The “YouTube Rhetoric” of Online Teaching

Published on June 1, 2021

The 2021 Oxford Learner Dictionaries defines the term “rhetoric” as “speech or writing that is intended to influence people...”[1] In this way, some arguments posed by my students this year can be deemed rhetoric. I recently completed my first year as a Teaching Assistant at York University in Toronto for a first-year general education Humanities course. Students were required to answer questions I posed in weekly forums to earn their participation grade. My students undoubtedly wrote their weekly responses with the intent of convincing me not only of the validity of the general arguments posed, but to grant them their participation grade. At times, these posts were neither convincing nor “entertaining”. However, the underlying argumentative logic embedded within these responses has prompted the writing of this piece for the CHA and an identification of what I have termed “YouTube rhetoric”. 

 “YouTube rhetoric” is the general attempt to “influence” in a manner similar to what one would see in Twitter, Reddit, and, especially, YouTube comments. I have chosen YouTube as the primary platform to base my observations on because it is most familiar to me. Although my interactions with Twitter and Reddit are more limited, I noticed YouTube comments combine Twitter’s 140 character short-form style with Reddit’s “in-depth” research practice and analysis. While I understand the limitations of a two-paragraph post, or comment, most students crafted their responses in the style of “YouTube rhetoric”.

There were a number of rhetorical similarities found in the weekly posts that can often be found in social media comment sections. These posts tended to use vague phrases, such as “olden times” or “in the olden days” that can also be seen on various social media platforms, without referencing any form of historical specificity in their responses.[2] I quickly learned by reading my students’ work that “olden times” could have encompassed both Bronze Age Greece and Toronto, Canada circa 1992.[3] I thought it important to correct student responses that relied on such terms. Meaning can shift depending on one’s historical space, place, and time and without historical specificity, this meaning can be lost. I adopted historical specificity as one of my primary pedagogical approaches to teaching, stressing the importance of space, place, and time in assignment comments and during tutorial.

As an emerging professional historian, I am aware that these phrases lend themselves to the universalizing of knowledge, which is also a mainstay of the (predominantly English-speaking) media platforms familiar to me. Returning to the words “olden times”, this terminology could have various meanings for different people.[4] For example, one person could perceive the “olden times/days” to mean the decade of the 1920s, while someone else could view the “olden days” as the eighteenth century.[5] Yet, my students have presented such wording as common knowledge, perceiving their assumed definitions and uses of these terms to be universal. Such assumed universality has also prompted me to ask for expansions and clarification, mainly when utilized in assignments, to help students grapple with the new experience of engaging in historical thinking.

Another example of the contemporary influence of social media in academic settings can be found when my students have used a phrase I have only seen exclusively and fiercely wielded online. That phrase is “in my opinion”.[6] Each week, under my forum discussion question, I left instructions for my students to answer the discussion question/task directly using the reading and lecture materials. Each post was to be one to two paragraphs long, and free of spelling and grammar errors. I instructed them to avoid summarizing the readings and focus their attention on critical analysis. Most importantly, I specified they avoid the phrase “in my opinion”. I provided alternatives such as “I think/thought” and “I interpreted”.  Alas, the dreaded phrase would weave its way into my students’ responses despite my weekly instructions and my correctional comments made under such posts. “In my opinion” is a helpful phrase when making a YouTube video about a particular person or company to ensure the content does not veer into the slanderous.[7] However, in the context of the formally graded discussion posts, “in my opinion” is not an entirely appropriate phrase choice. The phrase “in my opinion” denotes an opinion rather than a critical analysis or a scholarly or even experience-based argument.  Although this blog post is an opinion piece, and the irony of my lamentations is not lost. 

It is likely, given I was assisting in a first-year class, that I received these responses because of the young ages of my students. Undoubtedly, they will learn to hone and develop their writing and analytical skills with time and experience. It is possible that they are coming into university classes ill-equipped for writing assignments, even short ones, due to the understandable strains COVID-19 has placed on secondary learning institutions. It is possible I held my students to a high standard- a standard informed by my personal goals and work habits. Additionally, as an English-speaking (PhD candidate just past my first year) Canadian born and raised, I can find suitable alternatives to the meaning of “in my opinion” to convey my argument. Therefore, my avoiding of the phrase is easier said than done. However, “YouTube rhetoric” leaves very little room for nuanced and critical discourse, and throughout this course I offered students alternate options for communicating their thoughts and ideas that went beyond these phrases.

This “YouTube rhetoric” has given me much to ponder. Should academia, itself a colonial/ “centre-focused” space (with Canada, the US, and Great Britain hailed as the knowledge producers), be evolving with the broader internet and pop-cultural changes around it? Is social media, at times an equally colonial and “centre-focused” space, changing what is considered “good” discourse? Or, more frightening still, am I simply out of touch?

Author 1 June
Evania Pietrangelo-Porco is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at York University. Her research interests include twentieth-century Canadian history, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Gender history, and North American Indigenous history. She is the recipient of the Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS-Master’s Scholarship (2019-2020), the CSN-RÉC Best Undergraduate Essay Prize (2019), and the Odessa Prize for the Study of Canada (2018-2019).

Twitter: @EvaniaPorco

[1] “Rhetoric,” Oxford Learner Dictionaries, 2021, https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/rhetoric?q=rhetoric
[2] *For this post, most terms in quotation marks are paraphrased. Additionally, some of the examples I used are not necessarily specific examples but are composed of broad patterns and behaviours.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

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