The Writing Self Being Written: Textual Beings in Online Worlds

How do we represent ourselves (digi)textually? More specifically, in terms of writing in online platforms, what kinds of new subjectivities arise when we write in online, digital spaces? When we teach writing online, what kinds of subject positions do we expect students to occupy and be aware of? How do we teach freshman students these rhetorical skills? These are some of the questions that struck me early on as I started reading Scott Warnock’s Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. I was intrigued by what he said about self-representation: “…the way you frame yourself will influence how your students write throughout the course” (1). I have been fascinated by conversations about identity formations in Internet communities, and how (electronic) writing is related to representations of the self. The relationship between representation and writing is an important question to keep in mind for teaching composition online — as students write and compose texts in online platforms, they also have to be mindful of how they represent themselves textually, visually, and digitally in the content and knowledge that they’ve produced online. The question of self-representation becomes even more striking when one thinks about online communities, where the invisibility of audience (as Warnock discusses in his book) can create a tension for the contending categories of private and public selves.

Warnock suggests, however, that “your writing students need to operate in a semiprivate, safe area of the Web” (xviii). What are the boundaries between private and “semiprivate, safe” areas of the Interwebs? What are the boundaries of “semiprivate” and “semipublic” online spaces, and how do they differ? If one of the goals of composition is for students to be mindful of who their audience is, do we lose something in the process of restricting first-year composition students (Warnock does make it clear that his main target audience is first-year composition teachers) to “semiprivate, safe” spaces of the Web, instead of allowing them to be exposed to other Internet communities and individuals? Or, is this what is appropriate for first-year composition students (an idea related to one I had in a previous class, where I proposed that in a first-year composition course, students could be restricted to the kind of “semiprivate, safe area of the Web” (usually restricted to the class community) that Warnock talks about — in order for students to achieve their learning outcomes and goals for a freshman composition course — and then, once they get to a more advanced composition course, they could then use the rhetorical and digital literacy skills they have developed in their first-year (online/hybrid) composition course to navigate their way around a larger Internet community. The leveling up would be from writing in “semiprivate” spaces to public, or perhaps semipublic, spaces.

Moreover, Warnock suggests that online composition courses could provide for “the possibilities of a progressive step toward a ‘better’ composition class.” If we take the hypothesis suggested in the previous paragraph, then perhaps Warnock is really on to something. Consider the goals of Cope and Kalantzis’ Multiliteracies approach to pedagogy: “creating access to the evolving language of work, power, and community, and fostering the critical engagement necessary for [students] to design their social futures…”. If we take these goals into consideration, then teaching students the art of writing and composition online, starting from “semiprivate, safe” spaces, and moving towards semipublic and public spaces, could potentially provide for a scaffolding process of learning and writing the self across different platforms and spaces, so that students can become better citizens socially, digitally, and more importantly, humanistically (I really like that Warnock talks about the humanistic dimension of teaching composition online).

One last question I’d like to raise is, how do we teach students to read and write multimodal texts in online environments (in Chapter 7, Warnock talks about multimodal reading and writing experiences)? It seems that if multimodal textuality is one of the components of electronic composition, then composition itself would have to be redefined, an issue which has come up time and time again in our class discussions.


15 comments on “The Writing Self Being Written: Textual Beings in Online Worlds

  1. Regarding the notion of restricting first-year comp students to a “safe, semiprivate area of the web” to do their online work, I think there are many factors to consider– more than just safety. The phrase itself limits our considerations. As a teacher, I’m always thinking about the needs of basic reader/writers, so my concern is less about “safety” issues (I’m sure the students aren’t “afraid” of posting online publicly)and more about issues of cognitive overload. There is a limit to how many disparate tasks, how many new skills we can require of our students. We have to make choices about what to preference in our instruction. For this reason I agree with you that learning the online literacy skills necessary for meaningfully public and academic discourse may have to wait until sophomore year.

  2. Viola, I feel that the discussions of online identity formation and “writing the self” are very slippery because, compared to a f2f familiarisation, the digital tools we have at our disposal are still relatively limited. For example, if I tell people “IRL” that I’m an animal lover who sometimes helps rescue efforts, they’ll understand that it’s just one aspect of my identity/life/being. But if I join a Facebook group, for some reason, they are more inclined to see me as some kind of animal rights activist. It’s as if, when we construct one another through online social media, we have a tendency to fill in the gaps, which is dangerous because it’s the exact operation we do in stereotyping.

    I think, though, to go along with your title, that writing online–be it through alphabetic or visual texts–has the power to rectify this shortcoming because we can create more nuanced versions of ourselves.

