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The latest social-media kerfuffle on Goodreads has left me pondering the dynamics of expressing ourselves in digital communities. People are amazingly generous about sharing their words – but amazingly vicious at times.

As it happens, I am reading the draft of a book of essays on using digital media for teaching writing, and that is setting up some curious reverberations.  How do we prepare students for a world in which so much of their writing will be digital and published in a fluid, communal, multivocal space? How do we talk about the rhetorical issues of purpose, audience, argument, evidence, and tone when we aren’t limiting ourselves to certain academic forms of writing? 

As the Stanford Study of Writing has shown, students may be better at rhetorical moves than we think precisely because they have practiced them in digital spaces with real purposes and real audiences. But given the complexity of modern forms of public writing, what issues beyond the usual writing issues might be worth considering? Should we be talking about the difficulty of self-representation in a space with multiple audiences, including your friends, your future employer, and your grandmother? Should we talk about who owns our texts online and what platforms such as Goodreads and Facebook can do with our contributions? Should we talk about balancing free speech and civility with case studies of people behaving badly online? Should we talk about how platforms we may use daily deal with things like rape threats?

Where does that belong in the curriculum? It’s hard enough to teach writing, much less all the variations on it that are part of our lives today.

The book I’m reading in draft form is titled Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. It’s a fascinating attempt to open up the entire process of composing a scholarly book. Jack Dougherty, with support from Trinity College’s Center for Teaching and Learning, put out a call for contributions last June (as one does). People submitted proposals (as they do). A publisher took on the project, and the book in draft form is being reviewed by four people selected by the editors, as is the custom.

What’s a bit more unusual is that this is all happening online in the open, and while the four reviewers (and I am deeply honored and a bit amazed to be invited to be one of them) have committed to reviewing the entire book, anyone who wants to is invited to read and comment on the essays using a version of the CommentPress  software which I first saw used in Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, which also combined traditional review with open peer review.

Some things were sorted out in advance. Commenters must use their real names, and comments can be edited to avoid drive-by vandalism or spam. Those who contribute to the review hold the copyright on their comments but they agree to a  Creative Commons license for sharing them. As with another born-digital project, quite a lot of work will happen later, as essays are curated, revised, copyedited, and prepared for publishing and as supplemental materials are .

I’m finding it fascinating to read the drafts and join in the comment stream, though I am discovering that I may need to develop new ways of reading. I’m learning I should focus on an entire essay before I begin to discuss paragraphs. I am fairly used to reading online, but realize I do find it still a bit easier to see the shape of the whole better on paper than on screen. But it’s a fascinating way of exposing the writing process while writing about how to expose the writing process to students who live in a world saturated with digital texts. I can only imagine what a novel experience this must be for the essay authors, who are very brave. 

I’m wondering how to prepare students writers for a world in which people can turn into mobs online, where the balance between individual expression and group norms is constantly under negotiation, one in which corporations are vacuuming up freely-donated content to be their product and a mine of personal information to be exploited by themselves and third parties (including the state which now has an extraordinary capacity for surveillance).

But Web Writing and its contributors are providing a fascinating perspective on how we might teach writing and how we might rethink our own writing practices. Drop by and join in.  


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