Session J.11: What’s Social Media Got to Do With It? Students’ Social Media Writing In and Across Contexts


Presenters: Merideth Garcia (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse), Aubrey Schiavone (University of Denver), and Anna V. Knutson (East Tennessee State University)

Respondent: Stacey Pigg (North Carolina State University)

The panelists began the session with a familiar pedagogical tool: think, pair, share. For a few quiet moments, attendees reflected on college students’ digital lives:  What kinds of writing and rhetorical performances do students enact using social media in non-academic spaces, whether extracurricular or professional? (How) do those writing and rhetorical performances inform the writing that students that do in school, if at all? (How) do you use digital writing and/or social media in your classroom?

These questions positioned session participants as instructors– thinking about your classroom and your institutional contexts. They invoked the porousness in boundaries between academic and personal and raised questions of transfer. They raised additional questions about the ethics of asking students to write online or the challenges when students use personal accounts for academic work. The room buzzed as instructors recounted their experiments in the classroom and what they’d observed of their students’ practices and ideas. The final comment shared to the whole session came from a faculty-student discussion pair. The student had told her partner that faculty are just wrong, often, about what students do with social media. The panelists nodded in agreement.

Merideth Garcia, “High School Students Crafting and Coordinating Ethos Across Contexts”

 The first speaker, Dr. Garcia, framed her research on students’ ethos performances online within the history of ethical theorizing in rhetoric and composition, from Aristotle and Plato to contemporary work on ethical awareness in writing by John Duffy, Ellen Barton, and James Brown, Jr. When conducting a qualitative study of networked devices in 11th grade classrooms, Garcia found that when talking about reading and writing on networked devices, her participants spoke in terms of the relationships those devices mediated. The relationship between writer and audience shaped the students’ activities– they were, for example, more likely to text their Mom back in class than enter into an exchange with a friend.

Garcia’s interest in students’ social and ethical commitments shaped her member-checking two years later. She described the experiences of four participants from her original study, then completing their first year out of high school. All four students reported significant changes to their social media habits when they transitioned to the workplace or postsecondary education. One student was now on social media professionally as a communications staffer and learning to negotiate her responsibility to represent her workplace online. Another participant, now away at college, had increased her facebook use in order to stay connected to her immigrant family and home language. Garcia’s participants again reported thinking relationally and ethically about their social media habits, which she takes up as a call for faculty to recognize the rhetorical complexity and interpersonal value of students’ self-sponsored writing. Thinking about their digital reading and writing as ethical in nature opens new domains of thinking, she contended, among them “how we craft writing instruction and assignments that honor the ethical commitments and multiple ethos performances of students in both secondary and post-secondary contexts.”

Aubrey Schiavone, “First-Gen College Students Writing with Digital Media in Workplace Contexts”

Dr. Schiavone’s research emerged from a gap in scholarship about first-generation students. She noted that research on first-gen students was persistently framed in terms of deficit, rather than describing what she identified as the resources, successes, and strengths they bring to their universities. Employment in particular was positioned as a problem for students because it takes away study time. Schiavone explored employment as an asset, looking at the literacies first generation students develop in their work and how those literacies transfer to academic space. In interviews with 15 students, she identified 32 workplaces and 38 genres of workplace writing. She used two examples to make a case for workplace literacies as a rhetorical asset:

  1. Ben, a student who did social media for a nonprofit, described rhetorically savvy decision-making about what social media platforms would serve his purposes and how he targeted his posts to various stakeholder audiences.
  2. Sarah, who worked in an on-campus language resource center, projected from her own experience to imagine what a visiting middle school class might want to see, and how she might use gifs and images to connect with that audience. She identified her workplace writing as better practice for her neuroscience major than her Great Books-themed composition class.

Again addressing the audience as instructors, Schiavone argued that what matters is not just what we ask students to write, but how we engage with the products of that writing– in this case, explicitly valuing the literacies students bring to their academic work. She also called for more civic and professional writing courses that draw on and advance students’ workplace literacies as rhetorical assets, and asked instructors to reframe academic writing as one kind, rather than the best or only kind, of writing.

Anna V. Knutson, “Feminist College Students’ Writing Knowledge Transfer Across Online and Academic Domains”

Dr. Knutson started from a research problem: students produce rhetorically sophisticated writing online, but that awareness doesn’t transfer across domains, modes, or media. In contrast to the other two panelists, Knutson investigated a specific subset of online writing: intersectional feminist social media work, and transfer between that work and academic writing. Through her study, she noted that online writing blurred the boundaries between reading and writing– students wrote by remixing or re-sharing what they’d read, so for Knutson, “online writing” covers all those practices.

She found that her intersectional feminist writers engaged in two kinds of transfer. The first, inventional transfer, happens when students draw on content knowledge from their online writing to fill in for missing disciplinary content knowledge. For Knutson’s participants, intersectionality was valued in both their academic work and their online spaces, so when it came time to choose paper topics, for example, participants would draw upon their social media writing experiences. The second transfer practice, adaptive remediation, worked largely in the other direction: when writing in longer online genres like blogs, participants drew on their academic essay-writing experience. Academic argument genres from high school and college courses functioned as ambient genre templates for multiple kinds of online writing. Knutson’s talk also addressed the transfer of persona or performances of the self: students reported stripping away the personal or intimate when moving their online experiences into classroom space.


Respondent Stacey Pigg identified the multiple positions social media occupied in the research-and-teaching landscape described by Garcia, Schiavone, and Knutson. The panelists spoke about using social media as a teaching tool to accomplish a learning objective. Social media also functions as a site for teaching students about the kind of writing that goes on outside of the classroom and in the professional world. All three panelists described students who were thinking ethically and rhetorically, performing various selves, and transferring knowledge across academic and online domains. Their studies make a case for helping students bring more of their social media practices, and more of themselves, into their academic writing. The Q&A circled back to the questions Schiavone posed to open the session, now focused not on practices, but possibilities: can we use digital writing and/or social media, and the knowledge students already have, to advance learning

About Author

Kathryn Van Zanen

Kathryn Van Zanen is a PhD student in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Her research interests center on how writing instruction trains students to think about their political and civic identities.

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