Teaching, Texting, and Twittering with Obama

Teaching with Obama Blog Image

With the first year of the Obama administration officially coming to a close, educators have been thinking about how the president’s online presence could be used for both civic education and media literacy purposes.  Obama came into office with the promise of delivering web-based participatory democracy or “Government 2.0” to citizens.  But I have found myself arguing that Obama’s “embrace” of online practices was actually quite limited, when it came to the messages he was promulgating.  I am also not alone in wondering if online commenting and voting really constitutes democratic engagement.

Many educators have visited Obama’s campaign and governance websites or have gone to commercial services like YouTube and Twitter, where official Obama materials appear as well.  Although teaching with political materials can be pedagogically risky, many in higher education feel that the rewards of offering compelling examples of the White House’s use of digital rhetoric outweigh the potential risks of partisanship, if curricular planning is done well to emphasize the limitations as well as the possibilities of this new kind of political speech.  

At last month’s annual convention of the Modern Language Association, a panel of college writing program administrators and composition instructors organized by Linda Adler-Kassner presented ideas about how Obama’s online rhetoric could be taught.  She asked panelists to think about how faculty can “leverage President Obama’s embrace of digital media to promote our own efforts to use digital media in the classroom.”  Many at the conference were already talking about how the editor of College English, John Schilb, had recently complained that “the journal has received hardly any submissions about the rhetoric of last year's presidential election, even with all of the excitement over the use of language in the Obama campaign.”  Our session directly addressed Schilb’s concern that presidential rhetoric be central to the work of the academy.  I began studying Obama’s online visual rhetoric and his use of commercial social network sites Flickr and YouTube as part of an epilogue to my book about digital rhetoric in the Bush administration, Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes, so it was a pleasure to meet so many others doing similar teaching and research on the panel, where I described following the 2008 election with my own digital rhetoric students at U.C. Irvine.  


Ohio State composition instructor Shawn Casey admitted to having “expectations that were unreasonably high” of the new president and discussed “the limitations I faced in my digital assignment sequence and how those relate to not just the limitations of Obama’s rhetoric but also to our abilities to fully exploit the affordances of digital media from within the paradigm of the writing program.”  Casey described a particular assignment in his course that analyzed online materials about the Obama inauguration and explained how the unit allowed students to see how certain aspects of presidential rhetoric were coercive as well as persuasive.  Students were able to choose objects of study that interested them personally.  He detailed how one student responded with an analysis of the digital cutting and pasting of Aretha Franklin's hat onto other digital images and the participatory exuberance and cultural ignorance that her traveling hat represented.


Graduate student Jeff Swift opened his Prezi presentation  with a reminder that “President Obama’s huge success with the youth vote in the 2008 election suggests that following his example might teach us a thing or two about connecting with our students.”  Although Swift acknowledged that Twitter makes a “terrible first impression,” as TIME magazine's Steve Johnson has asserted, he also argued that Twitter provides what technology journalist Clive Thompson has called “social proprioception” with which we orient our the social selves in an increasingly difficult-to-navigate world of online and offline relationships. Swift also used many of the traditional lessons of the rhetoric and composition classroom from the eras of print and oratory in his lesson planning, such as the value of ethos, what rhetorician’s describe as the character or credibility projected by a speaker.  (You can see a sample assignment page for a composition class here.)


The session closed with a joint talk by York College of Pennsylvania writing program administrator Dominic DelliCarpini and his brother, University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School dean and writer on political communication Michael DelliCarpini, who is known for defining civic engagement broadly with an emphasis on the “ability, agency, and opportunity” of individual citizens.  On the general principle that writing programs have an obligation to teach both new media and civic engagement and that this is an interdisciplinary venture, the two DelliCarpinis argued that a compelling series of writing assignments could be constructed around the Barack Obama Organizing for America website to encourage critical thinking about its one-sidedness and its tendency to rely on the rhetoric of a mandate.

Like others on the panel, the DelliCarpinis felt that their optimism about the civic engagement promised by the new administration had become tempered by the realities of the fact that no technology is neutral.  They also argued that it was important to encourage critical thinking about how the plebiscite was constituted and if online activities such as commenting amount to meaningful democratic engagement.  They urged adoption of a pedagogy devoted to building new pathways through such websites and exploring how students could create their own digital essays with “expropriations and workarounds” that expose “weak arguments,” “indefensible claims,” and “unacceptable premises.”  As Dominic DelliCarpini explained, this kind of critical thinking about digital media could be part of curricular planning on a very large scale: "The Obama administration’s rhetorical strategies and uses of new media offer writing classes an excellent example for rhetorical analysis in the proto-public sphere of an individual composition classroom.  However, the larger question is whether helping students to understand and engage in civic and political matters is the business of writing programs more generally.  That is, is Obama’s new media rhetoric just one more site for academic study—replacing, say, literary texts or essays from a reader—or can increased civic engagement and increased ability to use new media as a form of political participation and deliberation among be counted among writing programs’ (and writing program administrators’) its actual learning goals?  Our presentation suggests that it can, and in fact that the WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition would support such a claim." 

DelliCarpini points out that the WPA Statement urges instructors to set pedagogical objectives in which students will “understand the relationships among language, knowledge, and power” as well as have the ability to “understand and exploit the differences in the rhetorical strategies and in the affordances available for both print and electronic composing processes and texts.”  

For more on the panel, check out this story about the session from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.  If you have your own research about Obama online that you would like to present at a future session, you may be interested in this call for papers for an upcoming conference, “Texting Obama,” to be held in England in the fall.  

With this month’s Supreme Court decision that removes limits on corporate spending in political campaigns, many in civic education argue that there will be even more critical pedagogy needed to develop students’ abilities to analyze and evaluate political claims online.