Contributor: David T. Coad
School Affiliation: University of California, Davis
Email: davidtcoad at gmail.com
When I saw Facebook had hit over 900 million users, I began seriously considering the need for college freshmen to learn to think critically about Facebook: about the rhetoric of the site itself and the rhetoric of those with whom students interact. Stuart A. Selber (2004) in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age makes an important argument that critical literacy is a necessary literacy for students to gain in the digital age. Selber described students who have critical literacy as “informed questioners of technology” who can “question computers’ designs, or challenge the grand narratives in which computers are implicated,” and who become “empowered knowledge workers” (p. 74-75). When it comes to students’ use of social media, their lack of critical literacy is a significant, often unnoticed problem.
To address this, I decided to develop my first-year composition course in a way that engages students in critical thinking about these issues, especially the designs and the grand narratives of social networking technologies. Additionally, I wanted to help students think critically about the kinds of communications they have with other users on social networking sites. I developed discussion topics and writing assignments based on theory I had read, and I had my students read an article by Richard L. Freishtat and Jennifer A. Sandlin (2010) on social networking that pushed students to question their thinking about Facebook. These two major areas for classroom discussion (critical literacy of the technology itself and students’ critical thinking about online communications) proved helpful as ways to frame discussions and writing assignments.
While the approaches I detail in this piece are by no means the answer for everyone’s classroom, they offer a pattern for helping students think critically about the human forces they interact with on Facebook. I argue that this kind of critical thinking about human forces is an important key to having a lasting impact on our students' future communicative practices.
One way to build students’ critical literacy and encourage them to question the design of technologies is to ask them to consider the humans behind the technology, how this human presence changes the user experience on Facebook, and how students choose to interact with these human desires behind the scenes. I believe that the human intent behind computer technologies profoundly affects the humans in front of the technology. Clay Shirky (2010), for example, has written about many people's struggle to see the human presence behind technologies, focusing instead on the technologies themselves.
To further explain what I mean, I compare the user interface of computer technologies to a person’s shadow: the shadow represents some, but not all, of the characteristics of the person standing in the light’s way.
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. I argue that we should consider how computer users become aware of these effects, which the user interacts with in computer technologies. One example I use with my students is that Facebook features a “like” button but no “dislike” button, most likely a deliberate decision on the part of the designers to keep user interactions amicable. Designers can spend hours, or even days, discussing the details of which buttons will and will not appear on the screen (because I have family in the field, I have seen such discussion in action). Some decisions are deliberate, while others are unintentional or a product of the designers’ personalities or corporate culture. Likewise, one can make his or her shadow change shapes by standing in different poses, but can also not escape his or her body’s limitations on the shadow’s appearance. I argue that it is important to teach students to engage with technologies critically in light of these considerations. Question #3 in the writing assignment (below) shows how I ask my students to respond to these ideas in writing.
To help students consider how the rhetoric of Facebook interacts with their desires in using it, I introduce them to Freishtat and Sandlin's (2010) “Shaping Youth Discourse About Technology: Technological Colonization, Manifest Destiny, and the Frontier Myth in Facebook’s Public Pedagogy." In this article, Freishtat and Sandlin explored the nature of Facebook and how the rhetoric of the website interacts with students’ desires, arguing that “Facebook seeks to shape how young people view technology” (p. 505). To this, they add that Facebook uses “rhetorical strategies…to both normalize and celebrate its vision of current cultural changes” (p. 505). Most of my students have never considered that Facebook may have an opinion about how cultural changes related to technology should look. According to Freishtat and Sandlin, Facebook takes a definitive stance towards these cultural changes, both in terms of the kinds of programs that populate the Web, and in terms of how they imagine people relating to these programs. Students often view this statement as audacious, but they timidly allow this statement to challenge their thinking about what kinds of human intentions may lie behind Facebook and what effects social networks' designs may actually have on users. I further challenge my students by asking them to consider Freishtat and Sandlin’s claim that “Facebook seeks to craft users with particular dispositions who behave in particular ways online, and… disciplines dissent on its site” (p. 505). I ask students to consider whether they shape how they use Facebook, or whether Facebook is shaping them as users. Again, the idea that someone is being shaped, or even manipulated, is something they rarely consider when using social media.
