Is a Listicle Better than an Essay?

Beck Wise

Assignments, Pedagogy

Dusty Hixenbaugh teaches the Rhetoric of Country Music in the DWRL, asking his students to contribute to the Country Music Project as they examine ‘the arguments that have been made about country music and through the conventions of country music over the genre’s nearly hundred-year history’. Here, he talks about assigning his students to write a a Buzzfeed article.

Dusty Hixenbaugh - headshot

PRO: Your students know the genre.

“Since listicles are such a common presence on the internet these days, I figured that my students would have some previous experience with them … As I assumed, my students were all familiar with the concept of the listicle and had read dozens of them before. However, I wish I had not taken for granted that before enrolling in the course they had consumed content produced by Buzzfeed and similar sites uncritically, and in future semesters I will be directing them to more positive examples of strong listicles, even though that will mean analyzing Buzzfeed lists about subjects other than country music and lists related to country music that are published on other sites.”

CON: You have to learn the genre.

“Even before I decided to give students the option to publish their essays directly to Buzzfeed, I knew I wanted them to write a listicle like the ones that people on Facebook, Twitter, etc., are always sharing from that site. In fact, previous to doing my research for the prompt, I thought listicles was all Buzzfeed published. One challenge with designing unconventional assignments — ones that students publish to a third-party site rather than submit directly to me — is anticipating the problems they may run into. At first, I thought that having never published an article on Buzzfeed myself would be a liability. What little I know about Buzzfeed’s processes and conventions I know from reading occasional articles and the research I conducted for this assignment. However, in the end I think my lack of experience helped me write an effective prompt because I drafted it with many of the same questions that my students would eventually ask already in mind.”

PRO: They require different digital literacies.

“Several students embedded music videos for their respective songs, but I would say even more included animated GIFs … Compiling a list of songs for me, the teacher, is one thing. Compiling a list of songs and using them to illustrate a larger point about country music or a controversy for an audience of fairly young, web-savvy individuals who have no qualms writing excoriating comments is something else entirely.”

CON: They require different digital literacies.

“About a third of the class submitted their posts to Buzzfeed. More said they would have done it, except that the Buzzfeed article editor is a little finicky about videos and images (it’s a different software than WordPress, which we use for the class blog), and they were concerned that they would miss my deadline for the assignment if they spent too much time playing with it.”

PRO: They’re fun to write … and grade.

“[Many students] included animated GIFs. I attribute this to two causes: First, I used GIFs on the prompt, and they also appeared on the Buzzfeed article that we examined most closely, so I think students were oriented to seeing them as a feature of the assignment. Second, honestly, GIFs are fun. We had a good time in class using sites like Tumblr and Giphy to track them down … Also, happy side note: Buzzfeed articles, which by design are snappy and short, are easier and more enjoyable to grade.”

CON: The expectations of an external audience aren’t always clear …

“My hope as I drafted the assignment was that by aiming for an A in each of these categories that students would author articles likely to impress the editors at Buzzfeed. Evidently they didn’t, at least not to the extent required to be promoted, and so I may do some retooling before I assign the essay again. I probably need to spend more time investigating the articles that do get promoted myself, rather than relying on the research of people like Barby. What is most difficult about the assignment, I think, is the fact that Buzzfeed’s requirements are not stated clearly. Every post is said to be evaluated by an editor (which means it’s not inconceivable that some of my students’ work may be picked up later, if the editors are behind), but really it seems like getting promoted depends on a combination of factors including how interested the editor is in the topic, how compelling the prose is, etc.”

PRO: But figuring out those expectations could have big rewards.

“What led me to call the assignment the “Buzzfeed Article” is my larger quest as a teacher to offer my students opportunities to practice their writing skills in authentic contexts. I figure the best way to invest them in the writing I’m requiring is to prove that it’s something they could see themselves doing after they have completed the course … I had a student last semester land a competitive internship because his employer Googled him and found one of his posts on the class website. How cool would it be for students, particularly the ones who are majoring in related fields like journalism, to be able to write on their resumes that they have published a piece on one of the internet’s biggest sites that has already been shared X thousand times?”

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