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A canvas slide reads "Twitter for Academic Purposes: How to Guide Students", lain over a photo of hands writing in a notebook in front of a laptop.
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Twitter for Academic Purposes: How to Guide Students

This article presents a semester-long, low-stakes, scaffolded assignment I developed for a master’s-level course titled Companion Animals in Society at CUNY Hunter College (Fall 2019). The ultimate goal of the assignment was to provide students with a comprehensive guide to developing skills and understanding in science communication, as well as furthering their professional development online, specifically by using Twitter.

Introduction

Recently there has been a surge in scientific communication (sci-comm), meaning that researchers and science communicators are actively disseminating peer-reviewed research in a manner accessible to the general public. Perhaps one of the most exciting features of this movement is that many scientists are now online and accessible via appropriate social media platforms at the tips of students’ fingers. In my field, Animal Behavior, there is an active Academic Twitter community that happily shares materials, discusses issues with the general public, and guides students looking for additional information. For this reason, I wanted my students to be comfortable engaging online with Academic Twitter, learning proper sci-comm practices while indirectly boosting their own online professional profile.

This real-world implication not only benefits learning within the classroom in terms of writing and critical thinking skills, but also invokes additional indirect benefits for professional development. With an appropriate profile, students can use their Academic Twitter long after use in the classroom to pursue career opportunities, network, share materials and resources, as well as engage in sci-comm.

Description of the Assignment and Methodology

Throughout each week of the semester, I guided my Companion Animals in Society students in understanding what Twitter is and how it can be used for professional and academic purposes. These low stakes, weekly assignments began simply with the creation of a Twitter account. I explained to my students that my ultimate goal was to set them up with a professional profile which could help them locate fun and beneficial opportunities within academia and professional industries. While some already had Twitter profiles, I encouraged them to think about how they would like to be seen online. While many academics use their Twitter profile simply for science, others incorporate more personal information in their Tweets. Therefore, I allowed them the opportunity to create a new, professional only Twitter account, or to combine their professional identity with their current profile. It is important to note that Twitter can be set to private, and some students may not want to be present online. As this assignment was facilitated via the closed learning management system BlackBoard where I asked students to share screen-shots of their Tweets, however, any students who were uncomfortable with the idea had the chance to simply write out what they would have done and what they found online, without creating an actual account. I will note that all students created and/or utilized their own Twitter accounts, and all were set to public.

Figure 1. An example of the assignment prompt posted to Blackboard explaining Week One.

Once the accounts were created, I guided the students in creating their profile. I provided them with tips and suggestions on what a professional photo might entail, and given the topic of the course, encouraged them to post a profile picture with their pet. I also provided them with the Twitter accounts of various other science communicators which they could use as an example.

An extended screenshot from a course website that reads: Last week we created our professional Twitter social media pages. This week your assignment is to engage with Twitter in an academic way to accomplish a variety of goals. 
For Week 2, please: 
Find three Twitter pages/people. These do not need to be related to the topic of companion animals (but they can be!). These pages should relate your professional or academic life. For example, you can try to see if a famous scientist you know of is online (e.g. Frans de Waal), maybe the animal shelter you adopted your pet from has a page (e.g. NYC ACC), or maybe follow the Zoo you frequent (e.g. Bronx Zoo). Who/what you follow is flexible but it must be classroom appropriate and professional and it should somehow be related to why you are taking this course in the Animal Behavior and Conservation Program.
Once you have found your three pages/people take a look at the Bio's in the left-hand side (just underneath the profile picture). Copy and paste the short Bio's and the relevant Twitter Handles from the three pages as part of your assignment.

What information do you see in these Bio's? Is there something, in particular, you like or dislike about them? For each of your three Bio please write one thing you like and one thing you dislike. This need not be more than a few sentences.
Figure 2. An example of the assignment prompt posted to Blackboard explaining how to follow Twitter accounts and how to identify Twitter bios.

Following up with the creation of the Twitter account, I provided my class with feedback on their bio. I asked them to find various Twitter accounts online and highlight what they liked and disliked about them. From here, I asked them to attempt to create their own bio, using their own suggestions. Before adding the bio to their Twitter pages, I provided them with feedback, making suggestions about how they might want to tag a certain research group they were involved in and/or add relevant links to a personal website.

An extended screenshot from a course website that reads: Last week we engaged with Twitter in an academic way to accomplish a variety of goals. More specifically, we followed some new pages and took a closer look at the Bio's users in our field have created. This week we will be drafting our own Bios!
For Week 3, please: 
Using your assignment from last week (and my comments!), draft a Bio to use on your professional Twitter Profile. Submit this Bio (160 characters or less) as your assignment this week. Please have fun with this. If you want to use an emoji, you can! If you want to include your personal pronouns, do so! Hashtags? That’s fine! Just make sure it's appropriate and related to your work professionally or academically. 
If you get stuck here is a resource that may be useful: https://buffer.com/library/how-to-write-a-professional-bio-for

Using similar guidelines to last week, follow three more Twitter pages on your professional Twitter account. However, this week I'd like you to focus on finding Journals that are on Twitter, for example, @SpringerANCO Please submit the Twitter handles of the three pages you find.
Figure 3. An example of the assignment prompt posted to Blackboard explaining how to draft a Bio and how to follow academic journals.

Every week, I asked the students to become a bit more familiar with Twitter. It’s important to note that I didn’t ask them to post any Tweets until the middle of the semester. Many students are concerned about posting online, and I wanted them to feel confident about this process. Thus, during the first few months, I only wanted them to follow organizations, scholars, other undergraduate/MA/PhD students, journals, and more. I offered suggestions on how to find Twitter accounts to follow, but I did not require them to follow specific accounts. I only required that they share why they selected these specific profiles, and this justification was done privately via Blackboard. The reason for this approach is that students have varying interests, career goals, and opinions. Therefore, I wanted them to be able to create a Twitter account for themselves that would be relevant to their future, not just my classroom.

An extended screenshot from a course website that reads: Last week you provided me with a few sentences describing why you would like to use Twitter (e.g. staying up to date with literature, findings jobs, etc.). A few weeks before you analyzed some tweets and discussed what you liked about the post and what you didn't. This week you will begin to draft a science-related post. It's okay if you have already posted or re-tweeted content on your page. Please note the assignment due date has been extended to accommodate the holiday on October 14th. 
For Week 7, please: 
Pick something that you'd like to talk about and attach a link, description or idea to this assignment. It does not need to be related to this course, but it should be related to your professional Twitter. Remember to keep this appropriate!
Draft a Tweet based on the topic you have chosen above and submit this as a part of your assignment. Keep in mind Twitter allows for 280 characters so your draft Tweet should be under this word count. For now, do not post this Tweet to Twitter.
Figure 4. An example of the assignment prompt posted to Blackboard asking the students to draft a practice Tweet.

