Daily Archives: June 11, 2018


Introduction, Issue Thirteen: The Push and Pull of Our Technological Moment

The current technological moment is perhaps best defined by a recent collective and critical awareness of the ways technology shapes our lives and practices both explicitly and implicitly. These technologies are so embedded in our daily practices that they are no longer ‘new’ or ‘surprising’, but commonplace—an assumed facet of modern life. In this moment where we are so deeply entwined with our technologies, it is important to evaluate and reflect on the affordances and challenges of digital technologies in the context of our curriculums, classrooms, and research. Unprecedented access to a wealth of multimodal information about the world has deepened university curricula in ways unimaginable only a decade ago, yet it has also blurred the boundaries of reality, giving rise to a cultural climate in which the very notion of truth has come into question. In his now classic schema on the intellectual and ethical development of college students, William Perry proposed that students evolve from dualistic thinking to multiplicity, then to relativism and, finally, to making commitments to their ideas (Perry 1970). Considered through the lens of this schema, our technological moment is emblematic of a state of relativism, where knowledge, truth, and reality are viewed as relative to the speaker’s own positionality. And it is in this moment, in this climate, that we are asking our students to actively participate in the construction and production of knowledges—a process that realizes the profound power and reach of technology, yet is also in tension with students’ vast access to information and computing power. So, while the majority of students have enough computing power in their pockets to research, create, and publish a variety of media with incredible quality, this power has become overwhelming to some, leading to fractured or distant relationships with others and confusion about what constitutes a reality they can trust, engage with, and contribute to. As the scale of information around the globe increases exponentially, and with it the ease of access to that information, it is our job as educators to guide students as they grapple with the realities of a hyper-connected world—a unique challenge, as many educators are grappling with their place in this new world themselves.

Issue 13 of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy features a series of articles that can help us, as educators, think through how we utilize the affordances of digital technologies, while also revising our pedagogical practices to respond effectively to the associated challenges. Although Issue 13 is a General Issue and the topics covered by these articles are diverse, they remain centered around three themes: using digital content to broaden and deepen materials for consumption, using digital tools to contextualize relationships and expand communicative methods, and developing digital literacy across the curriculum. Each piece on its own invites the reader to consider digital pedagogies as essential to students’ educational experiences; taken together they highlight the benefits students can derive from engaging critically in both the consumption and production of digital media.

The Issue begins with David Haeselin’s essay, “Beyond the Borders of the Page: Mapping The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” In it, he describes a course in which he invites students to construct maps of both the characters’ and their own lived experiences, drawing on the spatial narrative detailed in Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Where the novel draws the reader’s attention to the porousness of national, linguistic, stylistic, and generic borders, the practice of mapping is itself an exercise in drawing and redrawing points, lines, and polygons. In this context, Haeselin argues that the process of map making allows students to engage more deeply in the experiences of Junot Díaz’s characters and, correspondingly, draw connections between the characters’ perspectives and their own. By implementing multi-modal deep mapping projects in undergraduate core curriculum courses, Haeselin invites us to consider the potential of the digital humanities to help students from across institutional disciplines see the world in novel ways.

Kelly Josephs articulates a different perspective concerning the relationship between multi-modal production and the classroom in her article, “Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment.” In this piece, Josephs discusses both the methodology of developing an interdisciplinary course about digital humanities (“The Digital Caribbean,” at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York) as well as the challenges she faced in teaching such a course. By focusing on the ethical considerations of designing this course as well as the impact that a single course can have, Josephs encourages us to reflect on the broader implications of all our teaching, both digital and analogue (a division that is increasingly nonexistent). While both Haeselin’s and Joseph’s articles chronicle interdisciplinary courses, and both draw on digital technologies as a means to enhance students’ experience of the content, Josephs is using these methodologies at the graduate level rather than the undergraduate, and exploring the ethical implications of requiring public-facing work as a part of a graduate education. Josephs invites us to consider how both the collection and production of digital work in an educational setting has broader impact not only for students, but the communities being studied. Throughout the article, she returns to this theme: exploring what it means to “work publicly with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia, particularly with students who have set ideas about their own personal and intellectual relationships to both digital technology and the region.”

The theme of exploring one’s intellectual relationship with digital technology continues in Trevor Hoag’s article, “From Addiction to Connection: Questioning the Rhetoric of Drugs in Relation to Student Technology-Use,” where Hoag discusses how educators, unsure of how to describe students’ relation to technology, typically employ the rhetorics of drugs and addiction by claiming their students are “hooked” on technology. This assessment prompts educators to adopt restrictive in-class device-use policies and creates an environment where technology is seen as an impediment to critical thinking. In an effort to dispel some of these negative assessments, Hoag asks his students to describe themselves and their relation to different media platforms. While some students did describe themselves as “addicts,” many students highlighted the importance of connection in their lives in terms that reflected a healthier attitude about the use of technology. Hoag suggests that, at the very least, students and teachers need to work together to create a new narrative around technology use in the classroom that captures these alternative assessments.

In a similar vein, the article, “Video Essays and Virtual Animals: An Approach to Teaching Multimodal Composition and Digital Literacy” by Christina Colvin explores how the design of social media platforms and video games influence one’s understanding of the world by persuading players to act in certain ways during gameplay. Colvin assigns students a video essay project that requires them to analyze how video games represent nonhuman animals. The project asks students to engage with the architectural designs of video games to recognize how they are constructed to achieve certain rhetorical ends by representing (in this case) nonhuman animals as related to players in particular ways. Through the recognition that game design can encourage players to adopt certain behaviors and understandings, students begin to understand that other artifacts, including texts, are constructed to achieve rhetorical ends as well. As such, immersive technology can be used to enhance the classroom experience for students.

If immersive technology can be used to improve students’ classroom experiences, it can also be used to improve students’ written work. In “Using Digital Rhetoric in a Multimodal Assignment to Disrupt Traditional Academic Writing Conventions in a First-Year Writing Classroom,” Melanie Gagich suggests that educators use digital rhetoric as an analytic tool to critique traditional writing assignments. She argues that students’ anxiety about writing academically for college audiences results from students framing it as “writing to the teacher.” This construction of a particular kind of audience hinders students’ abilities to write academically. Gagich argues that using digital rhetoric as a framework creates an environment for multimodal composition practices, and this new environment provides opportunities for students to engage with “real” audiences. Structuring assignments this way, Gagich argues, promotes student agency and teaches them how to effectively integrate rhetorical strategies that connect with real audiences.

Building on this theme, Stadler and McDermott highlight the importance of information literacy as a key outcome of higher education and writing instruction. In their article, “Advancing Information Literacy in a Semester-Long Library Instruction Course: A Case Study,” they investigate the efficacy of explicitly teaching Information Literacy (IL) through teaching internet research strategies at the lower undergraduate level. Where they argue that IL is a critical component of higher education, and a central tenet of librarianship, they also acknowledge that instruction in IL and internet research is often implied rather than explicit in higher education. Drawing on their experiences in teaching such a course at LaGuardia Community College and using ePortfolio as the primary platform for student production of work, they highlight both the successes and the challenges of teaching IL. This piece serves as both a guide and a reflection on the importance of IL in a quickly changing and evolving world.

Taken together, these articles invite us to consider the ways that we can prepare students for the technological moment they have inherited. The enterprise of education is grappling with a constantly evolving technological landscape that mirrors society’s larger struggle to balance the benefits of technological innovation with the challenges such rapid innovation poses. With this in mind, as well as with the recognition that there are ethical implications to the kinds of technology we employ inside and outside of the classroom, this issue of JITP presents an opportunity for each of us as educators to share our knowledge and experiences with the goal of refining our pedagogical practices to reflect the needs of our current techno-cultural realities. So, as we define and redefine the relationships between technology, the classroom, and the societies in which these structures exist more broadly, we take these essays as an opportunity to iterate on the methods that shape not only our classrooms and students, but the societies and global publics we enter into every day.


Perry, William G., Jr. 1970. Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

About the Authors

Laura Wildemann Kane is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The University of Tampa. Her research focuses upon issues central to Social & Political Philosophy, Ethics, and Feminist Philosophy. She is primarily interested in how different conceptions of the family affect the relationship between the family and the state, and the responsibility both institutions have to provide care for citizens. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and a certificate in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2017.

Michelle A. McSweeney is a Research Scholar in the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia University. She is the author of The Pragmatics of Texting: Making Meaning in Messages (Routledge 2018), and co-host of the podcast, Subtext. Her research focuses on digital writing in romantic relationships, particularly how we establish intimacy and trust through text messaging. She received her Ph.D. in Linguistics and a certificate in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2016.


Table of Contents: Issue Thirteen

Laura Wildemann Kane and Michelle A. McSweeney

Beyond the Borders of the Page: Mapping The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
David Haeselin

Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment
Kelly Baker Josephs

From Addiction to Connection: Questioning the Rhetoric of Drugs in Relation to Student Technology-Use
Trevor Hoag

Video Essays and Virtual Animals: An Approach to Teaching Multimodal Composition and Digital Literacy
Christina M. Colvin

Using Digital Rhetoric in a Multimodal Assignment to Disrupt Traditional Academic Writing: Conventions in a First-Year Writing Classroom
Melanie Gagich

Advancing Information Literacy in a Semester-Long Library Instruction Course: A Case Study
Derek Stadler and Ian McDermott

Issue Thirteen Masthead

Issue Editors
Laura Wildemann Kane
Michelle A. McSweeney

Elizabeth Alsop
Anne Donlon
Jojo Karlin
Teresa Ober
Dominique Zino

Staging Editors
Lisa Brundage
Anne Donlon
Matthew Gold
Laura Kane
Benjamin Miller
Teresa Ober
Danica Savonick
sava saheli singh
Luke Waltzer

Sample concept map of ‘junk food’ and its related issues, complete with details and examples of each.

Advancing Information Literacy in a Semester-Long Library Instruction Course: A Case Study


The following case study investigated the efficacy of Information Literacy (IL) pedagogy on undergraduate research in a credit-bearing library instruction class. More specifically, the study analyzed student success and sought to determine whether written reflection and practice strengthen IL skills, including the fundamental ability to develop a research question and thesis statement. Developing research questions and formulating thesis statements are among the most challenging duties of a young researcher. From high school through undergraduate, students often have minimal experience conducting research. They may not know where to begin the research process and what steps are necessary. Student frustration is exacerbated by the fact that typically IL instruction is one-shot guidance, given only once in a semester, making it difficult for a librarian to cover all that is needed. Can a semester long, credit-bearing course aid student success in research and improve IL skills? The instructors introduced several techniques to improve IL skills, and instructors evaluated three class assignments based on their college’s core competencies. Additionally, instructors collected and analyzed students’ written reflections of their progress and an end of semester survey as both qualitative and quantitative data.


Information Literacy (IL) is one of the defining concepts of academic librarianship. It influences core functions including reference, collection development and especially library instruction. However, the definition of IL is malleable and influenced by the proliferation of online resources, developments in information technology, and trends in academic publishing, all of which have dramatically altered research methods. In January 2016, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), adopted the Framework for Information Literacy (Framework) for Higher Education. Its six core concepts afford librarians maximum flexibility when teaching IL (American Library Association 2015). This adoption was shortly followed by ACRL rescinding the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (American Library Association 2000), which had served as the defining IL document for professional librarianship since 2000. The ACRL Framework defines IL as, “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” Moreover, the framework is based on interconnected core concepts with flexible options for implementation, rather than a set of prescriptive standards or learning outcomes.

