Digital (Re)Visions: Blending Pedagogical Strategies with Dynamic Classroom Tactics
Contributors: Gina Szabady, Crystal N. Fodrey, and Celeste Del Russo
School Affiliation: The University of Arizona
Teaching in the Ether
Digital technologies create opportunities for the classroom to be a place buzzing with relevance for students’ personal and scholarly lives, but they also ask us to think and respond differently as teachers. Gone are the days when stable texts awaited fresh perusal on a bookshelf, familiar liner notes intact, well-theorized and practiced activities prepared for new deployment. Cashing in on the pedagogical currency of creating interactive texts, analyzing emergent media, and deconstructing fast-moving cultural debates requires instructors to cultivate reactive tactics in addition to long-range strategies. Michel de Certeau (1988) argued that “strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose [pedagogical] spaces . . . whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces” (p. 30). Further, he asserted that both strategies and tactics are “dependent on the possibilities offered by circumstances” (p. 29). Every teacher plans a course based on a “utopian imag[e]” that captures the “strategic representation” articulated in his or her teaching philosophy. However, that strategic plan is not always accommodated by “everyday practices” that emerge as teaching and learning merge through pedagogies in action (p. xix). Moments when classroom strategies are threatened by unexpected circumstances call for a tactic which “depends on time—it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ‘on the wing’” (p. xix).
Composition journals and even praxis-oriented spaces like this wiki ask teachers of composition to share the strategic work of course plans that integrate learning outcomes and theory with practical lessons and, occasionally, to reflect on what might work better in the next iteration of the course. Such discussions are immensely valuable in creating conversations about teaching that help both experienced and new composition instructors imagine their classrooms and create a framework for a successful semester. But the great bulk of the work of teaching, those day to day and minute to minute revisions that turn class plans into dynamic realities, seem to get short shrift. Like great jazz, a classroom that moves nimbly feels effortless in its harmony. This wiki entry is a meditation on strategic adjustments three teachers have made to their multimodal pedagogies as we attempted to integrate visual and digital literacies. We adapted both strategies and tactics for integrating digital technologies into a range of composition courses at the University of Arizona, including courses in the First-Year Writing series, Technical Writing, and Advanced Composition. We each frame reflective analysis with excerpts from our teaching philosophy to provide a sense of the motives driving our approach to our courses.
Crystal N. Fodrey: Practicing Facilitas in Digital Spaces
Strategic Approach: Teaching Philosophy
Fostering the development of facilitas—Quintilian’s term for the ability to communicate effectively and ethically in any form, in any situation—is the primary tenet of my writing pedagogy. I believe that with an understanding of how to analyze, enact, and occasionally disrupt conventions of audience, purpose, and genre in particular, students can best work toward becoming autonomous writers with the agency to communicate effectively in myriad forms and effect positive changes in the communities for which they write. The goal of cultivating such rhetorical flexibility and savvy is achievable when, in my role as instructor, I also practice facilitas and have reasonable context-based expectations of my students. For example, my approach to multimodal composing in First-Year Writing (FYW) courses is usually to offer it as a student-initiated, situational practice within the framework of so much to do in so little time. Especially in a course where students are expected to learn about and conduct rhetorical analysis (many for the first time), learn library and field research methods and practice them, synthesize sources on self-chosen controversial topics, and create public arguments based on the opinions that emerge from those syntheses, it becomes difficult to scaffold multimodal composing practices into the mix (see course description for English 102).
I therefore approach that aspect of the FYW class with this baseline assumption: Most of the eighteen- to twenty-year-olds who attend The University of Arizona already communicate via digital technologies in various ways and can learn to use template-based applications with relative ease, especially if they are first given time during class to collaborate on penalty-free projects with select applications. Beyond that initial experimentation with the capabilities and functionality of new technologies, what FYW students most need to learn in our limited time is a thing or two about conventions that span across many online publishing venues and multimodal genres (such as nonlinearity and linking) and basic design principles (such as visual organization, coherence, and impact). Also essential are multiple conversations about fair use, copyright, and other ethical concerns regarding representation of self, others, and ideas that students must consider when going public with their compositions. Such an approach builds on what Stuart Selber (2004) calls the “functional literacy” of digital technology that FYW students typically bring to these classes, challenging students to develop critical and rhetorical literacies and become questioners and producers of digital texts.
However, despite my best efforts, something always gets inadequate attention within the context of a given class; more often than not, the fault lies with me for not accounting for new versions and changing functionality of the applications I choose to privilege in the always-too-short semester. In the following section, I share two somewhat successful attempts at integrating dynamic applications into multimodal FYW projects, illustrating that the development and practice of facilitas supports both the teaching and learning of twenty-first century literacies.
