digital rhetoric

civic engagement and public pedagogy

A couple of pieces from Howard Rheingold on this subject: a New Media Consortium presentation from Second Life and an article from a forthcoming MIT Press book, Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. I’ve written about public pedagogy here before. The issue of civic engagement is closely related, at least in the ways we’ve come to talk about the democratic, participatory potential of the media networks. The video offers a broad overview of the relationship between communication technologies and collective action. The article looks in a practical way at how participatory media might be integrated into literacy education. As such, they are quite different, but they both deal with the central theme of how technologies offer opportunities or possibilities for collective action.

So there are really two questions here. One is how do we teach students media literacy. Reports about media revolutions and millennials often start with talking about how much young people know and do. However, in my experience, these trends represent only a small percentage of students. As has long been the case, one can find a small percentage of students who are engaged and literate. The question has always been what to do about the other students.

The second question then shifts the focus to civic engagement. Once you have students with media literacy, how does that literacy become a tool that supports student entry into a public sphere? As Rheingold suggests in his article, civic engagement begins with concerns that students can self-identify. Courses can introduce students to a variety of issues, and students can discover other interests in their communities, in the media, and so on, but students ultimately need to claim an interest. This problem seems similar to the problem of literacy, and maybe they are the same problem. I don’t generally encounter students with "interests," not even with interests as fans.

I know that sounds overly pessimistic. It may be that students figure that by concealing their interests they can limit the amount of work they’ll be asked to do. Or it may be that they cannot recognize their own interests or are concerned about being judged by their interests. On the other hand, students seem largely concerned with issues like

  • eating, sleeping, and the basic necessities of life (which they must negotiate for the first time on their own w/o parents)
  • immediate social relations
  • distant social relations, including family
  • coursework
  • jobs

In that way they probably are not unlike most Americans who are concerned mainly with their homes, jobs, family, personal finances, and so on.

Even if one has "interests," that’s a long way from wanting to engage a community regarding them. So I have interests in sports, science fiction, video games, Buddhism, environmental issues, exercise, music, cooking, and other things, but I have never written about these things. I have no plans to write about them, and it’s highly unlikely that I would ever engage in public discourse about them. It is plainly evident on this blog what I am interested in writing about. And while this isn’t really part of my job, I doubt I’d be writing about this subject if I weren’t in my profession.

But I’m thinking that this is really the wrong direction. When I was an undergrad, there wasn’t much I was interested in that I would have wanted to write about. I enjoyed creative writing. I might have gotten up some energy to write about music. But otherwise I don’t think I could have claimed an interest. On the other hand, I could have participated in any number of potential conversations if asked. So my approach has been to introduce students to a particular public conversation and require them to participate in it. Maybe students will gain an lasting interest in the subject. Maybe not. Maybe they will transfer the literacy skills they learn in the class to a different community or at least they will have the option of doing so.

In any case, I think I will continue to think about this issue of public pedagogy as I embark on my sabbatical.

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