Diss Defense

Yesterday, I sat in a room with six of the best mentors I could ever hope to have and listened as they thoughtfully and critically engaged my dissertation (please expect an upcoming post solely dedicated to my deep gratitude for the wonderful network of people who have supported and pushed me as I developed this project). It was strange and surreal to be in a room for two hours with colleagues and friends who have shaped me in so many ways: as a person, as a thinker, as a researcher, as an instructor.

It’s important for me to be transparent about the work that I do and to make that work accessible to others, and I’m extending this to my final presentation as a Ph.D. student: my dissertation defense statement.

(Note: the only thing omitted from this statement are my plans for revision moving forward.)


I’d like to start by thanking the people who have encouraged and supported me throughout this process. I wouldn’t be at this stage without the support of my fantastic co-directors Patrick Berry and Lois Agnew. I never imagined that writing a dissertation could be anything but agonizing, but I was continuously surprised with how much I enjoyed the process of developing and complicating my ideas, which is surely a testament to your mentorship. Thank you to the calm brilliance of Collin Brooke who offered strategies for narrowing my ideas and actually writing the dissertation. Thank you to the constructive feedback and powerful scholarship of Jay Dolmage and Margaret Price who constantly inspire me to want to be more thoughtful. And finally thank you to Beth Ferri whose courses in the Disability Studies Program shaped my research and teaching in ways I never anticipated.

I’m going to offer a broad overview of my dissertation, focus on some key things that I’ve learned and struggled with, and close with ideas and questions moving forward. But first, I offer a series of disclosures.

// disclosures in three parts

One. On the first day of every new class I teach, I disclose some version of the following to my students: My mom was diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer two weeks before my brother and I graduated from high school. I had an agreement with the dean at my university that I could miss class or take extra time if I needed it. At the beginning of each semester for four years, I had to inform my professors of this arrangement. I know that you all have complicated lives beyond this class, and I don’t require that you share them with me, but I do ask that you be mindful of our time together and let me know when you will miss class or are unable to meet a deadline. I can work with you, but only if you let me know you need help.

Two. In October 2012, I traveled to the west coast for a writing center conference. I sat in a crowded room and listened to a presentation about the telltale characteristics of autism spectrum disorders (“Autistic people have bad handwriting”) and how tutors should respond to them (“so you should offer them the opportunity to use the computer”). At the end of the presentation, the speaker said that AS “is an obstacle that can be overcome if the student wants.” The Q&A turned into a mix of agreement and discussion of how to identify suspicious and potentially violent students. I choked back tears as I asked a question and then awkwardly left the room.

Three. Last month, I disclosed to a colleague that I am suicidal. I was informed that that information was inappropriate to share in that space (my home, a social function).

// introduction & overview

What do these disclosures mean—individually and together? How do they create a picture of the complexities of disclosure in the writing classroom, in the writing center, in our professional and interpersonal spaces? How do they shape my identity and other people’s understandings of my ethos as a scholar and instructor with clinical depression and anxiety? What role do they have in this space, in this context, in this room of people?

In some ways, I wanted to use my dissertation as a space to understand why we both demand student disclosures but also remove the agency of students by questioning or dismissing those disclosures unless they’re accompanied by institutional accommodations.

In my dissertation, “From Accommodations to Accessibility: How Rhetorics of Overcoming Manifest in Writing Pedagogies,” I interrogate the tendency in our field to try to diagnose disabled students (or encourage students to self-disclose) and default to accommodations rather than trying to craft more accessible practices. Specifically, I explore how rhetorics of overcoming—the idea that disabled bodies must overcome their disabilities in order to be successful or to meet a particular standard—manifests in composition and writing center pedagogies. Part of the dissertation is focused on identifying and analyzing these rhetorics of overcoming, and part of it is brainstorming more theoretically-grounded accessible practices.

Chapter One breaks down how our disciplinary scholarship has addressed disability through two main models: medical models that focus on remediating student deficits and social models that focus on the changing environmental influences that create disability. I argue that our field is currently more resonant with an accommodation approach. We have this model of accommodations in higher education that is very much interested in meeting students’ needs but is also contingent upon diagnosing and accommodating students. So in Chapter Two, I apply this accommodation approach to writing center contexts. Whereas rhetoric and composition scholarship began incorporating disability studies theory in the late 1990s to the point that Margaret Price declared it a hot field of study (“Accessing Disability”), writing center studies has not. Writing center discourses mix social model intentions with an emphasis on diagnosis, identifying deficits, and crafting particular practices for particular disabled groups. And I argue that writing center scholarship about disability needs to incorporate more disability studies theory and that, when crafting writing center practices and training tutors, we should be mindful of theories of multiliteracies, multimodality, and UD as frameworks for better understanding how disabled students learn and compose.

