Tagged multimodal composition

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From Page to Screen and Back Again: Archives-Centered Pedagogy for the 21st Century Writing Classroom

Abstract

This paper describes the efforts of three instructors to incorporate archival research into first-year and advanced undergraduate writing courses. Inspired by recent scholarship on the value of archives-centered pedagogy in rhetoric and composition, we participated in the second cohort of the University of Georgia’s Special Collections Libraries Faculty Teaching Fellowship program, an effort to help faculty learn best practices and methods for using primary source material held in our Special Collections Libraries. In the program we developed courses that ran during Academic Year 2017–18: two First-Year Composition II courses and one upper level writing course, Writing for the World Wide Web. We found that working with archival material in writing courses allowed students to remix, appropriate, and curate the past as they identified new avenues for exploration in the unanswered questions and creative provocations presented by the historical record. In addition, the collaborative and active nature of the archives-based composition process helped build an awareness of the social nature of writing and the material properties of texts that are essential for critical 21st-century literacy.

Introduction

In 2017, we participated in the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Special Collections Libraries Faculty Teaching Fellowship (SCLFTF) with a common goal of using archival collections and research methods to improve student writing. The fellowship offered us access to the expertise of the archivists and the space of the library for our student population in courses that we developed over the course of the program. As Wendy Hayden (2015, 404) has noted, “One challenge to integrating archival research into undergraduate courses has been the lack of practical advice and training in archival research provided by the field.” UGA’s archival Teaching Fellowship  program provided us with crucial training in navigating the collections, working with finding aids, and understanding the “archival and library principles that support robust discovery and integration of relevant special collections materials” (Center for Teaching and Learning, n.d). During Spring 2017 semester, we each developed writing courses that would introduce students—both first-years and upper-level English majors—to archival research.

In this article, we describe the resulting archives-centered courses that we ran during Academic Year 2017–18 and discuss what we see as the most significant implications and opportunities for writing pedagogy that emerged from our experience. More specifically, we focus on the way this work foregrounded the technologies and materialities of texts and the collaborative and social nature of writing activities. In our courses, students, instructors, and librarians worked together to assemble and recontextualize archival materials through varied lenses and to produce new collaborative and multimodal texts that drew on that material in different ways, not necessarily simply as sources to be cited, but as inspirations for new ways of thinking about the past and future. Using archival research also gave our students the opportunity to think in new ways about how library-based material can produce new questions for exploration and how rare books and manuscripts can inform and inspire textual form and delivery systems in the digital age.

A key question for us was, “What does this kind of focus on textual materiality and physical interaction with primary texts bring to the table for writing pedagogy?” We observed that archival work is not, as typically depicted, solitary. As Matthew A. Vetter has noted, instructors who use the archives must collaborate with the librarians and often with outside organizations in charge of the archives as well; as such the authority in the classroom is dispersed throughout a community that is able to include and inspire the students (2014, 36–37). In each of our courses, we, the instructors, could provide some guidance but not prescribed rules for interaction with the archive, nor could we predict the outcomes of the class research.

The instructor generally curates the archive in an undergraduate setting, encouraging the students to work collaboratively with the texts to decode unfamiliar media. In addition, all work must be done at the archive, in reading rooms with strict rules, all of which takes reading out of the private space and into a social one. In her consideration of how to tap into the social affordances of digital media in scholarly publishing, Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007) reminds us that “the technology of the book, and the literate public with which it interacted, produced a general trend toward individualizing the reader, shifting the predominant mode of reading from a communal reading-aloud to a more isolated, silent mode of consumption.” Classroom archival work shifts the focus back to reading as a communal act, serving as a model for cooperative writing. Fitzpatrick notes that “texts have thus never really operated in isolation from their readers, and readers have never been fully isolated from one another, but different kinds of textual structures have given rise to and interacted within different kinds of communication circuits.” One of these communication circuits is the work the archivist put into developing an archival collection. A well-developed collection has been built with an eye toward how the material is connected. So, by the time the collection is available to the public, the networks between the materials have already been established. Thus, archival work allows for an alternative “communication circuit” between readers and writers—both a return to more traditional (communal) modes and forward movement toward new modes of communication enabled by new media. In addition, by bringing different but related materials together, the archive allows students to see how diverse texts and types of media are in conversation with one another.