Freishtat and Sandlin’s (2010) argument does not deal with classroom pedagogy, but rather with what they call “public pedagogy,” or students’ self-directed learning that takes place on Facebook outside the classroom (p. 505). This focus made the article a perfect fit for helping students think about how they use Facebook in their lives. For many first-year college students, this article is appropriately challenging. For lower-level college students (e.g., those who are on San Jose State University's B-track and thus go through San Jose State University’s Basic Writing program, in which I taught this assignment), this article is even more challenging but still proves helpful in framing the issues. While students are able to connect the article’s broad claims with their specific experiences, they often resist dealing with the full force of the article’s assertions. I encourage them to consider social networking through the lens the article suggests, a lens many have never before considered. Once students get a handle on the article’s assertions, they quickly come up with reasons why these claims might be true.
Learning how to think critically about what individuals are trying to communicate on social websites is closely associated with the critical literacy students need to develop in relation to the technology itself. In order to talk about issues of identity and communication, I introduced students to a passage from Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man that exemplifies some of the issues Facebook users encounter. The excerpt takes place near the end of the novel when the narrator puts on a disguise. Immediately after donning a hat and sunglasses, many different kinds of people begin to mistake him for someone named Rinehart. For instance, some shady fellows on the street corner recognize Rinehart as their associate, and later on members of a church congregation recognize Rinehart as their Reverend. By donning his disguise, others are able to see the narrator differently, which can be positive or negative depending on what (mistaken) identities others assign him. This rhetorical move is not unlike the multiple identities we use in social networking and in face-to-face conversations. This is not to say that the motives of Ellison's Invisible Man correspond to students' social networking motives, but that the novel excerpt helps students think critically about how they position themselves rhetorically for others to see.
Many instructors believe that writing on social networking sites undermines the rhetorical skills students learn in class because of the slang and abbreviations often used on these sites; such instructors may believe that social networks are the end of students’ critical awareness when they communicate. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber (2009) contended that electronic writing forms actually require "sophisticated skills of understanding concrete rhetorical situations, analyzing audiences (and their goals and inclinations), and constructing concise, information-laden texts, as a part of a dynamic, unfolding, social process” (p. 18). It is this dynamic process that makes social networking a perfect match for the composition classroom and for teaching rhetorical skills: It helps students see how communication works in real, live rhetorical situations. Many students do not believe that communication in these media requires any kind of valuable literacy skills because they buy into the myth of how the news media portray social networks as valueless forms of communication that are decaying young people’s minds. This is why I introduced students to the passage from Invisible Man: to get them thinking about what kinds of skills they learn on Facebook. I found the text useful for helping them acknowledge the skills they are building in these writing spaces.
As a part of the social networking unit I developed for a first-year composition course at my institution, I developed a writing assignment that asks students to synthesize their thoughts on the issues we discuss in class and with which they deal first-hand in their own use of Facebook. The assignment is centered on three key questions based on topics discussed in class. Below is an excerpt from the assignment sheet, including a summary of topics discussed in class and questions for students to respond to in the writing assignment.
Topics Discussed in Class:
- How social networking helps or hinders the development of communication and rhetorical skills, how social networking helps or hinders our sense of identity and place in a social world, and how social networking sites have a rhetoric (or an argument) that we may not be aware of.
Questions to Respond to:
1 How do you use social networking websites, and why do you find it effective or ineffective for achieving your communication needs?
2 What rhetorical skills do you think using social networking websites has helped you to build? How have your experiences on the website changed the way you think about communication in writing?
3 How do social networking websites’ format and user interface affect how you use them? What rhetoric or arguments are made by the site’s user interface? How do these components affect you as a user and as a person? Which rhetorical choices seem deliberate? What clues (in the design of the website) can you find about how the designers want you to use the site?
