[iDC] Teaching Digital Rhetoric.

Elizabeth Losh lizlosh at uci.edu
Mon Dec 17 00:15:20 UTC 2007

Dear IDCers,

Apologies for the long post.  Trebor suggested 
that I write up some thoughts about teaching an 
experimental undergraduate digital rhetoric 
course this quarter, and I discovered that I 
actually had a lot to say about the subject.

I'd suggest skimming through this post and 
picking something that you might disagree with in 
order to foster some discussion about our 
pedagogical practices and preferences on the 
list.  For example, I'd welcome feedback from 
people who have made wikis written by 
undergraduates work in their courses or who think 
that teaching with YouTube is a morally bankrupt 
practice indulged in by lazy teachers or who 
prefer restricting the video production 
technologies used by their students or who think 
that student blogging should focus exclusively on assigned class material.

There are certainly legitimate counterarguments 
to be made to just about everything I've listed 
below, even though the course received very high evaluations from students.



Elizabeth Losh, U.C. Irvine

1) Warn students in advance, so they know what they’ve signed up for

I made a YouTube video for this course 
so that students who signed up for my digital 
rhetoric course would know that this course in 
“social media and persuasive games” would involve 
some media production as well as media 
theory.  It still attracted students from a wide 
range of backgrounds, from hardcore gamers and 
students who had already created strong media 
brands for themselves through blogging and campus 
broadcasting to nontraditional students with very 
little experience working with digital tools,

2) Embrace gossip and eavesdropping

I corresponded with and talked to a lot of people 
about this course to take advantage of their 
collective intelligence.  A partial list includes 
Trebor Scholz (about the syllabus), Ian Bogost 
(about the syllabus and using the same course 
reader), Jonathan Alexander (about the course 
requirements), Nick Montfort (about the course 
reader), Julia Lupton (about teaching web design 
skills), Geoffrey Middlebrook (about teaching 
blogging), Mark Marino (about teaching blogging 
and using collaborative and dynamic research 
tools), Sarah Robbins (about teaching with Second 
Life), Lisa Gerrard (about teaching with MMO 
environments), Lynda Haas (about privacy issues), 
Stephen Franklin (about copyright issues and 
course management tools), Barbara Cohen (about 
copyright issues), and Alan Liu (about course outcomes).

While my course was going on, I also stayed 
abreast of the progress of similar courses being 
held concurrently.  Three Fall 2007 courses that 
I followed closely from week to week were Bill 
Tomlinson’s Social Analysis of Computerization 
in which one of my students was simultaneous 
registered, Ian Bogost’s Introduction to 
Computational Media 
and Trebor Scholz’s The Social Web 

Finally, I took advantage of contacts I had made 
through Southern California regional groups for 
digital educators at SCIWRITER 
and the Digital Educators Consortium 
and through Special Interest Group meetings at 
the MLA and the 4Cs, especially those led by Dennis Jerz.

3) Choose a flexible course website template

Before the course began, I made a conscious 
choice to embrace nondescript ugly utilitarianism 
rather than making a strong design statement with 
the course materials.  In retrospect, that may 
have been a mistake, since my colleague and 
collaborator Julia Lupton very strongly believes 
in academic branding and distinctive design in 
all pedagogical materials.  At the time, I 
thought that this would give the students more 
freedom to develop their own aesthetic preferences and design sensibilities.

But I made another, very time-consuming mistake, 
when I chose the template for the course web 
page.  We actually had a little design session as 
a class, where I asked them what they liked in 
other course web pages they had used.  They 
wanted something with tabs, so I built 
with some CSS and JavaScript components that I 
could read the code for and tinker with relatively easily.

The problem with a course like this, which 
incorporates student input and is being taught 
for the first time, is that things change.  You 
talk guest speakers into coming; you redesign the 
assignment sequence when you discover your 
students’ strengths, etc.  This meant that I was 
constantly updating the HTML code on the tabs of 
about fifty different pages, which was crazy.  If 
I had it to do all over again, I would have 
chosen something widgety, where I could easily 
add elements and move things around by working 
from a single interface.  Repeating the same 
operation over and over got old really fast.  Or 
I would build the whole thing in ActionScript as 
a Flash site and use what I now know about coding up a variables layer.

