Engaged Social Media Literacy

accumulatingliteracy gif

Deborah Brandt’s essay, “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century” (1) explores the autobiographical and societal shifts that complicate the development of literacy at the individual level. While the essay was published in 1995, we can use it as a basis for thinking about the kinds of literacy students bring to First Year Composition. Students today are surrounded by literate culture, both print and electronic. From a young age, these students (Millenials) have access to world through social media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. They bring a certain sophistication to the classroom that is accumulated through constant access to texts. However, there is a burgeoning issue of conflating different media. We witness informal text-speak in the classroom because this is often the comfort level at which students write. They bring many complicated, brilliant ideas to the table but have yet to learn the process of discerning the rhetorical situation.


Social media conflates written text with speech and such text is treated as the informal conversation. The dangerous implication for many young students is that written text is the spoken, and therefore the Victorian novel (or any earlier written text) is simply a reflection of antiquated spoken language. Brandt writes in her conclusion, “as changes in literacy have speeded up in the twentieth century, literate ability has become more and more defined as the ability to position and reposition oneself amidst literacy’s recessive and emergent forms.” (666) Our students are uniquely capable of identifying a rhetorical situation and positioning themselves within that situation when it comes to social media. They simply struggle to do the same in the context of older printed texts.



Katherine Hayles [2] suggests that the electronic hypertext is a dynamic written space whereas the printed page is traditionally a flatter medium. She writes, “The electronic author who types the same sentence then goes on to consider what behaviors and animations should attach to the words, in what font and color they should appear, on what background and over (or under) what layers, to what other texts or structures they should be linked, and so forth.” (81) Hayles’s essay, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis” was published prior to the major movements of Web 2.0, yet it anticipates such dynamic uses of coded language. Our students are visually oriented and I think there is evidence that their thought patterns — at least on the page — are influenced by the interlinked nature of the hypertext mode. Many of these students tend to jump from idea to idea without conventional transitional phrases to signify the move, leading to a sort of circularity to their writing. Brevity and linking define the habits of these students. To engage in their mode, I have included ‘reaction gifs’ in this post that convey with simple visuals abbreviated meanings with the minimum of words.


Further, I think it can be argued that this 24 hour access to internet culture and constant consumption of ideas in brief has shifted the concepts of editing and publishing as part of the composition process. Being able to immediately delete and change text at the sentence level before publishing to the internet seems to have established a perception of the draft as a static, final product rather than an ongoing work in process. These students are used to engaging with social media in which they compose and then immediately publish. My own students struggled with the concept of multiple revisions — both global and local.


[1.] Brandt, Deborah. “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century.” CE 57 (1995): 649-668.

[2.] Hayles, N. Katherine. “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media Specific Analysis.” Poetics Today 25.1 (2004): 67-90.

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The Ideal First Year Composition Classroom

Reading Peter Elbow’s early essay, “A Method of Teaching Writing” (1) reminded me of the idealism that fuels the First Year Composition curriculum. Elbow refers back to Aristotle, suggesting that the real test of a composition is the effectiveness for its audience (123-4). Elbow goes so far as to make the case for student workshops as the assessors of such effectiveness. While I don’t disagree with the idea of peer workshops, or with effectiveness as a foundation for a rubric, I do find this highly subjective, though crowd-sourced, criterion to be something of a fantasy.

Anyone who has taught First Year Composition will know that not all students are going to come to class prepared. Freshman writers and readers are not yet in a position to effectively assess the work of others. The focus tends to devolve to a discussion of grammar, spelling, and similar sentence-level errors. These students are in their first semester of university-level work and are, for the most part, overwhelmed. They are struggling to get their work done. They are not ready to crowd-source a grade for a fellow student. I know Elbow did not directly make this suggestion, instead favoring a portfolio-based assessment of the student’s work at the end of the semester (which I will discuss in a moment), but having students share and read each other’s work every week is a little taxing — especially when an instructor is confined to a specific curriculum. Elbow’s ideas are entrenched in an idealism that is perhaps characterized by the freedom to construct his own curriculum. Perhaps his students were better prepared for university-level work.

As instructors, we are all aware of the necessary evil of generating a grade. Students are painfully aware of this too. Our current students have been taught to work towards standardized testing and very specific, standardized rubrics. They, for the most part, want to put in only as much effort as is required to achieve a certain grade. As much as we might wish to disabuse them of this notion, to focus on the delight of words and rhetoric, these students still have their GPAs very carefully in mind. Elbow’s suggestion of a portfolio of five redrafted and finalized essays strikes me as good common sense (125). Rather than grading each step of the writing process (thesis statements, summaries, quotation integration, drafts, etc.), why not walk students through the messy process free of the dangers of a bad initial grade? In the case of my own classroom, the problem would be that several students would opt to not spend the necessary time going through the brainstorming and revision process. No matter what we do, there will always be certain students willing to only put in the minimum effort. And much as this may grate on the nerves of the composition instructor, how many of us have done the same thing in a Bio 101 course? The trick is to make it matter. The question is how to do so beyond just the incentive of a grade. I haven’t quite figured this one out yet beyond marking participation grades and attendance.

