Mark D. Pepper, Utah Valley University
Let technology teach you how your students perceive the temporal expectations of digital communications.
If I’ve learned anything about technology, it’s that the moment we take it for granted is the exact moment a problem will emerge. Some of these problems can be predicted and even prepared for. Other times, you never see them coming and merely have to navigate the ensuing firestorm of student frustration. I never would have thought a simple blogging assignment would teach me a lesson about how I conceive of time differently than my students or the ramifications of this difference for dealing with inter-student conflict.
Blogging holds a unique place amongst the wealth of options available to educators looking to integrate technology into their writing pedagogies. Blogging is relatively easy and free. There are many solid platforms available (from WordPress to Blogger to Tumblr and more) with user-friendly interfaces that require only a modicum of time to set-up and explain how to use. The only tool required for participation is internet access. Blogs allow for a pedagogy of “writing for writing’s sake” by encouraging students to make small contributions outside of longer, more formal projects, and the comment functionality encourages student dialogue in a semi-public forum. Finally, since blogs have existed since the late 1990s, they’ve enjoyed a much longer testing and experimentation period than newer digital technologies. Put all these factors together and I’m often hard pressed to find a fellow educator who hasn’t at least tried student blogging.
Perhaps because of blogging’s relative ease and ubiquity, it’s easy to think that incorporating a blog into your course will be a problem free endeavor. In many ways, this is often true. Oh sure, students may not write as much as we’d like them to. Their comments may never move much beyond the stage of: “Great post! I totally agree!” (even when we ask for “substantial” replies). Often, we need to require a specific number of comments per week by each student to prevent a digital ghost town (a necessity I’m not entirely comfortable with). But overall, my experiences suggest that blogging usually goes pretty smoothly.
You know . . . until it doesn’t.
I have an assignment in Freshman Composition designed to introduce students to visual rhetoric. They need to select photos and, using Photoshop, add a single word to the photo that turns the piece into a small, visual argument. The assignment is a quick and effective method of teaching students that words and images can have a multiplicity of meanings and the juxtaposition of word and image can create further provocative invocations for audience interpretation and reflection. I’ve seen “Beauty?” placed on an image of an obviously anorexic fashion model; “America” placed on an image of obese children sitting at McDonalds; “Education” placed on an image of Somali children holding assault rifles; and “Exercise” on a photo of a child animatedly playing with his Nintendo Wii remote.
The instructions are not as easy as “slap a word on a photo.” Every choice made (the font, the font size, the color, the placement, etc.) needs to add meaning to the argument, and these choices need to be articulated in a lengthy paragraph or two that explains the rhetorical reasoning behind each choice. So, for example, the anorexic “Beauty?” designer wrote about how she chose to use a font with very sharp and pronounced serifs that mimicked the protruding bones of the model’s body (along with a grey color at 75 percent opacity to further suggest the idea of fading away).
Students always get excited about this assignment—so much so that it’s the only assignment where they actually demand to see what everyone else in the class made. The first semester I was doing this assignment and using a course blog, this demand seemed best satisfied by requiring students to post their favorite juxtaposition in a blog post. The comment requirement asked them to reply to their fellow students by engaging in discussion about their images’ varying arguments. The first few days were wonderful as students made smart comments about each other’s work. I was incredibly pleased to see an already strong assignment go a step further and gain a little more pedagogical mileage.
Then a student posted an image of airplanes striking the World Trade Center Twin Towers on 9/11/01 with the word “DESERVED” in a horror movie font with blood red dripping letters.
Reasoned and supportive discourse quickly went out the window as the comments section filled with shock, outrage, and disbelief. The tamer comments asked how he could have made such a suggestion, while others merely suggested that the image was inappropriate. Then the name calling and insults began. Next, there were demands that he remove the post from the blog. Then a returning student who’d actually been stationed in Afghanistan jumped into the fray (that got ugly). The comment thread reached a count of fifteen before one comment turned the tide of the conversation: “Why hasn’t Dr. Pepper stepped in and stopped this yet?” From that point on, the conversation broke down into befuddled confusion from many students as to how I could either allow the “offensive” image to stay or why I hadn’t put a stop to the insults and threats.
This might be a good time to point out that I’ve narrated the progress of the comment thread from the benefit of hindsight. These comments all happened in quick succession over two hours, after 11 p.m. I never saw a single comment until the situation reached the boiling point.