One thing I’ve tried to be mindful of throughout this process is making sure that I’m not making assumptions about or speaking for instructors and students, so there’s a qualitative shift in Chapter Three. I incorporate qualitative surveys and interviews with instructors, students, and writing center consultants in order to more fully understand how students identify their needs and how different classroom and writing center practices address or ignore those needs. Chapter Four follows up these discussions with a framework that foregrounds accessibility as an integral part of literate practice, and I offer theoretically-grounded assignments and activities that instructors can incorporate or adapt in their own classes.

// learning & struggling

I’m happy to talk in more depth about any these chapters, but I’d like to temporarily resist a chapter breakdown of findings and instead offer a number of small conclusions. These are claims, struggles, and questions that have pushed me out of my academic and personal comfort zones and that I’m processing even now that the dissertation is “done.”

>> Rhetorics of overcoming are culturally pervasive. I discuss the connections between cultural and academic manifestations of rhetorics of overcoming in the opening chapter of my dissertation, but a quick example is autism discourse. April is Autism Awareness month, and logics of overcoming, diagnosis, and cure are rampant on social media. These cultural logics are powerful, and they manifest in conversations about how to identify “dangerous” autistic students (like the disclosure I shared a few minutes ago) and in scholarship that offers a checklist of autistic traits and how to accommodate them. By paying attention to these cultural narratives, we can better understand how we reinforce these discourses in our scholarship and interactions with students and students’ writing.

>> Engage with students and instructors. In order to prevent spreading generalizations, studying disability as different, or advocating for prescribed practices for disabled students based on categorical difference, we need more qualitative research that engages students about how they learn and compose and how their disabilities may impact those processes. Although qualitative research is new to me, I knew I needed to do more than simply analyze rhetorics of overcoming or I’d be perpetuating assumptions about what students need or what instructors and consultants are doing. I wanted to talk with students about how they learn and compose and what practices are in/accessible to them. I also wanted instructors and writing center consultants to be able to “speak back” to rhetorics of overcoming and share how their understandings of disability manifest within their pedagogical practices.

>> A study of accessibility involves both disabled and nondisabled students. Only soliciting responses from disabled students would reinforce the idea that accessible practices only benefit disabled students. Indeed, one of the more compelling findings from the student survey is that though the needs of disabled student writers are often positioned as radically different from their nondisabled peers, the learning needs articulated by students who identified as disabled and/or received institutional accommodations very much aligned with nondisabled students. There’s been a tendency to rely on disclosure and accommodations as the way we can support students who we perceive as different, but not all disabled students will disclose or receive accommodations. We need to create spaces to listen to the needs that all students articulate.

>> Accessibility is often defined by disability. When I was developing the survey, I struggled with how to make the term “accessibility” accessible to undergraduate students—particularly those who may not think about it on a daily basis. I framed it as something that’s shaped by physical spaces, pedagogical practices, and cultural attitudes to try to move away from the conflation of accessibility with physical access. But nondisabled students really didn’t have a firm grasp of accessibility unless something was explicitly inaccessible to them. I received a lot of comments to the question, “How often do you think about disability and accessibility?” with references to seeing students in wheelchairs or on crutches try to navigate campus. Tanya Titchkosky notes that disability and accessibility are often imagined within the context of wheelchair use (55), and these narrow understandings are reinforced when we don’t have explicit conversations with students about accessibility beyond accommodations for disabled students. So although this is a somewhat minor point within the larger study, it’s something that I tried to address throughout the dissertation in brainstorming practices that explicitly position accessibility as a collaborative effort.

>> Disclosures matter but not on their own. In “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing in Academic Writing,” Stephanie Kerschbaum argues that disability disclosures are never static: they are contextual to situations and to audiences. We need to critically consider the complexities of disability disclosures—how they operate and affect students’ understandings of themselves as writers—in order to rethink how we offer support to students with a wide range of learning needs. For the survey, I asked students whether or not they identified as disabled but chose not to require them to disclose. Because my goal was to learn more about how students understand their needs and how those needs are met within writing contexts, asking about disability in the context of learning was more appropriate than simply asking students to disclose specific disabilities.

