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


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.


[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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Vie, Stephanie. 2008. “Digital Divide 2.0: ‘Generation M’ and Online Social Networking Sites in the Composition Classroom. Computers and Composition 25, no. 1: 9–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2007.09.004.


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

Composite profile for 'Ima Student.' The profile starts with an introduction and an image of the Colombian flag in the top third of the profile. In the bottom section, the profile has numbered three literacies with three headings. The first heading is Colombian Spanish and, it includes a link to a YouTube video demonstrating the literacy. The profile also includes descriptions about Ima Student’s social media literacy and their music literacy.

Diluting the Dominance of SAE: A Multiliteracies Profile Sequence and Assignment

L. Corinne Jones

This Multimodal Profile, supplemental paper, and assignment sequence was designed to help students build a bridge between their social media compositions and their academic compositions to promote high-road transfer and value students’ multiliteracies.

Read more… Diluting the Dominance of SAE: A Multiliteracies Profile Sequence and Assignment

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

Twitter for Academic Purposes: How to Guide Students

Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere

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

Read more… Twitter for Academic Purposes: How to Guide Students

A WeChat account dashboard featuring counts of articles and friends.

A Learning Success Story with WeChat

Chen Gao

Using WeChat, a social networking mobile app popular in China, an undergraduate Advanced Chinese I class built a virtual learning community to strengthen students’ writing skills in Chinese, while providing them with broader international audience, enhancing their vocabulary and grammar, and offering more opportunities for collaboration, interaction, and feedback.

Read more… A Learning Success Story with WeChat

Twitter exchange between instructor and student about how one author was connected to the British royal family but could find no biographical information on her. One tweet also has a picture of Han Solo from the movie Star Wars.

Possibly Impossible; Or, Teaching Undergraduates to Confront Digital and Archival Research Methodologies, Social Media Networking, and Potential Failure


This article details an undergraduate student research project titled “The Possibly Impossible Research Project,” a collaborative effort between the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida and the Writing and Communication Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The article outlines the pedagogy behind a multimodal digital research project that provided Georgia Tech students with in-depth instruction into archival research processes while improving the Baldwin’s annotated bibliography. The article then details the process of teaching the course and how students responded to the project both during and after the course. This assignment also offered students an opportunity to uncover and make meaning as researchers in their own right, and to distribute that new knowledge through public facing digital platforms such as Twitter and Wikipedia. The authors conclude that the collaborative project had meaningful impacts on the undergraduate students, the course instructor, the curator of the Baldwin Library, and the larger academic community; further, it can serve as a model for engaging undergraduate students with archival research, analysis, and dissemination. This article outlines the assignment in detail, including the interactive digital scaffolding assignments. The article cites student research journal tweets and final reflective portfolio essays to demonstrate the successful fulfillment of the student learning outcomes.

“There’s no use trying,” [Alice] said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)


For first-year undergraduate students, college work can feel like the expectation to do the impossible. When confronted with projects that require original research, these students may feel ill-equipped to engage with unfamiliar techniques and may give up without even trying. If, by emulating Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen from Through the Looking-Glass, instructors can encourage students to practice believing in their ability to achieve “impossible” things, and create a situation in which it is acceptable to fail, students can begin to feel secure enough to try for the impossible.

In this spirit, our article details an undergraduate student research project titled “The Possibly Impossible Research Project,” a collaborative effort between the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida and the Writing and Communication Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. This article outlines a multimodal digital research project that provided Georgia Tech students with in-depth instruction into archival research processes while improving the Baldwin’s “Guiding Science” annotated bibliography. This assignment also offered students an opportunity to uncover and make meaning as researchers in their own right, and to distribute that new knowledge through public-facing digital platforms such as Twitter and Wikipedia. Overall, the project produced a meaningful collaboration among the undergraduate students, the course instructor, and the curator of the Baldwin Library, while contributing knowledge to the larger academic community. Further, it can serve as a model for engaging undergraduate students with archival research, analysis, and dissemination.

“Guiding Science” Bibliography Project

The contributions of women to early scientific discoveries and the dissemination of international scientific theory are still largely unknown outside of the fields of children’s literature and the history of education. In 2014, the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature was awarded an American Libraries Association Carnegie-Whitney grant to develop a digital annotated bibliography of women-authored science books for children during the long nineteenth century. As an ancillary to “Guiding Science: Publications by Women in the Romantic and Victorian Ages,” the George A. Smathers Libraries digitized 200 titles from the project to provide context to the bibliography and encourage use of these texts in teaching and research.[1]

One of the main aims of the bibliography project was to highlight the important—and often neglected—work of women to promote scientific invention, discovery, and the development of the scientific method. However, with the professionalization of the sciences from the home to the academy, the work of these women was ignored and, in some cases, maligned. As science formalized fields of study and work, women were pushed out of their work as lab assistants and translators of scientific theory. Since women could not receive any formal training in sciences (women were not allowed to attend universities in Great Britain until the twentieth century, and very few women were able to attend universities in the United States until then), they were relegated to the role of mere amateur. Their previous work as authors, educators, and partners in scientific discovery was forgotten or dismissed as being of lesser quality than that of their formally trained male counterparts.

