The increasing distance between how we learn, work, and communicate in the world outside and how we do so in academe has many implications. One of them is that our current educational models may become less relevant and useful in preparing our students for the world/professions outside. Another one is that our students will continue to be educated on the basis of local models that fail to take advantage of ideas, people, and cultures/communities in the broader world. I will try to revisit the issues more extensively some time in the future.
In this post, I share some thoughts and reflections about the concept of “community as curriculum” as I am using it in a graduate course here in SUNY Stony Brook. I borrow the idea from David Cormier (some of you may know him as the person who gave the original MOOCs their name and continues to add truly inspiring intellectual substance to the idea of “open learning”). You can read more about the concept from Dave’s blog here and here.
I normally design courses using an idea as the framework, to undergird the assignments and objectives. In this case, I wanted to experiment a “from x to y” approach to implementing a good idea. Let me explain why after sharing a little about the course itself.
Offered as part of a “teaching certificate” in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (and also cross-listed by the English Department), this graduate seminar focuses on the “global turn” in the study and teaching of rhetoric and writing (must note: this term is debated for very good reasons by scholars like Damian Baca and complicated by others like Canagarajah). Students survey/observe a few rhetorical traditions from around the world, exploring the works that they study along three different axes: historical/temporal, geopolitical/spatial, and ideational/thematic. They develop two consecutive but overlapping projects, the first to explore a particular tradition or phenomenon in rhetoric and the second to develop a theoretical framework geared toward informing pedagogical practices, formulating research method/questions, or some other academic or professional implementation of their particular exploration. The broader goal of the course is for students to develop an understanding and appreciation of rhetorical traditions beyond the mainstream (Greco-Roman-Anglo-American) history of rhetoric, situating that understanding in their current academic engagements and future prospects in anticipated professions/disciplines.
The themes that students are studying include transaction and trust (through textual communication and in other rhetorical acts), knowledge and epistemology (how knowledge is defined and practiced in different social/cultural contexts), education and what it means to teach and learn, and (as technologies become ubiquitous in education) how mediation and access as well as privacy and sharing shape these themes as they have to do with rhetoric. So, toward the end of the semester, the class together explores how new media and modes of communication are affecting rhetorical practices in and across contexts, examining how the foundational forces of the major rhetorical traditions are shaping contemporary rhetorical practices.
And that is where the notion of the course developing into a community comes in.
Early in the semester, I started invited some of the authors whose works the class is reading as guest speakers via Skype. This opened the class’s door to the outside world, using a technology that has become a regular means of communication in both our private and professional lives.
The Skype-based conversations have been informal, usually prompted by students’ questions about the authors’ works/ideas and highly engaging and often fun-filled. I cannot imagine a more convenient and more powerful mode of teaching than letting my students talk to scholars whom I tremendously respect. So far, we’ve had the privilege of inviting Bronwyn Williams, Damian Baca, Keith Lloyd, and LuMing Mao (all teaching in the US at this time); we’re planning to talk to a few scholars from other countries, as well as a few more from the US.
One of the semi-virtual class meetings that is now in the planning is going to be with Iswari Pandey’s class at University of California Northridge. We are also planning to hold a Twitter Chat (or “summit” as I like to call it) with an growing network of scholars and students around the class.
This is how the class is gradually becoming a community; the course, which started by being dominated by reading and writing about scholarly texts is becoming a community of people sharing ideas and inspiration. Here is a video by Dave Cormier explaining how education is gradually moving from course to community. My class embodied not just the final idea but the process of evolution as well. Let me explain why.
The Course As Community
I didn’t want the course to start like a community. A community is built, not just found and joined. In the past two years, I have learned a lot (from a project with my colleague Christopher Petty) about the importance of students’ confidence, comfort, and confidentiality as teachers increasingly encourage/require them to publish unfinished and/or personal thoughts/ideas for increasingly larger audiences. Those of us who value, love joining, and promote professional communities online often forget that we took time to develop confidence ourselves. We often hesitated (or even hated) to use new tools because we didn’t find their use/objective meaningful. Now that we’ve developed confidence and benefit from (or enjoy) being in our professional networks, we shouldn’t try to force our students to simply start with, rather grow an interest in, joining professional communities.
In fact, anyone “joining” professional networks/communities actually “creates” a community for them. So, for instance, when I join a new Facebook group developed by other parents from the local school district, I start making my connections/community, usually one at a time. If I am not savvy using Facebook, my community-building efforts may be slower, harder, and less exciting. I should not expect all my students to quickly and equally embrace the idea of joining a community of scholars created for the class. Frankly, there are not many rhetoric and writing scholars in any established social/professional networks. I am essentially asking my students to do something that is often not recognized as truly academic and educationally meaningful. And I need to be aware of all these issues.
That said, I also tremendously value what scholars like Dave Cormier are saying. They are really capturing the developments, the possibilities, and opportunities in powerful, often visionary, ways.
In the case of this course, there is a second reason why I am encouraging students to explore and experiment the affordances of social/professional networking. The students may wish the class blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account to be retired at the end of semester; but our attempt to connect and have conversations with scholars across cultural/national borders fits like hand in glove with the intellectual/educational objective of the course. So, our ideal is not only “curriculum as community” but also “curriculum as context-crossing.” Students are gradually crossing cultural/national borders as they shift their attention from text alone to people, practices, and perspectives in the real world.
Let me conclude by adding one more thought about why do this community-creating, border-crossing, and conversing with (rather than just reading and writing) about different rhetorical traditions and practices. Students pursuing careers related to the teaching and scholarship of writing and rhetoric have a range of powerful reasons to pay attention to the emergence of the global in this discipline. Within the humanities at large–including English Studies and Rhetoric & Composition—scholarship and professional networking that cross national borders are turning the tide from a one-way traffic of texts and ideas until recently to the emergence of multilateral exchange of ideas, collaborative work, and hyper-connected professional communities. Even within the borders of any nation, academics have started paying attention to how transnational/global forces are influencing the production and use/adaptation of texts, ideas, and professional practices.
I am excited that my students are appreciating how we are shifting our focus from texts to contexts, from course to community, from reading and writing to joining ongoing conversation on the issues covered by the course.