Rhetoric and Digital Writing: Teaching Blogs in College Composition

Rhetoric and Digital Writing

by Got Credit

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have been on a mission this semester to apply what I learned at the NEH Summer Institute on Implementing the Digital Humanities at Community Colleges.

In my college system, College Composition 2 is designed to teach students about rhetoric and composition. Over the years, I have taught this course in many different ways, but usually I select a current controversy and assign different readings throughout the course to model different rhetorical styles, argument strategies, viewpoints, etc. Recently I have focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. My students have the option of using our course readings for their assignments or finding viewpoints on another controversy of their choice. The two biggest difficulties that students face with the latter choice is always a) choosing a controversy which has multiple viewpoints (they sometimes pick either articles without a strong argument to begin with like “10 ways to be more productive at home” or ones that wouldn’t necessarily have published opposing views like “sex trafficking is bad”) and b) writing about the same topic all semester long. I make them write about the same topic all term so that they can see how arguments connect, how specific rhetoric is employed, and how to become knowledgeable on an issue before jumping into the fray. We front-load the semester with what we might call “traditional” writing assignments in the form of short focused analyses of specific rhetorical strategies, longer papers, and finally a position paper. After participating in the NEH Summer Institute on Implementing DH in Community Colleges, I decided to add one or two digital humanities units toward the end of the class. The result was eliminating the stress of a final paper and a surge of energy at a time when we usually experience a major slump.

Blog Writing

As you may expect, students have a variety of mixed feelings about blog writing. Between what was probably a series of EdTech fails and a myriad of cautionary instructions regarding the reliability of personal blog posts, it is perhaps not surprising that they often do not see the value of blogging or the ways in which it shapes contemporary knowledge production. And they definitely did not inherently see the way in which it shapes argument. I wanted to examine blogging closely for these reasons, but also because blog writing continues to be one of the primary modes of writing in a variety of disciplines and businesses. My students are always surprised when I tell them that employers often take it for granted that they are “digital natives” and that they can navigate these platforms with ease in addition to communicate effectively using these specific conventions. Our mission, I told them, was to not only be critical thinkers about how blogs convey argument, but also to become comfortable writing in this space using a different set of conventions than “traditional” college writing.

First, we model blog writing – the good and the bad. Students often have trouble turning a composition into a more dynamic, interconnected thing as is the expectation for a good blog post. In addition to modeling language, structure, and alternate citation methods, we spend a lot of time discussing the strategy of a blog post’s appearance. We talk about post tags and how they demonstrate the focal point of a post, the connected concepts and discourses, and the target audience. We discuss the function of a blog post title and its heightened importance in a mobile-digital world. And of course we talk about the use of visual argument in relation to post images, blog headers, and about pages. They write on the rhetorical strategies of blog posts concerning their topics, but in addition to writing about the content of the argument, they analyze the way in which argument is advanced via these markers of digital composition.

Second, we start the process of composing in this space ourselves. Just as they had to articulate a position on their controversy in an academic paper, so they must be able to persuade a wider readership in their blog posts. To begin, I set up a course blog using Blogger.svgBlogger. I chose Blogger for a number of reasons: 1) It allows me to invite a large number of students to contribute – sometimes I am teaching four sections of this class which can total up to 100 students; 2) It is a remarkably easy blogging platform to navigate – the fewer tech hurdles, the more we can focus on our purpose; 3) It is easily connected to their gmail-based school email accounts because Blogger is a google product – the more integrated something can be into their everyday software, the better generally. On this blog site, I include different tabs with posting instructions, assignment parameters, and examples when appropriate – so they have the information at their fingertips in that space. I book a computer lab for one class period during which time I double-check that they’ve accepted my contributor invitation completely and walk them through the process of creating a draft post, using the tool bar, and inserting images/videos. I discovered early on that for some reason when students connect to the site through their school emails, they cannot use the media insert tool to embed videos. This function is blocked. So instead I teach them how to embed the code from Youtube. At this time we also talk about Creative Commons and attribution.

After they publish their posts we discuss the decisions that they made and reflect on the experience of composing for that platform. This past semester, my students made some remarkably astute observations about the limitations of the medium as well as the strengths of communicating in this mode. While digital writing is not necessarily ground-breaking in terms of composition instruction, what I found most valuable was the way my students applied their knowledge of rhetoric and argument to the digital medium.

More to come in this series on implementing DH in the community college classroom!

In the meantime If you are interested in implementing DH in community colleges or undergraduate classes, join our community on Facebook and/or our conversation with #DHattheCC. You can follow me @litambitions

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