College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

Noguerón-Liu and Hogan. Transnationalism and Digital Composition. RTE, Feb. 2017. Posted 07/06/2017.

Noguerón-Liu, Silvia, and Jamie Jordan Hogan. “Remembering Michoacán: Digital Representation of the Homeland by Immigrant Adults and Adolescents.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.3 (2017): 267-89. Print.

Silvia Noguerón-Liu and Jamie Jordan Hogan present a study of the use of visual elements, including digital images and information, by adults and adolescents from immigrant communities as they constructed documents reflecting their transnational identities.

The authors worked with two women and two middle-grade students with ties to the Mexican state of Michoacán. The women were participants in three semester-long sessions of a “digital literacy program for immigrant adults” designed for parents of children in a largely Latinx community; the seventh-graders were enrolled in a “digital story-telling program” meant to help them succeed in U.S. classrooms. Both programs were located in a small Southern city (272-73).

Noguerón-Liu and Hogan applied three theoretical concepts. Transnationalism theory allowed investigation of how “individuals maintain multiple social networks and links to both their home and host communities” (269). They examined multimodal production through “critical artifactual literacies” that featured how the objects and material practices in which composition occurs affect the writing process through the various “affordances” offered by different “modes”; this study focused on the mode of images (270).The study further addressed the use of images and digital modes in the genre of testimonio, “a first-person narrative told by the protagonist and witness of events, usually recorded by an interlocutor,” which features a call to action (271-72). Throughout, the authors used a “participatory approach,” in which they worked side-by-side with the women and students to consider how the writers made choices and constructed meaning from the available resources (271).

A goal of the study was to assess “how transnational ties shaped various aspects of the digital writing process for all participants” (276). The authors argue that their study’s intergenerational focus usefully complicates common views that immigrant adults maintain the “cultural heritage” of their home communities while children develop more “hybrid practices” (270). Noguerón-Liu and Hogan found that the differences between the adults and adolescents they studied were more complex than generally assumed.

Interviews and results of focus groups were coded to investigate how participants maintained transnational ties, while coding of “field notes, interviews, and writing samples” permitted examination of how visual media “elicit[ed] discussion” during the composition process (275-76).

A major distinction revealed by the study was that the adults concentrated on sharing cultural information and revisiting memories while the adolescents focused on worries about safety and violence (278, 284). “Diana” created materials depicting church activities and “Mireya” elaborated on a mountain setting near her hometown that she wanted her daughter to see. In contrast, “Jackie” seemed caught up in the story of a bus accident that made her worry about her family’s safety, while “Diego” collected videos and references to drug-cartels and police corruption in his hometown (277-78).

Another important aspect of the study was the degree to which search-engine algorithms influenced participants’ options and choices. Searches foregrounded images from news reports, which most often showed violent events from the towns. Mireya abandoned digital searching for images because she considered violence irrelevant to the values she wanted to convey (280). After this experience, Noguerón-Liu and Hogan discussed options for reducing exposure to violence in the middle-grade sessions, but were unable to find completely satisfactory filters that still gave the students the information they needed (280).

The authors found dealing with emerging images of crime and violence a challenge in their roles as mentors and co-composers. Diego drew heavily on available videos of men with guns to ground his concerns about drug-cartel power in his community, and the researchers found themselves “interject[ing] [their] own assumptions about conflict” as they facilitated the students’ efforts (281). They found themselves among the interlocutors for participants’ testimonio about their experiences, ranging from witnessing miracles to reporting violence (283). This role required the researchers to “negotiate [their] own biases and concerns about crime-related information (which aligned with the concerns of adult participants) and the urgency in adolescents’ accounts about the danger their relatives faced back home” (283).

Noguerón-Liu and Hogan stress the diversity and agency that participants displayed as a result of their varying experiences with transnational networks. The two adults made specific decisions about which images they considered relevant to their purposes, consciously avoiding depictions of violence. Noguerón-Liu and Hogan caution that the prevalence of images of violence arising from news stories accessed by search engines can obscure other features of immigrants’ home communities that the immigrants themselves wish to foreground (286). At the same time, the researchers’ experiences as interlocutors for testimonio led them to argue that “transnational practices should not be reduced to symbols or folkloric dance, but can be expanded to include the solidarity, concern, and healing connecting individuals to their home countries” (286).

The authors note that their study highlights the “limitations of digital files” in ways that should concern all practitioners of multimodal composition instruction (285). Individual images juxtaposed without context can influence interpretation. The authors point to the importance of keyword choice as a means of expanding the available material from which multimodal writers can draw (285).

