Issue Nineteen

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A laptop in a classroom displays a Zoom class in session.
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Introduction

Normal teaching and learning processes are occurring amidst difficult and confusing times: the ever-intensifying impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing awareness and recognition of racial and social injustices, and the looming emergency of climate disasters threatening to dismantle entire communities. Despite the increasingly precarious circumstances, instructors and students have adapted, relying intensively on digital tools to replace some or all face-to-face instruction. There is little doubt that the changes brought about in the past 15 months will affect the future of teaching and learning, yet how exactly remains to be negotiated.

In this issue of the Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy, we sought to continue the conversations taking place in our general issues while likewise providing a special forum for instructors to reflect directly on the experience of teaching amidst COVID-19 and its rippling aftermath.

The pandemic brought to the forefront for many the importance of considering how digital technologies shape teaching practices and afford opportunities for learning that do not and need not replicate “analog” modes of instruction. This very set of concerns has driven the JITP editorial collective from the founding of the journal, and we therefore felt duty-bound to create a space for authors to share their creative and critical reflections on this potentially decisive moment in the development of online and distanced modes of instruction. We intended for this issue’s featured section to not only serve as a reminder of the resilience of teachers and students working and learning through the crisis, but also as an opportunity to rethink the structures of mentorship and teaching that drew many instructors to the academic context in the first place. In this regard, a broader question that is implicit through many of the articles in this issue is whether the conventional structure of the academy is tenable when public health—the very fabric of society—unravels. We hope this issue provides an opportunity to rethink existing instructional practices and improve upon them.

General Issue

The articles in this issue touch on a variety of themes related to online communication, digital privacy, pedagogy of culture and representation, as well as online collaboration. Sean Molloy and Carissa Kelly consider assignments in which students create YouTube videos as a way of thinking about writing to various audiences in “Classmates, Family, Friends, Followers, Allies, Opponents, Enemies, Bosses, Trolls, Haters, Users, and Google: Understanding Digital Audiences On YouTube.” The authors explore how students can mobilize YouTube to transform essays into an audio-visual medium and expand possibilities for communication across space and time. Through publicly hosted video essays, students can reach larger—though not always friendly—audiences well beyond their instructor and, through this, participate in diverse cultural conversations across social media.

Charles Woods and Noah Wilson argue in “The Rhetorical Implications of Data Aggregation: Becoming a ‘Dividual’ in a Data-Driven World” that social media users do not have “meaningful access” to privacy policies (and thus to the platforms governed by them) if they lack a genuine understanding of the ways their data is aggregated and used by platform providers. Using key insights from contemporary scholarship on the politics of algorithmic user profiling, the authors provide guidelines for a scaffolded assignment sequence that begins with rhetorical analysis and then uses peer collaboration to understand and integrate key concepts.

In “Experiential Approaches to Teaching African Culture and the Politics of Representation: Building the ‘Documenting Africa’ Project with StoryMapJS,” Mary Anne Lewis Cusato and Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi propose a digital solution to the problem of U.S. student reliance on stereotypes and misinformation about Africa and African peoples and cultures. Through a creative collaboration between two courses, students confronted biases and misrepresentations permeating Western perceptions of Africa. Here, collaboration serves as a way to challenge student assumptions and produce a better collective understanding.

Spencer D. C. Keralis, Courtney E. Jacobs, and Matthew Weirick Johnson showcase the platform TimelineJS in “Collaborative Digital Projects in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom: Case Studies with Timeline JS,” highlighting the intuitive aspects of the technology, and exploring how it can enhance student learning experiences in classes like a World Literature survey by providing a way to actively and collaboratively engage with primary source material. In its multimodal functionality, TimelineJS is a unique learning tool for both processing and presenting information, the authors argue, and students can use it to think about the temporal and spatial relationships between moments in history and in fiction. Many of these themes, particularly that of collaboration, are echoed in the dialogues driving our editing process at the JITP. Our open review process establishes conversations among authors, reviewers, and editors, providing mentorship and opportunities for reflection.

Forum on Teaching in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

While the articles included in the forum for this issue cover a range of topics, two distinct themes emerged from the submissions. First, any semblance of instructional continuity has clearly depended on maintaining social engagement and support for students while teaching in remote and online learning environments. Second, our online pedagogies, even when cobbled together in the midst of crisis, should be used as opportunities to interrupt the reproduction of social inequality. These concerns emerge in large part from the growing general consciousness about social injustices spurred by the continued development of movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and others, forcing a general reckoning with questions of racism, policing, and oppression beyond the public denialism that has long characterized mainstream discourse.

Maintaining social engagement and support online

Many instructors faced the reality of teaching during a period of intense emotional and psychological trauma, as the height of the pandemic has claimed the lives of friends and loved ones. Our daily routines have been upended, and commonplace social practices of care have moved out of reach, prompting extended periods of isolation and leaving little time for the work of grief and mourning. Like never before, instructors of all educational levels had to consider techniques for encouraging social engagement, not only as a means of learning content but also as a means of coping with the trauma inflicted simply by living during a pandemic. Several of the authors in the forum describe approaches they have adopted to foster resilience among students, like developing tools to promote online engagement, relationship-building, and coping strategies.

Adhering to social-distancing practices also created challenges in providing students real-time feedback for effective learning. In “Assessing the Effectiveness of Using Live Interactions and Feedback to Increase Engagement in Online Learning,” Beth Porter, John Doucette, Andrew Reilly, Dan Calacci, Burcin Bozkaya, and Alex Pentland describe the use of an in-browser video chat app that provides metrics of users’ participation, and discuss the implications and current limitations of using the app to promote engagement, feedback, and learning even when collaborating across distance.

Salome Apkhazishvili, Serene Arena, and Renee Hobbs explore how teacher professional development can take place in online environments in “The Help Desk as a Community-Building Tool for Online Professional Development.” The authors found that relationship-building strategies that emphasized participants as co-learners empowered instructors with a sense of interconnectedness, agency, and community—as well as the technical and pedagogical support—during the dramatic pivot to online learning.

Recognizing the trauma students were likely to face during the pandemic, Antigoni Kotsiou, Erica Juriasingani, Marc Maromonte, Jacob Marsh, Christopher R. Shelton, Richard Zhao, and Lisa Jo Elliott describe a collaborative and interdisciplinary process of creating a mobile app for students to track their emotions and develop coping strategies in “Interdisciplinary Approach to a Coping Skills App: A Case Study.”

Teaching toward social justice

The COVID-19 crisis not only necessitated that we as educators consider how learning can take place through technology, but also, in its clear interconnection with crises of racial and social justice more broadly, the need for antiracist and social-justice–informed pedagogy has become even more urgent. Many of the authors here look at how we can move from thinking theoretically about questions of inclusivity to designing digital classrooms, courses, and assignments that put these theoretical concerns into concrete practice, centering trauma-informed pedagogy and racial justice.

In “‘The Future Started Yesterday and We’re Already Late’: The Case for Antiracist Online Teaching,” David L. Humphrey and Camea Davis note the potential for educational technology to serve as a tool of academic liberation, while critically evaluating not only the shortcomings of purely technical fixes in achieving this aim, but also how the use of such technology can serve to maintain control and reinforce existing oppressive societal structures. The authors direct attention to the conspicuous absence of antiracist pedagogy in mainstream theories of online learning, and call for a shift that centers antiracist pedagogy to the benefit of all.

Also noting the inequities that became even more apparent amidst the pandemic, Michael Mandiberg considers how feminist theories of care might help us in achieving these goals.In their piece, “Trauma-Informed Pedagogy in the Digital Media Pandemic Classroom,” Mandiberg brings the insights of trauma-informed pedagogy to bear on the use of technologies like Adobe Creative Cloud technologies and their web-based clones.

These adaptations seeking to humanize the differently technologized pandemic classroom have a great deal to offer to broader projects of rethinking the current structure of teaching and learning from pre-K through college. Mary Frances (Molly) Buckley-Marudas and Shelley E. Rose describe one such model of post-pandemic pedagogy that aims to do just that: in “Collaboration, Risk, and Pedagogies of Care: Looking to a Postpandemic Future,” the authors describe their work founding the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative and, as the title implies, three primary pedagogical thematics that may help set the stage for important changes in the future of education.

Final Thoughts

Although this is one of many forums for reflection on teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, JITP has sought to provide creative and research-based ways to incorporate and center digital technologies in responsive and responsible pedagogy for nearly a decade. Whether included in the special forum on teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic or not, many of the articles included here consider the ways instructors can craft or maintain more equitable digital spaces for students’ individual and collective reflection. The pandemic forced many instructors to adopt instructional technologies for the first time or reevaluate tools they were already using, driving us all to consider which platforms and methodologies are most accessible and useful for this new and not-so-new world of teaching. Such considerations have shed light on larger pedagogical practices that will continue to inform and change our approaches to teaching in the future, asking us to reimagine our classrooms both within and outside of emergencies like this.

About the Editors

Anna Alexis Larsson is a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and adjunct lecturer in English at Queens College and LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. She serves as program manager of BlabRyte, a community writing web app, in addition to being a member of the editorial collective of The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. Her research interests include ecological theories of writing, transnational literacy and translingualism, and feminist rhetorical studies. Her dissertation investigates the tension between inquiry and performance in the composition process—particularly within First Year Writing programs—to build a theory of reparative practice and apply it through a grant-funded and award-winning online writing environment.

Teresa Ober is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Notre Dame working in the Learning Analytics and Measurement in Behavioral Sciences (LAMBS) Lab. Teresa completed her PhD in Educational Psychology from the Graduate Center, CUNY, specializing in Learning, Development, and Instruction. Teresa’s present and intended future research interests broadly overlap with developmental and cognitive psychology, and the learning sciences. More information about her most current work can be found here: https://tmober.github.io.

Nicole Zeftel is a Clinical Assistant Professor of composition and professional writing at the University at Buffalo and received a PhD in Comparative Literature with a Certificate in American Studies from the Graduate Center, CUNY, in 2018. In her previous position as an Instructional Technology Fellow at the Macaulay Honors College, CUNY, Nicole studied how creative digital projects promote active learning. In addition to her work in the digital humanities and composition pedagogy, Nicole’s research focuses on the intersection between nineteenth-century American women’s literature, religion, and medical discourse, and she is currently working on a book about the impact of spiritualism on women’s writing.

A screenshot of a Zoom classroom is obscured by a visual filter.
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Table of Contents

Introduction
Anna Alexis Larsson, Teresa Ober, and Nicole Zeftel

Classmates, Family, Friends, Followers, Allies, Opponents, Enemies, Bosses, Trolls, Haters, Users, and Google: Understanding Digital Audiences On YouTube
Sean Molloy and Carissa Kelly

The Rhetorical Implications of Data Aggregation: Becoming a “Dividual” in a Data-Driven World
Charles Woods and Noah Wilson

Experiential Approaches to Teaching African Culture and the Politics of Representation: Building the “Documenting Africa” Project with StoryMapJS
Mary Anne Lewis Cusato and Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi

Collaborative Digital Projects in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom: Case Studies with Timeline JS
Spencer D. C. Keralis, Courtney E. Jacobs, and Matthew Weirick Johnson

Forum on Teaching in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Assessing the Effectiveness of Using Live Interactions and Feedback to Increase Engagement in Online Learning
Beth Porter, John Doucette, Andrew Reilly, Dan Calacci, Burcin Bozkaya, and Alex Pentland

The Help Desk as a Community-Building Tool for Online Professional Development
Salome Apkhazishvili, Serene Arena, and Renee Hobbs

Interdisciplinary Approach to a Coping Skills App: A Case Study
Antigoni Kotsiou, Erica Juriasingani, Marc Maromonte, Jacob Marsh, Christopher R. Shelton, Richard Zhao, and Lisa Jo Elliott

“The Future Started Yesterday and We’re Already Late”: The Case for Antiracist Online Teaching
David L. Humphrey and Camea Davis

Trauma-Informed Pedagogy in the Digital Media Pandemic Classroom
Michael Mandiberg

Collaboration, Risk, and Pedagogies of Care: Looking to a Postpandemic Future
Mary Frances (Molly) Buckley-Marudas and Shelley E. Rose

Issue Nineteen Masthead

Issue Editors
Anna Alexis Larsson
Teresa Ober
Nicole Zeftel

Managing Editor
Patrick DeDauw

Copyeditors
Param Ajmera
Elizabeth Alsop
Patrick DeDauw
Jojo Karlin
Sarah Soanirina Ohmer
Angel David Nieves
Brandon Walsh
Anna Zeemont
Dominique Zino

Staging Editors
Patrick DeDauw
Kelly Hammond
Laura Wildemann Kane
Sarah Whitcomb Laiola
Danica Savonick
sava saheli singh
Luke Waltzer

Students in youtube montage are apparent.
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Classmates, Family, Friends, Followers, Allies, Opponents, Enemies, Bosses, Trolls, Haters, Users, and Google: Understanding Digital Audiences On YouTube

Abstract

For well over a decade now, college writing teachers have recognized a “digital imperative” to empower and guide students to compose and publish digital work. The choice to publish to the complex audiences of the internet offers remarkable opportunities, raises critical issues, and involves some real risks. Since 2013, students in Sean Molloy’s college writing classes have posted their “3-minute movie” video essays to YouTube and thought about the kinds of audiences they might reach there. (Carissa Kelly posted her video in 2016.) Some of these video essays have now reached growing audiences for eight years. By sharing these publicly posted movies with new writing classes, we have built an academic conversation about intended and unintended YouTube audiences which has extended across classrooms, semesters, and two colleges. Gradually, we have developed a YouTube audience model that we share and discuss here, including some new insights based on Carissa’s case-study analysis of YouTube’s creator studio data for her video. We offer this report of our eight-year conversation about reaching YouTube audiences as one way to transcend the constraints of the writing classroom and semester—while also critically examining Google/YouTube’s power to mediate access to these audiences.

