Viral videos, Twitter hashtags, and wikis. These were just a few of the many technological productions students analyzed, designed, and produced using rhetorical approaches in my Spring 2015 course, “The Arts of Persuasion.” This class is an introduction to rhetorical theories, methods, and applications. I designed the class around the course theme “Rhetoric(s) in Digital Culture.” Over the course of the semester, I introduced classical rhetoric, cultural rhetorical theory, and rhetorical research methods to the thirty enrolled students, who represented a range of majors and years in college. I encouraged students to apply classical and cultural rhetorical concepts to digital culture issues such as viral productions and social media events like #BlackLivesMatter activism, and they also considered how these digital texts and cultures are expanding the rhetorical tools available. Students were not simply adopting existing rhetorical concepts and methods, but they were also responsible for critiquing, adapting, and identifying contemporary rhetorical trends as digital rhetoricians.
When designing the course structure, I wanted students to participate in the larger disciplinary conversations about digital rhetoric. I considered requiring students to blog throughout the semester, but from previous experiences I knew it could be difficult for blogs to connect to an extended audience outside of the classroom. I decided to create a wiki assignment that would meet two major learning objectives:
- Students would use their rhetorical knowledge to identify and analyze the rhetorical conventions of wikis as a digital media genre
- Students would define a rhetorical concept and present a relevant application of the concept to a public audience.
The Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative wiki seemed like an appropriate platform for several reasons. As an instructor, I was already using some of the DRC resources to plan my course, and I wanted to contribute resources to help future instructors. For my students, the DRC wiki was a better entry point into the technical procedures and rhetorical performances of wikis than Wikipedia.
The final wiki assignment was called “Illustrating a Rhetorical Concept.” Students worked individually or in teams to identify a rhetorical concept from the semester that they wanted to define. They then illustrated their rhetorical concept by presenting and analyzing an artifact (a text like a political cartoon, video, historical event, speech, etc.) using the rhetorical concept. The artifact analysis provided a concrete application of the rhetorical concept to aid in the audience’s understanding, and the rhetorical concept provided new insight into the selected artifact. Each wiki article contained four parts:
- Definition of rhetorical concept- an introduction to the rhetorical concept for a public audience
- Artifact presentation- a brief description of the artifact and any necessary context
- Artifact analysis- an application of the rhetorical concept to the selected artifact
- Additional resources- links to online an off-line resources for more information about the concept or artifact
For students who worked in teams, I also required a short collaboration reflection from each team member.
The wiki project comprised the last four weeks of the semester. We spent one class meeting examining articles on Wikipedia to understand wiki genre conventions. We examined “Rhetoric” and “Digital Rhetoric” to discuss rhetorical issues such as producer, audience, purpose, arrangement, style, and multimodality. I also showed students the “Talk” page for each wiki article to demonstrate how individuals collaboratively came to decisions about the content.
As a class, we examined the existing DRC wiki content to identify areas to which the students could best contribute. Students felt that the wiki could use more content directed specifically to undergraduates in introductory rhetoric courses, and they thought that applying rhetorical concepts to concrete artifacts would help undergraduates grasp the relevant theories.
Over the next few class meetings, I gave students class time to establish teams, identify their rhetorical concept, select a relevant artifact, and begin working on their wiki article. The scope of the rhetorical concept was one of the greatest challenges for students, and some groups experienced issues when their chosen topic proved to be too broad or too specific given the assignment constraints. Additionally, students were not as familiar as I anticipated with the technical procedures needed to create wiki articles. I created help documentation to help students create section headings, hyperlinks, footnotes, and embed media. I revised the course calendar so I could spend more class time demonstrating how to edit wikis and troubleshooting specific student issues as they worked on their projects.
Students contributed wiki entries to the “Illustrating a Rhetorical Concept and Artifact Analyses” page under “Teaching Resources.” Some rhetorical concepts included the ideograph, invitational rhetoric, and parts of the classical rhetorical canon like delivery, memory, and style.
Based on my experience creating an assignment around the DRC wiki, I have a few recommendations for other instructors interested in using a wiki assignment and the DRC wiki specifically:
- Don’t expect your students to already know how wikis work. Although all of my students used Wikipedia extensively for personal and academic research, none of them had ever edited a wiki.
- Schedule plenty of semi-structured, hands-on time for students to play in the wiki platform. Students became most familiar with the nuances of creating and editing content in the wiki when they had opportunities in class to work in sandbox spaces before working on their own article.
- Allow time for the class to collaborate on editing the entries. If I were to teach this assignment again, I would require the students to contribute and edit their peers’ wiki articles. Additional rounds of collaborative production and revision would produce better wiki articles in terms of content and coverage as well as be more like the editing process that occurs on Wikipedia and other large-scale wikis.
Overall, the wiki assignment was a success with students. They came to class prepared to work, and they had robust discussions about how they could best describe rhetorical concepts to other undergraduate students learning about rhetoric. The wiki project helped meet my major course learning objective of having students actively synthesize and contribute to current disciplinary conversations about digital rhetoric.
Kaitlin Clinnin is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Media Studies at Ohio State University. Her dissertation research focuses on the discourse of community in higher education institutions, writing studies scholarship, and pedagogical practice. She writes about digital media and rhetoric on her website and on Twitter @kclinnin.