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Using Hashtags to Teach the Sociality of Writing

posted: 4.14.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Today’s Multimodal Monday post comes from Laura ClineA former A.P. English high school teacher, Laura now teaches composition and intro to literature courses at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville, TN. In her assignment, Laura expands on the usefulness of social media for teaching audience by emphasizing the social importance of genre – both in an out of the classroom. 

As composition instructors know all too well, students often come into our classrooms with the assumption that academic writing has little or nothing to do with writing in the “real world.” This assumption leads students to view college writing as a stale classroom exercise with generic forms and formulas applicable to any and all writing scenarios. While some students want a rulebook that they can use to produce the all-purpose “college paper,” we as instructors most want them to gain a concept of audience and context, to understand that good writing serves a social purpose and, therefore, must remain connected to that purpose.

So how do we help our students understand the sociality of writing and close the gap between their assumptions and our goals? Perhaps social media provides a good starting place. Because we have seen the negative effects of texting and social media on student writing, we can too quickly “write off” such mediums as classroom enemies. However, if we use social media (and other popular modes of communication) to jumpstart a classroom conversation about why we write, then students will begin to see classroom genres as texts with unique purposes and features, not generic forms mindlessly replicated.

Goal: Use social media, and specifically hashtagging, to help students understand writing as a social activity

Background reading before class

  • Everything’s an Argument, pp. 3-5, Everything’s an Argument; pp. 22-25, Audiences for Arguments and Contexts for Arguments; pp. 368-372, Understanding What Academic Argument Is
  • The St. Martin’s Handbook, Ch 1a, Moving between social and academic writing
  • The Everyday Writer, Ch 2a, Move between social and academic writing
  • Writing in Action, Ch 2a, Move between social and academic writing
  • EasyWriter, Ch 1a, Moving between social and academic writing

Homework Assignment:

  • Pick a social media platform that uses hashtags, such as Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
  • Survey a range of posts using a few specific hashtags
  • Take notes on how different people use those hashtags. You might consider any of the following questions in your notes:
  1. What types of comments accompany those hashtags?
  2. What context seems to surround the hashtag?
  3. What purpose do they serve?
  • Response: Write a well-developed paragraph that makes an argument about the overall purpose of hashtags and considers why it is an effective rhetorical feature for social media.

In-class Assignment:

During the next class meeting, place students into small groups to share their paragraphs with each other. Ask students to compare and contrast their various response paragraphs and then collaborate to write a group statement on the purpose of hashtags as a rhetorical technique in social media communication. Ideally, the students’ individual work will feed into this group product as they synthesize their ideas. Students can then share their group’s conclusions, leading into a whole class discussion of how genre and purpose are interconnected.

At this point, the instructor can lead in talking about how various genres of academic writing also have features that serve a social purpose. The analogy might be slightly forced, but I’ll go for it anyway: in the same way that hashtags link comments to other conversations, citations in academic writing connect ideas to the larger conversations to which they contribute. As students begin to see the similarities between popular and more professional modes of discourse, they will attain one of the key objectives of college writing courses – to understand writing as inextricably connected to social context. #teacherwin

Follow-up Assignments and Discussions:

As students learn to write in new genres throughout the semester, similar assignments can ask them to survey a few representative examples of that genre, record its key features, and consider its rhetorical purpose.

Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to for possible inclusion in a future post. 

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