Writing in the Public Sphere

In my last blog post I made a point about how technology has created a culture where we are “always on”; we expect and are expected to be so. Jenkins suggests we actually teach students how to multitask, but I never intended to put this into practice. Based on the comments received I can see how this was misconstrued – probably as a result of last minute editing that eliminated the way I had been contextualizing it. I do not think we need to teach students how to multi-task; by and large, they already know how. We need to help students control assert control over the infinite stream of information and modes of communication coming at them. One of the ways we can help them is by showing them that nothing actually happens when they silence their phone for 50 minutes to devote their attention to the issues being addressed in class.

Similarly, we need to help students be critical consumers of media and aware of the online persona they enact. Our students are online, reading, writing and participating; therefore, as Benson and Reymon point out in their article “Learning to Write Publicly: Promises and Pitfalls of Using Weblogs in the Composition Classroom,” “we have a clear obligation to help them participate thoughtfully and responsibly” online. The Internet is a fun, liberating, exciting, scary, and dangerous place. Students need to know how to navigate and explore such temperamental waters.

I consciously create space for students to write privately, publicly and to me in my classrooms. The last on I could do without; I’m working on it. The benefit of having students write publicly, even when that public is limited to the class is just as Charles Tyson claims in his “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition”: “students will take writing more seriously if they are writing for public on the Internet.” I could not agree with this more, but I think it’s more about a fear of being judged by their peers than it is the general public.https://i0.wp.com/wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/files/2013/09/bigbrother.jpg

The arguments in favor of a public audience for novice writers is the same as that against it – there is a public full of possibilities, both good and bad. Students know there is a public audience and that anyone could read it, yet they maintain a sense of anonymity online and refer to it as writing to their friends despite its public nature (Benson and Reyman). Only a couple of students in their study were really aware of it.

I have seen this first hand as recently as this past Friday. With the BART strike I ended up taking my Friday morning class online. I had planned to do a lesson on word choice through jigsaw, so I created group chats and forums for the groups to report back to. The lesson worked out really well, but when I commented in one of the chat’s a student that never speaks in class came back with “wow…creeper…” I was, admittedly, Big Brother. Her perceived comfort online is not the only notable takeaway, however. Even though they all knew I was signed into their chats, they didn’t consider that I would be following them.

The success of this lesson supported Richardson’s point in Blogs, Wiki’s and Podcasts that blogs “support different learning styles,” “everyone has a voice,” and the expansion of the walls of the classroom. This was just a couple of forums and chats on ilearn, but it all applied. I believe the lesson was more successful online than it has been in the classroom because everyone participated more. When a student was quiet they were quick to call each other out and ask them to chime in. I didn’t really need to be Big Brother.

Regardless of how we host writing online we have to monitor it in someway. I can’t think of anyone I’ve seen advocate against monitoring. I haven’t used blogs, but I do use the ilearn forums pretty heavily and I had to remove a student post last year. One of my students posted a largely homophobic essay. There were three openly gay students in our class. Fortunately, the problem was a writing problem. He wasn’t homophobic per se, he was only trying to describe one of the many things he was adjusting to with his move to San Francisco. A less patient reader wouldn’t see that though; all they would see was an aversion to gay culture. Luckily, no one saw the post and a similar issue hasn’t come up since, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.

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Consuming Creativity with Creativity

When it comes to societal advancement there is a running theme of fear and resistance by older generations; a sense that the ways they were brought up is somehow superior.  If history is any indication, this theme will only continue. What’s so interesting about its recurrence now is that the older generation fears technology will do to their children what it had done to them – create passive consumers of creativity, or what Lawrence Lessig refers to as a “read only” only culture in his TED Talk titled “Laws That Choke Creativity.”

Under this light, I suspect today’s fear comes from a lack of understanding. This generation is not consumed with creativity without any outlet for creativity, they are engaged in (re)creativity as Lessig coined it. Users take creative pieces and recreate them in their own image. Lessig champions this new read/write culture where users consume creativity and (re)create. The problem is the legal obstacles attempting to limit the growth of the read/write culture. These obstacles are forcing the read/write culture to “live life against the law.” I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t part of the appeal to the emerging culture, however. Being told not to do something has always sparked an interest that might not otherwise be there. It’s as old a theme in our culture as resistance to technology.

