The Roots of the Problem
For decades now, composition has worked out a spectrum of effective teaching philosophies that depend on small group interaction, collaborative knowledge formation, and peer review. It has been nearly thirty years since Marilyn Cooper (1986), surveying the history of composition pedagogy, critiqued the then-dominant “cognitive process” model, while an improvement over the text-centered model of the past, for its flawed idealization of the “solitary author…isolated from the social world” (p. 365). Writing, she said, on the contrary, is “essentially social…dependent on social structures and processes not only in [its] interpretive but also in [its] constructive phases” (p. 366). Conceptualizing the writer as independent and isolated inaccurately locates the source of his or her ideas somewhere within the intact and autonomous self, representing the communicative utterance as a discrete offering to an “unknown and largely hostile other” (Cooper, 1986, p. 366). Such a construct yet persists, unwittingly perhaps, in textbooks that limit the purpose of brainstorming to figuring out what a writer “already knows,” locating ideas in the very isolation of the independent writer; it persists too in students’ resistance to see topics themselves as social, interdependent, and evolving. Surely most classroom teachers have had that experience of even otherwise interesting students seeming to select their topics from a mental list of issues they have come to see as nearly timeless, ever appropriate to “academic” settings—abortion, gun control, now perhaps also gay marriage and cyberbullying—and thus set themselves up to build largely imitative arguments they falsely believe will speak meaningfully to an unknown, but supposedly expert, other. They come to “know” a topic like they would memorize a script, without considering how a topic means in multiple and changing ways, or how their own engagement with any subject may change to reflect the various experiences and encounters of a lifetime.
Through the contributions of social-constructionist thinkers like Kenneth Bruffee (1984; 1993) and Patricia Bizzell (1994), composition pedagogy has spent more than a generation building a new paradigm, one in which the writer and his or her writing are situated in a network of social environments, and though occasionally still obstructed by lingering expectations from older traditions, this has been a major direction of composition pedagogy ever since. Even nearly thirty years ago, Cooper (1986) saw classes that employ collaboration, groupwork, discussion, debate, and peer review as managing to “escape [the] tyranny” of the isolated-author cognitive-process model (p. 366). In her "The Ecology of Writing,” and in the subsequent theories that Margaret Syverson (1999) articulated in The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition, writers appear even more richly ecological. Ideas and utterances are physically embodied, socially distributed and adaptive, and deeply interconnected with the world(s) in which the writer and his or her intended audience live, think, and behave. In Cooper and Syverson’s schema, a written product—an essay, for instance—emerges from a complex ecological web of knowledge formation, rhetorical expectations, and lived experiences, and then succeeds or fails largely in terms of how it integrates into the communicative ecology to which it aspires.
This fundamental principle of current composition pedagogy—that knowledge formation happens in socially connected and interdependent ways—underlies much contemporary pedagogical thought across the curriculum. D. Randy Garrison and Norman D. Vaughn (2007) have argued that regardless of discipline, “a critical, collaborative learning community… recognizes the social nature of education and the role that interaction, collaboration, and discourse play in constructing knowledge” (p. 9). Distance education, though changing the delivery format of instruction, likewise depends on this principle. As Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt (1999) argued more than a decade ago, regardless of discipline, student learning in online courses depends on collaboration: “the learning community is the vehicle through which learning occurs online” (p. 29). Yet most instructional technology so far, it would seem, much better suits the retrograde “solitary author” paradigm Cooper (1986) describes, as studies have shown that the most successful online students tend to be independent, self-directed, and reflective (e.g. Rabe-Hemp et al, 2009). Based on self-reported data from the 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), Daniel Pu-shih Chen, Robert Gonyea, and George Kuh (2008) argued that “distance learners are less engaged” with their classmates, and that “the online environment provides students more opportunities to be involved in active learning as individuals, but limits students’ ability to collaborate with each other (n.p.). Similarly, the 2011 CCCC Committee referenced above reported that students appreciated their online courses’ affording “flexibility,” “the ability to read and write on their own time,” and “the development of their self-directedness and self-discipline,” but faculty respondents saw disadvantages in “sensitivity to audience,” ranking “loss of interaction among students and themselves” third among their chief concerns (pp. 11, 12).
