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.