intimate #thoughtvectors

Today in our cMOOC planning meeting, Gardner Campbell posed the challenge of engaging students intimately in the process of writing in online concept spaces: to keep the private resolutely private, but still to approximate a model of personhood that involved deep, sometimes even emotional interactions with other persons over the interwebz. Our conversation quickly pivoted to the benefits of cultivating a safe environment that could sponsor candid engagements in which learners were not afraid to appear vulnerable, even to fail at first if they trusted that failure would eventually lead to more successful practices and outcomes. We decided that planned discomfort, even though it might trigger shared vulnerability within the design of a course, is ultimately less preferable than choice [and here I would love to link to something by Patty Strong], which allows students to take ownership of the process and construct an extant chain of work that they can point to as evidence of their personal decisions, their fidelity to the spirit and goals (if not the first semblance) of their initial inquiry, and their ethos as a doggedly determined rooter-outer of deep thought.

What was interesting to me in retrospect was how I had somehow substituted “authenticity” instead of intimacy for Gardner’s first formulation of the concept. His example was of a mobile smartphone, that somehow becomes over the course of long use an extension of identity, even though if you looked at the interactions a user makes on that phone, they might not all, or even routinely, constitute deep interactions. They might be totally snarky and ironic, and yet in the aggregate they make up a version of the self that few of us would find it easy to divulge all at once, much less be sundered from.

In other words, I had thought Gardner brought up the idea of intimacy at first because we want the users who engage in our cMOOC to take full ownership of the inquiry process, and to grok that identity such that it becomes a part of who they are as a life-long learner, citizen, and consumer/creator of culture. We most definitely do want them to do this. We want authentically dogged rooter-outers who nevertheless also recognize that writing is not a race to the finish line, but a fruition process that periodically allows ripening clusters of ideas from the inquiry process to be delivered to online vendors for distribution. But our conversations have also recently focused on the value of irony in demonstrating to learners that ideas are not only applicable within their original contexts, but can be appropriated, analogously repackaged, and repurposed within separate, sometimes only tangentially related other inquiries. I wouldn’t want a version of intimacy too closely related to a dogmatic version of authorial authenticity to shut down ironic, playful experimentation with others’ ideas.

The face-to-face version of this class is called “Inquiry and the Craft of Argument.” The inquiry aspect of the class is where my colleagues and I pour our efforts to engage our students with themes and topics that interest them, to model a spirit of passionate curiosity, and to take ownership of their identities as college students. The “Craft of Argument” aspect is perhaps too often the introduction to a set of structures, responsibilities, and obligations: how to reach a minimum word count in order to represent requisite depth within the inquiry process, rather than learning how to let go of a meaty question you would prefer to chew on forever, because we do not have world enough and time to do so.

But I prefer to think about argument as not just a set of logical structures, so much as a series of ironic encounters with audiences before whom it is not always advantageous to be our authentic selves. Being aware of rhetorical context is extremely useful in this life. A rock-solid logical proposition that is infelicitously pitched will fall flat. Rhetoric can help you negotiate job interviews, plan a talk for people you’ve never personally met, or tell an intimate loved one what they need to hear in precisely the language they cannot ignore.

We’ve got to teach that too, even though sometimes it may call for our students to be less than authentic in the way their represent ideas. But just as irony isn’t the same thing as a lie, rhetoric isn’t only templates: it’s experimenting with different conceptual contexts, trying out ideas in unfamiliar forms, pitching thought toward people you might not normally talk or write to. And fortunately for my purposes, online ed (especially open platforms) has a lot of this built in. No longer will I have to exhort my students to pretend they are not writing only to me, their instructor and the final arbiter of their submitted writing. Everyone can read this! Not everyone will, but the potential that interested folks will read what they’ve written exists, and so that broader, richer set of rhetorical contexts is always present. In a way, the question that Gardner posed about personal blog writing (to whom is this for?) is always puzzling because the potential readership is always nebulous. But it makes for better writing.

So, yes, he said intimate and not authentic. But I still worked around to the web as a potentially vulnerable space that also can lead to intimate writing, so long as our MOOC participants can see a way to express themselves for the benefit of each other, to trust us and each other, and to thread the needle of playfulness and seriousness.

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