What is your favorite assignment in digital rhetoric and why?
Although the answers given to each question provided valuable and varied insight into the pedagogical practices associated with and constitutive of digital rhetoric, the question about assignments yielded more diversity in responses than any other. As Doug Eyman says, there is not “one way to do digital rhetoric,” and that was apparent given the breadth of assignments interviewees marked as their favorites when teaching digital rhetoric. Part of the reason there was such variety amongst the assignments mentioned, as Collin Brooke acknowledges, is that one’s favorite assignment might be course specific. As such, we see here the same explicit attention to local contexts as we see in the responses to outcomes. Additionally, many interviewees found selecting only one assignment too arduous a task, opting instead for answers that left them flexibility. For example, Kathleen Blake Yancey says, “I could simply say that my favorite assignment was electronic portfolios because inside of an electronic portfolio, I can have all of the other assignment [… ;] with an electronic portfolio, you have to come up with an interface, you have to think about audience.” In other words, “you have to do a lot of the kind of things that we do [in digital rhetoric].” In turning our attention toward portfolios, Yancey is expressing a desire not only to provide students the challenge of practicing and refining their digital and rhetorical literacies via portfolios but also to “have all of the other assignments,” too. And, as we explore at the end of this section, although the three-axis framework maps the variety of assignments reasonably well, the assignments also implicitly speak back to the framework—pointing to how digital rhetorical work puts rupture-within-continuation, theory-into-practice, and texts-in-networks.
Common Characteristics of Assignments: Visual, Collaborative, and Networked
Although the assignments interviewees shared ranged in scope and focus, some did share certain characteristics. For instance, Liz Losh, Justin Hodgson, and Jennifer Warfel Juszkiewicz have students create texts that attend to and focus on the visual. Losh in particular asks students to curate four selfies: (1) one for a Facebook profile, (2) one for the staff page on a banking website, (3) one for a dating website/app, and (4) one for a textbook on 21st-century history. In completing this project, students are asked to consider “different performances of identity” within the same visual genre of the selfie. Hodgson, on the other hand, asks students to “produce visualizations” of key concepts, which demonstrates that their understanding of and engagement with such concepts is not limited to the modes of the spoken and written word. Lastly, Warfel Juszkiewicz has students engage in visual analyses by having them identify visual moments within an image or set of images. And as a whole, all three assignments highlight multimodal meaning-making that brings together visual and alphabetic modes. Despite these commonalities, however, we can see two of the dimensional tensions identified in the introduction emerge among these examples. For instance, whereas Hodgson and Warfel Juszkiewicz have students focus on producing or analyzing digital texts, Losh’s assignment asks students to consider networks first and then identify the text that would function most appropriately within them.
Another common thread in digital rhetoric assignments is having students work collaboratively, and here, the focus is likewise on texts functioning in networks. Kristen Arola, for example, assigns students informational campaigns for which they create texts within and across different genres and media in an effort to affect change on a local issue. Similar to Arola, Bill Hart-Davidson has students “build a system of some kind [… in order] to make some concrete group of people’s life better.” For both assignments, students work collaboratively with different media to foster engagement with the local community.
Having students create texts that are for and that operate within networks outside of the academy is also a feature in Nathaniel Rivers’ favorite assignment, which asks students to use geocaching technologies to conduct treasure hunts. This project pushes students to think critically about the intersections between the digital and physical world, thereby drawing attention to materiality. Such attention is also present in the assignment Steve Holmes shared, which asks students to create with Play-Doh. This assignment, according to Holmes, enacts and illustrates that multimodality is a process of composing that generates not only digital but also material texts, a concept he links to Jody Shipka’s (2011) work in Toward a Composition Made Whole.
Four Representative Assignment Types
Remixes, Remediations, Assemblages
Visual, collaborative, and networked projects, many of which cultivated community engagement and material awareness, were not the only through-lines across the responses to this question, however, as four specific types of assignments were cited on more than one occasion. The first was a project keyed to remix, remediation, and/or assemblage—which speaks to digital rhetoric’s focus on texts that not only operate in networks but also are derived as a function of networks. James Brown, for instance, asks students to begin the semester by creating a traditional research paper that they then run “through multiple machines”—that is, through different genres and media. For Brown, examples included “a podcast,” “comic life,” or “a mini-documentary.” The value of having students remediate arguments for different genres and media is that, with each remediation, “the argument changes, it has to change, […] because the medium is sort of pushing you in different directions.” Said another way, in remediating their work, students are required to be more rhetorically cognizant of and sensitive to the way genre conventions and media affordances and constraints inform and shape content, appeals to an audience, and the rhetorical situation as a whole. As Brown says, such an assignment “really forces [students] to understand the relationship between medium and message and to understand the available means of persuasion in these digital rhetorical situations.”
For some, naming this type of work and the texts students produce matters greatly. Rory Lee, in particular, asks students to create a remediation and/or remix and, in so doing, make an argument for whether it is one or the other—or both. In classifying work as a remediation and/or a remix, students come to realize that, while these terms are certainly comparable and can be used to refer to and categorize similar types of texts, there are important differences between and amongst the terms that describe the rhetorical act of utilizing the old to generate the new. Nonetheless, the projects characterized as remediations, remixes, and assemblages are united in that they invite students to de- and re-contextualize content into new rhetorical situations in ways that sharpen their understanding of exigence, audience, genre, modes, and media. In addition, such projects ask students to be conscious of the impact and importance of both copyright and fair use and the ways in which they can leverage the latter rhetorically to create transformative works.
