WRD Faculty Profile: Erin MacKenna Sandhir

This post is written by WRD Student Assistant, Charlene Haparimwi.

Erin MacKenna Sandhir, a faculty member in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse, was inspired to develop WRD 265: Social Movement, Social Media, and American Identities after the success of a similar course at the graduate level last fall. This online course introduces students to social movements like civil rights and women’s liberation from a rhetorical perspective and explores ways that social media has reoriented American political participation.

“I found that the students were already engaged in social movements at every level and nimbly adapted concepts from the course material to their own work,” MacKenna Sandhir says. “Many of these students had well-established personal commitments to innovating and experimenting with new democratic participation.”

WRD 265 Course Work

WRD 265 fulfills Liberal Studies credit in the Social, Cultural, and Behavioral Inquiry domain, which focuses on the mutual impact of society and culture on individuals and of individuals on society and culture. The term projects at the graduate level helped inform the structure of this undergraduate course.

“For their term projects, the graduate students created memes, GIFs, and hashtags to advance, theoretically, at least, the goals of social movements they chose to research. In WRD 265, we are interested in how people interact with social movements or protest events in order to gain power and influence social, economic and political institutions.

Students can expect to practice analyzing social movement events and protest action from a rhetorical perspective.

“For the first half of the term, we will explore how social movement rhetorics find and deploy the available means of persuasion to access power and makes changes in the public sphere,” MacKenna Sandhir explains. “Our work in the class will be geared toward answering the following questions: ‘When we face precarious conditions as American citizens, how do we access power in order to make our lives more livable? ‘What affords us the capacity to enact lasting change in our communities and broader culture?’”

What to Expect

MacKenna Sandhir’s students will spend time examining discursive protest activities circulated through social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and particularly those actions aimed at ending racist oppression, gender discrimination, and the erosion of democratic participation.

“For example, we will analyze the rhetorical impact of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem—a protest action related to the Black Lives Matter movement—and the counter-protests deployed via Twitter. One recent example that demonstrates the dynamic interaction between online and offline protests took place in October when Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a Colts game and explained his decision via Twitter.”

MacKenna Sandhir explains that her class will also examine the use of social media sites as counterpublics in which users can coalesce, develop counterdiscourses to consolidate group identities, and plan agitational activities.

“This diverse set of examples of digitally-networked protest actions is meant to assure students that they have broad creative license in producing their own multimodal artifacts, which are produced as part of the students’ term projects.”

WRD 265 will also highlight key rhetorical figures in social movements.

“Students will have the opportunity to engage with influential texts from social movement studies like Robert Cox and Christina R. Foust’s “Social Movement Rhetoric,” Franklyn S. Haiman’s “The Rhetoric of the Streets,” and Catherine Helen Palczewski’s “Cyber-movements, New Social Movements, and Counterpublics. Later in the term, we’ll spend time with Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest,” MacKenna Sandhir said.

Final Thoughts

Finally, MacKenna Sandhir spoke on how the democratization of access to information aids in disrupting old models of power distribution through rhetorical ways.

“We’ve seen how ordinary citizens can produce footage on their cell phones and quickly circulate that footage to wide networks of users,” MacKenna Sandhir explains. “As a result, mainstream news networks are compelled to cover stories they might otherwise have the power to ignore. Whether we can just “like” a post about Ferguson—if  Facebook’s algorithm makes it visible—or  select one of five animated emojis, shapes how we interact with the social and political issues of our time.”

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