The Library Media Resources Center (hereafter Library) at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) founded in 1971, maintains an active and evolving IL program that impacts reference services, library instruction, and credit-bearing courses. The latter is exemplified by LRC103: Internet Research Strategies, a one-credit, liberal arts elective offered by the Library; it has been offered since 2004, and IL is central to the course’s syllabus (Keyes and Namei 2010, 29). The course teaches students “analytical thinking, problem-solving, and information literacy skills necessary for academic research and digital citizenship” (LaGuardia Community College Catalog 2017-2018). Students receive one hour of face-to-face instruction each week, covering concepts (concept mapping, research question development, citation) and resources (subscription databases, digital images, digitized primary sources) central to developing IL. While LaGuardia is not unique in offering a credit-bearing IL course, a 2016 study concluded that only 19% of higher education institutions surveyed offer such courses (Cohen et al. 2016, 566). Due to this small percentage, credit-bearing IL courses present a relatively unique opportunity to teach IL to students. This is particularly true when compared to traditional library instruction sessions, which are typically one hour long and offered once each semester for select courses (e.g. English 101).

The following case study investigated the efficacy of IL pedagogy on undergraduate research in a section of LRC103 offered during the Spring 2017 semester at LaGuardia. More specifically, the study analyzed student success and sought to determine whether written reflection and practice strengthen IL skills, including the fundamental ability to develop a research question and thesis statement. In fact, the ACRL Framework recognizes the importance of research question advancement. As outlined in Research as Inquiry, research “depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers in turn develop additional questions” (The Association of College and Research Libraries 2015). Developing research questions and formulating thesis statements are among the most challenging duties of a young researcher. From high school through undergraduate, students often have minimal experience conducting research. They may not know where to begin the research process and what steps are necessary (Fernando and Hulse-Killacky 2006, 103-104). Student frustration is exacerbated by the fact that typically IL instruction is one-shot guidance, given only once in a semester, making it difficult for a librarian to cover all that is needed. Can a semester long, credit-bearing course aid student success in research and improve IL skills? The instructors introduced several techniques to improve IL skills, and instructors evaluated three class assignments based on the college’s core competencies. Additionally, instructors collected and analyzed students’ written reflections of their progress and an end of semester survey as both qualitative and quantitative data. As a platform to post reflection, the authors implemented electronic portfolio (ePortfolio) practice for the course. Deeply embedded in LaGuardia’s academic culture, its current ePortfolio program utilizes Digication software in both pedagogy and assessment (LaGuardia Community College, “About ePortfolio”, 2017). All twelve enrolled students were eligible to participate, and eleven elected to take part in the study.

Literature Review

The following literature review reflects the goals of this study and is not intended to be comprehensive. Unlike conventional library instruction, the uniqueness of this study was that it examined students’ IL skills over the course of an entire semester. The research was empirical, using outcomes-based and affective analysis to study IL pedagogy. This case study expanded on the term project for LaGuardia’s LRC102, Information Strategies: Managing the Revolution, a credit-bearing course previously taught at LaGuardia, which called for an annotated bibliography, accompanied by a narrative of research where students describe the process used to find each item in the bibliography and explain its inclusion. In a study of LRC102, Fluk concluded that further research should be done into how research logs and journal writing affect student learning and how logs and journals should best be assigned (Fluk 2009, 50).

Colleges and universities have targeted the following learning objectives when creating or redesigning credit-bearing IL courses: developing research topics research questions, and thesis statements (Mulherrin, Kelley, Fishman, Orr 2004, 24; Frank and MacDonald 2016, 17). Broadly considered, the literature on measuring and assessing the impact of IL instruction on educational outcomes is varied, especially in the wake of the 2015 adoption of the ACRL Framework, which omitted specific standards, competencies, and learning outcomes. Examples from community colleges and/or credit bearing IL courses were sought for this literature review. Longitudinal studies of students at Hostos Community College, a CUNY school with comparable demographics to LaGuardia’s, and Western Georgia University demonstrated that students taking IL workshops and a credit-bearing IL course, respectively, resulted in higher graduation rates, higher pass rates on reading and writing tests, and higher cumulative grade point averages. The Hostos Community College study results determined that students taking IL workshops experienced a 35.3% graduation rate, compared with 9.8% for students who did not take the workshops. Additionally, students who completed the IL workshop passed the CUNY Proficiency Exams for Reading at a rate of 78.5% and for Writing at a rate of 73.5%; the students who did not take the workshops passed the exams at a rate of 57.6% and 47.2% (Laskin and Zoe 2017, 13-16; Cook 2014, 276-279). Similarly, University of Western Georgia concluded that overall graduation rates for students in the study who completed their credit-bearing IL course graduated within six years at significantly higher rates than those who did not, 56% versus 30% (Cook 2014, 277-278).

In their discussion of CUNY’s Critical Thinking Skills Initiative, Gashurov and Matsuuchi stressed the importance of IL for LaGuardia’s LRC103 course to ensure CUNY students are prepared for today’s competitive job market (Gashurov and Matsuuchi 2013, 70-71). The Critical Thinking Skills Initiative was in part a reaction to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, but LaGuardia’s commitment to IL can be traced back to 1991 when it began offering LRC102. As mentioned above, LRC103 was first offered in 2004 and is central to the Library’s IL program (Keyes and Namei 2013, 29). More recently, the Citation Project, a multi-institutional study on source usage in college writing, has concluded that students struggle with all aspects of citation and comprehending sources: summarizing, paraphrasing, and quotation, to name a few (Jamieson and Howard 2013, 125-126). Jamieson’s further research claims that IL pedagogy based on the ACRL Framework, more so than the older ACRL IL competencies, may help students better understand their sources (Jamieson 2017, 128-129), which matches the goals of the present study.

At the postsecondary level, ePortfolio use has matured from a tool to document professional development to a web portal for accessing work, tracking academic growth, and planning a career, acting as a record of skills, achievements, and learning (LaGuardia Community College, “Introduction: What is an ePortfolio?”, 2017). Nevertheless, academic libraries have been slow implementing ePortfolios as compared to other campus departments, due in part because IL instruction is typically offered once per semester, in one class, and tailored to a specific assignment. However, a few have administered ePortfolios as a method of improving research and critical thinking. In 2008, Three Rivers Community College designed a plan whereby students searched for scholarly articles and then discussed the techniques used to retrieve them in a written reflection of their online learning experience posted into their ePortfolio (Florea 2008, 424-425). More recently, in collaboration with another campus department, the Otis College Library in 2014 created a research assignment that students uploaded to their ePortfolio and that instructors graded using the college’s core competencies (Giuntini and Venturini 2014, 11-15).

Methods and Analysis

Instructed by the authors, the LRC103 class in this study met weekly in one-hour face-to-face sessions for twelve weeks in the spring 2017 semester. Class lessons and assignments aimed to advance student research ability by fostering IL skills. The first class lesson introduced fundamental database tools, such as subject headings and subject term delimiters, to narrow a broad topic down to specific issues and subjects. The technique helps students comprehend article indexing and focuses student research to an elemental concept. For example, a search for “global warming” in a standard database yields thousands of results. However, the recommended subject headings “global warming & politics” and “global warming & the environment” generates a more manageable list. Subject term delimiters, custom to databases, refine this list to specifics.  The assignment accompanying the lesson sought to discover if database tools support critical thinking development. First, it prompted students to write a 200-word description of an article found in a research database, summarizing the author’s viewpoint and any evidence provided in their argument. Next, it asked students to frame and develop a research question for further inquiry related to the article’s topic. Lastly, in a reflection, students explained if writing the summary helped them review and disseminate the material to forge a unique and specific area to research (See Appendix A).

The second lesson demonstrated use of an online encyclopedia, illustrating the expansive subject list available. Then, students read an article on a select topic and gathered keywords. Students made note of words that they felt were key to understanding the topic. The final part of the lesson introduced concept maps, a graphical tool for organizing and representing knowledge. Concept maps break down a topic into related issues, with details or examples for each issue (Appalachian State University: Belk Library and Information Commons 2017). Words are usually “enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts [are] indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts” (Novak and Cañas 2008). Using the words marked in the encyclopedia article, students created concept maps. Following this lesson, students completed the second assignment, the class midterm, which asked them to develop a topic and their own argument using methods learned in class. Students had the option to use the first assignment topic or to select a new one. Suggestions provided were affordable housing, human trafficking, and junk food. The instructors recommended that students first break down the topic using a concept map and then develop a related viewpoint or argument from one issue or concept in the map.  For the first part of the midterm, each student needed to find one scholarly article in support of their thesis argument and give a thirty-second, persuasive pitch in class to argue their viewpoint. In their ePortfolio, they provided an MLA citation of the article and wrote a one-paragraph description, which included their thesis statement, an explanation of the topic, and the reason they selected it. In the second part of the midterm, students supported their arguments with two additional scholarly articles, one in support of their thesis and one counterpoint. To showcase their evidence, students created an annotated bibliography. For this class, an annotated bibliography referred to a list of resources, each with a reference citation in Modern Language Association (MLA) style and a summary or evaluation (Stacks, et al. 2017). Finally, in a one-paragraph reflection, students considered whether or not the lesson and midterm helped them narrow down their research and develop their arguments (See Appendix B).

Sample concept map of ‘junk food’ and its related issues, complete with details and examples of each.

Figure 1: Sample concept map of ‘junk food’ and its related issues, complete with details and examples of each.  Concept maps break down a topic or main idea into related issues or concepts, and onto details or examples.

The class final required students to explain the most successful ways to develop a research question based on skills learned in class, in either a five-minute video, five-minute audio recording, or Microsoft PowerPoint presentation of at least five slides. As part of their work, they needed to describe if they will use the skills learned in other classes and assignments (See Appendix C). Lastly, an eight-question survey given to students on the last day of class provided a means to quantitatively measure success of class pedagogy. It was optional and anonymous (See Appendix D).

To evaluate student work, the instructors created an assessment rubric based on one of LaGuardia’s four core competencies, inquiry and problem solving. Inquiry and problem solving is comprised of the ability to design, evaluate, and implement a strategy or strategies to answer an open-ended question or achieve a desired goal. Students advance this competency by framing an issue, gathering evidence, analyzing material, and formulating conclusions (LaGuardia Community College, “Outcomes Assessment”, 2017). Based on this framework, the instructors assessed student work on ability to: 1) analyze and synthesize research material, 2) formulate conclusions to develop research questions and thesis arguments, and 3) understand and integrate IL skills.

Therefore, students who received a letter grade of A on an assignment demonstrated proficient IL skills. A letter grade of B signified competent skills, a C denoted developing skills, and a grade under C deemed the student a novice. In addition to a grade, the instructors also provided constructive feedback to advise students how they could improve their work.
Since each of the three assignments weighed differently towards the student’s final grade, all grades in this article were proportioned based on one-hundred points. For example, if a student assignment received fifteen out of twenty points, the grade was seventy-five, or a C, and the student demonstrated developing IL skills. In addition to grades, the authors analyzed student reflections to draw conclusions on student progress in class and uncover what pedagogies best helped.


