(Re)Composing Our Consent: Critical Digital Literacies as Remixed Terms of Service

Lucy Anne Johnson, The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

October 5, 2020


Our bodies are vulnerable. In 2020 we have had to protect our physical bodies in ways that have asked us to contend with digital spaces as essential channels for communication (if perhaps they weren’t already). While we protected our physical bodies by sheltering in place, our digital footprints grew larger—utilizing digital networks to form a sense of community in times of isolation, and also to adapt new ways of working, learning, and doing.

This is about keeping our digital bodies safe. More specifically, this is a piece about developing critical digital literacies in the first-year writing classroom as a way to protect digital bodies alongside the physical—before, during, and after a pandemic.

In 2012, Anne Wysocki argued that we enact two bodies when we communicate: the perceiving and perceived (“Introduction,” Composing (Media)= Composing (Embodiment). As it pertains to communication online, users have come to enact the identity of a perceived body. Under this identity, the perceived body has become the product, where our embodied data is sold to third-parties, filtered by algorithms, and masked as an invisible identity to which we have little-to-no knowledge of or control over (Beck, “The Invisible Digital Identity”). In an age of constant surveillance and continuous online violations of privacy, the penetrating gaze of big data has left our on-and-offline bodies vulnerable to exploitation of our personal information.

As writing teachers continue to bridge the gap between classroom and public-facing composing, Erin Brock Carlson argued that social media spaces “have been utilized…because of their presence in our daily lives, as well as the opportunities they provide to discuss identity in digital spaces” (“Navigating Shifting Social Media Networks”). While digital spaces like social media platforms allow users to create anonymous or altered versions of their physical bodies, they also can “promote the illusion that digital spaces are invisible, a misleading transparency that allows these interfaces, as well as the bodies bringing them into play, to be used and yet go unseen” (Bridgman et al., 87). As educators, if we’re inviting digital spaces that collect, sell, and use our data, then we have a responsibility to teach critical digital literacies to students on the ways in which these practices unfold. During a time when more classrooms are meeting online versus off, due to COVID-19, I argue that what Beck referred to as “the invisible digital identity” becomes essential.

In what follows, I offer a brief discussion of an assignment in my first-year writing course where students develop critical digital literacies through harnessing their perceiving bodies. Rather than passively consuming information about their rights on social media, students enact the rhetorical positionally of sousveillance through:

• The analysis and remix of social media.
• Terms of Service (ToS) documents.
• Producing multimodal texts that (re)claim and (re)invent knowledge concerning user rights and privacy by selecting a target audience.
• Researching how they may be vulnerable based on their identities and use.
• Remixing ToS content so that it is more accessible and readable in order to protect, educate, and empower these users.

A cultural rhetoric approach to critical digital literacies considers the larger social and hegemonic structures affecting online communication. A small part of a cultural rhetorics approach to critical digital literacies is asking students to remix for target audiences that are vulnerable to the exploitation of their data based on their use. By constellating the ways in which users compose and navigate social media, the ToS remix project recomposes the doctrine of consent, allowing users to reclaim how that information is understood, communicated, and delivered. Figure 1 showcases the first element of the ToS remix assignment, where students first consider their target audience, weaving an identification of audience together with questions concerning the rhetorical situation and multimodal authoring—that is, how they identify genre, context, and other necessary elements for producing effective communication within a given setting. From there, Figure 2 illustrates the second step, where students are then tasked with researching how their chosen community uses social media through an annotated audience bibliography.

Image of assignment instructions.
Figure 1: Identifying Audience and Rhetorical Situation in the Terms of Service Remix Assignment
Instructions to assignment.
Figure 2: Annotated Bibliography Requirements for Terms of Service Remix Assignment

Beginning with inquiry that researches how communities (i.e. nursing homes, women’s shelters, and/or groups on campus) use social media allows students to then select a specific social media platform, followed by them examining the relationship of form and content in a focused proposal. Asking students to create a proposal not only details a plan for which sections of the ToS best apply to their target audience, but also asks them to think through the design elements necessary to reach their audience effectively (see Figure 3). Such an approach critically prepares for the practice of remix as a way to productively, safely navigate, and understand Web 2.0 (Arola, “The Rise of the Template, The Fall of Design”).