The Tactical Field: First-Year Writing
Example 1: Google Maps of Personally Significant Spaces
The curriculum I’ve designed to meet the FYW course objectives in a way that fits with my teaching philosophy asks students to interrogate spaces (like classrooms) and everyday spatialized practices (like learning in the context of a large public research university) through a rhetorical lens. To prepare FYW students to rhetorically analyze public spaces of personal significance (see assignment sheet), I first ask them to create Google Maps populated with personally significant physical and digital locations. Initially the maps are meant to serve the purpose of an introduction activity the first week of class. I pull up the students’ maps on the classroom computer, and they introduce themselves to their new classmates while navigating through their spaces of personal significance and the narratives they had written about each space on the map. In Spring 2013, this worked amazingly well. Students included images, directions to their favorite hangouts in their hometowns, and they got excited to show off their maps to the class on day two of the semester. Below is the example that I shared with my class in January 2013. After that class period, students then analyzed the dominant cultural ideologies present on their maps. They wrote short narrative and rhetorical analysis essays about select spaces. They added to their maps as their understanding expanded regarding how spaces non-discursively convey messages imbued with ideologies not drastically unlike those they might find in advertisements or political speeches. Through this activity, the expectation of moving between multimodal public writing and academic writing was successfully established in the early weeks of the semester.
Sample Google Map (click image caption links for higher-resolution versions; right-click or control-click to open in a new tab)
I shared the same Google Map example at the beginning of the Fall 2013 semester. Of course, the link still worked because my map had already been produced. However, when my students went to create their maps for homework, the rules had changed. A new mapmaking application had replaced the one I used, and that app was in beta testing. The directions I had given my students for homework did not work. Some students were not able to create maps at all; the ones who did could not open their maps in class because the links they posted to the discussion board for homework would not open unless each individual student signed in to their Google account on the one classroom computer connected to the projector. The activity that had worked so well and had become an integral part of the class the previous semester bombed the following semester because I had not anticipated such a drastic change in the functionality of Google Maps. Instead of initiating a positive introductory experience using a familiar technology in a new way, all I managed to do was tarnish my classroom ethos at a critical point in the semester. The lesson I learned in that moment is that the incorporation of rapidly changing technologies into my writing classrooms demands that I anticipate change and adapt lessons, activities, and real-time lectures and discussions to the reality of the technologies at any given time.
Example 2: Multimodal Public Argument Assignment
Later in the semester I ask my FYW students to translate their written public arguments (open letters; letters to editors, public figures, or organizations; opinion columns; perspective-forwarding creative nonfiction) into more visually and/or aurally oriented arguments (via Prezi or YouTube; through the creation of editorial cartoons, infographics, public service announcements or other multimodal texts). (For more information, see the assignment sheet). Since Spring 2013, I have used Prezi to teach design principles by asking students to download a picture with a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr, upload it into Prezi, credit the photo, and then enhance the photo with overlaid text, keeping in mind the basic design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity that Robin Williams (2008) describes in The Non-Designer’s Design Book. I’ve been working with Prezi long enough to know not to rely solely on my own instruction; Prezi keeps its video tutorials up to date as new versions of the web-based application are released, so I ask my students to watch those and spend time playing around in the application to get to know its features and functions. At any rate, a majority of my students end up creating interactive Prezis, likely in part because of the time spent in class learning the application.