As Corbett O’Toole argues, the question “Are you disabled?” or even “Do you identify as disabled?” is much different than asking someone “What is your position to disability?” I wanted a simple yes/no response that I could easily quantify, but would I have received different results if I had framed the question more openly? For example, Tina (whose interview is featured in Chapter 3) didn’t identify as disabled in her survey but disclosed struggles with multiple stimuli and a history of depression and anxiety. Three students surveyed didn’t identify as disabled but received institutional accommodations, which requires a disability diagnosis. And two students with ADD disclosed the same categorical disability but disagreed on whether or not it affected their writing. These examples highlight the limitations of understanding disability and literacy solely based on diagnoses. Disability disclosures on their own don’t give us adequate or accurate information about individuals, their lived experiences, or their needs moving forward. Rather, the combination of how students make meaning based on identity categories and how identities shift in different contexts offers a more accurate understanding of how disability impacts students and their composing processes.

And this takes me back to the series of disclosures that I opened with. Being transparent about our relationships to disability can inform how we engage with disabled students and act as a critical method for more deeply engaging research. My experiences with rhetorics of overcoming and clinical depression and anxiety greatly influenced my decision to talk with students and shaped my interactions with Tina. Because I shared my positioning with Tina, for example, she was more willing to share her positioning with me. When we learn with students rather than about them—drawing on our past experiences, listening carefully to what students say and do not say, and adapting our questions and methods—we co-construct deeper, richer knowledge about disabled experiences.

// take-away

Perhaps one of the greatest take-aways for me from this project is the importance of making space to talk with students: to feature their voices in our research and to make space for them to disclose their accessibility needs—whether they identify as disabled or not—in our classroom and writing center spaces.

Moving forward, I want to continue to think about rhetorics of overcoming and how we can craft empirical studies of disability and accessibility that don’t target disability, that refuse neoliberal arguments about how everyone learns differently, and that can directly influence everyday and curricular practices. .

I’ll stop here because I’d love to hear questions about the project and thoughts about how to further develop it. Thank you all so much.

Sharing Grief

It’s difficult to explain depression to folks who have no frame of reference for it. My dad was the one who came home first when I locked myself in the bathroom when I was 14, and I still remember the way his legs and fingers twitched as he sat down and tried to talk to me about what was wrong. (His body twitched the same way three years later when he sat me down to tell my mom had cancer.) Over a decade later, it’s still difficult for me to explain depression to my dad—not because he doesn’t want to understand but because he doesn’t know how.

I feel similar despair when I try to explain depression to partners, to friends, to colleagues. Depression seems more difficult to explain as an academic because there’s an unspoken sense that you shouldn’t talk about it, but it’s there. It’s difficult to make yourself vulnerable in a culture of higher education that preys on (or at least seems to prey on) vulnerability—particularly vulnerability of the mind.

I was recently invited to make myself vulnerable (or not) by a kind colleague, and it was nice to know that I could talk about it (or not). It was nice to switch from academic conversations about rhetoric to how completely consuming anxiety and depression can be—how one day you’re teaching and grading and writing and researching, and the next day you can’t convince yourself to get out of bed.

It’s difficult to explain depression because it never operates the same from day to day. Sometimes, it’s just there. And sometimes, something specific triggers it. My last post was courtesy of a range of triggers that all culminated within one week. Today, I’m thinking about depression (but perhaps am not drowning in it thanks to that act of kindness) because it’s Easter Sunday.

I feel displaced at Easter every year because my family didn’t really celebrate it. When everyone else went home to visit their families, I stayed on campus. 2009 is the last time I drove home to visit my family, winding through snow-capped mountains to spend time with my mom in our house for the last time. The week after Easter, she was re-admitted to the hospice (where she stayed for the next month).

I spent that weekend taking awkward black-and-white photos of my mom lying in bed in her faded black sweatshirt and flannel pajama pants. I took photos of the clothes in her closet, which my dad bagged up and donated shortly after she died. I took photos of the plastic, heart-print water glass that she kept on her bedside table. I took photos of the handwritten notes for the memorial service that she planned herself, sprawling cursive letters indicating that “My Home among the Hills” would be the last song played.