In the first assignment, seven students demonstrated proficient skills, two had competent skills, one showed developing skills, and one was a novice, for a class average of 89.5. In a combined midterm grade, six students were proficient, three were competent, one was developing, and one was a novice, for a class average of 89.1. While student work remained at the competent stage in the first two assignments overall, performance improved to proficient on the final, for a class average of 96.7, as students displayed a deeper understanding of research concepts and were able to express them in presentation and reflection.

A line graph shows student progress, from 89.5 in the first assignment, to 89.1 in the midterm, and to 96.7 in the final exam.

Figure 2: The line graph shows student progress in each of the four class assignments based on 100 points.  The class average changed from 89.5 in the first assignment, to 89.1 in the midterm, and to 96.7 in the final exam.


Student obstacles in the first two assignments were inability to narrow down a topic in a focused research question and lack of solid arguments in thesis statements. For example, the research questions “are artists overly-hypocritical of other artists’ work for biased reasons?” and “is society to blame for engraving the idea that men were/are much more superior than women?” were not open-ended but rather took a position. Similarly, the question “what are the causes of animal extinction?” could be improved by selecting a specific animal or animal habitat.

Conversely, the question “how did Edgar Allan Poe’s life affect his writing?” was open-ended and focused but could be revised by concentrating on one event in Poe’s life. In the midterm, the statement “[weight gain and disease due to junk food intake] has been a problem that has been occurring for many years and there is a solution to the problem” was not a solid thesis but rather only stated there was a solution. On the other hand, the thesis “college students should get free tuition” suggested a solution but didn’t offer any justification. Lastly, the complete statement “due to the highly addictive nature of junk food and food manufacturers reluctance to alter their products or marketing, only some type of severe intervention will improve the quality of the food made in America and lessen the rates of obesity and diabetes” demonstrated a strong thesis and highlighted student learning progress, acknowledging the complexity of the issue while taking a side.

Another student challenge was inability to follow directions. Some failed to provide an opposing viewpoint in the annotated bibliography while others placed too much opinion in a summary. For example, one student wrote: “[with this article] I came up with many more questions than answers.” Still, another student didn’t provide summaries at all, but rather simply listed citations. While most students explained class pedagogy well in the final exam, some didn’t explain it thoroughly enough or didn’t provide examples in relation to assignments. For example, one student simply added a bullet list on the final to support the best ways to successfully develop a research question rather than explaining them. Several students neglected to distinguish between their assignments, making it uncertain where one assignment ended and another began.

Student reflection on progress was generally positive. In fact, a student suggested that one skill learned in the course was the “ability to think critically about information found” in research. In a first assignment reflection, a student commented, “after laying out all the information and my personal thoughts, I felt that I had a better understanding of the article, making it easier to develop my own research question.” Another submitted that in summarizing the article they “started to really absorb the information.” In midterm reflections, concept maps most successfully aided student success. One wrote: “[concept maps] helped narrow down the possibilities of creating research questions and starting my search with general keywords where I could find articles.” Another added: “it allows me to develop a cohesive structure for the ideas that I want to present and analyze the relationship between the ideas and the main concepts as well as how the ideas complement the concept.” Reflections on the annotated bibliography were also positive and suggested that students not only developed IL skills but planned to integrate concepts in other classes. “It breaks down the articles and picks apart key details,” one student suggested. Another delved deeper, adding that they will retain class work for reference in case they need citation assistance: “It will come in handy in classes where the professor prefers MLA8 style.”

Results of the final survey indicated that students were generally pleased with pedagogy and instruction provided, and they generally agreed that reflection aided research. All participants identified both making a concept map and using fundamental database tools as the most useful approaches to develop research questions. Written feedback was also primarily positive, indicating satisfaction in semester-long IL course. One student said: “I thought this class was really helpful and should have been one of the first classes that I took here at LaGuardia because it helped a lot with writing research papers and finding information.” Another said: “the topics helped with my knowledge and expanded my experience with different databases.”


This semester-long case study provides an argument that the course helped students develop IL skills and that further research is warranted. Its limitations were that it was conducted on one class with a low enrollment. The ideal case is either a class with a larger enrollment in a longitudinal study or a comparative study of two class sections, one section using reflection as a learning practice and one without. The authors hope their work can serve as a framework for subsequent studies at LaGuardia and elsewhere to foster IL skills.

While grade success may suggest that students gained academic proficiency in the class, student reflection provides the best argument for credit-bearing IL courses. In their own words, students reflected how they integrated key concepts into their academic work that will be used in both future classes and in life. Students suggested the concept map as the key method to success in the course, making this graphical tool a vital part of library instruction. It allows students to break down a topic and make conclusions about what area to research. Reflections also provided an opportunity to connect class pedagogy to lifelong learning. In a final study feedback response, a student summarized the need for semester-long instruction, and that the course should have been one of the first classes that they took at LaGuardia to guide their research and IL skills.


Student achievement in the course demonstrates that when applied in a credit-bearing IL course, strong IL pedagogy and effective use of instructional technology aids and enhances student success. Students generally felt that the IL skills they developed in LRC103 can be utilized in other courses. However, for IL instruction to be successful, strong pedagogy is tantamount in concert with thoughtful implementation of instructional technology, in this case ePortfolio. Ideally, credit-bearing IL instruction would be offered when a student begins college. The following is a list of considerations when making IL pedagogy decisions generally and possible next steps for LRC103.

Prepare useful lessons and select appropriate assignments

Nothing replaces solid pedagogy. Constructive assignments foster student learning. The lesson on concept maps as a method to develop focused research topics spurred the greatest jump in level of the inquiry and problem-solving competency. Assignments that encouraged metacognition — Student midterm reflections and answers in the final survey — also suggest concept maps as a useful method to help narrow a research topic.

Instructional technology best practices

There is no ideal course management platform.  An easy-to-use format where material and information can be added and retrieved is ideal. Naturally, the library may not be the final voice in what platform software a campus uses. However, it can suggest recommendations based on feedback from students. It is recommended that class time should be allotted at the beginning of the semester for course software instruction. Subsequent instruction should also be considered at the time assignments are introduced or prior to due dates, in order to model best practices.

Finally, organization and maintenance of a platform is key to success, and, as with any electronic tool, ePortfolio is only as good as the effort put to its use. Things to avoid are unlabeled assignments, irrelevant material, uploads that require additional software, broken links, and incomplete evidence.

Gather Qualitative Data

Since LRC103 is a one-credit course with modest enrollment, the sample size will remain small thereby limiting the impact of quantitative data. Gathering more qualitative data in the form of written reflections and student interviews could benefit the ongoing development of IL pedagogy for librarians teaching this course. Regardless of the instructional technology utilized, student reflection and metacognition are essential for credit-bearing IL instruction courses.

Collaborate with other academic departments

To promote library resources and services, collaborate with other departments. The English department is one option. Developing a research question, finding information, formulating a thesis, and then writing an argumentative paper are the basis for a common English class paper. Beyond English, there are ample opportunities incorporate IL pedagogy in various disciplines: history, social sciences, and STEM programs. An essential feature of the ACRL Framework is its flexibility. “Research as Inquiry,” “Information has Value,” and “Searching as Strategic Exploration,” three of the six frames, are central to academic research regardless of discipline. For example, LaGuardia’s Library has collaboratively developed a curriculum of one-hour, one-shot library instruction sessions for the college’s First Year Seminars, introductory, discipline-specific courses that provide remediation (LaGuardia Media Resource Center, FYS Library Instruction, 2017). The curriculum maps from LaGuardia’s core competencies (e.g. global learning, integrative learning) to related concepts in the ACRL Framework and library instruction lesson plans for each seminar; the entire curriculum is hosted on the LibGuides platform. This type of collaboration could be expanded to the Library’s credit-bearing courses to incorporate discipline-specific IL pedagogy. One way to incorporate is participation in LaGuardia’s Learning Communities, which pair two or more courses around a common theme (LaGuardia Community College, “Liberal Arts Learning Communities,” 2018). These learning communities could give LaGuardia librarians an opportunity to teach discipline-specific versions of LRC103 that would implement the conclusions from this case study and supporting research.


American Association of Colleges and Universities. 2017. “High-Impact Educational Practices.” http://www.aacu.org/leap/hips.

Appalachian State University: Belk Library and Information Commons. 2017. “Concept Mapping.” Accessed on October 9, 2017. https://library.appstate.edu/research-help-guides/video-tutorials/concept-mapping.

The Association of College and Research Libraries. 2010. “Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.” Accessed on October 9, 2017. https://alair.ala.org/handle/11213/7668?show=full.

The Association of College and Research Libraries. 2015. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” Accessed on October 9, 2017. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework#introduction.

Beagle, Donald. 2010. “The Emergent Information Commons: Philosophy, Models, and 21St Century Learning Paradigms.” Journal of Library Administration 50, no. 1: 7-26.

Bryant, Lauren H. and Jessica R. Chittum. 2013. “ePortfolio Effectiveness: A(n Ill-Fated) Search for Empirical Support.” International Journal of ePortfolio 3, no. 2: 189-198.

Clark, J. Elizabeth, and Bret Eynon. “E-portfolios at 2.0–Surveying the Field.” Peer Review 11, no. 1 (2009): 18-23.

Cohen, Nadine, Liz Holdsworth, John M.Prechtel, Jill Newby, Yvonne Mery, Jeanne Pfander, and Laurie Eagleson. 2016. “A Survey of Information Literacy Credit Courses in US Academic Libraries.” Reference Services Review 44, no. 4: 564-582.

Cook, Jean Marie. 2014. “A Library Credit Course and Student Success Rates: A Longitudinal Study.” College & Research Libraries, 75, no. 3: 272-283.

Duvall, Sara, and Peter Pasque. 2013. “The 21st Century Literacies Gap: A Case for Adoption of the Student Learning Networks Model Grades 9-16.” Public Services Quarterly 9, no. 1: 70-80.

Fernando, Delini M., and Diana Hulse-Killacky. 2006. “Getting to the Point: Using Research Meetings and the Inverted Triangle Visual to Develop a Dissertation Research Question.” Counselor Education & Supervision 46, no. 2 (December): 103-115.

Florea, Mona. 2008. “Using WebCT, Wiki Spaces, and ePortfolios for Teaching and Building Information Literacy Skills.” Journal of Library Administration 48, no. 3-4: 411-430.

Fluk, Louise. 2009. “The Narrative of Research as a Tool of Pedagogy and Assessment: A Literature Review.” In-Transit: The LaGuardia Journal on Teaching and Learning 4: 40-56.

Frank, Emily and Amanda MacDonald. 2016. “Eyes Toward the Future: Framing For-credit Information Literacy Instruction.” Codex (2150-086X) 4, no. 4: 9-22.

Giuntini, Parme and Jean-Marie Venturini. 2014. “Learning by Doing: Using Eportfolios for Assessment at Otis College of Art and Design.” Library Hi Tech News 31, no. 7 (August): 11-15.

