Session D.V.16: Teaching Digital Activism: Case Studies from Graduate Instructors


Speakers: Alexis Walston, Rachel Stroup, Erin Green (University of Maryland) 

This panel was facilitated by three Ph.D. students at the University of Maryland who discuss their experiences teaching courses themed around digital activism. Their main focus was how to ethically engage students in digital rhetoric spaces – including social media – and the speakers drew upon their own lesson plans and reflections. All of these instructors worked to establish a baseline of what digital rhetoric and digital activism is, since these definitions are ever-changing. 

The first panelist was Alexis Walston, who shared their experience teaching the course, English 294: Persuasion and Cleverness on Social Media, which was a general education course that was taught on zoom in Spring 2021. They reviewed relevant literature surrounding digital activism and consulted previous syllabi. Walston also used Asao B. Inoue’s labor-based grading in her class, which had students focus more on their labor and effort, vs. completion for a grade. Walston was also able to use labor-based grading to have students consider writing as a process, and to give more detailed feedback to them throughout the course. Additionally, through surveying the literature surrounding digital rhetoric, especially in 2021 when many people were engaged in digital activism movements, Walston decided on the digital activism theme.  

Watlston identified common sub-themes pertaining to the overall theme of digital activism. The first sub-theme was digital rhetoric, which was followed by units on hashtag activism, technofeminism, gender and sexuality, and rhetorical dating. By using readings on digital rhetoric to understand how digital spaces are inherently rhetorical, students could then engage in ethical conversations surrounding their research early on. The unit on hashtag activism included readings such as Jackson and Welles, Callison and Hermida, Wingard, Stenberg, and Jackson, Bailey, and Welles. Hashtag activism is a tangible way that students could understand digital activism on social media, since they are ubiquitous in activist communities and causes. Furthermore, after looking at hashtag activism scholarship, students considered the ways in which technofeminism, gender, and sexuality impact communities on social media. They ended the class with a unit on dating, where students were able to see how rhetorical dating could also be a form of digital activism. 

The class culminated in a research project where students analyzed social media posts rhetorically. This allowed students to focus on a topic that they were interested in, but with scaffolded low-stakes rhetorical analysis opportunities throughout the course. Waltston also saw tangible results from contract-based grading, including: students taking more risks on assignments, having less grade anxiety, and embracing flexibility in their learning. Overall, this class gave students the opportunity to explore several relevant topics in digital rhetoric, and this course reminds us of the possibilities of creating units based around timely topics. If instructors were to teach a future course on this topic, they might consider including readers that first define digital rhetoric and then introduce texts on intersectional topics.

The second panelist, Erin Green, presented on teaching digital rhetoric using a feminist rhetorical praxis. Green co-taught ENGL/WGSS444: Feminist Critical Theory with Dr. Jess Enoch. There were four major projects in the course, and Green taught the Feminist Social Media Campaign unit, which had students develop an activist stance and engage in the conversation surrounding a specific issue. Before engaging with the specific feminist issue, students reviewed key feminist texts and conducted research on their topic so that they could make an informed opinion on the topic. Then, collaboratively as a class, the students and instructors reviewed the genre conventions of digital activism – including performative activism (such as slide shows on Instagram) and guidelines for ethical activism. 

For instructors who are teaching a digital activist unit and including a feminist lens, having students reflect on their projects is an important consideration. Green emphasizes the importance of reflection as a feminist rhetorical practice, as well as having students engage in the nuances of discourse surrounding these topics. What I find most engaging about this framework is that students are able to apply other frameworks (such as feminist frameworks) to digital activism. This structure of the unit allows students to combine digital rhetoric frameworks with ones they’re already familiar with, and would make a unit such as this useful in many disciplines.

Lastly, the final speaker, Rachel Stroup, focused on exploring rhetorical analysis through cancel culture. By framing Sroup’s first year writing course with a theme of cancel culture as a way to foreground ethos. Stroup defines cancel culture as public ostracization, that is foregrounded in credibility and morality. Stroup uses real-life examples such as the #MeToo movement to give examples of how morality can be connected back to Aristotelian conceptions of ethos. As a lesson plan, Stroup used Jonah E. Bromwich’s “Everyone is Cancelled” and Everything’s an Argument and ask students to share their own ideas of cancel culture first. Then, Stroup asks students to think about trustworthiness and public figures’ motives for speaking. These steps set the stage for students to interrogate ethos in a thorough way, using modern examples. I would also be curious to see what recent examples of cancel culture that students themselves could share, since this topic is ever-changing topic. The main takeaways that students can take from a lesson is a more nuanced understanding of how cancel cultures is rooted in morality and ethos, as well as how context-based cancel culture is. Stroup recommends having recent examples of cancel culture if you plan on teaching a class like this in the future.

These three courses showcase various approaches to digital activism that instructors could try. Each of them emphasized the importance of showcasing relevant, recent examples of digital activism as well as foregrounding projects with readings on digital rhetoric. Depending on the course’s focus and students’ needs, instructors can approach the topic of digital activism in a multitude of ways, including: discussions, daily prompts, scaffolded research projects, and more. All of the panelists had foundational texts and scaffolding activities in digital activism, which is crucial to designing a course or unit like these. Another aspect that future instructors might experiment more with is having students identify examples and bring case studies of digital activism to class, since many of them are already familiar with recent movements. Most importantly, instructors can walk away from this panel with more ideas and methods to approach the topic of digital activism in ways that are student-centered.

About Author

Alyse Campbell

Alyse is a PhD student in the Joint Program for English and Education and the Graduate Administrative and Editorial Associate for the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. Her research interests include digital writing pedagogy, digital discourse, and Asian American rhetoric.

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