1. Elbow, Peter. “A Method for Teaching Writing.” College English 30.2 (1968): 115-125.

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Speaker, Audience, Subject

So much of the reading for this week is concerned with the problems of rhetorical situation and how to convey this idea in the First Year Composition classroom. In his essay “Kairos: A Neglected Concept in Classical Rhetoric,” Kinneavy articulates the concern, which is later reiterated by Bizzell in “‘Contact Zones’ and English Studies,” that a student is unlikely to grasp situational context and rhetorical purpose unless he or she is writing on a topic for which they have an understanding or in which they have some kind of stake. Interestingly, both essays appeared in print in 1994, which suggests to me that the concept of ‘Writing Across the Curriculum’ may have been a developing trend at this time. Kinneavy’s solution is kairos. His definition here for a program defined by kairos is “a liberal arts program in the historic sense of the term” and in which the “wholesomeness of the student who was scholar, and rhetorician, and aesthete” is protected (239).

Kinneavy and Bizzell both suggest significant overhauls to the systems in place and both find that overhaul in the implementation of new focuses for composition and English programs. These ideas of cultivating all forms of writing, as well as the critical thinking skills needed to inform that writing, are good ones. One the biggest issues I find in terms of attitude from students in the First Year Composition Program is the question of application. How can what we teach help them in their own disciplines? This concept of ‘Writing Across the Curriculum’ could hold the answer, but as we discussed in class, the issue of evaluation rears its head once we start revising the systems already in place. If we allow for emphasis on those topics that are most important to our students, then we as composition instructors can still evaluate form, but we are not in a position to evaluate mimetic addressing of subject matter.

Kinneavy and Bizzell offer ideas and criticisms without adequately framed solutions, but the seeds of change are there.


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Defining the ‘Contact Zone’ – Response to Chad’s Post

Chad’s response to Bizzell’s theory of reorienting our approach to literature instruction brings up the serious flaw in that theory — exactly how do we define the curriculum for an individual course? If we are expected to toss out chronology as a means of ordering literature, then we must seek out other means of doing so. Ultimately, there must be some guiding principle by which we organize information for the sake of presentation.

Innovation in the instruction of literature is not ostensibly a bad thing. However, we must design a curriculum that avoids complete chaos. ‘Contact zone’ is an interesting guiding principle, though it is by no means the only idea out there. Even if we do place a contact zone at the center of a curriculum, we must define it by some guiding notion of chronology for the sake of context. Or is that just my desire for the historiographic approach showing?

I have been very fortunate to take literature courses that were defined outside the realm of periodization, gender, and author. For example, I took an undergraduate course that surveyed the implementation of notions of ‘chivalry’ in literature, which examined texts from Beowulf to Lord of the Rings. Of course, the drawback would be that such a course cannot be exhaustive but rather a survey of such ideas with representative texts. For example, there was one female author in the group (Marie de France), which could be seen as a kind of tokenism.

Ultimately, no matter how a literature course is approached, it cannot be exhaustive and inclusive but that should not prevent instructors from designing new curricula based around a variety of guiding principles. The approach and the objectives in the course design must be clear, but they should not necessarily be rigidly tied ideas of temporal and spatial taxonomies.

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Interdisciplinary Education – Response to Brianne’s Post

Taking a holistic approach to the study of a contact zone, as Brianne contemplates after reading of Bizzell’s essay about ‘Contact Zones’, seems like such a sensible approach. If we consider, for example, nineteenth century American literature, it would, of course, merit examination of trends in politics, British literature, Caribbean literature, commercial enterprises, philosophy, history, etc. To some extent, this kind of study began to shape as historiographic analysis, which we could view as a reaction against the New Criticism. I would argue that English departments in many universities are moving towards this approach.

An understanding, at the bare minimum, of history is, I think, necessary to comprehending the literature of any given period — especially when it is further removed from our contemporary space. (I’m thinking here particularly of medieval literature, but the same could be said of Greek mythology, Renaissance literature, Gilgamesh, etc., etc.) It makes good sense to conceive of all aspects of a contact zone — though I think it ostensibly must be tied to either space or time to create an ultimately teachable semester curriculum. Otherwise the scope is simply too massive to be contained and the course would become a kind of survey of literatures.

Perhaps a better approach is to reconceive of the literature course as being shaped around a theme, which could include contact zones — but also such notions as post-colonial theory, chivalry, Marxism, Industrial age aristocracy, formations of the ‘school story’, and other such topics. This would allow for all manner of literatures to be included, regardless of period, genre, gender, or location. Ultimately, I think there are a lot of ways we could conceive of the literature (or the composition) class.

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Composition Theory – 1979-1990: Berlin to Fulkerson

Writing from 1979, James Berlin identified the following ideological divergence in contemporary composition theory, “Rhetorical theories differ from each other in the way writer, reality, audience, and language are conceived–both as separate units and in the way the units relate to each other.” (766) [1] Ten years later, Richard Fulkerson is still puzzling out the problem, though he suggests that while in 1990 theorists are “closer to agreeing on where [they] want to go,” they are not closer to agreeing on “how to get there” (411) [2]. So, the diversity of ideas are still at play particularly in terms of pedagogy — the ‘how’.

