digital rhetoric

pedagogy and the networked public sphere

So rhetoric as "always" been about public communication, the agora and all that. It has also "always" been about more private, pedagogic moments (as in, "hey Phaedrus, let’s go for a walk in the woods and you can show me what you’ve got hiding in your robe"). The standard red theory critique of composition pedagogy lies in its privatization of writing. The post-process movement might be characterized as a movement away from the individual author–toward the technological, the material, the cultural, the unconscious, etc.

If Habermas’ public sphere is more ideal than real, then we might say any public space (a park, a town square, a street, a library) or semi-public space (a bar or coffee shop) might be the site for discourses to which one might have different levels of access, depending on a variety of factors, and those discourses then have different levels of effect upon the broader culture. The same would be true of online spaces, which are nearly all semi-public in that one likely agrees to Terms of Service before getting to participate or is subject to potential censorship as anyone besides me is on this site. So while the argument about access to the Internet is certainly relevant, I would say access is an issue for any space in the "public sphere."

However the classroom issue adds another wrinkle.

Conventionally a classroom is organized by the teacher, and this hierarchy would run counter to the idea of a public sphere. I establish the subject matter, the questions, begin and end conversation, and serve as final arbiter of disputes. Even in the "decentered" classroom, this hierarchy is likely inescapably implicit: ultimately students know they are being graded. If I move my course into a public space online though, this begins to change. It’s true that I can still control contributions on course sites, but I cannot control others writing elsewhere about my course. Of course this is true of a regular classroom. One cannot control the fact that students might go online to their blog or Facebook or ratemyprofessor or YouTube and comment about their courses or professors. However, by going public with a course I make my course more accessible to comments.

In some sense it’s about risk. As we know, there’s all the blah blah about the dangers of blogging as a professor. There’s similar discourse about the dangers of students’ private revelations on social networking sites. Identity theft. Cyberstalking. Etc. Risk. Writing is generally risky. Students take risks contributing in class. They take risks remaining silent. We take risks writing e-mails, memos, assignments, scholarship. Often the risks are minimal, especially when we consider the risks writers in other countries sometimes must take. A student risks a grade or the respect of peers speaking in class. You might risk your job or friendships speaking up in a church or a picnic or the gym. Maybe you risk your tenure chances on a blog. On the other hand, there are potential rewards–reputation, power, direct changes in community behaviors, etc.

Risk and reward: that’s the nature of the public sphere. And that’s why we have rhetoric, right? Because valuable things are at stake in communication.

The public, networked course then is a public sphere of sorts. It certainly has its power dynamics and its levels of access. It has its risks and rewards. Just like the coffee shop. Just like the lecture hall. Certainly I’m not suggesting that every element of a course should be public. Nor am I suggesting that by making courses public some tremendous revolutionary experience takes place!

However what I want to do this semester, at least in part, is reflect on the public elements of my teaching over the last couple of years and try to understand what the risks and rewards may have been. I want to see how being in public might have shifted the rhetoric of the course.


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