Noguerón-Liu and Hogan contend that “a listening-and-learning stance in practitioner inquiry” will best support agency and choice as transnational students decide how they want to depict their homelands and their ties to them. Teachers’ “[n]ew ways of listening and seeing” will facilitate immigrants’ efforts to “reimagine Michoacán and other conflict-ridden regions in complex and hopeful ways” (287).


2 Comments

Hirsu, Lavinia. Tag Writing as Cultural Script. C&C, Spring 2015. Posted 05/19/15.

Hirsu, Lavinia. “Tag Writing, Search Engines, and Cultural Scripts.” Computers and Composition 35 (2015): 30-40. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Lavinia Hirsu writes about the need to examine the process of tagging as a social and cultural process capable of generating community and identity as search-engine users categorize objects, people, and concepts. Composition studies, she argues, has generally relegated attention to tags and search engines to research, in her view taking too narrow an approach to this everyday activity, in contrast to fields like media and information studies and economics (30-31).

To illustrate her claim that tagging can be a source of social action and agency for users, she presents the case of Romania, which, after joining the EU in 2007, found itself the object of ridicule and prejudice. This prejudice was largely circulated through tags that completed phrases like “Romanians are. . . ,” so that an online searcher looking for information about Romania would find negative categorizations at the top of both the suggested search-term list and the search results. Through the advocacy of an advertising agency and a Romanian business, citizens were enlisted to join a campaign called “Romanians are Smart” by replacing the negative characterizations with positive ones. Over time the online references to Romania shifted to create images of Romanians as not just “smart,” but also “beautiful,” “educated,” and “hard-working” (33-34). International media recognized this project as successful, with Business Magazine proclaiming Romania “[t]he first country that changes its image on the Internet” (qtd. in Hirsu 34).

Hirsu discusses both the negative and positive Romanian characterizations as “folksonomies,” a term that contrasts with “taxonomies.” In the latter, the characteristics of the entity being described are “fixed” (32); in a folksonomy, the characteristics are fluid, responsive to user choices that result in “popularity and circulation,” creating a feedback loop as users replicate, tweak, and re-circulate tags (32). Hirsu argues that tags, which create folksonomies, can be applied to many digital objects other than photographs or blog entries. In the Romanian example, tagging functioned somewhat like “Googlebombing,” as one folksonomy replaced another (39).

For Hirsu, the importance of tagging as a cultural and social activity lies in the insights it can provide into the effects of electronic discourse as that discourse becomes a common shared rhetorical landscape. The Romanian project succeeded, she argues, in part because it was so universally accessible; entry into the public sphere did not require complicated technical knowledge or even much effort (36). The existence of folksonomies foregrounds how human action can impact a process like search-engine results that seems to be random or unbiased; Hirsu cites criticism that reveals that search results can be the product of and evidence for “sustained collective user behavior” (32). The use of tags to shift perceptions and visibility of entities and topics enables user agency as people actively build online personas (38). Despite concerns that a single user’s choices are inconsequential, Hirsu provides examples of how such agency can act locally and even extend beyond national borders (39). She argues that user interventions in the ways search engines organize information creates a de facto “alternative public rhetorical education” (36; emphasis original) as people discover how to manipulate processes that may seem “merely functional” but that in fact have the power to reshape culture (32). The study of tagging also illustrates how the power of a discourse may be as much a product of the way it is delivered as of the actual content, as higher-ranked search results tend to be seen as more authoritative (37-38).

For Hirsu, the flexibility that makes tagging a vehicle for cultural discourse also gives it a “fragility” that can result in productive folksonomies losing ground to problematic ones unless users actively sustain their efforts at “training” search engines to avoid simplistic categorization (36; emphasis original). The agency users experience is not necessarily ethical (37); only consistent work to link topics to a range of descriptors can prevent them from coalescing into unreflective stereotypes. Similarly, some tags risk valorizing one referent by denigrating another, as when “Roma” gypsies are contrasted with “Romanians” in order to elevate the profile of the Romanians (36). Other dangers include the ability of search engines to learn and foreground individual search patterns, so that users risk being exposed only to the patterns they have inadvertently created (38).

Hirsu argues that avoiding these limitations is an important reason for students in composition classrooms to investigate the role of such apparently meaningless activities as tagging (38). By examining various tagging trends to see how they shape a conversation, students can become not just consumers of online discourse but can find ways to become what Alexander Halavais designates “an informed user” who is “a producer of media, a willing interlocutor in the distributed conversation of the web” (qtd. in Hirsu 38). In other words, changes in technology’s role in democratic public life mean that agency in the public community involves participating in activities like tagging; composition studies, in Hirsu’s view, should more proactively embrace the task of helping students think about how their engagement in this process “creates content and builds cultural discourses” for which they share responsibility (35).