Emojis One More Time

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I recently had an opportunity to sit in on the dissertation defense of Dr. O.W. Petcoff at Texas Tech University’s program in Technical Communication and Rhetoric. In addition, I had the pleasure of reading her dissertation and talking with her about her work, both before and after the defense. Petcoff was teaching developmental reading and writing at a Texas community college, where one major goal was to help her adult learners achieve “area mastery proficiencies” called for by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Her dissertation grew out of observing what she calls her students’ “borderline obsession with texting” and their familiarity and comfort level with emojis as means of communication—she describes some of the texts she saw (but could not comprehend) as “a combination of hieroglyphics, shorthand, and Klingon”). Increasingly intrigued by the disconnect between her students’ traditional academic literacy skills and heir avid communication via texting, she asked “how were they able to so freely communicate with fellow classmates, some of whom spoke different languages, but struggle with traditional reading and writing?” They were doing so, she found, using a combination of emojis and textisms (defined by linguists as abbreviations, letter/number homophones, and emoticons). 


people looking at smartphones with various emojis floating above their heads.jpg


Petcoff set off to do what teachers of writing do: move from close observation of students and their ways of communicating to research. She read deeply in semiotics (and discovered Marcel Danesi’s The Semiotics of Emoji) and began to trace the history of pictorial language and ideographs. She returned to the Students’ Right to their Own Language and many other calls for attending to, and respecting, all of our students’ languages and dialects—and she began to conceptualize her dissertation study, “Exploring Emoji as a Literacy Instructional Tool in the Developmental Reading and Writing Classroom.” 

I am certain that Petcoff will be publishing her findings and the implications of those findings in a number of venues, and these publications will be ones to watch for. In her carefully designed study, Petcoff analyzed her students’ communicative abilities related to their use of emojis and textisms, showing that their understanding (reading) of texts improved significantly and that emoji serve as a powerful semiotic multimodal literacy and rhetorical tool within an instructional framework based on semiotics, new literacy theory, and anti-racist practices. 

Language—our means of making sense of the world—is always changing and shifting and adapting. And language is already visual: as Leslie Marmon Silko reminds us, written words are, after all, images. The evolution of language into more pictographic visual signs is entirely possible if not already well in progress. So we need much more work on these issues. In the meantime, teachers of writing and reading can gather important information from close observation of student writing on devices of all kinds. 


Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.