What are the outcomes for teaching digital rhetoric?
In general, we can deduce what the outcomes are, or might be, for a course or program by looking at what instructors prompt students to do: what they read, what activities they do, what assignments they complete, and so forth. More specifically, and more obviously, we can attend to the course outcomes as they are explicitly stated by the instructor. We take both of these approaches for this webtext vis-a-vis digital rhetoric pedagogy, and here, we attend in particular to the answers given in response to the direct question: what are or should be the outcomes for teaching in digital rhetoric?
We can see in the responses in the video here and as described below that interviewees are beginning to map out a space that we have defined according to the three axes outlined in the introduction. Specifically, the responses attend not only to the tension between continuation and rupture through a continued emphasis on critical thinking and rhetorical foundations but also to the intersection between text and network by recognizing the emergent impacts that online discourse can have on different individuals’ standings in a given community. Meanwhile, we can also see an explicit nod toward the roles of theory and practice, specifically in terms of respondents wanting their students to grapple with rhetorical, technical, and ethical concepts both in service of and through acts of textual production. Finally, the responses show an awareness of and sensitivity to contexts and networks in terms of both what they want their students to understand and how they, as teachers, articulate outcomes themselves. In other words, while defining outcomes, they began by asking themselves the following: what are the goals of the institution at large, of the department in which I reside, of the program and its curriculum, and of the course specifically? And with that, what are the needs of the students?
With these considerations in mind, and in looking across the interviewees’ responses, we identified three outcomes keyed to teaching digital rhetoric:
- Critical Thinking
After demonstrating below how interviewees not only articulate these outcomes individually and together but also conceive of outcomes in the context of graduate seminars/programs, we speak to the added values of these outcomes. In doing so, we highlight how the interviewees intend these outcomes to impact their students’ understanding of, interaction with, and production of digital rhetoric as well as the way that affects and informs their digital practices and (often still developing) identities. Lastly, we use the tension between continuation and rupture as a lens to analyze and understand better the teaching of digital rhetoric.
Outcome 1: Critical Thinking
As indicated in the video here, many cited critical thinking as one of the most important outcomes, which is perhaps to be expected given how frequently the study of rhetoric—and study in the humanities generally—is lauded for its ability to foster critical thinking. However, as Kristin Arola reminds us, although the term critical thinking is used commonly within pedagogical contexts, it is frequently done so in ways that are rather “broad.” As such, many interviewees made a concerted effort to articulate and unpack what critical thinking means and looks like in the context of teaching digital rhetoric. For instance, Arola says her aim is to cultivate “critical thinking about the ways that we compose and we produce,” while Casey Boyle says that he wants to help students “become critically aware of the media and tools that they’re using.” Part of that, as both Arola and Boyle state, is helping students become critically aware of what “modes” they use to make meaning and why they select and employ those modes.
In raising awareness about medium and mode, some interviewees ask students to think critically about what it means to work digitally and how that work is different from—and similar to—working in other media and the modalities common to it. Here, we see the dimension of continuation versus rupture begin to emerge. Having students pay attention to medium is particularly important to Collin Brooke because, for him, working digitally is fundamentally different from working with and in other media: it represents a rupture within, rather than a continuation of, print and oral rhetorical practices. As he says, “Working in digital spaces, with digital methods, changes [our] practice, changes the way that [we] think.” Thomas Rickert, on the other hand, approaches working digitally as another rhetorical choice rather than as a radical shift in rhetorical communication: “I don’t like to single out digital rhetoric from any other compositional or rhetorical enterprise.” That said, digital rhetoric is important to him, especially pedagogically, because it shows students that there are different means to achieve rhetorical goals; digital rhetoric is, for him, one of many “avenues” available in doing “rhetorical work.” Regardless of entry point, for many interviewees, positioning critical thinking as a primary outcome in teaching digital rhetoric involves prompting students to grapple with and make conscious decisions about medium, mode, and the rhetorical implications of both in the production of digital rhetoric.
Critical thinking can also be understood, as Doug Eyman and Estee Beck illustrate, vis-à-vis ethics. According to Eyman, there is a “responsibility” to adopt and employ an “ethics of care” in composing digitally and in conducting digital research. For Eyman, this means having students not only think critically about the ethical consequences of digital rhetoric but also pursue projects where ethical considerations and goals are at the forefront. For Beck, teachers in and of digital rhetoric must help students think critically about the enactments, violations, and overall ramifications of “surveillance” and “privacy” in the digital realm, particularly as it relates to the ways they produce and receive digital texts.
