Critics and Cartographers in the Classroom:
Using CARTO and WordPress to Build a Digital Public Writing Project
Contributor: J. Bret Maney
Affiliation: Lehman College, CUNY
Email: bret.maney at lehman.cuny.edu
Released: 26 June 2017
Published: Fall 2017 (Issue 22.1)
The following webtext reports on my experience designing and teaching a digitally-inflected course in American literature. Specifically, it describes the development of two digital writing assignments, a review essay and a collaborative mapping project focused on the literary history of New York City. Together, these assignments make up the first installment of a multiyear digital public writing project whose aim is to publish analyses of U.S. literature and culture written by English majors at the public university where I teach in New York City.
Organized as a teaching narrative, this webtext offers what the editors of the recent book Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning call a “local story” about the implementation of digital technologies in the college humanities classroom (Dougherty & O’Donnell, 2015, p. 6). This “local story” is one of a multiplicity in recent years to explore how writing for the public web can complement and revitalize the limitations of the traditional classroom essay (see Davidson, 2014; Haley-Brown, 2012; Sample, 2012; Stommel, 2015). In developing the assignments discussed in this webtext, I sought to examine how digital public writing and mapping technology could be used to foster student engagement with an academic subject (American literature) and a place (New York City), and, as a corollary, to understand how that intensified engagement could improve the writing my students did.
With its primary focus on place, this public writing project fits into larger scholarly investigations and practical experiments that link digital composition with place-based pedagogies (see Lindgren, 2005; Townsend, 2017). Such investigations share methodological underpinnings with digital humanities research on mapping, an early, influential example of which is literary scholar Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005). More recent work in the emergent field of the spatial humanities has argued for the importance of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) for reimagining cultural problematics through a spatial analytic (see Bodenhamer, Corrigan, & Harris, 2010, 2015; Kretzschmar, 2013). In rhetoric and composition studies, data visualization and mapping have been called upon to study disciplinary structure and change (Miller, Licastro & Belli, 2016; Tirrell, 2012) and visual rhetorics (Gries, 2017), among other phenomena. My review essay and mapping projects emerge against this scholarly ground but have a more limited pedagogical aim: to use GIS to visualize the ensemble of my students’ multimodal investigations of New York City’s literary past.
In what follows, I discuss the background of my American literature course and its learning goals, details of the review and mapping assignments, examples of student writing, and their reception by the digital public. I also discuss the tools I used to create this project: WordPress for the course website and the web mapping platform CARTO for the literary history mapping project. The interactive map of New York City's literary past that my students created in this course is presented in Figure 1; clicking on individual points on the map will take readers to the multimodal essays about New York literary history that are discussed herein. I encourage readers to explore this map as they read through the webtext. In closing, I offer some advice on teaching these assignments in the college classroom and comment on the efficacy of social media in motivating student writers and disseminating their published work.
Course Background, Learning Goals, and Engaging Students
This digital public writing project originated in my American literature course, ENG 308, which surveys U.S. literature from its inception to the modern era. The course emphasizes major writers and classic American studies themes and is a requirement for English majors at the diverse, four-year, public institution where I teach. ENG 308 is, moreover, a writing-intensive course, which means that the syllabus should include extensive opportunities for student writing, revision, and metacognitive reflection about the writing process. In recent years, this writing-intensive criterion has been met by asking ENG 308 students to draft and revise a set of academic essays. During the Spring 2016 semester, I decided to upend this traditional academic essay format by incorporating digital writing assignments into the course. I taught two sections of ENG 308, in which a total of 50 students of diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and ages were enrolled.
My learning goals for the course were multiple: in terms of content, and partly independent of the course’s digital makeover, I wanted my students to develop an appreciation for major U.S. authors from the Puritan period to the modern era. As a proponent of place-based education—the effort to push back the walls of the classroom to encompass the surrounding social environment—I wanted my students to engage directly with New York City as a vibrant site for exploring U.S. literary culture. The course’s main digital learning goal was rhetorical: to strengthen students’ skills in writing for real audiences through semi-public and public writing assignments designed for and disseminated on digital platforms. As an addendum to this goal, I wanted to help my students improve their proficiency with common digital technologies used in the workplace and the academy.
