Hacking the Curriculum: FYC, Critical Information Literacies and Social Web Environments

Hacking the Curriculum: FYC, Critical Information Literacies and Social Web Environments

     Among the benefits of teaching writing at my current university institution is the freedom and flexibility it allots to its composition instructors. Next semester I’ll be teaching Writing Studies II, the second leg of the institution’s FYC sequence. Writing Studies II is distinguished from Writing Studies I in a number of ways, but among them is a thematic component introduced to the course: this second step in the required writing sequence takes the form of a semester-long exploration of a pre-identified, specific topic that students are made well aware of ahead of time prior to course registration.  I’ve taught the course once in the past, orienting both of my sections toward a theme of “Sparking Social Change.” In this iteration, we composed essays challenging social, political, ethical, environmental and gendered norms within the society we wrote to acknowledge our personal contributions to. Other instructors within the program oriented their sections around themes such as “Monsters,” “Photography As History and as Art,”  “In Search of the Capitalist Hero,” “Music in Society,” “Critical Thinking and Perception” and even the uber-conventional “Research Methods.” This semester, I’ve decided to teach a course functioning similarly to my public writing and socially-conscious initiative last Spring, titling this course “Writing Studies II: Writing for Public Benefit.” However, I’ve  decided to also pursue a course theme currently unfamiliar to me, though not entirely to our discipline. It’s a theme that is woefully neglected and underexplored in composition and rhetoric, and calls for further inquiry. My course is titled “Writing Studies II: Hacking the Curriculum.”

     Hacking metaphors, in my view, can serve as a tremendous asset toward fulfilling and enacting the teaching of both writing and civic participation in the age of the internet. Long a topic of interest in the discipline, hacking metaphors promise to inform writing studies principally by the import and integration of their values, habits and vocabulary. Catherine Smith has argued hacking to be a valuable form of breaking from the “social control of postmodernism,” and Timothy Richardson has expounded on hacking’s resemblance of Aristotle’s “dunamis” in convincing, eye-opening fashion. But what might a Writing Studies II course at my institution look like if it were to fuse the hacker ethic with a course of action that is in theory opposed to many of the pillars the academy builds its foundations upon?

     Common values of hacking, first articulated by the famed MIT hacking groups of the 1960s, include many of the principles championed in rhetoric and composition scholarship. Prominent among these values are virtues of collaboration, open access, exploratory learning, subversion of hierarchies, meritocracy, play and multimodal discussion. The so-called “hacker ethic” urges innovation through hands-on learning, pushes for open access to technology, information and data, and intimately connects computers with potentialities toward social change. The hacker ethic resists and combats existing dominant structures, curbing the arrangements and networks that undermine many of our discipline’s ideals, among them our society’s penchant for fake news, for passive media absorption, and for the oligarchical construction of nearly every democratic environment. Lastly, hacking ethics nurture civic engagement and self-governance, Jeffersonian ideals that have been gradually eroded in recent decades, as any media theorist (Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan come to mind) would happily remind us.

     It is no new secret that the term “writing” becomes more limiting for compositionists each day. Multimodal compositions require new language in their formulation and theorization– language that factors not only the act of creating products but also of discovery, exploration, inquiry and interrogation. Hacking vocabularies are one means of implementing these productive codes into our discipline. Were we to import hacking vocabularies and values into our FYC classrooms– the capacity to collaborate, to share, to resist, to explore, to productively play — we might work toward cultivating active critical information literacies in the age of the social web.

     The relationship between hacking and the academy has always been an uneasy one, however. Aside from the obvious top-down institutional reservations and the potential PR nightmare the course title  “Hacking the Curriculum” has the potential to ignite, the vocabulary itself has recently come under scrutiny from disciplinary voices. Prominent among them is Lauren Marshall Bowen, who in “The Limits of Hacking Composition Pedagogy,” published in a recent Computers and Composition iteration, cautions full and hasty integration of the hacker ethic into our core intellectual tenets. Among Marshall Bowen’s forewarnings are calls to the relative dangers of “hackathon”-related terminologies as well as a student interview-centered interrogation of the actual benefits these hacking-related social spectacles have on students. Bowen Marshall’s critique of these hacking spectacles is valuable to the discussion of hacking in writing pedagogical theories, as it provides a useful limit to work against. However, few classrooms or classroom organizers view hacking pedagogy as needing to incorporate literal hacking activities into coursework. Rather, many (and I include myself within this designation), we’re interested primarily in the assimilation and integration of hacking values, habits and skills into our students’ repertoire of critical information literacies. Reading about and verbally talking through hacking and its values is sufficient for our purposes. The real value for us is not in the doing of hacking, but rather in the doing of composing that is informed by the values of hacking.

     For my iteration of Writing Studies II, we’ll interrogate democratic functioning itself and ask questions such as: (1) Does the internet make democracy work? (2) What does a democratic learning environment look like? (3) How can we spot bias, tilt and tendency within diverse information sources, and finally (4) How best can we prepare ourselves for the coming challenges to our literacies in the 21st century?

     Behaviors common on the internet in many ways hamper the intelligent and informed functioning of democracy, but likewise afford new avenues in which information, fact and opinion can be shaped and molded to produce social online learning environments that champion fair interplay of writing, ethics and diverse political actors. As is so often the case on the social web, it is environment and perceived audiences that dominate the rhetorical situations and exigencies occurring in that space. If democracy is to work in the age of the internet, college-level writers must possess the information literacies necessary to care for, manage and safeguard their own critical vantage points in face of the unending stream of Tweets, blog posts, YouTube videos and talk radio broadcasts that assault them unremittingly.  

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