Following these textual considerations, we wondered, “How does archives-centered writing pedagogy promote the kinds of collaborative, curatorial, and recombinatory skills that are critical to digital age composition and literacy?” Building on the idea of archives-centered pedagogy as social and networked production and dissemination of knowledge, archival work in the undergraduate writing classroom also engages students in developing what the National Council of Teachers of English defines as 21st century literacies, including collaborative problem-solving, information management, and multimodal textual analysis and production skills. We were also inspired by the London Recut project, which uses digital film archives to allow communities to co-curate and remix archival material based on affinity and interest. As Recut’s Andrew Chitty notes (2011, 418), “Opening up film and video archives for use (not just viewing) by the wider public may create new narratives and interpretation, but it might also create new uses discovered by the users themselves.”

All of our courses were engaged in a kind of “meta-remix” composing process in that we asked students to mash up, combine, and translate primary source materials in a variety of ways, whether through historical reenactments, creation of mini collections/exhibits, or inspiration for digital textual design plans or their own zine compositions. These meta-remixes pressed students to find sources that provoked them to rethink their preconceptions rather than simply finding sources to use as evidence for preconceived arguments. In what follows, we provide individual case studies of our courses and conclude with some final thoughts on the benefits of archival work in writing courses.

Saxton’s ENGL 1102: “Scandal in the Archives” in First-Year Composition II

I was drawn to the archives and the archival Teaching Fellowship because of the ways in which archival materials demand investigative and engaged interaction. Susan Wells (2002, 58) has posited that the archives “prompt us … to resist early resolutions of questions that should not be too quickly answered”; this resistance might take the form of refusing answers, unearthing new depths or expanses for research, or necessitating new forms of expression to encapsulate its contents. My hope was to find materials that might inspire students to dig deeper into their sources to better analyze and contextualize them, but also to become comfortable with more open-ended research.

I coupled the archive’s lack of closure with the similarly open theme of scandal. Scandals, by their nature, offer a sense of mystery; even from the same smattering of facts, the connections between those facts and conclusions from them vary. Scandals disrupt modes of meaning and, as such, are interesting sites to examine rhetorical and contextual meaning. As Adrienne McLean notes, scandals are “discursive constructions as well as events, and it matters who controls the selection and omission of their narrative details” (2001, 2). Moreover, the culture in which the scandal occurs matters; what might be a scandal in 1900 might not elicit a reaction in 2018. In this way, scandal allows for a thorough investigation of who controls the narrative and how it is received; scandals, the students learn, resist fixed facts but instead show the ways in which meaning is constructed.

The archives and the focus on scandal forced my students to grapple directly with this openness but also to rely on their classmates to build a new network of knowledge. For example, the first scandal we investigated followed the archived media flurry surrounding the disappearance of an 18-year-old servant, Elizabeth Canning, in London in January 1753. Despite the hundreds of witness statements, thousands of pages of speculation, and incredibly detailed court documents, there is no authoritative document revealing the truth of what happened to Canning during the 28 days she was missing. Working in teams, students shared responsibility for the hundreds of pages of texts on the event. Yet, even with the accumulation of information, my students noted that their sources required them to read with a critical and active eye to determine what was important. Such analysis was built through collaboration as each group had to work together to create meaning—filling in factual background for their peers but also offering theories of how best to understand the event.

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Figure 1. Students encounter a carefully preserved edition of Henry Fielding’s treatise supporting Elizabeth Canning as well as Crisp Gascoyne’s defense of Mary Squires. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

In addition to researching the scandal, the students were asked to inhabit the texts, taking on the roles of Canning supporters, defenders of the accused Mary Squires, or undecided “jury” members. Borrowing from the Reacting to the Past model, students searched the documents to find evidence and viewpoints that would cast doubt or bolster Canning’s story. Because of the breadth of the archive, group members were forced to collaborate, sharing information and determining a “narrative” of the event or, in the jury’s case, questions about the most puzzling parts of the evidence. This research culminated in a day of gossip as the Canning and Squire supporters attempted to sway the jury. The exercise asked students to take control of the archives and experience the scandal. Ultimately, students reported feeling overwhelmed by the ways archives pushed them to decide what was important in the reading and when their research was “finished” but such ownership of the work also inspired them to more and better research. Likewise, they were able to experience how the Canning scandal spiraled through the act of gossiping. The nature of scandal and the extensiveness of the archive resulted in a break in the pyramid structure of the classroom hierarchy and isolated writing; instead students built a network of information they then accessed in the process of creating new analyses of how the Canning event was reported.