More than likely, the appeal of “living life against the law” only appeals to a fraction of users. As Jenkins points out in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century creating media creates a higher form of respect for other users media.  By letting users (re)create creativity they in turn have more respect for the creativity of others, just as they want their own creativity to be respected. Jenkins seems to suggest that the problem could take care of itself.

For better or worse, education is influenced by the culture we live in, at least I hope it is. As long as we’re living in a read/write culture, and what better culture to be a part of, we need to find out where we fit in as educators. While our students are consuming and creating media, they’re not always doing it critically, appropriately, legally, or safely.  Students could benefit from instructors that helped define these blurred lines, validating what students do, and helping them do it better. This can contribute to an affective learning environment where it’s clear that students are learning from teachers and teachers are learning from students.

None of this is to say it’s easy, the world wide web is infinite and omnipresent; there is so much out there to be gained and lost over and over again. We all fear the unknown; the internet can be a big and scary place. The benefits of using media, however, far outweighs the risks as Will Richardson points out in his Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms. Richardson acknowledges this tension between school (parents included) and the literacy activities students participate in outside of school, and shares some ways for working around it. Ultimately, Richardson claims that teachers need find their own balance – that’s the most important takeaway.

Teachers and parents resistance to new practices and the immersion of the read/write culture only hurts students in the long run leaving them less prepared. Richardson also points out that “communicating and collaborating with peers using instant or text messaging [social media], accounts allows them to be ‘always on’ and always connected. That is their expectation, one that has changed greatly in just the past ten years.” This expectation isn’t going away. They expect to “always be on” and they’re expected to be as well.  Some teachers try and remove distractions from their classrooms, but those distractions are still there and they’re not going away. By ignoring this expectation, I wonder if we’re only leaving them less prepared. .

Jenkins touches on this idea of expecting to be expected when he describes multi-tasking. He describes it as “the ability to scan ones environment and shift focus onto salient details on an ad hoc basis.” This idea of consuming endless media while trying to perform is rooted in the fear of the effects of technology on the upcoming generation – the so called “ADD” generation. Their attention spans are so short because they are switching tasks at such a rapid pace. That multitasking will somehow ruin the ability to concentrate and problem solve.

The need to multitask and the expectation of constant communication isn’t going anywhere. As valuable as it is to be able to really devote your concentration to one thing, we cannot dismiss the value of being able to “scan your environment and shift focus”; it is a skill they need. Students need to know how to take in information through a variety of mediums, prioritize it, and assert some control over its effect on their lives.

My Unoriginal Thoughts on Originality

In Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom, Will Richardson quotes journalist Dan Gillmor: “If my readers know more than I do (which I know they do), I can include them in the process of making my journalism better” (4). In response, I wrote this marginalia: “Does journalist-blogger Dan Gillmor turn his readers ‘who know more than [he does]’ about some things into collaborators or sources?” I then considered this for a few moments, erased the question mark, replaced it with an em dash, and wrote, “or is the line between collaborators and sources not so clear anymore? We act like this line is still pretty clear, for the most part, in academia—postmodern assaults on the concept of the author notwithstanding.” And I would add (to my own remarks), courts act like this line is still pretty clear. It matters whether a court of law considers you a proper journalist or not. (Although, lately, in the environment of the Obama administration’s “war on leaks,” it matters less than it traditionally has.)

A couple days after having this interaction with Gillmor’s text, I had something of an ah-ha moment while reading J. Elizabeth Clark’s “The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st-Century Pedagogy.” Clark asserts, about the effects of the invention and popular adoption of the printing press, “[W]ith the mechanized reproduction of text, the ability to alter a manuscript with marginalia, or to comment on previous marginalia, disappeared. Gutenberg’s invention interrupted the rich tradition of interaction with a text” (23). I underlined and starred this quotation and turned over the page to its blank side to do some writing and unpack the quotation. I wrote, “I think Clark is saying here that one could alter the actual text with marginalia, since there would have been very few copies of the text in the world (and probably only one for a given area, or even country or continent). Therefore, one could actually alter the text itself. One would not be altering a version of the text (one paperback among millions) but (transportation and communication being so limited) the text. Isn’t this something we can do now in the comments section of an article on the internet?” Having written this, I felt proud of myself for unpacking what Clark was saying and especially proud of myself for the question I asked linking the idea I unpacked to the collaborative nature of web 2.0 texts.