In planning the major digital writing assignments, I was guided by the following questions: How can writing for digital publics and about New York City foster student engagement with American literature? And how can that enhanced engagement improve the writing students do? These questions intrigued me because, while all students in ENG 308 are English majors, not all English majors at my institution have a strong disciplinary interest in U.S. literature. Of the 25 students enrolled in one of my two Spring 2016 sections of ENG 308, for example, about half were future teachers on an early childhood and childhood education track. Others owed their primary allegiance to the professional writing or creative writing subfields. Thus, there were good reasons why at least some of the students entering my course might not have had a pre-existing deep interest in the contours of the American literary canon. Engaging students in my field is important to me: I see part of my job as persuading them that the canon of American literature holds pressing answers audible to all who live in this country and wish to shape its future. My prediction was that writing for digital publics would foster students’ engagement with American literary texts and lead to stronger writing because
- All the writing students completed in this course would have a digital afterlife. It would not go through the typical student–professor evaluation circuit and then lie dormant on a hard drive or collect dust in a file cabinet.
- By publishing their review essays online, students would be exercising their role as critics. Real people would use their reviews to make decisions about what to read, watch, care about, and purchase. Given this elevation of the students’ status to working critics, I predicted they would take their writing more seriously. The aim, I said, was to produce finished prose to which they could be proud to attach their name.
- By having students conduct a literary history project based in New York City or its environs for the mapping assignment, I predicted that students would come to see their writing as a contribution to the digital documentation of our city and region’s literary past. I encouraged students, in their role as digital cartographers, to conceive of the literary mapping they were doing as part of the public humanities, the educational mission to extend the kinds of conversations we have in American literature classrooms to the broader community.
- By allowing students to choose the topics, texts, and sites they wrote about, and by rooting most of this writing in the city in which we live, I expected students to select subjects that engaged them on both a personal and intellectual level.
Structure of the Digital Writing Assignments
With these goals in mind, I developed the sequence of writing assignments for ENG 308. About half of the writing students did consisted of low-stakes, weekly, online posts. These posts were contributions to an open Blackboard forum (Fig. 2) in which students wrote about assigned readings and formulated questions prior to class discussions. The semi-public nature of this Blackboard writing—the readership was limited to enrolled students and the instructor—helped prepare students for sharing their writing with a wider audience later in the semester.
The second form writing took in the course was the public writing: the review essay and the New York-based literary history mapping project. These high-stakes, scaffolded digital writing assignments were less familiar to students and struck them at first as exciting, risky, weird, strange, daunting,1 or fun, depending on their past exposure to public writing, their perceptions of themselves as writers, and their digital literacy skillsets.
For the review essay assignment, students chose a poem, short story, novel, film, play, exhibition, album, or other “cultural production” related to our study of American literature over the first third of the semester. I gave students considerable leeway in selecting their text to review; my only hard and fast requirement was that there be an organic link between the topics we had been discussing in class and the text the student wished to evaluate as a critic. Moving through a highly-scaffolded process of proposal, research, writing, revision, and publication, this assignment resulted in a 750-1,000 word review essay published on a site like GoodReads, Amazon, or IMDB, where the review would be likely to have an impact on other Internet users’ beliefs and behavior. Such sites have the additional benefit of allowing the writer to gauge the response to her review through metrics like up and down votes (YouTube) or in tallied answers to questions like “Was this review helpful to you?” (IMDB).
A selection of the review essays was later republished, with their authors’ permission, on the publicly accessible course website. I encourage readers to browse through some student examples there. I created this WordPress site on the CUNY Academic Commons, a social network-cum-content management system available to students and faculty of the City University of New York (CUNY) (Fig. 3). I chose to host my students’ work here to take advantage of this CUNY resource, but I could have just as easily created a free site on WordPress.com. The WordPress platform appealed to me due to its flexibility and widespread implementation. With its robust blogging capabilities, I was able to create an extensible and attractively organized collection of student writing, one flexible enough to host a diversity of multimodal texts. Moreover, given that one-quarter of all websites on the Internet run WordPress (Gewirtz, 2015), I wanted to expose my students to the functionality of this important, ubiquitous platform.