Guder, Christopher. 2013. “The Eportfolio: A Tool for Professional Development, Engagement, and Lifelong Learning.” Public Services Quarterly 9, no. 3 (July-September): 238-245.

Hampe, Narelle, and Suzanne Lewis. 2013. “E-portfolios Support Continuing Professional Development for Librarians.” Australian Library Journal 62, no. 1: 3-14.

Hsieh, Ting-Chu1, et al. 2015. “Longitudinal Test of Eportfolio Continuous Use: An Empirical Study on the Change of Students’ Beliefs.” Behaviour & Information Technology 34, no. 8 (August): 838-853.

Jamieson, Sandra. 2017. “What the Citation Project Tells Us About Information Literacy in College Composition.” In Information Literacy: Research and Collaboration across Disciplines. Perspectives in Writing Series. Edited by Barbara D’Angelo, Sandra Jamieson, Barry Maid, & Janice R. Walker, 119-143. Fort Collins, Colorado: WAC Clearing House & University Press of Colorado, 2017.

Jamieson, Sandra, and Rebecca Moore Howard. 2013. “Sentence-Mining: Uncovering the Amount of Reading and Reading Comprehension In College Writers’ Researched Writing” in The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of NextGen Students. Edited by Randall McClure and James P. Purdy, 111-133. Medford, NJ: American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Kehoe, Ashley and Michael Goudzwaard. 2015. “ePortfolios, Badges, and the Whole Digital Self: How Evidence-Based Learning Pedagogies and Technologies Can Support Integrative Learning and Identity Development.” Theory into Practice 54, no. 4: 343-351.

Kuh, George and Carol Geary Schneider. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.

LaGuardia Community College. 2017. “About ePortfolio.” Accessed on October 9, 2017. http://www.eportfolio.lagcc.cuny.edu/about/.

LaGuardia Community College. 2016. “Fast Facts.” http://www.laguardia.edu/About/Fast-Facts/.

LaGuardia Community College. 2017. “Frequently Asked Question.” Accessed on October 9, 2017. http://www.laguardia.edu/ssm/faq.

LaGuardia Community College. 2017. “Introduction: What is an ePortfolio?” Accessed on October 9, 2017. http://www.eportfolio.lagcc.cuny.edu/students/default.htm.

LaGuardia Community College. 2018. “Liberal Arts Learning Communities.” Accessed on March 6, 2018. http://www.laguardia.edu/clusters/.

LaGuardia Community College. 2017. “Outcomes Assessment.” Accessed on October 9, 2017. http://www.laguardia.edu/Assessment/Resources.

LaGuardia Community College, Library Media Resources Center. 2017. “First Year Seminar Curriculum Map.” Accessed on March 6, 2018. http://guides.laguardia.edu/fys.

Laskin, Miriam and Lucinda Zoe. 2017. “Information Literacy and Institutional Effectiveness: A Longitudinal Analysis of Performance Indicators of Student Success.” CUNY Academic Works. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/ho_pubs/60.

Mulherrin, Elizabeth, Kimberly B. Kelley , Diane Fishman & Gloria J. Orr. 2004. “Information Literacy and the Distant Student.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly 9, no. 1-2: 21-36.

Novak, Joseph D. and Alberto J. Cañas. 2008. “The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them.” Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition. Accessed on October 9, 2017. https://cmap.ihmc.us/docs/theory-of-concept-maps.

Osborn, Jennifer. 2009. “E-Portfolios: Personal Learning, Professional Development.” Incite 30, no. 6: 18.

Stacks, Geoff, et al. 2017. “Annotated Bibliographies.” Purdue Online Writing Lab. Accessed on October 9, 2017. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/614/01.

Appendix A: Prompt for Assignment 1

Prompt for Assignment #1.  First, students were asked to write a 200-word description of an article found in class.  Next, they were asked to develop their own research question based on the article. Lastly, they needed to explain in 100 words if writing the summary helped them develop the research question.

Appendix B: Prompt for Midterm

Prompt for the midterm, which was divided into two parts.  In the first part, based on the thesis from Assignment #1 or another thesis on a topic of their own choosing, students needed to first, find one article in support of their thesis and then upload a citation of the article to their ePortfolio.  Secondly, they worked on 30-second, persuasive pitch of their viewpoint, which they later delivered in class. Lastly, they wrote a 50-100 word paragraph in their ePortfolio, explaining why they selected the topic. In second part, students found two additional articles, one in support of their argument and one opposed to it.  Then, the created an annotated bibliography of all three articles and posted it their ePortfolio. Lastly, in a short paragraph in their ePortfolio, they reflected on the assignment and explained if it helped them narrow down and develop a research question.

Appendix C: Prompt for Final

Prompt for the final.  Using a five-minute video, five minute audio recording, or PowerPoint presentation, students were asked to explain the best ways to successfully develop a research question based on the skills learned in class.  In their answer they need to first, describe whether using ePortfolio as a reflective tool helped them develop a research question, then determine if the class assignments help you make connections to other classes, and lastly if they will use the skills you learned in class in future assignments.

Appendix D: Final Survey

Eight-question, student questionnaire to determine success of class pedagogy.  Questions sought to determine both which class lesson for developing research questions worked best to developing a research question and which ePortfolio reflection was most helpful.

About the Authors

Derek Stadler is the Web Services Librarian at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. Derek holds a B.S. in Computer Science, as well as an M.S. in Library Science and a M.A. in History. In addition to library research, Derek is also an avid history researcher, with a focus on New York City and urban studies.

Ian McDermott is an Assistant Professor and Instruction Librarian at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. His teaching and research focuses on information literacy and open educational resources. He is particularly interested in exploring the intersection of information literacy and critical pedagogy. He received an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA in Art History from Purchase College, SUNY, and a BFA in Photography from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

detail of assignment sheet with reflective markup

Using Digital Rhetoric in a Multimodal Assignment to Disrupt Traditional Academic Writing: Conventions in a First-Year Writing Classroom


This paper argues that vestiges of Berlin and Inkster’s (1980) current-traditional rhetoric (CTR) paradigm still exists in some First-Year Writing (FYW) assignments that require students to write to an academic audience. I suggest that instructors use digital rhetoric as an analytic tool to critique these traditional writing assignments and to create and critically integrate multimodal assignments that disrupt the CTR paradigm. After briefly problematizing writing assignments that reflect CTR and the requirement that students write to an academic audience, I discuss my analysis and revision of a traditional argument-based FYW assignment. This analysis is supported by the inclusion of both the original and revised versions. Each version includes color-coded annotations to demonstrate areas in the traditional assignment that rely on CTR and to highlight modifications that embrace digital rhetoric in the revised multimodal assignment. I conclude by claiming the use of digital rhetoric as an analytical tool and pedagogical framework can help instructors create multimodal assignments that promote student agency, disrupt traditional academic writing conventions, and teach students how to effectively integrate rhetorical strategies to reach a real audience via online dissemination of the final text.


Although multimodal composition assignments and the use of digital tools have become common in First-Year Writing (FYW) courses, many curriculums and assignments still require students to produce at least one traditional essay targeted to an academic audience using academic language. As a FYW instructor, I have witnessed students’ anxiety related to writing academically for college audiences; however, more recently, I believe this apprehension has grown. Possibly the proliferation of standardized high school writing curriculums and the continuous push for high school teachers to “teach to the test” have made writing academically even less relatable for incoming students than it has been in the past. High school writing assignments that require students to respond to prompts or follow a strict set of guidelines may not prepare students adequately to respond to collegiate writing situations that call for students to address an academic audience.

College writing assignments that ask students to write to an “academic audience,” which reflects Ede and Lunsford (1984)’s “invoked” audience, may further compound students’ apprehension related to writing at the college level. Invoking an audience requires students to imagine and construct their audience, and can be difficult for emerging or even practiced writers. Even when writing instructors do provide students with a specific audience within a writing assignment, it is probable that this “audience” will likely be conceptualized by the student as his or her teacher. This “writing to the teacher” frame of mind often results in students guessing how to address their audience, which hinders their ability to write academically.

Assignments that direct students to write to an imagined academic audience will most likely reflect current-traditional rhetoric (CTR) practices, which emphasize product, usage, style, and form (Berlin and Inkster 1980). When this emphasis becomes the basis for a writing assignment, it inhibits students’ creativity, promotes the binary of “good” or “bad” writing, and requires instructors to evaluate students on how well they can imitate traditional academic writing conventions. Though researchers and teachers have recognized that relying solely on CTR in writing assignments does not ensure, and may seriously hinder, students’ ability to recognize and converse with academic discourse communities (Werner 2017), remnants of or in some cases outright adherence to CTR still exist in many common FYW assignments. CTR is evident in assignments that require students to use proper MLA or APA documentation, correct grammar and mechanics, a regulated number of researched-based sources, and academic language. These types of assignments also generally rely on what Horner and Selfe (2013) call “single, uniform (‘standard’) language and modality” or SLMN, which results in a final product that has homogenized students’ language due to the required use of academic English and has been written using a word processor, printed, and handed to the teacher for evaluation.

I suggest incorporating digital rhetoric as a conceptual composing framework (Eyman 2015; Zappen 2005) to problematize CTR practices, SLMN requirements, and a continued tradition of teaching students to write for an academic audience. Using digital rhetoric as a framework creates an environment for multimodal composition practices, which provide opportunities for students to engage with “real” audiences. Even though many writing instructors and programs have answered calls from the field (Yancey 2009) and integrated multimodal assignments into writing curriculums, they are sometimes treated as a less-than-important assignment compared to traditional writing assignments. While these assignments may be integrated to meet programmatic digital literacy requirements, multimodal assignments are often placed last in a sequence of assignments in writing curriculums and are often associated with a “fun” or motivating end of semester composition anomaly. While I am not suggesting that all multimodal assignments receive such curricular placement or act only to engage or motivate students (Takayoshi and Selfe 2007), I am urging more instructors to recognize that multimodal composing in digital environments is also a rigorous academic endeavor.

This paper argues that using digital rhetoric to integrate multimodal composition assignments disrupts academic conventions perpetuated by the still prevalent CTR paradigm while also helping students write to real audiences, rather than the loosely imagined “academic audience.” I also discuss my use of digital rhetoric as an analytic method (Eyman 2015) to analyze a traditional assignment I have used in past FYW classrooms. Based on that analysis, I revised the assignment to embrace digital and multimodal affordances and disrupt academic writing conventions.

Analyzing a Traditional FYW Assignment: An Argument Without Sources Essay


As a FYW instructor at a four-year university located in an urban setting, I have encountered traditional writing assignments that rely on CTR and SLMN. These assignments are part of the writing program’s curricular focus on classical rhetorical concepts and traditional argumentative structures. This curriculum promotes academic rigor and opportunities for students to practice academic writing but it also reinforces teacher-centered pedagogy and rewards students who can follow the rules of academic writing. One assignment I found particularly problematic was the “Argument Without Sources Assignment,” even though I co-wrote the assignment sheet in 2013. The assignment is the first of four in a shared assignment sequence in the program’s College Writing II course, which focuses on information literacy and argumentative writing and likely parallels other writing assignments found in various FYW curriculums across the country.