Midway through the semester, I guided the students through the process of creating a Tweet. Twitter can be a scary place, especially if you’re following all your academic idols. I allowed my students to draft a Tweet and submit it to Blackboard (privately) for feedback before actually posting it to their accounts online. I asked them to think about the point of their message and what they were trying to communicate. For some, this meant retweeting another previously posted tweet with a comment. For others, this involved sharing a link to a sci-comm piece but creating their own Tweet about the piece itself. The content within the tweet was completely up to them, but needed to relate to the subject of the course somehow.

As the final weeks of the course presented themselves, I let my students follow, tweet, and contribute to conversations in the Twittersphere. While I let them have free rein on what they wanted to communicate and engage with, I still had very clear and concise instructions. First, they had to post on Blackboard to let me know what they had done. Generally, this involved having them post a screen-shot of their contribution, while providing two to three sentences about what this particular Tweet meant to them, how they hoped it would help others, and what they changed, content-wise, in order to make it accessible to a general public. This justification was never posted on Twitter. It was privately shared between the student and myself and allowed me to evaluate the comprehension of the material at hand, while also allowing the student to engage in professional development skills and practice science communication in a real-world setting.

An extended screenshot from a course website that reads: For Week 7, you drafted a science-related post. Way to go, we are using our accounts! This week we will put those tweets in action. If you have comments on concerns about posting to your account, please e-mail me!
For Week 9:
Please, post your tweet (or a variation of it) on your twitter account! Please submit a screen shot of your tweet as a part of this assignment. If anyone follows, comments, or likes your post try to engage in a way that resembles who you are as a social media user (however, be professional and respectful)! 
Additionally, please follow three science twitter accounts. There is a catch here! The accounts you follow must be people, and they must be an undergraduate/graduate student (not in the ABC/Hunter Psych MA program!). Please provide me with a few sentences regarding how you found this students profile and why you're following them!
Figure 5. An example of the assignment prompt posted to Blackboard expressing enthusiasm about their first Tweets as well as requesting they look for other student accounts on Twitter.

Final Results and Impact

At the end of the course, I asked my students to reflect on their experiences using Twitter. Many of them noted that while they were originally not enthused by the idea of engaging in social media for class, they thoroughly enjoyed the scaffolded semester-long assignment for a variety of reasons. Below I present an overview of the three main implications of the assignment.

First and foremost, the assignment was consistent, concise, and feasible. From Week One to Week Fifteen each student was aware that a low-stake, Twitter-based assignment would need to be completed. It was also very easy for them to post online as the assignment took advantage of their pre-existing social media use. They did not need to be at their computer, as they could easily complete this work from their phone while on the subway or waiting for a friend.
Secondly, the assignment allowed students a guided process in which critical evaluation skills of online presented content were put to the test. While I provided guidelines and examples in every set of assignment instructions, students were asked to curate content that they personally found most interesting and trustworthy. This meant that students were generally interested in the subject matter while they learned the foundations of sci-comm best practices. As they followed accounts related to journals, articles, and news and media sources, their Twitter feed quickly turned into a stream of popular information curated to their own liking with up-to-date news on their topic or topics of choice. Additionally, students were not only asked to select posts, blogs and articles, but they were asked to explain why they selected them. This process allowed them to act both as a consumer and a producer in assessing sci-comm materials. They learned how to critically evaluate the findings reported while also emulating the aspects they found most appealing, eye-catching, and attention-grabbing. This approach allowed students the opportunity to reflect on their own personal experiences when finally creating and disseminating scientific information to a general public in their own works.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the assignment offered students a guided approach to establishing a professional presence online. I hoped the assignment would help promote their professional development in a way they might not have considered otherwise. Using Twitter they found opportunities, conferences, internships, and graduate programs that they would not have noticed on other existing platforms. Networking became less intimidating. They developed Twitter friends, finding like-minded peers halfway across the world to interact with. While they have yet to meet in-person, they chat with one another, support one another, and often exchange materials. Moreover, initial engagement with possible collaborators and advisors allowed students to feel as if a connection had been established, which resulted in improved experience when sending cold emails to professionals. Once comfortable, many students utilized the platform to reach out to researchers with questions regarding scientific methods, employment and studentship opportunities. This resulted in e-mail exchanges and Zoom conversations in which possible future opportunities were discussed and/or additional networking contacts were presented.

As their instructor, my primary goal with this assignment was to show my students how to use Twitter as a professional tool and how to use it well. A year later, many of my students are still actively present online. Given the recent dramatic reliance to using online technologies, I have seen many of my students use their Twitter accounts when presenting at virtual conferences, promoting thesis defenses, and sharing tips on how to navigate online learning. I continue to share their Tweets, highlight their work, and support them when they share exciting news. Other students certainly use Twitter less frequently. For those students, I simply hope they come back to the tool when they need it and that they value having an already set-up account that caters to their interests and professional goals.

An extended screenshot from a course website that reads: We've done a great job this semester getting our twitter accounts set up. Way to go! At the start of the year, you relayed to me various reasons why you might use twitter. Now I'd like to put that into practice. 
For week 15, please: 
Confirm what you might think twitter could be useful for outside of this class. I'm particularly interested in your perception on how it may help you find opportunities post-ABC or MA degree. Would you use this to find job opportunities? If so, how? Who would you follow to find out this information? Would you use the tool to network at conferences? Are you planning on attending any? Have you noticed someone you academically admire might be attending this conference? How about attending events like talks, etc.? These are just a few questions to guide your thinking regarding this question. It’s absolutely okay not to like Twitter! I'm hoping that after this course you now have a foundational account, so that if it ever could be helpful, you have the opportunity to use this resource and tool. Please write a brief paragraph (4-7 sentences).
Now that you have thought about what you're likely/might use twitter for in the future, can you find various opportunities currently posted on the site? Try to find opportunities that have been posted in the last 6 months, ideally with deadlines that are still to come. Please find TWO opportunities. It could be a PhD posting, it could be a conference, it could be a talk, it could be a make-a-pet-bed-for-the-NYC-ACC event. In a few sentences, please explain why you select these two opportunities and how you aim to utilize these opportunities now, or in the future should another opportunity arise (I suggest you follow this poster of said opportunity!). Please try to find an opportunity that could be relevant for you specifically!
Figure 6. An example of the final assignment prompt posted to Blackboard requesting students think about what they may use Twitter for in the future, as well as requesting they identify opportunities that could be relevant for them in the future.