The second major digital writing assignment built on the success of the first. In the high-stakes, literary history mapping project anchored in New York City or its environs, student-cartographers identified and researched a New York site that had a bearing on American literature and examined how its present relates to our literary past. Depending on the conception of their individual projects, students took photographs, interviewed people, performed library and online research, and made short videos. The 750-1,000 word essays they wrote for this project were then developed into a final multimodal essay made accessible on the course website via a mapping interface created through CARTO, a web-mapping platform with a free plan that will suffice for most academic users. To develop the CARTO web map, I first had to create a database to link student-authored web content to GPS coordinates (latitude and longitude information) (Fig. 4). After I imported this database into CARTO, the program was able to generate an interactive map based on the associated GPS data (see Fig. 1 above).
Given the literary history project’s emphasis on place-based research and writing, the development of a visual mapping interface suggested itself naturally. An interactive map offered the advantage of disrupting a prescribed linear narrative according to which visitors to the course website would read student-authored content. As Stephen Robertson (2013), one of the developers of the popular digital humanities website, Digital Harlem, commented, “in making it possible to place the contents of a database on an online map, GIS takes advantage of one of the core properties of the digital medium, that it is visual.” For me, the chief benefit of using CARTO was this intense visuality. By associating students’ essays with urban geography, CARTO made it possible to visualize and access student writing through a single, interactive map that revealed the breadth of their collaborative endeavor to chart New York City’s literary past.
During our final exam meeting, students presented their multimodal literary history essays and spoke about their findings. Similar to the review essay assignment, the New York literary history mapping project was scaffolded and progressed through a number of discrete steps: a proposal, three research blog posts, a rough draft, peer review, revision, optional writing conferences with the instructor, and web publication. While both of the major digital writing assignments mandated online publication, the students decided whether their writing would appear under their own name, initials, or a pseudonym. They were also informed that they could change their mind about the authorship attribution of their work at any time.
The Evidence: Student Web Writing & Reception by the Digital Public
Anecdotal and informal evidence, exit surveys, and student evaluations suggest that the course’s digital makeover was a success: writing for digital publics about New York City fostered student engagement with American literature in multiple, measurable ways. As one student put it, the course’s writing projects “turned the semester into an adventurous journey,” in which students “explored new literary texts and sites in the city.” What’s more, writing for digital publics also fostered students’ engagement with the writing and revision process to an extent I’ve not previously seen outside the composition classroom. Exit surveys uniformly suggested that this was because the writing had a real audience, a well-defined critical or educational purpose, and a permanent digital afterlife. The very fact that students’ writing would be published made students want to write better. “The public aspect” of the projects, reported one student, “made me want to go above and beyond.” Another explained, “I became much more serious about what, and how I wrote.” A third student confirmed that knowing her writing would be published online “has helped me to work 10x harder to ensure that my work is something that I am proud to have my name linked to. In this class, unlike others, my papers won’t go into a folder to collect dust. They will be read by others for many years.” This last remark underlines the extent to which we can transform student involvement in the writing process through an expansion of the audience for student work.
The review essay by a student whom I’ll call S.G. provides a concrete illustration of many of these encouraging outcomes. An English major with an interest in physics, S.G. chose to review a text that engages both her passions. The text in question, Chrissy Kolaya’s début novel, Charmed Particles (2015), is set in an Illinois prairie town that fancifully combines “a living history museum devoted to the American frontier and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics” (Kolaya). S.G.’s review essay went through a process of drafting, peer review, revision, a writing conference with the instructor, and more revision, resulting in a solid final draft. In the traditional classroom, the writing process would have ended there. But in the digital writing classroom, it could continue on the web. Published on our course website, S.G.’s review essay, “Chrissy Kolaya’s Debut Novel, Charmed Particles, Successfully Launches Us into a New Realm of Exotic Matter,” came to the attention of the novel’s author, who left the student a message in the Comments section underneath her essay:
- Chrissy Kolaya
- April 27, 2016
- Student #1,
- What a thoughtful read of the novel and what a pleasure to read your piece! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights! One of the great thrills of having this book make its way out into the world is the chance to connect with curious, thoughtful readers! Thanks so much for being one!