With two billion current users, the potential YouTube audience is huge and complex. In 2010, anthropologist Michael Wesch argued YouTube videos could reach millions of viewers, build participatory networks, enact change, and empower every voice. Now a few videos even reach billions of views. But while YouTube has embraced a social media culture that values “community, openness and authenticity,” this same “participatory culture is also YouTube’s core business” (Burgess and Green 2018, vii). View counts track both rhetorical and financial success in this massive digital marketplace, as engineers quit NASA for careers creating squirrel obstacle course videos. The competition for eyes is fierce: five hundred hours of video are uploaded every minute. And viewers are often fickle; twenty percent may leave if they are not hooked in the first ten seconds. Unintended audiences are complex too. Videos can anger or alienate family, friends, followers, colleagues, and employers. Copyright claimants can intervene to edit, monetize, or delete videos. Trolls lurk everywhere. And behind the scenes, YouTube/Google manipulates everything to maximize its profit and its power.

YouTube as a Site For Studying Digital Persuasion and Audiences

About sixteen years ago, new Web 2.0 platforms began to encourage mass audiences to join in new participatory and collaborative digital dialogues. In 2004, NCTE guidelines urged writing teachers to “accommodate the explosion in technology from the world around us” (7). A growing sense of urgency developed about the growing gap between school writing and students’ lives as digital composers and publishers (Richardson 2009, 5). Kathleen Yancey issued a “call for action” to writing teachers to “join the future” (2009, 1). Liz Clark argued that writing teachers faced a “digital imperative” (2010, 27). By 2014, Kristine Blair observed a “tectonic shift from alphabetic to multimodal composing at all levels of the writing curriculum.”

Some writing teachers began to focus on video and YouTube. By 2009, Brian Jackson and Jon Wallin saw the “informal, messy process” of “back-and-forthness” on YouTube as a model for teaching digital rhetoric (375). In 2010, Michelle Barbeau saw the powerful potential for YouTube as an object of study in college writing courses that could “appeal to digital natives, increase awareness of contemporary rhetorical communities, lessen the gap between teacher and student, and spark excitement in the classroom” (2). By 2013, Sarah Arroyo recognized that online video was “becoming the prototypical experience” of the internet, cultivating a culture that was “already permeating the institutions of our daily lives,” especially on YouTube; she called for a “participatory composition” pedagogy to interrogate that culture (2). In 2018, Christina Colvin found that assigning collaborative video essays offered her students broad opportunities to study process, mediation, and argument.

Since 2013, students in Sean Molloy’s college writing classes have been posting their “3-minute movie” video essays to YouTube and thinking about the kinds of audiences they might reach there. (Carissa Kelly posted her video in 2016.) In an informal longitudinal study, Sean has tracked the monthly view counts for all those students who chose to make their videos “Public.” He also shared the publicly posted videos with new writing classes, building an extended academic conversation about YouTube audiences. Gradually, our classes developed the YouTube audience model that we share here, together with some new insights based on Carissa’s case study of her video’s audiences using her data from YouTube’s creator studio. We offer this report of our eight-year conversation about reaching YouTube audiences as one way to transcend the constraints of the writing classroom and semester—while also critically examining Google/YouTube’s power to mediate access to these audiences.

Studying YouTube Audiences at Hunter and WPU 2013–2020

Sean began to ask first-year writing students to “reimagine” a text essay as a “3-minute-movie” in 2009. Most students submitted those movies on DVDs and the assignment focused largely on multimodal composing processes. In the Spring of 2013, Sean revived the movie assignment at Hunter College. In this “writing about writing” course model with an inquiry focus, students developed their own individual writing projects and research studies. They addressed the same thesis question for both a text-based and a video essay. Students posted all drafts to their own YouTube accounts. First and second drafts were all “Unlisted” to allow for teacher comments, peer review, and revision. Each student then chose whether to go “Public,” as well as how long to stay public after the semester. In Fall 2016, Sean brought the same writing course model and three-minute-movie assignment to William Paterson University.

Although they worked on other essays, many students at both colleges chose to reimagine their research studies as videos. We soon saw that many videos tended to move from inquiry toward direct arguments and/or public advocacy. Isabella (2014) challenged gender stereotyping in commercials. Hannah (2019) demonstrated the harmful effects of Cosmopolitan ads on young women. Rehma (2014) mocked stereotypical portrayals of Muslim families. Tanya (2014) concluded that Sean’s writing class did not meet all of Friere’s requirements for praxis. Ashley (2017) conducted a self-study to prove veganism can be affordable. Gregory (2013) argued against gender barriers in nursing. Meredith (2019) offered college students tips for professional success.

An array of screenshots from YouTube videos of movie essays. One shows women sitting at a table with a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine, the next a picture of a male nurse in front of the statistic: 'Men in nursing, 9.6%, 333,000,' the next a black and white image of a man sitting on a couch reading a newspaper while a woman in a skirt picks up his coat; the bottom row features a mock portrayal of a student's mother wearing a niqab while washing dishes in the kitchen,  a chart labeled 'Experience' with four labeled dots underneath pointing to each other, labeled 'practice,' 'learning,' 'experience,' and 'success,' a shopping cart with produce and groceries inside, and an image of Sean standing near a seated student and they are both looking at a laptop.
Figure 1. Screenshots from student movie essays. Top row, left to right: Hannah, Gregory, and Isabella. Bottom row, left to right: Rehma, Meredith, Ashley, and Tanya.

Composing, publishing and studying video essays changed how students saw themselves, their teacher, and their work. Sean offered extra credit to students who chose to go public and also to promote their movies to substantial audiences. Publishing videos for audiences beyond our classroom raised new questions. (Do I want my brother to see this movie about our dad? Will I lose followers? What will my boss think?) The video medium and the “movie” genre often allowed, suggested, or even required students to shift away from some constraints of academic/school writing. (Can I be funny? How do I add a creative commons or public domain soundtrack? How about animation? How many words can I put on text slides if viewers watch on phones? Can I create a mock movie trailer? Should I narrate face to camera? Should I add other faces or voices? How do I get informed permission? Should I use my real name?) Peer review exercises soon demonstrated that classmates were sophisticated consumers and creators of social media and video arguments with sharp instincts for adding power.

In 2013–14, many Hunter students chose not to go public. Over the years since, others deleted their movies, or relisted them as private/unpublished. But in March of 2021, eleven were still up and public; most were still adding new viewers.[1] For example, Nicole (2014) used her rhetorical analysis of dorm room decorations to explain Kenneth Burke’s ideas about arguments of identification.

This line graph shows Nicole's movie essay views started at 0 in January 2015 and have steadily climbed to 3,500 views in July 2020.
Figure 2. Nicole’s Burke Essay’s YouTube Views chart from January 2015 to March 2021.

Her audience has consistently grown since 2014. And a clear pattern has emerged: this serious academic subject draws more new viewers during the fall and spring academic semesters and fewer during summer and winter breaks (Figure 2).

Gradually, Sean began to see how the videos shattered the constraints of both the classroom and the semester. First, they reached growing audiences around the world for months or years. Second, the lessons learned from videos carried over to later semesters as new classes reanalyzed their situations and audiences. Third, we began to spread the conversation to other teachers and students. Between 2014 and 2021, six Hunter and WPU students have presented insights about their videos to groups of students and teachers. Sean also posted his related assignment on avoiding intellectual property and copyright problems to a CUNY graduate student website in 2014. He co-published a gallery of public student movies with introductions by the student composers in 2015. He published an online package of teaching materials for his “3-Minute Movie” assignment in 2016.

Our Fall 2016 Writing Class

Carissa took Sean’s first year writing course in Fall 2016. She was a new paraprofessional at a school for children and young adults with autism and she wanted to pursue teaching. While she enjoyed her job, Carissa saw students being treated in ways that didn’t make sense. A nonspeaking student was told to stop singing in class. A boy rocking in his chair was told to have a “quiet body.” A girl scripting to soothe herself was told to have a “quiet mouth.” Why suppress these students’ natural ways of communicating or interacting with the world? The answer was the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy model used by the school. After doing some research on the topic and looking for the opinions of those in the Autistic community, Carissa learned that ABA was rooted in ableism, or “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior” (Olson 2019). ABA therapy was developed from the 1960s through the 1980s by behavioral psychologist Ivar Lovaas who believed that “you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense… You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person” (Kronstein 2018).

Carissa thought Sean’s independent research project would be a good way to learn more about ABA. With her school’s permission, she conducted a rhetorical analysis of their in-house ABA procedures manual. She wrote a formal academic report, concluding that the ABA manual contributed to ableism in her school and published it to the website she created for Sean’s writing course, which she chose to make “Public.”[2]

With her classmates, Carissa watched some of the Hunter student movies and discussed the situations those students had faced. She chose to reimagine her ABA manual analysis as an advocacy piece, hoping to alert educators and parents about the potential harm from ABA therapy. Although she was passionate about the idea, she was still new to the topic and wary of sharing her criticism about such a widely accepted therapy, especially since her own workplace used it. Suddenly, the idea of “audience” was much more authentic: she risked losing her job if her bosses watched her video.

Carissa composed her video in four drafts. In the first draft, she talked through a plan on camera. In the second draft, she added a scripted narration, citing research and using technical jargon. Unable to include children due to ethical concerns, Carissa used her cats to model the therapy. In draft three, she used the cats more and moved them up to the first twenty seconds to hook viewers and lighten the overall tone. In this draft Carissa also cut the jargon way down, added citations to research studies to build credibility, and edited the running time down to 3:02. Small edits in the fourth (and final) version cut the video down to 2:43. After weighing the pros and cons, Carissa decided to go “Public,” expecting she would reach only a few dozen viewers.

Our YouTube Audience Model

As we learned more about YouTube audiences for our movies, Sean’s classes began to develop an audience chart model and revise it across semesters.[3] As the assignment developed over time, students read Laura Bolin Carroll’s (2010) “Backpacks and Briefcases,” together with the developing chart and a selection of student movies. (In the last year, Sean has assigned drafts of this article.) We quickly realized that these audiences were not separate tiers but one ecosystem—all interacting in different ways in each situation as soon as we click “Public.”

Audience Types Potential Size Examples Time Arc
Classroom 1–20 Teacher, Class Days or weeks.

[Views end with semester.]

Promoted 1 to 4000+ Family, Friends,

Social Media

Days.

[Views spike and then flatten.]

Sponsored

(Academic)

30 to 300+ Other Writing Classes

Teachers/Educators

Other college students

From time to time.

In person screenings

[Views make small jumps.]

Intended/Ideal/

Target/Organic

1 to 7000+ Effective Agents (Bitzer)

Partners/Collaborators

Affected Communities

Academic Communities

Months or Years.

[Views grow steadily.]

Suggested by Google/YouTube 1 to 6000+ Also Organic—but views are initiated by YouTube Years

[Views grow in spurts.]

By Device 1 to 7000+ Mobile, Desktop, Tablet, TV, Game Console Years.
Online Hostile 1 to 200+ Hostile Views,

Trolls and Haters

Until you delete or go “Private”

But videos can be copied.

Real Life Hostile/Unintended Not many but possible big impacts Copyright Claimants, Employers, Family, Friends,

future life partners, etc.

Until you delete or go “Private”

But videos can be copied.

Corporate One YouTube/Google Google has it forever.
Table 1. Types of YouTube audiences.