Coda: Student Feedback

I will be honest and say that when I found out at first that we needed to make a twitter I was dreading it. I have tried to make a twitter multiple times and it just wasn’t for me so I kept deleting it. After using this class as a way to guide my use of twitter as a useful educational tool, rather than a tool to spread useless information and personal beliefs I am much more content with using twitter. By only using it to follow professionals, students, and people interested in the same things I am interested in I was able to relate much more than I remember in the past using twitter. I was able to use twitter as a research method when applying to different graduate programs, and a backup plan I have if I don’t get into any of the schools I applied to and instead, need to find a research job. There are constantly new posts on twitter regarding opening in research positions and people who are looking to interview so that can be extremely useful in finding a future position that interests me.

Additional Resources

About the Author

Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere is the Director of CUNY Hunter College’s Thinking Dog Center within the Animal Behavior and Conservation Program in the Psychology Department. She studies animal behavior, specializing in canine behavior and cognition. Sarah’s research includes topics such as illusion susceptibility, play behavior, dog training methodologies, and animal sheltering practices. Dr. Byosiere has published her research in peer-revived scientific journals, presented her findings at conferences, and has been featured on NPR’s Science Friday, The New York Daily News, Gizmodo, and CuriosityStream. Twitter: @SEByosiere

Student Created Computationally Generated Geometric Design
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Chance Encounters: Pedagogical Methodologies for Teaching Creative Coding

This paper presents a model for teaching drawing with computer programming, using conceptual and visual characteristics of twentieth century avant-garde painting practices. It examines how this pedagogic methodology is then developed to combine, synthesize, and apply these insights algorithmically, using the Python programming language, to produce generative artistic forms that can be evaluated and iteratively refined. The learning unit’s goal is to provide media production students with a tangible formula to continually build their critical, creative, and technical skills as they engage with visual culture.

We often overlook how much of our lives hinge on chance events. From the economic, geographic, and educational environments that we are raised in, to our genetic makeup, these chance occurrences can have a far greater impact on shaping our lives than whatever individual efforts we put forth. How might students develop a creative process that embraces these contingencies in their work? How can an educator inspire undergraduate students who may not have an art history or programming background to imaginatively foster unpredictable artistic outcomes through rigorous procedural thinking? What models can be used for students to embrace problem solving and play in assignments?

I consider these questions in Creative Code, an undergraduate course intended to explore the concept of computer programming as a creative endeavor to produce algorithmically generated artwork. This class provides a foundation in computational skills and aesthetic systems in preparation for advanced classes in programming for gaming, physical computing, and web development in emerging media. In Creative Code we focus on crafting algorithmic poetry, drawing, and sound production using different coding environments and aesthetic tactics to learn essential programming skills. For this unit I model an aesthetic and technical methodology that demonstrates how to identify concepts like chance, constraint, and repetition from the analysis of artistic and programming examples. We then combine, synthesize, and apply these insights to produce new hybrid artistic forms that can be evaluated and refined so students have a formula to continually build their critical, creative, and technical skills.

Presentation and Discussion Methodology

The teaching sequence begins with an analysis and discussion of representative artworks then shifts to in-class programming exercises and is followed by a homework assignment that explores and refines algorithmic drawing. To ground our programming work within a theoretical and aesthetic context, we analyzed and discussed Marcel Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages (1913). Duchamp’s piece was created by dropping a meter-long string three times onto separate canvases at a height of a meter and then adhering the string’s unplanned placement to the canvas. This approach, known as using a ‘chance operation’ within the field of the arts, is a process that leaves some element of randomness in the outcome of the artwork. During our discussion of the piece, I asked the students why artists would be interested in incorporating random elements into their authorial vision. I was surprised by the variety of the answers they provided: students gave examples of unpredictable moments that connected to their daily lives, from unexpected delays on the subway to disruptions in internet service. Students suggested that artists who work with chance may be interested in bringing the arbitrariness of existence into their artistic practice.

We then turned our attention to the use of constraint systems, a set of rules or restrictions that limit the range of possible materials, treatments, or outcomes for the creation of art. In the case of Three Standard Stoppages, we saw how there were limitations put to aspects of the piece to give it unity and cohesion, like the fact that each string was the same length and dropped from the same height. These constraints allow for the chance act of the dropping of the string and its physical movement through air, and memorializing the incidental physics at play to have more of an impact in the comparisons when viewing the three pieces together. In addition to Duchamp’s piece, we also looked at the drawing process of contemporary artist Sougwen Chung and how she incorporates chance behavior of traffic patterns in New York City as part of the mark making process in her collaborative artworks with robots. In her duet painting performance Omnia per Omnia (2018), a video camera’s live feed of a traffic intersection in Manhattan is analyzed by a motion engine software analytics program developed at Nokia Bell Labs. Information about the walking patterns of pedestrians and cars is then sent to a swarm of robots that are painting on the same canvas as Chung as she responds to their lines and shapes. The piece mixes chance and constraint because the behavior of the individuals at the intersection is unpredictable but limited by the use of just one particular intersection. The traffic signals function as a set of rules that guide behavior and there is a filtering of the data from the computer vision so only higher-order statistics are sent to the robots for their drawing patterns, not all the data collected (Chung 2018). In discussion of both artworks, the function of repetition was also considered, noting the importance of repeating a process over time for Duchamp and the use of multiple robots creating a small swarm of drawing collaborators with Chung.

This introduction to chance occurrences, constraints, and repetition was then followed by an additional presentation of artwork created in the Russian Suprematism movement, an approach championed by Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, and Lakov Chernikhov. These artists wanted to move away from figurative painting, its history and connotations; they wanted to exclude all imagery except primitive geometric shapes. By critically looking at artworks created in this movement we noticed the parameters that the artists used to produce an infinite variety of imagery through the manipulation of the elements of art and design. The artists used variation in the length of lines in their artwork, the thickness of the lines, the hue, saturation and brightness of the colors of the geometric shapes, and location of the placement of objects on the two-dimensional plane.

In-Class Exercise

After our discussion and analysis of Duchamp, Chung and the Suprematists, the first computer programming exercise was introduced: create an algorithmic drawing that incorporates chance occurrences that is inspired by the Suprematist manipulation of basic geometric shapes. As a conceptual starting point for tackling the exercise we looked at taking the elements of design we identified in our analysis of the images (line, shape, color) and identified how the parameters that give them a specific character (width, length, hue, etc.) can become variables that can manipulated in a computer program. By creating a variable for the length of a line, the thickness of a line, the hue, saturation and brightness of the color, the size, height, and width of the geometric shapes, for instance, we would then be able to assign values from a random number generator in Python to these parameters. Each time the computer program is run it would draw a geometric shape where random variables determine the width, height, location on the screen, and color and then determine different variables the next time it is run.

