It's December 2007. Dustin Hoffmann, a Dunkin Donuts clerk in Elmwood Park, NJ is on the night shift when a man posing as a customer attempts to steal cash from the register as it opens. Hoffmann could have done nothing, but in the age of surveillance, he found himself thinking: "How will this look on YouTube?" He acted quickly, beating the attempted robber with a ceramic mug used for tips. AsHoffmann told one reporter: "There are only a few videos like that on YouTube now, so mine's going to be the best" ("Candid Camera," 2007).
It's summer 2011. Protest, civil war, and revolution are breaking out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Israel, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and more. Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms provide access points for citizens to circulate video and images that counter their governments' narratives of the conflict, broadening global concern and support for their causes and facilitating on-the-ground organizing. Until governments shut down regional Internet access, that is. Enter President Obama. As The New York Times reported in June, the Obama Administration, in concert with other global partners, is working on an "Internet in a Suitcase" project to provide localized access points in moments of government censorship (Glanz & Markoff, 2011). As project-director Sascha Meinrath tells the Times, "We're going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil," in the hope that the US can "[disempower] central authorities from infringing on people's fundamental human right to communicate." The Internet's capacity for revealing the best and worst in us is only amplified on the Read/Write Web (Lessig, 2008).
A networked global public is at once enticing and terrifying in its potential (and actual) consequences for social justice and democracy. Writing teachers in this era are tasked with the challenge of attending to the traditional print-based academic literacies that have been our charge since the early Harvard days in composition history (see Ritter, 2009), while also making room for the incredibly complicated functional, ethical, and rhetorical literacies compelled by writing exigencies in the digital age. Neoliberalism's furthering of privatization has amplified concern and motivation for composition teachers who see writing in public spaces to be the activism that makes a socially-responsible citizenry, notably captured in Nancy Welch's (2008) Living Room. Meanwhile, the literacy requirements of the symbolic-analytic work of the information economy offer a more conservatively compelling case for expanding writing curricula to include the digital (DeVoss, Cushman, & Grabill, 2005; Johnson-Eilola, 2005; Selber, 2004).Many teacher-scholars have advocated the inclusion of blogs, wikis, and other digital media platforms, toward student involvement in local problem solving (seeDMLCentral.net for examples outside of computers and writing scholarship). However, the simultaneous occurrence of this year's Arab Spring and fears about interdependent national economies–such as the threat of a failed Greek economy devastating the global economy–reminds us of the global context in which disconcertingly few teachers are asking their students to participate. The impact of global consequences on the daily lives of increasingly diverse students and teachers suggests the need to break out of our national status quo and see the ways in which our public voices in the digital realm, used toward the common (Hardt and Negri, 2000, 2004, 2009; Sassen, 2006), are necessary for shaping material realities for everyone.
Yet, within this already complex context, there are further complications when we consider: the classroom as an already political space and taking up politics explicitly therein; the heft of teacherly power in constructing assignments that compel a particular political persuasion weighed against assessment; the troubling of public and private related to student subjectivities and compositions; and the question of ethical versus legal uses of others' work in student writing. Simply put, ethical tangles abound.
In this article, I offer a rationale for teaching critical digital literacy as an ethical obligation for writing teachers in our current historical context. First, I will explain why critical digital literacies are an ethical charge for writing teachers. I then introduce a digital writing course architecture in order to situate an assignment called "Righteous Remix" that produced especially kairotic and chaotic student responses. By focusing on one student group's creation, I hope to demonstrate some of the difficult and often unanticipated ethical challenges that can arise from the process, content, and circulation of students' digital creations. Finally, in order to confront the complexity of a teacherly responsibility that produces ethical gray areas, I will advocate a pedagogy of dialogue and play that establishes writing teachers as both guides and co-learners in the experience of critical digital literacy learning.