Jumping Into Process from a Dead Stop

Below is a talk I presented as part of a panel at the 2007 annual Computers and Writing conference help at Wayne State University from the 17th to the 20th of May. I posted another talk last Sunday on this very blog. The third? You’ll have to wait for publication of my book Blogging America: The New Public Sphere by Praeger in December (and read The Rise of the Blogosphere in the meantime):

It’s hard to find a place to start these days: What can I assume about you, my audience? That you are completely tech saavy—or that you (like me) just want to be?

And what does that mean?

Last year at Computers and Writing in Lubbock, keynote speaker Mark Follman, a reporter and editor for Salon, tried to make a joke about how he was in the perfect place if his laptop crashed. He, at least, actually believed we are techies.

We’re not, of course—and Follman’s joke fell flat—and neither are our students, though the myth of youthful comfort with technology weighs heavy upon them. If we, and they, are anything at all, we are not techies, but simply “neterate,” able to negotiate the virtual world.

But what does that mean?

Certainly not that we can physically construct—or deconstruct—hardware, and not that we are comfortable writing code. Right now, it really means little more than that we are comfortable with the idea that, one way or another, we can handle most anything we find on our screens. Whether we can or not—that’s another matter.

Which brings me right back to “Where do we start?” What do we do? We need to start somewhere close to our students—should we ask them and work from there? Should we believe they know what they say they know?

Yeah, right.

The problem with using the Web for the teaching of composition is that Web conversation—no, Web conversations—is/are already in progress. Sure, we can start our own little conversations through technology, using a proprietary system such as Blackboard or even with private, restricted blogs. But, if we do so, we aren’t taking advantage of either the dynamic or the wealth that the Web offers.

At their best, Web pages are never static. Each one carries the past in its present manifestation—through links and older entries. And even that past is ever-changing. “Permalink” is something of a fiction, though they do say that nothing ever disappears completely on the Web—though the White House doesn’t seem quite so sure (about its email messages, at least).

Along with carrying the past, most Web pages today invite the future—through comments and the page’s inherent plasticity (in terms of inner workings), a plasticity that builds (and has built—and will build) the expectation of change into its very design.

As anyone who has started a blog knows, it’s hard to gain traction. What do you do, shout, “Hey, look at me! I’m here and I’ve got something to say”? No, you ease your way into the conversation—by listening to what other bloggers are saying, by reading, and even by researching.

That is, you do so unless your goal is simply development of a social netword on MySpace or Facebook. But that’s a somewhat different topic, perhaps the Web equivalent of the personal essay. What I want to discuss today grows out of the research paper.

Anyway… there is a dynamic on the Web, and we can use it in our writing classes if we can break into it. And, if we do manage to break in, there’s treasure to be found there, more than any of us—including me—can imagine.

Which brings me back to Blackboard, to why I don’t really care for Blackboard.

Blackboard builds for our students what is at best a little playpen. It’s like teaching astronomy through a tiny, simplified planetarium—when there’s a huge night sky right outside. And we teachers don’t even get to choose how the sky’s been reduced! What’s worse is that our students have already been outside and seen the real sky. And they’ve figured out that’s where the real fun begins.

Did you notice? I can’t even keep this one talk on track!

There’s just too much out there to consider, to talk about, and to listen to others on. It’s almost as though, inundated by information, I can no longer focus. There’s an unfolding going on, and I want to be part of it all!

Not only is it a bright sky out there, full of stars, but it is growing as we watch. And not only do we get to watch—we get to be part of it!

We get to participate!

The Web’s not a special place, nor is it a new world divorced from our quotidian reality. But it does expand our reality—something Blackboard, with this artificial limits, does not do.

But there I go again, bringing up Blackboard again.

Forget I mentioned it.

Back to my point:

What I am trying to do right now is both step into your conversations and invite you into mine. I’m flying blind, however, for I don’t really know your conversations. I have yet to have any way to link into them—though I hope I will, through small talk and through the panels I will be attending over the next three days. But, for now, I’m simply jumping in—completely at sea in terms of what most of you may know, may have said, may have done. I know as little about you as I do about my students, the first day of the term.

Today, more than every before, that needn’t be the case—in writing, that is. In a few years (it could actually be done now), it will be possible to indicate on conference registration which panels we just might attend. Those presenting could then see who their audiences might be, seeing who has published what and where, who is teaching what and where, and who is studying what and where. We’ll soon be able to know as much about our students beforehand, too.

