Language is allowed to change and flow as needed by the world. — (Kristen, sophomore English major, in Group 1 Wiki)
In Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change, Ira Shor cuts to the heart of one of our education culture’s toughest issues when he says, “A good student answers questions but doesn’t question answers. Knowledge and authority are fixed and unilateral.”  This essay looks at a one-semester classroom research project that I undertook in an Introduction to English Studies class in which I tried to address that issue as it manifests in institutional assumptions about what constitutes acceptable academic writing and language. Students used a wiki as a format for socially “annotating” an iconic guidebook to good writing: The Elements of Style (hereafter TEOS) by William J. Strunk and E.B. White. “The Elements of Styl(in)” project was a casual testing of the boundaries of the book, and this book in particular, as a cultural object—an examination of the way such a textbook authorizes standard academic discourse, an exploration of how our concept of text is changing with digital affordances, and a consideration of what could happen to text and to classroom power structures when “marginalia becomes demarginalized” in digital spaces. Marginalia— “skirmishes against the author” as poet Billy Collins once said—are what we in the Humanities cherish as the reader’s act of individual empowerment in authorized spaces. In digital space these annotations can become a transformative public act as the text being annotated takes a backseat to the collective backchannel.
“The little book,” as Professor Strunk called TEOS, originated as a short set of rules put together in a pamphlet for his composition students at Cornell University in the early part of the twentieth century. After being edited and embellished by White, a former student of Strunk, TEOS was published in 1959 and widely promoted in the college textbook market by The Macmillan Company. It has since come to represent, as a familiar and concise writing handbook wrapped in White’s emblematic prose voice, a kind of standard knowledge assigned in a variety of courses by hopeful and well-intentioned professors as the go-to resource for error control. A quick internet search of syllabi nationwide finds TEOS a required text for a range of courses, from Composition and Writing classes to Environmental Policy and Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture. Some of these course syllabi communicate an awareness of the ideological nature of Strunk & White’s ideas of English language usage. A Michigan University’s “Writing, Style and Technology” course includes an assigned “remake” of TEOS. However, requiring that all student work “follow the rules for English Composition found in Strunk,” is also a typical directive.
As a composition teacher, I thought it might be valuable to create a critical awareness around Strunk & White’s book as a way of historicizing one of academic writing’s more persistent texts, along with challenging the larger cultural norm of a universal and transparent academic discourse. Articles published recently in the inaugural issue of Literacy In Composition Studies resonated deeply with my experience of the split consciousness that attends the teaching of writing: the tension between a pluralized notion of literacies and persistent institutional and cultural expectations for a monolithic standard academic literacy. “Writing to pass,” as Kate Vieira points out in “On The Social Consequences Of Literacy,” is a common experience of freshman writers, and standard discourse of the sort prescribed by TEOS is a stubborn marker for success. Even when “other” literacies are valorized in classrooms, they maintain that categorization as other, or out of school, and what Brian Street has called “autonomous literacy” remains intact; students often remain accountable to it, and its ideology stays “unchallenged and un(der)theorized,” according to Carmen Kynard. I wondered what kinds of questions would arise from having student writers engage rhetorically and ideologically with a writing text that has been widely regulatory, used as a quick reference, and mostly “unchallenged and un(der)theorized.”
A relatively new venturer in digital pedagogy, I was curious to know how a public classroom engagement with annotating TEOS through a wiki might impact students’ critical approach to this canonical work. How would engaging in discussion in a multimodal public forum impact student agency with regard to an authoritative text? Part of my purpose in conducting this experiment was to understand more about how digital writing practices might facilitate annotation as a form of “student protest,” a component of Ira Shor’s “empowered” classroom model in which students are explicitly given the freedom to challenge the substance of the course curriculum, and to critically examine Strunk and White’s kind of “standard knowledge through which the status quo tries to promote and protect its position,”  as Shor says:
Because some groups in history have had the power to establish standard knowledge and standard usage, these canons need to be studied critically, not absorbed as a bogus common culture.
Shor’s notion of protest seemed to be an answer to Horner’s call for a recognition of students’ ongoing acts of “interpretation. . . reading the social environment and engaging and remaking that environment through communication.” Jesse Stommel, writing in the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy, warns of the danger of digital pedagogy replicating “vestigial structures of industrial era education” and sees digital pedagogy as one and the same with critical pedagogy: “Digital pedagogy demands that we rethink power relations between students and teachers — demands we create more collaborative and less hierarchical institutions for learning.” Bringing the guiding principal of transformation into student use of social forms of annotation in the classroom seemed like a goal worth pursuing, one that could challenge a canonized object like TEOS and broaden the concept of a student-produced academic text, while at the same time testing the collaborative learning potential of a digital composing tool.
