Stand Up!- Theorizing the Activist UnEssay, Pt. I

      A great deal of research in rhetoric, communication and composition in recent decades has attempted to bridge classrooms in higher education with deeper considerations of civic purpose, social activism and training for capable citizenship. However, these pushes toward community literacy and classroom advocacy have yet to fully consider the impact social web spaces and the behaviors encouraged there might have on paideia initiatives as they’re updated for the current decade, a moment in which citizenship is increasingly enacted online. Over the past semester, my Writing Studies I: Writing for Public Benefit classes and I have probed digital citizenship at the level of the microinteraction through the composition of UnEssay assignments.  Our UnEssays contribute to and perhaps even disrupt status quo conversations online concerning two unsettled “hot topic” conversations: controversial initiatives regarding the raising of the federal minimum wage and initiatives to make public colleges tuition free in New York state.

      The UnEssays composed by CPN-100-03 can be found here.

     The assignment prompt I assigned is located here.

Pt. II of this post, which showcases concrete learning conclusions drawn from this assignment, can be found here.

      Ellen Cushman’s 1996 essay The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change can be viewed as a watershed moment for the discipline of English studies. Cushman articulates a central point: scholars holding higher education positions occupy positions of civic authority that necessitate an understanding of the civic responsibility inherent in their power, and that the ivory-tower so-called objective distancing many in academia maintain from regular on-the-ground society reproduces ideologies the research of those same scholars uncover and expose. In other words, Cushman asks for a critical awareness of the roles scholars play not only as researchers but as either agency-endowed public activists or as complacent, passively-compliant pawns in the exact social practices they claim to rail against in ivory tower echo-chambers. Cushman instead proposes community literacy initiatives as a possible remedy to these issues, proposing that deeper consideration of who we are as academics will allow us to shift our critical focus at least in part toward our local neighborhoods and communities. This will enable the enactment of social change there, as well as re-purpose and re-aim the knowledge we produce toward ends that might better realize the ultimate goals of not only our discipline as rhetoric and composition scholars, but of our higher calling as educators in a society with an increasingly tenuous ability to function democratically. She refers to previous research from Bruce Herzberg, who was among the first to redirect composition toward an activist lens of advocating for civic participation as a means of teaching writing and rhetoric.  In Community Service and Critical Teaching, he outlines a pedagogy “not only of making individual students more successful, but also of making better citizens, citizens in the strongest sense of those who take responsibility for communal welfare” (317).  Herzberg’s push toward composing for social change manifests itself most outwardly in the community literacy movement exemplified by theorists such as Cushman, Linda Flower and Steve Parks, but also in a less-direct and more-implicit movement toward advocacy within another push in our discipline: that of moving toward multi-modal literacies, be they through computers, the internet or in social web spheres.

      I would like to cite my own research and pedagogy over the course of the previous semester as an example of the types of skills, habits and critical repertoires this type of activist multimedia project is capable of cultivating. If we accept the provisions put forth by Cushman, Herzberg and the rest of the paideia movement in composition, rhetoric and communication, all the while fully considering the implications of the advances in electracy theory in journals like Computers and Composition and Kairos, we are forced to conclude that our critical repertoires as scholars would benefit from a renewed sense of what exactly it means to enact digital citizenship. We’d benefit as a society as well, it seems, from passing these discoveries along to our students. This is where the UnEssay project comes in.

