How Transparent? How Radical?

I’ve discussed the idea of radical transparency here before. I think I first encountered it on Chris Anderson’s blog and now, not surprisingly, there’s a Wired article about it. Will Richardson has also been writing about this recently in relation to public school education. Clearly words like "radical" and "transparent" set off alarms in the cultural studies-inflected realm in which I live, so let’s be clear. What this means is essentially that one makes public communications that were previously private. And in many instances it is perhaps the public sharing of a new discourse. That is, before I started this blog I wasn’t making private entries somewhere on my computer.

It’s my sense that the notion of "making visible" still holds value in rhetoric and composition. "Making visible" references a couple practices. First, it’s the idea that by becoming a better writer, students gain the power to make themselves visible, to have their voices heard, in powerful discourse communities. Second, there is the making visible of pedagogic practices and their ideological foundations: for example, a teacher makes visible that s/he is a feminist, Marxist, etc and/or makes visible the ideological workings of institutional-pedagogic structures like portofolio grading and so on. Third, there is the general making visible of ideological forces in culture that is associated with "critical thinking." All of these harken to the notion of "false consciousness" and have always operated in a difficult tension with more contemporary notions of ideology and agency.

But I’m not going there today. Nevertheless, when one talks about making something "transparent" in this discourse community, it raises these kinds of issues. The fact that I can now read the blogs of many Microsoft employees (as the Wired article discusses) obviously doesn’t mean I have a transparent window into that company. Does it mean I have a "better" understanding? I don’t know, better for what? Does it mean I could make a better decision about purchasing Microsoft products, investing in Microsoft stock, or working for Microsoft? Maybe.

These public blogs, wikis and so on offer us texts upon texts; that is, they are another layer, an extension of the network of communications, additional nodes to analyze in the recursive communications practices of a group.

Let’s say that 15-20% of the full-time faculty at my college were bloggers, maybe 40 bloggers. And they blogged about their teaching and issues and happenings on the campus and in their departments and their scholarship. If you were to read those as a student or a prospective student or just an interested outsider, perhaps at a different college, you would certainly develop a picture of the college that was different from the official, institutional message. Would it be more accurate, more transparent, more radical? Probably not. It would be more disjointed. It would be more multi-faceted.

I think it would be valuable, especially if the instution made clear that it endorsed this kind of "transparency." (I still wouldn’t do it unless I was tenured though.)

Obviously there are some things in any institution, especially in teaching between students and faculty, that must remain confidential. And then there are the many decisions that are made that the decision makers would like to keep confidential. We’ve all been there. If you have ever had any kind of decision making role in an institution, you’ve had to make decisions that are unpopular or controversial. You’ve had to make decisions where none of the choices are especially desirable. Making those decisions in a public space can make them more difficult.

However, that doesn’t mean that in the end one wouldn’t get a better result. I know there are a lot of hard feelings and dysfunctional departments that result from the sense that important decisions are made privately. I also know similar problems arise between admin and faculty when faculty see decisions being made about academics without their input.

As hard as it may be to make this shift, as uncomfortable as the discourses may turn out to be, in the long run, it may be beneficial. But then again it might be total chaos.

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