Feminist Online Writing Courses
Civic Rhetoric, Community Action, and Student Success

Letizia Guglielmo


Course Strategies

Given the challenges of learning in computer-mediated environments, instructors of online first-year writing courses must make deliberate attempts to shift students’ understanding of instructor and student roles while redefining the classroom space. Instructors, must work to decenter the learning space and to invite students—citizens of the course community, in this case—to become co-teachers in the learning process.

Since students are likely to approach online learning with expectations shaped by traditional learning experiences, believing, perhaps, that "teachers talk, students listen; teachers’ contributions are privileged; students respond in predictable, teacher-pleasing ways” (Hawisher & Selfe, 1991/2000, p. 129), this deliberate and initial shift of power not only reveals the instructor’s expectations but also clarifies for students their role in this learning environment.

Although this sharing of power is an inherently feminist move, I have found that first-year students at my institution can be somewhat resistant to the term, bringing with them preconceived notions and definitions of feminism. Instead of focusing exclusively on feminist teaching and what I regard as my responsibilities, I find it important to introduce students to civic rhetoric and to their roles as citizens within this online community, reinforcing again their responsibilities and my expectations for the course.

In order to facilitate civic action in online courses, first, as is customary in online learning environments, the instructor should introduce herself at the start of the semester and invite all members of the course to do the same (Blair & Hoy, 2006, p. 38).

The discussion board can serve as a useful method of facilitating these introductions because it allows for responses from other members of the group and provides an ongoing opportunity for interaction throughout the semester or as long as the thread remains active. Introductions in my online courses have allowed students to discover other courses they may have in common, to find that other students enrolled in the course live close to them, to identify common interests or experiences, and generally to set the stage for the community that we will attempt to foster over the course of the semester.

Second, students should be invited to generate collaboratively the guidelines and expectations for discussion board use within the course. Addressing both etiquette, or netiquette as described by Dickie Selfe (p. 26) and Tulley and Blair (2003, p. 60), and outlining the requirements for actual post content, these guidelines will help to set parameters yet also will invite students to make collective decisions that will impact them as members of that community, in other words, to take civic action. Ideally, this activity will constitute an online discussion during the first week of class and will allow the instructor to contribute and to respond as well. This co-creation of knowledge can provide immediate evidence for students that their contributions are valued yet also essential to the success of the course.