Teaching Participatory Media and Democracy (AERA, Part 4)

Let’s begin with the critique of this panel’s main premise, that social media is transforming civic education and participatory democracy. That critique was the what discussant Joel Westheimer (University of Ottawa) offered. From his perspective, the technologies that allow us to use social media — the mobile web with apps, the ability to find, share, and remix multiple forms of media relatively easily — do not fundamentally change civic participation. In one sense, I appreciate his willingness to keep us all from drinking the kool aid, and to bring his perspective as a veteran civic educator to think about the implications, or not, of social media. That said, many if us disagreed.

Thus, the panelists shared their experiences working with youth in projects surrounding civic engagement and social media, including a fantastic presentation by Antero Garcia. There is much more to talk about from his presentation, let alone the entire panel, than I can capture here, yet one rhetorical move that he made which was truly effective was to show an image of his school, taken from a news helicopter, in a lockdown. Outside the school, police patrolled and kept students and teachers locked inside for about seven hours because a “latino male” in a white t-shirt had been spotted in the area with a gun, all the while playing out on television news. The blatant uses of power and authority to, quite literally, turn the school into a prison where the innocent were incarcerated as guilty has so many levels for critical interpretation and analysis that I could write a dissertation on it. In short, Antero made it clear that he invites his students to use social media in ways that push against the dominant narratives of race, class, and prejudice that infiltrate his students’ lives.

As I continue to think about how to frame the conversation about digital writing for my next book, there is no doubt that I will have to include social media. As I think about the ways in which most students, especially teens, experience and use social media, my strong suspicion is that they still don’t see this as an act of writing (as this WIDE report from a few years back shows), thus they don’t frame it as a rhetorical situation. For K12 students, especially those growing up with 1:1 opportunities in their homes and schools, this is a significant oversight on the part of writing teachers. And, as this panel from AERA shows, the fact of the matter is that social media pervades our lives and communities, so we better figure out how to invite students to compose with these broader audiences and purposes in mind.

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