Responding to Cultural Crises Through Social Media Research and Student–Faculty Collaboration

Contributors: Sarah Riddick, with Stephanie Tam, Emily Stead, Nathaniel Shimkus, Drew Mulcare, Ngoga Julien Vainqueur Mugabo, Jorgo Gushi, Nathaniel Gamboa, Tian Yu Fan, Charles Dursin, and Ryan Crowley
Affiliation: Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Published: Issue 29.1 (August 2024)


Rhetoric and writing classrooms are culturally responsive sites. A contemporary example of this responsiveness is the attention that rhetoric and writing undergraduate courses pay to social media, particularly by having students write for and analyze social media (Kester & Vie, 2021; Mina, 2017). As we ask students to do this work, it is important to remember that social media is ever-changing, and so are its methodological approaches. Although researching social media in undergraduate classrooms offers students opportunities to explore timely topics of personal and professional interest, it also poses methodological challenges. We may be asking students to research and write about social media without first teaching them to reflect on and carefully select method/ologies that are suitable for this work.

In this webtext, we share the results of our effort to respond to this challenge as a faculty-and-undergraduate-student team. In early 2021, we collaborated for seven weeks on research, writing, and pedagogy in a capstone seminar called Writing About Social Media at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Sarah Riddick designed and taught this seminar, and we collaboratively refined it each week to align with our research, writing, and learning goals.

Our project emerged, in part, as its own cultural response. In January 2021, a series of political events created unexpected exigence for the seminar, given the role that social media played in them. Every week that month, the United States seemed to move further into tumult, with social media at the epicenter, as the “Pathway to Project” graphic illustrates. 

A visual timeline that illustrates how notable cultural events in January 2021 shaped our seminar.

Figure 1. Pathway to Project: January 2021

Sarah responded to this kairotic moment by creating a second design and set of materials for the seminar. During our first meeting, she presented both versions of the seminar as options for completing it. We chose the redesigned version, which centered student–faculty collaboration and open pedagogy; we discussed both in greater detail in the “Our Seminar in Situ” section. This webtext presents the results of our choice and the work we did together.

In addition to responding to cultural exigence, our project also addresses a pedagogical challenge regarding social media research in humanities coursework. To complete advanced undergraduate coursework about specialized topics, students are often expected to develop robust research projects about that topic area. This development might be straightforward work for some courses and seminars, but it is less so if the work involves social media—an emergent, fast-paced research area that involves public human communication. Sarah realized that students would likely not enter this seminar with the methodological foundation needed for researching and writing about social media rhetoric and writing; instead, she saw an opportunity to invite them into another scholarly avenue: developing social media method/ologies for digital humanities research.

Ultimately, this project demonstrates how student–faculty collaborations in the classroom can contribute to conversations beyond the classroom. Our collaboration explored two key questions that center on emergence and exigence:

  1. How can rhetoric and writing classrooms provide space for students and faculty to develop method/ologies for emergent research areas (e.g., social media)?
  2. How can open pedagogy help rhetoric and writing classrooms become more responsive to cultural exigence (e.g., events of cultural crisis)?

In the following sections, we share the outcomes of this two-month experiment. We begin with an overview of the seminar’s context and its connections to collaborative pedagogies and interdisciplinary research and writing. From there, we discuss our learning goals and research motivations. Next, we present a guide of our weekly individual and collaborative work; instructors can use this guide as a resource for developing and organizing similar projects with students. We conclude by offering recommendations for future work, which may help instructors anticipate and address potential challenges and constraints. We are proud of what we have achieved in our circumstances, and we hope our work encourages others to engage in similar, perhaps more sustained, collaborations in undergraduate rhetoric and writing classrooms.