Instructions of an assignment.
Figure 3: Proposal Requirements for the Terms of Service Remix Assignment

The scaffolded approach to the ToS remix stresses metacognitive check-ins which ask students to explain their choices on a variety of levels (see Figure 4). Not only are students asked to consider which portions of the ToS best align with their chosen community’s use, but also how the form of their remix is the best genre and approach for successfully delivering that content. Taken together, the final product of the remix itself as an execution of the proposal can serve as an act of sousveillance, which is an act of watching the watchers. Enacting sousveillance can position students as perceiving bodies, where they respond to the data exploitation and privacy issues of specific communities. Students conclude the project by repeating a metacognitive check-in through a reflection essay, where they explain the choices they made from proposal to remix, detailing how some choices shifted during the drafting and mock up processes in order to produce the most effective text for their chosen community (see Figure 4).

Instructions of an assignment.
Figure 4: Remix and Reflection Requirements for Terms of Service Remix Assignment

With an eye toward the communities themselves as recipients through remix, subverting larger hegemonic surveillance structures becomes imperative in cultivating critical digital literacies as an act of sousveillance online. Public-facing remix cultivates a cultural rhetorics approach that considers sousveillance an act of reclaiming consent, protecting our bodies and the bodies of others, and navigating the impotence of digital networks as we continue to embed digital networks as part of our teaching. Whether you’ve been infusing digital networks beyond a course LMS prior to COVID-19, or perhaps are entertaining the idea, a proactive attention to the ways in which the potential harm and exploitation of these spaces may impact students is essential. The ToS remix is one way to approach bridging a gap between what students are already familiar with (social media) to the unknown (digital footprints and privacy issues).

Whether we are online or off, our bodies are sacred. We should treat our digital bodies with the same care as we instill in our physical world.

Works Cited

Arola, Kristin L. “The Design of Web 2.0: The Rise of the Template, The Fall of Design.” Computers and Composition 27.1 (2010): 4-14.
Beck, Estee. “The Invisible Digital Identity: Assemblages in Digital Networks.” Computers and Composition 35.1 (2015): 125-140.
Bridgman, Katherine, Fleckenstein, Kristie, and Scott Gage. “Reanimating the Answerable Body: Rhetorical Looking and the Digital Interface.” Computers and Composition 53.1 (2019) 86-95.
Brock Carlson, Erin. “Navigating Shifting Social Media Networks: An Ecological Approach to Anonymous Mobile Applications.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technoloy, and Pedagogy 22.2. 2018.
Wysocki, Anne. “Introduction: Into Between—On Composition in Mediation.” Composing Media Composing Embodiment. Eds. Kristin L. Arola and Anne F. Wysocki. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2012. 1-22.

About the Author

Dr. Lucy A Johnson is an assistant professor of Digital Literacies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Her research focuses intersections of digital and cultural rhetorics to understand, question, and teach digital literacy. Lucy earned her MA in English Pedagogy at Northern Michigan University and her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Washington State University. During her time as a graduate student, Lucy also co-founded the graduate student listserv, NextGEN. Lucy’s work has appeared in Enculturation, Peitho, and the international journal, Res Rhetorica. Currently, she serves as the co-editor for the Reviews section of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.