      Originally theorized by Patrick Sullivan in a 2015 CCC issue, UnEssays are formal, highly-valued projects that recycle many of the expectations and conventions of typical academic argumentative essays. Rather than writing a traditional type-and-print thesis-driven six page essay, however, students are challenged to act in an authentic, real-world rhetorical situation– the social web. Sullivan’s original formulation treats these assignments as outlets for growing creativity, experimental thinking, risk-taking ability and media literacy capabilities. Pedagogically speaking, Sullivan’s aim seems to be focused heavily on reflective critical thinking rather than on direct rhetorical action.  When adapting Sullivan’s assignment for my Writing for Public Benefit students, I revised the central aim of the project: to critically identify a beneficial course of action for a group of their, community or institution in regards to college tuition reform or minimum wage revision, and then to act rhetorically on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or Instagram to persuade readers on a given course of action. Working with not only language and writing, but with video, retweets, comments, tags, hashtags, direct messages, follows, memes, images, bios and account names, students engaged civic debate in the digital polis, contributing directly to international conversations spanning continents and decades, composing multi-media rhetorical arguments that hone and mature their senses of themselves not only as writers, researchers and composers but as citizens, civic actors and capable political agents as well. The UnEssay project quickly grew into a space in which students connected digital rhetorical action with the possibility of social change.

      The UnEssay project worked to mobilize in students a version of Ellen Cushman’s definition of empowerment. In this case, students empowered not citizens within local communities, as Cushman’s early research attempts to do, but rather reaches into the digital community at large that they encounter within the social web sphere. Cushman’s definition of empowerment stresses three objectives above all else: (1) Enabling the setting of goals and then working toward achieving them, (2) Facilitating language and literacy action, and (3) Lending the power and status of the academy and of academic positions to forward people’s achievement.  For Cushman, micro levels of interaction are where social changes really begin to take shape. Her advocacy resists taking on missionary attitudes, instead attempting to facilitate the moves toward social change that already are taking place. Micro level of interaction on social web spaces that might take on small but nonetheless impactful importance in online activism include utilization of hashtags, direct responses to others in the form of tweet responses or comments, and the sharing of consciousness-raising links, essays and videos for social network circulation. Students working on UnEssays are required to perform all of these functions as basic requirements of the project, but their grades by and whole are determined by the extent to which they engage at the micro levels afforded on the social web toward ends of activism, to how far they push the affordances of online media to disrupt the status quo, even just for the moment it takes to react to a retweet on a news feed. In other words, students are evaluated on how creatively and strategically they engage the networked community found on the social web. Of course, not all students enter the classroom with the same level of social media literacies, and we don’t devote time in the classroom to this type of instruction. Instead, borrowing a pedagogical strategy from Jodi Shipka, students are asked to compose “statements of goals and choices” that challenge them to articulate the rhetorical function of the new, habitual or perhaps even disruptive actions they’ve undertaken throughout composing their UnEssays.

      Borrowing important caveats outlined by Katherine Fredlund and Scott Sundevall, students were never instructed which sides to take on these largely partisan-formed issues, nor were they subjected to any type of direct scrutiny for the ideologies, political parties or social movements they either directly or tacitly aligned themselves and their rhetorical statements with. Instead, they were challenged to negotiate these differences with not only their peers in the classroom, but also within the social web ecologies they wrote, remixed and shared within. As articulated by Fredlund and Sundevall, a course in rhetoric and activism “should not tell students what to think or how to act; it should teach students how to think (critically or rhetorically) and help them to discover the actions available for the enactment of a given position” (1). Student-rhetors in this project were asked to take genuine, possibly-detrimental risks when arguing a position on one of our controversial topics. A project such as this one invites non-scholarly argument, retaliation and critique. We combatted these anticipated reactions through preemptive conversation on how these rebuttals might be made useful, constructive and even productive within the context of this project. Ultimately, expectations were clear: students would be evaluated as much, if not more, on their “statements of goals and choices” compared to their actual UnEssays– ie. what they learned and experienced would count infinitely more than the actual success of their product in steering or disrupting status-quo conversations on these two particular issues. Lastly, in our particular case, the UnEssay assignment also fulfilled the expectation of a media remix assignment dictated to all first year writing courses by our WPA and composition program steering committee.

      I contend that when my students engaged the social, political and rhetorical ecologies found on the social web, what they originally took to be an exercise in scholarly argumentation developed into individual, free-forming statements about how rhetorical actions function in digital environments to shape conversations. Students, as citizen-rhetors, discover how to translate the rhetorical repertoire they’ve spent a semester (or longer) cultivating into the social change they’ve rationalized as being to the benefit of society.

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