A second recurring assignment involved mapping. Brooke, for instance, has students “draw network maps.” Here, students might trace “the genealogy of citations” or they “might be doing disciplinary maps of the field.” Kevin Brock also asks student to create maps, and like Brooke, he perceives mapping as an opportunity for students to trace “scholarly citations” or “certain journals and ideas.” In both cases, students are able to employ digital technologies to make connections that they might not make with and through other media, and as such, they are prompted to think about their text along the axis of text/network: their text not only functions within a network but also is itself a network. Yancey, on the other hand, offers students more openness in what they map, as she asks them “to create some sort of map of some kind of phenomenon.” Ultimately, and as Yancey notes, students “will choose various kinds of materials to complete [the] task,” which “raises issues of materiality.” In that regard, the maps that Brooke, Brock, and Yancey ask students to create are connected in that they draw attention to the relationship of our mapping tools and the materiality of the maps we create given the tools to which we have access. This focus on materiality is important, as Yancey argues, because materiality “is another aspect of digital rhetoric that […] is increasingly coming to the fore.”
The third type of project that received multiple mentions included students participating in video production. The justifications for assigning such projects varied, though there were some connections between video projects and the assignments mentioned above. For instance, both Angela Aguayo and Sarah Arroyo require students to create videos in order to highlight the connections between theory and practice, one of our three axes. Aguayo asks students to produce videos that function as responses to other videos and that “put theory into practice.” In a similar vein, Arroyo asks “students to think about dense theoretical concepts and visualize them through video.” Like Hodgson, then, Arroyo wants students to think about other ways in which we can represent and understand concepts within the subfield specifically through video.
Aguayo and Arroyo assign video projects for other reasons, too. For Aguayo, one of the major benefits of asking students to create videos is to have them encounter, engage with, and navigate the epistemological implications associated with video production. In particular, Aguayo is interested in seeing how students determine where they “stand in this tension between the camera and its ability to tell truth.” In other words, visuals—and videos as a whole—function in ways similar to language: that is, both are epistemic and therefore a means to construct and convey realities.
Similar to Brown, Davis, Lee, and McElroy, Arroyo focuses on remix, especially as a lens to understand and interact with video production. In particular, Arroyo’s assignments involve students “going out and taking another student’s video and remixing it.” Here, students glean insight from both sides: they gain practice in “meaningful appropriation,” and they learn what “it feels like when your work is remixed.” With the latter, Arroyo wants students to consider what is it like “when you thought you had a certain message and argument and someone remixes it and turns it into something else.” Such an exercise underscores that we do not always have rhetorical agency over how our messages are interpreted, especially in the digital arena and in the era of the prosumer.
Crystal VanKooten offers yet another reason for why she has students create videos: they illuminate the qualities and complications of multimodality. As she says, “I like video composition because of its multimodal possibilities.” For her, “video in particular highlights images plus sounds, plus written words, plus movements and animations and different rhetorical techniques.” She also believes that students are well equipped to do this work because they “are well versed in the consumption of video,” which helps them translate into the role of producer of video.
Having students work with Wikipedia was the fourth and final project referenced by more than one interviewee. Eyman considers Wikipedia to be a particularly valuable text and network in terms of what it reveals about genre. As a result, he has students interrogate “what Wikipedia is and how it works” in order to facilitate an understanding of Wikipedia “from a genre perspective.” Yancey, on the other hand, requires students “to create either Wikipedia articles or additions to Wikipedia.” According to her, such an assignment reminds us “that digital rhetoric, or any rhetoric, is also about epistemology,” and for her, “creating something for Wikipedia is nothing if not an epistemological enterprise.”
The variety of assignments interviewees shared and discussed offer us a rich set of resources to consider when designing and assigning projects within digital rhetoric. In addition, if we read across the corpus of examples offered in response to our question about assignments, we can tease out certain pedagogical values. For instance, we can see that digital rhetoric embraces projects over papers. We ask students to think visually and, most importantly, rhetorically, to work collaboratively, to connect with the local community, to engage with and work across various genres and media, to acknowledge and negotiate the importance and influence of materiality, to investigate the intersections between online and physical spaces, and to work, think, and play with multiple modalities, often at the same time. In addition, the projects shared here indicate an awareness of and appreciation for the intertextual and epistemological implications of digital rhetoric.
Moreover, many of the participants’ favorite assignments engage explicitly or implicitly with the three axes that frame our larger analysis. The curation of selfies engages students with the visual, and it does so by having them critically consider the rhetorical space where text meets network. Similarly, productions and analyses of digital texts—such as visualizations of course concepts or the creation of remediations—use differences in media and modes to highlight for students the tension between continuation and rupture. Finally, having students complete collaborative assignments entails work across all three axes: ideally, students not only form small networks of work (groups) that interact with and consider larger networks (communities) but also produce within the former meaningful texts that affect and change the latter.