As I continue my synthesis of ideas from the class blog , I should mention that you all have written lots of great stuff about many subjects including games, podcasting, multimedia and so on, but I will ignore all that for now in favor of what supports, expands or challenges the ideas I have been developing about my own teaching methods which seem particularly relevant to teaching a face to face, textually based writing class with online support.
Real Audience, Real Purpose
Mark D. Kelly writes in “Big Shift 10,” “We all know the feeling of laboring over a particularly painful paper, frustrated by the effort it can take to produce work that will be handed in, graded, returned, and thrown away . . . most students dispose of schoolwork once a course is completed, relegating the fruits of their intellectual labor to the blue bin on the curb. They can find no place for their work on their bookshelves, let alone imagining a place for it out there, in the world. But modern network connectivity may offer student work a place in the world, a chance to contribute to scholarly pursuits and general knowledge, a chance to avoid the void of the blue bin. The internet has changed dramatically the way we find, store, and share information. Anyone can now publish work with a few clicks, and chances are there will be an audience for it.” Teachers have long spoken about student-centered classes based on active learning, and yet most continued the dynamic of producing writing in order to prove something to a teacher — an understanding of a text or mastery of a form — rather than writing to share knowledge, insights and passion, the true purpose of writing as a social activity. The web can make this educational dream a reality, democratizing knowledge in ways never seen before.
Al Harap adds an important qualification to the dream of a new democratic sharing of information in, “TWinaDA Means ‘I Love You’ Even If I Don’t Understand You.” He wonders, “are they (or any of us) really free from controlling forces in digital media? One of Buckingham’s concerns points to ‘the undemocratic tendencies of online communities’ . . . In fact, if we look at one such online community like Facebook, it’s quite apparent that there is a lot of follow-the-leader activities going on.” Knowledge is more available to more kinds of people than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that it is not controlled and manipulated in many ways, and, more importantly, the explosion of knowledge really hasn’t dramatically changed the world. Instead it has tended to reinforce what people believe, rather than to challenge our basic philosophies, causing in most cases an intensification of affinity groups rather than a more universal identification.
Mark Bolster also problematizes the creation of identity in the digital age in, “What Good is Identity?” He writes that he never used to think “that my appreciation of classical Western literature was informed by any specific value system . . . But graduate school has forced me to change my world view and start looking at the ways everything I do carries some sort of loaded meaning, and our job as teachers may be to get students to understand this.” This ties back to the importance of integrating research and writing in order to develop critical thinking and the limitation that critical thinking is determined by cultural background. Mark continues to discuss Facebook and blog posts by saying, “examining how you respond to your friends, what kinds of videos you post, and how your economic, social, and historical situatedness has allowed you to do engage in those activities can make connections in ways that our students may not have seen before.” As humans, we tend to think of ourselves as the neutral point and everyone else as variations. Teachers, according to Mark, can help students recognize their own preconceptions and perspectives, which will make their participation in the cultural dialogue more open, honest and engaging.
Voice, Identity, Ongoing Conversation
Acknowledging the validity of out-of-class writing and, if possible incorporating it in the class in an honest and transparent way encourages the development of a holistic personal voice and writing identity, arising out of a writer’s unique interests and motivation. “Writing is related to representations of the self,” Viola wrote in “The Writing Self Being Written: Textual Beings in Online Worlds,” the most successful post on our blog (gauging by number of responses), “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 more urgent online where the potentially limitless audience “creates a tension for the contending categories of private and public selves.” In other words, writing navigates a tricky borderland between the private and public lives of an individual. Writing, if it is to have any authenticity, must arise from a person’s private persona, yet writing is an essentially social act. Even a writer who squirrels away their writing or requests its destruction upon death must write to someone, however imaginary. Teachers should help students move gradually from this private world to a public space. According to Viola, instruction should help students move gradually from safe, semi-private writing in the first year to semi-public, shared writing in later classes.
Making Intentions Explicit
The danger of trying to connect everyday and academic writing is setting up a kind of creepy treehouse effect, an artificial environment that is supposed to be recreate the familiar, more entertaining worlds that students move through outside of class, when in fact an overwhelming, but hidden presence of a teacher hovers over all interactions, turning child-like spontaneity into poorly disguised adult intentionality. Ruthie explains, “By trying to lure students into the world of composition through deceptive means and hiding the teachable moments, we could invade the students’ social environment and dismiss their intelligence.” Not making the underlying rationale for an assignment explicit indicates to students that a teacher thinks they are too stupid too understand why a particular activity is important and also loses out on the opportunity of a “teachable moment,” a chance to examine why we write and why we write differently in different environments. Making it obvious that you are not trying to recreate out-of-class writing activities, but to reinvent them for new purposes should prevent most creepy treehouse effects. The important thing here is honesty, or as Ruthie so effectively put it, “Intention, Intention, Intention.”
Using a Blog to Encourage Academic Writing
April gives a very helpful summary of the advantages and disadvantages of using a blog in a classroom in her post, “Academic Blogging as New Literacy,” supporting many of the things that I have listed in this post and the previous part, including the collaborative nature of blogs, blending of private/public spaces, establishing an academic identity and multimodal issues (which I have chosen to ignore). I considered summarizing her list here, but every attempt short-changed the list, so let me encourage you to take another look.