Copyeditor: Naomi Johnson

Pedagogy Blog Editor: Andrea Riley-Mukavetz

Editorial Assistant: Tina Puntasecca

Considering the Possibilities of a Cultural Rhetorics Assessment Framework

Gavin P. Johnson, Christian Brothers University

August 2020


When universities shifted instruction online amid the spread of COVID-19 last spring, the question of assessment emerged almost immediately. Calls for a Pass/Fail option circulated through social media (#PassFailNation), news articles, university listservs, and, eventually, administrative exchanges. Allison Stanger, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education in March, argued, “Faculty members could focus on engaging students for learning in demanding circumstances. Students would get a respite from direct competition with their peers to focus on both individual growth and doing their part in a common endeavor (a skill we are very much going to need in the months ahead).” To her critics, Stranger explained, “In normal times it makes sense to have individual faculty members determine fair assessment. But these are not normal times.”

And, certainly, these still are not normal times and, thus, normal modes of assessment are inadequate. However, we, as cultural rhetoricians and teachers, should ask, “If ‘normal assessment’ is inflexible, causes anxiety, distracts faculty, and forces students into competition, what is the use of ever going back to ‘normal assessment’?” Asao Inoue, Mya Poe, Matt Gomes, and Ellen Cushman, among others, remind us that classroom assessment traditionally harbors and reifies white cis-hetero-abled supremacist and colonial ideologies further entangling those dangerous logics with the ideals of higher education. Even as we make important moves toward cultural rhetorics pedagogies (Hutchinson Campos, episode 32), assessment, not pedagogy, is where we have to put up or shut up on our values and ethics as teachers[1].

In the remainder of this post, I engage the four defining pillars of cultural rhetorics, as defined by Phil Bratta and Malea Powell and recently discussed by Maria Novotny, to consider the possibilities of a cultural rhetorics assessment framework.

Story as Theory: Sharing Our Assessment Experiences

This is my story. Failing a 1st grade spelling test is one of my earliest school memories. After receiving my test, bloodied by the teacher’s red pen, I began to cry. Mrs. Judy, my teacher, consoled me by saying: “You’ll do better next time, if you try harder.” Mrs. Judy’s policy required every misspelled word written five times each as homework, and my mom had her own policy requiring me to write each misspelled word five additional times. I wrote the assigned words again and again…until my hand cramped. Alongside the manual punishment, there was an element of shame because the “top students” would receive praise with their names being posted on the board for everyone to see. I’m quite sure my name never made it on the board. This cycle of shame, anxiety, failure, and punishment continued throughout elementary school. I’m still a horrible speller.

When sharing this story with students I first ask them to consider their own histories of assessment and how they have affectively entangled learning and assessment. Do they feel like they understand the point of assessment? How do they respond when reviewing a teacher’s feedback? Has their relationship to assessment changed over time and across different curricula? Second, we talk frankly about the affordances and constraints of grades. And while grades should not be synonymous with assessment, they are powerful symbols that dominate many of our experiences. Sharing our stories, be it in person or through discussion boards, demystifies the normative disguise of colonial logics embedded in assessment and grading practices.

Engagement with Decoloniality: Delinking Grades and Assessment

Elsewhere, I write about grades as a technology of surveillance linked to colonial ideas about language, correctness, and social rank. Grades as a colonial system linked to the practice of assessment re-inscribes a pedagogy of policing where students are conditioned to be less concerned about building knowledges and more concerned about not meeting the stated normal. Current critical conversations like Inoue’s labor-based assessment and Jesse Stommel’s #ungrading offer ways for delinking grades from assessment and learning.

Decoloniality also helps us understand the importance of localizing and situating assessment practices as responses to the specific cultural knowledges being built in a classroom. In orienting my assessment practices, I have embraced both the labor model and the ungrading model in different courses, and both offer unique affordances and constraints. I believe what is important here is taking time in class to discuss these systems with students. Culturally reflective and sustaining assessment involves students in its creation as well as its implementation.

