Making the Case
DMAC as Professional Activism

Harley Ferris

"People are still feeling that this is something they have to learn how to do . . . they still feel that they have to go home and talk to students, teachers, administrators, community members—anybody who sees them doing something that doesn't appear to be traditional composition and traditional writing, and they still feel that they have to 'make the case.' And that language is still very much a part of DMAC." -- Scott DeWitt, DMAC 2014


Why "Making the Case" Is Still a Part of DMAC

In May 2012, I crashed DMAC—slipped in the back door, so to speak—to see what the whole fuss was about. I only spent one day there, but it was enough to gain a sense of the excitement, ambition, trepidation, work, joy, and angst that muddles together every year in Denney Hall. Returning in 2013 as a Senior Instructor and in 2014 as Assistant Director, I've now been on both the giving and receiving ends of these emotions over those terrible, wonderful two weeks. DMAC is a boot camp for the brave; the playing field is leveled for graduate students and senior scholars, novices and experts, young and old, as everyone (including the instructors) learns new things about teaching and technology. We read, we discuss, we build, we reflect—and that's just the first day. We stay up too late tweaking projects, and when we finally collapse into our beds each night, sleep comes slowly because our minds are brimming with ideas, problems, solutions, and questions. It's intense.

One of the non-negotiable elements of DMAC is attendance. Showing up. Rolling up your sleeves and digging in. This is not an armchair endeavor. And if you have to travel a bit of distance, even better. Getting away from your daily routine is essential, because we're all just a little too busy to do this unless we've invested in the program. DMAC works because we—staff, instructors, volunteers, and participants—all get in a room together and work. We ask questions, share what we know, turn to each other for help and advice, or sometimes sit alone in a corner with headphones on and wrestle with file formats until they bend to our wills. And then, both too quickly and just in time, it's over. We display our projects, exchange contact info, and with a bittersweet "see ya next time," we depart, armed with well-organized file structures filled with assets and overactive minds filled with plans.

We return home, and we quickly discover that the rest of the world doesn't realize anything special happened. Our colleagues and students meet our new passion with a range of emotions, but they haven't been to the mountaintop with us. Soon enough, we meet some resistance. We falter, we fumble, and somehow all the smart things we did and said in Columbus seem maybe a little too idealized, too optimistic, or too ambitious for this campus, for that program, for these students, for those teachers. What to do? How do we, as Scott DeWitt phrases it, "make the case" at our home institutions—to our faculty, administration, students, and perhaps even ourselves—that these non-traditional modes of composition are valid, valuable, and indeed vital to today's writing program?

Because of this ever-present concern, Scott DeWitt and Cindy Selfe view DMAC as a project of professional activism. Their approach reminds me of Paulo Freire's (1993) assertion that "liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it" (p. 79). In order to bring about transformation, Freire maintained, one must be conscious with intent—that is, a teacher wishing to change the climate of her department must be a practitioner who intends her work to inspire and inform both her students and colleagues for the betterment of all. Other scholars (Cushman, 1996; Dobrin, 1997; Harris, 2000; Weisser, 2002) have explored various ways of framing teaching as professional activism, and each consider how teacher-scholars can affect positive change in their respective institutions and beyond. Distilling these concepts, Linda Adler-Kassner (2008) suggests that an instructor must balance strategies with ideals in order to enact meaningful work that leads to change; whether constructing writing programs, introducing digital media production in composition courses, promoting writing across the curriculum work, building assessment metrics, or lobbying for fair labor policies, the one who understands the principles behind her practices carries the greatest potential for transformation (pp. 5-9).

Within rhetoric and composition, computers and writing scholarship has also addressed instructional and institutional complexities of teaching with technology as a means of empowering students while also fomenting disciplinary change regarding digital composition as academic work. As “new” as we continue to act like “new media” might be (and indeed, the "new" keeps coming, as smart phones are dramatically changing the way I consider technology in my own teaching), many of the texts that remain important in this conversation are ten years old or more. Nevertheless, given the struggle many still feel within their own departments and schools, the trajectory is relevant as we continue to echo calls-to-action from previous scholarship. Drawing on this scholarship, I have chosen to anchor three terms to explore how DMAC enacts professional activism.

  • Pedagogy: Encompassing assignments and the ideological impulses driving them, computers and writing pedagogy attends to how the tasks we require of students, the technologies we ask them to use, and the contexts in which we situate texts and tools might include or exclude individuals and groups, support or suppress the negotiation of differences, and ultimately empower more students to communicate more effectively in more situations.
  • Production: The process of creating multimodal and digital texts is instrumental in gaining more robust awareness of how such texts are created, constructed, and circulated, and when students engage in production, their ability to analyze texts significantly increases.
  • Practice: Because we are surrounded by digital texts, our aesthetic sensibility frequently outpaces our ability to reproduce such compositions; therefore, computers and writing scholarship calls for teachers to continually engage in new media scholarship while providing multiple opportunities for students to build, revise, and reflect on their own compositions and composing practices.

