Thursday, April 9, 2009

Civic Literacy & Civil Rights in a Culture of Simulation

In his remarks at the University of New Mexico's 2008 Civil Rights Symposium, Professor Keith Gilyard asked whether civil rights acts exist only on camera. One need only to ponder the most recent presidential election and its legions of diverse, empowered volunteers whose civil rights work was producing and disseminating information to realize the communication machine has moved online.

The more I've considered the implications of Gilyard's question, however, the more I've contemplated the role and work of online instructors of rhetoric and composition in producing civil rights act. Our and our students’ participation in civic literacy (if not civic activism) is removed from cameras and floats in an intangible medium. Of course, this access to information (and means of information dissemination) presents challenges and rewards. Knowledge must not conceal the grounds of its own foundations, Gilyard argued in the same presentation. But in this information age, where everyone sees and everyone knows, who sees and who knows?

Further follow up questions have been posted to the left. Please feel free to address zero, one, two, or three of the questions and/or generate additional ones!


  1. My Composition 101 and 102 students are required to keep a public weblog. The content of their posts is largely left to their interests. Last fall, with the election so eagerly anticipated on our campus, many of my students wrote fairly passionate posts about the candidate they supported.

    I believe that the students' ability to post online rather than to speak in person or e-mail someone with an opinion directly gave many of them a sense of freedom. Fear of ridicule or rejection was largely eliminated. Did they self-consciously construct an ethos? Perhaps. I hope to see the students do more of this. If I dare to argue with Plato, I believe that our ability to construct our ethos, (although I do acknowledge that it can be done as a misrepresentation in an abhorrent way) allows us to BECOME the writer, the thinker, the citizen we long to be. At least, that is my hope for my students.

  2. I typically have something on the internet to accompany my classes. This year I've discovered Ning, and have found it to be a wonderful way for me to model a responsible virtual classroom online while encouraging students' creativity in designing their own profile pages. Their profile pages contain their work, which means it is available for their peers to read and comment on. The Ning platform also allows students to post videos, photographs, blogs, hold discussion forums, and more, so I ask them to use these functions in the program to create a profile page that matches their area of interest and research. At the end of the semester, students turn in all of their work in hard copy for me to grade. The Ning makes it easier for students to present and discuss their work. It allows their peers a space from which to critique, praise, or question items they have posted. This public display of their work makes them more responsible and aware of audience than when they perceive me as the only audience to their work.

  3. For the last two semesters I have asked that my first-year writing students participate in a course blog. While I think the blog promotes (in its ideal state) collaboration, discussion, and a more concrete idea of audience, right now I am struggling with its limitations at a very small, private liberal arts college. Or, perhaps I am struggling with my ability to facilitate engaging online conversation at a very small, private liberal arts college. After all (as I tell my students), this is a new genre for me too.

    Whatever the case, at this point I am most concerned about issues of physical access. Many of my students do not own a computer. Many of my students go straight from class to work to home and back to class, with little time in between. Many of my students are rather overwhelmed (especially in their first semester as a college student) with the sheer amount of technology they are encountering in the classroom. In one class they have a wiki, in another a blog, in another they're working on Blackboard or WebCT.

    I am sure my experience attending workshops promoting technology as a way to reach NetGen is not an unfamiliar one. What I wonder, however, is how technological requirements in the classroom affect NetGen students who many own a cell phone but do not have a computer. Is the time orienting students to this technology in the first-year writing classroom an effective endeavor? Can it be argued (and I think it can) that this type of literacy is just as important to my students as learning how to construct a well-written paragraph? Do universities need to have orientation sessions at the beginning of the year demonstrating how to navigate through the technology students will experience during the semester?

    I hope that the sense of freedom Bev sees in her student's post might soon be replicated on our course blog, yet I often fear (as I see student's struggle in their posts and drag their feet even more when it comes time to "comment") that this larger "public" intimidates students who might come to college incredibly overwhelmed and quite often, underprepared. And while I would argue that virtual classrooms play an important role in making large classrooms smaller, how do they affect already small classes (for example, classrooms with 12-15 students)? Pushing this further, how does online technology affect already small classes that are learning communities and share three or four courses? Is that "sense of freedom" undermined by an intense desire to get along with their classmates? To not rock the boat? To continue the role they've written for themselves in the physical classroom?

  4. For me, online writing classes are particularly interesting because the medium we’re all using to communicate is the subject of the class – writing. There are no face-to-face meetings, so all our communication is written. Because of this, the most important forum for creating any kind of group dynamic is the threaded discussion or blog. In my class, students contribute to this about once per week, usually in response to a reading in an entry of about 300 words. And they also are required to comment on at least one other person’s post. This is the only space they have in an online class to really interact with one another on a regular basis.