In compiling the bibliography, the Baldwin Library curator, Suzan Alteri, identified titles, authors, and subjects in the library’s online catalog. Identifying subjects proved difficult since the many fields of science during these eras fell under the umbrella of natural history. In order to fully capture the scope of scientific endeavors, it was necessary to keyword search scientific concepts rather than broad science subject fields. In searching for titles to include in the project, Alteri discovered many anonymously written titles. Since the project had already identified many books written by women, Alteri began to wonder how many of the anonymously written titles were actually authored by women. Because of the enormous legal and social barriers to education, work, and full participation in society before and during the nineteenth century, books authored by women were often published anonymously so as to avoid derision, as Cheryl Turner noted in Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (2012).[2]

In addition to the bibliography, Alteri felt it was necessary to add additional contextual information so readers would understand the time period and constraints under which these women were writing while also providing a better understanding of how science and science education developed in tandem. Since the project was rooted in the idea of discovering the hidden work of these women, Alteri believed one of the most important aspects of contextual information would be biographical information on the authors. Since most women did not receive a formal education until at least the mid-nineteenth century, how were they able to write so many crucial texts for science education? By tracing biographical details such as familial status, exposure to education through tutors, and other pathways to education, Alteri thought that readers of the bibliography would be better able to grasp women authors’ contributions to literature, education, and science. Moreover, compiling biographical details often uncovered interesting facts about how women’s writing was received by both the scientific community and how their entry into the public sphere, as writers, was viewed by society.

However, finding biographical information on over one hundred different women authors who wrote in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century was surprisingly difficult. While some writers, such as Sarah Trimmer, wrote numerous texts and are well-known for their contributions to early children’s literature, many women authors did not sign all or any of their books. This tendency to leave texts unclaimed was compounded by the fact that in British society of the time, vital record information was not regularly kept on daughters and wives. Since Alteri was working alone to compile biographical information, tracking vital record information would have been too laborious a process. Instead, Alteri opted to search the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia for biographical information. The ODNB was originally published in 1885 (and continuously updated) as the Dictionary of National Biography, a biographical listing of important peoples from Great Britain and its colonies. Wikipedia was used for the small number of American authors.

Searching biographical dictionaries by name yielded interesting results. For authors who had their own entries, summarizing biographical information was simple. For others, scant biographical information was discovered through more famous husbands and brothers. For example, a few sentences on Emily Taylor are contained in her brother’s entry, Edgar Taylor. As noted earlier, women writers often faced steep criticism for entering the public sphere of professional writing, and many simply published under their married names—Mrs. Thrope or Mrs. Brook—or signed their work as “A Lady” or “A Mother.” Alteri was able to cobble some information together by searching for male relatives, particularly if, as in the case of Mrs. Norman Lockyer, they were scholars of some note. A very small number of authors were able to be tracked through their publications, since most books of the time period contained the phrase “By the Author of…” Still, out of the 123 authors listed in the bibliography, fifty authors, or forty percent, were untraceable by these methods. Alteri was struck by how large the percentage was, but struggled with how to convey a partially successful recovery project to end users of the bibliography. For Alteri, and other scholars on the original project, it was obvious that the barriers to women’s education and participation in the public sphere in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the result of sexist practices, but would people unfamiliar with children’s literature, women’s history, and feminist recovery projects understand the impact of having no information on a person except a copy of a book? By compiling biographical information on these women authors, it is not only their texts and ideas which are recovered, but their lives as well.

Undergraduate Research Collaboration

As chair of the Baldwin Library’s Scholars Council, instructor Rebekah Fitzsimmons of the Georgia Tech Writing and Communication Program (WCP) was familiar with the goals of the “Guiding Science” project and the curator’s struggles. WCP houses the core communication courses for Georgia Tech, including the two-semester composition sequence, and emphasizes multimodal communication through the WOVEN (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Nonverbal) framework. English 1102, “continues to help students learn how to communicate more effectively, but with a greater emphasis on research, argument, and applied theory. Instructors of English 1102 construct courses around intellectually engaging and relevant themes from science, technology, literature, and popular culture.” The course also encourages projects that “help students learn the role that research plays in formulating social and cultural ideas.” Inspired by conversations in the popular media surrounding the #MeToo movement and films like Hidden Figures (2016), Fitzsimmons felt students at an elite technical institute would benefit from a research project that not only highlighted the vast number of women involved in scientific discovery during the Victorian age, but also actively demonstrated the ways in which the accomplishments of those women were forgotten or actively appropriated by others.

Fitzsimmons and Alteri collaborated to design an ENGL 1102 course that would provide Georgia Tech students the opportunity to contribute original research to the “Guiding Science” bibliography. The resulting course was titled “The History and Rhetoric of Science Writing for Children” (syllabus available here). Students were asked to think through the ways rhetorical communities of science writing—especially those focused around education—changed given various historical moments, and the ways in which certain voices within those communities have long been privileged, ignored, or actively silenced. Students read children’s literature with scientific themes, including Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1862), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time (1962), and contemporary (2011–present) science-themed picture books. Engaging with primary texts and secondary critical literature, classroom discussion touched on the historical transformations of “scientific” ideas about race, gender, evolution, astronomy, mechanics, health (physical and mental), professionalization, and science education from the Victorian age into the twenty-first century. In dedicating the research unit of the course to investigating the lives of these lost Victorian science authors, the students engaged with real world examples of Victorian women working in and writing about the sciences with academic rigor, creativity, and a dedication to educating young people about physics, chemistry, astronomy, natural history, hygiene, horticulture, home economics, and geography.