Our Seminar in Situ: Scholarly Connections and Contributions

We recognize that we are certainly not the only group who researched and studied social media rhetoric and writing in the classroom during spring 2021. However, we believe our project offers several meaningful contributions:

  • Responding to Exigence with Open Pedagogy. We build on recent research about 1) using open pedagogy in rhetoric and writing classrooms and 2) responding to exigence in course design and delivery.
  • Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Digital Humanities Research. We work together as an interdisciplinary group to respond to current questions and concerns in the digital humanities (i.e., how to research social media).
  • Student–Faculty Coauthorship as Interdisciplinary Writing Mentorship. We model how students can work towards multiple learning and professional writing goals in their rhetoric and writing coursework.

We explain these contributions in more detail below.

Responding to Exigence with Open Pedagogy

Our project is inspired by and builds on a recent Kairos webtext called "'Stronger Together': Open Pedagogy, Digital Scholarship, and Hillary Clinton’s Rhetorical Appeal," by Julia Canzoneri et al. (2020). In fall 2016—amidst the 2016 U.S. Presidential election—Wendy Hayden offered a course at Hunter College called Democratic Rhetoric: Hillary Clinton and Beyond, which Hayden and her students cocreated. As a group, we wanted to build on Canzoneri et al.'s approach to learning together in a college course, and we wanted to explore new directions for this kind of collaboration.

Open pedagogy projects (Canzoneri et al., 2020) underscore the value of student–faculty collaboration in the undergraduate classroom, including in curriculum design. This kind of approach is often described as "open pedagogy," which builds on the principles of Open Educational Resources (OER), namely open collaboration and "free and unfettered access to education materials, with the purpose of improving teaching and learning" (Hilton et al., 2019, p. 276).

We share Canzoneri et al.'s (2020) enthusiasm not only for open pedagogy but also for including undergraduate students in this process. In a similar vein, our approach to cocreating the seminar is informed by Bronwyn Hegarty’s (2015) influential work on open pedagogy. In the "Our Weekly Work" section below, we show how our project engages with Hegarty's "eight attributes of open pedagogy": "participatory technologies"; "people, openness, trust"; "innovation & creativity"; "sharing ideas & resources"; "connected community"; "learner generated"; "reflective practice"; and "peer review" (p. 5). Granted, in some cases, the connections to these attributes are looser than others, given the focus and scale of our project. Nevertheless, we find Hegarty's phrasing useful for signaling the work we did as a student–faculty collaboration team and the values that shaped such work. For instance, to research and write with "participatory technologies" (i.e., social media), we experimented with "innovation & creativity" and "sharing ideas & resources" (p. 5).  To refine this work, we incorporated attributes like "people, openness, trust," "reflective practice," and "peer review" (p. 5). 

Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Digital Humanities Research

“At its core,” Matthew Kirschenbaum (2012) argued in Debates in the Digital Humanities, “digital humanities is more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies" (p. 4). Along these lines, we frame this project as a digital humanities project based on our approaches, not our results. We took an experimental, varied approach to method/ology, including the invitation throughout the project to engage digitals tools and technologies in our research.

Our project’s methodologies and aims were also informed by digital rhetoric. In their chapter, "Digital Humanities Scholarship and Electronic Publication," Douglas Eyman and Cheryl Ball (2015) noted the strong connection between the digital humanities and digital rhetoric when they

take up the relation between DH and screen-based scholarship as a form of digital rhetoric practice. One of the ways in which we can further the study of Web texts is to develop scholarly approaches that partake of the same digital rhetoric methods and practices as the works we study. To that end, we argue that DH scholarship that takes advantage of digital, networked media and platforms serves as an enactment of digital rhetoric practice. (p. 66)

We explored these connections in our research and writing. One of our initial goals was to create digital humanities scholarship, which took many forms before arriving at the present one (e.g., an online portfolio; a digital, interactive annotated timeline).

The digital humanities illustrates the importance of collaborative work, including interdisciplinary collaborations (Klein, 2015; Ridolfo & Hart-Davidson, 2015). Scholarship about collaboration often features work from researchers in similar disciplines and/or with similar levels of training (e.g., faculty collaborations; humanities collaborations). We believe a particular point of interest for our project is the composition of our group.

