"That Looks Weird":
Analyzing the Rhetoric and Technology of Websites Over Time with Critical Genre Awareness
Contributor: Marcy Leasum Orwig
Affiliation: University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Email: orwigml at uwec.edu
Released: 15 March 2017
Published: Fall 2017 (Issue 22.1)
What is critical genre awareness and how can we use it to help students learn the history and future of online texts? In this sample assignment, students will use an organization’s website to analyze how it adapts to form, audience, and purpose over a period of time by using an online archive of websites. The unit assignment asks students to share their analyses with a script and screencast video. It is important for students to understand that critiques of genre are useful because genres are constantly changing and developing with technology. Teaching critical genre awareness, then, allows an opportunity for students to better understand how technology is used as genre develops and changes so that students, too, can adapt to future technologies.
Digital Literacy and Critical Genre Awareness
Frank Serafini (2014) called for instructional approaches that focus on making sense of visual images and their multimodal contexts, especially as students rely more and more on visual images and design features to communicate ideas and make sense of the world (p. 4). One way to build such literacy and to question the design of technologies, according to David Coad (2015), is to ask students to consider the humans behind the technology: “Although the user cannot see the person behind the technology, nor talk with the person or people who designed the hardware and software, the user can see the effects of the designer’s work . . . we should consider how computer users become aware of these effects, which the user interacts with in computer technologies” (n.p.).
Digital literacy, in this context, was explained over a decade ago by Stuart A. Selber (2004) in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Selber described students who have digital literacy as “informed questioners of technology” who can “question computers’ designs, or challenge the grand narratives in which computers are implicated,” abilities that allow those students to become “empowered knowledge workers” (pp. 74–75). He suggested three different ways to approach digital literacy: (1) functional, with the basic ability being to read and write and use technology; (2) critical, with the ability to interpret and evaluate digital texts; and (3) rhetorical, with the advanced ability to produce a digital text for a specific audience and purpose. However, for my students, enrolled in an upper-level business communication course, it is often difficult to generate the more advanced, rhetorical analyses of familiar communication, especially when that communication occupies a commercial online space, such as websites. Dennis Baron (2012) explained that “Nowadays every self-respecting business has a website. Many individuals have one too, but not as many as one might have predicted from the headlong rush to get on the web . . . Students never really joined the personal website craze, which today remains the preserve of businesses and organizations” (p. 16).
How do I get my students, then, who are preparing for a professional life in business, to critique a website, especially when it is challenging for them to reconsider it as anything but a commercial digital text? A simliar problem existed for Barbi Smyser-Fauble (2012) in her analysis of autism spectrum disorder websites. She compared two national websites—Autism Speaks and Generation Rescue—and analyzed how the communication displayed perpetuated damaging biases of the affected community under the guises of objective information. Just as with my business students, critically analyzing websites is not always the most straightforward task. As a result, I developed a course theme that sought to help my students see the ways in which business communication, such as the genre of websites, are not as mundane as they might appear by asking students to analyze how technologies enable and constrain their development.
The course was developed as part of a program to help students earn a business communication certificate. Most of the students had a major in the College of Business. The first unit was an introduction to the course theme, as mentioned above, and included the following specific course goals:
- Use current and emerging technologies in oral and written business communication.
- Explore new technologies available to business professionals.
- Demonstrate the best practices in selecting and using communication technology.
These goals are important because they encourage students to practice the digital literacy already explained. If business communication genres, such as websites, exist within the social structure of professional communities, it would seem they would remain rather static. But, as Amy Devitt (2004) argued in her explaination of critical genre awareness, if people use genres to construct recurring situations of variable events, then these genres must adapt to variation. Further, as genres change, they usually originate out of other genres and are dependent on evolving technologies. Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepherd (2004) explained, with their analysis of blogs originating from diaries, that "the potentialities of technology, a set of cultural patterns, rhetorical conventions available in antecedent genres, and the history of the subject have combined to produce a recurrent rhetorical motive that has found a conventional mode of expression” (n.p.). More recently, Katherine Taken Smith and Julie J. Alexander (2013) researched how Fortune 500 websites have adapted their efforts to inform stakeholders about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Companies' commitments to CSR are now becoming more specific by identifying CSR-related actions and company policies with relevant headings on websites, such as "community" or "environment." These CSR-related headings are formed as new social issues and technologies emerge.
