To Be Continued AvatarTo Be Continued…

As rhetoricians and compositionists, we are acutely aware of the power of words. Indeed, words are action. The Apology of Socrates is a fine example of the use of language to persuade, defend, rebel against a dominant position in society. Activist artists of the 70s, 80s, and 90s—such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro (“Womanhouse”), Yasumasa Morimura, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who used images to impact identity politics—are a reminder that discourse extends beyond words on a page. It is through digital technology that we are able to experience the full power and range of rhetoric, messaging that is linguistic, visual, sonic, and performative, often simultaneously.

The privileging of direct action over digital engagement has to end, particularly when we are working toward teaching civic engagement in our English composition classes. However, this is likely to continue to be an uphill battle. Just as there are many pedagogues resistant to including technology in the classroom, there are activists resistant to accepting a new form of political, social, and cultural engagement.

The reality is that this generation comes to us with a modified understanding of engagement. They conduct their lives armed with media, technology, and mobile devices in nearly all realms. Kids as young as five years old can take and text a picture to a friend on a mobile device. Eight-year-olds can create and edit a digital movie. Twelve-year-olds can build a website. If we don’t begin teaching young people how to harness these tools for academic and civic purposes immediately, we are failing to fulfill our commitment to prepare them for success in the world beyond the ivory tower, never mind hold their attention in class.

Though today, the most common digital campaigns are a hybrid form of activism; that is, they use digital media to supplement boots-on-the-ground (BoTG) efforts, or “offline mobilization,” the increasingly participatory nature of Web 2.0 and the coming Web 3.0 technology should hint at an upsurge of civic participation online. The founder of notes that digital activism isn’t a replacement for BoTG activism, but a digital alternative, highlighting the “use of digital media for facilitating social change and activism” (“What is Clicktivism?,” n.d.).

I suppose the answer to one of the first questions I posed in this article is found in this simple definition. Activism isn’t, nor should it be, judged by actual, tangible, quantifiable change. Sometimes efforts can be directly linked to accomplishment of goals; other times, the efforts simply contribute to general education or enlightenment, which might eventually lead to actual change. Changes that typically result from action, education, and awareness are the direct results of efforts that lead to changes in the hearts and minds of citizens (including politicians). This action can take place on a Montgomery bus, in an Atlanta diner, in a Facebook group, or in the media frenzy that surrounds the defacing of a governmental website.

It’s important that we reframe our narrow views of activism in this new, highly digital world. We didn’t depreciate the efforts of activists in the '80s who stood in a quad and distributed flyers about the AIDS epidemic or those of the '30s who simply gathered in the basement of City College of New York and “argue[d] constantly about how to solve the problems of the world” (“CCNY Rebels,” n.d.). Rather, we have studied these activities and might consider all of them valuable to some degree in the ongoing effort to understand and improve the world in which we live.

Engagement-oriented discussions about societal issues are relevant and are underway in multiple platforms today. In the 21st century, there can be no useful delineation of online and offline engagement practices. Rather than try to pit one against the other, it would be much more useful to activist scholarship and activism in general if instead we worked together to strengthen the skills—rhetorical, digital, organizational—of activists in order to make movements and campaigns more successful.

As activist scholars, we should continue to interrogate new forms of activism, to challenge the effectiveness of various mediums, because in the end, we want the work we do to matter. But we have to be very careful not to denigrate one another’s efforts or undermine the efforts of our students. We cannot breed activists: they are born through a careful combination of passion, education, and opportunity. As teachers, we can expose students to tools and information that will feed the education piece. We can provide students the opportunity to engage. We can, and should, assess the effectiveness of students' rhetoric, but ultimately, the degree of passion they have (or don’t) will determine the effectiveness of their work . . . and this is true whether they are taking action directly, in BoTG fashion, or digitally.

I look forward to the evolution of mindset in the vast ways we can apply 21st century literacies in our work developing student writers. There is a need for scholarship on the hybridization of civic and digital in the writing classroom, and hopefully many teachers will respond to the call to begin teaching digital engagement, advocacy, and yes, activism. We need to work together as scholars to ensure that these new, digital and digitally-enhanced forms of activism and civic/political engagement are productive and ethical. Without rigorous debate on the merits, pedagogical approaches, and effectiveness, we won’t be able to ascertain the true value of doing this kind of work in our classes.

Still, we should remember that any degree of engagement is better than no degree of engagement. While I work diligently to nurture more digital activism in my college classes, I acknowledge the many forms that engagement might take. Some of my students are simply comfortable joining a conversation online for the duration of our semester, while others take ownership of a cause or issue that is already near and dear to their hearts and run with it. If either path taken by a student leads to increased learning and experience, I can be proud of the job I’ve done. After all, I’ve helped play a part in their development as a citizen of this world, and I’ve shown them just how to harness a few tools and forums that are already part of their daily lives to influence change . . . to have their voices heard in a way that really matters.

Previous Tweet