Following the lead of (and contributing heavily to) computers and writing scholarship, DMAC's directors endeavor to equip teachers with a clear sense of why and how to incorporate digital composition projects so that composition programs can be transformed, but they recognize that any such transformation must extend beyond the perspective of the participant. To facilitate this, DMAC attends to the pedagogy, production, and practice of digital composition so teachers might be empowered to enact such changes at their own institutions.


Students First, Teachers Second, Technology Third (Transcript)

Despite the increased presence of new technologies in composition classrooms, the focus of computers and writing pedagogy remains intensely human. Now over ten years ago, Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher (2004) presented what remains perhaps the most cogent of reasons for teaching the critical use and analysis of multimodal and digital composition: “[I]f U.S. students cannot write to the screen—if they cannot design, author, analyze, and interpret material on the Web and in other digital environments—they will have difficulty functioning effectively as literate human beings in a growing number of social spheres” (p. 2). This student-centered pedagogical approach reflects Gramsci’s liberatory praxis and reveals, I believe, a deep commitment to inclusion and empowerment. Noting the often invisible but unquestionable politics of technology, scholars have insisted that technology is more than a mere set of tools, and literacy is more than competency (Selber, 2004; Selfe, 1999; Williams, 2004). For decades now, Cindy Selfe (with Selfe, 1994; 1999; with Hawisher, 2004; 2009; quoted in Bailie, 2010; with Hawisher, 2012) has repeatedly reminded us that one of the most valuable affordances of digital technologies is accurate representation, as videos, images, and audio recordings allow students to speak and be heard in their own voices, with their own faces. Thus, in computers and writing pedagogy, the teaching of and with technologies is really only a thin veneer on top of the much more robust and humanist endeavor of teaching students that their voices, experiences, stories, and lives not only matter but are necessary to make the world better.

I'm sure I heard Cindy repeat this mantra daily at DMAC: students first, teachers second, technology third. By prioritizing our pedagogy to place students first, we recognize that our teaching affects them the most. We remember that we are not simply trying to build a portfolio, nor are we merely hoping to test out our own scholarly work on a more or less captive audience. Instead, we return to our institutional and personal outcomes. What is it that we actually hope our students will learn and accomplish? Are we pushing them to consider the rhetorical ecologies that surround the texts they are creating, or do we count it a win if they use the appropriate compression settings to export a video for the web? Do we think about usefulness, transfer, empowerment, and communication, or do we get lost in our own excitement about introducing audio editing into FYC? After being exposed to some of the excellent projects made with inspiring tools, it can be easy to wish ours were the students pumping out compelling podcasts, videos, and websites, but that can too quickly take our eyes of our actual students, and we can too easily miss opportunities to make smaller interventions that, in the long run, count for more.

We must also never forget that we cannot simply download our information and ideologies into our students, and our pedagogy should remain scalable, modular, and flexible to fit both student and situational needs. It's also vital that we recognize, however abstract or lofty our goals might be, that tacit facility with technology—or what Stuart Selber (2004) termed "functional literacy"—is a necessary component of composition pedagogy, and we cannot overlook the obstacle this might pose in achieving our more Gramscian ends. In my experience with DMAC participants, when they're playing the role of students, I've needed to be flexible about my own goals for them. I've had to adjust my own desires to teach them specific elements about various aspects of their projects, and I've had to learn to recognize when they've had enough instruction and need to work, or when they are ready for prodding. At some point, nearly every participant gets overwhelmed, frustrated, discouraged, and upset. Time and again, I've watched Cindy and Scott gently remind them that this is how our students feel, and it's a good that thing we're able to experience not being the experts every so often to help us keep in touch with how we sometimes make our students feel. Those moments also allow us to think productively about how we wrestle with, overcome, or work around our road blocks, not only giving us sympathy but also providing a more practical, meaningful set of teaching tools at our disposal.


Creating Spaces for Collaboration (Transcript)

I confess that as a first-time composition teacher, I paid lip service to production in my curriculum. Analysis of digital and multimodal texts was a significant part of my courses, but I had trouble articulating—and, therefore, justifying—the importance of composing such texts and the role that plays in students’ understanding of how texts are designed, constructed, revised, and circulated. In Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, Stuart Selber (2004) articulated three components of digital multiliteracy: functional, critical, and rhetorical; and it is in large part through functional literacy that students gain access to critical and rhetorical literacies. Without attempting to reproduce the types of texts we want students to smartly analyze, students may not move from being merely competent users of technology to critical and aware readers and authors of digital texts, and we undermine our ability to "prepare students to be authors of twenty-first century texts" (p. 139). Moreover, Cheryl Ball (2004) reasoned that teachers should themselves be engaging in new media scholarship (as opposed to scholarship about new media), and that such engagement plays a pivotal role in changing how our discipline values the rigor and academic heft of multimodal scholarship. That is, our investment in the production process is not a precursor to nor a product of but rather is "making the case." Therefore, because of insights from DMAC and scholars like Selber and Ball, I now include production—the hands-on, often frustrating, nitty gritty chore of work—in every course I teach. Because this work can be slow, painstaking, and frustrating, we need to set reasonable, achievable goals for students, plan for setbacks, and most importantly, create safe, low-stakes environments where the focus remains on learning.

