Writing in Digital Environments — Thinking About Networked Learning

Often at family gatherings, social events, and dinner parties, when asked to define “pedagogy,” I usually offer something generic, like, “um, well, it refers to both the art and the practice of teaching.” I am excited for the opportunity to further develop my working definition of pedagogy as a GEDI in Contemporary Pedagogy as a doctoral student at Virginia Tech.

Although I have a general explanation for how I conceive of my own pedagogy, within my discipline, Rhetoric and Writing, and particularly in terms of teaching first-year writing courses, my outlook on teaching is largely guided by the WPA outcomes. The WPA outcomes, adopted in 2000 by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, and amended in 2008, contains an entire section of learning outcomes pertaining to networked learning, or learning and writing in the highly-connected age of the internet. In terms of “Composing in Electronic Environments,” the council writes, “As has become clear over the last twenty years, writing in the 21st century involves the use of digital technologies for several purposes, from drafting to peer reviewing to editing.” In light of the prevalence of digital devices and the internet, the WPA outcomes contain the following outcomes that after the first-year composition class students should be able to complete including:

-“Use electronic environments for drafting, reviewing, revising, editing, and sharing texts”
-“Locate, evaluate, organize, and use research material collected from electronic sources, including scholarly library databases; other official databases; and informal electronic networks and internet sources”
-“Understand and exploit the differences in the rhetorical strategies and in the affordances available for both print and electronic composing processes and texts”

In light of these outcomes, as faculty and instructors, we are encouraged to help students learn:

-“How to engage in the electronic research and composing processes common in their fields”

And . . .

-“How to disseminate texts in both print and electronic forms in their fields”

These outcomes and faculty guidelines are nothing short of a very, very tall order. As a new educator, they often feel overwhelming. However, my own tactics to address the outcome of writing in digital environments as well as being cognizant of networked learning have in past courses revolved around two techniques: encouraging students to use peer review via google drive and to compose their own reflections and to write publicly within the digital sphere in their own blogs. In reading for GEDI this week, I was excited to see scholars praise blogs as an effective way to engage students in the networked environment. For example, Tim Hitchcock, in “Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it,” writes the following passage:

“One of my favorite blogging experiences involves embedding blogs in undergraduate assessment. By forcing students to write ‘publicly,’ their writing rapidly improves. From being characterized by the worst kind of bad academic prose – all passive voice pomposity – undergraduate writing in blogs is frequently transformed in to something more engaging, simply written, and to the point. From writing for the eyes of an academic or two, students are forced to imagine (or actually confront) a real audience. Blogging has the same effect on more professional academic writers – many of whom assume that if the content is good, the writing somehow doesn’t matter.”

While I was intrigued about the potential of blogs, I am by no means complacent about my own abilities to train students to think about networked learning and to write in digital environments. I am most excited about furthering my pedagogy in terms of helping students think critically about the internet, especially after reading Gardner Campbell’s piece entitled, “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning.” From Campbell’s work, I was particularly interested in the discussion of how little, in general, students understand about their own web-based presence, and how issues of privacy, surveillance, and intellectual ownership play out on internet platforms. This reading, combined with our class discussion on the parasitic nature of Learning Management Systems already has my head reeling, thinking about how I can integrate “internet intelligence” as a topic / course theme into my first-year writing classes.

Further, Campbell suggests that networked learning can even be a form of experiential learning, a form which admittedly, I traditionally associate with my own interdisciplinary background, which often included kayaking, soil sampling, and well-digging, as well as recording ballads, interviewing musicians, and other highly-experiential forms of learning. Thanks to Campbell, I know think of experiential learning in terms of networked learning and computing, particularly in the following passage:

“Offering students the possibility of experiential learning in personal, interactive, networked computing — in all its gloriously messy varieties — provides the richest opportunity yet for integrative thinking within and beyond ‘schooling.’ If higher education can embrace the complexity of networked learning and can value the condition of emergence that networked learning empowers, there may still be time to encourage networked learning as a structure and a disposition, a design and a habit of being” (Gardner Campbell, “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” Jan. 2016)

Through this week’s exploration of pedagogy and networked learning, I am both encouraged by some of my early efforts to engage with the networked world, and inspired to extend this pedagogy into new dimensions.