Fulkerson identifies three ongoing “axiologies” that continue to hold sway, but are in apparent decline: expressivism, formalism, and mimeticism (411-3). To some extent, I suspect that these three axiologies still hold sway in composition instruction. If we think of ‘expressivism’ as writing for understanding and discovery, then I would say it is definitely still being taught. This plays into the notion of the drafting process regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge the place of expressivism in the classroom. The same goes for ‘formalism’. Fulkerson states, “no one writing in our scholarly journals defended the most basic formalist assertion that good writing is correct writing, although we had plenty of evidence on its classroom existence.” (412) We may not be actively teaching correct form and grammar in the composition classroom, but we are definitely still grading for these issues and allowing for them to detract from a student’s grade. Whether or not this is problematic is perhaps another issue altogether. Finally, ‘mimeticism’ is a real concern for courses in the Humanities. If inaccurate information is presented in an essay, it certainly must lose some points. Or must it? If we are teaching straight composition and the logic of the essay is sound, what does it matter if the information itself is inaccurate?

Ten years earlier, Berlin identifies four groups that continued to hold sway, and which inevitably slip into the subdivisions of ‘expressivism’, ‘formalism’, and ‘mimeticism’ though he applies different names – Neo-Aristotelians, Current-Traditionalists, Neo-Platonists, and New Rhetoricians (766). While Berlin ultimately appears to favor the New Rhetoricians, he concludes, “The test of one’s competences as a composition instructor […] resides in being able to recognize and justify the version of the process being taught, complete with all its significance for the student.” (777) The various schools of thought are all valid in their own ways, but one must be able to articulate exactly what theory they are applying in the classroom and how in order to effectively guide the student towards certain objectives. Fulkerson reaches a similar conclusion, though he also suggests that one can implement aspects of multiple theories as long as one understands their purposes. However, Fulkerson warns that “different elements in a theory of composition can still be logically incompatible” (422).  Fulkerson in fact writes that Berlin tends to “oversimplify”  practical applications of theory in the classroom (422).

As we look at different theoretical approaches to teaching composition, I think we must agree with Berlin when he states “writing teachers are perforce given a responsibility that far exceeds this merely instrumental task.” (766) In other words, there is far more at play in the teaching of composition than mechanical, rote lesson plans. The practice is perhaps less ‘feminized’ than Laura Bartlett [3] would have us believe. We’re given a class, a textbook, and specific assignments to which we must teach — but as instructors, we are not given a specific theoretical approach. So, it is up to us as instructors to figure out which pedagogies are appropriate and how elements of various theories might fit together in the classroom. We must be cognizant of how we teach as much as we must understand what we teach.

1. Berlin, James A. “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories.” College English 44. 8 (1982): 765-777.

2. Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition Theory in the Eighties: Axiological Consensus and Paradigmatic Diversity.” College Composition and Communication 41. 4 (1990): 409-429.

3. Bartlett, Laura. “Feminization and Composition’s Managerial Subject.”Works and Days 41/42 (2003): 261-281.

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Literatures of ‘Contact Zones’

The readings for this week seemed to be primarily concerned with classifications of pedagogies. What kinds of teachers are we? What kinds of teachers should we be? Berlin[1], in particular, set out somewhat rigid categories of pedagogical style; but the essay that most caught my attention was Patricia Bizzell’s essay, “”Contact Zones” and English Studies” [2].

Bizzell addresses this issue of rigidity that has guided English Studies nearly since the formation of the discipline. As she notes, even Composition is very narrowly left to its own category of course. Bizzell writes, “Focusing on a contact zone as a way of organizing literary study would mean attempting to include all material relevant to the struggles going on there.” (166) Composition must respond to something. Composition for the sake of composition seems empty and devoid of purpose aside from the technical mechanics of writing. My own students have struggled with the idea of a Composition class and I have sought to find ways to make it meaningful for them.

Bizzell’s notion of organizing literary study, as well as the composition component, around a contact zone is a potentially innovative way of engaging the student in thought. Rather than teaching a class on Jane Austen or American Literature or simply Composition, why not design a course around a specific conflict or moment of contact? Why not have a course based around, for example, Early Modern trade routes? One might incorporate contemporary literatures of Britain, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as primary materials such as charters, letters, and other such materials. This would supply a targeted means of thinking about composition and rhetoric. Bizzell suggests that this organizational method would facilitate looking at “rhetorical effectiveness of each writer in dealing with the matter in hand” (167). This ultimately allows for rhetorical analysis in context. The syllabus could include a historiographic approach to literature, rhetoric, and composition.

1. Berlin, James A. “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories.” College English 44. 8 (1982): 765-777.

2. Bizzell, Patricia. “’Contact Zones’ and English Studies.” College English 56.2 (1994): 163-169.

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