For me, one of the most gratifying elements of DMAC has been observing the collaboration that takes place between participants. And I'm not referring to the final projects that two or more individuals build jointly; I mean the moments in which one turns to the other and asks where to save a file, or when someone hears a neighbor sigh and volunteers some assistance, or—my personal favorite—when neither knows the answer but they hang in there until they figure it out. It's incredibly satisfying to watch participants move from intimidation to confidence, and as much as we instructors might be tempted to take credit for that, I think it's much more accurate to recognize that this largely comes from working together. In fact, I think sometimes that the more we instructors can get out of the way, the faster participants develop their own skills and resources, drawing from those around them.

Immediately, this helps participants recognize that theirs is a shared struggle, and that others are feeling just as frazzled. They also quickly see that they have things to offer in return. More long term, however, these teachers are building a support network of colleagues that continues beyond DMAC. Collaboration extends into conference presentations and article submissions. Even more significantly, they now have allies and advocates across the country who understand and support the non-traditional and sometimes risky pedagogy and scholarship of digital composing. And this is an enormous part of DMAC's professional activism in that it supports the activists on the ground, doing the work, taking the punches, encountering the resistance. A success from one of us means a success for all of us. Every time a born-digital project is recognized, it helps everyone doing born-digital work. On a macro level, we're continuing to play out these moments of shared frustration and joy that happen so often in the computer labs during DMAC, when one turns to the other and offers a bit of advice, or even just a word of encouragement. For most, this is still uncharted territory, and it's hilly terrain. We need all the comrades we can get.


Reflecting to Move Forward (Transcript)

Just as Scott DeWitt described the various uses of the word “record” as both an act and an artifact, the word “practice” similarly contains useful dimensions as both a verb and a noun. We practice using our skills to improve them, and much of what we learn comes through play, through exploration, and, really, from just trying to figure out how to use our tools in increasingly sophisticated ways. But we also create practices—habits of doing and being—that not only shape our work but grow out of our interests, intentions, and ideologies. Cheryl Ball (2004) observed that we as teacher-scholars often fail to practice what we preach (p. 404), and Cindy Selfe (2010) argued that faculty should be “role models” for students, ever expanding our own composing practices for the sake of increasing effective communication (p. 608). In Toward a Composition Made Whole, Jody Shipka (2011) described practice (verb) and the practices (noun) of multimodal composition as everyday communication that touches every part of our lives, and that by reflecting on our composing practices, we may continue to broaden and complicate what it means to communicate. In this way, DMAC’s commitment to reflection falls in line with Stuart Selber’s (2004) “reflection-in-action,” that rather than turning around at the end of a project (or “reflection-on-action”), we use reflection to take stock, shift course if necessary, and move forward, as Scott described in the video above. By making reflection-in-action part of our practice (noun), our practice (verb) becomes infinitely more valuable.

All this, of course, is easier said than done. The "where do we go from here?" moments come at us all the time, but as busy as we all are, we don't often allow ourselves the time to really ask the question nor take stock of what we've been doing. There are syllabi to create, students to teach, committees to serve, journals to read, articles to write, and papers to grade, and so on, semester in and semester out. Yet there is a deep value in forcing a full stop, creating a record of the current state of a project, articulating what led to the moment, and considering what comes next. I've tried (and failed) for years to be diligent about this—I can't count the number of journals, blogs, and files I've started in an attempt to record my own thoughts and processes—but as our work becomes more complex, layered, and multidimensional, I think the need for this kind of reflective work increases.

One of the perennial projects of DMAC has been the "Concept in 60" video. In years past, the assignment has been to create a video exactly 60 seconds long using visuals (either/both recorded and found video and/or images) and audio. In 2014, Scott and Cindy decided to change the assignment to "Concept in 90," and they built in a reflection process that allowed participants to take stock of their process and plan their next steps. (Scott DeWitt describes the assignment and its evolution in greater detail in Showcasing the Best of CIWIC/DMAC.) From my observations, building a reflection component into the Concept in 90 video project greatly enhanced both the rhetorical awareness and design savvy of participants and they worked out their own process. Cindy described this model of reflection as "pause and propel," and it's something worth seriously considering making a part of our practice, especially because our habits of being and doing too often give way to the material constraints of our packed schedules.

