Ethics and Social Media: Part I

There is no easy answer to the problem of ethics and social media use, as any Google search of “online harassment” or “fake news” or “post-truth” will show, but it is clear there is a problem. The quick circulation of information, the ease of response, the design of our sites, the algorithms, the filter bubbles that result, the etc. the etc. the etc. All of the availabilities of our technology make it easier to spread misinformation, whether that be for the purpose of a particular political agenda or to build a profit (as was the case with teens in Macedonia during the 2016 election).

Despite the mainstreaming of terms such as post-truth and misinformation, I believe it’s important to keep in mind that our relationship to social media and online communication (as writing instructors) shouldn’t just be a warning against the circulation of fake news. Such teaching, as I will bring up later in another response, is problematic since it positions our technology affordances as only ever bad. It is the same form of pedagogy that insists, very problematically I add, that students should never turn to Wikipedia because it is ‘unreliable,’ when Wikipedia could in fact be a productive starting point for research since it contains both a general overview as well as the citations, often from scholarly sources, that helped to create that overview. The same problem comes into focus when technology is viewed only ever as a distraction, or only ever as making us stupid, or only ever as [insert negative adjective]. Such teaching approaches technology from a simplified and problematic determinist perspective (see Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections) rather than understanding larger cultural context.

Instead, I believe (as I am thinking/writing-through in my dissertation right now) that we need to attend more carefully to a holistic understanding of ethics in our communication as well as how ethics is defined in relation to the digital, multimodal technologies we depend on to compose. Right now, it’s not just a problem of what information is true or false (as the word post-truth signals); instead, it’s a much deeper and more complex issue wrapped-up into how we understand our responsibilities to each other, how we understand our responsibilities as citizens, how we value research, how we think about the information we circulate, and how we communicate to/with/through our composing technologies.

For this next series of posts, I hope to share some of the ways I’ve integrated an emphasis on social media and ethics into the FYC classroom. I’m sharing this work more publicly now out of some requests from other instructors and colleagues for activities and readings that cover this subject (though admittedly I’m also hoping these posts will help me think through my dissertation). So hopefully this is helpful to someone out there other than myself.

Since misinformation is one of the major conversations going on right now with social media (though, I want to emphasize again that this is not the only concern we should be having), I’ll focus this post on that.

Below are details for one activity that tackles 1) fact-checking online truths, myths, and rumors and 2) developing context through understanding the political leanings and context of a particular media source.

I usually complete this activity after:

1) Spending some time readings and discussing the effects of algorithms and filter bubbles

2) Discussing research and the range of credibility that difference sources offer

3) Practicing multimodal rhetorical analysis of websites

 

Activity:

Before starting, split the class up into 5 different groups (or into groups of no more than 4-5). Once in their groups:

  • Ask students to discuss what they know about internet myths, fake news, and the term “post-truth.” Have them name and provide specific examples from their experience.
  • Ask students to make a list of the different strategies they themselves use to check for the credibility of online texts. NOTE: I usually have each group write their list on a Google Doc, and then I’ll combine all the strategies at the end of the class into a single, shared document.
  • Then ask each group to create a mini-presentation for the class that analyzes and describes the purpose of the website their group was assigned and how it may relate to concerns of credibility and context.

Optional follow up writing assignment: If most of your students use social media (I always complete a poll during the first week of class to see if they do) then create an assignment that asks students to find a trending story that seems questionable or is polarizing in some way. Have them fact-check these stories by reviewing multiple forms of sources (sources can be social media, mainstream news, blogs, memes, scholarly articles–whatever they can find on their story). Then have them write a response that describes their experience.

NOTE 2: Depending on how much time your course sessions are, it may be best to structure this lesson over a couple of days. 

That’s it for now. Now go out and encourage more rhetorically & technically-savvy online participation.

-KR

Supporting Transgender Students in the Writing Classroom: Part IV

One benefit writing courses have in participating and allowing for the visibility–and representation– of gender non-conforming and transgender identities is that analyzing and discussing language and how it transforms given social, political, economic, and cultural contexts is (most often) already a part of the curriculum. In this post, I want to share examples of short and accessible readings that represent gender non-conforming identities that may be brought into the FYC classroom.