Our group was composed of ten STEM undergraduate students at a polytechnic institute who were working with a rhetoric and writing professor to research social media and to cocreate a course about social media. In their study of STEM-focused writing pedagogies, John R. Gallagher et al. (2020) summarized well the potential value of our collaborative, interdisciplinary work: "Close sustained collaboration can help to make implicit assumptions explicit; humanities and STEM researchers can better address their latent assumptions about one another with sustained collaboration" (p. 423). In context—and in general—this call for interdisciplinary collaboration focuses on work amongst colleagues (e.g., "humanities and STEM researchers" and faculty). Continuing in this direction, we advocate for the value of collaborative, interdisciplinary research and writing work between faculty and undergraduate students.

We understand that our group's composition initially could seem like a point of weakness and a possible deterrent from pursuing a project like ours. However, we assert that our group's composition was one of our strengths, as it facilitated a broader range of perspectives and approaches from which we all learned in different ways. We faced various challenges (e.g., different disciplines, different levels of formal training, brief project timeline, a pandemic), but we also felt motivated by how we could build upon our prior knowledge (e.g., interdisciplinary perspectives; different identities and lived experiences; different multimodal literacies) to make contributions to multiple research areas (i.e., writing pedagogy; open pedagogy; social media research methods; digital rhetoric and writing; digital humanities). Most notably, our seminar's open-pedagogy structure enabled us to adjust one of our primary research questions and goals to better align with our interests and to address a current need in digital humanities research: developing method/ologies for researching emergent media and technology. We explain our reasons for the project’s reframing in the section called "Our Learning Goals."

Student–Faculty Collaboration as Interdisciplinary Writing Mentorship

Compared with other forms of undergraduate coursework, student–faculty collaboration and coauthorship in the classroom is relatively infrequent but not altogether new. As Cynthia J. Reed et al. (2002) explained, “Coauthorship creates a forum for participatory problem solving, reflection, and action,” and incorporating coauthorship in the college classroom can enhance these learning outcomes (p. 22). Moreover, collaboration and coauthorship between undergraduate students and faculty can expand students' opportunities to receive personalized writing mentorship, which benefits their future work in industry and/or academia. Effective writing skills are among the most desirable skills across disciplines, yet prospective employers and supervisors are often dissatisfied with their applicants' or employees' approaches to writing (Anderson et al., 2017).

Collaborative writing opportunities with writing faculty at the undergraduate level may better prepare students for the writing work they'll be expected to do in their future workplaces, including projects in collaboration with their supervisors. For undergraduate STEM students like those in this project, these learning outcomes may be especially appealing, given the research and writing expectations that STEM graduate students encounter (Zimmer et al., 2022). Although expectations for STEM writing are high in both industry and academia, the writing support that STEM students receive tends to be relatively low (Druschke et al., 2018), which may contribute to STEM mentors' and mentees' misaligned perceptions of the quality of graduate research and writing work (Feldon et al., 2015).

More generally, writing classrooms provide invaluable support for (inter)disciplinary writing, as illustrated by Writing Across the Disciplines (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID) pedagogies (e.g., Kramer et al., 2019; Segall & Smart, 2005). Along with consulting faculty and writers from different disciplines to develop writing pedagogies (Gallagher et al., 2020), research in this area should also incorporate students' perspectives about their writing coursework. Doing so can contribute to broader efforts of collaborating with students on pedagogy. As Sarah Jane Blithe and Brian Fidelibus (2022) noted, "Collaboration is clearly considered important in many aspects of university practice and curriculum, yet students are not usually considered as participatory stakeholders, but rather as the recipients of collaborative efforts" (p. 239). In their study of a collaboration team comprised of one instructor and seven undergraduate students, Blithe and Fidelibus found that collaborating with students on a course's design increased student engagement and learning outcomes, with students enrolled in the course reporting "significant personal growth" (p. 242); similarly, the students on the collaboration team "developed ownership in their . . . leadership qualities, course design and pedagogy skills, research skills," and more (p. 242).

