digital rhetoric

social media and public pedagogy

Right before Thanksgiving I had two new projects come to me that I'll be working on through mid-February. The first is a chapter I've been asked to write on social media and public pedagogy for an essay collection focusing on the latter term. I've also been invited to speak at the SUNY Learning Network's online learning conference. My audience there will primarily be multimedia instructional designers. Here, I'll also be discussing social media and pedagogy. To a certain extent, I see these projects as rhetorical reflections. In the first case, the essay will be addressing an audience of faculty and grad students with an investment in public pedagogy, broadly conceived, but likely with little knowledge of social media. In my presentation, on the other hand, I am envisioning an audience with technical knowledge, particularly with desiging courses in a CMS, but with less knowledge of the issues surrounding teaching in a public, networked space.

Public pedagogy, particularly as the term is used by people like Henry Giroux, describes a broad range of practices. In "Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals," he writes

Culture, in this instance, is the ground of both contestation and accommodation, and it is increasingly characterized by the rise of mega-corporations and new technologies that are transforming the traditional spheres of the economy, industry, society, and everyday life. Culture now plays a central role in producing narratives, metaphors, and images that exercise a powerful pedagogical force over how people think of themselves and their relationship to others. (62)

So, yes… I'd say that's fairly broad. Social media is also a "fairly broad" term, which means that I'm starting at a high level of generalization. Can we say that Facebook and/or Myspace teach people how to "think of themselves and their relationship to others"? Of course. And we can say the same thing generally about Second Life or YouTube or Wikipedia and so on. Can one argue that there is a dominant, consistent ideological force that is exercised through any and all social media? Yes. One can make that argument, and certainly people do make that argument. Trebor Schulz makes an argument along those lines in First Monday, but with an important caveat I think. He argues that "Web 2.0" communicates a particular market-capitalist ideology, but that it is possible to recoup these technologies for other purposes. Certainly folks like Howard Rheingold, Clay Shirky, Henry Jenkins, and others have explored other purposes.

I come at this from a different angle. I don't think it is so useful to attempt a totalizing account of social media. Such accounts are neither accurate nor helpful in my view.  I certainly agree that the Web is broadly deployed for the purposes of market capitalism, just as virtually every other sector of our culture is likewise deployed. I don't believe technology can save us from history. However I do think that culture is mutated through changing material contexts: culture shapes and is shaped by its technological contexts. The public pedagogy of Facebook, for example, is not the same as the public pedagogy of the daily newspaper or broadcast television. But to investigate this, in my view, one might work, Latour-like, through an examination of specific networks.

I am thinking I will focus on microblogging, Twitter in particular, though maybe Seesmic as well. I think you have to start with what is specifically "there," on the website, the interface. But then there are so many interfaces as one can interact with these sites through RSS, through mobile devices, etc. Still, one must start somewhere, so the homepage is as likely as any. I would start with the compositional technology. With Twitter it is the 140 character message. With Seesmic it is, conventionally, the frame of the webcam. From these, genres emerge (in combination, of course, with the entire cultural baggage users bring to these sites!). This article will be neither the time nor the place for an extensive study of the various genres/uses of microblogging. My point, really, for this audience is just to make clear that an analysis of the particular technology at work is necessary to understanding these sites pedagogical functions.

That said, many pedagogies are possible: as part of classroom experience associated with a traditional educational institution, as a means to share freely one's ideas and experiences, as a tool for marketing and commerce, as a practice for establishing and maintaining social relations, and so on. For example, I followed Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton on Twitter. That's different from following my students or following friends. That in turn is different from following people whom I know only by reputation in my field. And people follow me for various reasons. I know personally very few of the 140 people who follow me. What am I teaching them? I'm not sure. What am I learning about myself and my relation to others through Twitter? It's an interesting question. I certainly have relations I wouldn't otherwise have at all. There are also new dimensions to otherwise existing relations.

Anyway, I'll be working on such questions over the next few weeks.

I also want to think about the social media/pedagogy question more specifically in terms of higher education. And here I want to look at my own online classroom, as well as what others are doing, like Howard Reingold's social media classroom project. To me, one of the most interesting dimensions of social media pedagogy is the breakdown of traditional institutional roles. The conventional CMS is designed to reinforce brick-and-mortar pedagogy, to affirm the role of the institution. But when you are teaching a class that spans from Ning to PBwiki to Twitter to Second Life to YouTube and beyond, you are in an extra-institutional space, at least vis-a-vis the university. You can't call the help desk for support, but there are hundreds of others online who can provide support. Rheingold's project is an attempt to bring some of these social media together and make it easier for teachers to get involved. I'm curious to see how that works out. I think there will be challenges in terms of the speedy proliferation of social media and the necessary choices one might have to make in attempting a unified system. However, even still, we are looking at a highly distributed project in comparision with what happens in the FTF classroom or on a CMS.

More on this as I move forward.