4) Know that wikis are hard

This is one thing I have heard from almost 
everyone who has taught undergraduates with wiki 
technology is that getting students to work with 
wikis in a productive way is very, very 
hard.  They work for bio pages 
and for repositories of finished work 
but participation, plagiarism, and polish become 
real issues when you ask students to work 
collaboratively on informational electronic documents.

I know that Michael Wesch had great luck with 
having a huge lecture hall full of students work 
on a single Google doc, according to his class’s 
“A Vision of Students Today” 
but I found that my students were very invested 
in individual authorship for a course with 
academic credit, a grade, and public exposure 
involved.  The class blog 
produced much better writing than the class wiki 
This happened even though I tried to give them a 
template and pre-selected topics for which there 
were no Wikipedia entries, in order to make page 
hijacking less tempting, but they had real 
trouble writing from a NPOV (no point of view) perspective.

5) Don’t be afraid to let YouTube do some of the work

Unlike what the Chronicle of Higher Education has 
called “PowerPoint abuse,” students often respond 
positively to the pedagogical use of YouTube 
videos.  When I gave students an electronic 
mid-quarter evaluation, they said that they were 
much clearer on Lev Manovich’s chapter on “The 
Interface” in The Language of New Media after 
watching humorous YouTube videos like 
“Introducing the Book” 
and the Microsoft Surface parody 
My overview of Manovich’s “The Operations” used 
even more YouTube videos 
which students responded to positively with 
lively class discussion.  I noticed that faculty 
lecturers in the large 1,300 student course of 
which I direct the writing portion 
were also using more YouTube in lectures to 
positive audience reactions.  Unlike showing 
longer films, YouTube videos are short and 
discourage passivity, since they are used to 
thinking about them in terms of modes like 
commenting, responding, and embedding.

6) Don’t let principles interfere with pedagogy

Two of the activities that students enjoyed most 
this year were those that involved distance 
learning platforms to which I am opposed on 
philosophical grounds and have even written about 
in conference proceedings (papers on “Going 
Digital” and “Private Idahos”).  Students loved 
the video conference with our Washington D.C. 
office that we did with YouTube celebrity and 
critic of the videos of presidential candidates 
James Kotecki who went from a Georgetown senior 
making videos to the candidates in his dorm room 
to a paid vlogger for Playbook TV and frequent 
commentator on the politics of online video 
Students also wrote much more about their Second 
Life experiences than the assignment required 
and -- even if they found the program frustrating 
to use -- they said intelligent things that rose 
to the level of analyzing the interface and 
operations of the database and the navigable 
space and the social interactions in which they participated.

7) Give them web-based research tools

Usually I have the library come in and do an 
orientation of some kind with students, but I 
thought that our library staff did not seem 
familiar with some of the popular social 
bookmarking tools (and Net bookmarking tools in 
general) that students would probably find 
appealing.  I had learned about some of these 
tools from Mark Marino, who has used Zotero, 
Netvibes, and Diigo with his classes.  Marino 
explains some of these instructional technology 
applications in a recent talk on “Teaching with 
Web 2.0” 

8) Unleash your inner schoolmarm

Writing instruction is often treated as the 
neglected stepchild of the university, but you 
can’t teach a course like this without some 
attention to your students’ prose, and -- since 
their work is publicly viewable -- your students’ 
competencies as writers also says something about 
you as a teacher.  For example, Alan Liu was 
inspired to write a Wikipedia Use Policy 
and Trebor Scholz wrote Guidelines for Writing 

9) Allow for some disciplinary crutches

Some of these texts I had taught before when 
guest lecturing in Jennifer Cool’s version of the 
Social Analysis of Computerization class at UCI 
but it was very different to teach these texts to 
English majors.  Although I believe in 
interdisciplinarity on principle and the mission 
of Critical Information Studies, as Siva 
Vaidhyanathan describes it 
I soon discovered that it was important sometimes 
to privilege literary interpretations with this 
audience.  I actually changed two assignments to 
capitalize on their identities as book-loving 
students of print literature.  I asked them to 
translate a 
into an electronic hypertext and a book-length 
of literature into a game, which turned out to be 
surprisingly successful prompts for 
composition.  At a more advanced level, this 
graduate course on translation with digital media 
– specifically videogames – by Ian Bogost is a 
really interesting model for these kinds of 
assignments and what can be learned about digital 
design from the translation trope: 

10) Let your own social networks be visible

Because using social media in constructive ways 
was one of the themes of the class, I opened with 
a “tale of two college students”: Aleksey Vayner 
and James Kotecki, who attended prestigious 
American universities, Yale and Georgetown 
respectively.  While Vayner became an unwilling 
YouTube celebrity when his ludicrously padded 
video résumé became an Internet meme that was 
subject to all forms of parody and ridicule, 
Kotecki managed to parlay his YouTube presence 
posing questions and commentaries about the 
presidential candidates in his dorm room into a 
professional career as a political webcaster.

