Public V. Private and Student Authority

The Internet has transformed from a space primarily used to retrieve information to a network for advancing and engaging such information. Moreover, the web has become a space to share ideas; it gives way to open participation, interaction and creative expression. Anyone can write and share ideas on the Internet; alternatively, anyone can read what is put onto the web. Such an open forum raises anxieties of authority: who am I to say what is that I am saying? Similar issues of authority in writing come to the surface in academic environments. In this way, the liberal arts classroom offers an ideal setting for practicing and teaching web writing, sot hat students may experiment with authority in a diverse writing environment. While web writing is a useful tool in academic environments for dealing with authorship and authority, it also brings up the problem of public and private space. How should professors and students decide how public student writing should be online, and what are the advantages to public writing? The liberal arts classroom offers an ideal space in which to grapple with these issues of student authorship and authority, offering a secure medium between public and private spaces.

In her article “Consider the Audience,” Jen Rajchel argues that it is essential to consider web writing in the liberal arts setting in order to take advantage of circulating student work; the tension arises when considering how to negotiate public and private spaces. Although students are familiar with interacting with peers through different forms of web writing – mostly through social media – there is a shift in boundaries when students move into new environments (Rajchel 3). Just as there is a shift in audience and context when students write on the web, there is a platform in the liberal arts classroom, which facilitates a similar environment (Rajchel 6). In these new boundaries of the classroom, new questions are raised: How does one brand oneself on Twitter? Do I friend my professor on Facebook? In this context, we as web writers must consider how public we wish to be with our audience, and how to maintain the amount of privacy that we desire. In order to determine this, we consider the risks and benefits of claiming authorship on the web through the structure of the liberal arts classroom.

Jack Dougherty’s article “Public Writing and Student Privacy” similarly grapples with ideas of negotiating authority in public and private spaces, and offers a perspective of the benefits of writing publically. Like Rajchel, Dougherty values the notion of extending the liberal arts education to the web, which allows for students to engage with ideas and conversations that are occurring outside of the classroom. Dougherty contends, “One of the best ways to improve critical thinking and writing skills is to post work in public, beyond the four walls of the classroom, and to invite others to respond” (Dougherty 4). He further asserts that prose has a greater potential to improve when the writing is aimed at a real audience, beyond simply the eyes of the professor. In the same sense, a true audience offers practical and diverse feedback, as well as alternative points of view (Dougherty 6). Dougherty and Rajchel are in agreement that writing for a more public audience gives way for more constructive and relevant criticism, which ultimately produces a stronger claim to authority.

Inevitably, writing in the public sphere directly intersects with issues of authority. The public sphere is a place in which we are not supposed to make mistakes, which makes writing publically more intimidating, particularly when there is a lasting record. Rajchel argues that when students are writing something that goes beyond the classroom, students feel greater responsibility to engage deeply and understand everything, because what is written will educate and reach a larger audience (Rajcel 13). Rajchel writes, “When students publish online, they assume the possibilities of authorship, which has online archival record long after its publication” (Rajchel 14). In this sense, there is more of a pressure to write well and knowledgably when writing is shared in the public sphere, and students are less inclined to claim full authority for their writing.

Alternatively, while Cheryl C. Smith agrees with Rajchel that students are likely to feel insecure as they transition into college classrooms with new expectations and audiences, she argues that error and fear of error should be used as a learning tool (Smith 36). Smith cites blogs as a “straightforward way to negotiate tensions of error” (Smith 37). Smith describes blogs as a platform for writing that supplement more traditional forms of writing without detracting from them, while also increasing opportunities for student expression, collective brainstorming, and community (Smith 37-8). Further, Smith states that when writing publically, students must be given a comfort zone, where they are able to examine their own experiences, while still encouraging them to venture beyond the familiar. Blogs do exactly this; they offer a place to negotiate the tension between making students comfortable with their own writing, and pushing them outside of their comfort zone to a place where they may take risks and interact with people in new ways (Smith 38-9). Ultimately, Smith argues that blogs create a safe place for risk-taking and error, which gives them the ability to empower students who are developing their own authorial voice.

Dougherty further raises the issues of students’ rights to privacy with their writing. He cites that “all students deserve – and are legally entitled under U.S. law – to some degree of privacy in our educational institutions, and ownership over the words they have authored” (Dougherty 16). Dougherty identifies that the root of students’ fears of publishing in the public sphere under their full names is that the writing that is published lasts much longer and is widely circulated; fears of error affects students’ decisions to write publicly online under their own name. Further, the anxiety of whether or not people will actually read what is written affects web writer’s validation that their words have been seen and have value. Nevertheless, he maintains the opinion that he wants all of his students to publish writing on the public web under their own names; however, he also encourages his students to retain control over their words. This offers a version of blogging as a “safe place” that Smith proposes.