Student Created Computationally Generated Geometric Design
Figure 1. Student artwork created with Python programming inspired by the Suprematist movement.

To help students get started on their first algorithmic drawing, a starter file was provided that offered an example of how a line can be drawn as well as a simple shape with the Python library TkInter. In the sample code, one variation for manipulating the hue parameter was shown and it was left to the students to continue to build on many of the additional parameters available for lines and shapes.

Once students had completed the first exercise, a second exercise scaffolded skills learned in a prior class by applying a programming technique called a “for loop.” This is a technique common in many programming languages that enables the programmer to repeat a process a designated amount of times. Students were asked to use a “for loop” to draw one hundred lines or shapes that feature randomness in their drawing. So instead of drawing just one element at a time with a block of code, the goal was to create an algorithm that could generate multiple iterations of a line or shape with varying parameters for each iteration of the “for loop.” Essentially, students could wrap the code from the prior exercise and automate the running of it multiple times. Once students were able to get this second exercise working, we took a moment to evaluate the output. This is an important step in computational art: students learn that although we are handing over some of the control of the artwork to chance operations, the artistic process is still iterative and evaluative. Just as the process of painting or drawing incorporates decisions on whether to erase or refine certain areas, in the digital realm we also look to see if we are getting the behaviors we find aesthetically compelling from the program and hone the code based on our impressions. For instance, if we feel the colors are too saturated or the lines are going too far over to one of the edges of the image, we can modify the parameter ranges to create the impression we would like to communicate.

A screenshot of small amount of code illustrating the For Loop in Python
Figure 2. “For loop” in the Python programming language.

Picking up on our conversation about constraint systems from Duchamp and Chung, we considered how algorithmic constraint systems could be introduced into our programs. How could limiting the ranges of possibility create a striking visual impact for the work? How could limiting the placement of object on the screen or patterns of overlapping shapes add to the composition’s complexity? The students were encouraged to think aesthetically about the possible ranges for their chance parameters and the use of repeated procedures in artistic expression. Some students created a set of monochromatic colors choices that vary in their amounts of brightness and saturation while others only used circles for their design. During this exercise we discussed how constraints and chance can co-exist within an artwork and it can generate a productive tension within the work.

Homework Assignment

This sequence of in-class presentations and exercises was intended to lay a technical and aesthetic foundation for algorithmic drawing and foster a creative interest in the subject that could be expanded upon with new techniques in their homework. For their take-home assignment, students were given a chapter to read on Object Oriented Programming from their textbook and asked to creatively apply these concepts to their algorithmic drawings from our in-class exercises, converting the code they had written to be used with objects and classes in Python. Their final submission was to include two algorithmic drawings, one based on Suprematists geometric abstraction and the other using a “for loop” to create more than one hundred instances of an object. This homework assignment also required scaffolding knowledge of color theory from a prerequisite class. For each drawing they were to use a color scheme, such as monochromatic, complimentary, split complimentary, or analogous, which drew on their design knowledge to create a unified visual look for their piece. In that previous course, they learned how to create a color scheme with a graphic interface in Adobe Photoshop; however, in Creative Code the color scheme was to be created using programming in a text editor.

Outcomes and Reflections

One of the outcomes of this sequence in the class is to enable students to look at their daily visual surroundings and to consider how aspects of art and design might be created computationally. How can I make something I see? How can the elements that constitute an image be turned into variables that can be programmed and automated? This process can help students improve their problem-solving skills and improve their ability to think programmatically and break down ideas into smaller achievable steps. This attention to their visual surroundings can also foster a greater sense of play between analysis and creativity that supports and refines both of these areas.

Not only was this exercise/sequence intended to model procedural thinking, it was also intended to model a methodology for developing a creative computational practice. By fusing two different artistic approaches in this exercise (chance operations and Suprematist geometric abstraction) with two programming approaches (generating random values and looping repetitions) I modeled a framework for making computational artwork. This mode of production emphasizes remixing both the artistic influences and technical skills the student has learned to synthesize these sources and yield inventive new creations.

One issue that this exercise clarified for me was to reconsider the choice of software that is appropriate for both computational poetry and algorithmic drawing. The TkInter library is a little opaque in aspects of its organization and can be confusing for a student’s initial exposure to working with code. The Processing programming language seems far better suited for first time users to begin creative explorations with their drawings. I was worried about shifting between three programming languages in one semester, from Python to Processing and then to Max for the audio and video processing, denying the feeling of proficiency in any development environment. For future iterations, I will remove Python from the course even though it allows for a much wider variety of textual analysis and manipulations for our computational poetry work. I plan on using this assignment again, this time with the Processing programming language, and comparing the results.

After looking at the student submissions of their homework, I was surprised by the variety and overall quality of the graphics from these emerging coders. I have found that the undergraduate students tend to produce some of their best work when the exercise is not too open-ended, where there is room for creativity and variation but within a focused field of play. The students seem to enjoy the ability to generate work that was visually compelling without hundreds of lines of code. Based on their in-class reactions, another pleasurable aspect of this exercise for the students was their excitement to produce one hundred or even one thousand shapes based on just a few minor modifications of their program. For the students’ final project, they were able to choose from any of the computationally generated artistic approaches we covered (sound composition, generative poetry, video processing or algorithmic drawing) and over a third of the class used algorithmic drawing as a significant part of the final project, suggesting this combination of exercises, discussions, and homework instilled an interest in diving deeper into this area. Through this sequence, students were able to see the aesthetic potential of programming as a rewarding area for deep creative explorations.

Bibliography

Chung, Sougwen. 2018. Omnia per Omnia. Accessed August 15, 2020. https://sougwen.com/project/omniaperomnia.

About the Author

Andrew Demirjian is an interdisciplinary artist who works with remix, rhythm and ritual. His work has been exhibited at The Museum of the Moving Image, Eyebeam, Fridman Gallery, Transformer Gallery, Rush Arts, the White Box gallery, the Center for Book Arts, The Newark Museum and many other galleries, festivals and museums. The MacDowell Colony, Nokia Bell Labs, Puffin Foundation, Artslink, and Harvestworks are among some of the organizations that have supported his work. He is a Fellow at the MIT Open Documentary Lab and teaches emerging media courses in the Film and Media Department at Hunter College.