Example 1: The use of singular “they” may be a starting point for discussing how words and their meaning shift and transform as they circulate within our social worlds. One activities that could help to foster this discussion is bringing in several style guides from across decades and analyzing how the rules and description of pronoun agreement have shifted. This also opens up conversations about how language conventions (even our grammar rules) are always changing and never static.

Example 2: In my own classroom this semester we analyzed the short webtext “I Heart the Singular I” in order to introduce the concept of multimodal rhetorical analysis. Students noted how the welcoming, friendly, almost child-like nature of this text may help to persuade those who are resistant to accepting singular “they” pronoun identities. Eventually this led to questions like: who may be resistant to the singular they and why? Who is in charge of what we decide is a language rule? What problems or confusion may the singular “they” cause? How does the webtext work to resolve those problems?

Example 3: And if you are working with visual texts, Autostraddle’s  “Drawn to Comics” series may be a useful resource for discovering comics that include gender non-conforming identities.

And that’s it for this series!  (at least for now)

-KR

 

 

 

 

 

Supporting Transgender Students in the Writing Classroom: Part III

So far I’ve shared a few resources and readings on supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students in the classroom (Part I), and in the last post I shared some practical strategies that can be planned out for the first week of classes (Part II). In this post I’m going to focus on how I’ve been talking to my students about contacting me and visiting my office hours. Though a “contact me” discussion may seem off-topic considering the theme of these posts, I believe–especially in the first-year composition class–my role is not only to answer students’ questions about academic writing and the class in general, but also to be knowledgable about resources available on campus and to help connect students with those resources. This role seems even more important considering the unique challenges gender non-conforming students run into as they navigate and are asked to participate within an institution that often privileges binary gender identities (I’m thinking now of the debates currently surfacing at UWM about who is allowed to use what locker rooms in our athletic facility and question of whether or not the university has enough inclusive bathrooms around campus). I would like to be transparent as an ally in light of these challenges, and one way to do that is to consider carefully the language used to invite students to contact me during office hours, email, etc.

In addition to these concerns, as I was changing some of my first day policies and revising my syllabus, I came across this funny/goofy/endearing video created by an Arizona State professor on faculty office hours. This video pushed me to consider why so few students came to my office hours (or did not contact me until they were in a position where they were nearly failing the course). Again, I always thought of myself as friendly and inviting in demeanor, but when I looked back at some of the language in the “Contact me” section of my syllabus, I realized that sense of ethos wasn’t being communicated there. For example, this was my old syllabus “contact me” description, :

UWM requires staff to use UWM email accounts to email students. I will not respond to emails written from personal accounts. If you have any questions, always feel free to email me (kmravel@uwm.edu). I will do my best to respond to all emails in 24 hours.

When I read this section more carefully, I realized I was modeling the professional aspects of contact with instructors (don’t use personal emails, I will get to you within a specified time frame, etc.) but I don’t actual encourage students to come see me during my office hours nor do I specify what they should contact me about.

During this semester, I revised and expanded this section, making sure to dedicate a lot of time to reading it on the first date of class:

UWM requires staff to use UWM email accounts to email students. I will not respond to emails written from personal accounts. If you have any questions, always feel free to email me (kmravel@uwm.edu). I will do my best to respond to all emails in 24 hours.

Generally, keeping in contact with your college instructors is a good idea. I have office hours […] at the […]. I am also available via a scheduled meeting. Whether something is going on in your personal life or with your work or with your health, please contact me if something is preventing you from completing the work of the class. This doesn’t mean you need to provide details or that you will not be responsible for any missed work. However, we can meet up to discuss and work around the specific circumstances.

In addition, if you are struggling with the work of the class, the discussions, the readings, etc., please let me know sooner rather than later. I am open to making adjustments, especially if that means it may improve the community of our classroom. That said, this class will have a vigorous workload and should challenge you: it is important that you dedicate your time and energy to completing the work to the best of your ability.

Rather than being solely focused on establishing a professional relationship, I wanted my syllabus language to reflect how I ideally wished to work with students, that is, as three-dimensional individuals with identities and lives that aren’t limited to solely being a student in my classroom.

I understand this may invite a lot of emotional labor on an instructor’s part (I’ll make another post about the emotional labor of teaching and being a “good” feminist later–all which have been written about extensively in comp/rhet), but I believe in acknowledging that students have lives and the quality of those lives that may be effecting their work, I make room for meeting them in terms of their specific challenges. I hope this new language emphasizes to students that I am her to listen, I’m not here to judge.