However, asking students to think critically 
about their social networks and be willing to 
make them visible means that you should also be 
willing to examine how your own social networks 
can inform your pedagogy.  This doesn’t mean that 
you should add all your students as “friends” who 
can see your personal information, but it does 
mean that you could do a limited amount of 
modeling how social networks can be used for 
creative, activist, or instructional 
agendas.   Hawisher and Moran, in their older 
work on e-mail, have talked about the 
“apprenticeship” method for giving students 
models for electronic discourse, but it involves 
being somewhat open about your own online 
practices, which may sometimes also be 
generationally, culturally, or socio-economically 
incompatible with your students and thus inappropriate to talk about.

11) Make campus visitors an offer they can’t refuse

In addition to drafting my friends to come and 
participate in the class to add more perspective 
on these subjects, I also did a lot of advanced 
planning to coordinate the talks of campus 
speakers and gallery shows with the curricular 
material that we would be covering.  This creates 
a sense of rhetorical occasion around the class, 
which can be very important for keeping students 
engaged.  If the goal is creating a class that 
students look forward to, a calendar of special 
events can foster anticipation of each 
session.  Under the tab marked “Guest Speakers 
and Special Events” at 
the different guests for the quarter are listed.

12) Use regional advantage

In Southern California, there are many 
universities within driving distance.  I 
definitely took advantage of the fact that I had 
colleagues at UCLA, USC, and Cal Tech.

13) Remember that there are no little people

Unfortunately, instructional technology people 
are often not treated entirely as sentient human 
beings by the faculty with whom they work.  And 
yet, IT people who run computer labs, media 
resource centers, teleconferencing facilities, 
and equipment rental services for the university 
often want to know more about the pedagogical 
applications for the technologies that they work 
with every day.  A few months before the start of 
the class, I met with all the tech people I could 
think of on campus, and I contacted them again 
just before I or my students would need their 
services for particular sessions of the class or 
challenging individual or group 
assignments.  Progress reports and thank yous afterwards are also appreciated.

14) Pick off the students off one at a time

Because there was so much unfamiliar material to 
cover, I often had to lecture or give formal 
presentations.  So, in addition to office hours, 
I made individual appointments with students at 
the beginning, middle, and end of the course, so 
I could get to know their challenges and 
objectives a little better.  This really helped 
in giving them advice about their media-making 
and message-making, since I had more of a sense 
of their possible purposes in using social media.

15) Showcase interesting work

As the instructor see drafts, rough cuts, and 
works-in-progress from students, it can be very 
helpful to enrolled undergraduates to see models 
for success. Students often appreciate having 
their work publicly recognized, although you will 
want to make sure to get their permission 
first.  Of course, there are often multiple 
audiences for experimental courses that go beyond 
the classroom.  I will be talking about the class 
at a few formal teaching colloquia the coming 
months, but I also discussed it with colleagues 
more informally at workshops while the course was in progress.

16) Respect student privacy but don’t let it 
stifle opportunities for public discourse

Some students do have genuine concerns about 
being subject to intimidation, discrimination, 
and future negative consequences from employers 
and admissions committees because of their online 
forms of expression.  When I introduced the 
course, I emphasized that they would be creating 
lasting public artifacts not ephemeral or private reflections.

My students felt very strongly that closed 
systems for blogs, wikis, and video file-sharing 
weren’t equivalent to real participation in the 
public sphere.  Although non-commercial and 
process-oriented course management systems like 
The Writing Studio 
offer a better alternative to corporate products 
like Blackboard, students can’t reach audiences 
beyond their writing classes or sustain writing projects after graduation.

Just as fear of violating copyright law can 
stymie good pedagogy, fear of running afoul of 
FERPA can also limit the effectiveness of 
teaching.  And the use of usernames easily can 
give students more anonymity, if they feel that 
the simple use of first-name-only posting won’t do.

