Comments on Collin Brooke's "Weblogs as Deictic Systems"

Stephen D. Krause
(Eastern Michigan University)

On Deixis:

A lot of what Collin is talking about here is what I think I was talking about in my dissertation way back when.  Not to belabor that now, but what I wrote about was how technologies altered the way that rhetorical situations functioned.  I used the word "immediate" to suggest that technologically mediated situations had both the potential for closeness and "intimacy" and, simultaneously, "chaos" and "confusion" because of a lack of boundaries.

A deictic “system”?

I recall reading White's kaironomia while working on my dissertation.  I recall from that is the idea that kairos is quite often an artificial creation.  This is why so many academic essays begin with a section that claims (rarely correctly, of course) something like "no one else but me has thought of this," or "while everyone else in the field has considered a,b, and c, my project addresses x, y, and z."  Such a move gives a work a purpose to an audience.  Now, I might be remembering this wrong, and it doesn't seem to have that much to do with the social, other than it might have something to do with the motive for making a message (writing, speaking, etc.) in the first place.

Small-world networks

A classroom represents a sort of social network-- fair enough.  And I understand the way in which Collin is drawing connections to grad students at other schools, and I suppose also faculty (like me) at different schools together into a social network of sorts.  I link to and read Collin's blog; he links and reads mine.  But what is the significance of this community, especially in the real lives of our students and colleagues? 

When I re-read Collin's piece, I was also reading Rebekah Nathan's book My Freshman Year.  Nathan is an anthropology professor, and she enrolled as a first year student at the school where she teaches in order to study student life as a native (and don't worry, she problematizes her methodology and such quite a bit.  She reveals a lot about the lives of our students beyond our classrooms; one of the arguments she makes is a lot of what we as teachers think of as community (classes, for example) are really not that important of a community function for students. 

And to extend this with the community that Collin and I are both in:  we are in the same field, we share interests, we have exchanged email messages, and  we read each others blogs.  In a sense, we know each other.  But in another sense, we don't really know each other, and the community where we might find ourselves connected is probably not what is the most important community in our lives.  So while there is a social network and a connection between us (us being teachers and students, Collin and me, etc.), how significant is that connection, and can it be meaningfully compared with social networks like family, geographic neighbors, more immediate work colleagues, etc.?

Classroom networks, systems:

First, I think one of the big factors here has to do with the state of the technology when I first taught with blogs and wrote about it in my Kairos article, When Blogging Goes Bad.  Basically, blogger didn’t support a commenting feature back when I first experimenting with it.  As I’ll mention in the last section here, I didn’t spend any class time getting students to link to other blogs they might want to read, and this was before the days of RSS feeds, too.  In other words, I do think that improvements in technology have changed the way that these resources have changed as far as community and social networks go.

Second, one of the things I mentioned briefly in my When Blogging Goes Bad piece and that I think might matter here a great deal is the idea of what motivates students to participate in these sorts of activities in the first place.  One of the things that I have found with blogging is that a lot of my students (and a lot of my colleagues, for that matter) are simply not motivated to write in a blog space just because they have the opportunity to do so.  Let me quote at length here from my article in Kairos:

Maybe I should have known before I began that this wasn't going to work, but I was disappointed that my students didn't "just write," if given the opportunity. I still feel a bit disappointed, actually. Every once in a while, in conference presentations or in essays in journals like Kairos, someone idealistically suggests that writing teachers ought to focus on fostering and nurturing an atmosphere where students can "learn" instead of being "taught," where students can write not because they are being required to do so by some sort of "teacherly" assignment but because they want to write, where students aren't required to write old-fashioned essays, but where they can create and explore new forms. And so forth.

Well, in the nutshell, that's what I felt I tried, and, in the nutshell, it didn't work. And when I talked with my students about this, they more or less said that they needed the direction of a teacherly assignment to write, and they weren't going to "just want to write" in a blog space (or anywhere else, for that matter) just because they were given the opportunity. Perhaps this is common sense, but it is a piece of common sense I think is too often forgotten in ideas about fostering student writing in general, and fostering student writing with various computer tools like blogs.

Students (or anyone else) don't just want to write, and certainly not in a blog space. As Walker puts it in her "Talk at Brown" notes, "How empowering is it to be forced to blog?" And yet, that is ultimately the power and even charm of web logs: it is very easy to master technology and interface in which just about anyone who wants to can post their writings and thoughts about anything. However, like the paper diaries and journals that web logs are so often compared, the writer has to have a reason-- and generally, a personal reason-- to write in the first place.

This is a different issue than what Collin is talking about, so I don’t bring this up to counter his argument (which I basically agree with).  Rather, I bring this up because I think it in some ways supercedes his point:  before students (or anyone else) participates in a community or a network on any level, it seems to me that they need to be willing to do so.  I suppose it’s possible to be forced into community membership and participation, but how rewarding is that?

And of course the same sort of problem-- motivation-- is at play with students participating in a forum like an emailing list.  But in the particular example I was writing about in my essay, the emailing list was seen as the more “dynamic” and “interactive” class forum, I suppose because it went directly to students email accounts, and I suppose because that was the practice of the class.

Small-world blogging:

In a way, where Collin ends strikes me as a slightly different (albeit interesting) place from where he began, which is appropriate for a “blog-like” text.  Maybe the best way for us to make connections/build networks/establish communities is actually through things like blogrolls and the links that we build on our sites to establish affinity.  I link to blogs about academia, especially ones that focus on composition, rhetoric, and teaching, in order to establish what I would like to think of as "my neighborhood," and to note my agents that help me make choices, etc.  So in this regard, blogging and its related technologies probably have something on emailing lists, especially if we are trying to get students to think of making connections to communities beyond the teacher and the assignment. 

Of course, there is still the motivation issue.  We can "force" a level of community among our students.  Bloggers can establish for themselves a social network via the connections that they voluntarily make.  Trying to join these two ideas in a teaching situation, well, that is the trickier question indeed.