Throughout the semester I repeatedly struggled with how to facilitate student interactions with the physical archive; however, student responses indicated that the physicality of the text was crucial because of its unique ways of provoking questions and revealing gaps in knowledge. Because the 60 total students could not all fit in the archives at the same time and because the archives had more limited access hours, my class used a combination of physical and digital archives, beginning in the special collections and moving into online replications or additions. While the blended method has significant logistical and access benefits, the students preferred their interactions with the hard texts. Looking at the online versions of 1913–1915 newspapers that covered the Leo Frank case, one student complained that the search functions “ruined” the research. The online versions cut out the surrounding articles to show only the searched-for material. The time in the archives, however, had shown the students that not all articles pertaining to the case mentioned Leo Frank but the extensive coverage would often give head-scratching in-depth coverage of a wide range of characters, such as the “Epps boy” who may or may not have seen Mary Phagan on a trolley or the long character pieces on the lawyers involved in the case. The search function, by taking over the investigation, limited the contextual range and sense of discovery the archives provided.

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Figure 2. Image on left shows a full-page view of The Atlanta Constitution; image on right shows the screen view of a targeted search. The targeted search cut out three related articles. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

For each scandal, the students strove not just to understand the archives but also to comprehend the ways in which the archives interact with a larger sense of history and culture. The performative aspects of embodying the Canning case forced students to consider contemporary and historical values. Likewise, the class read and created adaptations to continue these discussions. We read a 1947 novel adaptation of the Canning case—Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair—and a 1937 film adaptation of the Frank case: Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget. In working with these adaptations, students were able to note how each creator approached the archive; Tey shared an anxiety about young women’s sexuality with the original Squires supporters while LeRoy worried about the impartiality of Southern courts as did the northern journalists covering the Frank case. From these adaptations, the students recognized the importance of perspective and audience and the weight that interpretive power can have on the present. They, too, were asked to perform this curation of the archive—creating their own adaptation of one of the scandals. Throughout the semester, the students were asked to remix or immerse themselves into the scandals; in doing so, they engaged in deeper levels of analysis and application in their writing.

Reeves’s ENGL 1102: “Aliens in the Archives” in First-Year Composition II

My objective was to show students the collaborative and symbiotic nature of writing, how composition begets composition, and encourage students to become not just consumers but also active members of writing communities. To do this, I turned to the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection and its store of pulp magazines and apazines. Pulp magazines proliferated in the first half of the 20th century and were made up of genre fiction printed on cheap wood pulp paper. In these circulations science-fiction fan culture started. Like all fan cultures, community was a key component, and in this community, the written word became a means of connection. Fans started out writing letters to the editors, then moved to writing letters to each other based on the published fan letters, and graduated to the creation of apazines. Apazines, or amateur press association magazines, are handmade magazines with parts written by individual members, which are then sent to a predetermined editor, who collates the entries and then mails the completed apazine out to members. Science-fiction apazines became an important way for fans and budding fiction writers to communicate about their favorite authors and pulps, plan fan conventions, and make personal and professional connections. Ultimately, the pulps and magazines offer students the chance to look beyond academia and see how composition has shaped culture and how they might join such conversations.

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Figure 3. This issue of Super Science Stories, November 1941, is of particular interest to my students as it includes the first story renowned author Ray Bradbury was paid for. (Image courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries.)

This science fiction fan community and its connections between pulps, apazines, and authors was new territory for my students. As this contextual investigation is not the focus of FYC, I curated my students’ archive visits. Prior to our first visit, I divided students into six groups, with each focusing on a specific pulp writer. When they arrived at the library, the pulps that contained their author’s writing were waiting for them. For this first visit I had them focus on the pulp as an item. They examined the construction, paper and font type, use of color and art, and type and placement of ads. As a group they analyzed what these elements told them about the time period in which the pulp had been published and the intended audience. Such close interaction with the materiality of the text disrupted students’ conceptions of “acceptable” writing communities and forms, providing a clear example of how writing communities create their own ethos and voice.

This wide-ranging first visit was coupled with an in-depth read of a full pulp. The students returned to the reading room on their own and read their pulp from cover to cover in preparation for two short papers: a starred review of the pulp and an analysis of the part their pulp played in building a writing community. Before they began this second paper they were introduced to the libraries’ apazine collection. As Hayden (2015, 421) notes, one way to include the productive pedagogy of the archive in first year composition courses is through “smaller-scale projects … [involving] primary research or work with particular documents or collections.” As with the first visit, I curated their interaction with the apazines, so they would be looking at issues that had connections to their pulp. Both the apazine and the pulp collections have thousands of entries and no guiding information. While the possibility of not finding what you are searching for is an important part of archive learning, the goal of this class is to improve student writing through the archives—being able to navigate the archives is secondary. To do otherwise at this level and with these time constraints would result in students’ frustration, failure, and resentment toward the archives and composition.