Constellating with Communities: Building Assessments Responsive to Coalitional Goals

The practice of constellating, Malea Powell explains, holds in tension the “impermanence, ambiguity, and subjectivity” that goes into making stories/knowledges that actively delink from western logics. Such a task cannot be done alone, and Queer and Feminist People of Color have made clear that our movements are only strong if our coalitions are diverse. In terms of assessment, we must take the many perspectives students bring into classrooms and hold them together. Students will have stories that echo each other as well as stories that are uniquely colored by local practices. Some stories may be devasting while others empowering. Constellating the various stories help us to acknowledge and respect each other’s lived experiences, which are so often blurred by our acceptance of assessment practices as objective and fair.

Teachers, for example, might practice constellating by building certain rhetorical moves into their formal and informal assessments. Building, with students, rubrics that outlines student goals alongside course goals and, simultaneously, removing numerical or judgmental categories in favor of discursive feedback documents the work of constellating the competing but equally important considerations we balance when responding to student work.

Acknowledging All of Our Relations: The Ongoing Work of Assessment

Assessments, under colonial logics, may aim for the same goals – disciplining students and reinforcing dominate structures – but they certainly take many approaches. Sharing your own story, as I do above, and making space for student reflections on their previous experiences acknowledges our different experiences with assessment and demonstrates the complex mechanisms that must be disrupted. In acknowledging our interconnectivity through frameworks that not only upend dangerously limiting practices but also offer all of our relations space to exist and thrive, we, students and teachers, learn how to develop coalition assessment frameworks that support our decolonial practices.

But this acknowledgment is not a one-time performance. Within a specific class, teachers should invite stories and reflections throughout the semester so that the assessment frameworks do not shift back toward the very logics we seek to upend. Furthermore, this work cannot exist in the vacuum of a single course. Since the product of classroom assessments are meant to circulate beyond the classroom, so too must our cultural rhetorics framework. Using my privileges[2] and making transparent the work I do in the classroom with students has encouraged other teachers to do the same. This blog, I hope, will encourage you to begin designing your own framework for assessing student work.


When I dismissed class on March 5, 2020, wishing students a fun and safe spring break, I didn’t realize it was my last time in an Ohio State classroom. Within a few weeks, the majority of universities across the United States closed campuses and shifted courses from face-to-face to online delivery in the wake of the global pandemic, COVID-19. Resource rich websites quickly went up so students could “keep learning” and instructors could “keep teaching” – note the mandate to keep doing. The spring semester gave way to a summer term that has rapidly moved into a new fall semester, and many of our institutions demand we keep doing the work of higher education, which includes classroom assessments. But what if we don’t keep doing that work and instead seize this coalitional moment?[3]

As I prep my courses – at a new university in a new city – I look to all my relations as I develop assessment strategies and work with students to honor the knowledges they are building under “unprecedented” circumstances. For example, Henry Giroux recently wrote, “The magnitude of the [coronavirus] crisis offers new possibilities in which people can begin to rethink what kind of society, world and future they want to inhabit.” And, pre-COVID, Sara Ahmed suggested, “Queer use might describe this potential for an explosion, how small deviations, a loosening of a requirement, the creation of an exit point, opening a door to allow something to escape, can lead to more and more coming out” (p. 215). In this particular moment, finding something queerly useful within assessment structures will be painful and frustrating as our institutions push us to keep doing what we have always done. But finding something, anything, in the pain we are feeling, the frustration we are carrying, the work we can/will no longer do illustrates what might be possible in the here and now. We should not and cannot keep following assessment practices animated by western logics, colonial exploitation, and white cis-hetero-abled supremacy. Instead, I urge us, as cultural rhetoricians and teachers, to consider the possibilities of a cultural rhetorics assessment framework.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the use: On the uses of use. Duke University Press.

Bratta, P. and Powell, M. (2016). Introduction to the special issue: Entering the cultural rhetorics conversations. enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 21. Retrieved from http://enculturation.net/entering-the-cultural-rhetorics-conversations

Burke, L. (2020, March 19). #PassFailNation. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/03/19/colleges-go-passfail-address-coronavirus

Chávez, K. R. (2013). Queer migration politics: Activist rhetoric and coalitional possibilities. University of Illinois Press.