- All the best,
When S.G. saw this comment posted underneath her essay, she said she was “speechless.” On the scale by which we measure student engagement with an academic subject, “speechless” ranks pretty high. S.G. was “speechless,” but I too was impressed by the extent of the positive reaction the novelist Kolaya gave S.G.’s well-crafted review. In addition to writing S.G. the above comment, which one might have chalked up to her professorial generosity vis-à-vis a student, Kolaya shared S.G.’s review on social media. As Figure 5 shows, a shout-out to S.G. appeared on the author’s official Facebook account in April.
Happy incidents like these, of which several occurred in the two sections of ENG 308 I taught last Spring, can do more to persuade students that their writing matters, that they can intervene in critical conversations about literature now, than a thousand professorial exhortations. The affordances of the web and its inherently social, networked character make such interactions possible.
The potential impact of their published digital essays, as exemplified by Kolaya’s response to S.G.’s review, led my students to take their writing and revision process seriously.2 As one student put it in the exit survey, digital public writing “helped me approach the assignment as a professional writer and not a student completing homework.” This seriousness of purpose led many students to report enjoyment of the peer review and editing process. They began to see themselves as critics making the case for a neglected or orphaned text, as authors revisiting a classic text of yesteryear and re-assessing it from the vantage point of the present, or as literary cartographers contributing to the exploration and mapping of their city’s literary past. Based on my experience as a college instructor, I believe the writing students did in ENG 308 significantly exceeded the customary standard of quality. Their writing was polished, intriguing, playful, well-structured, and illuminating. It was free of the errors and sloppiness that often dog student writing.
One of the things I enjoyed most about guiding these digital projects was that some of the students who were most daunted initially by the idea of public writing produced the best work. A West Indian student who felt some trepidation at the start of the semester wrote in a searching review of Louise Bennett’s monologue “Jamaican English” (1983) about the linguistic inferiority the student wrongly had been made to feel when she first moved to the United States. Her beautiful essay begins with the question “Who is to say dat your English is betta dan mine?” Following up on this project, in which she faced and processed some of her own linguistic anxieties, the student wrote a genial literary history essay titled “Recrossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in which she meditates on Walt Whitman’s celebrated poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” 150 years after it was written while riding the East River Ferry to Brooklyn with her children. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman addresses future generations of waterborne New Yorkers like my student:
- I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
- Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
- Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
- Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d (p. 135).
I like to think that by choosing to dwell on this poem about crossing from Manhattan to Brooklyn, where Brooklyn stands for both Whitman’s nineteenth-century home and the thriving center today of New York’s West Indian population, my student was claiming for herself her authorial affiliations with, and equal rights in the supple idiom we call American English. When it came time to publish her essay on Whitman’s poem and the East River Ferry, the formerly daunted student asked me to publish it under her own name.
In the New York literary history mapping project, students tended to draw upon their own strengths and experiences, unearthing captivating, sometimes little-known stories about American literature. One student wrote about the Harlem YMCA, a gathering place for intellectuals and writers during the Harlem Renaissance, which she had passed every day for the last twenty years but had never entered. Another wrote about the building he grew up in in Greenwich Village, where, as it turned out, Richard Wright put the finishing touches on Black Boy (1945) and Willa Cather wrote her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912). He was aware of his building’s literary significance but had never delved into it. With exquisite timing, a student chose to write about the Harriet Tubman memorial on 122nd Street in Harlem, just weeks before it was announced that Tubman would grace the new $20 bill. Another student, who wrote about the Stonewall Riots, used her digital multimodal essay to support her application for a National Parks Conservation Department-sponsored internship related to the preservation of New York’s LGBTQ history. While there are a few exceptions, for most of the 50 students in my two sections of ENG 308, these digital writing projects have been meaningful, useful, and a source of pride. The option to choose topics in line with their interests, the excitement of publication, of seeing their own name or initials on the byline of a published Internet article, and the knowledge that their work would become a permanent fixture on the web, finding readers through the years, promoted engagement with U.S. literature on a level that far exceeded my expectations.