The course utilized Paulo Freire’s problem-posing education model within a Critical Digital Pedagogy framework, which encouraged the students to experiment, play, improvise, and fail as a part of the learning process. In their book An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, Morris and Stommel (2018, 23) note that “Digital pedagogy calls for ‘screwing around’ (Ramsay) more than it does systematic study . . . digital pedagogy is less about knowing and more a rampant process of unlearning, play, and rediscovery.” By embracing this model of learning, the course was designed to empower students to interrogate the rhetorics of scientific discourse that would be relevant to most of their future careers in the STEM fields, while breaking the hierarchical model of the classroom to encourage students to collaborate with the professor and one another. This process helped the students to make meaning, including applying this work to their own professional fields and connecting their developing skills to future projects and goals.[3] In addition, folding original research into the course exposed students to primary sources in literature and research processes using special collections and archival materials. Since special collections and archives are often viewed as the laboratories of the humanities, many of the research methods used by scholars in special collections and archives mimic those used in scientific laboratories, particularly observation and testing.[4] In this case study, students began with observations about science during the Victorian age, developed questions regarding their chosen author, and then began to “test,” through interrogation, various sources for biographical information. As Anne Bahde (2011, 75) states, allowing undergraduate students to interact, even digitally, with primary sources can “provoke an unusual level of critical inquiry.” Primary sources are often neglected in many undergraduate courses either due to curricular time constraints or pedagogical biases that reserve primary source research processes for graduate students. However, Pablo Alvarez (2006, 95), and others, document how using rare books in the undergraduate curriculum can “offer new perspectives that can lead to original research.” Students are often more engaged with primary source material, either due to the uniqueness of the resources or their novelty as a relic of times gone by. Providing students with the opportunity to act as a professional researcher helps them become more responsible and empowers them to drive their own education. The focus on process and experimentation in this project allows students to work, sometimes for the first time, in a space without a preconceived notion of right or wrong answers and a shared sense of authority within the classroom.

The Possibly Impossible Research Project” asked students to assist the curator of the Baldwin in researching the fifty female authors from the “Guiding Science” bibliography about whom she had been unable to locate sufficient biographical information. Each student was assigned one author and asked to research and compile enough information to complete either a multimodal Wikipedia article or a short textual biography to be posted on the “Guiding Science” website. Each student was given all the information Alteri had already compiled as a starting point, which might include lifespan dates, family information, known pen-names, or country of origin.

This assignment acknowledged from the outset that the chance of authoring any kind of public-facing biography might not be achievable. From the very title of the assignment, it was important for students to understand that the ultimate goal of the project might well be out of reach (as it was for the curator). Therefore, the assignment was structured to help students learn good research practices and goals, engage with various digital learning communities, and document their work with an eye toward process over final product.

The final project deliverable was a research portfolio, which permitted students to mix and match at least three of the following elements based on the information they found:

  • Multimodal biographical article posted on Wikipedia
  • Public-facing biography for the Baldwin “Guiding Science” website
  • Bibliography of sources in MLA format
  • Archived Twitter research journal
  • Research narrative of 600–800 words
  • Archived correspondence with librarians, scholars, archivists, or other experts
  • Archived images

The assignment sheet and in-class discussions emphasized that while the ideal outcome of the project was a public-facing biography, it was possible that students could fulfill the required learning outcomes of the assignment and earn an A even if they could not complete this portion of the portfolio. Ultimately, the assignment sheet instructed: “Students should approach this project as a journey into the unknown. They should be prepared to make mistakes, get messy, and potentially come up empty-handed.[5] A large part of the project will include figuring out how to make failure and frustration productive, how to document a research process so that future researchers might benefit, and how to enjoy the research rabbit holes.”

Pedagogical Goals

This assignment focused on four major pedagogical goals. The first was content related: to have students engage with historical records and the rhetoric of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific communities. The women represented in the bibliography project were talented, often prolific authors; many were also brilliant scientific thinkers and researchers in their own right. However, due to the social and political realities of the Victorian age, the vast majority of these women were denied opportunities to practice scientific inquiry in any professional sphere or were considered mere assistants in the scientific careers of male relatives such as a husband, father, or brother.[6] Prior to the Victorian age, scientific discovery occurred in the home, which could make it easier for women to participate. But the professionalization of scientific inquiry into academic fields developed rapidly during the nineteenth century. Ann B. Shteir (1997, 236) notes that burgeoning professionalization coupled with the restriction of women in public sphere created circumstances which instilled “more exclusionary relations between women and science culture.”

At a technical institute that only began accepting female students into regular classes in 1952, this assignment offered an opportunity to have students encounter firsthand the ways in which science relegated these women to the sidelines. By asking twenty-first-century students to research nineteenth-century female authors, the feminist lens of this assignment pushed students to ask (often in outbursts of frustration, such as the Tweets pictured below) why these women’s lives weren’t better documented. This project, aided by classroom discussions, directly confronted the myths that the lack of women in STEM fields is due to disinterest or biological/psychological dispositions of different genders, or that women have only begun to be involved in STEM in the last 50 years.

Twitter exchange between instructor and student about how one author was connected to the British royal family but could find no biographical information on her. One tweet also has a picture of Han Solo from the movie Star Wars.

Figure 1. #RJ tweet exchange between the instructor and student Cheyenne Murray, who voices frustration about the lack of information about an author with significant political connections. (see original tweet: https://twitter.com/eng_1102_Murray/status/961018874882912257)


Twitter conversation between students about how they can find more information about women authors’ male relatives than the actual authors themselves.