Classroom Audiences

Most college writing assignments have an audience of one teacher and maybe one or two peer-reviewer classmates. Each student video starts with that audience too, first with teacher and peer reviews of drafts, and then in a “movie night” where creators introduce and screen their final movies to the whole class.

Promoted Audiences

If students go Public, they can also choose to promote their movie and build a quick base of viewers by the semester-end, perhaps also becoming more visible to search engines. A three-minute movie is often a lot easier and more comfortable to share on Facebook or Instagram than a ten-page study or essay, even one posted to a blog or website. But self-promotion to friends, family, followers, and work colleagues can feel trickier than sharing work with two billion strangers just by marking a video “Public.”

Direct promotion can also reach members of your intended audience. Abdus (2017) designed and ran a study that administered a “push” survey to warn fifty customers in his donut shop about the harmful effects of sugary sodas and sweetened coffees. His survey was effective: forty of fifty subjects (80 percent) chose a healthier drink.

This line graph shows Abdus's movie essay views started at 0 in January 2018 and made a sharp increase to approximately 3,500 within a month. After that initial jump, the line flattens out and stays around 4,000 views up until July 2020.
Figure 3. Abdus’s Sugary Drinks Essay’s YouTube Views chart from December 2017 to March 2021.

But YouTube offered Abdus a chance to warn many more people. In a single week, Abdus used social media (with a big assist from his brother) to promote his video version of his study to over one thousand viewers. When Sean created a small winter-break promotion contest, Abdus added over 2,500 additional views. Even with 3,500 total views in its first month, this movie did not get much help from YouTube’s search and suggestion systems, and new views soon flattened out. In October 2019, another one of Sean’s writing classes decided to promote Abdus’s movie again as a team project; their promotion added another 270 views. In all, the three promotion efforts enabled Abdus to warn almost 4,000 people about harmful sugary drinks—all with almost no help from YouTube.

On the other hand, promotion may also push a movie toward unintended and/or hostile audiences. Carissa wanted to get her message out but she decided to not promote her video on social media where her coworkers might see it. It felt important to consider not just whether they saw it—but also how they found it. She did not want to appear to be pushing her criticism of a therapy they used in their faces. However, she saw less risk if they happened to come across it on their own.

Maybe Google/YouTube won’t suggest a movie with one hundred views to larger audiences. But some of our videos with a couple of hundred views have gone on to find new eyes month after month. At the same time, videos with only a handful of initial views (even excellent ones) often draw no new eyes over time. And even if a video’s audiences flatten out after a short promotional spike, reaching any real-world audience beyond the classroom is still a powerful choice that breaks free from the normal constraints of classroom writing.

Sponsored (Academic) Audiences

Every semester Sean shares old videos with new classes. This sponsorship creates a type of academic audience somewhere between promoted and organic. These students are not choosing to watch due to their needs and interests, except as a model for their own videos, a way to study audiences, and/or to get course credit. But they can be organic in some ways too. Carly’s (2016) study traced how her NJ high school failed to prepare students for writing expectations at a number of colleges. Many of Carly’s four-hundred–plus viewers have been Sean’s writing students. This past summer, Carly’s movie (with her consent) was added to WPU’s writing teacher resource website. This is, in one sense, another form of sponsorship by WPU writing teachers. But the line between sponsored and organic growth gets pretty blurry.

“Organic” Intended Audiences

When ancient Greek rhetors studied persuasion 2,400 years ago, their audiences and situations were small and simple. A persuader spoke to a single, visible “Public” or audience at one time and in one place. They could see each other and interact; they often knew each other; they had similar privileges, beliefs, and values. But as Phillip Gallagher (2019) notes, today’s digital audiences are far more complicated, “redefined by attributes of digital spaces and online communications.” Gallagher observes that as digital platforms “blur the boundaries between private and public domains,” they also splinter any single Public/audience into many different “knowledge cultures” each of which is an “organic assemblage of individuals into a group around a particular topic of interest.” Melanie Gagich (2018) also focuses on finding the ideal organic audience for any particular argument. She replaced an “imagined audience” assignment with digital composing and publication, which urged students “to address a ‘real’ community that they know from experience.”

Defining organic YouTube audiences early on (Who is this for? What work will it do?) has led students to often find multiple organic audiences. Like Gallagher’s knowledge communities, some of these audiences share a “topic of interest.” But others feel more like Gagich’s description of real communities that they know. For example, the intended audience for Sil’s (2018) anti-gang movie was complicated.

This line graph shows Silvester's movie essay views which begin at 0 in April 2018 and reach approximately 1,600 by July 2020.
Figure 4. Silvester’s Movie Essay’s YouTube Views chart from April 2018 to March 2021.

He wanted to warn young people and parents in his home town of Atlantic City, as well as families in similar communities. But he was also speaking to people who did not understand the struggles of families in towns like Atlantic City. A steady audience found Sil’s video every month for over two years. But in June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation and focused increased attention on the devastating effects of structural racism, Sil’s new views spiked up. He has again seen sharper growth in early 2021 (Figure 4).

Deanna’s (2019) conversation with her mom about converting to Judaism had, in one sense, a large potential organic audience of people considering conversion. But Deanna’s main purpose soon became to create an oral history for her own family. Nakia’s (2019) interviews about the “talks” black parents give their children to try to keep them safe also began with her family as her organic audience. But Nakia also promoted her movie to almost two hundred viewers at the end of our Fall 2019 class and its organic audience has grown slowly since, including a noticeable jump in the month after George Floyd’s murder.

The movie assignment can also draw audiences in “writing about literature” courses, at least in Sean’s horror-themed sections. But the organic audiences feel much closer to the “knowledge cultures” focused “topics of interest” proposed by Gallagher. These essays can discuss less serious issues of broad interest to large organic audiences of pop culture fans. Matt (2019) analyzes the monster in Bird Box (2019), arguing that it is H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. He did not promote his movie and its audience grew slowly for two months. But starting in September, an audience began to find it and his monthly views increased for seven months before slowly declining in early 2021— possibly as interest in the Birdbox movie waned (Figure 5).

Matt's YouTube views chart shows his views starting at 0 in May 2019 and having a slow increase up until September 2019 where it reaches about 100 views. After September they increase to about 90 views a month reaching 1,000 views by March 2020.
Figure 5. Matt’s Birdbox Essay’s YouTube Views chart from May 2019 to March 2021.

We have been surprised by how much of the organic audience growth for different movies is close to linear over months or even years. Sometimes organic audiences curve up for a few months or slowly level out. But we are also increasingly aware that explanations about audience growth based on real world factors must be understood as refracted and distorted through the sheer power that is exerted by Google itself. A closer look at Carissa’s audience growth since 2016 demonstrates this power.

Two Views of Carissa’s Organic Audience

In 2017, Sean could see Carissa find a growing organic audience. From March to September 2017, her growth rate was viral, climbing to over five hundred views a month. Then her rate of new viewers gradually declined, with a small surge in early 2021 (Figure 6). Sean could only guess as to why Carissa’s audience grew so quickly during 2017 and then slowed.

Carissa's movie views chart starts at 0 views in December 2016 and begins to make viral growth from March to September 2017. After September her views continue to grow but at a much lower rate. As of June 2020, the chart shows her video has surpassed 7,000 views.
Figure 6. Carissa’s ABA Essay’s YouTube Views chart from December 2019 to March 2021.

When Carissa studied the data available to her in YouTube’s creator studio through mid-2020, she was able to learn a lot more about how her organic audience found her video. YouTube breaks viewer sources into five key categories: YouTube searches, YouTube suggestions, external sources (like websites or Facebook), other YouTube features, and browse features (these last two are also suggestions and features inside YouTube.) The largest source of what YouTube calls “traffic” (3,765 of total 7,355 views) came directly from YouTube searches, most often “aba therapy.” YouTube’s suggestions to viewers of other videos generated 1,577 more views. (We discuss Suggested Audience below.) Carissa had hoped that audiences would find her video through searches. But she didn’t anticipate how much the internal YouTube searches and suggestions—as opposed to general Google searches or human referrals—would dominate audiences’ access to her movie. And it turned out that the YouTube search algorithm treated her video very differently over time.

External recommendations sometimes appeared to influence YouTube search results and suggestions. In January 2017, a Facebook advocacy group dedicated to “better ways than ABA” found and recommended her video which generated three small 2017 viewership bumps: about twenty in January, fifteen in May, and about sixty-five in August and September. (See the blue dotted line in Figure 7.)

This chart breaks down the places where the external views on Carissa's video came from: 1. Google/Google Search, 2. Facebook, and 3. Rutgers. The Facebook line has three small 2017 viewership bumps: about 20 in January, 15 in May, and about 65 in August and September. Rutgers has a bump of about 15 in June 2017. And Google/Google Searches has a peak of ten alongside Rutgers in June 2017 and another bump of about 18 views in November 2017.
Figure 7. External Traffic Sources chart for Carissa’s movie essay from December 2016 to December 2017.

Before the first bump, YouTube’s search, suggestions, and other features did not seem to offer or suggest Carissa’s movie to viewers. But right after the Facebook group voiced their support, new views from YouTube searches, YouTube suggested videos, and other YouTube features all spiked up (Figure 8).

The data in this “traffic sources” chart is taken directly from YouTube’s creator studio and breaks down the sources of where the views come from: 1. YouTube searches, 2. Suggested Videos, 3. External Sources and Direct and Unknown sources, 4. Other YouTube features, 5. Browse features, Channel pages, Playlists, Notifications, playlist pages, and the End Screen. YouTube Searches and Suggested Videos peaks to about 250 and 180 views respectively in September 2017. The chart shows the first bump in views came from YouTube Searches and External sources in January 2017.
Figure 8. Traffic Sources chart for Carissa’s movie essay from December 2016 to June 2020.

YouTube’s support added significant new viewers, peaking in September 2017. Viewers from YouTube suggestions and other features dropped off after only a few months. But new viewers from YouTube searches decreased more gradually over three years as YouTube stopped including it in search results.

Later referrals from credible human sources did not revive the algorithm’s support. A George Mason University recommendation has added about thirty views every September, January, and May, coinciding with Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters beginning in 2018. Rutgers University and Seneca College also sent viewers to Carissa’s movie. Another external recommendation came from a Slovakian forum for expectant mothers which generated thirty-four views in May of 2019. In the end, this more detailed analysis reaffirms the power of YouTube as a bridge or a gatekeeper to Carissa’s organic audience.

Audiences By Device

Although this does not measure a kind of audience community, we were surprised when Carissa studied her own YouTube data that over half of her total views over four years were on mobile devices. Computer views were only 39 percent, with 8 percent on tablets and smaller slices on TVs and game consoles (Figure 9). We’ve added this category to the audience chart to inform future composing choices.

This pie chart breaks down what device the total 7,345 viewers were using. 3720 were from mobile devices, 2862 were from desktops, 588 were from tablets, 122 were from TVs and 53 were from game consoles.
Figure 9. Carissa’s Movie Views by Device pie chart from June 2020.

Unintended/Hostile Audiences

As creators and advocates, we often focus on organic audiences—the eyes we want to reach, the minds we can persuade to act, the people who can identify with our interests and struggles. But we have learned that thinking about unintended audiences can be just as important. Every creator who borrows content must consider possible copyright claims. Students who could not resist a Lady Gaga soundtrack or Disney video clip risked having ads inserted in their videos or having the videos muted or deleted. So, we review creative commons content, public domain rules, and murky “fair use” considerations. Both going “Public” and choosing to promote videos presses many students to think carefully about how people in both their real lives and in their online lives will react.

Trolls and haters have been an unavoidable part of YouTube’s ecosystem from its birth. Some harsh and even antagonistic comments can be forms of sincere engagement. But Burgess and Green observe that it has become evident in recent years that some trolls mount coordinated campaigns of disinformation or harassment, even “weaponizing” comments to silence diverse and progressive voices (2018, 120). They argue that learning to manage trolls, “both practically and emotionally, is one of the core competencies required” for successful YouTubers (2018, 119).

This is a screenshot taken from the comment section of Carissa’s video. The first commenter, user Iassus prophetam, says: This was a very cute way to show people in a non offensive way some very offensive things they’re done by the APA. User Laura Markland replies, y’all are so ignorant and quotes Iassus’s misspelling: “Thinks that are done by the APA.” Then she says, “You guys have no idea what ABA practitioners are taught to do as I am about to complete my degree and take the board exam to be licensed. It is a scientifically proven method. User Barfo281 replies to Laura, It’s not scientifically proven, you liar. User Homo Sapiens Logicus replies, “Scientifically ‘proven’ method” … I.E. Scientists, that is social scientists, used captive institutionalized children, 60–70 years ago, to prove that with enough torture you can get some of those children to obey commands some of the time. We had to tone it down a bit, after there were no more institutions to hide what we were doing, but the technique has never really been refined and we never follow up on the ‘patients’ to find out.
Figure 10. A view of the comment section on Carissa’s ABA YouTube movie.