Prior to Spring 2013, I gave students the option of creating PowerPoints for the visual portion of their public arguments, and a vast majority chose to do so even though I spent no class time discussing PowerPoint software. I actively tried to dissuade students from making PowerPoints, especially since one of the criteria for the visual component is that it must be able to stand alone without verbal explanation and contextualization from a speaker outside of what the student creates for the project. PowerPoint, as it is often used, requires literal authorial presence to be effective. Ethos and contextualization typically come from a presenter elaborating upon on-screen ideas. Two of the greatest challenges in preparing FYW students to create visual public arguments have been convincing students to take risks and persuading them to take the visual aspects of their chosen medium as seriously as their message. In the self-contained formats my students now choose from (now that PowerPoint is no longer an option), they can actually distribute their arguments through social media and engage in ongoing contemporary conversations of relevance to their lives. The risk is greater because the stakes are higher; however, I find that this encourages students to utilize basic design principles instead of relying on templates because they want their work to be viewed as original and effective by their chosen target audiences. Below I have included examples of student projects spanning three semesters to illustrate the results of revisions to the assignment and revisions to class instruction over time. These examples also illustrate what I believe to be realistic expectations of success within the context of the student population of my FYW classes, especially when when students have only two or three weeks from the introduction of the assignment until the due date:
Gina Szabady: Writing in the Public Sphere
Strategic Approach: Teaching Philosophy
In the field of composition, we talk about the writing classroom as a place of tremendous potential, and we know good writing teachers can influence students’ lives well beyond the end of the term. I find that this is particularly likely to happen when writing is framed as a form of participation in public discourse, the end goal of which Christian Weisser (2002) described as “not just to facilitate students in interactions with a specific sphere or issue, but to help students transform themselves into active, critical participants in democratic society” (p. 39). But my experience in the classroom has taught me that if the students are not invested in helping to create this kind of learning environment, the potential goes unrealized. One of my primary goals as an instructor is to create a sense of accountability in students that is based not just on my expectations for their work, but on their expectations of me and of one another. In their assigned work and informal discussions, I rely on students to provide material for analysis that helps shape our discussions. I design dynamic courses that allow students space to explore but with clear structure so that my evaluative expectations and goals are clear. Often, it works beautifully, and an entire class gets so caught up in knowledge-making that the time and energy we invest feels effortless in the moment. Occasionally, it fails miserably as technological snafus or a lack of energy stifle the discussion and sink the exercise. And sometimes, it’s just okay: students seem to get the point but don’t overstay the hour in impassioned immersion. I am satisfied with the discussion without being surprised by the depth or breadth of engagement noted in their commentary. In what follows, I discuss an attempt to integrate visual analysis as part of a pedagogy heavily reliant on engagement with digital texts. The success of these attempts was varied, but they all affirmed the importance of balancing structure with flexibility when engaging with digital texts.
The Tactical Field: First-Year Writing
I experimented with integrating wiki writing as a way of engaging in public discourse with First-Year Writing (FYW) students, and you can see samples of their work below. As I planned the assignment, I elected to have students work on open, public wikis accessible through search engines. Like Crystal, I was hoping to use the students’ existing functional literacy, as defined by Selber (2004), to scaffold the development of rhetorical and critical literacies. In the first class to experiment with wiki building, students revised an essay into a wiki post. As you can see, this resulted in visually developed sites with content that was inappropriate for the medium.
First attempted English 102 wiki, Wikdpedia
To correct for this, in the second class students wrote the material for the wiki to increase the focus on content development. Later, they revised based on lessons about visual appeals. This resulted in much more appropriate content, but the visual appeal of the sites was mixed, and the wiki overall was a much less dynamically developed space.
Second attempted English 102 wiki, WikiQnA
This project needs further strategic development, but the one clear lesson was that this kind of project may be slightly more ambitious than FYW students can take on as one part of a four unit course. In the end, I felt that students became more apt users of the wiki software, developing enough functional understanding to begin to engage with wikis more rhetorically. However, I was disappointed that I hadn't planned time for discussions of wikis and the Internet more broadly as cultural constructs. Ideally, I would not only make the wiki a larger portion of the grade so that we could invest more time at each stage, but I would also scaffold the assignment with more care toward positioning digital technologies as cultural constructs. I have also considered reworking this assignment for an intermediate or advanced composition course with more flexibility in terms of course design. Working with more experienced writers would allow for deeper engagement with issues of design, public engagement, copyright, and other issues that public projects bring to the fore. Wikis present dynamic composition spaces that demonstrate the hybridity of multimodal, public composition projects, and their potential in highlighting many salient issues for writers at all levels, which makes them a tool worth the learning curve required for thoughtful integration.
Another Tactical Field: Technical Writing
In a 300-level technical writing course for non-majors, I developed community engagement projects focused on developing more robust methods for revision and integrating visual logic in project design. In the first course, students completed mock projects. Some of them developed very bold designs due to complete freedom, but the standout project was by a group of students who worked with a real client. The increased stakes and ability to gather feedback from stakeholders seemed to create increased investment in the project. As a result, I decided to have the second class work on design projects grounded in much deeper engagement with a real organization I selected; for this class, I acted as contact for the organization. The course focused on strategies for developing visual logic and working in collaborative environments in order to apply to revisions of existing documents for a local nonprofit organization. For the purposes of this course, we discussed visual logic in terms of the cohesion among visual and textual elements within the context of a given medium. Different groups worked on different kinds of projects, some creating paper brochures and others revising websites or creating templates for letters that coordinated with mail merge spreadsheets.
