“Meet Students Where They Are” (Patch, 2010, p. 279)
In all of my teaching, I strive to as Paula Patch (2010) explains, “meet students where they are” (p. 279). This phrase demonstrates the impulse within multimodal composition and digital rhetoric to refuse to ignore students’ common practices of writing and research, such as using Wikipedia, Instagram, and Facebook, and instead use them to teach composition skills. However, I also use this phrase to emphasize my commitment to using digital genres to implement grounded pedagogies that center and complicate the specific culture and history that surrounds students. Therefore, I strive to use technology in the service of learning by focusing assignments on local history and culture by integrating university resources and helping students create public serving work.
Archives, Digital Rhetoric, and Inclusive Teaching
In order to center local history and culture, I craft assignments that directly engage campus archival collections, paying careful attention to how the material that now lies within the archival space was created, collected, and organized. As we work through this process of historicizing the documents, we address issues of power involved in the creation of the texts and the ways in which they often produced inequalities. When we then move these texts into digital modes, we are able to highlight the inequalities so that users, and students themselves, can analyze their powerful effects. By working to analyze and address inequalities, our classroom becomes a inclusive space of dialogue and collaboration, where students intervene in the historical record through their skills in digital rhetoric.
Below I offer a few examples of how I put this approach into action.
Data as Rhetoric
In a new undergraduate course in Digital Rhetoric that I created, Data as Rhetoric, I brought students into a Digital Humanities collaboration with Yale University and the University of Richmond. The project, Photogrammar, brings together the 170,000 photographs taken during by the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) with 4,000 life histories from the Federal Writers Project in order to give users the opportunity to explore visual and textual evidence relating to the Great Depression. These life histories hold great historical significance as they mark an important precursor to oral histories by collecting the histories of people who were previously excluded from the historical record, including women, the working class, and African Americans.
Students become project leaders for Photogrammar by helping to bring the Life Histories Collection, located in UNC’s Southern Historical Collection, into the digital platform. Students are tasked with making these archival documents machine readable through encoding practices, such as TEI (Text Encoded Initiative), as well constructing a metadata schema for the entire collection. In so doing, they learn the role of rhetoric in data construction as they decide which terms to select as metadata categories to organize the collection and how to mark-up antiquated, racist, and sexist terms. They productively struggle to find a balance between maintaining the authenticity of the document and using the technology with eye towards social justice and greater inclusion. Their resulting metadata and mark-up schema are then incorporated into the Photogrammar project. Therefore, they not only learn crucial transferable digital skills, but also directly contribute to how the historical record is produced.
I have also used the Life Histories Collection to construct ‘low-bridge’ multimodal projects in first-year composition courses. In the humanities unit of one of my writing-across-the-disciplines composition courses, students use this archival collection to contribute vital knowledge to one of their “go-to research sites” – Wikipedia. Through their research, students create a Wikiversity page dedicated to the Life History of one individual in the collection. By understanding the research and rhetorical conventions, together with the fundamental role revision plays in Wikipedia, students are able to see the value of a process-based approach to writing. Moreover, as the FWP documented the histories of everyday Americans, they make the lives of people who would otherwise be left hidden in the archives known to the world.
Mapping UNC Foodways
I have also brought this approach to centering history and culture in my Multimodal Composition course. In this case, students used their cell phones as research and composition tools to create a geoblog that includes a virtual map of the foodways on UNC campus that was given to first year students. In this project, each student chooses one food site to research over the course of the semester. They use their phones to capture images and ideas, which they then use as notes to conduct archival research into the site, paying attention to how it has changed over time, and the ways in which the site manifests larger issues relating to culture, history, and politics. Finally they put this research into action, by creating a webpage on their food that is integrated into the food map.
In so doing, students see how the rhetoric of food shapes our identity, culture, and ideas about environment and policy by creating a public resource that demanded careful consideration of digital rhetoric. Through this project, students transform the simple act of eating into what Geoffrey Sirc (2001) calls an “encounter-possibility” – the possibility of seeing composition and rhetoric in students’ daily activities, rather than restricting such activities to things that ‘only’ occur inside the classroom.