As we discuss in the following section, our project further demonstrates the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration and co-authorship between students and faculty in relation to research, writing, and pedagogy. We believe this approach can help "create engaged, inclusive classrooms" (Blithe & Fidelibus, 2022, p. 238), as well as proactively and creatively respond to the contexts surrounding classrooms. In our project, we found that an open-pedagogy, interdisciplinary approach to the rhetoric and writing classroom helped us better understand and draw from each other's areas of specialization to responsively address timely concerns at multiple scales. 

Our Learning Goals: Reasons for Researching and Writing Together

 Our project aimed to address three broad rhetoric and writing categories in which we were collectively invested:

  • Personal and Professional: Writing pedagogy and practice (i.e., the writing process; writing style; writing genres; writing for publication)
  • Research: Methods and methodologies (i.e., social media research)
  • Culture: Current cultural events and influences (i.e., the 2020 U.S. Presidential election; political rhetoric; social media rhetorics and writing; dis/misinformation; digital publics)

As an interdisciplinary student–faculty team, we built upon our lived experiences and training to creatively explore not only the many forms of rhetoric and writing that circulate on social media but also how to research and write about them. Most immediately, we were invested in the Personal and Professional category, and we believed this seminar's highly customizable approach to writing would help us engage with writing more meaningfully (Eodice et al., 2016). Yet, we were also invested in the Research and Culture categories, and we were excited to use this seminar as an opportunity to better understand and respond to the circumstances in which we were living.

Our overall Research focus shifted soon after our research began. Although our seminar and our project weren't originally designed to focus on research method/ologies, we quickly realized that this focus was better suited and more motivating to us. Inspired by the interdisciplinary need for social media research method/ologies, we decided to use our individual research and writing projects to experiment with approaches that might contribute to this work. To do so, we spent time as a group discussing the current challenges facing social media research. As Sarah has argued elsewhere, social media is emergent media with emergent uses and influences. Thus, researchers need to carefully consider the method/ologies they apply to social media research, which may require developing new methods designed for this kind of research (Riddick, 2019, 2024). Moreover, established methodological approaches support some researchers and stakeholders more than others. As Joseph T. Yun et al. (2020) pointed out, "There is no shortage of social media analytics tools and environments across both industry and academia, but most of these tools and environments are built in a way that favors usage by companies (as opposed to academia)" (p. 819). In other words, there are multiple barriers to access for those interested in researching social media, including digital humanities faculty and students.

In this way, we felt motivated as a group to join this conversation. Our university's mission illustrates this motivation well: "WPI transforms lives, turns knowledge into action to confront global challenges, and revolutionizes STEM through distinctive and inclusive education, projects, and research" (Mission & Values, n.d.). Our university highly values collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches to science and technology, as evidenced by our curriculum's series of team-based, interdisciplinary research projects. We value this kind of work, too, and we are excited to contribute to social media studies as an interdisciplinary group (i.e., undergraduate STEM students and a humanities professor).

We believe our work is important in this area because it comes not only from a group with different disciplines and training but also from different levels of training, different multimodal literacies, and different lived experiences. Educators are increasingly incorporating social media into their classes, including asking students to study and use it. Rhetoric and writing classes feature this pedagogical work well. Indeed, rhetoric and writing scholars understand the importance of training students to communicate persuasively with digital media and technology. Thus, their courses often offer opportunities for students to further develop and refine their approaches to social-media rhetoric and writing (Bowdon, 2014; McGregor, 2021, Verzosa Hurley & Kimme Hea, 2014). Moreover, as journals like Kairos exemplify, rhetoric and writing scholars prioritize pedagogical research that supports such efforts. This scholarship carefully considers best practices for incorporating social media into coursework, for supporting students' needs in these assignments, for minimizing risks that students face on social media, and for acknowledging students' existing rhetorical capacities (Brock Carlson, 2018; Buck, 2015; Daer & Potts, 2014; Vie, 2017).

