My sabbatical project has been thinking and writing about public networked pedagogy, meaning specifically the practice of teaching writing/rhetoric in publicly-accessible, online spaces from blogs and wikis to YouTube and Second Life. In part clearly one would have to say that each networked space has its own characteristics and thus must be dealt with separately. However that doesn’t mean that some interesting things might not be explored on a higher level of generality.
So I begin with three starting points: one non-academic, one generally academic, and one specific to our discipline.
- Fairly obvious… media networks have reduced the cost of collaboration (a point in Clay Shirky’s new book) and thus have made it easier to share media, information, thoughts, purposes, etc. in a market-like environment beyond the direct management of institutions, state or corporate.
- Media networks have given rise to a new kind of public intellectual-academic. Beyond the traditional academic star variety, it is now broadly possible for academics to be public with their work from having their own blogs to publishing in open access online journals to making their course and/or course materials public. It is now also possible for academics to hold public discussions without the taint of seeming to push things down people’s throats with some "we know better" attitude.
- In rhetoric and composition, particularly computers and writing, there is a growing recognition of the study of circulation and networks (two concepts I see as linked) and examining the materiality of these conditions. How do media and information circulate in/from/through/about/out (student) compositions? How might we study the networks along which this circulation transpires?
As Trimbur and others have noted, the traditional composition classroom attenuates the public characteristics of composition. Of course it cannot, and wouldn’t want to, erase them. Courses employ publicly-available textbooks, practice publicly-recognized teaching methods, engage in practices that are publicly assessed and so on. However, the student’s specific writing and the teacher’s response remain private. Indeed one might wonder why plagiarism is such a big deal when we’re just having a private chat.
Oddly, this attenuated academic discourse is meant to simulate some future public discourse, but as is often the case with simulations, it’s a copy of an original that doesn’t exist.
Trimbur goes in the direction of Marx to discuss circulation, but this gets me thinking about Derridean hauntology. One of the specters in Marx is value, and value (both use value and exchange value) is what circulates. As Derrida writes,
The "mystical character" of the commodity is inscribed before being inscribed, traced before being written out letter for letter on the forehead or the screen of the commodity. Everything begins before it begins. Marx wants to know and make known where, at what precise moment, at what instant the ghost comes on the stage, and this is a manner of exorcism, a way of keeping it at bay: before this limit, it was not there, it was powerless. WE are suggestion on the contrary that, before the coup de theatre of this instant, before the "as soon as it comes on stage as commodity, it changes into a sensuous supersensible thing," the ghost has made its apparition, without appearing in person, of course and by definition, but having already hollowed out in use-value, in the hardheaded wood of the headstrong table, the repetition (therefore substitution, exchangeability, iterability, the loss of singularity as the experience of singularity itself, the possibility of capital) without which a use could never even be determined. (Specters of Marx, 161)
So kudos to those with the will to slog through that quote! It’s kind of the "Derrida thing," the always-already-ness of the commodity. But to me it suggests how compositions are always-already haunted by their circulation through the marketplace, by their exchange-value, which as Derrida contends is necessary for use-value. We know this implicitly with texts, right? Is an interpretation an exchange or a use? There is more than one kind of marketplace; not every exchange must directly involve money.
A composition then is a place, or perhaps more accurately a time-space along a circulating network, haunted by its virtual condition.
But then we come to this situation of the new academic/public intellectual–someone like me, unknown, just another professor, but public, out on the web: to adapt the White Album, "no one will be watching us, why don’t we do it on the web." (Indeed the only thing more ubiquitous than blogging online is doing it and putting it on the web. And yes, people will watch but the availability of porn is so huge that the number watching you is so small as to be virtually no one.) The point is about the same here. Yes, people do read (though I’m not sure if anyone reads this far!), but the relative number is virtually no one.
Anyway, public academics move in two distinct directions, I think. One direction desires to be overtly political. In my reading of scholarship about public writing in rhet/comp, it is almost always about responding to political situations or making some overtly political statement. It’s kind of risky, in a way, to ask students to expose themselves and/or to expose yourself as a "political" professor. The second direction has academics producing work of almost zero public interest (*cough*). This might be the case with many open access academic journals.
But the problem really lies, if I may be so bold, with the attenuated nature of circulation. The student says, "I don’t care who reads my paper or what ‘use’ it is, as long as my professor give me an ‘A.’" The professor says, "I don’t care (so much) who reads my article or what ‘use’ it is, as long as the journal accepts it for publication." We have made the intellectual work of humanities very insular, and by that I am not referencing its esoteric, theoretical qualities. I am instead suggesting that the way we work is closeted, insulated. This is true of both classrooms and scholarship.
Clearly this is getting to be a looong post, but I want to get back to my third starting point regarding the cost of collaboration. As I said before, this is in Clay Shirky’s new book (which I’m reading right now), but you could see it in the Cluetrain Manifesto nearly a decade ago. Institutions–corporate, state, educational–exist in part b/c they are an efficient way to organize human labor to get things done. More efficient than leaving everything to the marketplace. We can say this and set aside conventional ideology where Marxists end up with state-control and capitalists end up with corporate-control. The point here is that emerging networks lower the cost of collaboration and make markets of various types more effective.
To jump to the point: do I need the traditional hierarchical-managerial trappings of discipline and college to do intellectual work? Can we compose and share our work with larger audiences (and I’m not talking general public here but a wider audience of academics who share our interests, whatever they may be)? Can we collaborate with a wider community of students?
Of course the obvious answer to these question is yes. But the stumbling blocks have always been around authorship, validity, reputation, and so on–matters which, in my view, arise from failing to see how composition always already circulates, always already is haunted by the network.