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