The results were very divided. Some students were resentful of the extra pressure of working for a community partner, while others flourished in meeting the expectations of real stakeholders. As a relatively new organization with no paid employees, the organization we worked with presented many opportunities for student projects. However, working with a more developed organization and greater ability to work directly with the students may have helped avoid some of the issues we experienced. (In particular, some groups had a representative from the organization at their presentations to provide feedback, and other groups presented on a day when no representative was present.) In future revisions, I would trust the students to negotiate working with clients they have approached on their own. Having me in the middle was a hindrance for students at this level. Instead, my focus should be on helping them learn how to create the best projects possible and how to negotiate professional relationships.
What turned out to be more successful was the time we invested in discussing elements of visual logic. Following readings and discussion, groups of students exchanged drafts and completed a peer review with some elements of user testing built in. Although they had struggled to apply many of the concepts in their original drafts, students were able to recognize problems with peers' drafts and offer thoughtful suggestions for revision based on their experiences as users. This turned out to be a great opportunity for tactical engagement with groups, troubleshooting specific problems and locating areas of confusion about the assignment or the needs of the nonprofit. One particularly simple yet effective requirement was for students to provide drafts for peer review in the media they would ultimately produce. Bringing in hard copies for projects that would eventually appear in print was useful in making style choices more clear. For students working on digital projects—including a group redesigning the organization's website and another designing a form-fillable letter template—working with digital texts on different computers, using different software versions in some cases, helped bring potential problems with navigation and accessibility to light. Several of the groups followed up on this peer review to complete stunning revisions. One particularly striking example is provided below.
English 308 Samples
Team Up For Tucson flyer draft: Before usability peer review
Team Up For Tucson flyer revision: After usability peer review
Celeste Del Russo: Archival Research as Rhetorical Practice
Strategic Approach: Teaching Philosophy
Teaching and learning, like writing and revision, is an ongoing, holistic experience. Embodying education means being fully present and aware of our educational experiences as both teachers and students, affording us the potential to identify ourselves as members of a learning community. An engaged and embodied classroom can be a space that initiates and sustains dialectic, a space that fosters intellectual growth. For students, it is important to realize that how they engage in this conversation around them once they leave the classroom is crucial to whether or not their views will be heard, acknowledged, understood, and valued. My approach to teaching is an embodied one that has developed over time, place, and the classroom spaces that I occupy alongside my students. I acknowledge in my pedagogy that I am positioned, as are my students, in multiple locations of understanding. We all bring with us to the classroom a range of background knowledge that spans disciplines, majors, and personal experiences—knowledge that affects our views on the value of writing and composing texts. Like Ana Louise Keating (2007), I believe in the importance of demonstrating for our students how, despite these differences, each of us is interconnected in a “matrix of reciprocity, mutual accountability, and respect” (p. 33). It is through Keating’s idea of interconnectedness that I see space for my students to view learning as an embodied practice. I appreciate Keating’s idea of interconnectivity as an initial point of departure for my design of courses that allow students to view writing as a potential life practice, a practice that is connected to lifelong learning. However utopian this philosophy may seem, I find some grounding in the tactical nature of de Certeau's (1988) everyday life. His work allows me to navigate the space of my classroom where it intersects with the daily lived experiences of my students. I ground myself in the everyday practices of my teaching through my course design. In Advanced Composition, I sought to create a space where critical thinking through reflection across disciplinary and personal boundaries would be fostered and valued. I developed assignments that allowed students the flexibility to write across genres and modalities and to write from where they saw connections and intersections.
The Tactical Field: Advanced Composition
This special topics section of Advanced Composition focused on archives as a rhetorical construct. Students visited both campus and local archives (in digital and material forms) to explore the rhetoric of archive spaces and to research the potential of archives to enhance their own writing and research interests. Students came to the course from various disciplinary backgrounds, including pre-med, pre-law, literature, journalism, and creative writing. They also represented varied digital literacies and understandings of visual logics. These diverse disciplinary interests and levels of experience with digital literacy made for dynamic conversations surrounding the ways student experiences and interests intersected in the course. We discussed topics of subjectivity, locatedness, and the ways in which our learning experiences shaped our reading and writing of texts. We talked about the kinds and modalities of texts that were valued or undervalued in the context of our experiences. A question emerged from these conversations: As a teacher, how might I honor students’ various levels of digital literacy, but also allow them the space they need to take risks with digital projects?