Using a historical approach, then, is helpful when asking students to practice their digital literacy of how an organization's website adapts to form, audience, and purpose over a period of time. Ellen Cushman (2013) noted both the opportunities and challenges of working with a digital archive. While my class uses an online collection of websites that only date back to 1996, I argue that using a historical lens—even if that time period is 20 years—still allows students to see how communication changes. Further, this approach helps trace the development of communication in relation to technology. For instance, JoAnne Yates (1993) completed an in-depth study of how complex changes in American business and technology during the early twentieth century changed workplace communication. Her research explained how the business genres we use today, such as the memo and report, evolved out of necessity as small, family-run businesses grew into large corporations. Tracing, then, the evolution of genre back to some of its antecedents can help explain its situational and cultural origins.
Below is a description of the unit assignment that addresses the above objectives, as well as a debriefing and appraisal of the assignment from the students’ perspective. As mentioned before, this course is specific to business communication, but the unit assignment could easily be adapted to a variety of other communication and composition classes.
Introducing the unit
The goal of the unit is to understand and learn about how business communication genres, especially websites, are influenced by technology. The main assignment for this unit is the “Explore Website Genre Screencast.” In this assignment, students are asked to use The Wayback Machine, a website tool that provides snapshots of websites at certain times and currently archives 472 billion web pages, dating back to the beginnings of the Internet (see Fig. 1). Students can pick any website to analyze, which helps make the assignment more relevant to them.
Once students have their example website, they use Adobe Story, which is free, to create a short script that will provide the content of their screencast assignment. To create the screencast, students use JING, another free tool. By using a script and a screencast, instead of a traditional essay, students are asked to communicate their analyses in a more mediated format. As they use the multimedia format, students are able to show their website screenshots as they verbally describe the developing form, audience, and purpose of the genre. Through this process, students are not only learning critical genre awareness, but also how to create multimedia content through screencasts, which many websites use today as embedded content.
To help students approach the “Explore Website Genre Screencast,” I use a specific structure throughout the unit. To begin, students are asked to read a chapter, “Writing It Down,” in the above-mentioned book A Better Pencil (Baron, 2012). In the chapter, Baron explained how technologies that we “use to compose, disseminate, and archive our words—the machinery that ranges from pencils to pixels, from clay tablets to optical disks—not only make reading and writing possible, they also have affected our reading and writing practices” (p. 14). In other words, the technologies we use to communicate with each other help determine how we communicate. Students are asked to discuss, as a result, how communication is always dependent on the individuals using technological developments.
Analyzing the website genre
After the above-mentioned discussion, the following directions are provided to the class to help them get started with the assignment:
- Visit http://www.waybackmachine.org to find an example of a website.
- Once you have an example, find at least four or five “snapshots” of it over the years to represent how the website has changed.
- After you have your four or five snapshots, note how your example changes over the years, while keeping in mind the reading by Baron:
- In what ways does the website mimic conventional print media in the early years?
- Does this mimicking of conventional print media seem to change over the years?
- In what ways does the website change to become more interactive? Or doesn’t it?
- Why do you think this change to interactivity happens (or doesn’t!)? Is it because of the technology or because of the human communication?
Creating the script
The final week of the unit allows students the opportunity to trouble-shoot both Adobe Story and JING in a peer-review workshop. The instructor provides the following detailed instructions during the trouble-shooting session. Each screencast should be no more than five minutes long, which means that most scripts should be around three pages (not including the title page). The detailed instructions include these specific steps:
- Access the Adobe Story homepage (see Fig. 2). This site is free to use with the basic service (do not pay for anything more!) once you create an account or log in (some people may already have an Adobe account). If you would like some specific tutorials, you can find them here.
- From the homepage, log in to the Adobe Story site (or create a new account). Once in the site, click on “projects” and create a new one.
- Now you are ready to start typing! Adobe Story makes it easy to format your script. Simply start by titling (or naming) your script and then choose “scene heading” and “dialogue” to create your content.
- Once you are finished typing your script, make sure to save it and then “export” it to a PDF copy. You can then read off of the script as you complete your screencast. Of course, like any good actor, you can “ad lib” the script as you go along (you might start to run out of time or you might think of something else to say “off-the-cuff”!).Once you are done creating your screencast, make sure to include the link (as the next few screencast directions will instruct you) on the title page of your script. You will turn in your script with the link to the screencast for your assignment!
Creating the screencast
Once students have their script finished, they can then begin creating their screencast. Just as before, the instructor includes detailed instructions about how to use the technology. The use of JING for screen capturing allows users to
- Select any window or region that you would like to record,
- Create simple screenshots to a fully narrated tutorial,
- Share your videos with anyone.