In other words, it would seem that the best parts of composition pedagogy are precisely what’s missing in most online learning situations. Indeed, the very characteristics of online learning that make it most attractive in university recruitment campaigns—the convenience of learning outside of real time, the ability to work from home or on the go—are the very things that disembody learners, separating them physically and temporally from their professors and classmates. And marketing for instructional technologies from the big publishers, like Pearson’s MyLab, indicates that the courses most suited for online delivery are not necessarily collaborative and generatively interconnected but content-heavy and information-based, emphasizing “viewable content” tools like video lecture, interactive games, and hypertextually augmented e-books.
Although some of us have adapted to the online world by mastering open-source programs like Moodle, many of us, if not most, are beholden to the large interdisciplinary course management systems that our schools require and/or support, like Blackboard 9.1, and while their numerous tools may give our courses variety and basic workability, they are still heavily weighted toward a content delivery and assessment model of pedagogy. Though mainly a text-based CMS, Blackboard can be easily supplemented with links: to multi-frame video lectures (a program called Echo-360 was initially supported by Blackboard 9), to narrated presentations made through Adobe Presenter or PowerPoint, to videos recorded on webcams or posted online. Student mastery of any “content” thus presented can be almost as easily assessed through user-friendly testing modules and a simplified “Assignment” module (replacing “Digital Dropbox” in the most recent update). Blackboard also offers opportunities for personal, informal student writing, with journals and blogs that can be made either public or private, and there are “comment” features throughout that can make any and all communication potentially interactive. Certainly, discussion boards and small group tools are available to facilitate asynchronous interaction between students, and a wiki tool can be employed for both collaborative and multimodal tasks. But, for one thing, multimodal tools like wikis are exactly those things that respondents to the CCCCs OWI report (2011) claimed not to be using, selecting instead tools for “the online distribution of course materials; PowerPoint and Word document lectures, quizzes and exams; draft exchange for peer response” and evaluation; and other text-based assignments (p. 19). For another, Blackboard still positions the writer primarily as the isolated recipient of information, who contributes his or her thinking in discrete little bullets to the discussion forum or via various assessment instruments. Even with this apparent wealth of CMS resources, in other words, a teacher may struggle to create sites for rich, profitable discussion that will both reflect and affect students’ ideas, or opportunities to inquire deeply and collaboratively into the complexities of contemporary issues. The ecological multitude that comprises the writer’s mind is too easily replaced with the aspects of course “content” most translatable to instructional technologies: a basic rhetorical paradigm presented in a lecture, perhaps; a misleadingly linear step-by-step writing process presented in sequential “assignment” modules; or how-to research, grammar and style exercises presented in videos and follow-up quizzes.
In a face-to-face, or “seated,” classroom, we may reasonably expect our learning communities to form organically; students get to know one another without conscious awareness of their own or others’ rhetorical decisions. Directing a face-to-face composition class to work in small groups may produce small, successful learning communities by silently employing a thousand small factors that teachers neither control nor even necessarily note—the “multitude of ways [we convey] who we are as people”: small talk, gesture, physicality, timing, tones of voice, even clothing, posture and other things that help individuals learn about one another, find connections, and engage (Palloff and Pratt, 2007, p. 11). In the online class, even simple technology can be used to encourage students to get to know one another in more and less complex ways. Email-based interviews and real-time chat allow for exchange of biographical details; a follow-up exercise wherein students author introductions of their interviewees and post them to a group message board replicates a familiar first-day face-to-face ice-breaker introduction exercise. Cooper (1986) noted the importance of “enabl[ing] our students to see each other as real readers, not as stand-ins for a general audience” (p. 372), but of course this is harder to do if they cannot “see” one another at all. An even more technologically value-added exercise might add visuals to “disembodied” introductions by asking individuals to present themselves multi-modally. Using the Blackboard wiki tool (or even Word or PowerPoint), and borrowing conceptually from social networking profiles, students can list (and link) favorite cultural texts, bands, quotes, and webpages, and upload pictures and/or avatars to represent themselves to their group of “friends” and strangers. These introductory exercises elicit multimedia collages that give students a variety of ways to present themselves to one another, and their mediated self-definitions at least gesture toward the ecological complexity that comprises them, not only allowing their peers access to numerous potentially significant personal details but helping them feel invested in the community with which they’ve shared.