Advice for Teaching these Digital Writing Assignments
Highly scaffolded digital writing assignments like this one require more deadlines, more coordination, more reminders, and more sustained attention than many students are used to. The relative simplicity of writing an argumentative essay in response to a prompt meets the complexity of projects that involve self-generated topics, on-site research, multiple drafts, multiple due dates, and multimodality. In this context, the students and instructor can’t help but face the messiness of the writing process. Given this fact, I’ve found it helpful to emphasize to students that this messiness (far from an indicator that something is going wrong) is the hallmark of an authentic writing situation. Real writing is messy writing. To help students thrive under these conditions, I spend a lot of time talking with them about how to structure different genres of writing. To write the review essay, for example, students must think about the use of spoilers and recommendations, among other genre-specific features. To motivate students, I find it helpful to encourage them to think of their role as that of a professional writer. They begin the process by pitching the topic they want to write about, see their essays through several drafts in concert with their peers who function as assistant editors, and then submit the revised draft to me for final editing and a grade. My role throughout, from the proposal onwards, is similar to that of an editor-in-chief of an online publication. Indeed, when I send students feedback, I sign it “Sincerely, Your Editor.”
In terms of the digital competencies required to teach these assignments, no coding skills are necessary. Newbies to WordPress will want to invest some time reading tutorials, but anyone who has tinkered with HTML code or a WYSIWYG editor in the past will find that WordPress extraordinarily simplifies the task of creating and managing attractive, readable web content. CARTO (formerly CartoDB), the web mapping platform I used to create the mapping interface for the New York literary history project, has a steeper learning curve than WordPress, but there is comprehensive documentation and an especially useful set of introductory tutorials. After learning CARTO’s interface, the instructor who wants to use CARTO for a mapping project will need to create a database that links her content to GPS coordinates (see Fig. 4 above). This may sound difficult, but it is actually fairly easy. GPS information for different locations can be acquired quickly in one of two ways: if the desired location has a Wikipedia page (e.g., the Empire State Building), then the geographic coordinates will appear in the top-right corner of the page. Alternatively, navigate to the location on Google Maps. Right click on the desired location and select “What’s Here?” The GPS coordinates will appear in a small pop-up window. Attending a GIS workshop (often offered by university libraries or campus digital humanities initiatives) can be a good way to get jumpstarted with mapping projects. More advanced users who want to use nonproprietary mapping software should check out the “DIY Digital Maps Primer” from NYPL Labs.
In implementing the review essay and mapping assignments, I had three further concerns that will likely occur to other instructors thinking about using digital public writing in the college classroom. First, I worried that the student work might turn out to be amateurish, and therefore no one would want to read it. By insisting to students that their work was worthy of digital publication, wouldn’t I then be acting disingenuously? As documented above, this worry turned out to be mostly baseless. The students admirably rose to the occasion. Their writing was strong, playful, witty, and offered genuine insights (e.g., who better to write about the building in which Black Boy was finished than the young man who’s spent all his 25 years living there?). Keeping the length of assigned essays to 750-1,000 words also helped in this regard: the essays’ brevity enabled students who were already motivated to produce strong writing by the public nature of the assignments to focus on details and carry out careful revision.
Germane to this question of the quality of student writing is the issue of assessment. Since English majors are accustomed to writing argumentative essays and their professors to evaluating them, venturing into less frequently assigned, multimodal genres can produce an assessment challenge. I approached this challenge by breaking down the assessment for the review and mapping assignments into discrete, well-defined tasks (proposal, blog posts, peer editorial work, etc.). Through Blackboard’s “My Grades” feature, students always knew where they stood as their projects progressed through the semester. Since student success corresponded to meeting well-defined tasks, assessment expectations were clear at all stages of the research and writing process. Moreover, I discovered that the public nature of these digital assignments persuaded many students that the writing they were doing was intrinsically worth doing beyond earning a grade. Due to the reconfiguration of our customary classroom roles—with the professor operating more as an editor-in-chief and students functioning like professional writers—student–professor interaction tended to focus squarely on the writing, not the potential grade that would be earned for it.