So far, dedicating time and syllabus space to emphasize the relationship I want with students seems to have been effective. I feel like more often students are telling me information about why they missed the assignment or a class, whereas oftentimes they would just disappear from my class or not acknowledge that there was work they were missing. They have also been good about proposing alternative deadlines. For example one of my students is an police officer, and had to work long shifts between Monday evening until the start of our class on Wednesday. He let me know his work hours were shifting in the next week, but that he was more strapped for time for any long readings that needed to be completed. I’ve also had students come to me after class and quickly ask for suggestions and advice, some related to the class and some just information they thought I knew or would be willing to help them with. For example, one student was caught up in an email phishing scam. Another student came to me to tell me they had failed the class last semester and wanted to do their best to prepare for the research that was required for our class (this student uses the singular they).

I guess all in all, though I don’t have any numbers to compare student’s actively contacting me this semester  over previous semesters, my experiences so far suggest students are more comfortable reaching out. And once again, though the language and attention I put into inviting students to contact me stemmed from the concerns I had in regard to supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students, these practices seemed good for the whole of the class.

-KR

Supporting Transgender Students in the Writing Classroom: Part II

In the last post, I shared some resources and articles on supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students in the classroom. With this post, I wanted to share the ways I adapted 2 of the strategies from Sherry Zane’s article “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom” for the first week of the semester.

Model pronoun etiquette for students

On the first day of class, when I introduced myself, I told students I go by she/her. I also wrote my pronoun preference on my syllabus.

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By modeling these preferences myself, I hope to set the tone for how pronouns will be handled in the classroom during discussion. And since I work with students mostly in first-year writing classrooms, for many this is one of the first times they have encountered pronoun naming. Modeling this behavior may be the first step in developing further awareness about pronoun preferences.

Take a written course poll on the first day instead of taking attendance out loud

By taking a written poll, I was able to take attendance while also allowing space for students to let me know their preferred name. On our first day I asked students to write out answers to the following questions and hand them into me:

  1. Name on the roster:
  2. Name you use:
  3. Pronouns you use:
  4. Major/minor:
  5. What social media do you use and/or are familiar with? (Instagram, Snapchat, Pokémon Go, Youtube, Myfitness Pal, Twitter, etc.)
  6. Please describe your access to technology (Smartphone? Laptop? Home computer? IPad? Access to Internet at home? Etc.)
  7. What are some of your favorite activities (in and out of school)?
  8. Anything else you would like your instructor to know about you at the start of class?

After the poll, students were asked to take turns sharing their preferred name, major, and something they are excited about this semester.

*I included some questions about social media and technology because the theme of the course is research in social media culture, so we would be reliant on using different digital tools to write with and analyze.

**I suggest modeling the pronoun etiquette before taking the poll, because some students may have forgotten what a pronoun is or not realize what you are asking.

***I did not ask students to share their preferred pronoun out loud–just their preferred name. This article goes into more details about why I made this decision.

As I was reading my students’ responses, it became clear that the poll not only helped the gender non-conforming students (and yes, it appears to be helpful for them), but also the class as a whole.

With the technology questions, I learned about insecurities with technology (EX: using Microsoft Word or navigating D2L), and I also learned who may struggle to access readings or materials I share through our course management system.

The final question gave students a space to share other information that may affect their work or the classroom environment: I learned who was working full-time jobs, who commutes from out of town, who had children they had to drop off at daycare in the morning, etc. Having an awareness of the potential obstacles individual students have positioned me to be better prepared to build flexibility into our course plans.

The final question also helped prepare me to understand certain in-class behaviors: one student, for example, stated that during discussion he always looks down at his desk.This position didn’t mean that he was not listening, but instead was a way to help him focus.

That’s it for now: just two simple things to do on day 1 of a writing course.

More later!

-KR

Supporting Transgender Students in the Writing Classroom: Part I

In my past years of teaching, I was always under an unchecked and unquestioned assumption that my courses were friendly and welcoming to transgender and gender-nonconforming students. I believed (wrongly so) the standards of respect and responsibility I worked to prioritize in the classroom would take care of any situation.

I began to question my assumptions when a friend teaching an LGBTQ course asked me to recommend writing instructors who were supportive of transgender students. I could name lots of instructors off the top of my head who were friendly, and approachable, and understanding…but when I actually stopped to think about actual classroom practices and strategies, I came up short for suggestions.