It’s difficult to know whether or not I feel isolated at Easter because it’s a religious holiday or because of the depression or because it’s always time of year when academic expectations to perform are at an all-time high. It’s much easier to manage that isolation, though, when someone reaches out to you to let you know you’re not alone and to assure you that how you’re feeling isn’t shameful. Particularly in academic environments where all things depression, anxiety, mental health are kept under wraps, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re alone and to allow yourself to self-consume.

I used to end these reflective blog posts (see tags: grad life, PhD student) with bullet lists of reminders or action items for self care. Things like “Ask for help when you need it” and “Celebrate every step along the way—no matter how small it may seem.” These are simple reminders, but when you’re really and truly struggling, even the most simple things seem so difficult to do. So in the spirit of reciprocity (because sharing grief is deeply reciprocal) and in gratitude to a colleague who reached out to me in a time of despair, a reminder:

Time spent grieving and building support networks is always worth it. Grabbing lunch or coffee with a colleague is more valuable than an extra hour spent grading (or writing a few more pages, reading another article, tweaking that presentation, or staring at the wall trying to convince yourself to work).

Adventures in Depression

About this time last year, I wrote a blog post about passing my oral exam defense, how it feels to want to share good news with someone who has been dead for five years, how it feels to be a Ph.D. student with depression so bad you can’t leave your bed.

And in some ways, this post is and is not like that one.

Every year I’ve been in my Ph.D. program, things feel radically different. My first year, I worked to adjust to four rigorous courses a semester in a new departmental and university culture. My second year, I scrambled to adjust to teaching a new curriculum,  finishing coursework, and studying for comprehensive exams. My third year, I passed my comprehensive exams, developed a prospectus, and began dissertating. My fourth year, I dissertated, applied for jobs, and starting prepping my dissertation defense. Each year, things are very different.

Things are different this year than they were last year. This past year, I applied to dozens of assistant professor positions, did interviews, and recently accepted a TT position. I also wrote a dissertation, revised chapters as I applied for jobs, and submitted a full dissertation to my committee. I co-edited a special issue of a journal and got an article accepted for publication.

Things are different, but depression is constant. It ebbs and flows, building up like the piles of snow that towered outside of my house for months. It accompanied me as I wrote, applied for jobs, interviewed, waited to hear about chapters, revised chapters, waited to hear about jobs.

As always, I am thankful for so many things. I’m thankful that I have a great dissertation committee who have been wholly supportive. I’m thankful that I didn’t have the terrible job market experience that you hear horror stories about. I’m thankful to have been offered a position that really interests me in a department full of people who were nothing but kind when I visited.

Ebbs and flows.

Now March is almost over and the snow is almost gone and the days are getting brighter. But it’s almost April, and then it will be May. And it’s that time of year when I can’t catch my breath because all I can think about is my mom who, 6 years ago, was in a hospice as I finished up my senior year of college. I think of my graduation ceremony, receiving the handwritten note from her as I crossed the stage even though she died 9 days before that. My doctoral hooding ceremony will take place the day she died. My commencement ceremony will take place on Mother’s Day.

As I’ve delved further into my work on disability and accessibility and advocating for students, I’ve had to come to terms with my own mental disability. I started by mentioning it quietly on this blog, and I made my first formal academic disclosure within the pages of the special editors’ introduction to Reflections.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes disability as “the most human of experiences, touching every family and—if we live long enough—touching us all” (5).  For Allison, disability has always been a lens through which I’ve viewed and understood people and environments, my family, and myself: growing up with an autistic older brother who my mom tirelessly advocated for, helping my mom when she was sick with cancer and couldn’t get out of bed or drive to the store, negotiating my own depression and anxiety. Disability shaped my family and was thus very personal. It wasn’t until I was in my Master’s program and had Jay Dolmage as a teaching mentor that I realized disability could be something more. As a Ph.D. student at Syracuse, I took classes in the Disability Studies Program that made me start thinking about what rhetoric and composition can learn from disability studies, what we as instructors can learn from non-normative literacies and disabled composing processes, what we as scholars can learn about rhetoric and writing from cultural, historical, and disciplinary representations of disability.

academic disclosure

As I wrote my dissertation and tried to make sense of students’ survey responses about disability and accessibility, of interviews with students who have internalized rhetorics of overcoming, I had to come to terms with my own internationalization of overcoming. I had to come to terms with my positionally as an instructor and researcher of disability as someone with a mental disability. It was hard, and the days were short and cold, and it felt impossible to get out of bed. But it was also really good because I channeled what energy I had into ensuring that I was representing students fairly and accurately, into nuancing my arguments about disability disclosures in the composition classroom.