In theory, robust, heated, and even hostile comments may change how we think about the original videos as finite and fixed arguments by a single creator. But in practice, student creators/advocates may face abuse and trauma. The comments on Carissa’s movie started coming in early 2017. She expected opposition; in a way it marked her success. For a while, she tried to peacefully engage with skeptical and even hostile viewers, choosing to become a public advocate in a new way. But she soon became overwhelmed and took a step back. Returning months later, Carissa noticed that the comment section had taken on a life of its own as her viewers began to debate each other. To this day, the comments grow with new debates, even though Carissa has not rejoined them.

Suggestions and Our Corporate Audience: YouTube/Google

Purchased by Google in 2006, YouTube is an arm of one the world’s largest four corporations, with Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. Together These “big four” dominate internet commerce and our digital lives. In 2017, John Herrman criticized the ways in which these “all-encompassing internet platforms” assume innocent “costumes of liberal democracies,” while they are in fact “always a commercial simulation,” inducing us all to entrust increasing portions of our “private and public” lives to “advertising and data mining” firms. In this complex new reality, we two billion users are also two billion products. YouTube/Google mines our data to sell targeted ads and instant purchase buttons—earning $15 billion in 2019 (Duffy 2020).

YouTube always fills your screen with suggested videos to lure you to stay on the platform as long as possible. As Carissa’s video began to find its organic audience, YouTube began to suggest it to viewers of similar videos. Over time, what YouTube describes as “views from suggestions appearing alongside or after other videos” added 1,577 viewers, her second largest audience. We realized we had not considered this side to YouTube’s “participatory culture.” Classroom views are mostly initiated by the teacher. Promoted views are initiated by the creators, their families, friends, and followers. External recommendations come from interested communities. Google and YouTube searches are initiated by organic audiences—even if Google controls the actual search results.

But video suggestions are initiated directly by Google. Like any other form of promotion, that is partly a good thing for creators who can reach more eyes. Carissa’s video appeared alongside suggested videos that were also questioning the use of ABA, most notably the video, “Is ABA Therapy Child Abuse?” But the degree of control that YouTube exercises over its suggestions is a troubling reminder that the most important, powerful audience on YouTube is often YouTube itself.

Conclusion

Over eight years now, we have learned a few things about YouTube audiences and how we can think about them in useful ways. We are happy to share that here, maybe as a starting point for further discussion, or for similar conversations about digital audiences. We continue to learn every semester and we welcome creators in other classrooms to join us in thinking about these and similar questions. How do we balance public digital advocacy and protection from abuse? How do we assert our fair use rights in systems that give so much power to copyright claimants? How do we resist and oppose the power of Google to limit our audiences, even as we use its platform and tools? How can we build similar classroom conversations on other platforms that reach thousands of eyes?

We have not unlocked Google’s search algorithms to figure out how to turn serious college video essays into viral sensations. Google/YouTube suggests that the success of our videos is in our hands, based essentially on the quality and rhetorical sophistication of our work—even as it only vaguely describes its “search and recommendation systems [as using] hundreds of signals to determine how to rank videos.” Of course, quality and persuasive power do matter. And adding enticing titles, interesting thumbnail images, compelling video descriptions, thorough lists of tags, and other searchable metadata—all that may help too. Promotion to build an early audience has often seemed to matter for us, although a few videos (like Carissa’s) still find growing audiences with very little creator promotion.

But Carissa’s case study of her video also demonstrates that Google/YouTube’s algorithm computers are faithless friends. YouTube did not promote her video. Then it did. Then it didn’t. And those mercurial decisions held great power: at least 83 percent of her total audience through March 2021 has been due to Google/YouTube referral sources. YouTube is a rigged game, and it is the only game in town. As critical thinkers and creators, we keep that reality in mind as we call it out and resist it.

Yet, we also remain excited and hopeful. This flawed corporate platform still gives all of us a chance to reimagine the work we do in writing courses and why we do it. We can practice and study how to compete to reach audiences far beyond one teacher, one classroom, one semester, and one college. We can all publish work that may find a growing audience around the world for years to come.

Notes

[1] The WPU IRB confirmed on August 26, 2020 that this research and article did not require formal IRB review. We cite only public videos whose creators have reviewed a draft of this article and agreed in writing to be included.

[2] Carissa’s website has lived beyond the classroom and semester as well. She has reedited and updated it with new information gathered over the years.

[3] The “suggested” and “device” categories are new here, added based on Carissa’s case study. The “audience size” column uses Carissa’s and Abdus’s audiences for these estimates.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Alexis Bennett and Hyacinth Rios, who assisted us as sensitivity readers for this article, as well as the student video creators who allowed us to share their work and their stories. This research was supported (in part) by a Summer Stipend from the Research Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences at William Paterson University.

About the Authors

A college writing teacher since 2003, Sean Molloy is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at William Paterson University. His work has been published by the Journal of Basic Writing, College English, the CUNY Digital History Archive, on YouTube, and recently in two edited collections: Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity (2018) and Talking Back: Senior Scholars and Their Colleagues Deliberate the Future of Writing Studies (2020).

Carissa Kelly will graduate from William Paterson University in May of 2021, majoring in Art and Secondary Education and minoring in Teaching Students with Disabilities. After college, she hopes to continue working with neurodiverse students. In her free time she enjoys making stained glass and spending time with her cat, Chippy.


A dimly lit laptop light illuminates a keyboard as it closes.
2

The Rhetorical Implications of Data Aggregation: Becoming a “Dividual” in a Data-Driven World

Abstract

Social media platforms have experienced increased scrutiny following scandals like the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica revelations. Nevertheless, these scandals have not deterred the general public from using social media, even as these events have motivated critique of the privacy policies users agree to in order to access them. In this article, we argue that approaches to teaching data and privacy in the classroom would benefit from attending to social media privacy policies and the rhetorical implications of data aggregation: not only what these policies say, but also what cultural, social, and economic impacts they have and for whom. We consider what it means for users to have “meaningful access” and offer an investigative framework for examining data aggregation through three areas of data literacy: how data is collected, how data is processed, and how data is used. We posit Cheney-Lippold’s “measurable types” as a useful theoretical tool for examining data’s complex, far-reaching impacts and offer an assignment sequence featuring rhetorical analysis and genre remediation.

Introduction: Gaining “Meaningful Access” to Privacy Policies

There is an increasing need to attend to the role social media plays in our society as more of the work of maintaining relationships moves to online platforms. While platforms like Facebook and YouTube have experienced increased public scrutiny, a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that social media usage remained relatively unchanged from 2016 to 2018, with seven out of ten adults reporting they rely on social media platforms to get information (Perrin and Anderson 2019). International data-collection scandals like Cambridge Analytica and numerous congressional hearings on Big Tech’s’ power in the United States have not deterred the general public from using social media. Everyday users are increasingly aware that their privacy is compromised by using social media platforms, and many agree that Silicon Valley needs more regulation (Perrin and Anderson 2019; Pew Research Center 2019). Yet, many of these same users continue to rely on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok to inform themselves on important issues in our society.

Early teacher-scholars within the subfield of Computers and Writing worked within a fairly limited scope. They urged learning with and critiquing digital technologies that were more transparent because of their newness—visible technologies such as word-processing programs and computer labs. But today’s teachers and students must contend with a more ubiquitous and hidden field—the entire distributed and networked internet of personalized content based on internet surveillance strategies and data aggregation. The array of websites and apps students encounter in college includes learning management systems (Canvas, BlackBoard, Google Classroom, Moodle), cloud storage spaces (DropBox, OneDrive), project management tools (Basecamp, Trello), communication platforms (Slack, Teams), search engines (Google, Bing), professional and social branding (LinkedIn), online publishing (Medium, WordPress), social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, WhatsApp, SnapChat), and all the various websites and apps students use in classrooms and in their personal lives. Each one of these websites and apps publishes a privacy policy that is accessible through small hyperlinks buried at the bottom of the page or through a summary notice of data collection in the app.

Usually long and full of legalese, privacy policies are often ignored by students (and most users) who simply click “agree” instead of reading the terms. This means users are less knowledgeable about the privacy policies they agree to in order to continue using social media platforms. As Obar and Oeldorf-Hirsch find in their study “The Biggest Lie on the Internet: Ignoring the Privacy Policies and Terms of Service Policies of Social Networking Services,” undergraduate students in the U.S. find privacy policies to be “nothing more than an unwanted impediment to the real purpose users go online—the desire to enjoy the ends of digital production” (Obar and Oeldorf-Hirsch 2020, 142). To this point, the 2019 Pew Research Center survey “Americans and Digital Knowledge” found that only 48% of Americans understood how privacy policies function as contracts between themselves and a website concerning the use of their data. Through their alluring affordances and obscure privacy policies, social media platforms hinder users’ ability to meaningfully engage with the data exploitation these platforms rely on.

Americans have long turned to policy for contending with sociocultural issues. While breaches of user privacy energize the public, the scale of social media platforms makes it difficult to fully comprehend these violations of trust; as long as social media works as we expect it to, users rarely question what social media platforms are doing behind the scenes. As mentioned earlier, privacy policies are also oftentimes long, jargon-filled, and unapproachable to the average user. How many of us can say we have read, let alone comprehended, all of the fine print of the privacy policies of the platforms we choose to engage on every day? Doing so requires what digital rhetorics scholar Adam J. Banks refers to in Race, Rhetoric, and Technology as “meaningful access,” or access to not only the technology itself but also to the knowledge, experience, and opportunities necessary to grasp its long-term impacts and the policies guiding its development and use (Banks 2006, 135). Meaningful access as a concept can work against restrictive processes such as digital redlining[1] or restricting access (thus eliminating meaningful access) from certain users based on the filtering preferences of their internet access provider. Privacy policies are obtainable, but they are not truly accessible: users may be able to obtain these documents, but they don’t have a meaningful, useful sense of them.

Teachers and students need to rhetorically engage with social media privacy policies in order to learn about data and privacy: we need to understand not only what these policies say, but also what impacts they have and for whom.[2] We also need to determine who has meaningful access and why that might be. As Angela M. Haas (2018) explains, rhetoric concerns the cultural, social, economic, and political implications of when we “negotiate” information; she specifies digital rhetoric as concerned with the “negotiation of information” when we interface with technology. Safiya Umoja Noble develops a related argument in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, suggesting internet search engine algorithms are a reflection of the values and biases of those who create them, and since algorithmic processes extend into hiring practices and mortgage lending evaluations, big-data practices nonetheless reproduce pre-existing social inequities. We need to learn about data generation and its wide-reaching, real-world impact on how we connect and interact with other people to really grasp these platforms and the policies that govern them.

By learning to critically engage with the policies that shape their digital experiences, students develop an important skill set they can use to identify the ways social media platform algorithms use data collected from users to direct their attention in ways that may be more important to the platforms than to the users themselves—working to generate clicks, repetitive usage, and thus revenue from ad impressions, rather than providing the content the user actually seeks. Students might also think about the ways these privacy policies structure the information-filtering and data-collection functions on which these platforms depend, while such policies likewise fail to protect users from the potential socio-economic and racial disparities their algorithmic infrastructures re-entrench (Gilliard and Culik 2016). To this end, it can be useful to introduce concepts like data aggregation and digital redlining, which can equip users with a better understanding for how data collection works and its far-reaching rhetorical effects. In this way, it is important to understand privacy policies as a writing genre, a typified form of writing that accomplishes a desired rhetorical action (e.g. providing social media platforms with the legal framework to maximize data usage).

As writing studies scholars Irene L. Clark and Andrea Hernandez (2011) explain, “When students acquire genre awareness, they are not only learning how to write in a particular genre. They gain insight into how a genre fulfills a rhetorical purpose” (66–67). By investigating the genre of privacy policies, students gain both transferable skills and crucial data literacy that will serve them as writers, media consumers, and, more basically, as citizens. Working within this niche genre provides insights both into the rhetoric of privacy policies per se, as well as into the use of rhetoric and data aggregation for social manipulation.

One way to deepen student understanding of a genre is through remediation, or the adaptation of the content of a text into a new form for a potentially different audience (Alexander and Rhodes 2014, 60). Remediations require both a comprehension of the original text’s content and an awareness of the intended audience’s experience engaging with that text. Remediation provides students with an opportunity to put their knowledge into practice regardless of the resulting form. For example, a privacy policy could be remediated as an infographic that focuses on key ideas from the policy concerning data usage and explains them in ways a lay public with little prior knowledge could understand.