Creating a practice of reflection for the sake of forward motion makes our work sharper and more effective. It allows us to be more calculated and considered as we attempt to explain what we do and why we do it. We are able to more clearly and persuasively articulate the value of incorporating digital assignments into our composition courses, and we can make those assignments and our assessment of them more useful to our students. And a wonderful byproduct of this reflective practice is that we are assembling a repository of assets in the form of iterations of our work, useful to ourselves and others in our composing and the understanding of our work.


Teaching as Professional Activism (Transcript)

Much of understanding DMAC’s approach depends on broadening and complicating some of our god terms, like composing, technology, literacy, multimodality, and reflection. Regarding our pedagogy, production, and practice with a wider gaze leads not just toward a composition made whole, but toward a composer made whole, and if we are to make any difference in both the work and lives of our students, our pedagogy must remain focused on empowering them to both analyze and produce multimodal and digital texts in considered and rhetorically savvy ways. To that end, we teachers must engage in production ourselves, to practice what we preach, that we might better understand our students’ apprehension and struggle, that we might learn more effective ways to teach and communicate, and that we might “make the case” for new media scholarship by producing compelling multimodal and digital texts. Therefore, it seems unavoidable that we teachers incorporate digital production into our own practices, that we ourselves seek to achieve more developed functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies. As Cindy Selfe (1999) and Cheryl Ball (2004) stated so clearly, scholarship and activism are the same project, and the best way to “make the case” is to participate.

The project of DMAC recognizes that our work is multidimensional, layered, embedded, embodied, and complex. At its heart, this is activist work. It calls out for change. As we carry out our own versions of professional activism at our respective institutions, we work together across impoverished categories and arbitrary boundaries, learning from each other, cheering each other on, celebrating every victory, from a born-digital dissertation to learning how to create an MP3. And a good thing, too, because there's plenty to do. As Cindy reminds us in this final video, the work of DMAC—your work and my work—is far from over.


Special thanks to Scott DeWitt and Cindy Selfe for their generosity of time, insight, encouragement, and trust;
and to Ryan Trauman for his support, enthusiasm, tenacity, and friendship.


Adler-Kassner, Linda. (2008). The activist WPA: Changing stories about writing and writers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Bailie, Brian. (2010). “If you don’t believe that you’re doing some good with the work that you do, then you shouldn’t be doing it”: An interview with Cindy Selfe. Composition Forum, 21. Retrieved from

Ball, Cheryl E. (2004). Show, not tell: The value of new media scholarship. Computers and Composition, 21, 403-25.

Cushman, Ellen. (1996). The rhetorician as an agent of social change. College Composition and Communication, 47, 7-28.

DeWitt, Scott Lloyd, Harmon, Brian, Lackey, Dundee, & LaVecchia, Christina M. (2015). Techne in 60: The history and practice of the Concept in 60. Showcasing the Best of CIWIC/DMAC: Approaches to Teaching and Learning in Digital Environments, 1(1).

Retrieved from

Dobrin, Sidney I. (1997). Race and the public intellectual: A conversation with Michael Eric Dyson. Journal of Advanced Composition, 17, 143-82.

Harris, Joseph. (2000). Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: Class consciousness in composition. College Composition and Communication, 52(1), 43-68.

Freire, Paulo. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversay ed.). New York, NY: Continuum. (Original work published 1970.)

Selber, Stuart A. (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Selfe, Cynthia L. (1999). Technology and literacy in the twenty-first century: The importance of paying attention. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Selfe, Cynthia L. (2009). The movement of air, the breath of meaning: Aurality and multimodal composing. College Composition and Communication, 60(4), 616-63.

Selfe, Cynthia L. (2010). Response to Doug Hesse. College Composition and Communication, 61(3), 606-10.

Selfe, Cynthia L., & Hawisher, Gail E. (2004). Literate lives in the information age: Narratives of literacy from the United States. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Selfe, Cynthia L., & Hawisher, Gail E. (2012). Studying literacy in digital contexts: Computers and composition studies. In Kelly Ritter and Paul Kei Matsuda (eds.), Exploring composition studies: Sites, issues, perspectives (pp. 188-198). Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.

Selfe, Cynthia L., & Selfe, Richard J., Jr. (1994). The politics of the interface: Power and its exercise in electronic contact zones. College Composition and Communication, 45(4), 480-504.

Shipka, Jody. (2011). Toward a composition made whole. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Weisser, Christian R. (2002). Moving beyond academic discourse: Composition studies and the public sphere. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Williams, Bronwyn T. (2004). Are we having fun yet? Students, social class, and the pleasures of literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 48(4), 338-42.