Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Teaching (accountability in) networks

Jill Walker recently gave a talk at Brown University on Weblogs: Learning to Write in the Network.

I was interested in what Jill had to say about student weblogs. I've read comments about my course and the mandatory weblog component - including those that simply stated what a stupid idea that is. And you know what? I agree. Actually, what I mean is that it makes sense to me that some people would think it stupid or useless. That's how I have always felt about multiple choice exams, and there have been times in my life when I would have loathed the task of maintaining a blog. But as Jill says, "Some take to blogging, some can learn to appreciate it, while it just doesn't work for others. Ditto for most other workforms." The reason courses have lectures and discussions and hands-on work is to appeal to different types of learners. Same for multiple choice versus research papers versus presentations. No one kind of assignment will allow every student to do her best and evaluation practices need to be flexible.

But what really interested me is that Jill says that we need to teach students about the network - that distributed, collaborative environment that distinguishes writing a weblog from writing in a (paper) journal. This makes sense, but immediately raises more questions for me: are we writing with or for other people? people with weblogs, people without or both? how far do these networks extend? how do we negotiate the boundaries of our weblog networks? We used to teach students to answer exclusively to the academic community - a practice which preserves the ivory tower and kills the public intellectual. How will weblogs intervene in this arena? However, despite its absolute ubiquity, I still think we're a bit shaky on this network(ing) concept.

(I'm sure to the dread of my readers, there is an entire section of my dissertation which looks at the differences between (sociotechnical) systems, networks, assemblages, collectives and communities. Believe it or not, there is substantial disagreement about these things. And in my most frustrated moments I prefer to replace them all with imbroglio - no doubt influenced by an undergrad fave, Pickering's The Mangle of Practice.)

I have always been most interested in the community aspect of blogging - in Jill's network. But over the past two years I have struggled to define this community, the network that (r)evolves around this site. Why do I say struggle? Because it has been impossible to appeal to, to satisfy, the broad range of people who read, comment and email me about the content here. My weblog is often enough too much or too little.

In other words, it is not an infinite network - at least if that means I (as author) can successfully answer to its furthest extension. I suspect that my weblog is read, experienced, used, discarded in as many ways as there are readers, but it is still positioned by one (whatever sort of multitude I may be). This creates tension and this raises ethical questions.

How do we teach students to respect these unstable public networks? What about accountability? To whom should they be accountable? In which contexts? Under what circumstances? How are readers accountable?

Your thoughts?

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