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Civic Action in the Cyberpublic: Critical-Rational Debate in Web 2.0

Written by Donna LeCourt
October 31, 2010

The Project: Although college students have many opportunities to use technology in the classroom, from course management software like WebCT with multiple discussion forums to course blogs, or even collaborative authoring software, they are less often asked to write for the web itself. Their work written for class may be published on the web (in e-zines or other formats), they may contribute to class hypertexts, or even take courses in multimedia and web authoring, but in all theses instances, student writing for the web is typically limited to their own texts and authorship is still seen to be primarily about the writer circulating their voice to others.

This project (and the course of which it was a part) grew out of an interest in the web’s potential as an interactive public sphere where citizens dialogue with one another on issues central to them in the hopes of working toward some form of social or civic action. Once seen as a utopian hope for the WWW in the 1990s, the increasing commercialization of the Web and the attendant emphasis on social uses of web spaces has made the possibility of a new public space where citizen voices vie with those of the media and politicians for equal time, or where diverse groups of citizens begin to discuss their differences across regional, political, racial, and national lines now seems like a pipe dream to many. This course took this “hope” as its central question, seeking to investigate with the students whether the web could, indeed, become a public sphere if individual citizens sought to engage each other in this fashion, if we deliberately sought to engage one another. Behind such an investigation was my belief that writing teachers can and should take a leadership role in helping form burgeoning web spaces rather than only seeking to teach students to write for the web “as is.”

Rather than seek to teach students how to write for web publics, then, the course (Writing in Cyberspace) was designed to investigate what kinds of publics exist and which rhetorical strategies might be most effective not only for particular web genres (blogs, forums, social networking sites) but also for encouraging particular kinds of public discourse and, conversely, which web genres might be most amenable to different forms of public discourse. As part of this investigation, students engaged in three “public participation projects” that sought to engage different models of public discourse in web spaces: Habermasian critical rational-debate where discussion is open to all citizens, Nancy Fraser’s more invitational and experiential rhetoric where like-minded groups (based in similar identities, experiences, or political positions) define an agenda that the collective would then take to the larger public sphere, and Michael Warner’s focus on discursively creating a public sphere through one’s rhetoric.

Guiding Questions

How can technology help my students see themselves as citizens with an
obligation to engage others as part of a participatory democracy?

How might the Web foster public spheres for such engagement and what writing
strategies and internet genres would be most effective toward this end?

Assignment and Context

This resource focuses on the first of three public-participation projects in the Writing in Cyberspace course.  For project #1, students began by reading Habermas and applications of Habermas to web spaces, investigated various websites to see whether Habermas’ ideas could work on the web, and conducted rhetorical analyses of such online “debates.” The class practiced rational-critical debate by analyzing others’ debates through the lens of stasis theory (i.e., questions to assess what’s at stake in a debate) and more traditional rhetorical analyses of the use of logos and ethos in web spaces. Armed with such a background and writing practice in logical debate, students then chose a web space to participate in for the space of approximately two weeks.

Their projects focused on this web interaction. Each student included in a portfolio a print-out of the entire conversation they engaged in as well as a 5-6 page reflective piece on their experience and what it led them to think about the viability of this model of public discourse for the web. [The directions for this assignment are included below as a Word document.] While the students were inevitably disappointed that their attempts to engage rationally were frequently ignored and/or met with much more emotional and illogical responses, some found that as they sought to debate based in logic and research while maintaining an ethos of mutual respect for their interlocutors that others sometimes began to response in kind, leading some students to speculate that over time, individuals could influence the form and function of the debate. Others, initially enamored with this approach (seeing it as the most effective form of public discourse) became more aware of the limits of logic (specifically the lack of personal experience and emotional appeals) and came to question whether anything like a “consensus” could ever be formed in web spaces where the anonymity of comments led to little investment in each other.

Such experiences led to critical questions about the role of power in such discussions (how some got listened to more than others), definitions of social action itself (was it collective action or influencing individuals to take action?), or even whether the role of debate ought to be defending one’s position (some students’ debates became conversations where information was shared as they and their participants sought to learn more from each other). Many students, in fact, learned that their own positions, after the interaction, had changed or they were less sure about them.
Open project 1.doc

Student Samples

Joe Stahl’s debate on abortion and his reflective paper on his interaction are included as PDFs.

Jessica Ouellette’s debate on college education and her reflective paper on her interaction are included as PDFs.

Both papers are used with the permission of the student writers.
Open Joe’s Reflection Paper.pdf
Open Joe’s Debate.pdf
Open Jessica’s Reflection Paper.pdf
Open Jessica’s Debate.pdf

Teacher Reflection on Student Learning

Although the project did not generate a love of Habermasian debate (though it did for some) nor a desire to engage in such forums in the future, the questions it raised served as essential background for a later project when students began to consider forming their own publics.

Perhaps even more importantly, the Habermas project led the students to begin asking questions about what a public sphere could or should be, how different rhetorical strategies invoked and addressed different audiences, and finally what obligations citizens had to not only engage but also take seriously those who disagree with them. As Cass Sunstein and other have argued, the internet is quickly becoming an “enclaved” space where people tend to engage those who already think as they do (e.g. liberal blogs like Huffington Post or activist organizations like rarely engage the “other” side of or seek out, through social networking, those with whom they share an affinity.

If for no other reason, the focus the project gave to reaching across differences and the potential for reaching out past one’s personal experiences would encourage me to do this project again. Students did learn many writing skills (argument, logical debate) and rhetorical skills (appealing to an audience, responding to alternative facts and positions) but that was not the primary goal. Instead, the chief benefit seemed to be considering how the Net could make us reach beyond ourselves and encounter Others if we seek them out. The harder part was considering how to do this productively in such an anonymous space where investment in issues differs so much, the guiding question that we took up throughout the course without arriving at a definitive answer.

What I’d Do Differently

Although the role of rhetoric in civic realms has a long history, I don’t think this project could have worked without the web interaction portion. Of course, this is partially because it was embedded in a course that was asking the large abstract question of whether the web could function as a public sphere. But the web also made the public sphere real in a way looking only at rhetorical theory or rhetorical practice in print could never have done. The best part of the project, that is, was trying to engage in public discourse and realizing both its benefits and difficulties. For me, the amazing access to Web 2.0 spaces, and the freedom to not worry about teaching “technology” as I might in other courses (coding, programs, etc.) also provided the additional benefit of being able to focus more on the ideas and rhetorical strategies than the technical formatting of specific kinds of texts.

I do think my exclusive reliance on Web 2.0 spaces may have been one weakness of the overall course in that students desired to learn more about creating web texts than we had time for at the end (something I will change next time)—and they are right as this is an essential part of initiating one’s own publics rather than joining those already formed. But the excitement the students had in getting responses to their posts, the care they took in composing them, and their reflections upon their experience not only made for a realistic context for their texts but also raised questions about what role we play as writers and citizens in our everyday lives that seem essential as higher education focuses more and more on professionalization. Not only would this project be impossible to duplicate without these Web 2.0 spaces and those others the students interacted with who seem to be seeking their own public spheres, but it also highlighted possible uses for the web that don’t always get full consideration in writing courses. My students admitted on the first day of class that they did not write much on the web prior to this course (except with their friends on social networking sites or course-mandated discussions on class sites); their primary web interactions were passive: seeking information or, more often, as consumers. If nothing else, the project asked students to consider their roles as producers of text, and most importantly, what role writing might play in changing their world.

Student Reflection

Jessica, a member of this class, interviewed members of our course for this podcast about digital writing in and out of the classroom.  (The podcast was an assignment for another course.)
Open DigitalWritingSoundProject.mp3

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