Knowing that I wanted to revise the traditional assignment, I first analyzed it using digital rhetoric and student-centered pedagogical philosophy. The result of my analysis is a color-coded visual analysis of the assignment (see Appendix A for the full assignment sheet) pointing out areas that adhere to CTR through language (blue) and content (yellow), requirements that perpetuate the production of SLMN texts (green), and sections that provide only vague references to audience (pink). In the following discussion, I have included screenshots of annotations made to the original visually annotated assignment sheet to support my argument that the assignment (and ones like it) still reinforce the CTR paradigm and the production of monomodal texts.

Instructor Language Usage and Textual Design in a Traditional FYW Assignment

The original “Argument Without Sources” assignment uses imperative language that promotes teacher-centeredness and decenters the agency of the student. Figure 1 shows that “must” is used five times and “will” is used twice in the span of five sentences. An overall authoritative tone maintains the feeling that a student cannot negotiate with academic conventions but should conform to the expectations of the teacher, program, or university. The relationship that this type of language use creates is also one based on authority rather than dialogue. The use of “must” solidifies the teacher as the giver of knowledge and the student remains the receiver. This problematic dichotomy may look shockingly familiar to many instructors.

Even the assignment sheet’s formatting maintains that dichotomy. The font, font size, and spacing are severe and intimidating. Students literally “see” the authority of the instructor in the use of small margins and a lack of white space. The design does not take into account how a student might read it; rather its purpose is to identify requirements and rules. The design is unfriendly to transitioning writers and perpetuates the myth that “good” writing must look a certain way.


In five sentences of the assignment section, the imperative “must” appeared 5 times and “will” 3 times.
Figure 1. “Argument Without Sources” excerpt
Please see Appendix A for the full assignment, and an accessible PDF file of the assignment.

Production of a Standard, Normal, and Monomodal Text

The green highlighted phrases in Figure 2 indicate that print-based design and dissemination is privileged. The “Evaluation” section declares that a successful text must have “correct formatting and MLA [and] a page length that is 2-3 pages.” Here, students are being explicitly asked to produce a print-based essay following the conventions of MLA style. Though I am not arguing for the removal of documentation requirements or the print-based essay, I do believe these stringent and non-contextualized requirements reduce students’ agency and increase focus on product rather than process. Perhaps if there was more emphasis on avoiding plagiarism rather than emphasizing the need to “correct” formatting and documentation, then students might begin to understand that a writer’s choice of documentation style signifies a connection with a discipline-specific audience.

Three of the required criteria were 'Correct formatting and MLA', 'A page length that is 2-3 pages', and 'Follows the basic structure of an argument without sources.'
Figure 2. Evaluation standards reinforcing monomodal textual productions

Whom Am I Addressing?

In the traditional assignment, the word “audience” is mentioned once and is only implicitly referred to later in the “Evaluation” section (see pink annotations in Appendix A). The assignment declares that students must “address an audience” using “ethos, pathos, and logos.” This statement does not allow students to clearly envision a real or easily construct an imagined audience and implies that they should simply write for the instructor. The lack of audience specificity adheres to the prevalent “teacher as audience” conceptualization of audience and does not disrupt the problematic nature associated with asking students to write academically.

The “Evaluation” section also lists the use of “formal, academic language” as a requirement to produce a successful argument. Not only is this assessment criteria reinforcing CTR, but also some students may not have experience with this type of language or know when to use it. Further, if students do not have a concrete audience to address or if they cannot clearly imagine an audience based on their experiences, then asking them to use formal, academic language may prove especially frustrating for them.

Perpetuating the Current-Traditional Rhetoric Paradigm

The last aspect of the assignment sheet, annotated in yellow, is a broader categorization of foregrounding teacher, program, or university expectations rather than the students’ own experiences and languages. Again, the “Evaluation” section states, “a successful argument will include all of the following requirements.” The focus here is on what students “must” include to complete the assignment and achieve a high score. There is little room for negotiation between the instructor and the student and clearly values the product rather than the process. Though there are references to process writing, specific points and due dates are also included taking away from the recursive nature of the writing process and revision.

Figure 3 shows a list of specific features of argumentative writing (e.g. an introduction, body paragraphs, etc.), which might be useful to new writers. However, the highly specific bullet points within each section seemingly imply that students should check provided argumentative features off the list as they write–possibly impeding their writing processes and promoting commonality among a diverse group of students. This promotion of commonality in writing also reinforces the problematic binary that there is a “right” way to write and only if a student performs as they are told, can he or she achieve success.

The “Argument Without Sources” assignment emphasized a definitive structure through twelve bullets, rewarding rules-following and deprioritizing creativity
Figure 3. Restrictive structural requirements


While using this assignment in my courses, I quickly became frustrated because it forced students to produce essays that looked and sounded the same. The argumentative structures were repeated, student voices became homogenized, and, because students were forced to use their textbook as the basis for their arguments, the content was also very similar. After reading nearly 200 of these papers over the course of two academic years, I decided to begin embracing digital rhetoric and multimodal composing practices. Although there were challenges associated with integrating an assignment reflecting these practices and digital rhetoric, I argue that the revised assignment discussed below achieved the same course goals, encouraged creativity and agency, and taught students how to recognize and converse with various discourse communities.

A Discussion of the Revised Assignment: Convincing your Discourse Community

Using the same color coding method, I created a visual analysis of the revised assignment (see Appendix B). In this version, areas of negotiation and less imperative language are highlighted in blue, revisions to prescriptive requirements and teacher-centered pedagogy are annotated in yellow, integration of digital rhetoric is annotated in green, and specific references to audience are annotated in pink. The revision was implemented into my four sections of College Writing II in the spring of 2017. Like the original, students produce a persuasive text as the first assignment in the course sequence, but the revision asks students to choose one of their discourse communities (e.g. a video gamer community), determine an argument intended for that community, compose their text multimodally, and share it digitally with the community.

Assignment Sheet Design and Language


When designing the assignment sheet, I attempted to make the format less intimidating and easier to read. I enlarged both the font size and spacing, which makes the text look less intimidating. I also used Calibri as a font, rather than Times New Roman, because it is not as commonly associated with traditional academic writing. However, I feel that the assignment sheet itself could (and should) be revised to include multiple modes rather than relying completely on changes to font, spacing, and white space.

An additional “poster” from NCTE (2012) was included to provide an entry point for students beginning to learn about discourse communities and shows that disrupting traditional, scholarly formats is appropriate in context. Many students may feel that to “write academically” one must produce a text that looks academic. The NCTE text problematizes this notion and gives students a multimodal example of work created by a highly respected academic organization.

The text can also serve as the basis for discussions about the relationship between context and design. For example, an instructor might facilitate a discussion about how to determine when a text should reflect academic design conventions and when a less traditional design might also be appropriate.


In Figure 4, words highlighted in blue show the revision of declarative statements such as “students must” to more negotiated language such as “you should” or “this assignment asks you to…” I believe shifting from restrictive language provides students with the opportunity to reflect on, question, or negotiate with the assignment or the instructor rather than simply follow the directions.

The revised assignment includes negotiated language choices like 'asks' and 'should.'
Figure 4. Revised assignment sheet language
Please see Appendix B for the full assignment, and an accessible PDF file of the assignment.

Embracing Digital Rhetoric and Producing a Multimodal Text

In Figure 5, the green highlighting points out instances where the assignment asks students to shift from traditional composing practices to multimodal and embrace the affordances of digital environments. The revised assignment requires students to compose multimodally and share their work online with the appropriate discourse community.

The revised assignment embraces digital rhetoric with prominent prompts about the audience, medium, documentation style, and language
Figure 5. Embracing digital rhetoric


Recognizing that not all students are comfortable with multimodal design, students have the choice to create more print-based texts such as posters or newsletters, but they are still asked to compose multimodally and share those texts with their discourse community online. This aspect of the assignment combines digital environments with traditional rhetoric, which allows students to account for their audience and medium when choosing appropriate rhetorical moves (Eyman 2015; Zappen 2005). This helps students think more about the power of visual, aural, gestural, and spatial modes of communication when constructing an argument as opposed to considering only the linguistic mode and print-based production options.

Addressing a Real and Interactive Audience

When contrasting traditional print affordances and multimodal affordances, the latter provide students with more opportunities to communicate with varied and interactive audiences. Research has shown that students perceive audience awareness as an affordance of multimodal composing (Alexander, Powell, and Green 2012; Kirchoff and Cook 2016; Takayoshi and Selfe 2007). The revised assignment places audience awareness at the center of its pedagogical goal, rather than relying on a vague description of an imagined audience. Pink annotations showcase areas where audience is prioritized (see Appendix B for full annotations), beginning with the poster from NCTE that defines discourse communities and scaffolds understanding of discourse communities into the assignment. Figure 6 shows a disruption of the traditional notion of a teacher as audience by asking students to first visualize an imagined audience, based on their actual experience(s), then to write to those audiences by digitally sharing the texts with their communities. Shifting from vague audience conceptualizations to real and interactive ones aligns with two of the primary activities within a digital rhetoric framework: helping students form digital identities and building social communities (Zappen 2005).

The revised assignment includes questions and examples to help students envision an interactive audience, e.g. 'Who are you addressing' and 'What are you trying to persuade them to do, feel, think, etc?'
Figure 6. Envisioning an interactive audience


Asking students to share their work online embraces the affordances offered by writing in digital environments using digital tools (Nobles and Paganucci 2015). However, this choice was not without its challenges. Generally, students appreciated the opportunity to directly interact with an audience of their choice, but some students were not as comfortable with this component. Prior to the actual dissemination of their texts, some students requested that they be allowed to use fake names or to remove their work as soon as I had evaluated it. Students were quickly granted permission for their requests, but I recognize the gap in execution of the assignment. To account for this gap, I plan to scaffold lessons into the project that help students choose how they want to be (de)identified. I will also create an option for students to post their work to a shared and closed classroom website designed and curated by me.

Shifting the Focus from CTR

The revised assignment upholds the programmatic goal of requiring students to produce a persuasive text, but yellow annotations illustrate areas that allow for student creativity and playfulness. The “Evaluation” section, while still in a list form, has been shortened considerably and the criterion for success has been expanded. The revised assignment does not require “formal, academic voice”, which gives students more room to express themselves and use varied and rhetorically appropriate languages, dialects, and slang based on the discourse community they are addressing. However, the streamlined evaluation section creates a challenge related to creating an effective assessment tool. When assessing a student’s work, I need to act as both the evaluator and as hypothetical audience-member, which is challenging. Since the assignment was created to reinforce the components of digital rhetoric and allow for student creativity, I believe that my primary job is to act as a hypothetical audience-member and respond accordingly.

Although this may put more pressure on the instructor, it helps shift the assessment of student work from evaluating how well a student demonstrates his or her ability to write academically (privileging commonality) to one that evaluates how well a student uses languages and various modes to effectively address his or her community (promoting difference).

