A native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Dr. Johnson started her college career studying psychology and minoring in English at St. Norbert. However, she found herself gravitating more towards her English studies, and when she transferred to Northern Michigan University two years later to earn her bachelor’s degree, she declared an English major. The critical and literature-heavy components of her English studies were what inspired her work in digital literacy as she completed her master’s degree in English Pedagogy.
“I became fascinated by theory and how different perspectives of the world can inform how we look at texts and how we understand them,” she states. “I started to become interested in the way technology shapes how we communicate. With technology, we are able to produce, analyze, critique, and question the ways that images, sounds, and words can be rhetorical and serve a particular purpose for communication,” she explains.
As part of her dissertation while completing her Ph.D. in English Rhetoric and Composition at Washington State University, she investigated the Japanese Unicode System of emojis. “I looked a lot at the power dynamics of emojis, and specifically at how they originated in Japan as a way to save money when [users] were texting,” she says. Emojis served the purpose of condensing communication while conveying a message accurately, and, in a culture concerned with respect, Japanese emoji users want to make sure respect and gratitude are communicated.
“Now, as emojis are more globalized, they are communicating different values that are more subservient to a Western user,” she states. She describes how emojis have assumed a default user, particularly a white person who has lived an Americanized life, as shown by the limited range of race representation in emojis’ early stages, along with the first race option being white. “When we think about communication design and ethics, what’s wrong with that?” Dr. Johnson asks.
Dr. Johnson turned to her own heritage to further investigate this issue. “I’m part Mexican and Spanish, and I looked at the different visual rhetoric that was going on in the Western hemisphere during ancient times. I looked at Ecuador and the ways people used visual rhetoric and how it was colonized by the Spanish during conquest. We see these same things going on, and they’re issues of ethical communication design that transcend space and time. My work with emojis has gotten me to start thinking about what ethical design would look like if we were to think about it as a methodology.”
Dr. Johnson ties her work with emojis and default users of technology into what she’d like to do in her time here on campus. “As a cultural rhetorician,” she shares, “I would like to do some work partnering with our cultural centers to talk about the ways that different cultures have contended with writing and technology, and what we can learn from them based on their interpretations of a default user.” Explaining the critical approach writing studies has taken to considering how perspective influences design, Dr. Johnson references the way scholars in her field have examined the Microsoft interface, with its office-like design of folders and trash bins. “It’s meant to physically embody what the white-collar working-class would define as a workspace. How might someone who doesn’t fit that category have a hard time intuitively accessing that?” she questions. “I’d like to do work to come more critically at technology use, and to think about what kind of culture it is more privy to because of how it looks and how it ends up being used, and if it’s not an inclusive thing, how can we make it be one?”
Her research and fascination with technology as communication inspire her teaching here at UWEC. Teaching in both the Blugold seminar and the Rhetorics of Science, Technology, and Culture major, Dr. Johnson asks students to contend with questions like, “Who’s in control? The tool, or me?”
Digital literacy is a core component of the Blugold seminar curriculum, she shares, and she’s teaching it from a digital-privacy perspective, one of her areas of interest. She asks students to consider what it means when the tool, such as the technologies we use to write, starts to watch us, and what it does to our communication. Specifically, she asks students to look at technological writing spaces themselves, such as Facebook, and how some are designed to take our data from us. She then asks students to consider how knowing this changes the way we communicate.
“For example, as a result of talking about a new pair of boots I really want, I start to see it on my Facebook,” she elaborates. “My experience of online communication begins to be shaped to personalize my interest, and when that happens, what does that do to my rhetoric and critical thinking?” Such are the relevant and critical issues Dr. Johnson presents to her students.
Dr. Johnson shares that she is excited about the new Blugold Makerspace that is set to open on campus this semester. “I see a makerspace as a place to investigate, question, and, most importantly, play with and assemble different technologies. I think it’d be a great opportunity to not only teach digital literacy, but to also demystify what we think it is,” she explains.
Dr. Johnson concludes that she’d love to get to know and work with more students and mentor them in any way she can. “As a new faculty, I’m still getting to know students, so even though I’m here as the digital literacy specialist, I would encourage any student who has interest in rhetoric broadly, or the ways that different writing tools shape the way we do things, to come talk to me,” she says. “My door is always open, and I would love to meet and connect with different students, even if they’re not English majors.”