At that time, I was also toward the end of my work on the WPA committee as the English 101 course coordinator. In my three years on the WPA, I couldn’t remember a single conversation, professional development project, or meeting that posed the question of how to support transgender and gender-nonconforming students. And as I led orientation after orientation for new graduate teaching assistants, I never planned any discussions on this topic, nor had I incorporated it into our meeting agendas or planning.

I’m hoping to make up for this mistake now by writing a few posts that describe how I retooled my classroom for the Fall 2016 semester. This is Part I in a series of posts I hope to release on this site.

The first action I took toward accommodation for transgender and gender non-conforming students was to educate myself and find resources; despite my identification with the LGTBQ+ community, my knowledge about the T and the + was…less than outstanding.

Below, I’ve included a list of articles and resources to help other writing instructors get started with these considerations:

  • One of the first things I learned as I tried to make a more accommodating classroom, was that there were several more non-binary conforming identities than I ever realized. This wiki offers a helpful list. It also reminds readers that some nonbinary gender identities have names that are reclaimed slurs, and some may see these names as offensive or as hate speech.
  • Sherry Zane’s article “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom” from Faculty Focus suggests several strategies college instructors may incorporate into their classroom practices. (In a future post, I’ll discuss how I used and revised some of the suggestions for my writing and research course). I highly recommend this source because it is so helpful and practical.
  • Andrea Lunsford has recently published a blog post on “mispronouning” and how it has affected her teaching and writing. She also offers a draft and asks for feedback on a section of her new textbook on pronouns and gender. This may be a useful read to for those who would like to see how these conversations play out in the field of Composition and Rhetoric.

If you have other resources to suggest, please let me know.

More to come on this subject,

KR

(Not) a Defense of Academic Writing

This writing came as a challenge more so than many of the other prompts we’ve come across in this class. As I began to think of why teaching academic writing is important or what about it we may want to carry forward as our technology surrounding communication changes, I realized I needed to be careful about the possible pitfalls this time of explanation may turn into. For one, this post could turn into a type of defense of academic writing. I realize I have to be careful to avoid a defensive tone since well, this—in terms of rhetorical strategies— is a turn off. At the same time I can’t sound nonchalant about the significance of academic writing. In a world increasingly turning every space intended to foster critical thought into a series of forms and assemble line-like procedures, we need to know how to clearly articulate not only what we do as writing instructors, but the possible consequences of it—especially since those consequences cannot be proven or supported with a simple chart, or graph, or series of numbers.

In an earlier post, I wrote about several of the values I believe academic writing carries and fosters in me and my students. For one, dedicating time and space away from one’s inner subject through attending to a voice not of our own contributes to creating a more empathetic and understanding subjectivity less likely to take on a single-minded or quick to judge way of seeing the world. In other words, knowing how others contextualize their worlds makes me less likely to make evaluative judgements of them. As we know from our limited concept of history, it is these types of evaluative good versus evil judgements that incites fear and violence in our society. As I consider other forms of communication our technology is now allowing, I’m fairly certain that texting, film, images, chatting “off the cuff,” or multimodal communication can not complete the same level of thoughtful contextualization of ideas that writing offers. Of course, one could use writing as a process to later communicate ideas through this alternative technology, but the consideration that goes into careful writing must become a part of the process in order to foster a patient and reflexive subject accountable for his/her actions.

As wonderful and informative as multi-voiced narration can become in online discourse, it also resist nuance, tending to paint people as either “good” or “bad” and “black” or “white” or “I agree with you” or “I don’t.” This all doesn’t mean that thoughtful communication doesn’t take place online, I’ve seen evidence of it, especially in close-knit online communities, but there are far too many online spaces where a complex person or event is whittled into a hashtag or meme. I’m reminded now of one of our first readings The Gutenberg Galaxy by McLuhan who discussed how the ability to mechanically reproduce text marked an evolution in society from communal beings with without an individual sense of a subject, to an individual in a body and with a mind separate from everyone elses. Unless we somehow revert back to a communal world with a shared sense of identity, there is always going to be a need to communicate what this separate identity is to another person and to understand another’s. If we chose to give up understanding complex thought, which at this point is best expressed in writing or thinking through writing—or what Benjamin describes as “paper work” that considers writing the very realization of thinking—we also give up on understanding individuals as complex subjects. As soon as we give up “knowing the other” or even “knowing an idea or event,” we create a breeding ground for apathetic and violent subjects.