Building on this last point, we are interested in students contributing more directly to the scholarly conversations that inform social-media coursework and perhaps work beyond it. As danah boyd (2014) observed, "So many people talk about youth engagement with social media, but very few of them are willing to take the time to listen to teens, to hear them, or to pay attention to what they have to say about their lives, online and off" (pp. x–xi). We appreciate that rhetoric and writing research includes youth and student voices through methodological approaches like interviews and ethnographic study (e.g., Amicucci, 2017; Buck, 2015), as well as advocates for the importance of recognizing and valuing students’ multimodal literacies (Selfe, 2004). In our case, we felt inspired to speak similarly to the students in the "Stronger Together" project (Canzoneri et al., 2020)—that is, not as participants, but as researchers. Although our group does not have as much formal training and research experience with certain areas as Sarah (i.e., digital humanities; rhetoric and writing; social media), we have considerable firsthand experience with navigating social media rhetoric and writing (i.e., years of personal social media use), and we have varied experience with working on research teams (i.e., WPI's curriculum).

Thus, for seven weeks, we collaborated as a learning and research team. Sarah led the project, providing mentorship and instruction along the way, while also working with us to customize the seminar and our collaborative project. In the next section, we showcase this process in detail.

Our Weekly Work: An Assignment Guide

A concise timeline of how we developed our project in seven meetings over seven weeks.

Figure 2. Project Timeline: Weeks 1–7

For seven weeks, we met once weekly to pursue individual and collaborative research about social media. Sarah structured meetings around key concepts and skills related to each week's work, while also building in time to review work thus far and to customize upcoming work. Above is a timeline that provides a weekly overview of this work; below is an overview of how our assignments relate to and build on one another.

Collaborative Annotated Bibliography

A visual overview of the Collaborative Annotated Bibliography, including a description, list of research areas, list of required sources, learning outcomes, connected assignments, and open-pedagogy attributes. 

Figure 3. Collaborative Annotated Bibliography 

During Weeks 1 and 2, we created a Collaborative Annotated Bibliography to establish a scholarly foundation for individual research and collaborative writing. Again, Canzoneri et al.'s (2020) project served as inspiration. Canzoneri et al. explained, "In addition to readings on the syllabus derived from social media, we were also required to add peer-reviewed articles, which could be specifically on Clinton or about the context of women in politics." Our Collaborative Annotated Bibliography took a similar approach. For this assignment, each student contributed at least one peer-reviewed scholarly source related to social media, rhetoric, and writing, as well as at least two sources that meaningfully connected to the themes and questions we were brainstorming together, which we regularly updated in a shared online document. Through this assignment, we efficiently curated over thirty sources including but not limited to peer-reviewed academic research, editorials, news articles, and social media content. This collection of sources informed our individual and collaborative work throughout the term.

Platform Reports

A visual overview of the Platform Reports, including a description, weekly foci, platforms researched, learning outcomes, connected assignments, and open-pedagogy attributes.

Figure 4. Platform Reports

During Weeks 2–4, after we had identified initial research questions and drafted initial project proposals, we began our primary research. Individually, we wrote a series of three Platform Reports, which encouraged us to explore social media as researchers and to experiment with different methodological approaches for individual research and data collection. How we pursued this process was largely up to us. Sarah explained the importance of using method/ologies that suit the research project, and she explained that part of this process includes carefully considering which approaches would adequately support our individual research question(s) and project aims. We discussed how research is experimental and exploratory and how our Platform Reports can support that work.

