Blog Post

03. Hack(asaurus)ing in the Rhetoric Classroom

I'm in my second semester teaching Rhetoric of Hacking, an intermediate class in Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. The course is designed in part to have students engage with public discourse around hacking, but it also asks students to think about the way in which hacking serves as a kind of rhetoric -- and as part of that latter goal, we spend a bunch of time on simulated or very basic computer hacking so that students, even those with minimal computer ability, can get a sense of what it feels like to be a computer hacker and what rhetorical ends can be achieved through hacking.

One of my favourite tools for this is what I persist in calling Hackasaurus, although it now seems to be going by X-Ray Goggles. It's a Mozilla tool that creates an editable mirror of any web page and lets you swap out images, text and other elements using a simple overlay interface; students are exposed to some html (enough to, say, embed an image or create a link), but aren't overwhelmed by the full source code of a page.

I teach in 75 minute periods and am fortunate enough to teach in a Digital Writing and Research Lab computer classroom, so on Hackasaurus Workshop Day, I demonstrate the tool quickly, walk students through installing the bookmarklet and then let them loose to hack whatever site they want, individually or in groups of up to three. 45 minutes or so later, I have each student email me the link to their hacked/remixed website, open them up on the big screen at the front of the classroom, and ask students to offer something of an artist's statement: What were you trying to do here? How did that work out? What'd you learn from this? What might you do differently next time?

This assignment could readily be adapted to a non-computer classroom, although I think it's best suited to a room with at least an instructor computer station and projector; in that scenario, I would introduce and demo the bookmarklet on one day and have students email me their remixed sites in advance of the next class in order to set up those informal, verbal artist statements.

Following on from the in-class activity, I've had students use this tool to create remixed websites for other assignments, including Hacked/Summaries (link to assignment prompt) and their final projects. One 'happy accident' result of students using the X-Ray Goggles to create an assignment was that it gave them an easy way to identify differences between their writing and their (web-based) target genre, since you can use this tool to 'drop in' your writing on any site you choose and then make a visual comparison.

For example, I had a student use the Goggles to present his final assignment as a Wired op-ed and when he submitted the first version, he'd written an academic-style argument, inserting the whole thing into a copy of a Wired page and adding pictures and a snappy headline. When we met for a conference about the paper -- part of a required revision process -- I suggested that he consider the differences between academic and journalistic writing. His response? "Oh, yeah. I noticed that my paper didn't look like the page I hacked." The revised paper came in with paragraphs one-third to half the size of the original -- far more in line with the ultra-short paragraphs typical of journalistic writing on the web.

This tool gets rave reviews from students, since it lets them experience the 'rush' and power of being a hacker, even (or maybe especially) for those with limited web-composing skillsas well as having an opportunity to engage with different forms of presentation ... and let's face it, it's fun to play with.

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