Using Facebook to Teach Rhetorical Analysis

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From t he Classroom

Using Facebook to Teach Rhetorical Analysis
Jane Mathison Fife

The attraction of Facebook is a puzzle to many people over the age of thirtyfive, and that includes most college faculty. Yet students confess to spending significant amounts of time on Facebook, sometimes hours a day. If you teach in a computer classroom, you have probably observed students using Facebook when you walk in the room. Literacy practices that fall outside the realm of traditional academic writing, like Facebook, can easily be seen as a threat to print literacy by teachers, especially when they sneak into the classroom uninvited as students check their Facebook profiles instead of participating in class discussions and activities. This common reaction reflects James King and David O’Brien’s (2002: 42) characterization of the dichotomy teachers often perceive between school and nonschool literacy activities (although they are not referring to Facebook specifically): “From teachers’ perspectives, all of these presumably pleasurable experiences with multimedia detract from students’ engagement with their real work. Within the classroom economy technology work is time off task; it is classified as a sort of leisure recreational activity.” This dichotomy can be broken down, though; students’ enthusiasm for and immersion in these nonacademic literacies can be used to complement their learning of critical inquiry and traditional academic concepts like rhetorical analysis. Although they read these texts daily, they are often unaware of the sophisticated rhetorical analysis they employ while browsing others’ profiles (or as they decide what to add to or delete from their own page). Engaging students in a rhetorical analysis of Facebook can take advantage of this high-interest area — where most students are already rhetorically savvy but unaware of their critical processes — to teach the often challenging skill of rhetorical analysis.

Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture Volume 10, Number 3 © 2010 by Duke University Press 555

Effectively Framing Facebook for Critique

It can be tricky to bring Facebook or any other popular literacy into the classroom as an object of critique without seeming to frame it as a lowbrow object of intellectual contempt. When critique is focused on popular culture in the classroom, Frank Farmer (1998: 204) has noted “the perception among students that cultural critique is a privileged, elitist mode of inquiry, one that is largely indifferent to, if not contemptuous of, those it presumably seeks to enlighten or liberate.” Since sites like Facebook and MySpace are frequently cast as dangerous technologies in the media, students often expect a similarly negative stance when social networking sites are discussed in the classroom. I explain to my class that our goal is not to evaluate Facebook as a good or bad communication tool but to look at the rhetorical strategies that inform how people use Facebook to communicate with others. When we begin discussing Facebook, many students see it as a transparent tool and not likely to be interesting. But as we dig more deeply into how people use Facebook by reading some recent essays, students are less willing to take Facebook at “face value.” Some critiques pique their interest more than others. Christine Rosen (2007) argues that Facebook is more about creating status by amassing large numbers of friends than about connecting with genuine friends. My students did acknowledge that while some people use Facebook this way, most of the users they know are more selective about whom they friend. Many students were quick to respond to the complaint expressed by Brent Schendler (2007) that he just did not “get” Facebook with comments along these lines: These articles were written by older adults so they don’t really understand. While some students dismissed all the articles as the opinions of out-of-touch old folks,...
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