A few days ago, after a particularly difficult week, I was accused of “playing the card” of depression. It was difficult to process then and even more difficult to process now. When you self-harm, you get accused often of playing a card (often, the attention card). It’s been a very long time since I have been accused of playing that card. Every time I write and publish one of these blog posts, I wait for someone to call me out for being unfit for academic life or for an accusation that I am not disabled enough to claim a disability identity. Across the board, I have received nothing but support and kind words.

Ebbs and flows.

Disclosures can be so incredibly dangerous (personally, professionally). Within the past year, I have decided to be more vocal about these disclosures because it is healthier for me to be clear about my needs than it is to hide them. And I know I can’t advocate for others if I can’t advocate for myself. I know this accusation will be the first of many.

Indeed, I was also recently asked to disclose this information for someone’s academic gain, and I realized that folks who don’t have depression don’t understand depression. It’s sensationalized and becomes a warped image of inspiration and overcoming, of “how good” it is that you’ve moved past that. But you haven’t moved past it. You’ve grown with it. Depression is always with me, and sometimes it’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and sometimes it allows me to be more thoughtful and reflective than I could be without it. It allows me to listen more carefully when colleagues or friends or students articulate what they need from me in a particular moment and to acknowledge that what they need the next day may be completely different.

Whenever I think about how to explain this, I think about Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and Half. I teach “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two” in my composition courses because they capture depression in such clear, tangible ways—particularly for folks who are unfamiliar with depression. In the first comic, she delves into what it’s like but then tries to end the comic by tying a nice bow on it. Brosh didn’t post again for nearly a year and a half. When she finally posted “Depression Part Two,” I was so happy and so sad. I both laughed and cried because she’s such a funny writer and also because her words are so, so true. It’s hard to explain depression to someone who doesn’t get it but really wants to help. She writes, “So they try harder to make you feel hopeful and positive about the situation. You explain it again, hoping they’ll try a less hope-centric approach, but re-explaining your total inability to experience joy inevitably sounds kind of negative; like maybe you WANT to be depressed.” Every time I get caught in that situation, I think about the fish:

It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.

It’s been a long time since I got caught in a dead fish conversation.

One of the simplest arguments from my dissertation is that we need to listen to the needs that students articulate—both students who disclose diagnosed, documented disabilities and those who do not. There are lots of reasons students may choose not to disclose, and a student’s request to access course notes or to receive content in multiple formats or to listen to music while freewriting should not be any more or less valid if that student discloses a disability or presents an accommodations notice with that request. Disclosure should not be demanded (& then called into question) in order for someone’s needs to be acknowledged and respected.

Storify: Collecting vs. Curating Content

When Storify (tagline: “Make the web tell a story”) launched in 2011, I thought it was really cool. Actually, I still think it’s kind of cool. Storify allows you to access public content from social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr—really, anything with a URL—and curate that content into a story. It seemed like an excellent tool to curate conference tweets, which is how I’ve predominantly used it (for example, to curate disability panels at CCCC for the past 3 years: #4c13, #4c14, and #4c15). But I also think it has a lot of potential in the classroom—particularly for assignments that require students to analyze digital media.

pedagogical application: revisiting the analysis “essay”

I’m not likely the only instructor who has received an essay where a student analyzes a song, video, or series of images and has thought, This medium really isn’t working.

Storify allows students to drag and drop media into their analysis, but to be successful (i.e., usable) texts, students need to do more than collect media. They need to curate it.

In WRT 301: Civic Writing, which was heavily focused on how folks engage with civic issues through digital platforms, I decided to use Storify as the platform for students’ Access Analyses. Here’s a little context from the assignment prompt:

After gaining some theoretical bearing in Unit 1—defining and redefining our understandings of civic engagement, participation, and action—we will begin in Unit 2 to think about the rhetorical, social, and political forces at work in civic issues. Specifically, we will turn our attention to civic spaces and how particular groups of people have historically accessed (or been denied access to) civic spaces and how writing influenced that inclusion/exclusion. That is, if writing worked to further exclude, whether writing mediated that access in any way, or even if writing became a way for unauthorized groups to empower themselves and join in civic discussions.

