Exigence, most commonly, is understood as an event that brings about the necessity for a communicative act. There are many definitions of exigence, but the most useful for these purposes is Lloyd Bitzer’s (1968), who defines exigence as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be.” According to a genre analysis conducted by Herring, Scheidt, Bonus and Wright (2004, p.1) of random blogs, most blogs are less about striving out for connectivity and more about self-expression. This means that the exigence for blogging most often is a desire to be heard rather than a desire to form a community. Just as pragmatism functions as a shift in paradigm, an alteration of attitude in our way of thinking, so too am I calling for a shift in perspective on blogging. I am not proposing any revolutionary way to use blogs from a technological point of view but rather just shifting our attitude, exigence, and subsequent use towards blogs – from self to community.
Blogs serve many purposes in a writing class: they can serve as brainstorming spaces; they can serve as blank slates upon which students and textually and aesthetically create their own “identity” or ethos; they can be a space of professionalization; they can be a space for students to develop their tone and rhetorical awareness as writers. In every instance, students will receive some sort of feedback from an audience, known or unknown (Gocsik, 2011). If, as Jenkins et al. (2006) frame it, participatory cultures arise from the development and usage of interactive technologies, then blogs have been a fundamental interactive technology in the development of a participatory culture of expression in digital publics. Just in case those within computers and writing have not memorized the following passage of Jenkins et al.’s white paper yet, here reads his definition of a participatory culture:
A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another. (Jenkins et al, 2006, emphasis added)
The popularity of educational blogging in writing classrooms arises from the final claim that by using blogs we as writing teachers can begin to have our students believe in the meaning and importance of their writing. By straddling the ethical space between private voices and public digital spheres, and by teaching and composing within this space, student bloggers are able to feel a sense of meaning in their writing that is oftentimes lacking in assignments still colored by the lingering and powerful palette of academic discourse. As Jill Walker (2005) notes, blogs can “provide a chance for students to experience writing in a public space where their work can have real value both for their classmates and for a wider community” (112). Blogs can enable movement beyond the “classroom-only gated communities” (Lowe & Williams, 2005) typically experienced within Blackboard or WebCT writing environments. The pedagogical benefits of blogging have been discussed in depth by many (Barton, 2005; Brownstein & Klein, 2006; Glogoff, 2005; Lamb & Johnson, 2006; Penrod, 2007); in being able to cross the boundary between private and public, press a “Publish” button after they’re done composing their opinion, and receive their very own URL, students can experience the feeling of what it is like to compose meaningful discourse in digital public spaces.
This feeling of meaning is very important for students, but many teachers and scholars are starting to see the limitation of just treating blogs as online journaling spaces to be shared – realistically – within a small community consisting of peers, teachers, and perhaps other groups on campus. The rhetorical exigence of public journaling still does not allow students to utilize the full rhetorical potential of blogs. 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.” In this vein, Middlebrook, against the purely journalistic nature of educational blog use, argues for using blogs as a platform in educational settings for “developing students’ disciplinary and professional identities.” The importance of using blogs as passageways for individuals to enter into “public,” more networked communities is reiterated by John Benson and Jessica Reyman (2009) in their honest depiction of using blogs in the writing classroom as agents for teaching students to understand Bruffee’s (1984) call to understand writing as an inherently social activity. While their findings indicate that the vast majority of students did not expect to have their blogs publicly viewed by any other reader outside the immediate classroom context in which they were writing, Benson and Reyman still contend that “[c]lass blogs offer much potential for teaching network literacy.” Even when the rhetorical exigencies of blog posting are challenged, the social function of blogging is still identified as “the ongoing construction of self in response to changing social and cultural conditions” (Lindgren, 2005).
From an ethical standpoint, then, theories, pedagogies, and practices of blogging largely revolve around issues of privacy versus publicy, of the subject unabashedly entering into a state of public exposedness. As such, most ethical questions revolve around issues of privacy, identity construction, and professionalism. Miller and Shepherd (2005) argue that the rhetorical exigence of blogging is largely the need to connect with others:
Because the personal form of the blog is what seems to both motivate and satisfy the readers and writers of blogs and thus to have particular evolutionary survival value, we suspect that the generic exigence that motivates bloggers is related less to the need for information than to the self and the relations between selves. Understanding exigence as an “objectified social need” that functions as rhetorical motive (Miller, 1984, p. 157), then, we must characterize the generic exigence of the blog as some widely shared, recurrent need for cultivation and validation of the self; furthermore, in these particular times, we must locate that need at the intersection of the private and public realms, where questions about identity are most troubled.
