Watson Session A.13: Future Digital Histories: What’s (Been) the Matter with Digital Literacies


Presenters: Brett Keegan (Syracuse University), Michael Black (University of Massachusetts-Lowell), Estee Beck (University of Texas-Arlington), and Rebecca Petitti (University of Massachusetts-Amherst).

Chair: Derek Mueller (Virginia Tech University)

This panel discussed digital practices across social, classroom, and programmatic contexts. Despite initial technical issues, which were especially problematic given the topic, digitality, the panelists were quick to bring in an ancillary projector and deliver wonderful presentations with stimulating discussion following.

Brett Keegan, “Rights to Their Writing: Copyright & Composition”

Brett Keegan began the conversation with his presentation on networked selves, with special attention given to the role of algorithms in constructing digital locales. Keegan’s full presentation realizes digital platforms as Heideggeran bridges which are “fundamentally location-attuned” and “aris[e]through the interplay of different forces.” After laying out this opening concept, Keegan then moved onto how algorithms serve as one force for shaping networked sites in that they filter data into consumable bits for users. Put differently, algorithms digest the complex data and convert it into a navigable locale which users can traverse easily as the image below communicates.

Below is a whimsical map of a digital landscape: Google Books is labeled as the rising sun with popups; pirated texts and bay torrents appear as a dark forest; Web 2.0 and 3.0 are mountains; an industrial city is comprised of Twitter, Facebook, eTrade, Fandango, weather apps; Amazon is represented as a pool; YouTube is a valley; and a flowing river contains a number of Google add-ons.

Slide from Keegan’s presentation

The bulk of Keegan’s presentation spoke to the reciprocal relationship between algorithms and filter bubbles. Filter bubbles form as users contribute data to algorithms which narrow content pathways based on what the user’s data suggests will engage the user. Keegan argues that because users create this data yet do not have rights to access it, they become co-authors of metadata through an action of play/labor, or “playbor.” Filter bubbles become especially problematic in how they constrain user action, thereby limiting user identity. Keegan says: “in many cases our digital selves are ourselves—networked and saturated by technology and the nameless bots and programs in the background.”

Michael Black, “User-Friendly Classrooms: Interconnections Between Today’s Media Composition Software and the Unusable Computers of the Early 1980s”

Michael Black continued questions of data use and usability in his historicized account of software usability throughout the 1980s. Black not only discussed this evolution writ large but similarly placed it in conversation with classroom literacy crises. His full talk continued work by scholars such as Kristin Arola and Kory Lawson Ching: that user-friendly tools oversimplify our relationship with computers, valuing usability at the cost of digital literacy. Specifically, he cites Donald Norman’s (1986) three models for engagement: (1) the software designer’s intended model, (2) the model expressed via the software, and (3) the user-constructed model.

Black argues that our rhetoric surrounding the digital has transformed since Norman’s models abandoning the once broad hopes for universal digital literacy with a dangerous compromise; we have begun to equate usability with “user-friendliness.” This movement away from trying to teach individuals about how computers work and towards designing computers that have a seamless interface directly relates to American consumerism and is fed by the recurring digital literacy crises of the 1980s and 1990s. Black explains: “The Macintosh’s legacy is best understood as one that redesigned personal computers in ways that redefined computer literacy, narrowing and refocusing the skills associated with it away from those believed to be too technical for most people to understand. Now, we can talk about what we want to do with computers without having to understand what computers do, ostensibly on our behalf and for our benefit.” Black ended his presentation calling for us to encourage students to look beyond oversimplified usability and grapple with the complexity that comes with digital literacy.

Estee Beck, “Still Paying Attention: Writing in/of the Surveillance State”

Estee Beck continued this panel by working through an article that started taking shape in 2015. In her presentation on surveillance, Beck argued that we had “failed to heed Cynthia Selfe’s call to pay attention” in favor of fast access and immediate personal benefits. She addressed surveillance in two contexts: within our classrooms and throughout our personal interactions.

Beck noted that most teachers who don’t address surveillance in the classroom believe surveillance only exists in social practices and not within the academy. However, a myriad of classroom-based technologies surveil our students: LMSs, smartcampus systems, plagiarism-detection technologies, and many of the platforms we, as teachers of writing, ask our students to engage with in lessons. These technologies often lure us with their affordability and ease of use. Despite the fact that surveillance has permeated the institution, the program, and the classroom, Beck argues, teachers have been allowed to largely ignore the implications for surveillance and privacy for their students. However, we need to re-visit our obligation to “teach students and the public on decaying privacy in online activity via the surveillance state,” so they come to understand how their own practices as users engaging in “data-valence” benefits large companies at the expense of personal privacy.

Beck, then, turns to our personal practices as users of technologies, users who have lost the “dignity to control our data.” Although she herself admitted to engaging with such platforms, she encourages us all to find the energy to resist and remember our active choice to participate in these technologies. It comes down to the individual’s personal mission because, Beck concludes, laws have failed to protect us thus far from data mining companies.

Rebecca Petitti, “Looking Back to Move Forward: The Future of WPA and Technology in the FYC Classroom”

Rebecca Petitti rounded out this panel by expanding its view to the programmatic level in a discussion of technology in the administration of first-year composition (FYC). Petitti wanted to know why WPAs bring digitality into FYC classrooms, how the decision to incorporate the digital reflects larger outcomes and values of our field, and to what degree programs integrate technology across the different aspects of a program.

Largely focused on the three versions of the “WPA Outcome Statement of First-Year Composition,” Petitti points to a change in how each of these three WPAOS versions took up technology with the first version ignoring it completely, the second addressing it as a tacked-on addition, and the third integrating it as a critical and functional element to several of the outcome categories. Petitti reflected on how her own program implements technology training and digital pedagogy across its FYC courses. She ends by urging us to pay attention to the creation and enactment of outcomes statements in our institutions, monitor the swing of digital pedagogy, and enact a “balanced integration of technologies.”

The Q&A was moderated by chair, Derek Mueller. Questions asked how we can communicate the importance of digital literacy to a community of scholars at our home institutions given that they often lack interest and expertise in digital rhetoric. Beck suggested Melgaço’s “Multiple Surveillance on the Digitized Campus” from Radical Pedagogy. Other panelists suggested favoring digital options from within our field which are easy to use, such as choosing Eli Review over Turnitin. A final suggestion was that we should use our expertise to write in public spaces and for public audiences about these issues.

Another question asked for examples of activities which supported students in developing digital literacies. One suggestion was to give students the option to select which platforms they would use, and then asking students to read the user agreements for these platforms. Another suggestion was for teachers to have students compose with different degrees of interface control by having one small group work with a fill-in template while another worked with a flexible template and a third without a template at all.


All in all, this panel consulted a range of digital topics: the role of algorithms in crafting networked spaces, a history of digital literacy and usability theory, surveillance, and digital technologies across writing programs. While they varied, some common themes emerged:

  • A need for us to communicate to our students and the public about the ethical pitfalls of digital user agreements.
  • The value of thinking deeply about how systems (of identity, of writing instruction, of user action) are entangled in data-valence.
  • A push for us to realize composition in the 21st century undoubtedly takes place in these spaces making this realm of knowledge our responsibility to learn and teach.

About Author

Amy Cicchino

Amy Cicchino is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University specializing in writing program administration and digital composition pedagogy.

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