A brightly painted mural located on 166 th Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx, depicting people in a Bronx cityscape.
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Visualizing the Urban

This assignment asks students to use the ubiquitous cell phone to take pictures of their neighborhoods, where they live, work, study, and play. Then they engage with the pictures in a sociologically critical way. It encourages critical thinking and analysis and promotes a better understanding of urban processes.

The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.
C. Wright Mills

Sociologist C. Wright Mills calls the insight that allows one to understand one’s position within society the “sociological imagination.” My goal in teaching sociology to undergraduate students has been to activate their sociological imagination. I assist them in the process of understanding how personal troubles and public issues are linked. In Urban Politics and Policy, which I have taught at City College every spring since 2016, I designed multimodal assignments to cultivate students’ sociological imagination. In this article I will describe “Visualizing the Urban,” a multimodal assignment which asked students to use their cell phones to engage with sociological phenomena in their daily lives, and then I will use pictures taken by students to show how they produced knowledge that was relevant to their lives.

In the era of social media and ubiquitous smart phones, young people are socialized in a visual culture where they readily share selfies and pictures of their social lives (Marwick 2015). I aimed to bring their critical eye to urban phenomena, which students learned to analyze in an urban sociology class. In “Visualizing the Urban,” students took pictures of their lived environment and connected what they observed to theoretical concepts. Students performed two separate tasks: (1) taking a picture in their work/residential environment, and (2) using the theoretical vocabulary that they learned in class to interpret the picture. The goal was for students to apply sociology vocabulary in explicating social phenomena they encountered.

“Visualizing the Urban” was one of many scaffolding assignments that I assigned during the semester. Along with other assignments, this assignment aimed for students to take sociological concepts out of the classroom and into the real world. Before doing this assignment, students learned about their neighborhoods through a census tract exercise. They examined their neighborhoods’ characteristics in depth through census information. They first extracted census statistics, then wrote a five-page report about various demographic information on their neighborhood such as race, educational attainment, and average income, and interpreted what the variables meant, asking questions about the social environments that they were embedded in. After the assignment, they proposed possible explanations as to why their neighborhoods were socially structured in specific ways. These questions and possible explanations served as the starting point for “Visualizing the Urban.”

Gentrification and Affordable Housing

As many students walked the streets of New York, they noticed gentrification’s social and urban processes engulfed their lives. Some wrote about new ethnic restaurants in their neighborhoods; others wrote about the beautification of their neighborhood walls with new murals/graffiti that supposedly captured their neighborhood’s character while, at the same time, drawing in new, young residents with more disposable income than they and their families.

Figure 1. Mural located on 166th street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx, photographed by Nancy Moreno.[1]

Nancy Moreno, a third-year sociology major, observed the contradictions that this mural holds. On the one hand, she described it as reflecting the culture in South Bronx. On the other hand, she analyzed the mural as part of a gentrification process that “has been stretched to all forms of neighborhood upgrades” and is a sign of tourist attraction. Using her sociological imagination in her interpretation of the image, Nancy shows how her history and biography are intertwined. As a resident of the South Bronx she witnesses and fears these waves of gentrification that leave “the poor and working class … with no choice but to leave.” Nancy’s analysis of the mural thus illuminates her personal stake, the history and politics involved in gentrification as based on race and class, and the relationship between the two.

Another example of a student’s analysis of low-income neighborhoods is Joshua Hambric’s work on community gardens and how low-income neighborhoods are using these spaces to fight against food deserts. He ties community gardens to neighborhood surveillance, vitality, and life.

Figure 2. Community Garden in East Harlem in Winter.

In his analysis of the “park,” Joshua used his sociological imagination to analyze the structural dimension of this neighborhood by bringing in statistics around poverty and class that demonstrated a public health crisis for those who could not afford healthier food choices. At the same time, he discussed his personal relationship to the park and the community members who used it to “grow fruits and vegetables as a way of getting healthy food options.” Space in New York City is viewed as a rare commodity. The use of this park served as urban revitalization in impoverished communities, creating an area that encouraged community engagement and emphasized Jane Jacobs’s ideals on the importance of eyes on the street and the importance of the vitality of the neighborhood.

Community

Gentrification is all-encompassing, prompting my students to reflect upon living in a community within the New York metropolis. The concepts they often evoke are Gesellschaft [community] and Gemeinschaft [society]. The German theorist Ferdinand Tönnies used these concepts in the late nineteenth century to describe the transition from a small social group to a larger one, where the smaller social organization is often described as close-knit, while the larger one is more impersonal and instrumental.

Ayda Hossain described the social bonding of protesters in front of an Amazon bookstore as a sign of Gemeinschaft.

Figure 3. A protest in front of an Amazon bookstore on 34th Street. News anchors from several channels came to broadcast the event.

She argued that the protest against Amazon connected and unified people and used herself as an example: “These people are against the Amazon corporation. This event therefore unified people and connected them through interpersonal contact.” Even though she was busy on her way to an event, she “stood there with them for a few minutes and expressed similar feelings. This created a sort of bonding between strangers.” She finally argued that even in a big society like New York, social media had brought strangers together. Therefore, she raised a question whether the distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft has been blurred because of new media and technology.

Discussions

Most students commented that this exercise helped them think more critically about what they encountered on a daily basis. This low-stakes assignment created an opportunity for them to apply abstract sociological concepts to their daily lives and connect their lives with the sociological phenomena they were a part of. They reflected on both their lives and the theoretical concepts that they learned in the first half of the course. The assignment served as a starting point for a larger research project they submitted at the end of the course. In the second half of the course, they often brought up the pictures they took as a reference to make a theoretical point during class discussions. Students were more forthcoming with their lived experiences and ready to share them on various topics. Not only did they acquire deeper understanding of theoretical concepts, they were also able to use their experience to demonstrate how these concepts were applicable in their lives.

Through this exercise, I learned from my students where they lived, worked, and played. It was an opportunity for me to co-experience their daily lives through the visual observations. I was able to walk with them virtually around New York, gaze at a social phenomenon, and understand a slice of their social world through their own narratives. Furthermore, their reflections on how they could connect this exercise to various urban struggles that they and their families experienced show that they started thinking about how sociological concepts could be meaningfully interpreted and applied to their daily lives. In this sense, they were able to use their cell phones to learn how to engage critically with the surrounding environment.

