Critical Digital Literacy Education in Action
…a course about writing in digital spaces. We cannot think about writing separate from context and technology, and so this course is about those too. In this course we will explore through doing, think through composing, and collaborate through conscious social writing processes. In a series of (what I intend to be fun and exciting) writing projects, we will learn together how the digital age has changed what we do and how we do it. How have social movements and culture jamming relied on the digital, for instance? How has your family, and how have those of your peers, encouraged or inhibited digital literacy development? We will ask how digital texts are read and understood differently from their print cousins. And we will do all of this while learning the practical and rhetorical means of digital production for a real audience.
I went into the semester with a well-thought out structure for the course, but in the spirit of James Paul Gee’s (2003) “just in time” teaching, I reoriented the major projects to account for time and student interests. A sense of the structure of the course should be helpful in understanding the ethically complicated assignment I’ll be focusing on in a bit–it went like this:
1. Throughout the semester, students were tasked with presenting new and interesting digital and social media tools to their classmates. Students demoed and described sites like Grooveshark, Jing, Tumblr, Picnik, Digg, and more.
2. In another semester-long assignment, students developed and customized their own blogs on WordPress, LiveJournal, or Blogger and used their sites as a place to respond to readings and post their creations. We discussed the function of blogs and issues of audience and style as they worked to develop their bloggerly voices.
3. Using Lynda.com (a video tutorial site with an extensive range of platforms covered), students learned to work with Photoshop and put their skills to work through a quick, fun project in which they placed their own face over an original actor’s in a movie poster of their choosing. The lightness of this assignment was intended as a fun and easy way for students to learn the program’s interface before moving to the more critical work to come.
4. In a larger project, students were asked to write a literacy narrative that captured and investigated a significant moment in their personal digital literacy development. Next, they rendered their stories into a Prezi, which they illustrated with images created or altered in Photoshop. Finally, students used Quicktime Pro’s screencapture function to live-record a voiceover of their digital literacy narratives, while moving through their Prezis in sequence. The final videos were uploaded and shared on our class’s YouTube channel.
5. In order to investigate viral online content, remix, and the materiality of video, students created a stop motion remix of a video that had gone viral on YouTube. They used drawings, text, images, themselves as actors, and even clay in one group’s case, to create a meaningful and interesting remix. Using iMovie, students formatted their hundreds (in some cases thousands) of images to match the conventions of stop motion: roughly twelve individual frames/images per second. The final stop motion videos were uploaded to YouTube and tagged in such a way that they would be recognized in search results as a remix of the original viral video.
6. The “Righteous Remix” assignment is described in more detail below, but for now suffice to say that it intended for students to recognize that the playfulness of the earlier learning experiences rendered skills that could be used toward much more serious, intentional public engagement. They were required to remix a human rights video of their choice that explores a problem in another country, by integrating their own and sampled text, images, sound, and video. Additionally, students had to struggle through the sophisticated task of posing an identifiable argument through the remix process.
7. The final project of the semester asked students to build a reflective digital portfolio using a WordPress installation hosted on http://theirname.digifolio.org. Choosing a template from WordPress’s gallery, the students learned a small amount of coding in order to customize the template through manipulating the CSS. The task included the challenge of establishing their site’s architecture by defining a layout and organization that worked within the affordances of the WordPress interface. Students wrote an overall personal statement reflecting on the experiences of the semester, embedded each of their final projects, and wrote brief descriptions on the process and content of each major assignment.
In all, the curriculum offered students experience with and development of a range of skills that fluctuated between traditional academic print-based literacies and the social, playful, visual and aural, static and interactive, original and remixed conventions of 21st century digital culture. It is important to acknowledge here that I am not intending to dichotomize print and digital literacies. I take to heart the teachings of literacy scholars who have helped us understand the ways in which new ontologies, ideologies, and literacies emerge out of what has been made possible by those that came before. But I do believe that learning is differently accessed through digital composing and engagement, and that the impetus and outcome are firmly rooted in the emergences of the current historical situation. I will now offer a description of the “Righteous Remix” assignment for a deeper look at the pedagogical impetus and outcomes that shape the ethical obligations and challenges prompting this essay.