In digital space, what is it like to leave a trace on an authorized text, to decenter it with jottings from margins that may only exist in the abstract? The internet is marked and in some ways defined by public comments features that can range wildly in their value as discourse. Some of the more successful text annotation sites like SocialBook and RapGenius offer simple platforms for students and classes to experience public engagement on the internet but generally the annotations on these sites replicate the close-reading practices of traditional literary studies. The computer interface allows what N. Katherine Hayles describes as a cognitive move from linearity to “large numbers of connections between. . . networks layered onto one another. . .” The move to networked knowledge-making through combinations of visual, audio and alphabetic objects, allows for more critical engagement with social, cultural and historical networks. Unlike the historic model of marginalia as the act of an individual book owner, the wiki, as I imagined it, would be a collaborative space for purposeful bricolage, a less hierarchical model of authorship and critique, and a format in which the often unexpected links between digital objects would be at least as significant as the objects on their own: a use of digital pedagogy for critical engagement and “difficult thinking” rather than for a re-creation of close-reading practices.
I asked students a question: What kinds of things do Strunk & White seem to be saying about writers, readers and the function and purpose of language?
Students worked in groups of three to four, collaborating on their final wiki pages, and leading a class discussion based on their work and on the comments their classmates made on their wiki presentations. (See sample excerpts from my students on this wiki page, which represents the type of thinking and writing they shared with me and their classmates.) Groups worked together on choosing excerpts from TEOS that they wished to speak back to. I encouraged them to be creative and playful. A second form of annotation was created through the class comments on each group wiki presentation.
When the assignment was working best, Strunk and White’s text acted like a philosopher’s stone in the way its seeming neutrality concealed the power to release and reveal issues of class, race, gender and power embedded in student writers’ understanding of academic discourse and “correct” usage of the English language.
‘This Is How We Do Things’: Negotiating Identity
In How We Think, Hayles points out that human and machine intelligence interact in ways that demand a new framework for practices like reading and responding to text. Digital affordances reconfigure the objects of our fields as humanities teachers:
. . . objects are seen not as static entities, that once created, remain the same throughout time but rather are understood as constantly changing assemblages…
This description is true as well for the English language, which is far from a static object, though, as a dominant discourse, it is often treated as such. English is a constantly evolving, “changing assemblage” of vernaculars, other languages and historical layers of standard usage. The wiki opened a space for creative play (a definition of bricolage) with TEOS that materialized this concept of flux. Play itself is a form of critical inquiry, according to Sean Michael Morris, Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel. Digital writing enables practices that are “multimodal, collaborative, and playful — that push the boundaries of disciplinary allegiances, and don’t always wear their brains on their sleeves, so to speak.”
In the following example, the associative leap one student made from White’s “Rule: 1” to a car commercial provided an opportunity to trace a path to the thought that standard English is a kind of commodity fetish.
This selection, “Rule 1” from TEOS is one of forty-three numbered prescriptives in the book, and is taken from the section that White himself wrote, titled: “An Approach To Style (With A List Of Reminders).” It was annotated by Tracy, a senior English major, and member of Group 4. Tracy’s intuitive reference to a sales pitch contains the seeds of a multifaceted critique of Carmen Kynard’s “unquestioned and un(der)theorized dominant center” of academic discourse. White affectionately endorsed the “sharp commands” of “Sergeant Strunk.”  In the first edition, he set out to respond to American education’s post GI Bill move away from the traditional rhetoric of his youth and toward a more inclusive mode of teaching writing to a newly diverse student population .
Class discussion around Rule 1 and its accompanying annotation focused on Tracy’s reference to commodification and what might be for sale. What does standard English “buy” you? In exchange for what? What agendas are being served by the “selling” of standard English as access to the status quo? And what ways of knowing and seeing are hidden in the production of this desired discourse– a move that seems to reference commodity fetishism? Tracy’s choice of image as discussed below brought some of those questions to the foreground, including the surprising notion that standard English could qualify as a sort of commodity fetish, with all the associations of hidden identities that come with that term. Students were vocal about their perceived necessities for this exchange: the English majors wanted acceptance into a professional discourse community. Good grades come from good writing. In another move toward acceptance, Lane, an ROTC student, went on to write his final paper about the ways Strunk & White help him to write clearly and forcefully for his future career as an Army officer. He talked about family members coming to him to do their important correspondence because of the way he uses language.
