Culture and Digital Technology in the College Writing Classroom

I teach at a rural two-year college not far from the shore of Lake Superior where we get about 300 inches of snow annually. The mining and forestry industries that once upheld this region have given way to a slow economic decline. This community knows a lot about sharing and collaborating. Just this weekend we delivered freshly laid eggs to a neighbor who helped us clear snow after the recent blizzard. While these skills are central to digital literacy, introducing digital tools into a rural classroom can be intimidating for instructor and learner. And, using those digital tools to compose multimedia responses and rethink what constitutes writing in the digital age can seem daunting.

My students, most of whom are 1st-generation college goers, have limited access to computers and labs. Some still hand write their essays. Yet, their online presence is like any 20-year-old’s. They Snap-Chat and Tweet, binge and Vine. My challenge was to find pathways that connected their identities as digital citizens, students, and members of a dwindling working class economy.

All of my students had smartphones, and that’s where I started. I gave them class time to download FlipGrid on their phones, and I demonstrated it in class. The prompt: Define Culture in 30 seconds. Then, tell us about a custom or an object that captures your culture. Students described Yooper words like Choppers and Sisu, and they argued over the region’s best 4th of July. Flipgrid became a place to brainstorm, to give voice and expression to the oft-overlooked local culture. Later, when students struggled with the concept of culture, I pointed them to our class grid where they could engage with the ideas of nearly 75 other students.

In one class, after receiving some particularly impressive essays about cultural myths, I invited students to share their work using Adobe Spark Video. We spent a day in class downloading and playing with Spark. Then, I asked them to present their essays in a 90 second Spark. Without additional guidance, the students shared their ideas in unique ways, including photos, text, voiceovers, and memes. We shared them on a group forum and previewed them in class the next day. In the future, I will use Spark videos prior to drafting their essays as a way to solidify and bring clarity to their main ideas.  

In three of my composition classes, students created podcasts about a place important to them and their culture. The guidelines were simple: provide description and perspective, describe its cultural significance, and include some non-verbal elements. As a group project, students had to find people in the classroom with whom they shared cultural spaces and expressed similar values. I arranged for Audacity to be installed on a bank of computers in our library and created “Studio Time” for groups to record during class time. To prepare, we spent two days creating a class podcast about our college in which everyone had a speaking, research, and technician role. We recorded a jingle and students roamed the halls armed with smartphones to gather interviews from faculty and staff. We curated information to appeal to prospective students and organized it into a lively and entertaining podcast. By creating as a community, students gained firsthand experience in recording and editing.

As we head into our long winter, our final project is a Winter Survival Guide: a group website that students will share with the college community. We will define survival. Hypothermia and exposure are real concerns in this area, especially when your car is stuck in a ditch and you have no cell service. Isolation is also a concern; students will create sidebars that discuss the top five places to meet friends and provide emergency numbers and resources. To address physical health concerns, students will provide information on the best ski and snowshoe rentals and review health products for dry skin and chapped lips, As I’ve done with my other projects, I limit assignment requirements to give students the freedom to imagine what it means to survive in this area. I don’t spend much time on website design. This late in the semester, they have learned to explore the capacities and potential of their tools.

As I justify these multimedia projects, I’m reminded of a mid-semester evaluation I received from an anonymous student who decried, “Isn’t this supposed to be a writing class?” The comment stung until I realized how much my students are actually writing. In addition to their formal essays, their digital projects require copious planning, scripts, outlines, and revision. Imagining a writing project as a digital product requires students to engage differently with rhetorical features such as audience and purpose; it brings new utility to outlining, revising, and peer-reviewing. Yes, this is a writing class and this is a step toward imagining what a writing class can look like in the digital age.

zyY591PZRgG3GZCYVYWAEg_thumb_176Dr. Jason Shrontz is full-time English Faculty at Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, MI. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Rhode Island. His research focuses on the intersection between social media and human sociality and his current project examines how the contemporary print novel incorporates this tension between new media and human connection. He also has an MFA in creative writing from Northern Michigan University. When he isn’t reading, writing, or tying the shoelaces of his 3-almost-4 children, he is wandering the deep woods of Michigan’s upper peninsula.

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