Hacking (Our) Community

Screenshot of course website with partial text of a student's artist statement


Beck Wise

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Beck Wise

This semester, I'm teaching 'Rhetoric of Hacking', an intermediate writing/composition class. The course title is something of a vexed topic; it was chosen to comply with the usual pattern of writing course names at UT, but it started off as 'Hacking Rhetoric', a name designed to imply that we would not just be discussing rhetoric about hacking, but also hacking rhetoric itself, transforming our own work and that of other people. I ask students to engage with the usual range of public discourse and create some of their own but, on the basis that you can't really learn without doing, I also ask them to engage in various hacking practices over the course of the semester. Not only does this give them practical insight into the idea that hacking is itself a rhetorical practice, it offers students a way to understand and experience hacking from a position of some power -- instead of viewing themselves as passive (potential) victims of hacking, they can live out some of the risks and rewards that drive hackers.

We start small and safe: use a technique from Lifehacker for a week; play around with Popcorn Maker, a tool for remixing web videos, and Hackasaurus, a tool that allows you to mirror and hack websites; complete a few lessons on Hack This Site; be a Wikipedia editor for the day (I think the most compelling takeaway lesson from that was 'Don't sign up with your real, full name if your plan is just to deface pages').

And then we go big: hack your peers.

Every student in the class has an account on the course blog, which they've been using all semester to post weekly reflections or compositions, as well as artist statements for their more out-there compositions--and when mid-October rolled around, each student was randomly assigned to hack one other student's account, then compose some kind of rhetorical intervention and replace an existing blog post with their new text. Everyone followed up with a Hacker Artist Statement, discussing their hacking process and the rhetorical effect attempted by their hack, and then a shorter Reflection, discussing the experience of being hacked; both pieces were to be posted publicly on the course blog. 

When I dreamt up this assignment, it simultaneously thrilled and terrified me. On the one hand, it guaranteed everyone in the class would be able to think about hacking from a perspective of 'real' 'victimhood'; it also meant that everyone would get to undertake the kind of anonymous, public hacking that exists in the real world, where most of our previous exercises had been personal and private.

On the other ... it was tough to think of a better or faster way to destroy a classroom community and create student paranoia than by setting them all against each other, tasked with anonymously interfering with the work they've spent the semester producing.

The results were more than a little surprising. With my own paranoia about creating paranoia in full swing, I'd scheduled this month-long project quite late in the semester, hoping to establish a strong sense of trust amongst my students before beginning the blog hack. In line with my commitment to student-centred learning, I also offered the students control over the assignment parameters, while sketching out broad strokes ('everyone will hack someone, everyone will write an artist statement and a reflection, nobody will set out to hurt anyone, this is the timeline') and establishing the expectation that this assignment should not be comfortable, but neither should it be terrifying; rather, we should all feel productively uncomfortable. Everything beyond that was up for grabs and the students spent a class session establishing password guidelines, rules for preserving content, adding a deadline to offer their anonymous hackers hints. The results of that discussion -- the final assignment prompt -- are publicly available on the course website.

That session marked a turning point in the classroom environment -- and, surprisingly for me, the start of a very positive shift in the class dynamic. Students leapt to debate the pros and cons of various ideas, including students I hadn't heard a peep out of all semester. They left the class chattering keenly. When I walked into the room for the next class -- and, indeed, when I have walked in for every class since -- people have been talking, where once they were sitting quietly, absorbed in their phones or laptops. After requesting that we eliminate required comments from the course blog because they felt 'forced' and unnecessary, students started having conversations in the comments section. And classroom discussion has been amped up considerably.

Some of this, I'm sure, comes from trying to tease out the information they need to complete their hacks; one of my students wrote precisely that in his artist statement, saying:

As we were leaving class, I struck up a conversation with him regarding the absurdity of some of the password requirements we were assigned. Specifically, I noted that “there are at most 5 unique high school mascots in the entire state of Texas, those would be crazy easy to guess”, an observation with a bit of truth (it made football games in my highschool awkward when it was the bulldogs vs. the bulldogs for the 5th time in a season). As I had anticipated, Sean responded with (to paraphrase): “Yeah, there are like 10 schools with the same mascot as mine, the Wildcats”. Paydirt!

But most of the conversation I witnessed didn't turn on those very specific pieces of information that would allow the hacker access to their target's blog. Instead, students had conversations about campus events, political developments, favourite foods, their looming assignments ... community wasn't destroyed. It was created. 

As my students are posting their artist statements and starting to finish their own reflections, I find myself reading and re-reading them, and thinking about my class design for next semester. Do I trust this assignment to build community again, rather than undermine it? To what extent was community there to start with? (I'm honestly aghast at the number of artist statements that lead with 'I had no idea who ... was', in a class of 18 that meets twice a week, in which I go out of my way to address people by name.) How can I administer this project differently? Can I make it MORE student-centred? MORE experiential? How can I extend that (very) productive discomfort to the semester as a whole? The only thing I know right now is -- hell yes, I am keeping this terrifying and terrific assignment.


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