This webtext discusses two elements of writing classroom pedagogy which at first glance might seem at odds with one another: blogging and community engagement. Blogging is typically used to facilitate periodic student writing about personal interests. In a recent Computers and Composition Online webtext, Geoffrey Middlebrook (2010) argues that if we as compositionists wish to provide students with meaningful opportunities for writing, then “blogs should be perceived as a rich and flexible resource waiting to be wielded for the personal, intellectual, and vocational benefit of students.” Overall, Middlebrook’s articulation of the potential use of blogs in the writing classroom echoes the way teachers in our field typically understand the rhetorical exigence of blogs: the cultivation and validation of the self in digitally public ways within the ethical framework of negotiating the intersection, indeed the conflation of private student voices and the digital publics (Miller & Shepherd; Benson and Reyman, 2009; Lindgren, 2005).
Community engagement, typically falling under the rubric of service learning or civic pedagogy, asks students to use the writing skills they learn in the classroom and apply them to “real-world” community contexts in a variety of different ways (Herzberg, 1994; Alder-Klassen, 1995; Heilker, 1997; Weisser, 2002). Yet, both blogging and community engagement are connected in the sense that they operate along and challenge the traditional ethical boundaries between what is public and what is private, encouraging students to realize that their inherently social writing can – and should – exist in publicly-mediated spaces. They both ask us to rethink how we define “public writing” and “social action.”
While I acknowledge the value of blogging in pedagogical contexts as a way for students to cultivate the self in digitally public ways, this webtext argues that if we are to ever harness the full potential of blogs there needs to be a shift away from self-centered models of rhetorical exigence and a move towards the expanding – and ultimately re-purposing – of blogs in a pedagogical context as more socially-responsible spaces. These spaces have rhetorical exigencies based upon the social needs of the community and hinge upon the belief in the ethical obligation of students and teachers to connect digital literacy skills to the explicit betterment of the local community.
Online “social action” creates good netizens, but not necessarily good citizens. The danger in conflating face-to-face with digital social interaction is that in an attempt to create good netizens, we are neglecting the needs of our local, physical community. This webtext draws sharp distinctions between these two spheres but also offers a productive model of merging the two in a way that expands the possibilities of citizenship models of education while also expanding our use of blogs, a digital literacy tool that tends to be pigeon-holed into a singular rhetorical exigence.
To support this re-purposing of blogs, this webtext adopts the ethical framework of American pragmatist John Dewey, a well-known educator, oft-forgotten philosopher, and newly-tabbed rhetorician (Danisch, 2007; Crick, 2010), whose formulation of the public and the private as being inseparable and the school as acting in subservience to the community can contribute to the expanding of blogging by calling into question Henry Jenkins’ notion of “participatory culture” and what we typically think constitutes social action. Dewey’s pragmatist ethics have much to offer digital literacy, primarily through the framework’s emphasis on experience: students have a moral obligation to enact social action in “real life,” to connect what they do in the classroom to the community in material ways that require physical presence. As teachers, our role becomes clear then: provide students with the opportunity for experience that extends beyond but includes by way of tandem digital literacy, specifically blogging, practices.
What follows is my best attempt to articulate what it might mean to challenge the individualistic associations of blogs and what this in turn might mean in challenging our students to forge new (or at least alter their previous) ethical practices. At the heart of this webtext is the challenging of our typical understanding of blogs as purely self-referential, narrativized, personalized spaces that can facilitate writing and professionalization in students. This webtext then operates at the intersection between multiple publics: the public, and the private; the classroom and the community. The concept of overlapping publics (boyd, 2008) has been used to help us understand the complex relationships and communication that take place online, but it’s also useful here in thinking about the relationship between face-to-face and digital interactions. As McNely et al. testify:
We live in a time when the sociotechnical infrastructures for enabling participatory educational experiences in broader publics are, as Shirky (2008, p. 54) suggests, “ridiculously easy” to establish and maintain. But bringing together participatory activities that yield generative interactions between and across overlapping publics is much more challenging.
While Shirky’s quote applies primarily to communicative acts housed within and between digital environments, I think this can translate to any form of publics, broadly defined. Dewey acknowledged the fact that there was not just “one public” to enter into conversation with but rather multiple publics interacting with each other. To avoid anachronism in my application of Deweyan ethics, we can understand that virtual publics fall under the headings of Dewey’s multiple publics; that is, Dewey was open to the idea that we use the term public in multiplicitious fashion, so online writing environments can be understood here as being just another “public.” Utilizing Deweyan ethics as a framework within which to work allows for a generative interaction between two related but distant “publics” that need more specific overlapping in our field. Dewey’s ethics challenges the notion of “participatory culture” by re-imagining what is meant by “social action,” asking teachers not to shirk their responsibility to the local, physical community by focusing on or too narrowly defining social action as being sufficiently virtual.
This webtext will begin with a theoretical articulation of Deweyan ethics, both why it is important and relevant to our field and also how it contrasts starkly and challenges the assumptions inherent in our understanding of participatory digital publics as outlined by Jenkins and others (Lowe & Williams, 2005; Isaacs and Jackson, 2001). In first addressing what constitutes “public writing” and “social action,” the webtext then shifts into my main challenging of blog usage in an attempt to shift the rhetorical exigencies that bring about the rhetorical situation of blogging. The webtext then moves to classroom practice, recounting and displaying a project done by first-year composition students at the University of South Florida called “Blogging for Social Action,” in which students physically acted upon the social justice issue of their choice in the local Tampa Bay area (i.e., volunteered; picketed; petitioned) and used blogs as socially-responsible web spaces that not only traced their experiences in the community but also represented the arguments and rhetorical positions on the issue at hand. Finally, this webtext ends with a call for teachers to begin to shift the rhetorical exigencies and purposes typically associated with blogging in pedagogical settings by essentially reframing the untapped potential uses of blogs. If we as compositionists are to ever break free from our narrow conception of blogs as necessarily arising from rhetorical exigencies based upon the cultivation and development of the private self/voice in distinctly public ways, we can begin by thinking about how these web spaces typically associated with self-advancement can be understood as socially responsible public spaces that act upon the rhetorical exigence of social justice issues and that respond to needs within the local, physical community.
From these experiences, then, I wish to extend three arguments. First, that a unique configuration between educational blogging and community engagement can expand our use of blogs in the writing classroom by shifting the rhetorical exigence of blogs from personal to more social “felt needs” of the local community. Second, that integrating blogging into community engagement pedagogies can contribute to our expanding of how we think about community engagement, service learning, and other models and how these intersect with digital publics. Third, that John Dewey’s pragmatist ethics have much to contribute to our field, particularly through challenging our notions of public and private and also how we relate curriculum to “social action.”