Given how experimental our approaches and aims were, we incorporated several layers of structure into our Platform Reports:

  1. Use IMRAD-style organization to practice thinking through higher-order writing concerns like genre, audience, purpose, organization, and development from a scholarly perspective. This approach helped us prepare for co-authoring a larger peer-reviewed, scholarly article.
  2. Focus on one to two platforms each week from a limited set of options: Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. We took turns signing up for two platforms per person, ensuring that at least one to two people researched each platform each week.
  3. Focus on different modes of persuasion in social media. Report 1 could focus on textual rhetorics, Report 2 could focus on visual rhetorics, and Report 3 could focus on multimodal rhetorics. To support this work, Sarah offered suggested readings each week about rhetorically analyzing these modes.
  4. Try to respond individually and creatively to our initial research question : "How does social media influence perceptions of current events and/or reality?"

Sarah provided prompts with specific parameters and supporting resources that were customized to each round of Platform Reports. However, we worked together in our meetings and individually at home to experiment with approaches that interested us and best fit our projects.

Rhetorical Reflections

A visual overview of the Rhetorical Reflections, including a description, learning outcomes, connected assignments, and open-pedagogy attributes.

Figure 5. Rhetorical Reflections

During Weeks 3–5 (the seminar's mid-point), we took turns writing and responding to each other’s Rhetorical Reflections about topics and themes related to social media, rhetoric and writing, and our research thus far. In individual posts, we identified two sources from our Collaborative Annotated Bibliography that aligned with the topics and themes we (individually) wanted to address, and we practiced efficiently introducing these sources, putting them in conversation with one another, and building on them to encourage a new direction for dialogue.

During the two weeks in which a student was not writing a reflection, that student would join the larger group as audience members by commenting on that week's posts. Sarah provided mentorship about how to engage well as an audience member, and we discussed how this engagement is similar to providing feedback during peer review. In both cases, we should look for ways to provide specific and substantive responses and we should be mindful of how our engagement can encourage or discourage others. This assignment helped us follow the developments of each other’s projects and highlighted the growing connections between our projects.

Commonplace Paper

A visual overview of the Commonplace Paper, including a description, learning outcomes, connected assignments, and open-pedagogy attributes.

Figure 6. Commonplace Paper

In Week 5, we wrote Commonplace Papers that summarized and synthesized topics and themes emerging from our Platform Reports. Our primary goal was to advance a limited, specific, and supportable claim about social media rhetoric and writing. To support these claims, we synthesized data and findings from our primary research (the Platform Reports) and secondary research (the Collaborative Annotated Bibliography). This work helped us critically reflect on our individual research thus far and practice presenting our findings to a scholarly audience, which we would need to do in our Collaborative Writing Project.

Collaborative Writing Project

A visual overview of the Collaborative Writing Project, including a description, section teams, suggested resources, learning outcomes, connected assignments, and open-pedagogy attributes.

Figure 7. Collaborative Writing Project

During Weeks 6–7, we drafted our Collaborative Writing Project, the final work in the seminar. We divided the work across three teams: Team Literature Review, Team Methods, and Team Results and Discussion. As with the rest of our work, Sarah provided general parameters and suggestions. Each team needed to:

  1. Use IMRAD-style organization. In the Platform Reports, we practiced individually writing in each part of this structure; in the Collaborative Writing Project, we practiced collaboratively writing in only one of these structures, which helped us engage more robustly with this part of presenting research.
  2. Draw on previous work and materials related to this section. Sarah gave customized guidance to each team, encouraging each team "to draw on, synthesize, and strategically incorporate and cite" sources and course materials that related specifically to that team’s section, along with suggesting specific points in the project to revisit and consider.
  3. Delegate writing and editing work amongst the team. Specifically, we needed to each draft a subsection for our team (2–3 pages per person), review each other's drafts, and collaboratively refine our team's overall section.

Writing together as small teams helped us efficiently manage the writing process (i.e., brainstorming; outlining; drafting; revising; editing).

Our Recommendations: Planning for Student–Faculty Classroom Collaborations

We conclude below by reflecting on this project's successes and challenges. We offer three sets of recommendations for other groups who would like to pursue similar, collaborative research projects in the rhetoric and writing classroom.

Preparing for the Project

A visual guide to "Preparing for the Project: Key Resources," incluidng suggested readings, suggested disciplinary and topic areas, and guidance from the syllabus.