The third concern that I had in implementing these digital public writing assignments was that the course website developed to host their work would be a drop in the sea of endless online commentary. Would anyone actually read my students’ stuff? So far, the results have been promising. The course website, which went live on May 29, 2016 (it had been available on a limited basis since late April), has found a diverse cohort of readers. In the narrow window between its launch and June 7, 2016, the site amassed 1,885 page views coming from 1,164 unique visitors. Most visitors hailed from the United States, but we also had readers from as far away as Chile, Egypt, and Oman (Fig. 6). When I told students their writing would reach a potential global audience, it turned out I was speaking the unvarnished truth.
While traffic to the site slowed after this initial flurry, I expect a renewed spike in interest when future batches of student writing are published as part of this multiyear digital writing project. Although the site is indexed by major search engines, the majority of traffic that the students’ essays have generated has come through links and shares on social media. In an effort to draw more attention to students’ deserving work, I am exploring ways to make the site more visible to referring websites and organizations, such as local public schools, likely to find the content useful and of interest.
Conclusion: Better Student Writing through Likes, Tweets, and Shares
In bringing this webtext to a close, I want to reflect briefly on the role of social media in what has been a rewarding teaching and learning experience for me and the majority of my American literature students. The course website is a digital testament to some of the stellar work they did, the technical savoir-faire they acquired, and their engagement with U.S. literature and culture. But the proof of students’ transformations from semi-engaged writers completing an essay assignment for homework to working critics often didn’t occur until they could see their writing eliciting responses from acquaintances and strangers on social media. Such was the case, for example, with a student who wrote his literary history essay on the Afro-Puerto Rican novelist Piri Thomas and the New York City neighborhood known as “El Barrio,” or Spanish Harlem (Fig. 7). Attracting tweets and Facebook mentions from across the country—from a mail clerk driver in the Washington Navy Yard to a hospital employee in Port Orange, Florida and a newspaper reporter in Anaheim—the student’s writing metamorphosed before his eyes from homework done for a grade into a widely shared contribution to conversations about U.S. literature taking place in the digital public sphere.
Exciting online exchanges of this sort indicate how important social media mechanisms can be to fostering student engagement with digital public writing. While getting likes, shares, or retweets may at first seem peripheral to the serious business of the college writing and literature classroom, it offers a way to mobilize students’ pre-existing investment in social media as an arbiter of opinion, and helps get them excited about an academic subject and the possibility of intervening within its public, online discourse. As scholars and teachers, we must, of course, turn a critical gaze on the reductive popularity metrics by which so much digital writing is measured; however, concurrently, we can show how this reductive metrics might be put in the service of creating the kind of deep, progressive engagement we want to foster in our classrooms. Recent work in Kairos by Elisabeth Buck (2015), Moe Folk (2015), Alexandra Hidalgo and Katie Grimes (2017), and Jessie Miller, Shanna Gilkeson, and Lisa Pignotti (2015) is engaged precisely in negotiating this border between social media’s pitfalls and pedagogical worth. In Computers and Composition, composition scholar Daniel Wuebben (2016) has shown how the tension between popularity and quality in digital writing can form a productive classroom topic. Such interventions build on extensive research over the last decade into the appropriate role of social media in undergraduate digital writing education (see Tess, 2013).
While debates about social media’s utility in the classroom may not be decided anytime soon, in closing, I want to suggest that the dogged pursuit of likes, comments, and shares so characteristic of our students’ and indeed our own twenty-first century writing lives bears comparison with a healthy reader–writer relationship described by writing theorist Peter Elbow. In his pre-Internet Era essay "Ranking, Evaluating, Liking" (1993), Elbow argued that “the way writers learn to like their writing is by the grace of having a reader or two who likes it. . . . Having at least a few appreciative readers,” he claimed, “is probably indispensable to getting better” (p. 200). The ready accessibility of digital readers to today’s student writers can help facilitate this virtuous circle, according to which writing that will be read and liked (and maybe even shared on Facebook) leads to better writing.
The infusion of my American literature course with digital public writing took place while I was a participant in Lehman College’s 2015–2016 Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) faculty development seminar. The year-long program led by Elaine Avidon and Robyn Spencer was a source of inspiration for the pedagogical experiments I undertook in my course. I would like to thank Jessica Yood for her incisive remarks on an earlier draft of this webtext. I would also like to thank Yood and her co-coordinator, Cindy Lobel, for inviting me to discuss my work-in-progress at a meeting of the 2016–2017 WAC seminar.
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