    • Hi Al,

      I think you hit on something that is related with the notions of embodiment and materiality. As you point out, revealing something about yourself in “IRL” (it took me a moment to get that, btw – ha!) versus online, such as on Facebook, may be construed in different and varying ways and degrees by the people you speak to and those who read your online profile and updates (I think Facebook’s move to “liking” every page will also have similar implications). I think these varying responses to what people reveal about themselves have much to do with the medium in which these revelations are instantiated. Spaces and materialities of information matter, and change the ways in which people perceive the information they are receiving.

  3. I don’t know Warnock’s book – – ‘tho I’ll have to pick it up now.

    I’m wondering about his opposition in re ‘”the boundaries between private and “semiprivate”’ – – or semipublic, semiprivate, and private. In what ways are “private” spaces private? I’m thinking of the CMS/LMS environment – – like Blackboard and Moodle. From one angle, they appear to be silos – – access controls that corral activity off from the wider “internets.” From another angle, however, they are institutional spaces, and so subject to all kinds of non-private conditions. Who constructs these “private” spaces? With what “public” or even ideological values and purposes? Can a space still be private or semi-private when it’s created, maintained, regulated, and surveilled by an institution?

    I wonder the extent to which the private versus public simplifies and so obscures the complexities of private spaces?

    True, I don’t know Warnock’s stuff – – but in terms of writing pedgagoy – – to what extent is the “private” less a zone of individual autonomy, ownership, and fictions of liberal individualism than a particular incarnation of the public or social? E.g. thinking of Bakhtin, Vygotsky, et al – – for whom the conditions of all communication are social and so in some sense “public.”

  4. I don’t see Warnock as being very theoretical with his “public/private” distinction; he’s really just looking for a way to distinguish kinds of access and exposure. We’ve been talking about this distinction more in terms of the “walled garden” of CMS’s vs. the “open range” of the interwebs. I kind of thought Warnock’s preference for a CMS environment was mostly tied to his philosophy of “migration.” That is to say, he knows that convincing faculty to do *anything* online is an uphill climb, and that the wildness/unpredictability of the web might frighten some away.

    But the issue of public/private *is* an interesting one. I guess I see a CMS environment not as “semi-private” but more as a differently constituted public. Teachers (ostensibly) control that public, both through restricting access and through explicit instructions to participants about what one posts, how one responds, etc. in that setting. A blog, on the other hand, has fewer affordances for such control (although they can be made “private”). Take, for instance, Alex Reid’s earlier response to a post on this blog, or Larry’s comment above. I’m also thinking about Charles Tryon’s experience of having his students’ blogs scrutinized by the blogosphere.

    I’ve always kind of wondered just how “private” or “public” our on-site classroom spaces are. Teachers can control access to the room — or can they? At SFSU, we have a system of teaching observation (surveillance) that means we have to allow members of a personnel committee to come in and see what’s going on. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it does mean that access is more complicated than we might think. And beyond access, we cannot really control what sorts of information flow in or out of the classroom. Is a CMS really any different?

    • Well, thanks – – now I am going to have to read Warnock. Kory, I’m wondering about a broader question – – in re issues of public/private – – that I’m sure has been debated w/i comp/rhet etc. circles: to what extent is any student writing for a class and a professor really “private”? No matter what kind of writing students are doing – – from journals to essays – – almost all of it is going to end up being evaluated by institutionally-designated readers (e.g. professors) for institutionally-designated purposes (e.g. signs of “improved” writing or writing process).

      To take a kind of exaggerated Foucauldian view – – I’m wondering to what extent the CMS/LMS deepens and extends the making visible of writing practices for evaluation – – e.g. discipline and control. By contrast, can blogs and other read/write instances cede more control of this visibility process to students?

  5. Hi Prof. H. — Thanks for stopping by!

    I have to agree with Kory’s comment below that Warnock is not very theoretical with his “public/private” distinction, and I am taking some of the statements he makes in the Introduction and extracting more from it than what Warnock himself really intended, I think. I do think that the public-private distinction needs to continue to be theorized as the spaces in which we produce and receive information/content are increasingly virtual, thus making the boundaries between public/private and questions of access relevant issues to tackle, especially when it comes to writing spaces and academic institutions. In the case of student writing, I think students have to be aware of how different spaces affect ways in which meaning is produced, etc. (I wonder what kinds of exercises could achieve this? How can we get students to be more aware of materialities of spaces and how they affect the content being produced/written, and how their own embodiment in a CMS versus physical classroom changes their interaction with the content/information…).