Example: Final Project: Creative Compositions in the Archive
To respond to this concern, I returned to some of the course goals for Advanced Composition. One of the course goals was to allow students a welcoming space to encourage creativity and experimentation with writing across a variety of genres. A second was to guide students in developing their style and voice as writers. To this end, I framed the final project as a Creative Composition, asking students to create their own archives or contribute to an already existing one. Further, the questions of space and locatedness that I develop in my pedagogy extended into how I would respect students’ space and range in their undertaking of final projects. I required a visual component for this project, but it was not required that all projects be created digitally. In designing this final project, I aligned myself with the goals of the course but also my own philosophy, considering how students’ interests, knowledge, engagement, and level of digital literacy could all be considered in the final project.
When I collected students’ proposals, I was excited about the range of approaches. Students proposed to conduct research in the archives, contribute to existing digital archives, and even create their own. They proposed archives as blogs, film clips, scripts, digital and material scrapbooks, brochures, and photography journals. For example, after researching the function of memory and the use of archives as healing spaces, one student performed a rhetorical analysis of her family’s blog space documenting her father’s struggle against cancer. She then created a personal scrapbook of her memories to accompany this analysis. Another student recovered the role of her family’s small printing company in the film and movie industry, historicizing her grandparents’ development of the small press. She designed a webpage that could be linked to her hometown’s small business bureau website that provided a glimpse of her family’s history as small business entrepreneurs. One group wrote a proposal to redesign an indigenous exhibit at the Arizona State Museum to include more range and representation in views on Native Americans’ experiences. Their proposal included redesigning the description plates on one of the dioramas.
As I began to provide initial feedback to students, a new question now arose in terms of assessment, a question that many of us who incorporate multimodal projects in our teaching have perhaps considered: How do I address the challenges of assessing multimodal projects against other mediums? In order to begin my own revisions in guiding my students through the final project, I invited them to this conversation.
Re(Visioning) the Creative Composition: Critical Thinking through Reflection
Final projects for the course represented a range of student experiences, varying in genres, topics, and approaches to the archives. Class discussion revolved around the kinds of literacies valued in different contexts and disciplines and how students came to learn and apply the use of design principles to their final projects. In our discussion, I also returned to one of the course goals that requires students to analyze and respond to a variety of rhetorical situations and to write for an identified audience. Under this goal, I asked students to reflect on the rhetorical situation for their final project. Regardless of how students decided to design the final project, the reflective component allowed them to acknowledge their strengths as well as the areas where they needed to develop their digital literacy skills. Many students chose to (re)create their own personal archives, such as family histories, travel journals, or scrapbooks of their college and academic experiences, and used the reflection to perform a genre analysis of these different forms. Guiding questions that students proposed included:
;:How have you considered audience, purpose, and tone when designing your visual component?
;:Why did you choose this medium to present your final project and your material? Reflect on your design choices.
As a class, we developed a rubric around key questions that asked students to consider the choices they made in their project in terms of the genre and medium. These questions also allowed students to reflect on how they considered their audience, purpose, and tone. In the following reflective excerpts, two student groups reflect on their experiences in working with the Women's Plaza of Honor, a memory space we also studied as an archive. Students in these groups approached the final project differently, contributing to the archive using different genres and mediums.
Student Reflection 1: “I’m not sure I would have chosen to design a brochure had it not been for the other members in my group who were more comfortable with design principles. We felt the brochure was the best way to reach a wider audience in order to inform them of the mission, purpose, and goals of the Women’s Plaza. We wanted to raise awareness of this space and its function, and our design begins to do this . . .”
Student Reflection 2: “Rather than creating a digital text, I designed a plaque that addressed the purpose of the Women’s Plaza. I also created my own personal scrapbook of my junior year. There was a need to extend the mission and goals of the space to UA students, faculty, and visitors of the space but also for me to learn how I am connected, as a UA woman in the sciences, to the women represented in the Plaza . . .”
In my own teaching, I continue to explore how I might revise my ideas about assigning and assessing digital texts in my classroom based on factors such as students’ previous experiences with writing and digital/visual logics. Revising my ideas about integrating digital logics into my courses means I need to consistently reflect not only on my locatedness as a teacher, but on my students' locations of knowledge and understanding.
de Certeau, Michel. (1988). The practice of everyday life (Steven Rendall, Trans.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Keating, Ana Louise. (2007). Teaching transformations. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Selber, Stuart. (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Weisser, Christian R. (2002). Moving beyond academic discourse: Composition studies and the public sphere. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Williams, Robin. (2008). The non-designer’s design book (3rd ed.). Berkeley, AC: Peachpit Press.