Background and Artifact
Part of my rationale begins with a research call made by Christina Haas (Writing Technology, 1996): “If literacy scholars are to pursue the Technology Question, make decisions about pedagogical uses of technology, and take an active role in technological development, it is essential that we examine the underlying theories of technology that are a powerful (if unarticulated) force shaping attitudes and actions toward technology” (167). If much of our attention to technology is pedagogical and practical in nature—as it is in composition-rhetoric—we should also articulate those ‘underlying theories of technology’ as they interact with our conceptions and constructions of our students. Discourse is a place where we can see this interaction between theories of technology and constructions of students and explore the ethics of what we say, what we teach, and what we think.
Haas analyzes scholarly literature for theories of technology, and scholarly artifacts would be a powerful place to see the combination of students and technology I am interested in as well, but theorists from Burke and Foucault all the way to McKerrow argue that all discourse contains and constructs reality. Our ideological claims work out in all the fragments of our speech, and one place that instructors speak and leave a record is via the e-mail listserv. While there are many analyses and studies of instructor-student and student-student discourse , I couldn’t find any that studied instructor-instructor discourse. Thus, I turned to the WPA-L, a semipublic forum with a broad audience of readers and writers that treats the myriad issues that come before writing teachers. My artifact is a 23-participant, 40-message conversation that occurred over the course of a week in the fall of 2011.
This microcosm of disciplinary conversation is interesting, primarily because from one standpoint, the listserv discussion is a failure. Initially a simple complaint and request for help, the e-mailers very quickly absconded with the thread and turned it into a wide-ranging discussion of students, technology, agency, and the purpose of writing instruction. The first poster’s request, for a model survey about the “technical proficiency” of students, is not ignored, but it’s also never met (at least on the list, publicly). Constructions of the student and ideologies of teaching, in good critical pedagogy fashion, lie beneath a discussion about the goals of teaching in general and the relationship of writing and technology in particular
Questions and Approach
My questions engage in the ideological critique of freedom, showing the material operations of power, by specifically focusing on doxastic conceptions and the complicated ways in which different doxa combine to form questionable assumptions about material reality, i.e. the primarily practical realm of pedagogy.
- How do contributors think about students and technologies, and how do those conceptions interact, combine, or conflict in the artifact?
To explore these questions, I borrow heavily from McGee’s program for ideographic criticism, with the broader frame of critical rhetoric and its interest in doxa and ideology beyond the slogan. My goals for analysis (rather than steps or method) are as follows:
- Isolate doxa, or the popular but unspoken conceptions, in a carefully selected fragment of discourse. In this case, my task was to read for the doxa about students and about technology that operate in the discourse.
- Expose what those doxa hide, ignore, or make absent in reference to the social, political, cultural, and historical context of the chosen artifacts.
- Characterize the conflicts between all of the doxa in the artifact, with an eye to explaining the misunderstandings, the elisions, the polysemic meanings, and the projected ideologies “latent in rhetorical discourse” (McGee 509).
Data and Findings
The primary construct used by participants in this WPA-L conversation is paradoxical: when technology is an object of consideration, the student is discursively dis/empowered: students have power over pedagogical issues and are assumed to have technological expertise, agency or access, yet the teachers operate on the assumption that students need empowerment, especially before the deterministic force of (writing) technology. Some fundamental ideas about technology and individual agency are at stake.
In this discussion, the instructors participate in students’ discursive disempowerment even as they purport to be facilitators or advocates for the student. These doxa are manifest variously (according to the different speakers) in the form of at least four basic appeals
1. I require you to learn to use tech for your own good. / The “shake them up” appeal.
- The claim is basically derived from a perspective of technological determinism, uses ‘convenience’ as a relief valve for objections, and involves a related premise that teachers should help students acquire tech.
- Implies students need to be empowered; denies subjectivity of technological preference.
- Relies on the ‘reality’ of an information/digital/21st century economy as a warrant.
2. In a different time we did it this way and it was fine. / The “back in the day” appeal.
- Uses the ideal of a fundamentally empowered student as basic premise
- Claims either invoke the self as a student or invoke students from past years/decades/technologies (i.e. 10-20 years ago, “other students in the past,” or students using typewriters)
- Often, this contradictorily appears alongside the fundamentally disempowered “for your own good” claim.
3. You can always print it out. / The “use the computer lab” appeal.
- The claim sometimes uses fundamentally empowered student ideal as basic premise, which allows for student subjectivity but prioritizes the experience of the teacher
- The claim recognizes problems of economic access but still assumes some kind of basic technological facility or a willingness to ‘learn’
This is not an exhaustive set of the kinds of arguments made in the discussion, but it shows the complex and often contradictory doxastic interplay of student, technology, and pedagogy.
Some Tentative Conclusions
In this case, most of the constructions (whether disempowered or empowered) the doxa overlook students’ intersubjective agency (Turnley 89), even though at least one participant tries to make this the centerpiece of the conversation. Beyond that, the student construct is incredibly bland and generic. Occasionally issues of class distinction come up, but otherwise there is little sense from anyone other than one poster that the students might have multiple subjectivies that are just as important as the teacher’s. This despite one poster’s unironic comment that “writing instructors really are a pretty selfless lot, always trying to figure out what’s best for the student, what’s most likely to help an individual student succeed.” This is highly similar to the problems that Richard Miller points out in his critique of critical pedagogy—too often the image of the liberating teacher, though powerfully critiquing traditional pedagogy, is contradictory in that such teachers “forget that [they] are the individuals vested with the responsibility for soliciting and assessing student work” (664). In our discourse, we have, use, and display power, even as we busily make claims to being the critical advocate-facilitator working in the best interest of the poor technologically disempowered student.