I asked students to include support from their own observations from using Facebook and to keep any reference to other users anonymous. While Jennifer Swartz (2011) asked students to write about the differences between online and in-person communication, and how these differences impact our society, I took a different approach, asking students to reflect on the ways that Facebook affects them and their choices, both through its user interface and through the others that inhabit the website. I also wanted to encourage students to think about the rhetorical awareness they have built on Facebook. Finally, I wanted students to reflect on how these websites interact with their specific personal and educational communicative needs.
One of the most formidable challenges in working with students on this assignment is helping them think beyond the generalized questions that they are normally asked about Facebook, such as, “Is social networking good for society?” These types of blanket yes-no questions are often used in lower-level analyses of social networks. In order for students to approach these issues through the lens I want them to use, I must substantially articulate the questions I want them to consider. I have developed and continue to develop specific, rhetoric-driven questions about Facebook for students to explore in a critical manner.
While I seek to help my students develop critical literacy and critical thinking about Facebook, I have them use the site as a place to communicate with each other and with me, as I think the best way to examine something more closely is to use it. Additionally, using Facebook as a writing space in the classroom gives students the feeling that writing is relevant to their lives and to the communication that matters to them. Finally, alternative spaces such as course management systems (like Blackboard or Desire2Learn) manage classes, rather than give students the floor in an environment within which they feel comfortable communicating.
One student told me that one course management system’s user interface feels “oppressive” because it seems to stop her from being able to freely express herself, that it somehow tries to “manage” her thoughts. Course management systems give way to an unnatural, inauthentic writing experience, while sites like Facebook lend themselves to a structure of communication more akin to their natural communication patterns. Just as Dennis Baron (2009) noticed how students in the 21st century feel that their ideas flow most easily from brain to screen through a keyboard (rather than from brain to page through a pencil), I argue that 21st century students often feel that their thoughts can more easily and authentically flow from brain to screen on websites like Facebook than they can inside the confines of course management systems. The writing space in most course management systems is structured so differently from the spaces students normally write in that it becomes a kind of roadblock for students who need to convey their ideas. I am not arguing that Facebook is the only place our students need to know how to write, but I am arguing that it is closer to the future of communicative environments than course management systems.
Stuart A. Selber (2004) in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age criticized so-called computer literacy classes for having “focused primarily on data representations, numbering systems, operating systems, file formats, and hardware and software components” rather than on the task of teaching students to be “informed questioners of technology” (p. 74). In a time when, as Sheelah M. Sweeny (2010) noted, “the ability to stay connected with others is constant,” it is increasingly important to engage composition students in critical thinking about the spaces they write in (p. 121). It is becoming clearer, as technology giants such as Google® and Apple® introduce new technologies, that critical literacy and critical thinking about technology are necessary for our students’ futures. The Google® Glass Project, a post-cell-phone technology, has the potential to change the way we communicate. However, if students have not learned patterns for critical thinking about these technologies, they will be unable to reflect on them. Even worse, without critical literacy and critical thinking skills, students could find themselves in rhetorically weak situations without intending to end up there. I argue that composition instructors should help students develop a critical literacy of technologies.
While neither we nor our students can know what the future of communication technologies will be, we can help students deal with design choices that are being made right before their eyes in one of today’s most influential communication technologies. We cannot prepare our students for every writing space they will encounter in their lifetimes. However, the pattern of critical thinking through awareness of the human players involved in their communicative endeavors will remain relevant as long as humans design and communicate through communication technologies.
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Ellison, Ralph. (1952). Invisible man. New York: Random House.
Freishtat, Richard L., & Sandlin, Jennifer A. (2010). Shaping youth discourse about technology: Technological colonization, manifest destiny, and the frontier myth in Facebook’s public pedagogy. Educational Studies, 46, 503-523.
Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, & Selber, Stuart A. (2009). The changing shapes of writing: Rhetoric, new media, and composition. In Amy C. Kimme Hea (Ed.), Going wireless: A critical exploration of wireless and mobile technologies for composition teachers (pp. 15-34). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
Selber, Stuart A. (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Shirky, Clay. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin Press.
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