After the short papers were completed, students made two collaborative apazines and engaged directly in the communal process observed in the archives. The first apazine was made up of responses to archive resources. As a class, students drafted the rules of their apazine (i.e., entries can’t be over 500 words; Courier font only; graphics required), designed cover art, and voted on a title. Each student then revised one of their earlier papers, which became their apazine contribution. On the due date, each student brought 22 copies of their entry to class, which were then collated, and each student received a hard copy of the class apazine. The rest of class period was then spent in reading and conversation about the apazine. The second apazine was composed of responses to and interactions with their peers’ apazine writing. A student might write a response to a review of a story they hated but their peer loved, express admiration for a well-analyzed connection, or build on the research started by a peer. Each student entry had to be in conversation with an entry from the first apazine. In this way students were not just consumers of archival material but were producing writing that will itself be archived—at the end of semester, the apazines were donated to the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd Art Library. By making their own network of connected writing, students were able to experience the social nature of writing and produce a new archive of zine art.

Printed pages, bound with a ring; top page includes a landing spaceship and a bulldog mascot.

Figure 4. Finished class apazine. The title, “Dawn of the Dawgs,” is an amalgamation of science fiction and University of Georgia culture.

Davis’s ENGL 4832W: “Rare Books and Book Technology” in Writing for the World Wide Web

The relevance of archival research for many of the upper-level writing courses I teach was clear from the start of my time as an archival Teaching Fellow, but the course that I ultimately structured around a major archival research component was Writing for the World Wide Web. Writing for the web is not simply about content creation. I have to prepare students for a future in which machines join us as readers and writers in networks, engaging in processes of pattern recognition. Writing for the Web has to focus not just on content production but also on how to work with and against algorithms, software, data, and metadata, as well as helping digital media authors understand themselves as participants in a network of distributed cognition.

The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection presented a wealth of material that would intersect nicely with one of our texts, Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. My goal was to foreground the problem of writing for online readers—readers who, as Baron’s research indicates, aren’t so much reading as scanning, skimming, and clicking quickly away to the newest, the now-est, the next. I focused on this problem of “not-reading” (or, in web lingo, TL;DR) in this course as the major design problem for writers in the digital age to solve, a problem that will, if we do not think carefully and critically about how to foster effective reading onscreen, have significant consequences for literacy and knowledge. In past semesters, I have drawn extensively on Murray’s conception of the “Four Affordances” of digital media to foster a design thinking approach to digital textual composition. In this course, I put Murray and Baron’s ideas into conversation with the history of the book as a material object in hopes of creating productive thinking about digital textual design. In addition to Baron’s text, I included Nicole Howard’s The Book: The Life Story of a Technology, in order to provide students with an accessible history of the book and to emphasize the connection between technologies of reading and writing. This combination provided the framework for an examination of the examples of book technology and its evolution contained within UGA’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. Essentially, the course would foreground the way technologies enable particular kinds of textual production which, in turn, produce particular kinds of reading and writing practices—practices that ultimately have wide-ranging cultural effects.

I developed a design project that asked students to use rare books from the collection as inspiration for an innovative digital textual design concept. The Hargrett holds a wide range of texts—everything from early print incunabula to conceptual artists’ books—that would require them to reconsider their understanding of what a book is, as well as the kind of literacy practices that different types of texts cultivate. The project involved several components including a depiction of the text’s design (visuals, description/explanation, written manuscript of text); an analysis of how the design plan remediated features of the inspiration text and drew on digital media affordances; and a critical reflection on their design process. Additionally, we needed to connect the dots between the inspiration texts from the archive. To achieve that aim, we created a digital exhibit using Omeka, not only because it allowed us to create a public-facing product, but also because it introduced students to metadata, both conceptually and practically. Collectively “curating” and framing an exhibit of the archival material and working with the common vocabulary of Dublin Core Metadata standards would give us a final collaborative project to present to the Special Collections Library faculty as well as other interested faculty members and students.

My own work as an instructor consisted largely of facilitation and research: I searched the archives, in consultation with a Hargrett librarian, for an initial collection of material that would represent a range of rare book items. On our first visit to the library, I gave each student an item to review along with a worksheet that asked them to consider several questions about the material aspects of the book they were examining and how it fostered or constrained different kinds of reading practices.