You will choose a current issue and explore how it has been addressed using different media outlets (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, CNN, Fox News, political blogs, local and national newspapers, public art). Using Storify, you will curate the different ways this issue has been represented, whose voices were included and excluded, and analyze the situation in order to highlight the tensions with civic participation across different sites.

Because I wanted students to analyze how a specific issue was represented across different media, I thought Storify would be a great way for students to integrate that media directly into their analyses. Of course, this also required that we schedule a few class periods in the computer lab so that we could talk about Storify and get familiar with the interface. Even though it’s a drag-and-drop interface, this lab time was key because students needed that functional literacy (shoutout to Selber) before they could think critically and rhetorically about the affordances of Storify.

Note: I also think it’s important to scaffold new media into a course. Before asking students to dive into Storify, I used it to curate their tweets to our course readings so that they would have a basic example of how the platform works.

As a drag-and-drop interface, Storify is pretty simple. But I think that ease of use also means that people take it up in simplistic ways. This isn’t a critique of Storify users or of Storify itself so much as an observation of most interfaces that are designed to be as easy to use as possible. For example, the easier WordPress becomes, the less you see people manipulating the interface in new and interesting ways.

scholarly application: curating conference tweets

When you search for a keyword or hashtag, Storify presents 20 results at a time and gives you a choice: “Drag and drop the best ones or add them all.” Particularly if you’re trying to curate a large quantity of media, the “add them all” function is attractive. When you click “add them all,” it imports all the tweets in reverse chronological order, which might make sense for some events. To return to the conference context, tweets from session panels (theoretically) follow a logical progression that a reverse chronological order disrupts. Plus, adding all the tweets and then publishing the story is difficult to navigate. If you’re curating a high quantity of tweets, Storify quickly creates a long, unwieldy product. This is why I like to make use of headers & subheaders to organize information and include a “how to read this text” statement at the top of each of the stories I create—to make an otherwise unruly document a bit more accessible.

An example of how I try to structure my stories: 1) story title, 2) a brief description of how I collected the content (which we might think of as the methodology), 3) a slightly longer description that introduces how the content is organized and how to navigate the text, and 4) the content itself.

When you use Storify to archive public conversations, you make decisions about what information to include (all of it?), how to structure that content (by session? by theme? in chronological order?), and what to exclude (do you include sessions on embodiment for a story about disability panels?).

And that takes me back to collecting vs. curating. Collecting digital media is not the same as curating digital media—that is, thinking carefully and critically about selection, organization, and presentation. When teaching with Storify (or, alternatively, using it for academic purposes), it’s important to think critically about arrangement: organization, structure, how to use text and headers to break up the media we incorporate. I still think Storify is a great way to curate conference tweets and is a good option for students composing analyses (particularly when those analyses involve digital media).

Just as we teach students to situate and provide context for their outside sources, we need to do similar work for the digital media that we include in our stories—to create stories that are readable & accessible.


How is Universal Design invoked on college websites, in composition programs and classrooms, and in conversations with students?

This year at CCCC, Jay Dolmage, Dale Katherine Ireland, and I are presenting on the panel E.16 “Risks and Rhetorics of Universal Design.” Full-text copies of our talks can be accessed here, which I have listed in order of how we will present them during the session:

  • To download a Word document of Dale’s talk, “What We Teach Students When We Don’t Teach Universal Design as Composition,” please click here.
  • To download a Word document of Allison’s talk, “What Would a UD Classroom Look Like? Talking with Students about Accessibility,” please click here.
  • To download a Word document of Jay’s talk, “We Need to Talk,” please click here. Jay has also provided an mp3 of his talk on the CCCC Connected Community resource page, which you can access here.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions below before/during/after our presentation to participate in this discussion!

Critical Twitter Pedagogy

As a new semester starts, I watch as my Twitter list fills up with retweets using writing-related class hashtags. For the most part, I enjoy it. I like to see how other instructors use Twitter in/beyond the classroom, and I particularly like to see students getting excited about engaging with course content. Plus, I am also guilty of shamelessly retweeting my students’ tweets because I’m just so dang glad they’re interested.