When I read the next paragraph in “The Digital Imperative,” in which Clark performs the same unpacking I did and makes the same connection I made, I was pretty disappointed. I had been scooped! I felt like Elisha Gray, who (the story goes) invented the telephone independently of Alexander Graham Bell but, since he got to the patent office a mere two hours after Bell did,  got none of the credit.

All of this made me think of an exchange I had with a literature professor about intellectual property a few years ago. She was discussing the virtues of collaborative writing, and I asked, “If I write collaboratively, how will I know my ideas from the ideas of my partners?” She proceeded to tell me that a merging of ideas is kind of the point. I saw her point (which was, of course, not her point, but it’s hard to get away from the language of intellectual property), and in the last few years this point has been making more and more sense to me. As evidenced by my reaction to being “scooped,” though (to someone else arriving at an idea I thought was mine before I arrived at it), I have not entirely left behind my feeling that people can own ideas. I tell my students that all writing is collaborative and that they shouldn’t get hung up on the notion that they need to have totally original ideas for their work to be good. When I tell them this, I am also speaking to myself.

If A Blog Gets Created And There’s No One To Read It, Does It Make A Sound?

With the use of blogs and wikis, students may reach unexpected audiences and collaborate at unexpected moments in contrast with traditional reading and writing experiences.

First in regards to audience, Charles Tryon advocates using blogs to help students gain an identity as global citizens in “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition.” The unlimited reach of blogs makes student writing available to a global audience. When students receive comments and feedback about their writing from the greater public, the writing they have done for the public sphere in the blog gains a more profound validity than classroom writing.

While blogging may open up student writing to a global audience, some dangers come with that level of access. In “Learning to Write Publicly,” a qualitative research study done by John Benson and Jessica Reyman, the authors note that only about one or two students out of sixty-seven, who were observed blogging in a first year composition class, had concerns about the public nature of blogging, and the other sixty-five viewed blogging as totally anonymous or like talking to a “close friend.” Despite the propensity of students to over-estimate the amount of personal information that can safely be shared (a phenomenon well known by now and mocked on websites such as Failblog or in this SNL sketch), the authors of the research study still note that the exercise in rhetorical awareness is hugely beneficial to students because even just going through the motions of having fellow students comment on their work (albeit required comments by the teacher) expands a student’s notions of audience.

Coming from more of a K-12 perspective, Will Richardson proposes many methods for limiting the audience of student blogs, so that students can practice writing for a larger audience (even if it’s just the whole class) without risks of allowing students to overshare or discover unsavory content. Richardson sees the blog as more of a pedagogical tool that should be managed so that students can use new media tools more effectively outside of the classroom. Richardson’s perspective, that of the private class blog, is training wheels for real-world blogging. I, in any many instances think it’s more appropriate for the classroom to be a safe space, but many students will learn the harsh lessons of over-sharing outside of the classroom one way or another.

Take me for example, long ago (2005), I e-mailed a letter to the editor of SF Weekly about iPods. The newspaper had run a story about how podcasts were a “medium for dissent.” I received notice that they were going to print my letter and I became excited. I eagerly waited for the next edition of the weekly to come out, and when I raced to the page where the “Letters to The Editor” were, I discovered that my letter had been saddled with a sarcastic title “Manifesto from the Outer Sunset.” My glee turned to disappointment as I realized the editors were making fun of my letter, one containing a few too many Marxist sounding words (common man, upper classes, dissent).