    Larry — I think the points you raise about the CMS are important ones, and I agree that even though the CMS/LMS tend to be seen as more “private” spaces, they are still institutionally-bound. Going along with Kory’s point about the CMS versus the physical classroom, though, it could be said that they share similar affordances of the possibility of participants to carry their conversations beyond those spaces. One of the differences, however, is that the writing that happens in a CMS is documented within that system/environment/space (and thus is arguably a more static form of writing within what I would call a privatized public), whereas much of the information in a classroom is embodied in voice and verbal articulations, so that if conversations are carried beyond the classroom, they could take on a life of its own, separate from the classroom, continually changing (I would even go so far as to say that the sorts of information that flow in and out of the classroom has the characteristics of a Twitter conversation line that keeps going, and that straddles the line between private and public conversations). Can we compare blogs to conversations carried out in the classroom, in that they seem like private conversations with the author/speaker, but exist within the bigger space of the public realm?

    With that said, is all writing already social? I think the question that Larry raises above is worthy of further thought: “…to what extent is the ‘private’ less a zone of individual autonomy, ownership, and fictions of liberal individualism than a particular incarnation of the public or social?”. And, if we take this question into consideration, does such an “incarnation of the public or social” changes the nature of what’s being articulated, and in what ways do the changes occur?

  6. I’m going to add one more thing, which has been bugging me a bit since I stuck my Warnock-ignorant toe into these waters. Taking a different kind of tack – – we often think of the public/private distinction in terms of the differences between public and private selves: professor vs. father; Am lit scholar vs. avid kayaker; basic comp writer vs. rhymer and rap aficionada. Within these conventions, the private is where we get to express our individuality, our style, our idiosyncracies etc. As articulated by liberal ideologies of individualism, the private is like the weekend to the public’s work week.

    But, if we see the CMS as more private – – how much of this self-expression does the CMS allow? To go back to a question Viola raised some time ago: from one perspective, it’s about aesthetics. What kind of “private” self does the CMS, with its generic, bland interface and regulated affordances support or construct? One of my resistances to the CMS/LMS has been it’s Fordist approach to learning and learners – – e.g. stripping out any possibility of “owning” the means of production in the name of standardized medium and experience. If part of what we do in using technology in the classroom – – explicitly or implicitly – – is to “interpellate” our students into the meaning, forms, and relations of “technology,” what version of “technology” (and subjectivity) – – its uses, meanings, etc. – – does the CMS/LMS educate our students into?

    Perhaps the “vernacular creativity” hyped by Jenkins and Humanities 2.0 people is a way of re-thinking the public/private – – commons/silo – – distinction?

    • What a great discussion. I don’t think I have much coherent to add, although I would maybe like to trouble a conflation I see lurking in here, between “public” and “social.” I believe all language use is (to borrow an over-used pomo term) always already social, but it is not necessarily public. I guess I kind of view the mode of textual production under which students submit writing to be read only by an instructor as a kind of private communication, in the same way a “private letter” is a correspondence meant for a specific individual.

      Things get complicated with the advent (or intrusion) of collaborative learning, when one’s classmates (ostensibly) become audience members. Is this collective of teacher/peers a “public”? I honestly don’t know. It’s certainly an audience, though.

      I tend to agree about CMS/LMS blandness, but I’m not sure the aesthetics are everything (I may be tipping my hand here as an ex-literature-person-turned-compositionist). I worry much more about implicit pedagogical affordances, which is why I use Moodle, which isn’t perfect, but at least aims to enable social-constructivist sorts of activities. A CMS like Sakai, on the other hand, is all about the deliverables — and then does a dreadful job of it.

      But I’m also tending in my thinking toward the “free range” model, setting students loose on the interwebs, and only really using a CMS as a portal/gateway/green room of sorts. Of course, even Web 2.0 applications aren’t exactly immune to the effects of post-Fordism.

  7. Aesthetics are definitely not everything. But, aesthetics and affordances are intimately related.

    When I taught “remedial” or “basic” writing at CUNY, I’d start the semester off with a writing assignment about desks and chairs: e.g. what kind of “users” and practices did the makers of the incredibly uncomfortable classroom desks/chairs have in mind when they designed them? How did these representations of students, schooling, and learning affect the design of the “technology” we sat in everyday and how did these designs “interpellate” students? E.g. designing comfortless desks seemed to imply, as students would point out, that students didn’t need to be comfortable and that students were sleepy and needed to be kept awake, etc.

    Thinking about aesthetics in broadest sense seems to me to include affordances. Or maybe aesthetics is the wrong word and the better word is simply “design” – – (btw – – I like Steven Johnson’s Interface Culture because of his capacious use of “design” to include both dimensions of experience.).

  8. I’ve had similar conversations with students, along the lines of Donald Norman’s ideas on design and affordance (a word which my spell checker still insists isn’t real). I like the term “design” much better, and agree that CMS’s have a long way to go in that area.

