expand the conceptual, research, and pedagogical purview of writing studies in ways that are appropriate to the digital age. (193)

 


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Gholnecsar E. Muhammad. Self-representation of African American Girls. RTE, Feb. 2015. Posted 04/29/15.

Muhammad, Gholnecsar E. “Searching for Full Vision: Writing Representations of African American Adolescent Girls.” Research in the Teaching of English 49.3 (2015): 224-47. Print.

A comprehensive abstract prefaces Gholnecsar E. Muhammad’s study of African-American adolescent girls working to define themselves against stereotypes and dominant discourses. She writes:

Currently, African American girls are being depicted as overly sexual, violent, or confrontational, are judged by physical features, or are invisible across mainstream media and within school classrooms. Few investigations have explored how they respond to and interpret such imposed representations. Nor, for the most part, have studies examined how girls represent themselves among a society of others pathologizing and defining who they are. , , , Findings show that the girls [in the study] wrote across platforms similar to those African American women have addressed historically, which included writing to represent self, writing to resist or counter ascribed representations, and writing toward social change. (224)

For her qualitative case study, Muhammad gathered eight African American girls, aged 12 to 17, to form a “literacy collaborative” in which they worked together in an “intensive” writing environment for nine hours a week for four weeks in the summer of 2012. The writers, from a variety of school settings, were designated “Sister Authors” and given the opportunity to write a number of different genres, including personal narratives, poems, short stories, “informational pieces,” and “open letters” (230, 232). Muhammad developed lesson plans, provided readings from African American women, and facilitated sharing and feedback sessions (231-32). Data included forty-eight pieces of writing, video-taped observations, and interviews (232-33). Muhammad and a second coder established six themes that appeared in the girls’ self-representations: “community, cultural [ethnicity and gender], individual, intellectual, kinship, and sexual representations” (233). Muhammad provides examples from the girls’ work to illustrate how these themes emerged in the ways the writers constructed themselves and their lives through writing.

Most frequently addressed were gender issues. Muhammad was interested to see kinship emerge spontaneously as a major topic in many of the writings, with intellectual concerns also appearing frequently (233). Thirty-seven of the 48 pieces demonstrated resistance to power structures that the girls encountered in their lives; Muhammad classified these structures as relating to “Physical beauty,” “Education,” “Abuse and violence,” “being portrayed as a monolithic group,” “Sexualizing and objectification,” “Racial stereotypes,” and “Personal self-hood (personal struggles, such as self-confidence)” (235). The girls responded to these power structures by often depicting the need for and possibility of “agency and social change” (239).

Specific examples include Jasmine’s broadside poem and her interview about the content of the poem, in both of which she questioned why Black girls are seen as a homogenous group while White people, who similarly look alike, are seen as individuals (233-37). Violet, writing about issues coded as “sexual representation,” explored the implications of the loss of Black men in the lives of Black women (240-41). Muhammad writes that such expressions of issues important to the girls in her study signal increased agency as the girls use representation of themselves through writing to “bring awareness” to topics that matter in their lives (241).

Muhammad recommends that language-arts educators become more alert to the importance for African-American girls of developing their identities through reflective self-representation, and that teachers refine prompts and assignments to encourage these explorations. Educators must also be aware of the power of dominant discourses to direct their own perceptions of students. More nuanced understanding of the lives and histories of their students will help teachers offer these girls opportunities to develop a sense of self and agency (233-34). Muhammad establishes four goals for students encouraged to participate in such literacy practices:

(1) to advance proficiencies in literacy; (2) to make sense of their identities; (3) to build and nurture intellectual development; and (4) to gain print authority. (229)

Muhammad captures the intent of her study with an image from Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South of an eye partly covered with a bandage so that vision is obscured. Ensuring that African-American women are heard restores the sight so that the eye “sees a circle where before it saw a segment” (qtd. in Muhammad 225). Muhammad’s work envisions similarly restoring such full sight in the lives and selves of African American girls.