Outcome 2: Production
Production—that is, having students create digital rhetoric rather than simply analyze it—was another outcome that many of the interviewees privileged pedagogically. Through responses along these lines, we can see the analysis/production dimension emerge from the theory/practice axis. Crystal VanKooten, for instance, says that she is more concerned with students “composing,” and Kevin Brock wants students “making things” and “not simply analyzing text.” And according to Arola, the students enrolled in digital rhetoric courses are there because “they want to make stuff”—digital texts like “websites,” “apps,” “videos,” and “soundpieces.” In many ways, this focus on production signals an important difference not only between digital rhetoric and digital humanities but also between rhetoric and composition and literature. More specifically, the field of rhetoric and composition and the subfield of digital rhetoric are typically concerned, in an Aristotelian sense, with heuristics and production, whereas the study and teaching of literature traditionally has been hermeneutically-oriented, concerned with interpretation and explication. Thus, whether or not one attaches the addendum of digital to rhetoric, a major goal in the study, practice, and teaching of rhetoric has always been to create purposeful and effective texts that exhibit an understanding of genre and an awareness of audience—and in that vein, digital rhetoric can be said to exhibit a sense of disciplinary continuation.
Outcome 3: Play
To facilitate production, many encouraged the practice of play as an outcome in and of itself. As Kathleen Blake Yancey says, “It’s only through play, it’s only through practice, that you begin to get some sense of what this all means and what it can mean.” In having students play with “new digital technologies,” Stephen McElroy says that, “ideally, they would be open to experimentation and exploring, and not […] afraid of failure.” In McElroy’s idealistic vision, we accept that this approach does not play out with every student: they, like many people, tend to be afraid of the unknown and reticent to experiment—especially in a high stakes, graded environment. Thus, to mitigate students’ reluctance to explore and experiment digitally, many interviewees allot time in class for students to play. In doing so, students might, as Jeff Rice suggests, play with “juxtaposition” as an invention practice to see how “supposedly disparate items” create “another kind of insight or pattern formation.” Over time, students can, as Rice intimates, parlay this emphasis on play into informed rhetorical production. Play thus becomes—or should become, as David Rieder argues later in the video—a gateway to rhetorical invention, thus connecting back to production. Included in this pivot from play to production, per Arola, is having students realize that “we’re never just making a text; it has impacts in the world and has impacts on them and their cultures and their communities.” Here, Arola connects text and network, seeing text-in-network as an outcome in having students focus on and work to achieve two other outcomes, play and production. Given this, we can also posit that the outcomes spotlighted here are not mutually exclusive; rather, students might work to satisfy certain outcomes sequentially or collaboratively, and here, the axes we have identified offer productive lenses through which to complicate and nuance our understanding of and the potential connections between and amongst outcomes in teaching digital rhetoric.
Graduate Student Outcomes
Finally, and returning to the importance of considering and valuing the local context, a few interviewees offered a set of outcomes that would be tailored specifically to graduate students. For instance, Rieder often has students collaborate to create digital projects wherein the outcome is “to explicitly connect to some conversation with the scholarship, with the field” because he wants his graduate students’ projects to address and make apparent the “so what?” factor (i.e., why does this project matter, and what does it contribute?). Another important outcome is for graduate students to be cognizant of the potential life-altering implications of what they do online, therein managing, as Sarah Arroyo says, their “digital footprint.” Once again, then, we witness outcomes that direct attention toward the connections between theory and practice in the production of digital texts and the negotiation of individual within network. in understanding those texts’ rhetorical and cultural potentiality
Impacts of Outcomes on Student Learning
While, as Arola contends, it is important for students to recognize the potential impacts of the digital texts they create, many interviewees also recognized that the sets of outcomes they develop for and work to achieve in teaching digital rhetoric have impacts on students, too. One particularly important impact, as VanKooten says, is that students “learn by doing” and thus experience an epistemological epiphany; that is, they come to realize that they know digital rhetoric by doing and that doing digital rhetoric is a way of knowing. Having students learn by doing also provides opportunities, as Bill Hart-Davidson says, to identify “indicators of learning” as well as instructive moments “to intervene.” Another noteworthy impact is that students, as Liz Losh says, begin forming identities of production and ownership and thus begin to say, “I am a maker of digital work.” Rather than seeing the work they produce for class as impactful only in terms of the grade they earn, students instead start to see themselves as contributing digitally, rhetorically, meaningfully, and epistemically to audiences other than the teacher. Overall, these outcomes as a set work to impact students by helping them, as Eyman says, participate effectively in and arrive at an “understanding [of] the digital”—one that recognizes what the digital is as well as how they shape and are shaped by it.