    But I’m also thinking that constraints (the antithesis of affordances) aren’t always bad things. In his “Rhetoric of Video Games,” Ian Bogost argues that “procedures (or processes) are sets of constraints that create possibility spaces, which can be explored through play”( That is, the play is made possible only through some set of procedures, rules, or constraints — even arbitrary ones. Or maybe freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Again, I guess I would like to see the rules or constraints of a CMS be more conducive to productive “play.”

  9. Wow, some really interesting ideas here! I’m really fascinated by the issue of design as it relates to teaching and learning.

    Just as classroom architecture is important to student learning (I really like Prof. H’s example of his writing assignment on desks and chairs, and how their design contributes or hampers student learning), design in new media texts and platforms is also a topic worthy of debate, as design foregrounds how participants learn and interact with one another. For instance, a classroom in which chairs and desks are arranged in rows are more conducive to lectures, whereas a circular arrangement = more active discussions.

    In a 2009 conference session, Howard Rheingold also stated how much he detested the arrangement of the room he is in, “I hate this classroom… what kinds of tools could I have brought in here so that we could dismantle it… this is a concrete manifestation, an instantiation of everything that is a barrier to participation in education” (see the video here: Both Rheingold and Hanley’s examples point to the importance of design, and how they affect learning and education. I think these examples parallel issues of design in new media texts/platforms.

    I think the real challenge, as Kory points out, is how to “see the rules or constraints of [the design of] a CMS be more conducive to productive ‘play.’” I think that this is such an interesting topic… My take on this is that the limitations of the CMS’s interface design can make students more aware of the materiality of the medium in which they are working in, and can potentially produce moments of critical reflexivity as students question and reflect on how the CMS affects their learning. I think that such spaces could generate productive results as participants/students dismantle the design in the process of play and expanding the possibilities of the space.

    My question, though, is if the CMS is so limited in its interface design, what kinds of “possibility spaces” can arise from such constrained spaces? What kinds of skills would students need to challenge the CMS model in productive play (in addition to the ability of thinking outside the box, would it require technical skills as well)?

    I am also reminded of the Multiliteracies’ educational goal of creating greater access for more diverse populations via multimodal texts. The CMS design does not seem to be in line with the ideas that Multiliteracies advocates. As much as I would like to think that “possibility spaces” could arise out of productive play within the constrained spaces of the CMS, I also think that it is imperative to make the affordances bigger than the constraints, at least in terms of education and learning. This stimulating discussion made me go back to an essay I read by Gunther Kress on the subject of “Design and Transformation,” in which he says, “…the facilities of Design… will be essential for equitable participation in social, economic and cultural life. It would be unforgivable dereliction of the responsibilities of intellectuals if the potentials of representation and communication–of literacy in a very broad and metaphoric sense–offered by current developments were not fully explored, and a concerted attempt made to shape their direction to bring about at least some of the much talked-about utopian visions of communication in the electronic age.”

  10. Pingback: These are a Few of My Favorite Posts (Part II) « Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

  11. Educause put out a pretty interesting tome on “learning spaces” a couple of years ago. ( I wonder Viola, given your interest in materialities – – how learning spaces would figure into online teaching/learning? E.g. if as Oblinger et al. (the Educause book) argue for the causal relations between physical space and learning – – does the ubiquitous web cancel these relations? or does it encourage students to develop new “habituses” [? – – plural?] of learning, pace Bourdieu?

    Maybe this also goes back to the “device” paradigm for thinking about technology – – e.g. the belief, especially among administrative cadres, that where there are laptops there is learning. I.e. we don’t need to worry about the physical classroom and classroom spaces, so long as students have connectivity? [I’m thinking here of the guidelines that SFSU’s academic technology department published during the H1N1 scare – – ways to continue teaching/learning if the classroom was saturated with viral invaders etc.]

    In re design, Steven Johnson asserts, maybe more for shock and awe value, in Interface Culture that: “We will come to think of the interface design as a kind of art form – – perhaps the art form of the next century” (213). Provocative – – but an interesting way to think about interfaces.

    The more I’ve read over these comments – – the more I’m getting interested in the idea of “affordances.” A very helpful term – – but also one that may carry with it a particular way of thinking about the relations between people and technology. I’m wondering if the cognitive science origins of the term (carrying with it a certain kind of behaviorism) might frame “affordance” in ways that need to be complicated? Norman definitely wants to background aesthetics – – understandable given the kind of arguments he’s making to the kind of audiences he’s making them at the time he’s making them. But how much of the rich experience of the interface is left out by this focus?

  12. A very different approach to “relations between people and technology” might be Bruno Latour’s stuff on assemblages and actor-network theory. He ascribes agency (of a sort) to humans and non-humans alike. So, he might treat person-with-a-gun (or maybe person-with-a-cell-phone) as an entirely different kind of agent than a person or gun on its own.

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