Once the class read White’s famous essay, “Once More To The Lake,” originally published in 1942 for the readership of Harper’s Magazine, students started to get a clearer picture of the social and historical context that gave rise to such vocabulary: dominant American culture, with values of individualism and privilege, an orderly hierarchy of affluent and educated summer vacationers and poorer, less educated local workers in the camp. The stillness of the lake mirrored the stillness of language promoted in TEOS, with nothing to break the sense of order—literally—until the end of your life. In this group discussion about “Once More To The Lake,” one student insightfully remarked that the essay was a “this is how we do things” description. Another student noticed, coming back to White and TEOS: this way of writing, too, is how WE (Strunk, White and their sociocultural milieu) do things.
Tracy further developed her response to Rule 1 by including an illustration from the 1999 film version of Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes. In her annotation she pointed out that, in the memoir, the author’s “I” is fused to a foreground of “poverty and despair and hope and escape” and the visual impact of two rain-soaked boys on an empty unpaved street makes a powerful and embodied counterimage to the slick car commercial leaving a song as its impression. Tracy’s response that Rule 1 reminds her of the advertiser’s disembodied soundtrack reflects that Strunk & White ask some writers literally to leave their bodies out of their writing, to separate from deep ways of knowing and adopt deceptively neutral ones instead. From creative assemblages students formed a nuanced context in which to situate their discussion of standard English, and their own relationships to the ideologies that go with it.
Digital Poetics: Wearing Mine on Yours
In the screenshot below, Group 4 responds to one of Strunk’s original rules: “Choose a suitable design and hold to it” by disagreeing with the notion that “success” is attached to a writer’s clear sense of standard forms. The dialog between page and screen is literally illustrated by the Tumblr image of the Gregson poem referencing older technologies of typewriter and paper straight out of Strunk & White’s era. Gregson’s poem points to many things. He seems to celebrate the agency of the writer by typing in defiance of the lines. Bending the traditional Romantic notion of individual expression, “hearts on . . . sleeves” changes to the transgressive “mine on yours” instead. This movement from communication as a linear progression (author to lover/reader), when contrasted with the layered image of the poet speaking through two subjectivities, is a startlingly accurate metaphor for the networks accessible in digital writing. It could be the description of a retweet, and references the “performance self” of today’s social media user. Group 4’s choice of this image represented a moment in the classroom where all these many subtle and important connections could be teased out in discussion, bringing to light students’ many modes of literacy, digital and material. This led to a crucial question for students to consider. TEOS is relatively unchanged from 1959; half of it is a text from 1918. How does the form and content of Gregson’s poem suggest to you ways writing has changed and why has TEOS changed so little over the years?
Student Protest and the Power of Glitch
In his book Noise Channels: Glitch And Error In Digital Culture, Peter Krapp describes the embrace of glitch as an aesthetic that resists the “jitter-free” “tamper-resistant” aesthetic of digital sound production. But he is really onto a much larger concern that resonated with me as a writing instructor who sometimes sees students suffering from Krapp’s “agency panic of the user”  when they are faced with the jitter-free, tamper-resistant ground of academic discourse and standard English. Glitch, and the relationship between “noise” and “signal” in terms of language, knowledge and power is more than an aesthetic. It is a guiding image for critical engagement with the status quo: digital writing pedagogy should be a pedagogy of the glitch, identifying and recuperating whenever possible moments of breakdown in the autonomous status of standard discourse. The affordances of digital writing practices make tampering easy, and the concept of “glitch” as a digital or language byproduct “is a way of maintaining a space of playful exploration” which allows for student agency and the accompanying unsettling of hierarchies.
Some student wiki annotations illustrate the productive resistance of glitch. When Lorenz, a sophomore physics major, commented on Group 1’s presentation, he demonstrated the power of allowing other kinds of knowledge to change standard English, an important point I had hoped students would find their way into. In contrast to Strunk and White’s call for orthodox spelling, Lorenz pointed out the importance of what he called “da VuRnAkULAR” and intuitively channeled James Joyce and the Modernist project of jamming the signals of traditional discourse. During the discussion period, Lorenz blurted out “I hate this book,” and described a scene in his dorm where he and his friends had gone through TEOS and “laughed at it” together. This was exactly the kind of “protest” I had been curious to see evolve out of this project: the intact, neutral and autonomous writing handbook examined and protested through exposure to the experiences of the student community. Foregrounding a noisy discourse that alludes to Joyce and Irvine Welsh, and arguing for the benefits of non-standard language, Lorenz outlined that protest most eloquently when he reappropriated the whole concept of “Propa” language, and characterized “speeking/riting” as “evolving 1 minde at eh time.”