One potential benefit of the assignment is its ability to prepare students for responding to writing situations in other courses by not giving them a specific rhetorical situation. Instead, it urges them to really think about who they are as an author and as a member of that community, the message that they want to share within the context of that community, and to address a “real” community that they know from experience. This does not mean that some students do not choose to address a more formal community (e.g. a workplace manager) but it gives them the choice to do so. The point of this assignment is not to reinforce the importance of grammar, MLA, or academic voice (though those are important components of their final semester project) but to introduce them to the idea of discourse communities as audience and to think about composing in a digitalized world.

Student Reception of the Revised Assignment

When I incorporated the revised assignment into my course in spring 2017, I was nervous that students would push back against the lack of formalized instruction and that they might not see the connection between their discourse communities and writing persuasively. For the most part, I was happily surprised. I witnessed students who initially identified themselves as “terrible” writers spending hours on revising their website layout to “make it easier for my discourse community to understand.” One specific example stands out. A self-proclaimed “bad writer” from day one, Sue was hesitant about the class. When told that she would not be writing a formal essay as the first assignment, she became a little less hesitant. When told she could choose her audience, use language of that community, and share her message with them, she was absolutely thrilled. Two and half weeks later, she produced a website convincing a specific audience, the discourse community of avid golfers, to play at her favorite golf course. She included tabs echoing the traditional argumentative essay structure as well as an “author bio” tab, which she explained helped “get her credibility with her audience.” For the remainder of the semester, she was confident in her writing skills. She spent more time revising her traditional text than she had in other writing classes (according to her) and she became an active member in our small classroom community.

The example I have shared is just one of many positive experiences I had with this assignment last semester, but that is not to say that there weren’t less-than-positive experiences. As stated previously, some students were uncomfortable with sharing their work online, while others struggled with the skills associated with creating a text using digital tools. Some students struggled to create functional websites and some had difficulties converting a text-based document into a format that could easily be shared online. While I attempted to account for these struggles via mini-technology lessons, more time should have been spent discussing problem-solving strategies to aid students in the creation and dissemination of their texts. These strategies might include prompting students to create a list of places to find help on campus and useful web-based tools (e.g. tutorials, freeware, examples, etc.), which would be shared on our online course management system.

Some students also felt that a multimodal composition assignment was not preparing them academically and disliked the non-traditional nature of the assignment. Yet, generally and anecdotally speaking, many students began to see that writing does not always have to look and sound the same and that there is room for creativity in academic writing. They also began to understand that “audience” does not simply mean writing to one’s teachers. This assignment also made it easier for me to introduce academic discourse communities to my students, which helped them think about a discipline-specific academic audience when they chose topics, journal articles, documentation styles, and language prior to and during the writing of their final research papers (a traditional, print-based assignment). My assertion is that framing a multimodal assignment using digital rhetoric helps teach students how to recognize the connection between audience, message, and digital environments. This kind of digital rhetorical work might also help shift the multimodal and digital assignment from “lesser than” to “equal to” or “as good as” traditional, print-based composing.

Final Remarks

My discussion here offers a revision of what I saw as a restrictive assignment that closely adhered to CTR. While I am not claiming that digital rhetoric and/or digital practices should replace traditional print-based composing practices, I am urging instructors to consider incorporating digital rhetoric into their curriculums to continue to provide opportunities for student choice and creativity. This paper showcased my willingness to use digital rhetoric as an analytic tool to analyze and then revise a common writing assignment in my FYW classroom. I also urge any instructor who wishes to push against the CTR paradigm of academic writing, which often leaves out varied and textured voices, to conduct a similar analysis of a traditional assignment and then revise it so it reflects a digital rhetoric framework. I hope that fellow instructors who have become frustrated with the vague instructional goal to teach students “audience awareness” will consider the affordances provided by digital spaces and help students learn (re)address real and interactive online communities.


Alexander, Kara Poe, Beth Powell, and Sonya C. Green. 2012. “Understanding Modal Affordances: Student Perceptions of Potentials and Limitations in Multimodal Composition.” Basic Writing e-Journal 10:11.1. Accessed November 5, 2017. https://bwe.ccny.cuny.edu/alexandermodalaffordances.html

Berlin, A James and Robert P. Inkster. 1980. “Current Traditional Rhetoric: Paradigm and Practice.” Freshman English News 8:3, 1-4. Accessed November 4, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43519330

Eyman, Douglas. 2015. Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice. Ann Harbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Ede, Lisa and Angela Lunsford. 1984. “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 35:2, 155-171. Accessed November 7, 2017. http://comphacker.org/pdfs/335/358093.pdf

Horner, Bruce and Cynthia L. Selfe. 2013. “Translinguality/Transmodality Relations: Snapshots from a Dialogue.” (Working Paper No. 7). Accessed November 10, 2017. http://louisville.edu/workingpapers/copy_of_working-papers.

Kirchoff, Jeffrey S.J. and Mike P. Cook. 2016. “The Impact of Multimodal Composition on First Year Students’ Writing.” Journal of College Literacy and Learning, 42, 20-39. Retrieved from storage.googleapis.com/wzukusers/user-20714678/…/Kirchoff%20Cook.pdf

NCTE. (2012). Discourse community. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/0641-sep2012/CCC0641PosterDiscourse.pdf.

Nobles, Susan. and Laura Paganucci. 2015. “Do Digital Writing Tools Deliver? Student Perceptions of Writing Quality Using Digital Tools and Online Writing Environments. Computers and Composition 38, 16-31. Accessed November 7, 2017. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2015.09.001

Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia L. Selfe. 2007. “Thinking About Multimodality.” In Multimodal composition: Resources for teachers, edited by Cynthia L. Selfe, New York: Hampton Press, Inc.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. 2009. Writing in the 21st century: A report from the National Council of Teachers of English. Accessed on November 10, 2017. http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Press/Yancey_final.pdf.

Werner, L Courtney. 2017. “How Rhetoric and Composition Described and Defined New Media at the Start of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication 68:4, 713-739.

Zappen, P James. 2005. “Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14:3, 319-325.

Appendix A: Marked-up Original Assignment Sheet

This appendix is also available as a pdf.

First page: intro and options. Small print, small margins, and forceful language provide little room for student agency (but reinforces teacher's knowledge).
Second page: structure, evaluation, points. Emphasis on correctness, completeness, and uniformity promote the teacher as audience and reinforce traditional structure.

Appendix B: Marked-up Revised Assignment Sheet

This appendix is also available as a pdf.

First page: NCTE's multimodal definition of 'discourse community.' Markup highlights the significance section.
Second page: genre, guidelines. Markup highlights room for flexibility, negotiation.
Third page: rhetorical considerations. Markup highlights the student-centered framing.
Fourth page: process and evaluation. Markup highlights the centrality of students' reflection on their choices.

About the Author

Melanie Gagich is an Associate College Lecturer in the First-Year Writing Program at Cleveland State University, where she has taught composition courses for six years. She is also currently pursuing her PhD in Composition and TESOL. Her research interests include multimodal composition, digital rhetoric, and open access resources (OERs).


Video Essays and Virtual Animals: An Approach to Teaching Multimodal Composition and Digital Literacy


This article explores the pedagogical goals and student artifacts from a first-year composition course that provides students the opportunity to analyze interactive technologies—including video games—as rhetorical texts. As an approach to teaching digital literacy and multimodal composition, this course addresses the question of how to teach students to analyze not only the content of new media, but also how the design of social media platforms and video game mechanics persuade users to act and understand in circumscribed ways. More specifically, this article describes the process of assigning students a video essay project that requires them to articulate and defend a sustained argument about how a video game represents nonhuman animals. As a multimodal medium, video essays can provide a record of interaction between students and human-to-software interfaces, including video games. By analyzing how and why video games afford possibilities for interaction with virtual animals, the student artifacts examined here demonstrate students’ recognition that interfaces are constructed to achieve rhetorical ends. It is my intent that such recognition serves as a gateway for students to begin approaching everyday texts as rhetorical, that is, as working to incline them to persuasion and, by extension, certain patterns of thinking and behaving.

Introduction: Course Overview and Objectives

I teach a first-year, multimodal composition course at the Georgia Institute of Technology themed around interactions between animals and technology. I titled the course “Technocritters, or Animals and/as Technology.” Broadly, the course aims to develop students’ skills in multimodal communication (including written, visual, oral, nonverbal, and electronic communication) through an emphasis on process and rhetoric. As the second course in Georgia Tech’s two-semester first-year composition sequence, students should arrive in my course having been introduced to basic rhetorical concepts and strategies for effective communication. One of the “animals and/as technology” theme-related areas we study is the impact of new media on representations of animals. We ask questions such as: When and why does new media represent animals? How do the social media interfaces we use to access and share images of animals shape our understanding of them as food, pets, or pests?

For a STEM-focused institution like Georgia Tech, many of the first-year students I encounter plan to study in fields that will require that they utilize existing technologies and engineer new interactive computer systems for both specialized and public audiences. Consequentially, a course themed partially around a rhetorical analysis of computer-mediated communication helps increase engagement in a course students widely regard as “required” but not desired. Further, digital literacy skills are increasingly essential for all first-year college students, particularly given the near-ubiquity of interactive technologies in students’ academic, workplace, and recreational lives. Even writing programs and composition courses that prioritize traditional genres of academic writing must take notice of the rapidly growing rhetorical influence of new media on students learning to write, read, and think in the twenty-first century.

Digital Literacy… with Animals

At the beginning of each section of this course, I take an informal survey to learn a little about students’ personal histories, including their personal experiences with animals. As a group, we establish students’ prior knowledge about animals as a baseline for their exploration of animals in new media. Such a baseline enables us to raise questions such as: To what extent do animals in new media challenge or reinforce my previous assumptions about how animals look, move, think, and feel? How can and should humans interact with them? What are animals “for”? Almost all students enter my courses having had experiences with animals typical for young adults from non-rural areas of America. That is, few have first-hand experience with animals beyond their family dog or cat. Between two and three students may have experience riding horses, hunting deer or small game animals, or tending to farmed animals. Nearly all students have visited at least one zoo or amusement park that displays captive animals. Several students (between 4-5 each semester out of 75) have worked with or are currently working with animals in a laboratory setting: always mice. Finally, very few students—roughly three out of 75 every semester—identify as vegetarian or vegan. Therefore, most students are familiar with animals as products for consumption, even though, by students’ own admission, they do not readily make the association between the sliced meat on their lunch plates and animals.[1]

After students identify their personal history with animals, I prompt them to consider how varied media forms affect their understanding of animals, particularly nonhuman behavior and appearance. Students are quick to admit to consuming new media texts—including memes, Instagram profiles, and videos—as a source of “information” about animals. At the time of this writing, dogs and puppies (or, per the language of doggolingo, “doggos” and “puppers”) enjoy wide popularity across social media platforms. Cats and kittens (including Grumpy Cat, Maru, and the many Lolcat variants)—a variety of companion animal once nearly synonymous with digital image virality—persist in students’ vocabulary. That said, some students go so far as to claim that internet cats are “outdated.” Such recognition on their part—internet trends come and go rapidly—is an important insight: it helps students recognize that patterns of representation—such as the once-ubiquitous new media portrayal of house cats as playful, erratic, and cute—are neither fixed nor inevitable. As Sarah Warren-Riley and Elise Verzosa Hurley suggest, even when it comes to cat memes, “Liking, sharing, or reposting a cute cat meme does result in advocating specific values and ideologies (regardless of whether the individual agrees with those values) and results in something (in this case, the reinforcement of Western values that cats are cute house pets)” (Warren-Riley and Hurley 2017). By asking students to consider the frequency with which certain animal behaviors are visually depicted and shared through new media, I want to encourage them to consider how pervasive but undertheorized texts like cat memes advance ideologically-laden understandings about the subjects those texts represent, such as which nonhuman species should be treated variously as “pets,” “pests,” or “food.”