Figure 8. Preparing for the Project: Key Resources

Gather and/or create resources that students can consult for a general overview of rhetoric and writing, as well as on the course/project's specific subject matter. Although we each had already completed our "depth" in WPI's Literature/Writing/Rhetoric" coursework area (i.e., at least three courses in the same area), this coursework is not equal to completing a minor or major. For instance, rhetoric was not a shared area of specialization in our coursework. Thus, Sarah provided optional readings from rhetoric and writing textbooks that aligned with our work each week (Graff & Birkenstein, 2018; Nicotra, 2018).

A visual guide to "Preparing for the Project: Key Terms and Concepts," incluidng suggestions for selecting terms and concepts, and a visual map of how our terms and concepts connected to assignments.

Figure 9. Preparing for the Project: Key Terms and Concepts

Identify a limited set of key terms and concepts to apply across assignments. Throughout our meetings, Sarah presented key rhetorical concepts related to our projects. For instance, to prepare for our Commonplace Papers, we reviewed the ancient Greek concept of topos. Likewise, we reviewed the components of what rhetoricians called the rhetorical situation or rhetorical event and the features of rhetorical analysis, which we were invited to apply across our assignments. One concept that we found particularly useful and that we ended up citing frequently in our weekly work was Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss’s (2009) "rhetorical velocity," or "a way of considering delivery as a rhetorical mode, aligned with an understanding of how texts work as a component of a strategy."

Sarah guided our writing work in a similar way. In addition to suggesting readings to support specific types of weekly work outside of meetings, she dedicated weekly meeting time to reviewing writing strategies, analyzing writing genres, and workshopping our writing. Sarah had two aims with this approach: 1) to give us a customizable set of resources for reviewing foundational terms, concepts, and methods in rhetoric and writing studies, and 2) to give us sufficient time outside of class to focus on independent research related to our individual interests. These resources combined with those gathered in our Collaborative Annotated Bibliography helped us move in these directions, while also efficiently forming an interdisciplinary foundation for the group early into the project.

This approach was generally a success. However, we admit that this was a lot of ground to cover in a brief amount of time, and our success was limited. One of our ongoing struggles was diving deep enough into rhetoric while also attending to the project's development, discussing assignments, workshopping our writing, and completing other in-class work.

Ideally, groups interested in this kind of collaborative project would have more time together in class and would share a larger foundation in rhetoric and writing studies before the project begins. If not, the instructor could ask students to familiarize themselves with the basics of rhetoric and rhetorical analysis by having them read some first-year readings before the first day of class. Alternatively, if the course has time for multiple units, the first unit could focus on reviewing rhetoric.

Starting the Project

A visual guide for "Starting the Project," including guiding methodological questions related to time, access, fit, and ethics.

Figure 10. Starting the Project

Prioritize establishing research method/ologies. Our university's emphasis on project-based learning and student research prepared us relatively well to pursue a collaborative research project together. One of our first collaborative tasks was to identify appropriate method/ologies. To research social media rhetoric and writing, we needed to identify methodological approaches that met two needs.

First, we needed method/ologies that were accessible to our interdisciplinary group of one rhetoric and writing professor and ten undergraduate STEM students. Digital humanities scholarship encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and approaches, which inspired us. Unfortunately, we didn't have much time together to explore methodological options, so we used rhetorical analysis as a broad methodological approach.

Second, we needed method/ologies that would suit research about social media rhetoric and writing. For instance, in our Platform Reports, we each experimented with using, adapting, and creating method/ologies for researching and writing about social media rhetoric and writing. Again, we found success in this approach, but we also encountered limitations. Directly and repeatedly exploring method/ologies facilitated focused conversations in the classroom about the relationship between rhetoric, writing, and research; it also helped us understand how method/ologies can influence data collection, as well as how the way we analyze and write about that data can influence our research subjects, audience members, stakeholders, and more. Although we spent a lot of time experimenting in our individual work, we did not have much time to survey established approaches together.