During the troubleshooting session, students usually comment that they thought using JING would be difficult and time-consuming. However, in practice, students find using the technology interesting and user-friendly. For most students, downloading JING in the steps outlined below only takes about five minutes. The most time-intensive part of the assignment is actually recording the screencast.
- Access the JING website (see Figure 3). The JING website offers several tutorials.
- From the JING homepage, download JING in either PC or Mac format.
- Once you have downloaded JING, you should see a pop-up screen asking you to install it on your desktop. After JING has completely installed, you can begin using it. I suggest bringing all of your example website pages up on your desktop in whatever browser you choose so that you have everything ready once you begin recording your screencast.
- To start recording your screencast, simply (a) Click on the JING icon (located on your desktop). (b) Select the area you want it to include during the recording process (in your case, it will be your desktop with your browser). (c) Start the actual recording process by clicking on the “record” button on the bottom of the JING option screen. (d) Prepare yourself to talk loudly and to use your mouse to show your different examples. (e) If you have to take a few times to get your recording just right, that’s ok! You can practice as many times as you need!
- To upload your screencast assignment to our D2L site, simply save your video to the JING website called “Screencast.” You can do this step by clicking on the JING icon, which should still be located on your desktop like when you started recording your video. Once your video is in the website, you should be able to view it when you click on it.
- Once you can view your screencast video online, you can save the URL to it through the website. Instead of uploading it to YouTube or Facebook, simply copy and paste your screencast’s specific URL and paste it into the title page of your Adobe Story script. Your script, in PDF, should then be placed online in the course management system by the deadline. Please make sure the link you include is the link you want graded!
Debriefing and Appraisal
After the students submit their assignment to the online learning management system, I assess their work with the following criteria:
- Provides background context to the example business website
- Includes Adobe Story script with screencast link on title page
- Uses JING to create a screencast that is professional and fully audible
- Refers to discussions from class on how the business used its website over the years (specifically, how the website changed as well as how it both enabled and constrained the communication)
- Presents analysis regarding the form, purpose, and audience of the business website
- Lasts no more than five minutes and is correctly uploaded to the course site
Video 1 below shows a sample screencast, with the script visible in Figure 4 and the full text available here.
Throughout the unit, students develop critical genre awareness by analyzing the development of a business website over time. The way websites evolve, based on the use of technology by a business, provides students with the opportunity to better understand the ways in which form, audience, and purpose interact together. Additionally, the screencast lets students practice composing with technology; which is what Selber called for with the advanced, rhetorical approach to digital literacy. Below are some of the sample student comments from end-of-semester course evalutions:
- “Using waybackmachine.org and JING was useful. I had never used either of those before.”
- "It was interesting learning about making a screencast and JING because I was not aware of that type of communication technology before I took this course.”
While teaching students critical genre awareness is often challenging, especially with something familiar like a website, providing unique learning opportunities helps students engage with the material. For most of my students, as mentioned earlier, the website genre is already very familiar to them. But forcing students to consider how a particular website evolved over the years, due to the intersections of technology with form, purpose, and audience, makes them more aware of how the genre develops. For instance, the earliest website screenshots are often described by students as looking “weird.” Here is an example of how even though students are familiar with the website genre, they are unaware of what was available technologically when it was created to fit its form, purpose, and audience. One way to modify this assignment moving forward would be to make the older technologies used in the creation of early website examples more apparent. For example, teaching students a basic understanding of how websites were created when compared to today's standards would be helpful.
The analysis questions listed above are answered by addressing how the initial website example from 1996 seems to mimic conventional print media and how the website evolved to become more interactive. For instance, the earliest example of the website looks more like a traditional print advertisement than an online company home through its text-heavy information. By the end of the analysis, the present-day website appears much more graphically-rich and interactive. Throughout the history of the example website, both technology and communication choices affect how it fits the evolving genre.
Changes in technology will, of course, affect the form, purpose, and audience of the website genre, which is what I want my students to understand and apply throughout their future careers. As our course continues, I have other assignments that build on this first unit because it is important for students to understand that critiques of genre will help them adapt to technology and communication in the future. For instance, the final research report in this class asks students to conduct an audit of how technology is used to communicate in a sample workplace of their choice. The goal of this assigment is to help students learn how technology used by their sample workplace affects its communication. For example, smaller businesses may not have access to the latest tools, and large businesses may have more constraints. Teaching critical genre awareness, then, allows an opportunity for students to better understand how technology is used as genre develops and changes so that they, too, can adapt to future technologies.
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