Cushman, E. (2016). Decolonizing validity. The Journal of Writing Assessment, 9(1). Retrieved from http://journalofwritingassessment.org/article.php?article=92

Inoue, A. B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse.

—. (2020, April 11). How do you do labor-based grading in pre-existing curricula? Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words. Retrieved from http://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2020/04/how-do-you-do-labor-based-grading-in.html

Giroux, H. A. (2020, April 7). The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the plague of neoliberalism. Truthout. Retrieved from https://truthout.org/articles/the-covid-19-pandemic-is-exposing-the-plague-of-neoliberalism/

Gomes, M. (2018). “Writing Assessment and Responsibility for Colonialism’.” In M. Poe, A. B. Inoue, and N. Elliot. Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and Advancement of Opportunity (pp. 203-227). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado.

Johnson, G.P. (2020). Grades as a technology of surveillance: Normalization, control, and big data in the teaching of writing. In E. Beck and L. Hutchinson (Eds.) Privacy matters: Surveillance in the classroom and beyond. Utah State University Press.

Keep Learning. (2020). Retrieved from https://keeplearning.osu.edu/

Keep Teaching. (2020). Retrieved from https://keepteaching.osu.edu/

Novotny, M. (2020, July 22). Cultural rhetorics in precarious times. Retrieved from https://www.writingandrhetoricmke.com/blog/cultural-rhetorics-in-precarious-times

Poe, M. (2013). Making digital writing assessment fair for diverse writers. In D. DeVoss and H. McKee (Eds.), Digital writing assessment and evaluation. Utah State UP Retrieved from: http://ccdigitalpress.org/dwae/01_poe.html

Powell, M. (2018). Interview – Malea Powell on story, survivance, & constellating as praxis. In L. Lane and D. Unger (Eds.) 4C4EQUALITY: Writing Networks for Social Justice. Retrieved from http://constell8cr.com/4c4e/interview_malea_powell

Stanger, A. (2020, March 19). Make all courses pass/fail now. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Make-All-Courses-Pass-Fail-Now/248281

Stommel, J. (2018, March 18). How to ungrade. Retrieved from https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/

Wood, S. (Host). (2020). Les Hutchinson Campos [Audio podcast episode 32]. In Pedagogue. https://www.pedagoguepodcast.com/episodes.html


[1] Inoue (2015) makes this point much more graciously when he writes: “I assume that all writing pedagogy is driven by the writing assessment ecology of the classroom, no matter what a teacher has done or how she thinks about her pedagogy, no matter what readings are discussed. Classroom writing assessment is more important than pedagogy because it always trumps what you say or what you attempt to do with your students. And students know this. They feel it.” (p. 9)

[2] I am a white cis-man in a tenure-track faculty position, and I am a queer, first-generation graduate from a southern working-poor family. The risks I take when disrupting crystalized systems are not the same risks others will bear. These material realities highlight, for me, the importance of diverse (in every sense of the word) and intersectional coalitions.

[3] Karma Chávez (2013) explains that “a coalitional moment occurs when political issues coincide or merge in the public sphere in ways that create space to reenvision and potentially reconstruct rhetorical imaginaries” (p. 8)

About the Author

Dr. Gavin P. Johnson (he/him/his), Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages at Christian Brothers University, is a teacher-scholar specializing in multimodal composition, cultural and queer rhetorics, community-engaged writing, and digital activism. His scholarship is published or forthcoming in Composition Studies, College Literacy and Learning, Peitho: The Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, Computers and CompositionTeacher-Scholar-Activist, and various edited collections. He is a proud queer, first-generation college graduate from southeast Louisiana.


Copyeditor: Sophie Schmidt

Pedagogy Blog Editor: Andrea Riley-Mukavetz

Editorial Assistant: Tina Puntasecca