This is an imperfect introductory assignment, though, in a number of ways. First, unless an online student has independent resources for, say, making video, the wiki may be limited to what a student can find online and paste into his or her document, creating a collage akin to the worst possible research paper, with any original thinking buried by mimicry and plagiarism. Ironically, professional fields outside of academia see technology as facilitating collaboration: video conferences and webinars’ replacing face-to-face conversation with faster, cheaper methods of communication represents one of the driving forces behind modern technological advancement. Deft rhetoricians and celebrities may be able to create a sense of online “community” where there isn’t even give and take—witness the parasocial fandom and familiarity of message board subcultures that surround numerous bloggers and tweeters from Evgeny Morotzov to Perez Hilton—but often, highly sophisticated multimodal technological elements accompany their online presence. Online spaces that are technologically limited, on the other hand, end up being primarily text-based, and here, writing and rhetoric must assume much of the responsibility that technology, celebrity, or the elements of interpersonal interaction present in the seated class might otherwise shoulder. The population targeted by these pedagogical endeavors, though is usually, almost by definition, at least as rhetorically unsophisticated as they are technologically inexperienced. The CCCC Committee report (2011) notes this paradox:
A recurring theme in these data is that students must access much of their interactions, instruction, orientation, supplemental assistance, and so on, in text-based manners. Although intuitively this reading/writing nature of the online setting would not appear to be a problem, we think that many students are not necessarily good readers of instructional texts, which means that communicating with them textually may require different kinds of strategies than those provided by simply migrating face-to-face techniques and strategies to an online setting. (p. 13)
Paloff and Pratt (2007) have insisted that the characteristics necessary to developing an effective “electronic personality,” include several rhetorically sophisticated traits: “the ability to carry on an internal dialogue in order to formulate responses…the ability to deal with emotional issues in textual form… [and] the ability to create a sense of presence online through the personalization of communications” (p. 29). These types of rhetorical ability and confidence are precisely what elude many first year composition students in any pedagogical environment, even those accustomed to using social media. For the online first-year-composition course, though, this presents not merely a challenge but a dilemma: our students’ very rhetorical inexperience inhibits their successfully forming the learning communities we need to improve their rhetorical competence.
Besides, getting students talking—helping them get to know each other—is a means toward an end, but not an end itself. As teachers, we want to build educationally meaningful—not just friendly—relationships, or what Garrison and Vaughn (2007) call “communities of inquiry” between our students. “Personal relationships may be an artifact of a sustained community of inquiry,” they have argued, “but they are not its primary goal… a community of inquiry must foster personal but purposeful relationships” (p. 15-20). In seated classes, some of this may be unconscious for students and teachers alike. Students literally inhabit their communication experiences as they study academic rhetorical models; physically present, “embodied” thinkers and writers, they do not separate the multitudes they are from the work they are asked to do. Without advocating stereotyping by appearance, of course, we know that we all to some degree physically perform our inner selves. What a student shows by being an embodied and social presence may come to bear on course topics: a soldier’s fatigues, a sorority rushee’s t-shirt, a new mom’s baby-picture tote bag, a fan’s basketball jersey, or a skater’s board all powerfully indicate their various realms of interest, experience, and engagement. In the online setting, these aspects of the writer’s self may be completely obscured.
Inviting those elements back in, though, to be purposeful, must be relevant to the educational endeavor. A personal and purposeful community of inquiry can be meaningfully built in a parallel manner to the intellectual building of a socially constructed paradigm for composition, and it is this parallel that affords us an opportunity to unite the pedagogical goals of community building and writing. In other words, as we create ways for students to get to know one another, we must encourage them to see their complex ecological makeup and that of their collaborators, to mindfully participate in the formation of a new ecological community with their peer group, and to become cognizant of the ways in which those complex ecologies influence knowledge formation and communication.