Figure 2. #RJ tweet exchange between three students noting the ease of locating information on male relatives compared to the female authors. (https://twitter.com/nawereGT/status/962083179191590912)

The second goal was to help students move beyond Google and to harness digital research technologies, including social media, to find information. To encourage collaboration and professional networking, students were assigned two required and one optional digital scaffolding components. First, students kept a real-time research journal via Twitter (see next section), where they regularly reported the steps in their research process over the course of one month. Second, each student wrote a WordPress blog post summarizing their work approximately halfway through the project and then responded to two other posts with constructive feedback. These posts were included on the course blog, a public-facing website, with all student names anonymized. Third, one of the final portfolio options allowed students to include an archive of their email communications with experts from outside the class. This last optional component was rather broadly sketched in the assignment, but students were given an in-class tutorial on how to compose a polite, professional email asking librarians, curators, publishers, archivists, or other scholars for information or research assistance.[7]

Tweet showing how a student was able to contact the Massachusetts Vital Records Office to obtain birth and death dates. Tweet has image of email sent.

Figure 3. #RJ Tweet noting a significant discovery derived from an email exchange with MA Vital Records. (https://twitter.com/FrancescaKwok/status/962460819660398594)


Twitter exchange between students regarding a biographical dictionary of American women that might also have women authors in it.

Figure 4. #RJ Tweet exchange where one student points fellow students to a useful source about American authors. (https://twitter.com/gtac334/status/960404528876212224)

The third goal was to displace the expectation that the professor already knew all the answers and it was the students’ job to rediscover the “right” answers. Instead, the professor was presented as a partner in the learning process. This assignment contradicted the “banking” model of education in which “the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing” and “the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly,” (Freire 1970, 23). Using the problem-solving techniques of the inquiry approach allowed Fitzsimmons and Alteri to “introduce students to IL [information literacy] as a way of thinking that focuses on modes of thought involved in seeking appropriate sources” (Mazella and Grob 2011, 468).

At first, the unknowable nature of the assignment and the inability of the professor to accurately predict the successful completion of the ideal outcome—especially given the time constraints of the project, lack of access to physical materials, and the age of the material—made many of the students extremely uncomfortable. Many asked variations of the question, “But really, which of these authors will be easiest to research?” to which Fitzsimmons repeatedly replied “I honestly don’t know.” To many students, this felt like a drastic shift in the way they thought about research. Ben Ventimiglia[8] wrote in his final reflective portfolio essay[9]: “In high school, doing a research project meant googling the topic, reading the Wikipedia article, and maybe copying a few websites into a bibliography. Yet this project, as with everything else in this class, was different. This time, I wasn’t researching something that the teacher already knew about, this time I was researching something that hardly anyone knew about.” Some students even indicated in their blog posts that they initially assumed that Fitzsimmons and Alteri were only pretending ignorance. Kaylee Correll wrote in her blog post: “When first receiving the assignment for ‘The Possibly Impossible Research Project,’ I thought, surely Dr. Fitz has researched these authors and knows information exists on them. It’s just hard to find, so she’s challenging us to develop our research skills. Well, that has clearly proved not to be the case.” This was, in part, the very assumption the assignment was designed to challenge. In undermining the idea that the professor knows everything, this assignment offered students the opportunity to make meaning through engagement with an existing problem (a lack of information about a subset of scientific authors) and empowered students to become what Freire (1970, 27) terms “critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher.” In fact, most readily embraced the challenge of rediscovering knowledge and adding that information back into the historical record via the existing “Guiding Science” scholarly project and through public-facing Wikipedia articles.

This project further emphasized the concept of research and discovery as a process. Both Fitzsimmons and the Georgia Tech research librarians who instructed the class on digital research methodologies and available library resources reiterated that the research that students would likely be engaged in as civil engineers, computer-science developers, and architects would reflect this same kind of open-ended problem solving. These students are likely to find themselves in industries where they are asked to create a solution to a problem that has no preconceived “correct” answer. The exposure to this kind of problem, paired with the opportunity to conduct original research in a first-year composition class where the stakes were relatively low, allowed students to embrace the challenge and reorient themselves toward a new way of thinking about research and their own educations.

Tweet by a student who said they never had to do real research before this class.

Figure 5. #RJ tweet exchange where students discuss their previous lack of experience with “real research.” (https://twitter.com/mollyengl1102/status/962736430614306817)


Tweet by a student on how the assignment increased their ability to search online.

Figure 6. #RJ Tweet exchange where students reflect on what this research process taught them and how it might be useful in the future. (https://twitter.com/PeterLe01341419/status/962553797032726529)

The fourth goal was intimately tied to the third: in asking first year students to engage in difficult, original research without the promise of results, the assignment actively set up many of these high-performing students to fail in order to teach them to cope with and work around setbacks. Today’s college-aged students, in general, enter college facing pressures and expectations from all sides, leading to a rise in stress, mental health concerns, and reluctance to admit to confusion or mistakes. Geoffrey Cantor (2017) notes that these pressures can come from all sides such as “the ever-increasing emphasis on academic success in our target-driven culture” as well as stresses “about their finances and the substantial loans that they have to shoulder” in order to earn the degrees they have been told are necessary to succeed in a twenty-first century economy. Cantor further notes, “Schools, particularly prestigious private schools, often project a highly competitive ethos, causing some students to drop out of the race, while others enter it with an obsessive determination to succeed” while familial pressures can turn a bad grade on a test into familial disappointment. The pressures can be high whether the student comes from a long line of legacy degree earners or a family with no higher education background.

