Student PUBLIC-ation

Stop sign with the word WHOA in place of STOP


Megan Gianfagna

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I’m teaching RHE 309K - Rhetoric of Going Viral this year, a course dedicated to the study and design of digital texts in the public realm. The final project asks students to create a digital text designed to participate in a particular online conversation and publish it in an appropriate venue. Last semester, I had a student with the digital composition skills to create any number of smart and engaging final projects. Instead he opted to write a product review and post it to an online retail site. The review was thoughtful and tailored well to the rhetorical situation. But the reasons he gave for not creating a video or visual meme—that this was the only opinion and format he felt comfortable making public—has had me thinking about what I’m really asking of my students when I require them to send their projects into public digital spaces.

This semester I noticed an opposite but equally thought-provoking behavior among my students. I gave them the option of using Storify to create and publish their first essay for the course, a platform I used last semester to help them outline their Mapping a Meme essays. It struck me that every student that used Storify set up a profile that included a username close to their full legal names and uploaded a picture to their account. When I opened their stories, the first any of them had every created with the platform, I was greeted with glimpses into some very “personal” moments captured in the profile images.

The Storify platform made for such successful essays that I’m considering making it a mandatory composing and publishing platform in the future. However, I’m wondering if the amount of discussion around privacy issues and ethos I already have built into the course is sufficient. In addition to examining students’ ethos in online venues like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, I try to demonstrate for them the lasting imprint the texts they post have on the all-knowing Internet—how they can’t necessarily take back the things they post, even the most personal images. After all, publishing online demands that they understand what they can control and what rights they are giving up in the digital space. I find Chris Clark’s blog post “Taking Steps to Respect Student Privacy in Public Work” useful in meeting this goal, as he outlines some key strategies that students can use to address privacy concerns.

I do believe that having students publish work online provides an excellent opportunity to discuss privacy and connect those discussions to their personal online activities in immediate ways. Through my editorial work with The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects (TheJUMP), I am lucky to read other instructors’ multimedia assignment descriptions regularly and see the work their students produce, and often publish online, in response to the prompt. These kinds of assignments can work beautifully, particularly when they are accompanied by rationale for rhetorical choices and reflections on the production process. If I’m going to continue to require my students to participate in public, online conversations through their coursework, I need to give them more robust opportunities to reflect on and react to what that means for them both personally and professionally.

The truth is that I don’t want to give up these kinds of assignments. If anything, I’m working to make them a more integral part of my courses. I think that teaching rhetoric through the lens of civic and cultural engagement is valuable if not unavoidable, and digital composition offers some exciting ways of engaging students and helping them develop twenty-first century literacies. Having students write to a “real” rhetorical situation is a common pedagogical practice based on the belief that it helps students see the implications of their work on an audience outside the classroom and helps them see how they can apply their analytical and writing skills more broadly. But requiring digital publication is arguably different than having students send a letter to their Congressperson or write a letter to the editor for a local paper. The Internet keeps a record that we can’t necessarily edit later, though there are ways to make ourselves more or less visible. I don’t know that most students get a chance to discuss these issues in their other courses, and in that way rhetoric and writing courses can fill a unique and necessary role. As Google and others implement new privacy polices, I hope the conversation around student privacy will continue to evolve. Staying up to date on these changes can be challenging, but keeping a dialogue going among educators and having open discussions with our students about the implications of the assignments we’re designing are important steps. 


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