In the age of social media, younger people use highly visual media such as Instagram and selfies to present themselves. In my classroom, I asked my students to reclaim those ubiquitous digital tools for a critical look at their urban living. They engaged the practice and connected abstract concepts, numbers in the census, to visual recognition that they encountered on a daily basis. By engaging with what they produce critically, my students applied their sociological knowledge to their daily lives. They also began to ask important questions about the phenomena around them. In the end, a few students further developed their final research projects: affordable housing, vandalism, urban poverty, and how New Yorkers interact with public spaces. As a scaffolding assignment, this exercise helped them formulate research ideas in the first half the class.

Notes

[1] All names in this article are pseudonyms.

Bibliography

Marwick, Alice. E. 2015. “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy.” Public Culture 27, no. 1: 137–160. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2798379.

Mills, C. Wright, and Todd Gitlin. 2000. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Nga Than is a PhD student in sociology at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research interests are in entrepreneurship, international migration, social media, and computational social science. As a mixed-methods scholar, she has conducted qualitative research using interviewing and participant observation, as well as employing machine learning to analyze text data and administrative data. Her research has received support the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Taiwan’s Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, CUNY’s Doctoral Student Research Grant, and the CUNY Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant.

A map titled "History of American Capitalism", which shows superfund sites and the poverty ratio in sections of Michigan and Illinois.
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Introducing GIS in the History Classroom: Mapping the Legacies of the Industrial Era in Postindustrial America

Dr. Burd planned this lesson for a 100 level course titled History of American Capitalism. Students built digital maps using ArcGIS Online and later reflected on the benefits of the technology as an educational tool.

Introduction

During the fall 2018 semester, I taught a coursed titled History of American Capitalism. In addition to a history of economic trends, the course examined the ways in which American capitalism has influenced a set of ideas and cultural attitudes about wealth, citizenship, identity, gender, and the use of natural resources. The course structure was mostly traditional, as a vast majority of instruction blended lecture and seminar-style discussion around several readings. Though I followed this structure for much of the semester, I intentionally designed one module to introduce students to GIS mapping believing that the spatial tool could be an asset in instruction. My decision to choose GIS mapping grew from a wealth of scholarship that demonstrates that spatial tools can improve understanding, critical thinking, and cultural empathy (Hawthorne 2011; Johanson et al. 2012; Kelley 2017; Sinha et al. 2017). By incorporating GIS technology into the course, I introduced students to new digital tools while enabling participants to engage with the course material in a unique way in order to improve historical understanding, critical thinking, and digital literacy.

Overview

During the 75-minute session, I designated 15 minutes to reviewing themes from the previous course sessions. Leading up to the course module, I used lecture and assigned readings based on the work of historians that examined ecological and economic realities of postindustrial America (Hurley 1995; Neumann 2019). In class, we reviewed how the closures of industrial sites left many Americans unemployed, often forcing laid-off employees to find employment elsewhere—often at a fraction of their previous salary. The lesson was designed to teach students that although certain businesses may go bankrupt, move, or dissolve, the firms’ legacies long outlive their corporate existence. We can track America’s postindustrial era both through the ecological footprint of industrialization as well as its long-lasting economic void in countless manufacturing communities across the landscape. Tasking students to construct a GIS map of that historical legacy offered students the opportunity to become active learners in the course content.

After reviewing the course materials, I asked students to open ArcGIS Online and provided a brief overview of the tool. Students came to learn that ArcGIS Online is a free, open-access mapping tool that allows users to upload, visualize, analyze, and share geographic-based information. I chose to use ArcGIS Online in place of similar programs such as QGIS and Carto because the platform is free and also provides users quick access to the tool upon registration. I demonstrated the basic functions of the online version of the program including how to add features to a map and change the base layer. I then directed students to the feature that allows users to add new datasets or additional layers to maps based on information published to the web. Informed by the preceding lectures and knowledgeable about the basic functions of ArcGIS Online, students had to search, find, and add a dataset published by the Environmental Protection Agency outlining the National Priorities List of Superfund sites. The dataset provides information on several hundred hazardous sites, each with brief descriptions including the environmental issues and historic company responsible for the waste. The data includes Superfund sites whose addition to the list can date back to the early 1980s (Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980) as well as data compiled within months of the class meeting. I asked students to pick a site, examine the scope of the waste, and do some basic searching on the web about the history of the company. Students often chose Superfund sites close their homes—often surprised to find that such toxic waste ever existed so close to their childhood home. At this point, we had a brief conversation where students shared a specific site and its industrial history. As expected, many of the Superfund sites derived from companies that either closed down, moved, or went bankrupt during the peak deindustrialization years. The visualization created a space for discussion among students as they quickly realized that the toxic legacy of many industrial companies outlived the firms’ years of operation.

The lesson not only tracked the historical roots of modern Superfund sites, it also pressed students to think about how modern populations are still affected by a company’s actions several decades ago. After a vibrant discussion about the Superfund dataset, I asked students to add another dataset that maps poverty ratios based on recent Census statistics (the published data was based on the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2013). As the students built confidence in their ability to navigate the ArcGIS Online tool, they began to realize the potential of map building as an instrument for sharing information and demonstrating visual evidence. Upon adding the new dataset, students explored the geographic relationship between modern poverty rates and the location of toxic waste sites. We began to discuss how adding datasets as separate layers influenced the first set of data and how the correlation between the two might contribute to a larger story of deindustrialization. Students began to imagine how visualizing both sets of data in geographic terms creates visual correlations as both an argument about the information as well as a vehicle to share this information with external audiences. After self-guided exploration, the students came back together for discussion. I asked several questions using the visualization as a source of conversation and critical engagement with the history of the postindustrial era. “Did you know that the American landscape contains this many toxic landscapes? Are there any sites close to your hometown? As you explore the map, do you get a sense of any correlation between poverty rates and current Superfund sites?” The corresponding discussion was strengthened as students navigated the spatial visualization they recently created.

Figure 1. Map with Superfund site and poverty rate information displayed.

Student Reactions

Using an anonymous and voluntary questionnaire, I asked students to reflect on the use of ArcGIS Online and its effectiveness during the course session. In addition to gauging students’ reactions to the specific lesson, I also encouraged students to think more broadly about GIS technology and imagine its possibilities outside of this particular course. Below are sample items from the questionnaire:

  • What past experiences have you had with ArcGIS or other data-visualization technology?
  • When you partook in the historical data-visualization learning module, what did you think you were learning?
  • How could you imagine using ArcGIS and other data-visualization software in the future?

Of the twenty-one students in the course, six volunteered to participate in the survey, and only one student noted previous experience with the tool. The responses could be organized into two basic themes. First, students reflected on how ArcGIS aided in learning the specific content affiliated with the History of American Capitalism course. Second, students demonstrated an understanding how the tool could be applied to other research and writing.