Given the highly structured, outcome-based educational policies that govern most of today’s students’ K-12 learning experiences, college courses that offer a lack of structure, supervision, or clear expectations often make students intensely uncomfortable. As many college faculty can attest, students who face frustration or difficulty in completing a project may shut down, give up, or blame the instructor for a lack of clarity in directions or expectations. In response, colleges and universities are increasingly trying to find ways to work with the “failure-deprived” or high-achieving students who are “[n]early perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities” but as a result “they seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life” such as scoring a B on a test or missing a deadline on a paper (Bennett 2017). In using a digital pedagogy framework that embraces play, experimentation, and failure, this course sought to join other beneficial experiences aimed at helping students learn to cope with failure, while also helping demystify and destigmatize failure through collaborative work practices. Others, such as David Gooblar (2018), have noted that sharing failure can help to normalize it as well as provide students with coping strategies, both in and out of the classroom.

Series of images and gifs featuring brick walls to signify the frustration of hitting a dead end in their searches. Other students offer sympathy, solidarity, or encouragement including an animated gif of a man running through a brick wall; another tweet shows an animated man clutching his head and screaming in agony.

Figure 7. #RJ Tweet exchange between six students, commiserating on the frustrations of hitting “brick walls.” Some offer advice, others sympathy, solidarity, or encouragement. (https://twitter.com/WestbrookKarin/status/961790136190160898)

In this vein, the structure of the assignment was built around the risk of failure as a regular part of original research, thereby emphasizing the need to develop good research habits, such as recording and documenting the steps of a research process, and on creative problem solving in the face of setbacks. To do this, Fitzsimmons first made clear that she expected each and every student to fail, or at least to encounter frustrations and setbacks, which the class came to refer to as “brick walls.” These brick walls might include leads that did not pan out, searches that ended in no results, or email queries sent with no responses.

After assigning the project, Fitzsimmons devoted at least five minutes each class period to a research check-in. Students were regularly asked to discuss what they had or had not found, what resources had been useful, and where had they gone astray. Early discussions were hesitant and limited, likely due to the fact that many students had not really started their projects yet. However, after the blog post (and the flurry of research and tweeting that took place the weekend prior), students became far more willing to admit to running into brick walls. Once the students were willing to share to these failures with their peers, a focus on creative problem solving emerged. As students began to share successes, their approaches often inspired others. For example, as some students began to hear back from archivists and librarians, more students were willing to reach out via email to outside experts. As students had reported success with specific digital resources available through our library’s subscription service, other students began to work with the librarians and databases to find archival records, images, census data, publication information or more. In asking students to confront these brick walls and frustrations, and then move on to new approaches, this project mimicked likely scenarios researchers face in both academia and industry.

One of the many threads of conversation the class repeatedly revisited during the project was how to manage frustration and failure from both a productivity standpoint and an emotional one. In some cases, this meant letting students vent their frustrations, while Fitzsimmons, and eventually other students, validated those emotions; phrases like “that does sound very frustrating” or “I hate it when that happens” acknowledged the students’ difficulties while also recognizing how common failure can be. Often times, identification and sharing of similar experiences was enough to help students. In certain cases of prolonged and ongoing “failure,” the class would sometimes suggest other search strategies, brainstorm new approaches, or offer to share physical resources. In a couple of dire cases, reassurance took the form of reiterating the requirements of the assignment and asking the “failing” student to account for what they had already accomplished and how the work they were producing (research notes, works cited, evidence of emails sent) were all that the assignment required for them to earn an A.

Twitter Research Journals (#RJ): Leveraging Social Media In Archival Research

In an attempt to emphasize the concept of research as a process, Fitzsimmons asked students to keep a public-facing research journal using Twitter. Over the course of the month-long project, students were required to send 30 original tweets about their research process that included the course hashtag (#1102kidsci) and the assignment hashtag (#RJ). The students were also required to reply to 10 of their peers’ #RJ tweets during this time. Students were encouraged to send tweets about their ideas, successes, failures, frustrations, questions, search terms, and correspondence in real time, as their research unfolded.

Given its informal nature, many faculty members, including Shannon Draucker (2018), observe that “Twitter offered my students a venue in which to share their more casual, impressionistic responses to our course texts and to communicate their immediate reactions and emerging insights with each other.” Further, the use of multimodal forms of communication (gifs, links, images) in the digital platform allowed students to share a wider variety of information with peers and the general public alike, regardless of Twitter’s 280 character limit. As a result, this form of a research journal recorded the ups and downs of the research process and made the usually invisible labor of research visible, tangible, and humanized.

Twitter exchange between student and Georgia Tech librarian celebrating finding a picture of an author. Exchange contains two images, one of author in an elaborate white bonnet. The other of cat with OMG written on it.

Figure 8. #RJ tweet exchange between a student and GT librarian Karen Viars, celebrating the discovery of a photograph of the student’s assigned author. Note the informality and collegial nature of Karen’s response, keeping largely with the tone set by the students in this collaborative space. (https://twitter.com/MaximENGL1102/status/961375465511546881)


Twitter exchange between students, featuring a photo of the original document in which a student found significant new information.

Figure 9. #RJ tweet exchange between Kevin Lau and a fellow student, featuring a photo of the original document in which Kevin found significant new information. (Tweet no longer available.)

The #RJ scaffolding component also allowed for real-time feedback and coaching from both the instructor and the Georgia Tech subject librarian, Karen Viars. In addition to Viars leading a workshop during class time on databases and digital resources, Twitter offered her the opportunity to respond to students and offer her expertise in an informal, collegial way. Given the nature of this project, both Fitzsimmons and Viars found it useful to reinforce a number of the concepts discussed in class, specifically the ideas that research is a process, that dead ends do not necessarily mean failure overall, and that finding no results in specific databases is still valuable information to be recorded and noted. Based on theories that experiential learning can provide more concrete learning outcomes, this real-time feedback in response to the students’ actual work likely made more of an impact than the in-class discussion of failure as an abstract concept. To encourage this tone and level of informality, both Fitzsimmons and Viars regularly responded with the same level of irreverence, humor, and emotion as the students.