situate student bodies in complex ecological environments as an epistemological basis for invention. In this newer model of method and techne, particular heuristics are seen as parts of larger constellations rather than as abstracted general procedures. This more open method fits our current electronic context and the complex ecologies in which students write and think. (p. 208)
In other words, thinking about Gregory’s pitch to consider the circulation of politically dangerous human rights video and the possibility of student learning through remix, I saw the opportunity to occasion for my students a project that would: 1) immerse them in political economic, material, global concerns, to ask how we–at the state and local levels–are complicit in those problems, and 2) encourage use of their traditional academic literacies in tandem with their newly-developed or enhanced digital composing skills to learn, and to participate in public discourse through the process of collaborative multimedia production. As you can read below, my aim in this assignment was to get students in groups to explore the challenges of remixing video, constructing a coherent argument through video, audio, image, and text, performing political economic analysis, considering the ethics of making and circulating public digital arguments, and localizing problems that might at first seem unrelated to the interests of the Syracuse University community. Here is the assignment sheet:
In six words, Lawrence Lessig encapsulates the differences between the older and younger generations: “We watched TV; they make TV.” Contemporary culture is participatory; people create their own entertainment and distribute it online for others to enjoy, critique, or ignore. Much of this entertainment takes older media and represents it in a new way, often adding a new layer of social commentary. This is called remixing. Along with remixes, Internet memes—“a catchphrase or concept that spreads rapidly from person to person via the Internet”—have become important parts of contemporary culture. Complementing the viral spread of memes are imitations of the memes. These imitations can also go viral, and when enough imitations are made a community emerges. ~Bill Wolff
Digital literacy, in part, involves the ability to recognize and participate in cultural/social memes. In the first session of this class, we watched the “Double Rainbow” video and several remix and parody responses on YouTube. In this unit, I ask you to participate in the culture of the meme and the remix first by completing the collaborative project in stop motion video, and second, through a group project in which you will glocalize a human rights advocacy video. In the process of this project series, you will work with digital photography and video, iMovie, and video-snatching applications, along with Photoshop, Flickr and other software.
Digital witness and activism are fast-growing ways that citizens around the world are sharing information and spreading awareness about local political struggles–including contemporary slavery, governmental abuse and oppression, rape as a weapon of war, famine, racial violence, and women’s rights issues among many, many more. In this project, you will choose a human rights video from the Witness Hub gallery, or another approved source, and you will remix it for a local audience.
The goal of this project is to make the video you’ve selected relevant to Syracuse University students in order to motivate them to support the cause advocated by your video. More specifically, your video will be assessed on how well you use relevant rhetorical tactics (see 10 Tactics below) toward positioning a local audience as invested in the issues of the video and to pose a possible course of action for that audience. You will mix into your chosen video a combination of live-footage, text, images, and borrowed and original sound and video clips that will help your audience understand why the issue described in the video is relevant to them, now. More specifically, I’d like you to include media (original and sampled) that give a sense of how the US is involved in or responsible for the problems and solutions addressed in your video. Furthermore, I’d like you to give a sense of what SU students can and should do to help solve the problem, and why.
Material you include in your remix can come from a variety of sources, but I suggest some of the following:
○ interviews with relevant campus experts (profs from the Women’s Studies Department, for instance), SU students and community members;
○ texts from historical figures and documents, such as presidential foreign policy speeches and state and town political campaigns, and other relevant sources;
○ images that help further develop your audience’s ideas about the topic–you might, for instance, incorporate some of the image-layering and juxtaposition techniques employed by Pixel Press to contrast propaganda with realistic images of the issue at hand;
○ audio from rallies, speeches, relevant music, etc.;
○ video of the same sort, as seems relevant
○ original images, text, video and audio as fits your intention.
Resources and Materials for this project will include:
○ The Witness Hub (search for download to find accessible videos)
○ Your SD card
○ Your portable hard-drive
○ A camera
In preparation for the Righteous Remix assignment, students were asked to read/watch, blog about, and participate in class discussions of the following:
The first four articles positioned students to consider and comment on the degree to which social media can influence, complicate, or enable revolution, political protest, and social change. The YouTube blog offers an interview with Witness’ Sameer Pandia and Youtube’s Head of News and Politics, Steve Grove on the capacity and role of the site’s hosting of human rights video material. In a preamble to the interview, Grove and Pandia (2011) write that:
People everywhere use platforms like YouTube to share their stories with the world every day. Sometimes those stories are as simple as an idea, a thought or a diary of life through your eyes; other times, those stories expose abuses of power or human rights violations in ways that are changing how justice is served around the world. Whatever you decide to use the web for, we believe it’s vital to a free society to keep the Internet open, and it’s through discussions like these that we can continue to teach each other how to do so.
In concert, these readings helped my students consider in what ways digital media might be used toward ends of social justice. Although many remained skeptical about the realistic progress or actual change afforded by these platforms, they certainly became more well-versed in a range of views on the topic.
The Lawrence Lessig video clips and fair use guidelines, on the other hand, provided in-roads to discussions of intellectual property and the politics of remix. Students voiced a range of diverse perspectives, from authorial concern for the future of their own and others’ compositions, to an enthusiastic verve for the spirit of free exchange of texts for the purpose of creativity and innovation. While not all students warmed to Lessig’s advocacy of fair use for the purpose of making future creation possible, the fair use guidelines provided students with a vague (but clearer than none) understanding of what would likely be considered acceptable parameters for the use of others’ original content within their own “Righteous Remixes.”
Other preparations for the remix project included an introduction to Creative Commons on Flickr; practice with storyboarding as a means of rhetorical planning; discussions of how to set collaborative agendas; co-composition versus task delegation; how to build a coherent means of attribution within a creative visual work; and a look at the material constraints of YouTube’s upload policies (specifically video length and file size). Though this was my first go-around in teaching an assignment with such complex goals and requirements of diverse literacy sets, I felt that the combination of preparations had given students a strong base for being functionally able, environmentally prepared, and conceptually prepared for the development of strong remixes. What I was not prepared for, however, was the ethical murkiness that was to arise out of the actual work students produced.