For instructors interested in leading this kind of project, we have three suggestions regarding method/logies:

  1. Prepare in advance a selection of resources that provides an overview of a few recommended approaches. Ideally, the instructor would discuss these options in class with the students, including the uses and limitations of each.
  2. If the course/project has a longer timeline (e.g., a semester), follow a multiple-unit structure, and focus one unit intensively on method/ologies.
  3. If the group might present this work beyond the classroom, proactively consult relevant parties before the research begins, such as the university's IRB office. Encourage students to learn about IRB in the beginning of the course/project.

Although our timeline did not accommodate Suggestion 2, Sarah did prepare methodological guidelines in advance for our work (Suggestion 1), which she developed with WPI's IRB office (Suggestion 3). She also explained why this step was necessary if we were hoping to publish our research. Our project did not require IRB approval. Nevertheless, we discussed how IRB relates to research projects like ours. Part of this conversation included discussing the methodological challenges of researching social media rhetoric and writing, where the line between textual analysis and human-subjects research is not as well established as offline research. Additionally, Sarah gave us the option of completing the basic IRB training course as another option for customizing our coursework; several of us did. This free training is another resource that instructors could suggest.

Managing the Project

A visual guide for "Managing the Project," including guidance for making adjustments and a sample meeting agenda.

Figure 11. Managing the Project

Actively check in and make adjustments. Given our seminar's brief timeline, we are proud of how much we accomplished. Together, we

  • conducted primary and secondary research about social media rhetoric and writing,
  • experimented with method/ologies,
  • rhetorically analyzed a variety of rhetorical events,
  • improved our understanding of the writing process, and
  • applied all of the above to various writing genres (e.g., academic journal articles; blogs; synthesis papers).

This work culminated here: a collaboratively composed scholarly webtext.

Of course, our success is limited in a few ways, namely our limited time together and our lack of a stronger, shared disciplinary foundation. On the other hand, our interdisciplinary background and our collective experiences with developing research projects on similar timelines helped us reach our goals. We reached these goals by reflecting on our research and writing work in our weekly meetings, which shaped our approaches for upcoming work. As noted above ("Writing Together"), we shifted our project early on into a methods-based research question. This was an active shift; the possibility of it emerged after we completed Platform Report 1, and we dedicated multiple hours to discussing and exploring this new potential framing before settling on it.

Likewise, between our meetings, we individually reflected on our own projects, and we experimented with specific adjustments that we documented in our assignments. In meetings, we reviewed and synthesized our results, and we adjusted the seminar and the Collaborative Writing Project so that both continued to suit our interests and goals. For groups interested in this kind of project, we recommend building in time at each meeting to check in, including to attend to new questions, concerns, and ideas, as well as to gauge ongoing interest.

Notably, we checked in with each other about this last point at every meeting: Sarah provided anonymous polls to gauge interest each week, offered alternative coursework pathways to any student who did not want to participate in the Collaborative Writing Project, and let us know that she would check in again after the seminar had ended in case anyone wanted to opt out then (which she did). No one opted out. For instructors wanting to pursue this kind of project, we recommend providing all of the above to students.

Closing Reflections

Throughout our project, we acknowledged the project's challenges and worked together to address them as best we could, with the revised goal of creating a scholarly webtext that showcases all of the above. We hope our webtext will serve as a detailed pedagogical resource for those interested in pursuing similar projects in rhetoric and writing courses.

We are excited to see which projects might emerge, for instance, from groups with more time to meet together and/or more rhetoric and writing majors/minors. Such a group—who would have more time and/or prior disciplinary training—might engage more closely with research questions about social media rhetoric and writing. Regardless of the group, any collaborative project like ours would benefit from what we have recommended: customizable approaches, proactive conversations about method/ologies, and active check-ins.

We hope our work together—including how we responded to its challenges—inspires participants in other, perhaps similarly populated courses to pursue this kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary, digital humanities research and writing.


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