Twitter exchange that features an example of informal coaching from the instructor, using an animated gif of a woman making angry, frustrated faces while simulating strangling the air with her hands.

Figure 10. #RJ Tweet exchange that features an example of informal coaching from the instructor, using an animated gif to sympathize with the student’s frustration while encouraging the professional protocols discussed in class lessons. (https://twitter.com/DrFitzPhD/status/963225008154791939)


Exchange on Twitter between student and instructor discussing importance of taking breaks during the research process, which features a gif from Big Hero 6 that reads “Low...Battery…”

Figure 11. #RJ Tweet exchange between a student and the instructor that reiterates some of the process oriented lessons about research discussed in class, namely the importance of taking breaks and self-care. (https://twitter.com/db110223/status/958791263066775553)

While one of the goals of the assignment was to teach students how to use social media to develop professional collaborative networks, the supportive and positive community that developed among the students within the #RJ hashtag discussions went far beyond the professor’s expectations. Although the assignment required students to reply to one another 10 times, most students quickly outpaced that requirement and embraced the digital space as a place to share database resources, books, articles, and search techniques. In her reflective portfolio, Annie Lee wrote: “Slowly but surely, Twitter became the place for collaboration. Between following accounts that may have been of help and exchanging ideas with my peers, we were able to create a community that was constructive and rewarding.” Many students admitted to turning to the Twitter hashtag when they felt stuck or frustrated, knowing that their class colleagues would have tips and new ideas for them to try.

Extended collaboration Twitter conversation. The first tweet includes a photo of two leather-bound books; the second image includes a photo of text from one of the books that is relevant to a classmate’s project. The third tweet responds to the image of text, asking the original poster to send more information about an author mentioned in the body of the text. Additional tweets facilitate sharing information; the final tweet from the instructor includes an image of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation nodding in approval and reads “I’m really proud of you.”

Figure 12. In this extended #RJ Tweet exchange, Bailey McLain shares photos from a physical book she checked out of the library and offers to check the index for other students’ assigned author; she tags Ben Ventimiglia on a photo of that text that mentions the author he was researching. Another classmate from a different section read the text in the photo and replied to Bailey, asking for more information. Bailey messages him the additional information; the instructor responds at the end of the exchange commending the whole group for their generous collaborative spirit. (https://twitter.com/bmclain1102/status/957983681292980229)

The #RJ assignment also offered students an opportunity to leverage social media as a networking tool. In early class discussions, students were encouraged to seek out scholars and professionals on Twitter who studied relevant fields, like Victorian literature, children’s literature, or science communication. Over the course of the project, students used their #RJ tweets to track their conversations with the Georgia Tech library staff as well as their work in reaching out to other experts via email or social media. Many expressed surprise at how helpful and responsive the librarians were, rather than being bothered by their requests. Jae Hee Lee Lee noted: “In fact, the librarians presented to me resources I have never heard of before where I could find the rarest books (in this case, written by my author) and other sources verifying the reliability of the information I was finding.” Additionally, many students cited the class lesson on writing audience-centered professional emails (and sending thank you notes!) as one of the most beneficial parts of the project. In fact, a number expressed the idea that until this project, asking for help had felt like a last resort or an admission of failure. Perhaps because failure was an expected part of this project or because collaboration was actively built into the project requirements, many students described a new outlook on asking for help. In his final portfolio, Zong-Rui Wee wrote that this project

opened up a new side of research that I had never really explored—it is okay to reach out to authorities on a given subject to ask for help and to be pointed in the right direction. … I had struck a goldmine by reaching out to the museums and archives, and even when they had no physical resources for me, they had pointed me in the right direction. If reaching out to professors or archivists for information was not one of the few suggested options for the project, I would probably never have found as much information than I actually had.

Teaching students how to approach fellow scholars in a collaborative spirit as a valid form of research thus became a major unexpected outcome of the project’s focus on networking and social media.[10]

Student tweet includes a screenshot of an email she received from the magazine Popular Science about her author; the Georgia Tech librarian responds with an animated gif of a man gesturing excitedly that reads “Yes! That is awesome!”

Figure 13. #RJ tweet by Karin Westbrook with a screenshot of an email from an editorial assistant at Popular Science; the magazine was started by the brother of the author Karin was researching. (https://twitter.com/WestbrookKarin/status/960911389656313856)


Student tweet to another Twitter user asking for assistance; that same Twitter user replies with a link to a blog post written about the student’s author and an invitation to direct message for more information.

Figure 14. #RJ tweet from Bethel Mamo to a Twitter user who describes herself as “Chronicler of 18th century royal life, both fictional and true!” @MadameGilflurt had previously tweeted about the student’s assigned author and provided her with information as a result of this exchange. (https://twitter.com/bethelkidsci/status/956729597818802176)

Research and Student Outcomes

At the conclusion of the “Possibly Impossible Research Project,” students submitted twenty-eight short biographies for authors in the “Guiding Science” bibliography. A further nine authors now have “leads,” or at least some information gathered by the students that can be used to conduct further research. Out of the fifty authors assigned to the students, only eight have no information. The additional biographical information, and the research processes used by the students, demonstrate a number of the barriers that existed for women writers and the increasing barriers placed on women in the sciences during professionalization. As evidenced in students’ research journals, a number of women had to be tracked through their male relatives, of whom there was far more written evidence.

