Today's guest blogger is Amanda Gaddam (see end of post for bio).
This election season, though at times seemingly interminable, is nearing its end, and for most of us, Election Day falls in the middle or near the end of our terms. While “election fatigue” is a very real phenomenon, it’s difficult for me to imagine an Autumn Quarter composition course that doesn’t address the unique and sometimes shocking rhetoric spilled on the political battlefield each day. In my WRD 103 Composition & Rhetoric I course at DePaul University, weekly readings from the New York Times and the current political climate fuel class discussions about audience, context, and purpose, as well as genre and visual rhetoric.
This term, I’m spending a good deal of time talking with my students about the ways in which social media are employed in political campaigns and how such social networks have changed how politicians reach their target audiences, as well as how audiences react and respond to these communications. Twitter has been an especially important, if sometimes fraught, medium for politicians during this election cycle, and as such, it makes for an especially relevant and rich area for discussion and exploration for composition and rhetoric students.
The St. Martin’s Handbook, Ch. 2: Rhetorical Situations, and take the opportunity to point students to the Index:
The following assignment and associated in-class activity have been developed to work with Twitter, but there are certainly other social media networks that could be used instead, e.g. Facebook or Instagram. I have this assignment scheduled after students have completed a rhetorical analysis of a candidate’s stump speech, so they are already somewhat familiar with audience analysis and strategies of political rhetoric.
1. Provide examples of famous and infamous tweets from presidential candidates and ask students to perform rhetorical analyses in pairs or groups. Ask students to think about the characteristics of each tweet’s intended audience, the use of media (gifs, memes, images, links, etc.), the language, and the tone. Students should think about the rhetorical strategies employed in crafting and publishing each tweet, determine the purpose and context for the tweets, and they could evaluate the rhetorical effectiveness of each one, as well. This makes for an excellent in-class activity, but it could be adapted as a homework exercise for instructors trying to conserve class time. The tweets below are just a few of the many interesting tweets ready to be unpacked in class discussions.
Clinton’s tweet provides for interesting discussion about the adoption of social media jargon and whether or not it’s effective or appropriate for a presidential candidate.
This Trump tweet came under fire for the multiple misspelled words. Students might debate how the tweet itself and the following scrutiny and criticism affected his target demographic.
Jeb Bush’s social media team tweeted this image in a “meme war” between Clinton and himself. Students could analyze this image and others in the exchange to evaluate their rhetorical effectiveness.
2. Students select a candidate to represent on social media and become the Deputy Digital Director for their chosen campaign. In this new role, they will create actual Twitter accounts for their candidates and publish five tweets using a variety of complementary media. In order to prepare for this role, they should spend time reading and analyzing how their predecessors (the real-life campaign digital directors) use Twitter to sell their candidates to their followers. Students may choose to continue or diverge from the current social media strategy when they create their own tweets, but they should be prepared to explain and defend their choices in a reflection essay, to be completed after the creation of the Twitter account. Tweets should reveal consideration for audience and purpose through the careful selection of language, tone, and content, and students should take advantage of the opportunities that Twitter provides for adding video, images, and gifs to help communicate their messages.
I have built in class time for students to workshop their tweets with their peers before submitting their final five with their reflective essay, which gives students a chance to see how their tweets are resonating with real voters. Students submit their Twitter handle to a class list so that I and other students can view their works in progress. Instructors may also require that students use a specific hashtag for each tweet, but that requirement will use up characters that students may need.
3. Students complete a short reflective essay explaining the rhetorical choices they made and defending their approaches for each tweet. In this piece, students should discuss the purpose of each message and the ways in which they employed ethos, pathos, and logos through text and media to achieve those purposes. Each essay should also offer students an opportunity to evaluate Twitter as a medium for political campaigning—in what ways did the social media platform complement and/or complicate the message and ethos that the student was trying to communicate to the intended audience? The entire project, including the tweets and reflective essay, is evaluated based on students’ clear consideration of their rhetorical situations, application of textual and visual rhetorical strategies, and demonstration of their commitment to the process, including peer review.
The character limits and genre conventions of Twitter provide unique challenges to students as they attempt to think through the most effective ways of reaching followers across the country and the world for a specially defined purpose, but the real appeal of this assignment to me as an instructor is the way it asks students to identify and reach out to actual audiences. Though instructors try, to the best of our abilities, to create real and meaningful exigences for writing assignments, we’re often challenged by the fact that we are the primary, and often only, audience for these assignments. First-year composition students are part of the audience for politicians’ social media posts and are part of the voting public, in many cases for the first time, and this assignment allows them to explore the ways in which they are targeted by political campaigns and how textual and visual rhetoric play into campaign strategy, and it asks students to employ those rhetorical principles to reach out to real audiences, as well.
Guest blogger is an adjunct instructor in the First-Year Writing Program and the School for New Learning at DePaul University. She holds a B.A. in English with a concentration in Literary Studies and a M.A. in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse with a concentration in Teaching Writing and Language from DePaul, and her research interests include first-year composition, adult and non-traditional students, and writing center pedagogies.
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