I don’t use Twitter in every class. The only one where I’ve justified requiring it was in a civic writing course. I wanted students’ to use Twitter because it’s a space where civic discourse is produced and circulated in real-time, and I asked them to follow accounts that were relevant to their (civic) interests:

We will use Twitter as a medium to post artifacts relevant to our readings and class discussions and for you to follow interesting accounts that discuss civic issues. You will need a public Twitter account.

I also really like Twitter as an alternative medium for participation. I’m always interested in thinking about how to frame (& assess) participation in ways other than in-class, real-time, verbal discussion. Note taking is one of my favorite alternatives. For the semester I used Twitter, I was super interested in seeing how most of the students tweeted every once in a while, but for two students in particular it became a way to raise really interesting ideas/questions, to process ideas, and to make connections to other things (articles, stories, events) they encountered outside of class.

There’s a trickiness to Twitter, though. In some ways, it’s a similar dilemma to using blogs in class. We want students to blog about course material so that they engage in public writing and write for an audience, but without a ton of support for that, blogging in class really usually just means blogging for others in the class (particularly when students are required to respond to each other’s posts). Particularly once you start grappling with the concerns of whether or not to force students to write publicly, sometimes blogging merely means asking students to write responses through the university-supported learning management system.

So part of the struggle is getting students’ to engage with a genre/medium in the way it was intended (vs. creating a simulacrum). That is, how do you incorporate blogging in a way that is meaningful and that teaches students how to produce and sustain a blog that has reach to audiences beyond the class? How do you get students to use Twitter to engage with new audiences and ideas (rather than just recycling class discussion)?

For me, the solution involves positioning these activities as valuable writing assignments (with outcomes, specific learning goals, evaluative criteria) rather than as add-ons that students do in addition to everything else. That way, there’s room to develop this writing, be critical of it, and reflect on it. The other tricky issue (which I mentioned re:blogging) is facilitating and engaging in critical, reflective discourse in these very public spaces. As I admitted, I am the proud teacher who likes to RT things, and I’ve noticed that others do that, too. Sometimes, I think the things we RT are really interesting, but I think we also do it to encourage engagement and participation regardless of whether or not the content is critical. That is, sometimes I get the feeling that we encourage statements that we wouldn’t ordinarily encourage in class.

Why? Maybe we’re excited that students are participating and want to encourage them to continue. (But then, it’s worth having a conversation about the difference between participation and engagement).

Or maybe we give folks the benefit of the doubt because it’s incredibly difficult to be both critically reflective and succinct in the 140-word space that Twitter grants you. (But then, it’s necessary to discuss the genre constraints and affordances of a new writing medium).

Or maybe we’re not familiar or are uncomfortable navigating the public space of Twitter. If a student says something in class that’s questionable, often other students will chime in, ask questions. Or maybe I’ll step in and ask questions or ask the student to reflect on that perspective. But I see less of that in the public space of Twitter. I see more caution and less of the critical, reflective discourse that we encourage in the f2f classroom. That must be the public dimension at play to some degree, right? Perhaps a fear of public shaming, an uncertainty of how to redirect conversations that usually have at least the safety net of the classroom walls. If someone misspeaks (or says something questionable, offensive, or just plain inaccurate) in class, the four walls of the classroom (and the way we have structured that space) often create a “safe space” for students to work through these ideas. How do you create a safe space for critical, self-reflexive discourse on Twitter? 

We need to carefully consider not only how to get students excited about Twitter (and engaging with other public genres and media) but also how to encourage critical, reflective discourse in those spaces. I’ve written about this with memes, but we need to think carefully, too, about what messages we send when we RT. There’s a danger of the RT function (similar to Facebook’s “like” function) that enables people to merely consume, endorse, and further circulate content rather than actively engage and contest it.

Like others who use Twitter in the classroom and write/reflect about it (check out Natascha Chtena’s Gradhacker post “7 Things I learned from Teaching with Twitter” or Tiffany Grobelski’s HASTAC post “Teaching with Twitter—Please Check Your Baggage at the Door”), I don’t think there’s one right way we should be using it in the classroom. For this kind of writing activity to be meaningful, though, we need to have the discussions about genre, audience, and constructing/developing/supporting arguments that we have about other types of writing. Like most things, using Twitter should be contextual to particular classes (& outcomes) and to particular students’ needs, and that’s a conversation worth having & revisiting with each new class.