Artifact Analysis (prompt 1)

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Assignment Title: Artifact Analysis

Author: SH

Class Info/Tags: Digital Rhetoric, Upper-Level Writing Course, In-Person Class

Context of Use

This is the second summative writing project in my upper-level writing course, Academic Argumentation: Internet Cultures & Digital Lives. It’s preceded by a Narrative Argument project, and it’s intended to invite students to critically engage with the kinds of texts we tend to passively take in (social media, web texts, etc.). The project offers practice in the kinds of critical and analytic skills valued in many academic disciplines and discourses while ensuring the artifact of analysis comes from outside of academia.

Complimentary materials

Instructor Reflection

  • What do you like about this project? This project offers students the opportunity to practice skills often valued in academic disciplines and discourses in a way they find engaging and supportive of their lives outside of the classroom. Because the artifact of analysis is a digital one, this project invites them to think more deeply and critically about the kinds of media they are invested in and might otherwise passively take in without consider the ideologies, optimistic or problematic, they are engaging with, through the music they listen to, the social media sites they browse, and the webtexts they read.
  • What should people consider in adapting this? The Artifact Analysis is a perhaps unexpected take on a familiar genre: it takes the more familiar rhetorical analysis and plays with it, engaging students in considering the ways commonplace texts engage us multimodally and multivalently, how they have tensions and idiosyncrasies, how problematic narratives have the potential to speak through us, even when we’re actively working to subvert them. It gives students space to practice critically considering pop culture and media in ways that will benefit them long after they’ve left the university.

Artifact Analysis

You have likely read or written rhetorical analyses before: paid close attention to the language of a piece, considered its construction, the precise choice of each word, the ways metaphors play with meaning, how the intertwining phrases and passages collaborate to persuade readers of a message—one that the author did or did not intend. For so many of us, however, most of our reading takes place online, as we gather news, scroll through social media’s curated imagery, and are subjected to targeted advertising. It’s therefore important that we practice analyzing text not in a vacuum, removed from its context, black print on a white page, but in the wild, placed on a website in the company of other text and imagery. Analyzing texts, broadly defined, in their contexts is important work because it helps elucidate the ways harmful or liberatory narratives circulate through and are perpetuated by the internet. It can help us understand the subtle ways we are being persuaded by the content we see online and how we are participating in the persuasion of others in ways we do or do not intend.

For this assignment, you will be close reading and rhetorically analyzing a digital artifact, attending to the details of its imagery, sound design, and text. You will then craft an argument centering the artifact that explores how it functions in its digital ecosystem and the stories it tells beneath the surface.

Genre

The Stakes

Digital artifacts are also social artifacts—they both inform and are informed by their time and place. They comment on who we are and who the creators, consciously or not, believe we should be. Instagram feeds, Snapchat, Reddit posts, webcomics, video games, memes—they all tell us something about how society works. Close analysis of these artifacts reveals the stories hidden within. When the stories we find are problematic, we can push back against them, and when they support equity and community, we can look to them as archetypes and learn from them.

Scope

Prioritize brevity when choosing an artifact. While it might be compelling to choose an entire Instagram feed, you won’t be able to spend the time necessary to deeply and thoughtfully analyze your artifact with so broad an archive. Instead choose a small sample of perhaps 1, 2, maybe 3 posts and spend time with them, noticing their details and their patterns, bringing to light their hidden meaning.

Structure

Take inspiration from the exemplar texts we’ll read in this unit. This may be one of the more traditionally academic genres we’ll write this semester, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dry and dull. Infuse your text with moments of story that help guide and complicate your analysis. Help your audience see why you chose the artifact you did: are you a member of the fandom it comes from? Are you endlessly fascinated by an online community your sister is a part of? Be transparent about your experience with and relationship to the artifact. Illuminate the ways your perspective on the artifact changes as you spend time with it, unpacking its stories and revealing its insights.

Be sure to offer a description of the rhetorical context: where does this artifact appear? Who would likely be its intended audience? What’s its exigence or purpose?

Ultimately, your essay should unpack the artifact, make visible the details of its text and imagery and sound, to support an argument about the artifact: it should answer the questions what is this artifact’s argument, what are the stories and ideologies present in this artifact, and why does that matter?

Evidence

Even if you’re incorporating screenshots of your artifact throughout your writing (which you should be!), it’s still important to offer vivid descriptions to support your analysis. If your artifact contains text, describe it: is it serif or sans serif? What color is it? Is it static on the screen or does it move or appear and disappear? How large is it in comparison to the rest of the artifact? If it contains images, describe them in rich sensory detail, making them come alive with your words. And always clarify: are these the creator’s rhetorical choices or the constraints of the platform? How has the creator interfaced with the platform, making its standardized format their own, if at all? How does the platform itself affect what the artifact looks like and how the audience might interpret it?

Consciously or Unconsciously

I use the phrase “consciously or not” above when referring to choices creators make. To be clear, stories speak through us, often in ways we’re not even aware of. For example, Cagle, in her “Saturday School” posts, unpacks the racism present in comments on her Instagram feed. The writers of these comments would likely say that they didn’t mean for their comments to be racist. This is just one example of how narratives and ideologies can speak through us, and it illustrates why it’s so important to make them visible. Once we can see them, we can begin to resist them.

Process

List

Begin by generating a data set for your artifact, recording every detail you notice: about the language that’s present, about the design choices, the colors, and so on. At this point, don’t make meaning; just take notice. (Note that when I use the word choices here, I don’t necessarily mean intentional decisions, but rather the particular words and imagery and format the creator used.)

Be sure to take detailed notes—and be as creative as you like, utilizing highlighting and colorful text to draw attention to various elements of the artifact. If your artifact is a video or some other format that doesn’t allow you to take notes directly on it, take screenshots to accompany your notes in a separate document. You will include these screenshots in your essay.

Interpret

Identify patterns within your data. Then cluster the details into collections of related information and see what ideas begin to emerge.

Focus

Concentrate on one of these ideas, exploring how the artifact’s discrete elements coalesce and signify.

Craft a claim

This will be articulated as your thesis statement, which may or may not appear as the last sentence of the first paragraph, and it should be complex enough that a reasonable person could debate it, but grounded enough to be supported by substantial textual evidence. It should offer surprising insight into your chosen artifact.

Compose

You are now ready to draft your response. Be sure to focus on explaining how specific details function to create an impression on the reader. It is not enough to declare that they do.

Length: 7-8 pages

About Author

Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes is a PhD candidate in the Joint Program in English & Education at the University of Michigan, where she also teaches in the English Department Writing Program. Her research interests include digital rhetoric, gender and discourse, and gaming studies. Her dissertation project explores how women use multimodal discourse—grammatically, narratively, and visually—to navigate online gaming ecologies.