The Tension between Continuation and Rupture
Thus far, the outcomes for teaching digital rhetoric reflect to a certain extent those common to the teaching of rhetoric, just attuned to digital environments. Not surprisingly, then, many interviewees acknowledged that rhetoric and its extensive history informs and underpins how they develop and work to achieve outcomes while teaching digital rhetoric. For instance, James Brown says that he refers to Jody Shipka’s (2011) Towards a Composition Made Whole—a print text that, in many ways, reminds us of the abundance and value of non-digital multimodal composition. According to Brown, Shipka “helps all of us think about what we’re trying to teach and get out of students in the classroom,” which is recognition that “the choice of medium is part of the rhetorical situation.” Said another way, Brown wants to apply the Aristotelian mindset to digital rhetoric and make his students aware of “the available means of persuasion”—and, with that, the way those means change based upon the medium and corresponding modes made available for meaning making. When they make choices about medium, Brown wants students to ask themselves: “How will that medium shape, shift, sort of contort my message; how will it enable certain things, constrain other things?”
The medium changes more than just the message, however: it also changes the way the message is delivered and the audience it can potentially reach. As Rory Lee says, “I think what’s really important, for me, when it comes to digital rhetoric, is circulation: how do these texts actually get to audiences?” For Lee, students answer that question by responding to rhetorical situations; here, they use digital media to circulate their texts to real-world audiences, thereby completing “the transaction process between that external audience and themselves as the rhetor of the text.” Although new methods of delivery beget new ways to reach (potentially new) audiences, some interviewees discussed the ways traditional rhetorical understandings of audience, particularly as they relate to purpose, can apply to any medium. As Matt Davis says,“I often start with [Lloyd] Bitzer [because] I want them to understand purpose, I want them to understand what audience is and does, and how it can function.” Steve Holmes extends the conversation by arguing that the traditional focus on audience qua purpose is still the rhetorical objective in the context of the digital, stating: Our understandings of audience change, but I think that kind of ancient rhetorical formula of composing a message to try to the best of your intuitive kairotic abilities as a rhetor or composer to circulate, now, something or create something to have an impact on a certain audience—I think that’s something that we can still talk about. In short, in reimagining how traditional rhetorical concepts such as medium, mode, message/text, delivery, audience, and purpose transfer into and operate within new digital environments, interviewees say they are able to teach digital rhetoric in a way that not only draws connections but also delineates points of departure between digital rhetoric and other forms of rhetoric. And in this sense, these interviewees underscore the value inherent in the discussion between Brooke and Rickert referenced above. Put another way, here, we see the tension between continuation and rupture as a productive framework for critically examining, comprehending, approaching, and teaching digital rhetoric; that is, rather than situate themselves on one end or the other (continuation or rupture), they perceive the spectrum as producing a generative tension. Furthermore, we see a fruitful intersection between theory and practice—a convergence resulting in a praxis rooted in the tension between continuation and rupture.
Overall, and as Justin Hodgson works to illustrate, the outcomes for teaching digital rhetoric are emerging and dynamic, which renders this pedagogical moment frenetic yet exciting. Nonetheless, and as demonstrated above and through the interviewees’ responses, there are certain outcomes approaching consensus: for instance, thinking critically about medium, mode, and ethics; producing rather than only analyzing; and perceiving play as an important precursor to production. Moreover, these outcomes can be scaffolded, intersect, or work in tandem rather than be conceived in isolation. In addition, teachers in digital rhetoric not only consider the impacts their outcomes have on their students but also explore the extent to which foundational rhetorical theories and concepts do and do not transfer into the digital realm. And throughout, teachers in digital rhetoric consider and think consciously about the context in which they are operating and the students whom they’re serving.