In her article “Authority Issues In Online Instruction,” JoAnne M. Podis questions how the relationship between instructor and student shifts in an online forum. Podis asks the question: “How do the students’ contexts – social, educational, and personal – influence the authority relationship online as opposed to within the classroom?” (Podis 170). Although Podis argues that the authority of the professor lessons in an online environment, she also asserts that the professor becomes a point of security; because the professor is a source of familiar criticism, his or her criticism in a public space is readily accepted. Podis argues that her students are more sensitive to online criticism of their work. She believes that this could be for two reasons: first, that her students are accustomed to having only one audience – the professor – or, that her students’ experience with online communities where comments are commonly mean-spirited and aggressive (Podis 174-6). Ultimately, although Podis agrees that online writing fosters a more intimate relationship between professor and student, publishing in a public space raises anxieties for students. Alternatively, Julie Frechette asserts that allowing students to write and express themselves using a communication tool that they are familiar with and that is native to their generation enriches learning experiences and authorship. She argues that using familiar technology actually encourages authorship because students begin to see themselves and producers of knowledge who can “secure and legitimate cultural space to represent their world view and the fruitions of their education” (Frechette 23). In this sense, Frechette is arguing that writing in digital environments actually increases authority in writing, as opposed to increasing anxieties.

Rajchel ascertains that when it comes to negotiating public space, audience becomes the most difficult aspect. The web allows fro a diverse audience, but it also permits a broader dialogue between the readers and writer. Through writing, we engage in performance. In this sense, Rajchel determines, “liberal arts degrees can be thought of as training in the art of the audience. We are constantly being asked to articulate the role of rhetoric, the position of the speaker, and the effect on the audience” (Rajchel 23). Ideally, web writing offers a platform through which the liberal arts classroom can be expanded.

In terms of encouraging students to claim authorship of their work, I believe that there is a valid place for instruction on web writing in liberal arts classrooms. When it comes to issues of public and private publishing, Dickinson College has a useful medium to negotiate this space. Many Professors at Dickinson use Moodle forums as a kind of class blog. Moodle serves as an online extension of the liberal arts classroom, where conversations can continue and evolve in a different forum. In my own experience, the ways that Professors choose to use Moodle vary; some professors use Moodle to ask specific discussion questions, while other professors offer it as an optional space for continued discussion. In my senior seminar, my professor uses Moodle as an outlet for us to post our completed assigned papers if we choose to, although it is not required. In this instance, we are given the option of how public we wish to make our writing amongst our peers. I find Moodle beneficial in terms of expanding and articulating ideas that I was not able to say in class discussion. Further, Moodle is useful in terms of getting an understanding of what my classmates are thinking about; it offers a visual connection between different ideas. Moreover, Moodle makes it easy for peers to respond to one another and relate ideas. Writing in an online environment certainly implies a level of casual writing that is still insightful and conversational, which offers a useful break from formal academic writing.

However, although Moodle is meant to be a more casual space for student writing and discussion, there is undoubtedly a level of self-consciousness and anxiety when it comes to writing online. Professors are not necessarily always actively a part of the conversation that takes place on Moodle, however they do view the discussions; further, depending on the situation, they grade what is posted on Moodle. In this respect, I still feel pressure to write formally on Moodle with the knowledge that I will be graded on what I post. In other words, Moodle still feels like a high stakes environment for publishing writing. However, what I am most conscious of when posting on Moodle is that my peers will also be reading what I post; my writing is typically kept between myself and my professor, so opening it up to people in my class often changes the way in which I write.

The assigned blog project for Writing in and for Digital Environments has offered an ideal medium for writing in a public space; though people outside of my peers and professor will be reading what I write, this type of writing is less formal and more natural. Further, this blog project serves as a kind of connective tissue between my academic interests and allows me to apply what I have learned about academic writing in a different context. Blogging is the first opportunity I have had as a student at Dickinson to truly connect my academic interests. As an English and American Studies double major, I do a lot of analytical writing and critical thinking. However, this kind of writing and thinking does not always easily translate to every day conversations. This blog project allows me to create an intellectual conversation about issues that are discussed in the classroom, and revise them so that they are more approachable and relatable to everyday life. Admittedly, I have always struggled with issues of authority in my writing, so this blog project has raised some anxieties about publishing my writing in a public space. However, having the opportunity to write about something that I am passionate about makes writing in the public sphere less intimidating.

Ultimately, I believe that the liberal arts classroom offers an ideal space in which to deal with these issues of student authorship and authority. Tools like Moodle offer a space in which to publish publically with lower stakes and a limited outer audience. In some ways, this offers practice in both conversation and receiving criticism online, and claiming authorship over writing. Student blog projects offer a progression of these practices, ultimately allowing students to publish in a public space, that offers control of how much they wish to publish and identify with their work.










Works Cited

Dougherty, Jack. “Public Writing and Student Privacy.” Web Writing: Why & How and for Liberal Arts Teaching & Learning. 15 September 2013. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

Frechette, Julie. “Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls: Keeping Students Engaged in Class 2.0.” The Journal of Media Literacy. 3 September 2013. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.

Podis, JoAnne M. “Authority Issues in Online Instruction.” Working with Student Writers169-178. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Rajchel, Jen. “Consider the Audience.” Web Writing: Why & How and for Liberal Arts Teaching& Learning. 15 September 2013. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

Smith, Cheryl C. “Technologies For Transcending A Focus On Error: Blogs And Democratic Aspirations In First-Year Composition.” Journal Of Basic Writing 27.1 (2008): 35-60. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

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