Developing students’ digital literacy additionally requires that students consider how computer interfaces facilitate and constrain the actions they perform in digital environments. My use of the term “interface” refers to the programs (such as applications and software) and hardware (including a mouse, keyboard, and display screen) that enable interaction between computers and people (rendered through said interaction as “users” or, for video games, as “players”). When it comes to a rhetorical study of new media, students must consider not only the content of new media (the memes themselves), but also the means through which such content is disseminated (interfaces that include but are not limited to those of social media). Because the interfaces of social media make sharing content easy, for example, students are likely to consider the act of “liking,” “retweeting,” or “upvoting” a piece of internet content “mundane and routine” and, by extension, inconsequential (Warren-Riley and Hurley 2017). To challenge the notion that the act of sharing content online is meaningless, we might ask students: what is the relationship between the popularity of animal images on the internet and the ease with which we share those images?

The pervasive tendency for humans to project meaning onto animals’ often inscrutable behaviors and expressions works in tandem with the seeming effortlessness involved in sharing content on social media platforms. Joseph Anderton (2016) advocates for such a contextual assessment of internet memes, writing that the meme’s “ability to pervade privy groups cements non/human animals in facetious material and renders them vacuous figureheads subsidiary to human meanings” (142). That is, the represented animal, rather than the meme itself, is rendered vacuous by the form’s popularity across web platforms. Memed animals become flexible signifiers for a range of human expressions and desires, a flexibility that advances an understanding of animals as a kind of bare material upon which human meanings can be inscribed. Here, the ease of sharing content online encourages the proliferation of texts and genres with highly malleable semiotic potential.

This image of “Chemistry Cat,” a popular meme, depicts an all-white cat, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a red bow tie, seated in a chemistry laboratory. The cat is surrounded by beakers and flasks filled with blue, green, yellow, and red fluids. The chalkboard in the background displays silly equations involving mice, milk, and cheese as the variables. The text on the image reads, in all caps, “I’d tell you a chemistry joke… But all the good ones Argon.”

This example of the “Chemistry Cat” meme demonstrates how cultural values and assumptions inform animal memes. For example, the cat’s white fur resembles a white lab coat, her glasses serve as a cultural signifier of intelligence, and her bow tie implies the traditional representation of men as scientists.

Teachers of digital literacy and rhetoric are therefore faced with a two-part challenge. First, students must learn to recognize how new media representations, such as the cat in the cat meme, reinforce variable—that is, both prevailing and niche—cultural values. Second, students must learn to recognize and consider how the interfaces that enable the circulation and popularization of certain representations are themselves built to encourage and facilitate a particular set of user actions. Asking students to consider how interfaces encourage, facilitate, or reward certain user actions and behaviors enables them to perceive interfaces as rhetorical. The range of social media platforms that students interact with every day can serve as a reliable starting place for students to begin this process of recognition. I have found, for example, that students are quick to recognize how social media platforms encourage users’ public affirmation of posted content (via the “like” function on Instagram) as well as the broader sharing of that content (such as “retweets” on Twitter).

Students’ examination of how they interact with computer interfaces should not and cannot end with a consideration of social media, however. Computer interfaces endeavor to conceal their function as rhetorical texts, that is, their own status as persuasive tools that influence user behavior. As Lori Emerson (2014) underscores, “interfaces themselves and therefore their constraints are becoming ever more difficult to perceive” as contemporary technology seduces us with feats that seem at once “wondrous” and magical (x). To be sure, the range of interfaces with which students interact on a daily basis are varied and quickly changing. Many college students own at least one if not multiple personal computers (including laptops, tablets, and smartphones) for both academic and recreational use, and their experience of those interfaces—except, perhaps, when they fail to work seamlessly—are likely to go largely without much or any critical inspection. Teena Carnegie (2009) argues that teachers and students of writing must learn to talk about the often invisible or “natural”-seeming work of interfaces (166). For Carnegie, as interfaces work continually to engage the audience through interaction, they create “higher levels of acceptance in the user,” acceptance that leads to the increased invisibility of the interface itself (171). In consequence, increasingly taken-for-granted interfaces make users more susceptible to persuasion and more likely to “accept the messages contained within the content, to continue to use a particular site, or to perform certain actions” (171-2). To my mind, that interfaces both render themselves invisible and dispose users to accept messages make the study of the rhetorical work of interfaces essential to developing students’ digital literacy.

Why Video Essays?

A video essay project like the one I assign in my multimodal composition courses presents not only an opportunity for students to practice strategies of analysis and argumentation, but also the opportunity to reflect on how software interfaces ask them to behave. Like written essays, video essays should make a clear argument. Additionally, video essay creators must consider how audible and visual registers reinforce, elaborate on, conflict with, or distract viewers from the essay’s argument. Therefore, successful video essays take seriously how the combination of moving images, still images, oral narration, and a revised, written script can work together to facilitate audience comprehension. Moreover, assigning students a video essay project provides one way for them to practice composing in all of the modes of communication.

As a form, video essays are particularly popular as an emergent form of film criticism. Rather than rely on written descriptions or even screenshots of filmic features, film critics increasingly turn to video essays for their ability to present for analysis the complex visual and nonverbal features in films, features that include lighting, shot design, sound, and costume. To show students the wide range of approaches to video essay design that critics take, I offer them writer Conor Bateman’s “The Video Essay as Art: 11 Ways to Make a Video Essay,” a brief, introductory text useful for its discussion of varied video essay forms as the vlog, scene breakdown, and desktop video. Then, to demonstrate how digital media critics have turned to the video essay for the purposes of making arguments supported by visual evidence and gameplay analysis, I refer to Anita Sarkeesian’s series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” on the website Feminist Frequency.

Thanks to screen-capture software (including free tools such as Open Broadcaster Software), students can record particular moments of interaction between themselves and software interfaces for later use in video essay arguments. After recording, students can review their documented interactions and analyze them. To be clear, the aspect of the video essay project that requires students to record their interactions is, to my mind, essential. The process of recording footage for the video essay and then constructing an argument using that footage asks students to critically assess how software interfaces incline them to behave in particular (and variously circumscribed) ways. The process of recording, reviewing, and analyzing also has the effect of making students more interface-savvy. That is, after recording their actions in one interface, they may become more likely to reflect on how their actions in other systems could undergo similar analysis.

Why Video Games?

Video games as persuasive texts lend themselves well to student analysis of the often hidden rhetorical implications of software interfaces. More explicitly than the social media interfaces mentioned above, video games as software ask players to behave according to a set of rules or constraints in order to advance or “win.” Relevant to the “animals and/as technology” theme of my course, video games present strong arguments for how players should interact with and, by extension, regard the animals they encounter within game worlds. In response, I ask students to explore how players can interact with animals in games as a means to uncover the implicit or explicit arguments video games make about human-animal relationships. For example, students raise questions such as: what forms of interaction between humans and animals does the game afford me, the player? How easy does the game make it for the player to facilitate that interaction? Is the interaction sustained, or brief? What is that animal’s function in relationship to the player and/or to the game’s narrative? Is the player required to kill or otherwise manipulate the animal to proceed with the game? Can the player mount the animal and use it as a form of transportation or to enhance the player-character’s mobility? Can the player take the role of an animal by guiding it in the first person (as in simulator games)? When the player assumes the role of an animal, what abilities does the animal have? Do the rules of the game change when a player inhabits the role of an animal?

These questions encourage students to consider how the interactive possibilities between player and virtual animals reproduce or challenge pre-existing assumptions about animals in industrialized societies. As Adam Brown and Deb Waterhouse-Watson (2016) remind us, “To varying degrees (but always to some extent), human beings learn about other animals through the symbolic status attributed to them through cultural products, and this frequently involves the naturalization of anthropocentrism.” Anthropocentrism, or the human tendency to privilege the wants and needs of Homo sapiens above the wants and needs of all other forms of life, certainly informs the design of many video games. However, playing video games does not always necessitate that players passively accept anthropocentric interactions with animals as an inevitable requirement for play. With his concept of “procedural rhetoric,” Ian Bogost provides a precise term for how video games encourage (while often allowing for degrees of freedom to resist) a particular manner of interaction between player and game world. For Bogost, “video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes” (Bogost 2008, 125). Processes comprise the rule-based systems by which games as computer software unfold as well as the rules that constrain the actions of players. Asking about the “rules of the game” or how and why a game constrains and incentivizes player interactions with particular game features attunes students to the ways games-as-interfaces construct rhetorical arguments.

Scaffolding Game Analysis

Before we begin playing games and analyzing the arguments they make, I provide students with an illustrative model of academic video game criticism: Gary Walsh’s (2014) article “Taming the Monster: Violence, Spectacle, and the Virtual Animal.” By seeing video game criticism in action, students recognize that their video essay projects can contribute to a visible, existing conversation in humanities disciplines. Walsh argues that “videogames create a space in which virtually anyone can commit acts of violence without being registered as such,” that video games be read as opportunities for players to subject animals to violence and to read their own actions as strictly entertainment (22). Many students initially resist Walsh’s argument. Their inclination is to dismiss the implications of game processes that reward violent interactions with nonhuman animals, suggesting instead that games are unworthy of the careful scrutiny provided more transparently rhetorical texts. Indeed, the phrase “But it’s just a game” circulates during the session we consider Walsh’s work. Working through Walsh’s essay, I urge students to examine their reluctance to 1) read video games as argumentative, and 2) consider their actions as players as participating in an argument constructed by interface with a set of game rules. With students, I ask: why does the pleasure we take in video games’ fantasy spaces preclude a critical examination of the way games rely on existing ideologies and ways of interacting between humans and animals?

To give students practice formulating critical questions about games’ rhetorical choices while also thinking about how games ask them to behave as players, I require students to play a series of free-to-play games that involve animals. Asking students to play a set of preselected games prior to their in-depth interrogation of a single game for their video essays serves two important instructional purposes. First, these games help familiarize students with common video game genre conventions. One represents a “casual game”; another lets us explore the conventions of the “first-person shooter.” By introducing students to some of the basic video game genres, even students relatively unfamiliar with game genre conventions can draw on their experiences playing these free games as a foundation for the more sustained rhetorical analysis of game conventions and rules that they undertake soon afterward. Second, I select the initial games students play because of the illustrative way each game represents animals. Rather than offer complex representations, these games are simple both in terms of controls and argument, making them excellent starting points for a more in-depth interrogation of how games make claims about animals.