Miller and Shepherd use the term “social action” to define the act of blog posting, largely because of the feeling of publicy bloggers experience when they post online, despite the fact that many posts go unread or unclicked by others. In this way, much like Peter Elbow’s notion of “private writing,” blogging can facilitate processes of self-validation and self-awareness merely through the expectation that one’s writing can be read and now exists in digital public spaces. The value of the blogger being their own audience and the positive feelings associated with self-disclosure affords the blogger with a low-risk entry into online communities.
Over the years, however, coinciding with the spiked expansion of myriad social media interactive technologies, the value of blogging as merely sharing your voice online has waned. Blogging in many ways has become a much more difficult way to enter into online communities. McNely et al (2010) would argue that this is because the focus has been too much on casting the readership as “little more than voyeurs.” To overcome this, different instantiations of blogging have recently arisen, including McNely et al’s challenging of what blogging as a literate practice means. McNely et al. argue that ecological (Barton, 2005) models of blogging have stifled the genre and argue instead for re-envisioning blogging as being participatory in practice. The experience they outline is that of a group of students, professionals, and teachers who consistently blog around a common interest, engaging in “knowledge work” (Spinuzzi, 2006) that is more participatory and puts more focus on audience participation in the blogging practice. While this method does encourage a more participatory approach, the authors still admit that one of the most exciting parts of the experience was when they would trace the Google Analytics and see the overwhelming amount of unique page visits. Here, the exigence, while more collaborative and participatory and genre-expanding, still rests on the interests of the individual relevancy.
These articulations of the potential uses of blogs in the writing classroom echo 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. Such perspectives align with the framework of individual or groups of students entering into pre-existing networking communities so as to develop “access and mastery” (Jenkins, 2006) of digital literacy skills that will help ensure that they are the youth that will succeed and not “be left behind as they enter school and the workplace” (p. 3). The rhetorical exigence for blogging is in many ways the necessity for self-advancement in highly-networked, digital “prosumer” cultures relevant to their field, interests, or profession. It implies that effective public writing is that which accumulates the most hits, that students become effective writers when they use the platforms designed to enable participatory cultures to succeed in capitalistic enterprises. Yet, one still gets the feeling that the exigencies of blogs are quite simply “stuck”: thousands upon thousands of deserted public spaces with thumbnail self-portraits uploaded from Facebook , timestamps from 4 months previous, 50-word bios and descriptions of Summer vacations, movie reviews, responses to course readings, and personal definitions of rhetoric now clutter the “public square” where the meaningful and connective webspace creations of well-intentioned, highly-motivated writing course students were once expected to exist and blossom, jumpstart careers, and pay for next semester’s textbooks by accumulating 0.02 cents per visit.
I am seeking to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of blogging and argue that educational blogging is a lively form of online writing, which if used wisely can stimulate students' enthusiasm, and facilitate the possibility of multiple types of participation in what Henry Farrell (2005) calls the blogospheric “carnival of ideas.” By “carefully assessing [blogs’] strengths and weaknesses, […we] are learning to set guidelines and expectations to maximize the benefits of blogs” (EduCause, 2005, p.2) One of the weaknesses of educational blogging and the reason why many teachers have reached a stalemate with integrating blogs into their courses is because of the narrow formulation of exigencies. How can we re-conceive of blogs as something other than stability of the self or development of personal ethos? Can blogs serve other purposes for students in realistic terms? Does this change the nature of the blog too much? Is the very technicality of the blog limiting in its ethical capabilities? What are some unique ways to use blogs in the classroom that doesn’t construct blogs as spaces of the self? The problem is the ethical correlate of typical blogging exigencies; the problem is assigning positive correlation between good writing and a wide audience, when in reality if anyone should know this to be a false correlation it is those within the digital humanities. The problem is that the rhetorical exigencies have revolved around the individual. Couched in Deweyan terminology, what would happen if blogs were conceived as instruments or tools of the local community rather than tools of self-advancement?
Technology plays a significant part in Deweyan ethics simply because for Dewey technology has the potential to tear down traditional dualistic ways of thinking. Dewey’s main if not only methodology concerning technology is that technology “acts as the knife that cuts the boundaries between the inner and the outer, the psychical and the physical, the ideal and the real” (Hickman, 1990, p. 60). I argue that we can use technology to cut across the academic versus community boundaries that have been erected, much the same way blogging has to this point completely shredded the boundary between public and private. Blogs, if they are indeed artifacts with significances to be enriched, serve as the basis for traversing these boundaries as they have done in the past. Ultimately, this pragmatist critique of technology can help productively explore the possible connections between civic engagement pedagogies and interactive social media technologies.