For example, one of the most popular video essays 
made by one of my students 
was a direct response to this video “On 
which had been watched hundreds of thousands of 
times.   And students who made blogs like this 
plan to continue writing for broader 
audiences.  They signed up for the course because 
they wanted to participate in exchanges beyond the classroom.

I also discovered that they wanted their online 
identities to be separate from the institution of 
the university.  Although humanities computing 
generously offered server space and technical 
support, all of the students chose to set up their own free Blogger accounts.

17) Let them choose the problems to be solved

Blogging constituted a large portion of the 
students' grades. Following the advice of 
innovative writing instructor 
Middlebrook, I told them to choose a topic in 
which they are truly interested and for which 
they can build an audience, because they have 
something original to say. I also instructed them 
to select a very narrow niche topic, a message 
that class guest YouTube celebrity 
<http://www.jameskotecki.com>James Kotecki also 
emphasized. For blogging about subjects related 
to the academic content of the course, there was 
also a <http://www.humanities.uci.edu/socialmedia/>class blog.

This was a media-savvy group, so many of them 
chose topics like 
music or 
But I was struck by the fact that even more of 
them picked issues about the design challenges of 
their chosen lifestyle or what I might call "life 
hacking." It was fun to read their writing and 
also to see the ingenuity with which they 
compensated for obstacles in the material circumstances of daily life.

Their stories were very different, but there was 
definitely a theme. 
forty-something mother adjusts to life on campus 
among younger students. 
homesick San Francisco native adapts to living in 
Orange County. 
<http://whyshouldiride.blogspot.com/>A long-time 
motorcycle rider from Singapore plans for his 
transportation needs in car-centric Irvine. 
<http://ohthankcod.blogspot.com/>A seafood lover 
searches for affordable but palatable local food 
to suit her tastes and limited budget. (The 
photos on her food blog make me hungry.) 
<http://www.ranchquest.blogspot.com/>A young 
woman with an equestrian background tries to help 
her family find a horse ranch in the region that 
is in their price range. 
<http://www.xanga.com/babyxfiesty>A Christian 
student reviews books that suit her beliefs and 
yet are still full of juicy controversies and even sex.

By letting them choose the problems to be solved, 
it made it much more a class about the rest of their lives.

18) Let them bond electronically without your interference

When students began commenting on each others 
blogs, they really began to function as a much 
more cohesive unit.  It made me also understand 
the function of a “commiseration comment” more in 
blogging, and the assertions of solidarity that 
they expressed about subjects like working for 
being a nontraditional student 
or having restricted diets that others didn’t 

19) Let them choose as many of the technologies as possible

For the final video essay assignment, I was 
tempted to be very directive about technologies, 
since our Electronic Educational Environment 
group and other IT groups on campus had developed 
tutorials and workshops oriented around iMovie 
software, which was widely available on the labs 
on campus.  Although many students made their 
videos largely with iMovie 
many others found that other technologies better 
suited their rhetorical objectives.  Some used 
screen capture technology 
some embraced the role of citizen journalist and 
selected and edited together hours of film in 
foreign locales with Final Cut Pro 
some were interested in machinima 
and some were more comfortable with software with 
simple and familiar interfaces like Microsoft’s 
None of them chose the lowest tech option: a 
webcam/headset speech into the camera.

20) Tempus Fugit

Trying to have students produce more than one 
social media genre in ten weeks was probably too 
much to ask.  Although when I talked with the 
students on the last day about which assignments 
could be cut, to allow for showing rough cuts of 
the students videos and workshopping more 
material as a group, they were aghast that I 
would consider cutting the wiki assignment, which 
I thought was the least successful in terms of 
the student writing produced.  (The prose to me 
seemed incoherent and not up to the informational 
or expertly authorial pretensions of real Wikipedia entries.)

For more on the class:

Here are some blog entries about the classes




Here is some YouTube video of one of the classes (on academic blogging):

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybMkqQwj-_I>Peter Krapp Part One
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMTFMdEx_vA>Peter Krapp Part Two
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGJk9bM-3qw>Scott Eric Kaufman Part One
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErElwORrSx8>Scott Eric Kaufman Part Two
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq5hCUMhOt8>Elizabeth Losh Part One
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9CQUOhtc7Q>Elizabeth Losh Part Two

Elizabeth Losh
Writing Director
Humanities Core Course
HIB 188
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697
lizlosh at uci.edu
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