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Figure 5. The prompt worksheet for Spring 2018 Writing for the Web students’ first visit to the Special Collections Library, asking them to explore and consider material properties and reading practices as they examine rare book items from the Hargrett Collection.

For our second visit, I asked students to tell me the kinds of texts they found most interesting from our first visit and, additionally, to provide an initial idea for their project that would help guide our archivist and me in curating a second collection of material for another round of hands-on exploration. We provided students with a tutorial on how to search the Hargrett collection themselves so that they could request additional material for viewing on their own. We also visited the Digital Arts Library Project, a collection of “legacy computers and video game systems as well as a collection of electronic literature pieces, digital interactive narrative pieces, and video games” (Digital Humanities, n.d.), and a copy of Raymond Queneau’s (1961) Cent mille milliards de poemes, a print precursor of digital media’s procedural affordance. Eventually, each student found a rare book (or two) that served as the primary inspiration for their design concept and they were each responsible for entering the information about the book (along with their own images taken during their time with the book at the library) into the Omeka site I set up at my web domain (having given each of them contributor access). For that exhibit, I also worked with the students to develop a conceptual frame for the project that would ground the exhibit in the concepts and scholarship that we were working with throughout the semester and, on the last day of class, we presented our work to an audience of interested colleagues. The event gave students a chance to engage in dialogue about their ideas and design process.

Title reads 'Translating, Transitioning, Transcending: Rebinding the book for digital reading.'

Figure 6. The collaboratively-produced promotional flyer for Writing for the Web’s end-of-semester exhibit of the design concepts inspired by rare book material.

Discussion

Our experiences suggest that archival work in the writing classroom facilitates greater interaction between the material properties of written texts and the students, while fostering collaborative curation. These collaborations add to or create new collections that are, in a sense, adaptations of the original archives. Reframing archival material in these ways makes new connections or linkages between seemingly disparate materials and reinforces the social and networked nature of knowledge production and a re-conception of how to use source material for remixing and remaking.

While our courses took us in diverse directions in terms of archival material and foci, the materiality of the archival texts played a large role early on for all of us. Pulps are characterized by colorful, larger-than-life covers that demand attention, as do the daring conceptual artists’ books and texts produced during the early days of printing press technology. These texts forced the students to reconsider how materiality affects reading practices. More eye-catching in a different way, the postcard that depicted Leo Frank’s lynching put students in physical contact with brutal history. This type of active learning pushes students outside their comfort zone and puts them in situations that require them to consider class content and apply that thinking toward course goals and their lives. Students began to see themselves as “scholar adventurers blowing dust off documents that could contain mysteries, answers, or maps of the past” (Norcia 2008, 107). It’s clear this technique relies heavily on critical and analytical thinking, which in turn improves and fosters strong writing skills (Bernstein and Greenhoot 2014; Gingerich et al. 2014). Perhaps even more important, it exposes students to a whole new world of composition. The inclusion of apazines, letters, and art projects in the archives showed students the legitimacy and value of such unconventional writing.

As each class progressed, students used the skills gained from archival research to recalibrate and restructure composition. Working with a physical text, as Kara Poe Alexander (2013) found when she incorporated scrapbooking into her first-year writing course, teaches “students the concept of affordance and demonstrates to them how materiality impacts design, composition, and rhetorical choices; it also provides a low-key, low-stakes entry into multimodal composing and reflexivity on the rhetorical decision making process.” A material example of the mingling of words and art/bookcraft gave students the tools they needed to compose their own multimodal projects and move from the page to the screen, without losing what made the original art projects unique. While Reeves’s students took advantage of the do-it-yourself nature of zines to produce their own, Davis’s students were unable to actually produce the digital texts they designed, lacking the advanced programming and coding skills necessary to bring those conceptual plans to life. This foregrounds again the social and collaborative nature of digital textual composition in which skilled programmers and visual artists might be required to actually produce an interactive digital text, just as a community of specialized craftsmen was needed to produce early print texts.