The project also promoted the books of these authors and their contributions to scientific fields to a wider audience through the creation of new knowledge. In addition to the information contributed to the Baldwin, eleven students completed either new Wikipedia articles on their author, or edited and made significant improvements to their author’s existing Wikipedia pages.[11] Ultimately, the students viewed the Wikipedia article as the pinnacle of achievement in this project, owing to the high standards for “verifiable” sources required by the Wikipedia community and multimodal components, such as images of the author, that they felt made a Wikipedia page complete.[12] In contrast, students who wrote biographies for the Baldwin were permitted to hedge or qualify their research, allowing them to include information that they had not been able to confirm in published sources.

As with any original research, the potential for unexpected discoveries made this project especially exciting. A few lucky students uncovered scandalous content about their authors that directly defied the stereotypical image of a children’s literature author. One student discovered evidence that her author had been sentenced to hard labor after being arrested for stealing; another student found newspaper articles accusing her author of adultery.

One student uncovered a lead that indicated that Mary Trimmer might have been a fake name used by American publishers to capitalize on the success of the British author Sarah Trimmer. As students shared these discoveries via Twitter and during class discussion, their enthusiasm and surprise provided their classmates with both motivation and entertainment.

A student tweet about finding evidence her author stole a purse and was arrested, including an animated gif of a woman stuffing pastries into her purse and two additional tweets about further wrongdoing. The instructor responds with an excited textual reply; the Georgia Tech librarian responds with an animated gif of a man looking surprised that reads “at first I was like...”

Figure 15. #RJ Tweet where Lauren Becknell shares that she found evidence to suggest her author was arrested for theft and for counterfeiting coins. Both the GT librarian and the instructor react with excitement. (https://twitter.com/BecknellKidSci/status/960920003112591362)


A student tweet about an author accused of adultery, featuring an animated gif of Mr. T, and J. Alexander from America’s Next Top Model looking scandalized.

Figure 16. #RJ tweet in which a student reacts to finding evidence that the student’s author did not actually exist, but was a scam invented by American publishers to take advantage of another author with the same last name. (https://twitter.com/LitScience1102/status/962012675289960449)


A student tweet indicating evidence that the author never existed and was, in fact, a scam; the tweet includes an animated gif of Andy from Parks and Recreation looking shocked and reads “Oh snap!”

Figure 17. #RJ tweet in which a student reacts to newspaper articles indicating the student’s author committed adultery. (https://twitter.com/tweetinfeatin/status/962102325488779264)

Students felt successful regardless of how much information they located; even the eight students who turned in portfolios with no results reported feeling they had learned a significant amount from the project. The students with no results all admitted to feeling some level of disappointment but also reported feeling proud for sticking with the project. While some reported a good deal of content knowledge acquisition, specifically about their author, the topic(s) on which she wrote, and Victorian society, most reported a new appreciation for “real” research, an expanded understanding of the resources available to them through the library, and a growing appreciation for professional networking via digital platforms. Many of the students also noted that they appreciated their work going towards public-facing resources, rather than remaining between them and their professor. Lauren Becknell wrote: “I found this project to be very meaningful due to our own research being able to be seen, edited, and built upon by other literature researchers.”

Finally, the students had the opportunity to learn about the challenges, pitfalls, joys, and productive processes associated with original research in a relatively safe, low-stakes environment. In a study that examined the emotional responses of information seeking library patrons, Carol C. Kuhlthau (1991, 367) notes that the exploration phase of research is the one most likely to challenge previously-held conceptions about the information available and is often the phase where “users may find the situation quite discouraging and threatening, causing a sense of personal inadequacy as well as frustration … some may be inclined to abandon the search altogether at this stage.” By exposing students intentionally to this stage of research in an assignment predominantly focused on process and documentation as the graded requirement of the assignment, the students were able to refocus on methods rather than the final product. Helen Smith’s reflective portfolio included this observation: “For each of the assignments in this class, the process of getting to the final product was the key change in my mindset. It is often very easy to want to jump headfirst into a project. … Without realizing it, you begin skipping crucial steps in the brainstorming, outlining, creating, drafting, and revising stages.” The increased focus on process helped the students come to terms with the risks of original research, namely, the potential for failure. Peter Lee wrote “This project taught me that often in research, there will be dead ends and that its sometimes perfectly fine to not find anything substantial.” In classroom reflective discussions, many of the students reported that they felt far more confident to approach their research-driven major courses now that they had a more solid grounding on how to do “real” research.

The positive impacts of this project were not reserved merely for the students. First, the larger fields of English, children’s literature, the history of education, and the history of science will all benefit from the original research produced in bringing the lives of these (often incredible) women to light. Second, Alteri reported learning new and creative approaches to biographical research from the students (e.g. what sources they used, how they tracked down information). She noted, “they often thought of using sources that I, a more traditional researcher, would not have used, especially Ancestry.com and other genealogy sites that many students used to locate their authors through marriage records, census data, and obituaries. Also, I think a meaningful impact has been bringing the work and the lives of the women to light!” Third, Fitzsimmons noted that a lot of learning can come from admitting “I don’t know” as a professor. While this course was built on topics the professor knew a lot about, it also left space for the unknown in order to ignite student curiosity. Fitzsimmons noted, “I was genuinely thrilled by each new discovery but I was also prepared to roll up my sleeves and help students puzzle through a frustrating lack of findings during office hours or workshops.” This shared sense of discovery helped many students with no interest in pursuing the humanities beyond their required courses find value and importance in this particular project.