    I tell my students that I’m not so much concerned about mechanical correctness in these posts, that I’m more interested in getting their honest reaction to the reading and whatever question I’ve asked. I don’t publicly comment on everyone’s entry (though I do grade them), but I try to respond to the posts that take risks and succeed. What I hope for, and what does actually happen sometimes, is that students’ personalities come through in this format, just as they would if these students were sitting in a classroom talking in small groups without worrying about the correctness of their sentences as they speak.

    So I guess part of what I’m talking about is a fundamental difference between oral and written communication. In an online class, I try to replicate the informality of speaking with informal writing tasks so that students can express themselves comfortably, and in some ways it works. Students who have difficulties with writing standard English are often indistiguishable from those without such difficulties in these discussions, because they’re all writing in a kind of informal “email” English. And as long as their ideas attain some level of complexity in the discussions, this kind of writing is ok with me.

    One downside of this is it seems like this informality bleeds into their more formal assignments, so I spend some time in my comments on their papers explaining the difference between the assignments. Maybe that’s not so bad, as a major point of most comp classes is helping students differentiate between the audience and purpose of different assignments, but I think it strikes some of them as a double standard.

  5. It's a good question, Valerie, about "But in this information age, where everyone sees and everyone knows, who sees and who knows?" This is a particularly important question as WAC (Writing Across Curriculum/Community) and genre-based curriculum become more important in our ever-changing academic institutions. If we want our students to be prepared for their academically and professionally diverse discourse communities, we need to make sure our students create for that diversity. The difficulty lies in asking students to create within a genre that, perhaps, no one will see and no one will know. This is often the nature of our profession, but I also think it is unfortunate.

    We need to assign curriculum with rhetorical situations and purposes that *can* be seen and known about. Asking our students to create something that will be seen and known about gives them a voice, agency, and authorship. For example, in English 101's Sequence One, the learning narrative, instructors can ask their students to submit their narratives to Best Student Essays or "My Turn" from Newsweek. In the instances where my students were creating proposals or reports that couldn't (necessarily) be submitted right now, I asked them to save their documents to use for a Senior Project or a Field Report or some other assignment they might complete in a 400-level major course. But this is exactly why I am excited about our inaugural Celebration of Student Writing event. I'm really passionate about giving first-year students a place to be seen and heard, and this venue provides those opportunities.

  6. I agree with so much of what people are saying here. First and foremost, what Beverly writes about students' ability to post online rather than to speak in person. This is very true, and definitely fosters civic responsibility in the classroom because cultural communication teaches us that people's ethnic backgrounds determines how they will participate in community discussion (especially in the classroom). By civic responsibility I mean that by providing participation outside of a physical classroom allows students bound by cultural expression an alternative outlet for participation, without their grades suffering because they don't like to speak during class. I think that blogs, Blackboard discussion, etc. helps breaks through some of those cultural communication barriers in which students are often graded.
    Secondly, with regard to Whitney's comment, when and how to incorporate the technology is very important. If students do not understand why the tools they are using are powerful, they will be reluctant to use them in a useful way. It's important to not only educate new students that may be unfamiliar with technology on how to use the medium, but also educate new users on what these tools are capable of. For example, new feminists may be intrigued by the voices that are able to rise in an environment of oppression through blogging.
    However, by teaching new students on how to use these technologies and why they are powerful, educators also have the responsibility to teach students on the ethical ways in which you must express yourself when writing on-line (at least in a mutually respectful classroom setting). Mass-media scholars have shown that people tend to be more emotional (loving or hateful) when writing on-line because they not confronted F2F by the person behind the screen. Especially when discussing civil rights, it's important to note that while minority groups can use the medium of blogging to combat oppression, so equally can hate groups use the same technology to organize supporters. So students need to realize that there are "real-life" repercussions for statements made to other classmates on-line.
    By teaching students how to use the technology, why it's important, and most importantly the responsibility that comes with using such powerful tools I think it is possible (and necessary) to foster classroom discussion in a virtual space.

  7. Not sure why my last comment came up as anonymous...perhaps I also need the technology tutorial!

  8. In six billion people, now I know who you are. I have something important to you. I have a revelation from God to you. After reading what God will reveal your life, will never be the same. It will be much better. When this happens you put your blog to follow my own, because we're going for the glory of God I put my life on it. And let's show the world our success with Jesus Christ.