Should we be cautious of a rhetorician’s ability to map best practices in Comp pedagogy onto digital terrain?

As Robert points out, Scott Warnock’s objective for writing Teaching Writing Online: How & Why is to encourage composition teachers to adapt thoughtfully conceived, model writing pedagogies for use in online environments as a means of exerting influence over how distance and e-learning technologies are adopted and used within institutional settings. While Warnock certainly makes a strong case for all the reasons why teaching composition in digital environments reinforces and perhaps even epitomizes the primary learning goals of writing instruction, I found the book’s perspective on the need to develop a particular (and ultimately quite constrained) teaching persona somewhat at odds with the argument that it is possible to translate one’s face-to-face teaching methods for online use—primarily because of the perceived need for members of the online community (both teachers and students) to begin consciously auto-censoring their identities and personas because of their growing awareness of the fact that all exchanges and interactions are now officially “on the record”. I think this raises interesting questions about human development and the ability to change, “revise”, or “re-see” oneself over time. As educators, are we convinced that having the record of one’s conduct in a formal educational setting is beneficial? repressive/stifling? a blend of both? Writing to learn models would suggest that making our students’ learning visible and thus available for reflection is a good thing, however, that model is predicated on the use of informal or low stakes writing, where students express themselves and explore their thoughts and ideas without reservation or the need to perform a particular level of understanding or engagement. I’m curious what others think about this.

I’m also curious about the drawbacks of making writing the (near) exclusive mode of discourse within writing classes. Although the goal is to teach writing (among other things, like critical thinking and reading), I don’t know that I agree that that goal is necessarily best accomplished through more writing-intensive forms of instruction. Although there would seem to be a logical, one-to-one correlation, what about the fact that so much of the way our students learn to negotiate and construct meaning comes not only from their writing to or for one another (or for us for that matter), but from the informal (and more free-form) hashing out of ideas through discussion and debate? What happens to our students’ willingness to take intellectual risks (off the record, during class discussion where bodily language, physical proximity, facial expressions, and tone combine to make navigating tension or emotionally-charged discussions of complex and/or controversial material more manageable or even editable in a way that a follow up utterance can be used to revise or even help erase past comments from immediate memory)? Given the need to exercise certain constraints in order to maintain adequate control over the online learning environment (in order to prevent it from becoming too informal, at least according to Warnock’s recommendations), are we potentially at risk of over formalizing–or even to a certain degree inadvertently standardizing–our students’ responses?

Perhaps my preference for discussing ideas prior to engaging in written forms of exploration and/or reflection can be chalked up to a difference in learning style, but I do find that I’m a bit disturbed by Warnock’s emphasis on rhetorical performance—on the record, in writing—as opposed to the messiness of thinking/learning that we are supposedly encouraging our first-year students to embrace. I’m interested in kicking off a more in-depth discussion around this topic.

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3 comments on “Should we be cautious of a rhetorician’s ability to map best practices in Comp pedagogy onto digital terrain?

  1. While I think class discussions are good and I can’t see removing them from how I structure my classes, it’s very often the case that the same few participants tend to dominate class discussions. And so I think it’s important to ask ourselves as teachers what’s being accomplished in a given discussion and whether there aren’t other ways to achieve the same goals, or if there aren’t ways to augment class discussion so that other students are getting more out of them too.

    My post from yesterday, Giving Students Time and Space: Asynchronous Conversations, gives examples of how asynchronous posting can pull in some interesting ideas from students who often don’t contribute to class discussions, and how that environment can enable students to scaffold each other into zones of proximal development. And I think this ties to your point about learning styles. Some students don’t thrive in the fast paced tempo of classroom discussions, but if they get a chance to get their ideas down in a forum, then you always have the option to praise their comments in class and ask them a question or two to help them expand on what they wrote. This may be give them the opportunity to become more confident about speaking in class. Of course they may just prefer to use the forums and I think that’s fine too.

  2. Your last paragraph really resonated with me. I love the idea of embracing “the messiness of thinking/learning,” especially in FYC, but also in most other learning situations. As someone who like to think quietly before offering an opinion during a group discussion, I am resistant to an online only course (for myself as a learner at least). Although I’m resistant to an online only version of a course, I wonder how we could bring the messiness of thinking (aloud and silently), brainstorming, and difficulty to an online course. It seems different than face to face messiness, but possible. I always feel like something is “lost” when I’m not talking to someone face to face, but I can’t seem to articulate what I mean by this. Maybe, like with the messiness, it’s a matter of thinking about what is possible or gained from online only courses and conversations.

  3. I agree that some students seem to dominate classroom discussions for whatever reasons, and the online forum allows students who are hesitant to join in the conversation.

    The way I think of the arguments in Teaching Writing Online is that a completely online course doesn’t necessarily mean its better than a face to face class. Its just that some students (like community college students who work full-time) don’t have the time for a face to face class that meets regularly. Online courses suit them. And the book is trying to point out the good things in teaching online courses, but not necessarily arguing its better. That’s what I got from the reading. But I read it fast so I could have missed something.

    And I’m not sure if you lose the messiness in an online course. I’m taking English 704 right now with Professor Roberge, and he makes us comment in the iLearn forum every week. There is a lot of messiness in there. People typing half-developed thoughts. People arguing something, and then they will take it back.

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