Ultimately, through both research and writing, the insistence on a more open, flexible network of knowledge remained key. This is perhaps best illustrated through one of the texts that several students in Writing for the Web found particularly compelling—a copy of Queneau’s (1961) Cent mille milliards de poemes. This mid-twentieth century precursor to the digital hypertext demonstrated the way that a single text can be remixed and reconfigured to provide an interactive experience for readers. That concept of interactivity became a key goal for Davis’s students’ design projects as they discussed the ways that the rare book material from the archives provoked a sense of pleasure in discovery and exploration. Janet Murray identifies this kind of pleasure in the text as an effect of careful design in her definition of the Procedural Affordance of digital media: “Procedurality and participation are the affordances that create interactivity and visible procedurality combined with transparent participation creates the experience of agency for the interactor, a key design goal for any digital artifact” (n.d.). In each of our classes, the experience of working with archival materials provided an experience not unlike that of “reading” Queneau’s text in which the ability to recombine and reconfigure the sonnets results in a sense of endless possibility for construction and reconstruction of meaning.

In her argument for “textual curation” as a unique “category of compositional craft,” Krista Kennedy cites Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s (2005, 134) contention that “Creativity is no longer the production of original texts, but the ability to gather, filter, rearrange, and construct new texts” (quoted in Kennedy 2016, 176). As in the Pop-Up Archives Project Jenny Rice and Jeff Rice facilitated at the University of Kentucky, our students curated experiences of archival material whose goals were “neither preservation nor a totalizing narrative” (2015, 247), but recontextualizations that, as in the conception of curation in the art world, put forward new arguments. Thoughtful curation requires immersion into larger conversations about issues and discernment about what is relevant and important in order to generate further discussion by “customiz[ing] archives toward their own ends” (Enoch and VanHaitsma 2015, 221). This year our students created their own handmade apazines, designed concepts for interactive digital texts, and performed reenactments of historical scandals. In each instance, they were asked to use historical materials throughout the compositional process, from the starting point of invention, all the way to the delivery of their ideas through curated performance, exhibits, and portfolios that present new understanding or expose new lines of inquiry.

We have come to consider archives-centered writing instruction as a pedagogy of remix, curation, and appropriation in which students are faced with a set of materials that may be vast and yet incomplete—an archive filled with gaps and unanswered questions that, like Queneau’s sonnets, can overwhelm with a sense of infinite possibility and insistent lack of closure. As scholars of digital culture have long insisted, remix is the foundation of knowledge construction and creative production. We each asked our students to discover ideas and compose new texts through a communal process of appropriation and reconfiguration that resulted in an awareness of what Neal Lerner (2010) has framed as the incompleteness of histories (203) and in, we hope, a reconsideration of what writing and textual form mean in the 21st century digital age. For student writers, exploring a variety of historical texts can decenter their conception of what constitutes writing or textual form, as Wells (2002) notes when she claims that “[a]rchival study of other kinds of texts also broadens our own sense of how difficult it is to write in new and untried ways” (59–60). That awareness is critical as we continue to chart the waters of digital writing at this particular technological moment. Digging into the past, we find in the archive a pedagogy well-suited to the future of writing.

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About the Authors

Elizabeth Davis is the Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Writing Certificate Program at the University of Georgia. In her teaching and research, she focuses on experiential learning in the writing classroom, digital rhetoric and storytelling, and ePortfolio pedagogy and assessment.

Nancee Reeves is a lecturer at the University of Georgia, where she teach literature and writing. Her research interests include science-fiction and how it shapes and is shaped by social policies.

Teresa Saxton is a lecturer at the University of Dayton, where she teaches classes on writing and eighteenth-century literature. Her current pedagogical projects are interested in bringing together the archives, public writing and advocacy.

detail of assignment sheet with reflective markup
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Using Digital Rhetoric in a Multimodal Assignment to Disrupt Traditional Academic Writing: Conventions in a First-Year Writing Classroom

Abstract

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Analyzing a Traditional FYW Assignment: An Argument Without Sources Essay

Background

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

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

Instructor Language Usage and Textual Design in a Traditional FYW Assignment

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

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

 

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

Production of a Standard, Normal, and Monomodal Text

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

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

Whom Am I Addressing?

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

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

Perpetuating the Current-Traditional Rhetoric Paradigm

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

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

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

 

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

A Discussion of the Revised Assignment: Convincing your Discourse Community

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

Assignment Sheet Design and Language

Design

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

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

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

Language

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

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

Embracing Digital Rhetoric and Producing a Multimodal Text

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

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

 

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

Addressing a Real and Interactive Audience

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

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

 

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

Shifting the Focus from CTR

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

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

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

Student Reception of the Revised Assignment

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

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

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

Final Remarks

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix A: Marked-up Original Assignment Sheet

This appendix is also available as a pdf.

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

Appendix B: Marked-up Revised Assignment Sheet

This appendix is also available as a pdf.

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

About the Author

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

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