Dewey’s broad definition of technology, in which “artifacts” can encompass ideas, cars, and fingers, allows for a breaking free from traditional ontological or categorical placements. For Dewey, “instrumentalism” was the use of technology in the process of inquiry. As such, any “artifact” that facilitated human experience in some way or another could be considered technological (Dewey, 1958, p. 301). While Dewey’s articulation of instrumentalism frustrates those who study the history of technology (i.e., Barrett, 1978), viewing artifacts in this manner allows one to enter into an alternative to the entities that have traditionally been placed in compartments labeled “physical,” psychical,” and “metaphysical.”
Consider the bare possibility that tools and works of art give the key to the question at hand: that works and tools of art are precisely the sought-for alternative to physical, psychical and metaphysical entities. On this possibility, the ignoring of the characteristic features of this kind of thing is responsible for the unsettled and persistent controversy. Manufactured articles do not exist without human intervention; they do not come into being without an end in view. But when they exist and operate, they are just as realistic, just as free from dependence upon psychical states (to say nothing of their now being psychical states) as any other physical things…They are simply prior natural things reshaped for the sake of entering effectively into some type of behavior. (Dewey, 1916-17, p. 92)
Conceivably, then, blogs are neither public nor private spaces. Rather, blogs are artifacts or instrumentalities or tools that enable one’s methodological inquiry into something. Inquiry is always evaluated in direct respect to the common good: that is, a well-oiled society uses artifacts to serve positive social functions. If the purpose of education is indeed the betterment of the community, then educational uses of blogs would follow suit. Blogs can also serve to break down the traditional divides between classroom and community by not focusing on where it is taking place but rather what it is doing. While typical uses of blogs can promote individual achievement and have positive use-value in that respect, from a Deweyan standpoint we should be asking how blogs can serve as many functions as possible (with one of those being social betterment of the local community). This can be seen as a challenge to educational blogging, and further as a challenge that we should consider the ethical implications of blogging as an educational tool and the message that is being conveyed in the typical structuring of exigence.
Ideally, the rhetorical exigence of blogs would not be based upon the individualistic needs of the student user but rather on the “felt needs” of the local community. Blogs are artifacts that are developed out of an experience students have with the community – an act of engagement, a transaction. A Deweyan ethic directs the students’ moral obligation to the local community and not to networked participatory publics that can be devoid of any attachments to a physical location. (This is not to say that interactive technologies have not helped benefit the community; students have done excellent jobs doing this.) In contrast to the argument for expanding participatory culture through social media platforms, I argue for expanding participatory culture through community experience by having students use blogs as socially responsible web spaces that manifest from a “felt need” they have experienced in their local community. While cultural connections are being made in outward-facing online networks, the connections between the university and the local community that supports it are deteriorating. The digital participatory ethic is an important concept to teach; yet, for Dewey, it is important to teach students to whom they have an ethical obligation. In my case, the taxpayers in Tampa and Florida as a whole are not reaping the benefits of investing into their students’ education. I ask, to what extent has our focus on digital participation neglected the ethical obligation students have to localized community participation? How can the needs of the community be used as a cause, an exigence for blogging? Sociotechnological platforms have the potential to connect civic engagement pedagogies and blogging through redirecting their purpose.
[Dewey] argued that technological progress…be measured in terms of the degree to which the significance of artifacts is enriched. Such enrichment is the result of increased ability to substitute one thing for another or one meaning for another, for the purpose of enhanced pro-duction and con-struction. (Hickman, 1990, p84)
What I am calling for is not necessarily a different “genre,” but rather a different exigence: blogs can be created from experiencing the other, by locating a need within the community and using webspace responsibly to educate, inform, and argue for social action. While I acknowledge the value of blogging in pedagogical contexts as a way for students to cultivate the self in public ways, 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 exigences based upon the social needs of the community and the ethical obligation of students and teachers to connect digital literacy skills to the explicit betterment of the local community. My intent is not to completely change the way we blog but rather try and extend its rhetorical purposes and complexity -- to push beyond genres and explore their full uses, by shifting the rhetorical exigencies that characterize blogs and subsequently challenging students’ conceptions of the function and purposes of their education.