Long story short, it has taken YEARS for that letter to the editor to stop showing up in the top 10 results when you Google my name (and yes I know that by linking to it in this post, I am counteracting that effect). The lesson I learned from all of this is that—the internet follows you. I’m sad to say this is not the only lesson I learned about discretion in regards to the internet and new media, but it was a valuable learning experience, and in retrospect, a shareable blunder.

Students are invariably going to make mistakes when trying to take part in civic discourse, and eventually we do have to take off the training wheels and let them ride their internet bikes into ditches. Especially nowadays, there is more recourse for internet blunders (privacy settings, delete functions) so most of the time students will bounce back unless they do something as profoundly shocking as UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posting a YouTube video containing a racist rant about Asians in the UCLA library. Wallace had to publicly apologize and withdrew from UCLA, but I think cases like hers are an extreme example.

Extreme examples aside, students must get used to the fact that when they write online, audience changes. Wikis provide an intermediate experience, and one distinctly different than blogs. With wikis, students collaborate on a document or web resource. While the wiki can be changed by anyone, the wiki retains a history of all changes made so that the wiki can be reverted back to previous versions. A student will experience a different type of audience on the wiki, not that of commenters, but of authorial discussions about the nature of the content on the wiki. Students must feel bold in changing the work of others, but also be comfortable with the fact that their writing will most likely be edited and/or deleted. The notion of authorship and audience completely changes on the wiki: from singular to shared authorship, and simultaneously an unlimited audience (on the internet) and a limited audience (fellow authors of the wiki). In “Erasing “Property Lines”: A Collaborative Notion of Authorship and Textual Ownership on a Fan Wiki,” Rik Hunter observes these phenomenons regarding audience and authorship in the context of a World of Warcraft Wiki, WOWWIKI.

I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that it is beneficial and possible crucial to teach students how to use these tools critically. We might not save them from a few badly written letters to the editor, but we might save them from life altering viral video status if they are a little more aware of the power of these tools. We can show them how to use a tricycle and maybe someday, they will build something like this.

These kids today–an opportunity for transformation of consciousness

In his 2009 Wired article on the “New Literacy” Clive Thomson warns us that “As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame.” Indeed, this perennial lament was echoed on January 18th of this year as AP educational writer Eric Gorski wrote that “A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.” The blame for this performance, however, is not lain at the feet of technology. One reason the article cites is that students simply aren’t required to write or read enough.

According to a January 7th The New York Times article, William H. Fitzhugh has published a print journal of selected high school essays for over two decades. He makes the claim that “Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” Further, he says that “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.” According to a survey cited by Mr. Fitzhugh, 95 percent of the teachers surveyed “said assigning long research papers was important, but 8 out of 10 said they never did because they had too little time to read and grade them.” Though Mr. Fitzhugh was forced take his journal online this year, while discontinuing the print version, he apparently saw no increased opportunity in this, beyond saving money, such as reaching a wider networked and involved audience.

In his article, Thompson highlights the work of Andrea Lundsford, who in her Stanford Study of Writing found that “Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom…” With web media students have found purpose and audience for their writing that classrooms have not been able to provide. However, as Will Richardson says in his book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, “as is often the case, education has been slow to adapt to these new tools and potentials.”

In his article, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Walter J. Ong writes that “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” As well as making interior transformations, networked media is forging transformations of social conceptions of how students learn and build knowledge. If we accept that writing elevates consciousness by holding a mirror to thought process, we can also understand that this close examination of one’s thoughts is often met with anxiety and resistance. But just as the printing press provided a greatly expanded audience for those with a purpose for communicating, students now inhabit a world where increased sense of purpose and audience bring greater enjoyment to writing. And there is an immediacy that brings language back to the realm of conversation and community. This presents great opportunity for teachers to expand upon.

In order to learn, we must think, and we don’t know what we think until we try to express it. We end up having to ask ourselves a lot of questions. This is essentially the aim of educational writing. It is also what transpires in the networked community among its members. In group discussions, blogs, and wikis, others can comment on, or even edit our writing. A little collaborative learning might even take some of the load off the amount of written response that traditionally fell solely to the teacher, and who knows, perhaps a few more “pages” of writing could get assigned.