Ultimately, a multi-pronged approach is required to gain meaningful access to privacy policies. In the following section, we provide a framework with terms and questions that consider how data is collected, processed, and used. We direct attention to digital studies scholar John Cheney-Lippold’s theory of “measurable types,” the algorithmic categories created from aggregated user data, as a framework in our development of an assignment sequence that tasks students with performing two remediations—one that focuses on making information more digestible and another that centers long-term effects. The primary audience for this article is instructors who are new to digital surveillance and big-data concepts and are looking to orient themselves with theory as they create assignments about this emerging issue for their classroom.

How Is Data Collected, Processed, and Used?

Data is the fuel that keeps our social media platforms running. Fortunately for companies like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, data is generated and captured constantly on the internet. Every website we visit, every story we share, every comment we post generates data. Some of this information comes in the form of cookies, or small files installed on your computer to keep track of the pages you view and what you click on while visiting them. Capturing user behavior on the internet is accomplished largely through third-party “tracking cookies,” which are different from the “session cookies” used primarily to help web pages load faster. Session cookies do not store any user information. Tracking cookies, on the other hand, are so important to a platform like Facebook’s business model that they have a whole separate policy for them: “We use cookies to help us show ads and to make recommendations for businesses and other organizations to people who may be interested in the products, services or causes they promote” (Facebook n.d.). Big Tech companies and their advertising partners use this information to infer what users’ interests might be based on their online behaviors.

Our internet activity on social media platforms creates metadata, which is another form of data web companies collect and use to track our online activity.[3] Metadata is not the content of our posts and messages, but the information about who and/or what we interact with and how often those interactions occur. While quantitative forms of information may appear more trustworthy and objective, in actuality this seemingly neutral data has been stripped of important rhetorical context. Digital humanities scholar Johanna Drucker suggests that we refer to data as “capta,” since data is not information that perfectly represents whatever was observed as much as it is information that is “captured” with specific purposes in mind. Capta cannot fully stand in for us, but it can be used to compare us to other users who “like” and “share” similar things. Therefore, the collection of metadata is valuable because it more efficiently reveals what we do online than the meaning of our content alone. Rather than try to understand what we are communicating, computers instead process this quantified information and use it to calculate the probability that we will engage with certain media and buy certain products (van Dijck and Poell 2013, 10). So, even though data collection requires us to give up our privacy, the stakes may seem relatively low considering that we are presumably getting “free” access to the platform in exchange. Coming to terms with how data impacts our society requires understanding the ostensibly predictive capacities of data aggregation because data we consciously share is never separate from other data, including data from other users and the data we don’t realize we are sharing (e.g. location, time, etc).

Data is what powers social media platforms, but their rhetorical power comes from how data is processed into predictions about our behavior online. Our individual data does not provide accuracy when it comes to recommending new things, so data aggregation makes recommendations possible by establishing patterns “made from a population, not one person” (Cheney-Lippold 2017, 116).[4] These “dividual” identities, as digital studies scholar Cheney-Lippold explains via digital theorist Tiziana Terranova (2004), are the algorithmic classifications of individual users based on the data generated and processed about them. Indeed, we each have our own personal preferences, but we are also interested in what captures the attention of the larger public: we care about the most recent YouTube sensation or the latest viral video. When platforms like YouTube make video recommendations they are comparing data collected from your viewing behavior to a massive cache of data aggregated from the viewing behavior of many other users.

A primary use of data is in the personalization of online experiences. Social media platforms function under the assumption that we want our online experience to be customized and that we are willing to give up our data to make that happen. Personalization may appear to be increasing our access to information because it helps us filter through the infinite content available to us, but in actuality it has to restrict what we pay attention to in order to work. This filtering can result in digital redlining, which limits the information users have access to based on the filtering preferences of internet access providers (Gilliard and Culik 2016). Internet service providers shape users’ online experiences through both privacy policies and acceptable use policies. Not unlike how banks used racist strategies to limit minority access to physical spaces, internet service providers (including universities) employ “acceptable use policies” to limit engagement with information pre-categorized as “inappropriate” and explain why various users might have very different perceptions of the same event. Practices like digital redlining reveal how personalization, albeit potentially desirable, comes at the cost of weakening the consistent, shared information we rely on to reach consensus with other people. Ultimately, we embrace data aggregation and content personalization without considering its full implications for how we connect and communicate with one another and how businesses and governments see and treat us.

Using Measurable Types to Investigate Privacy Policies

One helpful tool for analyzing how algorithms construct online experiences for different users is Cheney-Lippold’s concept of “measurable types.” Measurable types are algorithmically generated norms or “interpretations of data that stand in as digital containers of categorical meaning” (Cheney-Lippold 2017, 19). Like dividual identities, measurable types are ever-changing categories created from aggregate user data without any actual input from the user. Essentially, measurable types assign users to categories that have very real impacts on them, but from data that has been collected with very specific definitions in mind that users don’t know about. The insidiousness of measurable types is how they automatically draw associations from user behaviors without providing any opportunity for users to critique or correct the “truths” scraped from their dividual data. For instance, most users might not see any adverse effects of being labeled a “gamer”; however being classified as a “gamer” measurable type could also algorithmically align users with members of the #gamergate movement[5] resulting in misogynist content spilling into their digital experiences. In this way, measurable types remove humans from the processes that operationalize their data into consequential algorithmic decisions made on their behalf.

Every social media platform has its own privacy policy “written for the express purpose of protecting a company or website operator from legal damages” which outlines the data-collection practices permissible on the site and governs its use (Beck 2016, 70). Measurable types as a framework guides analysis of these policies with specific attention to the implications of how data is collected, processed, and used. Students in first-year courses in composition and technical communication, in addition to those studying communications, information technology, computer science, and education are well suited to investigate these digital policy documents because many such students are social media users already. Analyzing privacy policies for social media platforms through the measurable types framework reveals to students that these policies are about more than simply their experience on the platform. In addition to prescribing user actions on these sites, these policies also directly impact students’ online experiences as the policies concern how data from their activity on the platform is generated, aggregated, and then repurposed into measurable types. They exist among a constellation of Terms of Service (ToS) documents, which can offer robust opportunities to examine the impact data aggregation has for different entities and users. In other words, to really grapple with how a privacy policy works, it is helpful to examine a wide array of ToS documents in order to familiarize yourself with these genres of digital policy.

The assignment sequence we offer for working with measurable types and social media privacy policies in the writing classroom includes an initial rhetorical analysis followed by two remediations. The rhetorical analysis assignment tasks students with examining choices within the privacy policy (e.g. temporality, transparency, and language) to demonstrate how critical information is relayed and to offer suggestions for making the policy more accessible for various audiences. While the goal of the two remediations together is “meaningful access”—not just understanding the policy itself but also the long-reaching impacts that it will have—the first remediation is focused primarily on making the policy more comprehensible. Through a series of in-class activities students learn about data aggregation, digital redlining, and measurable types before moving into a second, more intense remediation where they investigate the consequences of big data and their social media usage. Ultimately, using measurable types as a framework throughout the assignment sequence we offer presents students a path to learn about how their actions online dictate not only their future experiences on the internet but also the constellation of user experiences in their local community and around the world.

Privacy policy rhetorical analysis and initial remediation

When performing a rhetorical analysis of a social media privacy policy, begin with heuristics to work through genre conventions: how audience, exigence, structure, form, and intention work to shape a genre and the social actions it encapsulates (Miller 2015, 69). Which users and non-users does this document potentially impact? How do specific rhetorical choices impact how critical information is taken up? What is the intent of the people who write and design these documents, and the companies that publish them? Examining and discussing rhetorical choices within the privacy policy reveals how it addresses complex concepts such as data collection and aggregation—issues which are critically important for students to undertake throughout the assignment sequence. The goal is to begin working through the aforementioned terminology to inform remediations that emphasize rhetorical changes students would implement to make the policy more accessible for various audiences.

When approaching the genre for remediation, students should highlight the changes they will implement to make the social media privacy policy more transparent and readable. After students highlight the changes, they can figure out the genre of the remediation. We imagine students might produce infographics, flyers, zines, podcasts, videos, and other genres during this part of the assignment sequence. Since social media privacy policies impact many students directly, ask them to consider what they would do to make the document’s information more accessible and digestible for users like themselves. Students could perform usability tests, hold focus groups, and ask peers (in class and in other classes) for feedback. Also, consider the temporality, transparency, and language of the document. When was the last time the policy was updated? What methods of data collection might be opaque or otherwise inaccessible to users? What rhetorical arguments are formed by the policy? Answering these questions helps students develop a sense of what it means to be an engaged digital citizen. The more comfortable they are with analyzing the dynamics of these policies, the more likely they will see themselves as digital citizens navigating the complexities of a data-driven digital society. Students will focus more on how this data is used and to what ends as we move into a second remediation considering the social, political, and economic implications of digital privacy and data aggregation.

Expanding the scope to amplify measurable types

The exchange of our personal information for accessing services online is among the most complex issues we must address when considering how data use is outlined in social media privacy policies. Therefore, students should build upon their initial remediation, paying attention to the far-reaching implications of practices like data aggregation which lead to data commodification. Cheney-Lippold’s measurable types help us understand how our online experiences are cultivated by the processes of big data—the information you have access to, the content you are recommended, the advertisements you are shown, and the classification of your digital footprint (Beck 2016, 70). The following classroom activities expand the scope of these conversations beyond social media privacy policies towards larger conversations concerning big data by making measurable types visible.

According to Pew Research Center, 90% of adults in the United States have access to the internet; however, this does not mean that users get the same information. What we access online is curated by algorithmic processes, thus creating variable, often inequitable experiences. Digital redlining is about the information you have access to online. As with personalization earlier, digital redlining is “not only about who has access but also about what kind of access they have, how it’s regulated, and how good it is” (Gilliard and Culik 2016). Therefore, analysis should center on the access issues that privacy policies could address to help users better understand the myriad of ways social media platforms limit access just as much as they distribute it. Since digital redlining creates different, inequitable experiences arranged according to measurable types, it is easy to observe, as Gilliard and Culik do, how this frequent practice extends beyond social media privacy policies and into our everyday lives. Even simple, familiar online actions like engaging with mainstream search engines (e.g. Google) can demonstrate how different measurable types yield different results.

The techniques used to investigate social media privacy policies are transferable to any policy about data collection. For example, Google is often criticized for mismanaging user privacy, just as social media platforms like Facebook suffer scrutiny for not protecting users’ information. To examine the cultural, economic, social, and political impacts of user privacy on Google, students can perform some basic searches while logged out of Google services and note the results that appear on the first few pages. Then, students can log into their Google accounts and compare how personalized results differ not only from previous search results, but also from the results provided to friends, family, and their peers. What information is more widely shared? What information feels more restricted and personalized? These questions help us to process how measurable types contribute to the differences in search results even among those in our own communities.

Internet advertisements are another way to see measurable types at work online. As in the previous case with Google searches, we can easily observe the differences in the advertisements shown to one user compared to others since search engine results have a considerable amount of bias built into them (Noble 2018). Moreover, visiting websites from different interest groups across the internet allows you to see how the advertisements shown on those web pages are derived from the measurable types you belong to and how you (knowingly or unknowingly) interact with the various plugins and trackers active on the sites you visit. In comparing how the advertisements from the same webpage differ among students, we can develop an awareness of how algorithmic identities differ among users and what these advertisements infer about them as a person or consumer—the composite of their measurable types. Facebook also has a publicly accessible ad database that allows anyone to view various advertisements circulating on the platform in addition to information pertaining to their cost, potential reach, and the basic demographic information of users who actually viewed them. Advertisements present various sites for analysis and are a useful place to start when determining what data must have been collected about us because they provide a window into the measurable types we are assigned.

Internet advertisers are not the only stakeholders interested in data related to our measurable types. Governments are as well, as they are invested in assessing and managing risks to national security as they define it.[7] For instance, certain search engine queries and other otherwise mundane internet activity (keyword searches, sharing content, etc.) could be a factor in a user being placed on a no-fly list. Artist and technologist James Bridle refers to these assigned algorithmic identities as an “algorithmic citizenship,” a new form of citizenship where your allegiance and your rights are continuously “questioned, calculated, and rewritten” by algorithmic processes using the data they capture from your internet activity writ large (Bridle 2016).[8] Algorithmic citizenship relies on users’ actions across the internet, whereas most users might reasonably assume that data collected on a social media platform would be contained and used for that platform. However, algorithmic citizenship, like citizenship to any country, comes with its own set of consequences when a citizen deviates from an established norm. Not unlike the increased social ostracism a civilian faces from their community when they break laws, or appear to break laws, a user’s privacy and access is scrutinized when they don’t conform to the behavioral expectations overseen by government surveillance agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA).