Based on student responses, it became apparent that ArcGIS Online improved student learning and comprehension of the specific lesson. One student noted the connection between the GIS learning module and the larger course themes: “We used two layers on the US map—households below the poverty line and superfund sites—to determine whether there was a particular correlation between the two.” Another student noted that the module provided the “same historical research and content as one would [get] through reading a book or paper.” The students’ comments also revealed how students welcomed the course module. The use of ArcGIS Online broke with more traditional forms of engagement such as journal articles, books, and other text-based course material providing students with different learning styles new opportunities to participate in the class.

One respondent especially appreciated the spatial focus of the exercise noting that the lesson made them aware of “how History and Geography are linked,” and that the “data visualization allow[ed] for patterns to be observed.” The comments reveal ways in which ArcGIS Online might be harnessed as a powerful tool for student learning in the history and humanities classroom. For those lessons that involve geographic information, the careful use of mapping technology offers students with an opportunity to become active learners. The process of building the map allowed students to critically engage with course material by using visualizations and geographic information as a form of historical argumentation.

The exercise also exposed students to a technology not commonly used in a history classroom. Participants expressed an enthusiasm to use ArcGIS in future assignments or courses, including one student who wrote, “With regards to writing historical research papers that [focus] a lot on specific data, ArcGIS would be an amazing source to back up particular claims within a study.” Another student echoed that message noting, “I would imagine using ArcGIS or another data visualization software as a tool for presenting research to an audience, i.e. giving them something more interesting to look at rather [than] just writing on a page and describing findings using only words.” Though their exposure to ArcGIS Online was brief, students who participated in the ArcGIS Online module and responded to the questionnaire noted an interest in the technology and noted its value in teaching the course content.

Conclusion

After reviewing the participants’ comments, I was struck with the eagerness to use ArcGIS Online more often in the classroom. It became clear throughout the classroom activity, as well as subsequent reviews, that students found the mapping software a helpful tool to learning. As the instructor, I was both affirmed by the comments and curious about the ways that I might be able use student feedback for future course design. For example, I could plan courses with more mapmaking and data visualization as a form of active learning. In this scenario, students would design and build maps with course material with geographic information. By designing individual course modules in this way, I could help students become more familiar with ArcGIS Online and feel emboldened to use the technology in other classes and outside coursework. Additionally, I could imagine providing students with more sustained interaction by using ArcGIS StoryMaps—a related program that integrates images, video, long-form writing, and traditional mapmaking—to design and publish longer histories as a final assignment. Both scenarios allow students to further engage with the mapping software and increase active learning time in the course.

Overall, the responses strengthen the claims of digital humanists who advocate for the use of technology in the classroom (Bonds 2014; Clement 2012; Iantorno 2014; Jakacki 2016; Locke 2017). As many digital humanists argue, the use of new technologies offers an opportunity to diversify curriculum, expand the ways in which students engage with course content, and introduce thoughtful engagement with new digital tools of the twenty-first century. It is my hope that this course module and related student feedback provide a roadmap for educators who wish to incorporate more hands-on and active-learning activities into humanities education. Given the students’ eagerness to engage more with ArcGIS Online, as well as their abilities to envision future applications for the tool, I believe the use of digital mapping tools will enhance student engagement and learning in the humanities classroom.

Bibliography

Bonds, E. Leigh. 2014. “Listening in on the Conversations: An Overview of Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” The CEA Critic 76, no. 2 (July): 147–157.

Clement, Tanya. 2012. “Multiliteracies in the Digital Humanities Curriculum: Skills, Principles, and Habits of Mind.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles, and Politics, edited by Brett. D. Hirsch, 365–388. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

Hawthorne, Timothy L. 2011. “Communities, Cartography and GIS: Enhancing Undergraduate Geographic Education with Service Learning.” International Journal of Applied Geospatial Data 2, no. 2: 1–16.

Hurley, Andrew. 1995. Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945–1980. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.

Iantorno, Luke A. 2014. “Introducing Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” The CEA Critic 76, no 2 (July): 140–146.

Jakacki, Diane. 2016. “Doing DH in the Classroom: Transforming the Humanities Curriculum through Digital Engagement.” In Doing Digital Humanities: Practice, Training, Research, edited by Constance Crompton, Richard J. Lane, and Ray Siemens, 358–372. New York: Routledge.

Johanson, Chris, Elaine Sullivan, Janice Reiff, Diane Favro, Todd Presner, and Willeke Wendrich. 2012. “Teaching Digital Humanities through Digital Cultural Mapping.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles, and Politics, edited by Brett D. Hirsch, 121–150. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

Kelley, Shannon. 2017. “Getting on the Map: A Case Study in Digital Pedagogy and Undergraduate Crowdsourcing.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 11, no. 3: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/3/000330/000330.html.

Locke, Brandon. 2017. “Digital Humanities Pedagogy as Essential Liberal Education: A Framework for Curriculum Development.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 11, no. 3: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/3/000303/000303.html.

Neumann, Tracy. 2019. Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sinha, Gaurev, Thomas A. Smucker, Eric J. Lovell, Kgosietsile Velempini, Samuel A. Miller, Daniel Weiner, and Elizabeth Edna Wangui. 2017. “The Pedagogical Benefits of Participatory GIS for Geographic Education.” Journal of Geography 116, no. 4 (August): 165–179.

About the Author

Camden Burd holds a PhD in History from the University of Rochester. From 2016–2018 he was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities. In 2018, the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning at the University of Rochester awarded him a Teaching-as-Research Fellowship to study student reactions to digital technologies in the humanities classroom. He also was named a Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory Scholars Fellow from 2017–2019. Beginning in fall 2020 Burd will begin as an Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Illinois University.

A screenshot of a highlighted section of the research essay; students’ annotations comment on the driving question and data collection in a word processor.
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Visualizing Essay Elements: A Color-Coding Approach to Teaching First-year Writing

In this piece, I share a strategy for teaching first-year writing in which students color-code and annotate sample rhetorical analysis and research-based essays for elements including citations, quotations, transition words, vocabulary, and structure.

Introduction

Digital platforms such as Google Docs offer spaces for students to visualize, conceptualize, and collaborate on learning. While teaching writing, I have observed that first-year students often struggle with academic writing skills including developing ideas, incorporating and citing sources, and organizing essays. In this article, I share a Google Docs activity I designed and implemented in a first-year writing class that asks students to color-code and annotate sample rhetorical analysis and research-based essays for elements such as citations, quotations, transition words, vocabulary, and structure. The assignment enhances students’ metacognitive awareness of the characteristics of essay writing in various genres and supports the social construction of learning. In addition, this activity fosters first-year writing learning goals including teaching students to develop strategies for composing and to “create complex, analytic, well-supported arguments that matter in academic contexts and beyond” (UM English 124/125 Learning Goals).