Nice. Then I’d know where to start.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is getting our students to start.

Though maybe it’s the same thing.

There are ways of using technology as an aid to student writing that I can just touch on here—leaving the exploration to others. Taking text messaging and using it as a basis for moving students to other forms of written expression is one.

No, What I want to talk about is not these, but is the finding of ways for students to join the conversations that are already going on—and to do so without feeling like pigeons caught in a jet engine’s air intake. Without being that pigeon. Doing so safely, that is—as Blackboard professes to do (dang! There’s that Blackboard rearing its ugly head again!), but without Blackboard’s limitations.

A lot of what the student needs, in approaching writing through the Web, is a sense of confidence, of being a part of the conversation—for that’s what it is that’s going on in cyberspace—and that’s what I have been describing, of course.

Writing for the Web can’t simply be concentration on the screen as a replacement for the page. We don’t dare judge the screen in the ways we’ve judged the static object that is the page. The screen exists as “Text,” in the sense presented by Roland Barthes in ”From Work to Text,” and less “work.” In fact, the work itself become subsumed in the text.

That’s where the dynamic of the Web comes from, a give-and-take surrounding each work and drifting into the next, a continuing example of stimulus, response, and reinforcement in much the way B.F. Skinner describes language in Verbal Behavior.

If we can get our students involved in the greater and more energetic conversations going on right now on the Web, we’ll be a long way towards making them strong writers.

Fortunately, we’ve a wealth of assistance in doing so, for the conversations on the Web are myriad, and they dip into even older conversations through the active links they provide, through the growing body of linkable material just waiting for the alert researcher to bring it into the conversation. Or another conversation. Or another.

But there is so much information out there!

Which brings us back once again to the question: “Where do we start?”
One place, I suggest, might be Citizen Journalism.

When our students conduct research, they tend to take what they find as static. They may be enthusiasts for technology, but few of them have crossed to a place of understanding where Wikipedia, for example, is a discussion in progress and not a provider of answers. Unfortunately, our students still too often take what they find on the Web as truth, not as the simple invitation to conversation that really it is.

More than most Web movements (though much of the Web does strive for openness), Citizen Journalism is deliberately open to examination of its own processes. Watching, one sees knowledge in development. On Citizen Journalism sites focusing on specific communities, one finds exploration and growth and not just things—especially now, when most such sites are still relatively young. In those Citizen Journalism sites not based on a locality, one sees calls for information, public dissection of “information” provided by government and scholars, and a scrambling to discover something at least approximating “truth.” One finds, in other words, research in progress.

And it’s going on in a number of ways and places, all open to the student in the writing classroom.

By focusing on Citizen Journalism in the teaching of research as an aspect of writing, we can show process, bringing writing and research to life for our students.

Let me give an example: In terms of developing the methodology of tomorrow’s journalism, I see great weakness in Assignment Zero and its parent, New Assignment—though I think they are worthy and important experiments. In terms of finding tools for the writing classroom, however, I see little downside. Through Assignment Zero, our students can get involved in a project that even contains a safety net, one resulting from creator Jay Rosen’s “pro-am” model, where the herd is guided by a group of hyper-active border collies—young journalists with professional skills and background but lacking investment in older styles of journalism.

The value, as I see it, of Citizen Journalism for the writing classroom is that it provides a place where students can lurk a bit, exploring, looking for the opening that will allow them to jump in—to start. Because these are group projects, the outsider is always welcome. Because the enthusiasm is generated by the topic or the place, people rarely arrive by chance, but by desire, setting an attitude of “let’s do this!” behind everything.

As one of our greatest challenges is developing enthusiasm on the part of our students, we can take advantage of enthusiasm already there, when we ask our students to find Citizen Journalism sites working on topics that already interest them. We can show our students how to enter the ongoing discussions by first listening and reading, then by commenting, and finally by posting their own full pieces and learning even more from the responses posted to their work.

Because of the openness of their processes, Citizen Journalism projects offer an entry into the conversation of research and discovery that can make our students feel a part of it, not simply as outsiders looking in and reporting back on what’s been found—as most of the research done by undergraduates actually is.

Ultimately, and most usefully, the student can finally learn something of the dynamic of research—that it, too, is a conversation.

Now, as I said, where shall we start?

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