Performing advanced remediations to account for algorithm-driven processes

Thinking through concepts like algorithmic citizenship and digital redlining helps us acknowledge the disproportionate impacts of algorithm-driven processes on users beyond the white, often heteronormative people for whom the technology was designed. Addressing algorithmic oppression on a theoretical level avoids settling for the short-sighted, strictly technological solutions to problems that are inherently social and cultural, a valuable perspective to consider for the second remediation. Therefore, in developing a second privacy policy remediation, students should consider not only their own experiences but the experiences of others in ways that mimic the aforementioned expansion from the individual to the dividual. This part of the assignment sequence promotes thinking about how online experiences are not equitable for all users by prompting students to investigate their measurable types and offer remediations that account for digital access issues like digital redlining or algorithmic citizenship. Some investigations into these digital modes of oppression will operate at the local, community level while others will operate at the much larger, societal level. Students might consider how their online shopping habits could influence where a new bus line is implemented in a future “smart city,” or how their internet browsing actions could influence which measurable types get flagged automatically for an invasive search by the TSA on their next flight overseas.

Students may choose to remediate the privacy policy into genres similar to the initial remediation assignment (e.g. infographics, videos). However, immersion in these policies for an extended time, over multiple, increasingly more intense inquiries, clarifies how these social media privacy policies extend the digital divide perpetuated by inequitable access to technology and critical digital literacies. Concepts and questions to consider for this remediation include meaningful access, data aggregation, and digital tracking and surveillance techniques. Who has access to certain information and who does not? What user data is shared with different stakeholders and why? What data are being collected and stored? What norms are perpetuated in the development of technology and technological systems? This final assignment in the sequence provides a means to examine the material consequences of big-data technologies: the critical role measurable types play and the algorithmic processes that make them possible. In performing this work, we can better comprehend how data collection and aggregation enables systematic marginalization in our social, political, and economic infrastructures.

Discussion and Further Implications

Learning outcomes vary across classrooms, programs, and institutions, but instructors who choose to teach about data aggregation and social media privacy policies should focus on critical objectives related to genre analysis and performance, cultural and ethical (rhetorical) context, and demonstrating transferable knowledge. Focusing on each of these objectives when assessing remediations of privacy policies in the writing classroom helps students learn and master these concepts. Importantly, the magnitude of the grade matters; genre remediations of privacy policies should be among the highest, if not the highest, weighted assignments during a writing course because of the knowledge of the complex concepts and rigor of writing required to perform the work. Instructors should create and scaffold various lower-stakes assignments and activities for students to complete throughout a sequence, unit, or course which augment the aforementioned learning outcomes.

While scholars in rhetoric and composition have long theorized the nature of genre, instructors should emphasize that privacy policies are a social construct (Miller 2015). Assessment should focus on how well students analyze and perform in the genre of the privacy policy during their remediations. Assessing how well students perform in a genre like a privacy policy challenges them to understand the rhetorical context and inequity of digital surveillance; moreover, it helps them develop transferable knowledge they can use when performing in other genres in other disciplines and as they go out and make an impact on the world. Instructors who teach about privacy policies should highlight knowledge transfer as a learning objective, because it helps students prepare to take up the skills they develop in the writing classroom and deploy them when performing in other genres in other classes and in their careers.

As mentioned earlier, many students have minimal experience with privacy policies because most do not read them and because hardly any have performed in the genre. Admittedly, unless students are planning careers as technical communicators, technologists, or entrepreneurs, they will probably not perform in this genre again. Even the entrepreneurs in your classes will more than likely take the approach of outsourcing the composition of their start-up’s privacy policy. Regardless of their future experiences with genre and remediation, this assignment sequence extends students’ critical thinking about data aggregation beyond their immediate classroom context and into their online and offline worlds.

Data: Beyond the Confines of the Classroom

We recommend analyzing social media privacy policies as a way to provoke meaningful interactions between students and the digital communities to which they belong. With so many documents to analyze, students should not feel restricted to the privacy policies for mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter but should interrogate fringe platforms like Parler and emerging platforms like TikTok. We have focused on extending conversations about digital privacy, data aggregation, digital redlining, and algorithmic citizenship but there are other concepts and issues worthy of thorough investigation. For example, some students might strive to highlight the intersection of digital policing techniques and mass incarceration in the United States by analyzing the operational policies for police departments that implement digital technologies like body cams and the privacy policies for the companies they partner with (like the body cam company Axon). Others might focus on how data manipulation impacts democracy domestically and abroad by analyzing how social media platforms were used to plan the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the meteoric rise of fringe “free speech” platforms like MeWe and Gab in the days following the insurrection.

Working through privacy policies and data concepts is tedious but necessary: we cannot let these challenging issues dissuade us from having important discussions or analyzing complex genres. Foregrounding the immediate impact a social media privacy policy has on our experiences in higher education highlights data aggregation’s larger impacts on our lives beyond the classroom. What are the real-world, rhetorical implications of abstract concepts like digital data collection and digital privacy? The answer is inevitably messy and oftentimes results in uncomfortable conversations; however, understanding how and why data collection, aggregation, and manipulation contributes to systemic oppression provides a valuable opportunity to look far beyond the classroom and to make smart, informed decisions concerning our present and future digital experiences with social media platforms.

Notes

[1] Scholars Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik (2016) propose the concept of “digital redlining” as a social phenomenon whereby effective access to digital resources is restricted for certain populations by institutional and business policies, in a process that echoes the economic inequality enforced by mortgage banks and government authorities who denied crucial loans to Black neighborhoods throughout much of the 20th century.

[2] Stephanie Vie (2008), for instance, described over a decade ago a “digital divide 2.0,” whereby people’s lack of critical digital literacy denies them equitable access to digital technologies, particularly Web 2.0 tools and technologies, despite having physical access to the technologies and services themselves.

[3] Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is not lying when he says that Facebook users own their content, but he also does not clarify that what Facebook is actually interested in is your metadata.

[4] Aggregate data does not mean more accurate data, because data is never static: it is dynamically repurposed. This process can have disastrous results when haphazardly applied to contexts beyond the data’s original purpose. We must recognize and challenge the ways aggregate data can wrongly categorize the most vulnerable users, thereby imposing inequitable experiences online and offline.

[5] #gamergate was a 2014 misogynistic digital aggression campaign meant to harass women working within and researching gaming, framed by participants as a response to unethical practices in videogame journalism.

[6] Facebook launched its ad library (https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/) in 2019 in an effort to increase transparency around political advertisement on the platform.

[7] Perhaps the most recognizable example of this is the Patriot Act (passed October 26, 2001) which prescribes broad and asymmetrical surveillance power to the U.S. government. For example, Title V specifically removes obstacles for investigating terrorism which extend to digital spaces.

[8] This is what Estee Beck (2015) refers to as the “invisible digital identity.”

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank our Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy reviewers for their insightful feedback. We are particularly indebted to Estee Beck and Dominique Zino. This article would not have been possible without Estee’s mentorship and willingness to work with us throughout the revision process.

About the Authors

Charles Woods is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD candidate in rhetoric, composition, and technical communication at Illinois State University. His research interests include digital privacy, biopolitical technologies, and digital rhetorics. His dissertation builds a case against the use by American law enforcement of direct-to-consumer genetic technologies as digital surveillance tools, and positions privacy policies as a dynamic rhetorical genre instructors can use to teach about digital privacy and writing. He has contributed to Computers & Composition, Writing Spaces, and The British Columbian Quarterly, among other venues. He hosts a podcast called The Big Rhetorical Podcast.

Noah Wilson is a Visiting Instructor of Writing and Rhetoric at Colgate University and a PhD candidate in Syracuse University’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program. His research interests include posthuman ethos, algorithmic rhetorics, and surveillance rhetorics. His dissertation addresses recent trends in social media content-recommendation algorithms, particularly how they have led to increased political polarization in the United States and the proliferation of radicalizing conspiracy theories such as Qanon and #Pizzagate. His research has appeared in Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, Disclosure, and other venues

Earth viewed from space, with Africa lit up in the sun.
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Experiential Approaches to Teaching African Culture and the Politics of Representation: Building the “Documenting Africa” Project with StoryMapJS

Abstract

In the fall of 2018, Dr. Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (Ohio Wesleyan University) and Dr. Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Albion College) conducted a teaching collaboration through their courses “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions” and “Introduction to African Art.” Supported by funding from the Great Lakes Colleges Association and the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, the courses explored the artistic traditions and literary, journalistic, cinematographic, and visual representations of African peoples and cultures. Students in both courses were encouraged to confront and ask difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate Western perceptions about Africa, African peoples, and cultures; and to become attentive to the problems of history, misrepresentations, and the importance of historiographic revision. In this article, Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi show how connecting these courses through an active, experiential, creative, collaborative culminating project, namely the digital platform called “Documenting Africa,” built with StoryMapJS technology, proved a particularly effective approach for students to satisfy the learning objectives for each class and grapple with those questions at the heart of the courses. In addition, the piece explains each course’s assignments and learning individual objectives individually, united through overarching philosophical underpinnings and objectives.

Introduction: Common Learning Objectives, Description of Project, Theoretical Underpinnings

This article describes a collaboration between two courses, one on African art and another on immigration from and through North Africa, that culminated in the collaborative digital project “Documenting Africa.” Because the course on African art was an introductory course, the text in this article specific to that course focuses on the pedagogical rationale that drove both the materials included on the syllabus and the nature of the digital work and preparatory assignments. On the other hand, because the course on immigration was an upper-level course with many complementary parts, the narrative specific to that course concentrates primarily on describing materials, assignments, and learning outcomes.

Before delineating the elements undergirding the mission of our collaboration, it is important to see where Africa sits vis-a-vis the majority of American undergraduates. Most American students who come to African Studies (with few exceptions, like heritage students), especially in an introductory course, typically have little to no informational knowledge—historical, political, sociological, cultural, regional, or topographical—of the African continent. The sparse background that they do bring usually comes in the form of monolithic assumptions and overly generalized, misrepresentative, received ideas about the continent and its peoples. They might imagine a “‘global diaspora, an international culture and a metaphor with fantastical associations for the West: gold, savages, ‘darkest,’ ‘deepest,’ liberation, devastation’” (Phillips 2007, 97–98). Imagery in students’ minds often derives from such sources as nature documentaries on the Serengeti to pop cultural touchstones like The Lion King to news reports about war and child soldiers. It is not uncommon that, in the first few class meetings before certain myths have been debunked, students will unmaliciously, but naively, refer to and treat Africa, the continent, as a holistic, homogeneous entity. This is not surprising, since current events happening throughout the continent today typically surface on major Western media outlets with reportage on disease or scourges (e.g. Ebola, AIDS, etc.), acts of violence or terrorism (e.g. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, etc.), poaching and wildlife conservation efforts, and more recently, the effects of climate change on widespread famine and territorial struggle for resources. Collectively such journalism exacerbates an already maligned imaginary of places and peoples. This is what the brilliant, late Nigerian art critic Okwui Enwezor called Afro-pessimism and the exact kind of generalized, vague, negative, ahistorical representation of the “other” that formed the basis for Edward Said’s Orientalism (Okwui Enwezor 2006, 10–20). The socio-cultural and political conditions of Africans, for many American undergraduates, typically remain abstract, conceptually, just as the immense heterogeneity and regional nuances of this landscape remain elusive to them, at the outset. To make matters even more urgent and challenging, not only do most students possess a gap in their current, geopolitical understanding of African peoples and nations today, but they lack the critical thinking skills to question the history of why some of those gross misrepresentations persist to this day. As a result, Africans today, as well as their rich cultures and nations’ histories, remain largely under- and/or mis-represented, foreign, and woefully divorced from notions of progress and potential for many American undergraduate students.

With the aforementioned problems in mind and with a desire to address them in a particularly experiential mode of teaching and learning, Professors Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (French, Ohio Wesleyan University) and Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Art History, Albion College) decided to pursue an opportunity through the Great Lakes Colleges Association to connect two courses, Lewis Cusato’s Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions and Dr. Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art, primarily through a collaborative digital humanities project called “Documenting Africa.”