Looking Forward: WikiThink and Object Oriented Writing
One place for further research lies in the ways that students find agency as they publicly publish a comment and as they negotiate between an “authentic self” and the complex subjectivity of digital performance. In My Word! Plagiarism And College Culture, Susan Blum cites the anxious quality of a student’s “performance self” in the age of Facebook, Instagram and blogs:
. . . the performance self must constantly worry about the judgments of others, must constantly wonder if a given set of actions is the most effective, or is even appreciated, and what the consequences will be of her or his actions.
This “constantly groomed version” of the self complicates critical engagement with issues and ideas that might involve staking claims and challenging group norms. In this way, social annotation can complicate the critical pedagogy I would like to practice. During the open review of this essay, a related point was raised about individual student response to a text and how students may “feel their personal reading is being overtaken by others who got there and left comments first.” I believe both of these valid issues of negotiating student agency in social annotation should be part of further research into ways that we will teach digital reading and writing practices. How does the traditional cultural sense of ownership of one’s reading intersect with the collaborative and communal potential of the digital? Tracy and the students of Group 4 shared material and insights that exposed fascinating networks of knowledge needing to be brought to the surface through discussion, suggesting that digital pedagogy includes developing student reading of non-linear, multimodal connections in sophisticated critical ways, as I expand on below. Lorenz found a way to speak to authenticity while exploiting a digital public forum in a way that challenged and delighted the others in the class. What led to his creative and substantial challenging of TEOS‘s standard English that effectively served both individual and communal interests?
In broad terms, “The Elements of Styl(in’)” reflection profits from recent work in the areas of collaboration and object oriented theories that propose reconfigurations of academic writing. These fields offer exciting thought for digital writing pedagogy, particularly as web writing continues to evolve and gain acceptance as rigorous academic discourse. A recent article by William Duffy sees collaborative writing as better configured outside of Composition’s long-held “conversation imperative”; He looks instead to “something that a social turn theory of collaboration lacks: a third character at work in the equation, those objects that collaborators discourse about.” What Duffy points to as interaction with “discursive ecologies” of human and non-human “actors” describes how the class went about composing and receiving the bricolaged wiki. Building again on Duffy, we “triangulated” thinking around TEOS and other discourse objects: its history and authors plus pictures, videos, text blocks, ideas, questions and opinions. The surprising combination of objects such as a car commercial, standard English and a film still from Angela’s Ashes turned our focus on tracing the links between them. It is in the tracing of those links that new knowledge is made in the realm of the “adjacent possible…the range of discourse available to us at any particular moment.” Expanding the idea of collaboration in the writing classroom to include objects of discourse as equal interlocutors along with the humans makes sense in our post-human world, Duffy suggests. I think it also opens new avenues of inquiry for students via still emerging digital reading and writing and thinking. Students are not always comfortable with the “risky Utopian leaps” they are asked to take in Shor’s empowered classroom. I remember Lorenz’ nervous body language as he said to me: “I hate this book,” in a public group of peers and professor, some of whom had voiced support for TEOS as a handbook. That moment contributes to my belief that these emergent practices and the less easily defined practice of “wikithink” must be developed as critical “protest” tools and rigorous ways to “question the answers” through non-hierarchical collaborative knowledge-making.
About the author: Laura Lisabeth (@lauralhny) is a doctoral candidate at St. Johns University in Queens, NY, where she currently teaches literature and composition.
How to cite:
Laura Lisabeth, “Empowering Education with Social Annotation and Wikis,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/lisabeth.
See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.