Mission Accomplished? A Personal Analysis of Higher Education Mission Statements

This week as we are thinking and reflecting on mission statements, I chose to highlight two institutions of great importance to me. Firstly, my undergraduate alma mater, Wofford College, a small, private liberal arts college in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The second mission statement listed below is copied from Virginia Tech, my current institution, in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I’m completing my doctorate in Rhetoric and Writing within the Department of English. In this post, I am considering whether or not these mission statements, as they intersect with my own experiences as a student, can be deemed “mission accomplished.”

Wofford College Mission Statement

“Wofford’s mission is to provide superior liberal arts education that prepares its students for extraordinary and positive contributions to society. The focus of Wofford’s mission is upon fostering commitment to excellence in character, performance, leadership, service to others and life-long learning.”

Adopted by the Board of Trustees, May 5, 1998

 

As an institution focused on teaching and student development, it is not surprising that Wofford’s mission statement is so focused on personal development and preparing “students for extraordinary and positive contributions to society.” As a student body, the majority of Wofford students are often connected to community service or service learning in some capacity.

The liberal arts focus of the college’s curriculum also stands out in Wofford’s mission statement. In fact, this component is what largely drew me to select Wofford as my undergraduate alma mater.  As a student there, I took  advantage of this innovative curriculum by majoring in both History (B.A.) and environmental studies (B.S.). In addition to a wide variety of courses for my own major, I also took courses ranging from Calculus to Religions of the world, all of which enriched my thinking and learning process.

As a personal approximation of Wofford’s mission statement, the component that means the most to me, the phrase that makes the fight song play in my head, tears come to my eyes, and sends warmth to my heart, is the phrase “life-long learning.” Although I have not been away from Wofford from very long, falling in love with learning and thinking of myself as a life-long learner makes me miss that small college something fierce. Life-long learning is almost a secondary de-facto mascot at Wofford College, rivaling the institution’s official emblem, the Boston Terrier. At opening Convocations, Graduations, and even in the classroom, a love of learning is emphasized around every turn at Wofford. As a new alumni of the College, I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to continue this love of learning even at Homecoming events, participating in the College’s “Classes without Quizzes” seminars during Homecoming weekend, learning about topics ranging from climate change to the 2008 financial crisis.

As I read Wofford College’s mission statement, I would absolutely agree that it is a “mission accomplished.” I don’t interact with this statement as a superficial manifestation of institutional propaganda. Instead, I feel as though I lived it.

Virginia Tech Mission Statement

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

2001 Mission Statement adapted in 2006, by the Board of Visitors

 

Virginia Tech, my current home, is a large, land-grant university focused on serving the Commonwealth of Virginia and in fact, the world. Last year, at the orientation programs for new graduate students, I was struck by Dean DePauw’s and other administrators’ emphasis on Virginia Tech’s place in the higher education landscape as a “global land grant university.” Coming from such a small private College as I did, I was so excited to enrich my own learning and personal as well as professional development as part of such a community.

My favorite component of Virginia Tech’s mission statement must be the institution’s dedication to the “discovery and dissemination of new knowledge.” Attending Virginia Tech as a doctoral student, I am so proud of our university’s commitment to research. In fact, the research of my academic mentor, Katrina M. Powell, who studies the rhetoric of displacement in connection to land use controversies, is what drew me to Virginia Tech, initially. Over the past academic year, pursuing my own research on the rhetorics of grassroots environmentalism has helped me maintain my passion as an academic and helped me see how I may use my own research to excite students and help them think critically about the ways in which narratives, language, and landscapes intersect to shape societies.

The concluding line of Virginia Tech’s mission statement offers me a guiding light for how I want to practice the art of teaching. Just as Virginia Tech aims to create, convey, and apply knowledge, to “expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life,” so too, do I hope my writing courses will do the same for my own students. Virginia Tech’s mission statement for me represents both a “mission accomplished,” as well as a “mission-in-progress,” offering me guidelines to keep working toward on my path of personal and professional development as an academic, a writer, and an educator.