The employment of digital platforms as a means of encouraging students to actively engage with unfamiliar content and problematic misconceptions was informed by such thinkers as Mary Nooter Roberts and Ruth B. Phillips, to name just two. Indeed, Roberts’ articulation of exhibiting as “always in some measure the construction of a cultural imaginary and never a direct reflection of lived experience” (2008, 170) resonated with both Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi as a useful way of conceptualizing the integration of digital work into their respective courses. When working not only to fill a knowledge gap, but also to correct misconceptions, a constructive, visible, experiential mode struck them as particularly promising and appropriate. In order to see and understand African objects and representations, students were asked to work with, comment on, and display those very objects, texts, and representations. In the same way that Roberts describes “the museum exhibition as an arena for translation” and exhibitions as “objects of knowledge,” so, too, were students in the courses asked to translate their knowledge for audiences in a curatorial, reflective, but also creative mode in which learning, creation, and reflection were intertwined and integrated.

So it was through four weeks of curricular planning during the summer of 2018 that the pedagogical philosophies at work began to crystallize to ensure, first, a focus on comparing cultural representations of Africa from the African continent with Western representations of African cultures and, second, successful completion of the digital humanities project. Furthermore, Lewis Cusato was concurrently awarded a second grant, the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, to secure a student research assistant and assistance from the Five Colleges Post-Bac to help build and maintain the digital humanities project. Assistance from the Post-Bac, Olivia Geho, proved absolutely instrumental in moving the project forward in a thoughtful, productive, efficient, and reflective manner.

In tandem, these courses shared the following three learning objectives, albeit through different resources and in different languages:

  • Broadening knowledge about, and appreciation of, African material culture;
  • Examining inherited understandings about African cultures;
  • Comparing the stakes of self-representation with those of “representing the other.”

The conceptual and theoretical overlap between these two courses was rooted in some key learning outcomes. Firstly, both professors expected students to develop more nuanced notions about African literary and artistic traditions and cultural practices, and visual/material cultural patrimonies. Secondly, students were asked to confront sometimes difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate our own popular culture in the West about Africa, African peoples, and cultures. The professors hoped their students would become attentive to the problems of history and representation, and understand that for alternative histories to emerge, we need historiographic revisions, which can come about only through different types of primary source engagements (through oral interviews or analyses of visual cultural objects, for example). Thirdly, these questions of the historiographies of African arts and cultures, in the end, point students to the high stakes and direct impact posed in how these diverse peoples are not only represented, but remembered.

At its core, this collaboration sought to ensure that students grasp the deep connections between the politics of representation and historical memory, especially given that “once an African object has entered the epistemological arena of a different time and place in, say, the United States, France, or Japan, it cannot be divorced from that world of thought and presented from an exclusively African point of view” (Roberts 2008, 174). In sum, the connections among history, representation, and memory were foundational for this project.

Technology is rapidly changing the way that the humanities are pedagogically envisioned and taught: three-dimensional reconstructions of archaeological sites enable students to imagine ancient spaces; various forms of digital scanning alter the manner by which conservators restore paintings; digitizing maps opens up new forays in critical cartography. The digital humanities is not solely invested in analyzing data, producing new quantitative analyses or statistical metrics, or amassing or preserving cultural artifacts. Digital art history is often perceived to be apolitical and uncritical (Drucker 2019, 325), preoccupied with data collection (Battles 2016, 329), and lacking the intellectual rigor of conventional methods of visual analysis.

Yet as the work of N. Katherine Hayles exhorts us to consider, the digital is changing the ways we think—our epistemologies—and tell stories. For her, narratives (whether literary or artistic) and databases are fundamentally intertwined, integrating ideas of temporality and spatiality (2012). For both the fields of literature and art history, digital modes of instructional technology can render course content more accessible, interactive, and therefore familiar. If, as Hayles asserts, “the ability to access and retrieve information on a global scale has a significant impact on how one thinks about one’s place in the world” then surely, our students’ digital research and interactive exhibitions might enable them to reevaluate their own relationship to peoples and places previously unbeknownst to them (2012, 2). In teaching comparative literature and art history, the close reading of literary texts and images is paramount to pedagogical methods, though Hayles suggests that this needs to change to adapt for a new age of media literacy and that the traditional close reading of texts needs to accommodate a new type of digital hyper-reading, the fragmented ways we all consume media via filtering, skimming, hyperlinking, and so forth (2012, 61).

To account for these trends and shifts in the digital mechanisms of media consumption, what if the tools of the digital humanities could also be repurposed in the classroom to confront and debunk representational injustices and complicate conceptual or epistemological problems of a subject or discipline? Can a digital tool challenge misrepresentations or assumptions on African cultures and peoples? This essentially was the key methodological and pedagogical question we sought to tackle.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for Introduction to African Art

Teaching African art history presents instructors with the immensely tall pedagogical order of rendering places, peoples, and cultures that are mostly alien to students familiar, through experiential learning, connection, and creation. In Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art course, students encounter a range of original artistic practices from cultural groups all over the geographical and political terrain of the continent. Lesson units are broken down by considering the visual culture and communal usage of objects within specific ethnic and cultural groups of a particular region (e.g. sculptural practices and cosmology of the Dogon peoples of Mali, the divination objects and storytelling memory boards of the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the royal paraphernalia of the Bamum peoples of Cameroon, etc.). Students examine the artistic qualities, fine craftsmanship, and contextual roles of an array of objects—wooden sculptures, masks and headdresses, gold bracelets and staffs, buildings and materials, garments and regalia—to comprehend the socio-cultural significance of such objects within these peoples’ lives, and to grasp the epistemological connections such peoples make about the environment and the places they inhabit.

Like any introductory course, this too was a survey in its general format. The key challenges of any art history survey are to balance depth and breadth, and to instill in students both the detail-oriented skills of visual analysis, on the one hand, and the macro-level conceptual abilities of asking broad, theme-based questions, on the other. And so over the course of any standard curriculum in African art history, students not only gain an intricate understanding of how diverse peoples and their visual and material cultural practices throughout the continent, but they are encouraged to identify similarities and connections in how many of these cultural groups construct their art, societies, and conceptualize their worldviews in relation to pivotal political and historical events, as well as centuries of economic trade and cross-cultural exchange. Methodologically and theoretically, however, African art history is fraught as a subfield by virtue of its heritage. Its origins lay not within the field of art history, but in the discipline of anthropology and the problematic, unethical collection practices of colonial ethnographers and bureaucrats on military expeditions in Africa throughout the long nineteenth century. Thus, the very study of African art was founded under exploitative conditions, and as a consequence, has given rise to a number of methodological and epistemological debates about how African art should be approached, analyzed and understood (Hallen 1997). As the noted art historian Sidney Littlefield Kasfir remarks in her much-cited article, the eventual field that formed out of these geopolitical inequities—mostly work undertaken by anthropologists—followed the “one tribe, one style” paradigmatic model, in which the artistic production of one ethnic and cultural group is correlated to one quintessential style and set of formal qualities (Kasfir 1992). Such ethnic and cultural groups become siloed entities, treated homogeneously, accounting little for cross-cultural encounters and exchanges across and among groups. Paradoxically, this method of treating ethnic and regional case studies in a singular, tribal fashion still generally predominates in African art history pedagogy at the introductory level, due to the diversity and sheer multiplicity of African peoples and cultures and the need of instructors to render the material digestible to undergraduates. In our course, we used Monica Blackmun Visona’s textbook, A History of Art in Africa (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008), which navigates through the rich artistic traditions of peoples and groups with chapters divided according to regional domains (e.g. Sahara and the Maghreb, West Africa and West Atlantic Forests, Central Africa including the Congo Basin, Eastern and Southern Africa, and the diaspora).

Time/temporality and authorship are yet more variables that add complexity to African art historical analysis. Contrasting with conventional or Western art historical methods, which privilege historical chronology and periodization, African art history preoccupies itself more with conceptual epistemologies and indigenous knowledge systems—often derived from contemporary cultural phenomena and observations (Ogbechie 2005)—to arrive at an historical art work’s interpretation. This approach to time is complicated by gaps in the historical record (Peffer 2005) and the fact that many African artists may acquire fame and repute, but their notoriety may not be socially linked specifically to the art works that they produced in their lifetime. Objects’ lives and meanings are not defined by their authorial makers, but instead by their social lives circulating among the patrons, the groups who wear or use said objects, or the religious officials and diviners who control and activate them (Vogel 1999).

Such methodological and epistemological issues bear greatly on pedagogy and student learning outcomes as well. The rationale for assigning a digital final project to students of African art history is multi-pronged and motivated by a desire to decolonize troubling pedagogies. Firstly, in order to problematize those aforementioned methodological questions of tribe, style, cross-cultural exchange, history, collecting, time/temporality, and authorship in African art objects, students must engage in cross-cultural and comparative thinking straight away. The rote memorization and connoisseurship-focused pedagogy enforced by an old guard of art historians does not serve to enliven either the African art objects, peoples or cultures in this generation of students. By encouraging students to think about the axes of time and space in African art, they resist notions of fixed, homogeneous peoples and instead become attuned to the dynamism of cultural exchanges and processes of transformation. Furthermore, to break free from and challenge those ubiquitous misrepresentations of African cultures in the Western media, students must acquire some interactive sense of intimacy or immediacy with African cultures and current events so as to break the barrier of foreignness. And crucially, reception is a vital facet of any African art history course, in probing students to empathically position themselves in the role of the makers, interlocutors, recipients, and beholders of such works of art.

Throughout the course, students had the tall order of absorbing the content and material of each unit, but the final digital project was conceived to help integrate their knowledge through comparative, analytical thinking. Students were divided into three groups of three and four by the professor (balanced based on their respective standing, research experience, critical thinking skills, reading abilities, and academic readiness) and instructed to curate their own digital online exhibition of African art objects, centered on a specific theme across time and space; just like real art curators in museums and galleries, students had to critically examine issues of representation, conceptual and narrative coherence, and sub-thematic division and arrangement in designing their own online exhibition. At the outset, Neatline and Omeka were briefly considered as potential software tools, but ruled out because of their relative complexity; ultimately, in consultation with Albion College’s instructional technologist, Sarah Noah, StoryMapJS was chosen due to its facility for a general audience.

To aid students in envisioning their digital shows, they were taken on two local field trips: firstly, to see the special exhibition, Beyond Borders: Global Africa, which ran from August 11 to November 25, 2018 at the University of Michigan Art Museum (UMMA) and was curated by Dr. Laura De Becker; and secondly, to tour the permanent African art exhibits at the Detroit Institute of Art, known by Africanists to be one of the richest collections of African art in the United States (Woods 1971). By selecting at least twenty images of African art objects now residing in US museum collections from a minimum of five disparate cultural groups, students had to create and curate their own show around a story arc (e.g. power and kingship; adornment and beauty; women’s authority; masking, performance and spirits; ancestors and memories; apotropaism and protections; slavery or imperial encounters; kinship and communalism; etc.).

Assignments were scaffolded so as to break down tasks and ensure genuine collaboration among group members. The first of these benchmark assignments asked students to construct their story arc or narrative theme. Next, because StoryMapJS enables one to render stories interactive and visual over geographical space and chronological time, students had to build on their narrative outline by selecting their base map, through which their audience will navigate through the digital exhibition; and most importantly, their objects and regional sites. For each object, students had to conduct research on the piece and write their own object label–just like an explanatory placard on the wall of a gallery—providing their viewers with the necessary content to understand the cultural significance of that piece and how it fits into the overarching narrative arc.

The students’ final, digital exhibitions successfully exemplified those desired learning outcomes of understanding the heterogeneity of African artistic traditions, cross-cultural exchange, and regional specificity. The three projects differentiated and compared the creative output and cultural practices shared by various ethnic groups across the continent: the exhibition “Initiation Ceremonies and Rites of Passage in African Arts and Cultures” dealt with masquerade practices, sculptural traditions, and sacred rituals in the transition from youth to adulthood; “Passion, Power, Perfection: Marriage and African Arts” examined the role of courtship, public displays of fidelity and the place of marriage in African artistic traditions; and finally, “African Funerary Practices and Traditions” highlighted the central position of objects in honoring ancestors and funerary rituals, proving that death and collective memory are intertwined in African artistic practices. Pedagogically, these exhibitions were a success in that they challenged students to think about conceptual and representational issues and through research encouraged familiarity with the objects. The digital exhibitions brought to life material that otherwise often remains static and foreign in an African art history course.

Students’ digital exhibitions were graded on the following criteria: narrative coherence, informational accuracy and depth of research, facility of the exhibit (e.g. cleanliness and user-friendly qualities), aesthetic appeal, and teamwork professionalism. A major drawback of StoryMapJS is that only one student could be the user/owner of that project account, and so edits to the digital exhibition could not be implemented simultaneously by other group members; this proved to be inconvenient for collaboration, with inevitably one student in each group shouldering more of the burden of entering data into the program.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions”

The benchmark assignments designed for the Fourteen Kilometers class were conceived with the objective of preparing students to answer such weighty questions as the following:

  • What does it mean, first, to record an oral history both responsibly and ethically and, second, how do stylistics, such as camerawork and sound recording, affect such a project?
  • Second, what are the stakes of creating an outward-facing project that is a carrier of meaning, especially for cultural documents that represent and / or come from Africa?
  • Are exhibition and translation, both defined here as extensions of the original object(s), “all one can ever know”? (Roberts 2008, 183) If so, what does this mean in terms of thinking about “original” vs. “translation” or “exhibition”?