Color-Coding Rhetorical Analysis Essays

While teaching the rhetorical analysis genre, I encourage students to interpret rhetorical appeals such as logos, ethos, and pathos. I ask students to select an article of their choice that is targeted toward an audience within a particular discourse community that they are familiar with or interested in examining. As I state in the essay prompt (included below), I instruct students to “analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the rhetorical strategies that the author employs in order to communicate his/her purpose. In addition, interpret the text in relation to the larger context.”

To scaffold the essay writing process, I share sample essays with the class and have students work in small groups to evaluate each essay based on the rubric criteria, which includes development/argument, structure/organization, and language/craft. In addition, as a way to facilitate students’ awareness of the language-level elements of essay writing, such as citations and transition words, I developed color-coding guidelines that ask students to color-code the following elements in each body paragraph of a sample essay and, optionally, in their own essay drafts. As a way to enhance accessibility for students with varying visual needs, I included options for identifying the elements using bold, italic, underline, and highlight:

  • Citations to sources in red/bold
  • Quotations from sources in green/italic
  • Transition words/phrases in blue/underline
  • Precise vocabulary/word choice in purple/highlight

In one class activity, students worked in small groups to color-code the sample essay “A Lopsided Pyramid: An Analysis on Michael Greger’s Call to Ditch the Dairy.” I shared the essay with the class as a Google Doc, and each student accessed the doc on their individual laptops, so that each member of the class could edit the doc simultaneously. I assigned each group to highlight a different body paragraph.

This image shows a screenshot of a color-coded paragraph from a rhetorical analysis essay, with the citations in red, quotations in green, transition words in underline, and vocabulary in purple
Figure 1. Screenshot of a color-coded rhetorical analysis essay paragraph.

As illustrated in the screenshot, one group highlighted the name of the article’s author (Greger) in red, a quotation in green/italics (“accelerated aging, being overweight, canker sores, kidney stones, childhood asthma, constipation, prediabetes and diabetes, prostate and other cancers, heart disease, imbalanced hormones, mucus, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, rising blood pressure, skin wrinkling, sudden infant death syndrome, ulcerative colitis, bacterial vaginosis, and Multiple Sclerosis”), transition words and phrases in blue/underline (“in addition,” “though the article is short,” and “also”), and precise vocabulary in purple (“methodically,” “shear,” “extremely,” “sophisticated,” “compromised,” and “bombarded”). Following the activity, I asked each group to share their observations about the paragraphs they highlighted.

Color-coding Research-based Essays

This image shows a screenshot of instructions for annotating the research essay; each group is assigned a different section to identity and annotate.
Figure 2. Screenshot of color-coding instructions for the sample research-based essay.

In addition to engaging students in this rhetorical analysis activity, I have adapted this color-coding exercise for research-based essays. In the research-based essay assignment, I ask students to examine a topic of their choice by conducting secondary well as primary research, including observations, surveys, or interviews. The assignment encourages students to contribute to a conversation that holds interest or significance to them. As students often investigate issues that arise from their personal interests, this genre can include traditionally narrative elements such as scene-setting and description as well as typical elements of research articles, including secondary sources, primary data collection, findings, analysis, and discussion. In this sense, this genre is hybrid in form, interweaving aspects of narrative, analytical, and research-based writing. Observing that students sometimes struggle with conceptualizing ways to structure their essays, especially when approaching unfamiliar genres such as this one, I developed an activity in which students highlight the sections of a sample essay entitled “A Tale of Two Ice Cream Stores.”

As shown in the instructions, each group is assigned to identify, highlight, and annotate a different section of the essay (exposition and context, driving questions/hypothesis, secondary source evidence, data collection and results, analysis and discussion, and conclusion).

This image shows a screenshot of a highlighted section of the research essay; students’ annotations comment on the driving question and data collection.
Figure 3. Screenshot of students’ highlights and annotations of the sample research-based essay.

As shown in the screenshot above, for example, a student highlighted the driving question in purple (“Did locals, like my best friend, support Stucchi’s more than Ben & Jerry’s because of its connection to Ann Arbor?”) and commented, “Driving question of how a local business can compete with a large corporation lead to the hypothesis regarding the connection with Ann Arbor.” Another group highlighted the description of the primary data collection in green, while a student commented, “Data Collection through a survey posted to Facebook.”

This image shows a screenshot of the concluding section of the research essay; students’ annotations comment on the conclusion.
Figure 4. Screenshot of students’ highlights and annotations of the sample research-based essay.

As shown in the second screenshot above, four students annotated the final paragraphs of the essay with their comments. As seen in the highlighted sections, the analysis (“what they stand for, and the quality of their products”) leads naturally into a conclusion (“But convenience comes with a price…”), while a further rhetorical question is posed within the conclusion (“Do we truly want everywhere to look the same? Have the same familiar stores, the same familiar logos?”). This screenshot illustrates the multilayered, intersecting nature of writing purposes and structures, showing that the sections are not necessarily linear, sequential, or mutually exclusive. Although this sample essay serves as one possible model or guide for approaching the assignment, I encourage students to structure their essays in flexible ways, according to their intended purposes for writing. For instance, I note the way the writer of the sample essay recursively generates new driving questions throughout the essay as opposed to only presenting initial questions in the opening.

Discussion

As illustrated, these color-coding activities render visible and legible the discrete elements of writing and enhance students’ metacognitive awareness of academic argumentation in various rhetorical situations. While collaborating on a Google Doc, students co-construct meaning by identifying key characteristics of written genres and by annotating the essays with their own commentary. Even so, one possible limitation of this approach might be that conceptions of writing are reduced to the surface-level features of a writing sample. In the future, I seek to encourage critical discussion of the shifting, evolving nature of academic writing as constructed by continual interactions across generic and discursive contexts, as writers shape and become shaped by the discourses they create. In this sense, students can become inspired not only to form their written compositions, but to transform their conceptions of writing as well.

Appendixes

Appendix A – Color-Coding Guidelines
Appendix B – Rhetorical Analysis Essay Prompt
Appendix C – Research-Based Argument Essay Prompt

About the Author

Ruth Li is a PhD student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research examines first-year students’ writing about literature, with attention to the reading-writing connection. More broadly, she is interested in literacy studies, writing development, applied linguistics, and digital tools and technologies for supporting writing research, pedagogy, and assessment. She serves as an instructor in the English Department Writing Program, where she has taught first-year and upper-level writing classes.

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