Although these ideas, I admit, are still incomplete and even fragmented, this is my working attempt to define why writing begins to matter to me.

Absurdly Long Post About how Writing and Writing Technologies Intertwine that May Have Gone Off-Topic In Some Moments

In our last class, we discussed the repercussions print culture had on the way we think about the world and how it shapes our cultural practices and values. This resulted in the question: are we better off with print culture than we were without it? As I think of an answer for this, I can’t ignore negative implications of print culture. For one, its imperialistic tendencies. As we read last week in the Glutenberg Galaxy, once an oral culture is introduced to writing system that reduces sound to visual form, the human psyche is transformed:“Oral cultures indeed produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic and human worth, which are no longer even possible once writing has taken possession of the psyche” (14). This reaffirms our notions of technology as stated in the initial definition: “Technology is never static and changes throughout time and space.” We can infer from this definition that as we take up new technologies, we also lose a cultural something. It is never easy to weigh the lose or the gain. But I’m trying now to imagine a world without books and without being able to use writing. Within my own cultural context, this seems narrow way of experiencing life. Without books, I’d imagine the beliefs of my elders and my community would be my beliefs. If not, I would be exiled with little chance of finding a new life and community.

This brings me to the here and now: whether or not print or digital technology has influenced my opinions about written text (and I’m sure it has) I value the ability to listen to others and their experience—to learn and to realize my limited perspective of the world is not the only one out there. I believe this particular worldview has created a hesitancy in me to judge good from bad or to see situations in black and white. I have and always have, despite my Catholic upbringing, a hard time thinking of prescriptive rules for what is right and what is wrong. Print culture may have very well influenced me to take the time to understand a situation’s context and to reserve judgement. The simple task of sitting down, being subjected to a voice not my own as I read (versus a single representation of a community voice) provided me with practice of this. If I think about what writing means to me as a cultural practice and how it shapes my values, it is hard to for me to not to consider what it means to be ethical.

As our readings have suggested, perhaps this desire to know another wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for written texts. As we move into a world more dependent on computer/phone technology for communication, I’m sure this will change. The internet offers more chances for interruption and direct communication without careful and thoughtful analysis. For example, you can read a news story and reply by typing out a response, giving yourself little time to process. There is a certain attitude of privilege I see coming from my students and even myself that comes from being able to instantly satisfy desires (food, entertainment, communication, etc.). It is no wonder there are so many craft/practice-focused communities emerging in retaliation ( yoga, “slow cooking,” sewing). I suppose this is why I was directed to studying Ravelry, a social networking group for knitters, as a subject of interest last semester. It is hard for me right now to consider how this may influence my classroom practices other than noting to my students that academic writing can’t, and never will, be instantly satisfying. Our ENG101 standard assignment sequence represents that. But in a fast-food world, how can we as instructors continue to claim the writing we teach is something of value?

For myself, I have little problem answering this question. Everything in my personal experience has verified that knowledge from written text has the possibility to help one shape their own circumstantial hardships and find a better position to live a life. Even if I were to ignore or not acknowledge this experience, if I were asked to take back this knowledge and go back to an alternative world without written language, I would refuse! I’m paraphrasing a Lynda Barry quote here, but if you have a box in front of you and have the choice to know or not know what is inside, of course you are going to choose knowledge of what is inside. When I teach communication through writing, especially in ENG101 classes, the focus becomes on analysis, or understanding what is inside the box and figuring out what the hell to do with it once you understand it. I hope my students can transfer these skills to their own life and understand written communication is a means to position one into power; written communication can allow for one to better express her/his ideas and lead to the type of change s/he desires—whether this change be political, personal, or professional.

My hope is that in teaching writing and asking students to closely look at text and examine their own choices, we are encouraging people to act responsibly, thoughtfully, and to remain accountable for their actions. Now I’m going to be lame and end with one of my favorite comp/rhet quotes. I hope you will forgive me for my lack of imagination when it comes to a conclusion:

“…accountability signifies recognizing that none of us lives autonomous lives, despite the grand narrative of U.S. individualism. Accountability means that we are indeed members of the same village, and if for no other reason than that (and there are other reasons), all people necessarily have a stake in each other’s quality of life.”
-Krista Ratcliffe