There is a discussion worth having about why I hadn’t intervened. There is a discussion worth having about how to deal with student discourse that descends into taunts and insults. However, at this moment, I am more interested in the observation that I should have stepped in sooner. I’m a fairly plugged-in guy, but I’m not checking student blog posts late at night. They’re probably not even my main priority as the workday begins. Like any faculty member with teaching, publishing, and service expectations, I get to tasks as fast as I can while balancing on the high wire. I suspect anyone reading this feels similarly. Yet, from my students’ perspectives, I appear to have a responsibility to monitor the blog at all times in case an incident like this arises. The next class session was a tense one. The blog poster didn’t attend, so the classroom conversation (it had to be addressed) turned to students’ disappointment in me.
Though I was surprised, I took the conversation very seriously. After all, I could have easily said: “For the love of Aristotle, I was asleep!” I don’t have a complete answer to their reactions and criticisms. It’s tempting to make a generational explanation. This forever “on” generation, equipped with mobile smartphones, is constantly taking in information. The notion that somebody else might not be at the beck and call of a new notification, well, maybe that’s a bit foreign. Blogging is new to many of them, but Facebook certainly isn’t. Their Facebook posts get “liked” and commented on (sometimes) almost instantly. Facebook’s sidebar even shows how active all your friends are in real time. Perhaps this expectation gets carried over to the blog. I’m not entirely satisfied with any of these explanations, and I suspect the answer is rooted much deeper in the changing notion of temporality that digital public writing has wrought.
For example, in my early career, I was one of many teachers who used the tried and true “write a letter to the newspaper editorial section” assignment. Students always enjoyed this assignment, but they enjoyed it without much expectation that their actual letters would be printed. Even if they were printed (and it happened once or twice), students knew the nature of the medium meant their letter probably wouldn’t be responded to. Snail-mail submissions and editorial decision making both take time, and this passage of time can even lessen the desire for a response (i.e., the writer has moved on to other things). And since the audience is the unknown editor and the general mass of people who read that paper, there is no personal relationship that would heighten the expectation of a response.
Blogs are a different beast. The instantaneous publication erases both the editorial gatekeeping and the diminishing expectations of response that come with waiting for print publication to play out. Newspapers arrive as separate pieces every day, which makes older copies feel outdated and irrelevant. Blogs, with their instantly accessible archive features, invite response to both new and older posts in a way print never could. Since blogs so successfully erase the temporal restraints of print publication and response, their “editors” (the role the students clearly see me in) are held to different standards of response and participation—especially when that “editor” is an instructor that the bloggers have a personal/professional relationship with outside of the digital space. I’m not seen as an impersonal overseer who can take all the time he needs to reply to or disregard a piece of writing. Just as my presence is expected at a certain time in the classroom, my presence appears to be equally expected at a certain time in the digital space. However, this incident reveals that the “certain time” in digital space might be “all the time.” Even if this expectation is unrealistic, it’s one that must be discussed as our younger students continue to redefine time and timeliness based on their experiences with digital space and digital devices.
Whatever the explanation, I do consider this a “Teaching Fail” because my students told me it was and I take my students’ feedback seriously (even when I don’t understand it). I still do the photo manipulation assignment. However, since that semester, I’ve added a discussion about the potential power of their creations. We discuss that offense may occur and I try to show how this can be productive. I even tell new students about the incident. Interestingly, merely talking about the image (as opposed to showing it) doesn’t create the same outrage (which leads to another lesson about the power of images). I also no longer treat the course blog like an easy going place that has no potential for problems. We discuss the potential for conflict and develop a plan of action for how to respectfully navigate disagreement. Most importantly, I stress their personal responsibility within the digital space. In the classroom, my students are accustomed to me immediately steering conversation when comments turn counterproductive. I tell them that the blog does not work the same way. The blog is much more “their” space than mine. I will step in if the need arises but not with the speed they may expect.
These simple conversations, before blog access is granted, do wonders in encouraging students to productively solve disagreements on their own. These conversations also help preserve student trust in me as they come to a better and expanded understanding of my pedagogical role. Finally, I no longer expect any technology’s ubiquity or ease-of-use to translate into an easy pedagogical path. In fact, I thoroughly expect any interactive technology to teach me something new once it’s actually put into use. Frankly, that’s the way it should be.
About the Author
Mark D. Pepper is an Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University where he teaches freshman composition, technical writing, and digital design. His research interests include the rhetoric of digital interfaces, best practices for teaching digital composition, and the effects of technology on popular culture consumption and practices. Pepper earned his PhD from Purdue University where he received the Committee for the Education of Teaching Assistants’ Excellence in Graduate Instruction Award. His work can be found in the book collectionsWriting the Digital Generation(2010) and CLASH!: Superheroic Yet Sensible Strategies for Teaching Students the New Literacies Despite the Status Quo(2011). His work has also appeared online in Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric and Society (2013).