To these ends, several benchmark assignments were designed to prepare students to learn and create with a sense of depth, purpose, and reflection. As a class, Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions was preparing to collect, edit, and publish an oral history from a French-speaking immigrant in the Columbus area, and these benchmark workshops and assignments were essential training tools for the students. First, the Fourteen Kilometers class held a workshop in the campus library with the Director of Media Services at Ohio Wesleyan University, Chuck Della Lana, who demonstrated framing techniques with video cameras and discussed the implications of various manners of video framing, camera angles, and relating sound to image. Students then paired off to interview one another briefly on a topic of their choosing, and returned to the media center to share the product with the class to analyze various techniques related to the recording choices of both sound and image. In a second round of interviews, partners switched roles and finessed those elements upon which they wished to improve before concluding discussions. This benchmark assignment was crucial in training students to understand the deep relationship; whether in videography, cinematography, or oral history; between message and stylistics. Camera angles, shots, manipulation of sound, and other tools associated with video recordings all shape, both literally and figuratively, the narrative at the center of the story. Students were encouraged to reflect on such different modes of recording as recording-as-art vs. recording-for-knowledge. What does it mean to take an oral history, to record and disseminate someone else’s story? How is the oral historian, literally and figuratively, framing the story to be received by anyone who views it later? By the end of the workshop, students understood these concepts in a deeper and more concrete way.

The second benchmark workshop and assignment deepened students’ engagement with questions that arose from the first. On Friday, October 26, 2018, Wendy Singer, Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College, came to campus to lead a workshop for students and other Ohio Wesleyan University community members through a presentation and a series of exercises and discussions training students to consider the ethical issues that can arise when conducting, editing, and publishing oral histories. When an oral history is given, how do authorship, subjectivity, ownership of the story, and voice shift? To demonstrate this notion, Singer asked students, in pairs, to designate a storyteller and a listener. The storyteller told the story of their first day on campus, and the listener retold the story to the group. The original storyteller then noted differences between the original version and the retelling and offered reflections on subtle differences between the two tellings. This workshop, building on the first, guided students’ thinking about the overarching goals of oral history and the subtle ways in which retelling is also, whether willfully or not, a reshaping. If the objective is to record an oral history with as little intervention as possible, with as little reshaping as possible, then great care and attention must be paid.[1]

The third benchmark assignment took place on November 16, 2018, the Friday before Thanksgiving, when Lewis Cusato and the students in the “Fourteen Kilometers” class boarded a university van to drive nineteen miles to visit the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) organization in Columbus, Ohio. Lewis Cusato had arranged for an oral history given by a local French-speaking refugee and a follow-up Question and Answer session to be recorded by a colleague. Upon arrival at CRIS, it became clear that the person sharing his story did not wish for any recording to be disseminated. This was surprising and disappointing for the students, who had devoted significant time, energy, and thought to developing appropriate questions to ask him in French; considering how to approach such questions in the most respectful and productive ways possible; and to learning about how to record, transcribe, translate, and present the oral history. He presented his story with both narrative and images, students did ask their questions, the session was recorded, and the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator spoke with the group about the state of immigrants and immigration in the United States under the current presidential administration. The visit lasted some two and a half hours and generated much discussion for the drive back to campus in Delaware, Ohio. Lewis Cusato asked students to articulate their reactions to the visit. They expressed enthusiasm at the poignancy of hearing a first-person, in-person account and were grateful for the opportunity to nuance common media reports, many of which consistently depict immigrants as a homogeneous, problematic group. Engaging with one man’s personal narrative about what it truly was to leave his country, what it meant to wait for eleven years in a refugee camp in Uganda, what it was to be examined and checked by the Department of Homeland Security and finally granted asylum, and what it entailed to move and find his way in a new country and a new language allowed students to see the phenomenon of immigration in a more realistic, complete, personal, and thorough way than they would have by simply relying on the news. The students expressed gratitude at hearing from the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator the staggering statistics about just how few refugees are in fact granted asylum to the United States and how such numbers pale in comparison with many smaller, less wealthy countries. Rich discussion ensued, and the class collectively decided to use the Thanksgiving break to reflect on potential paths forward, given that the original plan to record, transcribe, and disseminate the oral history would no longer be possible.

During that first class session following the visit to CRIS and Thanksgiving break, Lewis Cusato asked students to reflect on what they had done so far throughout the semester’s work in the class. As they spoke, she noted both content and skill development work on the board. Their discussion hinged on the progress of the course to that point. Yes, there had been an emphasis on the oral history component of the class, but students had also watched and analyzed a documentary, La Saga des immigrés (The Saga of Immigrants, 2007); engaged with street art throughout the Mediterranean that comments on immigration; read a novel, Les Clandestins, about clandestine immigration from Morocco; watched and interpreted a film, Harragas, about clandestine immigration from Algeria to southern Europe; watched and discussed a special report on the SOS Méditerranée organization that saves migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea; read and discussed news articles from African, French, and American media about immigration throughout the Mediterranean; and studied the photojournalistic manifesto I Am With Them, which was exhibited in 2015 in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute). The course participants realized that the course, at its essence, tells the stories of the journeys taken up by the protagonists, the subjects filmed, the characters written, and the people portrayed. Hence, the StoryMap mode would likely work best. When all the materials studied throughout the term were listed on the board so that all could see them together as parts of a whole, the structure for the website began to emerge, founded on valuable insights gleaned through comparative analysis of the syllabus’s content. The point here, too, was to move beyond such common Western aspirations as “the experiences of ‘resonance’ and ‘wonder’ that are produced by the presentation of objects as artifact and art” (Phillips 2007, 98) and to move towards a multi-layered, multimodal, multifaceted narrative that emphasizes originality, individuality, reflection, sophistication, and art and knowledge alike. Informed by Turnbull’s work theorizing maps as knowledge, maps as languages and networks, and maps as narratives in and of themselves, this new digital project emerged with a sense of depth and complexity that had the potential to allow the narratives of journey to emerge in a vibrant, full digital display.

The site would begin with an introduction, in both English and French, by Lewis Cusato. At the bottom of the page would appear an image, title, and short explanation to introduce each of the five students’ StoryMaps, all of which would be connected through an overarching WordPress site. As their final project for the course, then, students would work either individually or in pairs to choose images, quotations, and to create explanations and analysis of their source or sources. The students’ first step was to curate the text and images they would like to include on the map as well as decide on the map’s pinpoints. Once this was accomplished, each student or team would present their proposed focus to the group to solicit feedback from their classmates. Bit by bit, as students worked alone, presented their proposed contributions to the site, gave one another feedback, and revised and reframed as necessary, the site began to take shape. From November 26 through December 14, 2018, then, students built the site in consort with Lewis Cusato and Olivia Geho. In retrospect, it is clear that devoted the first three months of coursework (August 22 to November 16, 2018) to content coverage and assessment as well as benchmark assignments, followed by spending three weeks (November 26 to December 14, 2018) building the site worked well as a timeline. Finally, since the Fourteen Kilometers course is an upper-level French course, significant time, energy, and focus were necessary to correct and finesse the students’ translations. Fortunately, a senior student in French particularly interested in translation approached Lewis Cusato about pursuing an independent study under her guidance with an emphasis on translation. Thus, in the spring of 2020, through this independent study, this student and Lewis Cusato painstakingly examined, corrected, and finessed all the text and translations associated with the project.

To balance and integrate such elements of a course as content and skill mastery with a culminating, collaborative digital project requires purposeful and consistent pedagogical movement among the various modes of input and output, whether textual, visual, digital, cinematographic, political, journalistic, popular, or some combination of these. The syllabus and course timeline must therefore be constructed with an eye towards balancing the content work with the benchmark assignments, consulting experts, digital work, and time for collectively checking in with one another as a class and revising both the plan and the culminating project as necessary along the way. The ability and willingness to rethink and pivot if necessary proved foundational for the course, as did maintaining open dialogue with the class about best strategies for progressing, even unexpected obstacles rendered the original plan unfeasible. Furthermore, the notion that “a person is always operating within the structures of his/her own culturally prescribed formats for understanding the world” (Roberts 2008, 172) reminded all involved that the project must take into account potential lack of familiarity on the part of visitors. With these elements in mind and with transparent, clear communication among all members of the class, such a course can become, and indeed was, a particularly collaborative, engaging, relevant, and constructive experience of learning, thinking, reflecting, and creating.

Concluding Reflections

The courses described above allowed Demerdash-Fatemi and Lewis Cusato to teach students about the stakes of cultural production related to Africa. Students were asked to take their time, look at, contextualize, study, and reflect on the objects, images, and texts upon which each respective course was founded. Furthermore, these courses asked students to consider the stakes of representing oneself, as compared to being represented by others. Students were asked to compare and contrast Western representations of Africa with African representations of Africa in order to begin to be able to see and articulate the politics of representation always at work. Finally, these courses facilitated students’ creating something that could be shared with others from their readings, their viewings, their discussions, their analysis, their research, and their interpretations. This is the great value of coupling a course with the creation of a digital humanities project: it asks students to curate and create something visual, textual, technological, outward-looking, and helpful for others who might wish to explore the topic. It asks them to engage with layers of meaning as they interpret and to be meaning-makers themselves. The students literally become the teacher, and they emerge from the course experience having moved from input, from learning, to creation, to teaching. It allows them to show anyone interested how—though the news media often portrays immigrants as a problematic, troublesome group—artists, journalists, filmmakers, writers, and activists tell the story of immigration in very different ways and paint very different pictures. Finally, this project encouraged the students to reflect upon and comment on, to connect to and share new learning about traditions, novel aesthetics, and communities throughout the African continent. You can find such stories and such pictures, as well as associated commentary and analysis, on this site, where learning begets reflection and creation, and where engagement with resources begets the genesis of a new resource. The cycle, the learning, continue.

Notes

[1] Open to the wider campus community, Professor Singer’s visit was made possible by support from The Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award and from Ohio Wesleyan University’s Department of Modern Foreign Languages.

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Acknowledgments

We, the authors, wish to acknowledge the following people and organizations, without whom this work would not have been possible: Simon Gray (Program Officer, Great Lakes Colleges Association and Global Liberal Arts Alliance), Wendy Singer (Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College), Tyler Reeve (Volunteer Coordinator at Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbus, Ohio), Ben Daigle (Associate Director of Consortial Library Systems for the Five Colleges), Deanne Peterson (Director of Libraries at Ohio Wesleyan University), David Soliday (Instructional Technologist at Ohio Wesleyan University), Eugene Rutigliano (Digital Initiatives Librarian and Curator at Ohio Wesleyan University), Olivia Geho (Ohio 5 Digital Collections Post-Bac), Brandon Stevens (student assistant for Dr. Lewis Cusato), and Sarah Noah (Instructional Technologist at Albion College). This Digital Humanities resource is housed at Ohio Wesleyan University and managed by Dr. Lewis Cusato, in cooperation with Ben Daigle, Deanne Peterson, Eugene Rutigliano, and David Soliday.

About the Authors

Mary Anne Lewis Cusato came to Ohio Wesleyan University, where she serves as an Associate Professor and the Director of the French Program, from the Yale University Department of French. She was promoted and granted tenure in 2019 and awarded the Sherwood Dodge Shankland Teaching Award in 2020. Dr. Lewis Cusato teaches French language at all levels, as well as courses on the French-speaking world outside of France, with an emphasis on francophone Africa. She publishes regularly, and her work has appeared in Contemporary French & Francophone Studies: SITES, Expressions maghrébines, The Journal of North African Studies, The Chronicle: Vitae, and The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Globalization and Its Discontents in Contemporary Literature. Dr. Lewis Cusato also co-founded and co-directs OWU’s Palmer Global Scholars Program.

Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at Albion College (Michigan, USA), where she teaches a range of courses in global visual culture and art and architectural history. She holds graduate and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, respectively, and publishes widely on modern and contemporary art and architecture of the Middle East and North Africa. Her broader research interests include postcolonial and diaspora studies. Her articles have appeared in edited volumes as well as in journals such as The Journal of North African Studies, The Journal of Arabian Studies, Perspective: actualité en histoire de l’art, among others. Additionally, she serves as an Assistant Editor for The International Journal of Islamic Architecture.

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