For example, one of the free games I ask students to play, Linksolutions’ Pets Fun House, represents a “casual” game in which players assume the role of a new pet shop manager. Pets Fun House asks players to feed, water, and clean up after an expanding collection of dogs and cats with the objective of selling those pets to impatient shop customers. As the game proceeds, players’ in-game profits can purchase increasingly larger shop facilities and a wider range of dog and cat breeds to exchange for additional profits. After playing Pets Fun House, I can reliably anticipate that students will respond eagerly to the question: “What argument does this game make about animals?” That is, after playing the game, students identify, at minimum, that 1) Pets Fun House reduces animals to commodities, and 2) Pets Fun House simplifies the needs of companion species, the player needing only to click once per creature to alleviate hunger, thirst, and waste (the three needs that must be satisfied to successfully prepare the animals for sale).

In another of the free games I require students play, DroidCool.com’s Deer Hunter 3D (2015), students become acquainted with the genre of the first-person hunting simulator. In this game, players must shoot an increasing number of deer before time runs out in order to proceed to the next level. Each deer in the game looks and behaves identically to every other deer: they pace across the screen and remain blissfully unaware of the player’s approach. The game’s simplified representation of deer appearance and behavior prompts students to identify that this game promotes the idea that animals are repetitive, instinctual machines. Further, since the player must slay as many deer as possible within a narrowing time frame in order to proceed to the next level, students quickly see how the game’s deer have a single purpose: to “die.” The game portrays its animals not only as machinic obstacles to overcome, but also as morally and physically simple to eradicate. Here, the simplicity of the game’s interface—point and click to shoot without the need to reload or take cover in features of the landscape—implies that the act of killing deer is both easy and straightforward and, consequently, does not require player reflection. As we saw with animal memes, the ease with which video games as interfaces can make an action possible—here, the ease with which Deer Hunter 3D makes it possible for a player to kill deer—is instructive for students as they consider the rhetorical work of interfaces in general.

Work and Play: The Video Essay Project

For the image-based version of the video essay project assignment sheet, please click here.

For a text-only version of the assignment sheet, please click here.

The student artifacts included below comprise a representative sample of the video essay projects students submitted during the past two semesters of this course. Briefly, this project requires students collaborate in groups of 4-5 members each and choose a Steam-based video game to analyze from a list of games I briefly pre-screen for cost and content. Assigning a game available through Steam, a game distribution platform for personal computers, streamlines the requirement that students record their gameplay. Additionally, I tell students that their video essays should not “review” their chosen game. Rather, their video essays should analyze the game’s rhetoric and make an argument about how the game represents animals.

Importantly, I require that students compose their video essay projects for a public audience: students must upload their completed video essays to YouTube and list them as “public.” This requirement has two important pedagogical benefits. First, composing for a public audience allows students to become active knowledge producers, not simply passive consumers. That is, public video essays enable students to contribute their voices, interests, and, by the end of the process of analysis, expertise to an existing network of positions and ideas. Second, I find that students not only produce better work when composing for outside-the-class audiences, but also make more connections between the work we do in the classroom and communication practices in the “real world” when required to produce public-facing work. They see how the work of rhetorical analysis, for example, can influence and inform others. Centrally, a public-facing project teaches students a fundamental concept like the rhetorical situation by providing them a “real” audience to persuade.[2]

Finally, this project requires students to draft and revise a rough script and storyboard for their essays. Their script organizes the scope and structure of students’ voice-over narrations; it also emphasizes the importance of clear, succinct writing in projects that seem at first glance to prioritize visual and electronic modes of communication. Indeed, assigning a multimodal project like a video essay does not alleviate or dismiss the need for students to consider how and why certain “moves” in their persuasive texts become rhetorically effective. For example, student-produced video essays like Essay I on Giant Squid Studios’ 2016 game Abzû present widely-recognized indicators of an effective argument, such as discussion of counterexamples. In addition to the students’ discussion of counterexamples, Essay I demonstrates students’ attention to how the game’s mechanics (or rule-based systems) affect how players think about the role of animals in the game. Against their primary argument that the game promotes a “genuine connection” between player and virtual animals, students analyzed how the inclusion of the mechanic of “riding” animals (see between 4:23 and 5:00 in Essay I) violates said connection. They explain:

By latching on to these creatures, you can take control of their actions and use their bodies to your own benefit…The animal gives up its autonomy…establishing a hierarchical relationship…By riding these creatures, you create temporary and superficial bonds that disappear once you let go.

This piece of analysis demonstrates the thoughtful associations that students developing digital literacy skills can establish between game interfaces and game arguments. Specifically, students here articulate their perception of a link between the interface-afforded opportunity to “ride” animals in the game and the “hierarchical relationship” between human character and nonhuman animal such a rule implies.

Essay I:

Mairead Gawryszewski, Carlos Gabriel Velazquez Sierra, and three anonymous students created Essay I.


In Clip I, students explain how Might and Delight’s 2013 game Shelter restricts player movement to incline players to think about the badger cubs placed in their care. This clip shows not only students’ rhetorical awareness (insofar as they address audience members directly by telling them which visual features of their gameplay footage to pay attention to), but also their astute attention to the relationship between the rules of the game and how those rules persuade players to feel a certain way: in this case, to invest emotionally in the badger cubs.

Clip I:

Dylan Pirro, James Forsmo, and three anonymous students created Clip I.


Many of the most effective multimodal arguments take seriously what a given medium affords in terms of opportunities for persuasion. Throughout Essay II, students use a combination of gameplay footage, video, and overlaid graphics to enhance their argument about how the visual and mechanical simplicity of Chris Chung’s 2013 game Catlateral Damage creates a fantasy of carefree nonhuman embodiment for the player. A particularly rich example takes place during 3:39 and 4:25 of Essay II. Here, students demonstrate their understanding that showing an image of a “cockroach” and “spider” followed by a series of clips of house cats provides a visceral visual reminder that we very often value the lives of (cute) animals over others. Such a difference in species’ implicit value, students claim, is central to the lack of a death mechanic in Catlateral Damage, a game they claim is largely about causing destruction with no fear of consequences.

Essay II:

Joo Won (Michael) Lee, Ryan Pickart, Matthew G. Weissel, and two anonymous students created Essay II.


As a final example, Essay III demonstrates students’ recognition that games can make culturally-specific arguments. Throughout Essay III, students analyzed how developer Upper One Games translated interactions between indigenous Iñupiaq culture and nonhuman animals into the game interface of Never Alone (2014). Students saw such translation occur through what they termed the “equal but different” representation of the game’s human and fox protagonists. From 5:35 to 6:59, Essay III provides a particularly astute analysis of how game mechanics can construct one argument while a game’s narrative can construct another, contradictory argument.

Essay III:

Maya Flores, So-Ying Ester Chang, Kia Clennon, and Elizabeth Stephens created Essay III.


Despite the success of many of the video essays I received, issues that teachers of persuasive writing will be familiar with still persisted in some cases. For example, some essays did not provide sufficient evidence to support students’ claims. In other essays, students failed to articulate a clear and straightforward argument. Moreover, it is worth pointing out the ample hardware and software resources available to students at Georgia Tech as they play their games, record their footage and narration, and edit their essays. I recognize that such resources are far from universally available. Even with these challenges in mind, I am encouraged by the work students have accomplished in these video essays, and I will continue to adapt this project to help students analyze other forms of interactive technology in the future.

Reflection and Conclusion

Looking back at the results of the informal survey I administer to assess students’ familiarity with animals, I am impressed by the wide range of interpretations students developed in their video essays, interpretations unlikely to have emerged from attempts to simply apply their prior knowledge of human-animal relationships. Richard Colby, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby (2013) suggest that video games constitute “exemplar multimodal texts, aligning word, image, and sound with rules and operations constrained by computer technologies but composed by teams of writers, designers, and artists to persuade and entertain” (4). Even so, after analyzing survey data of texts selected by writing teachers for use in writing courses, Johnson and Richard Colby (2013) found that “video games are…neglected as texts to be analyzed” despite statistics that show “the sheer number of gamers and the magnitude of the game industry” (87). By bringing video games into the first-year composition classroom, I witnessed students moving away from their initial impulse to regard everyday texts as innocent and undeserving of critical inspection. An overwhelming majority of essays showed students performing thoughtful, in-depth analyses of texts with rhetorical content that once seemed invisible. As regards nonhuman animals, too, an examination of video games may train students to consider their acts of “interfacing” with animals both virtual and actual as worthy of curiosity and reflection, especially if a particular form of interaction seems only natural.


Anderton, Joseph. 2016. “Cyberbeasts: Substitution and Trivialization of the Animal in Social Media, Memes and Video Games.” In Screening the Non/Human: Representations of Animal Others in the Media, edited by Joe Leeson-Schatz and Amber George. New York: Lexington.

Bogost, Ian. 2008. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” In The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, 117–40. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Brown, Adam, and Deb Waterhouse-Watson. 2016. “Playing with Other(ed) Species: Games, Representation, and Nonhuman Animals.” Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, no. 6.

Colby, Richard, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby. 2013. “Introduction: Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games.” In Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing, 1–8. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

DroidCool.com. (2015). Deer Hunter 3D.

Emerson, Lori. 2014. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Johnson, Matthew S. S., and Richard Colby. 2013. “Ludic Snags.” In Rhetoric/Composition/Play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing, edited by Richard Colby, Matthew S. S. Johnson, and Rebekah Shultz Colby, 83–98. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pets Fun House. Linksolutions.

Teena A. M., Carnegie. 2009. “Interface as Exordium: The Rhetoric of Interactivity.” Computers and Composition 28 (2):164–73.

Walsh, Gary. 2014. “Taming the Monster: Violence, Spectacle, and the Virtual Animal.” Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, no. 30 (Winter): 21–34.

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[1] The data referenced here represents survey results that I collected informally.

[2] I anticipate and address students’ potential privacy concerns and hesitation to share their work in three ways. First, within the first week of the course, I ask that students sign a “Statement of Understanding,” a brief form in which they disclose if they feel comfortable with me referencing their work in print or electronic publications and how they want to be credited (either by name or anonymously) if they do permit me to reference their work. A sample Statement of Understanding can be viewed by following this link to the course syllabus and scrolling to the bottom of the document. Second, the course syllabus includes a “Public Nature of the Course” clause that informs students that most of their work for the course—including drafts prepared for peer review, in-class presentations of their work, and digital sharing—should be composed with a larger audience (that is, an audience not exclusive to their professor and themselves) in mind. As part of this clause, I emphasize that students’ grades will never be made public. The syllabus linked above contains the “Public Nature of the Course” clause. Finally, I provide students a range of options for posting their work to YouTube. Even though their work remains visible and shareable on this platform, they can choose some combination of the following, privacy-assuring precautions: they can 1) remove all references to their names, 2) “unlist” their video, or make their video undiscoverable by in-site searches, and/or 3) disable comments in YouTube. Perhaps surprisingly, many students want to be credited by name for their work and are excited to share their work with others. Others take comfort in anonymity while still fulfilling the course objectives and seeing how others respond to their efforts via peer review and questions from their classmates.

About the Author

Christina M. Colvin is currently a Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. There, she teaches courses in multimodal composition that emphasize digital rhetoric. Her research focuses on American literature, new media, animal studies, and ecocriticism.

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