Student put together a Twitter thread on how to approach original research for this class as a self-directed reflective exercise—the multimodal animated gifs helped make the thread entertaining as well as informative. Animated gifs show Kermit the Frog typing furiously on a typewriter, a cat typing furiously on a laptop, Bert from Sesame Street looking up from a book as the camera zooms in on his surprised face, Belle from Beauty and the Beast swinging down a shelf of books on a ladder, a young woman applauding and nodding, Britney Spears giving a thumbs up and a scene from WWF wrestling.

Figure 18. Lauren Becknell put together a Twitter thread on how to approach original research for this class as a self-directed reflective exercise—the multimodal animated gifs helped make the thread entertaining as well as informative. (https://twitter.com/BecknellKidSci/status/963115838139191296)

Future Possibilities

In future iterations of this project, or for faculty members looking to create their own assignment based on this one, a few improvements should be made. First, students were very concerned about submitting their final research portfolios correctly in terms of format and document set up. A future version of the assignment sheet would clarify what the archive of images would look like, and additional time might be spent on how to create and curate a “Twitter moment” in order to create an archive of the students’ #RJ tweets and responses that would be easier to share. In addition, Alteri will be more active on Twitter, sharing her own frustrations doing research as well as interesting contextual information. Third, faculty members planning to use Twitter as an ongoing feedback tool might consider setting up digital office hours in which they check tweets on the course hashtag and respond. This would provide faculty members with a quantifiable amount of time spent providing feedback, as well as giving students a sense of fairness in terms of when they might look for responses. Given the mobility and accessibility of Twitter, these “office hours” could be a 15-20 minute window as a part of class prep.

There are also non-digital ways to encourage this level of idea exchange, both for faculty with privacy concerns, students without readily accessible computers, or those with a critical digital pedagogy that objects to supporting a large-scale commercial platform like Twitter. Keeping a paper and pen research journal and sharing the contents with a research team, or a faculty-guided small group, could certainly achieve similar levels of demystification and collegial collaboration. Finally, while this course contributed a great amount of information on these female authors, biographies from the “Guiding Science” bibliography still remains incomplete. In a future version of this class, students will be asked to research some of the authors for whom previous students were unable to find information. Therefore, in line with asking students to consider themselves as members of an academic community and using “unsuccessful” research to help build future research discoveries, the professor plans to share, with student permission, some of the no-result portfolios with the new student researchers. Hopefully, these portfolios will serve as good examples of how to record and preserve research as well as demonstrate actively that failure can still lend itself to progress.


[1] Full-text of titles can be found at http://ufdc.ufl.edu.
[2] Women authors often remained anonymous due to “the detrimental impact that their sex might have upon the earning power of their writing; the fact that it could undermine a proper evaluation of literary merit, either through premature rejection or ridicule, or through over-indulgence and condescension; and because the stigma of ‘unfeminine’ behavior remained attached to authorship throughout the period,” (Turner 2012, 95).
[3] See Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), chapter 2.
[4] Researchers often liken archival research to the investigative process. Alexis E. Ramsey’s Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition and Helen M. Buss and Marlene Kadar’s Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents.
[5] This is a reference to Miss Frizzle’s catchphrase in The Magic School-Bus picture book series, which also appeared on the course syllabus: “Take chances, get messy, make mistakes!”
[6] See C. V. Burek and B. Higgs
[7] Some of the students included connections they had made via other platforms like Twitter or official query sites for institutions like museums in this “archived correspondence” section. See Figure 15 for an example.
[8] Throughout this essay, all student quotes are included with permission from the students; students are identified by name or included anonymously based on their expressed preferences.
[9] All WCP courses include a multimodal reflective portfolio in lieu of a final exam: students are asked to write substantial reflective essay to “help your readers understand and make sense of the work you did this semester and allow them to understand the ways you developed as a communicator.”
[10] On a personal note, given the ongoing struggles on college campuses to address the unique mental health needs of highly pressured students and resulting student suicide rates, the unintended outcome of teaching students it is ok to ask for help is the one Fitzsimmons is the most proud of.
[11] Of the eight proposed new pages, two were rejected by other Wikipedia users/editors as failing to provide “clear evidence of why the subject is notable and worthy of inclusion in an encyclopedia.” Wikipedia itself admits that the “notability” requirement is one that reinforces the online resource’s systemic bias. Take, for example, the recent case of Nobel prize winner Donna Strickland, whose first Wikipedia page was rejected because she did not meet the notability requirement.
[12] Wikipedia requires published secondary sources or official documents (i.e. government documents, public records) as support for an article; given the relative obscurity and age of the authors, these verifiable materials were the most difficult for students to locate and then cite digitally.


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About the Authors

Suzan Alteri is an Associate University Librarian and Curator of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida. She has published in Digital Defoe and Education Libraries. Her current project, “Guiding Science: Publications by Women during the Romantic and Victorian Ages,” explores women-authored science books for children.

Rebekah Fitzsimmons is the Assistant Director of the Writing and Communication Program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow. She earned her PhD at the University of Florida in children’s and young adult literature and regularly publishes on bestseller lists, the cultural reception of children’s and young adult literature, and issues of prestige in children’s publishing. Her monograph in progress argues that the pioneering women in children’s literature fields, like librarianship, teaching, and publishing, appropriated the markers and rhetorical strategies of professionalization used in traditionally masculine fields to seize prestige and influence for themselves at the turn of the 20th century.

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