- "Sample student excerpts from Group 1 Wiki, ENG 2200: Introduction to English Studies, St. Johns University, Queens, New York, Spring 2013, http://introtoenglishstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/68417145/Group%201%20Wiki%20Page. ↵
- Ira Shor, Empowering Education: Critical Teaching For Social Change (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992). ↵
- William J. Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (TEOS), illustrated by Maira Kalman (New York: Penguin Books, 2000). ↵
- “‘Amplified Marginalia’: Social Reading, Listening, and Writing,” HASTAC forum, May 9, 2013, http://www.hastac.org/forums/amplified-marginalia. ↵
- Billy Collins, “Marginalia” poem, 2005, http://www.billy-collins.com/2005/06/marginalia.html. ↵
- Derek N. Mueller, ENGL 328 “Writing, Style and Technology” syllabus, Winter 2012, http://www.derekmueller.net/rc/teaching/archive/engl328wi12/syllabus.html. ↵
- Richard Mook, MUS 362 “Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture” syllabus, Summer 2013, https://herbergeronline.asu.edu/hiphop/syllabus.pdf. ↵
- Kate Vieira, “On the Social Consequences of Literacy,” Literacy in Composition Studies 1 (March 2013): 29, http://licsjournal.org/OJS/index.php/LiCS/article/view/7/. ↵
- Bruce Horner, “Ideologies of Literacy, ‘Academic Literacies,’ and Composition Studies,” Literacy in Composition Studies 1 (2013): 1-9, paragraph 2. ↵
- Carmen Kynard, “Literacy/Literacies Studies and the Still-Dominant White Center,” Literacy in Composition Studies 1 (2013): 63-65, paragraph 5. ↵
- Shor, 34-35. ↵
- ibid. ↵
- Editors' Mission Statement, Literacy in Composition Studies 1 (2013), p. v, paragraph 2. ↵
- Jesse Stommel, “Decoding Digital Pedagogy, Pt. 2: (Un)Mapping the Terrain,” Hybrid Pedagogy: A Digital Journal of Learning, Teaching, and Technology March 05, 2013, paragraph 3, http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/decoding-digital-pedagogy-pt-2-unmapping-the-terrain/. ↵
- N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 32. ↵
- Mark Sample, "Difficult Thinking about the Digital Humanities," Sample Reality, May 12, 2014, http://www.samplereality.com/2014/05/12/difficult-thinking-about-the-digital-humanities/. ↵
- "Sample student excerpts from Group 1," ENG 2200, Spring 2013, http://introtoenglishstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/68417145/Group 1 Wiki Page. ↵
- Laura Lisabeth, "The Elements of Styl(in) Group Project Assignment," Google Document, ENG 2200: Introduction to English Studies, St. Johns University, Queens, New York, Spring 2013, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TL6DU1c-UvkqbzYxV-ZwN6VDAOkRFg-mfQwfaz0bi9A/edit?usp=sharing. ↵
- Katherine Hayles, How We Think, 13. ↵
- Sean Michael Morris, Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel, "Beyond Rigor," Hybrid Pedagogy, Oct. 9, 2013, http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/beyond-rigor/. ↵
- Strunk and White, 97. ↵
- "Sample student excerpts from Group 4 wiki," ENG 2200, Spring 2013, http://introtoenglishstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/68678680/Group 4 Wiki Page. ↵
- Kyndard, Literacy/Literacies, para. 5. ↵
- Strunk and White, xiii. ↵
- Catherine Prendergast, “The Fighting Style: Reading the Unabomber’s Strunk and White” College English 72:1 (2009): 13. ↵
- "The Spectacle of the Other," Representation, second edition, edited by Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon (Sage Publications, New York, 2013), p. 256. ↵
- Tracy, comment on Group 4 wiki presentation, April 1, 2013. ↵
- Strunk and White, 31. ↵
- Peter Krapp, Noise Channels: Glitch And Error In Digital Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xx. ↵
- Krapp, 54. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Lorenz, comment on Group 1 Wiki Page, http://introtoenglishstudies.pbworks.com/w/page/68417145/Group%201%20Wiki%20Page. ↵
- Susan D. Blum, My Word! Plagiarism And College Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 64. ↵
- Blum, 70 ↵
- Barbara Fister, comment on open peer review version of this essay, Web Writing, Fall 2013 edition, http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/citation-annotation/lisabeth-2013/#comment-8323. ↵
- Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology or What It's Like To Be A Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). ↵
- William Duffy, "Collaboration (in) Theory: Reworking the Social Turn's Conversational Imperative," College English 76 (2014): 416-435. ↵
- Duffy, 7. ↵
- Ibid., 10. ↵
- Ibid., 7. ↵
- Joe Marshall Hardin, "Review of When Students Have Power by Ira Shor," Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and Politics 17 (1997): 525-529, http://jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol17.3/hardin-when.pdf. ↵
- Lisabeth, "Empowering Education with Social Annotation and Wikis," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/citation-annotation/lisabeth-2013/. ↵