CCCC07 F30: Self in Online Environments

Quinn Warnick and James Donelan’s panel, “The Construction of Self in Online Environments: Helping Students Create and Understand the Virtual Realm,” was small but well-attended, and what was perhaps most interesting was the way that discussion afterwards worked to bridge the apparent gulfs in philosophies and approaches. I don’t think Warnick and Donelan ever explicitly disagreed with one another, but they were clearly approaching a common theme from divergent perspectives.

Warnick’s presentation, “Would Aristotle Link to Wikipedia? The Role of Ethos in a Hypertext Age,” began by noting that to speak about Wikipedia is to speak about a moving target, and that Wikipedia’s evolving rhetorical ethos led him to continue to revise his presentation and conclusions until the day before he presented. Which sounds like a much better apologia than the unfortunate (and unfortunately common) CCCC confession that one wrote it on the plane — but in Warnick’s case, it certainly wasn’t an apologia: his analyses and conclusions were sharp and spot-on. Warnick framed his examination of Wikipedia’s ethos and its apparent sourcelessness, its lack of attribution, in the context of the familiar question from Foucault and Beckett: “What does it matter who is speaking?”

In the CCCC program, Warnick asserted, the question of who is speaking is extremely important, and the discussions on WPA-L concerning the curious ways disciplinary fame shapes our disciplinary conversations, particularly given our evolving awareness of the importance of the circulation of disciplinary knowledge, certainly supports his claim.

Warnick looked back to classical rhetors to clarify his discussion of ethos, looking at Cicero, Isocrates, Quintilian, Plato, and Aristotle, and using their definitions to set up a key distinction: in their attention to the roles of the perceived character of the rhetor versus the content of what the rhetor says, Warnick argued, we see a split between textual ethos and extratextual ethos. This split between a rhetorical ethos that resides within the text and a rhetorical ethos that we derive from systems of reputation and affect outside the text is changing, though, and we see its evolving nature most clearly in the debate over Wikipedia and the Authority of citations. Today, the term “ethos” has lost much of its meaning in mainstream usage, and tends often to refer only to a vague sense of character, spirit, culture, or trustworthiness, and we see at every turn the worries of classical Greece and Rome that the rhetor might not need to be credible in order to succeed but only to seem credible.

This distinction between being and seeming, while of course familiar, takes on interesting nuance when examined in the context of Wikipedia, particularly in the way that the notion of being credible can be understood both as saying things that are true and as having the credentials and authority to add to a conversation. The classical concern with being versus seeming and its association with morality came out of the awareness of the harm that false knowledge could cause: Quintilian promoted the importance of the good man speaking well because of the prevalence of lies, slanders, and professional accusers under the Domitianic terror of imperial Rome; and we might see a similar concern in the Seigenthaler controversy at Wikepedia.

Wikipedia, Warnick argued, offers an ideal site for studying the intersection of ethos, anonymity, and hypertext because of three important factors:

  1. Technology: hyperlinking, the editability of a wiki, and the audit trail offered by each page having a revision history.
  2. Consensus: the notion of the majority determining what constitutes a good article.
  3. Self-policing: incorrect information is usually removed quickly despite the absence of centralized control; Eric Raymond’s aphorism that “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

These three characteristics of Wikipedia contribute to its ethos in important ways. For many academics, the privileging of consensus over credentials results in articles being “edited into mediocrity.” More damaging to the ethos of Wikipedia, though, is the case of Essjay, an editor and administrator of the site and paid Community Manager for Wikia. Essjay represented himself on his Wikipedia page as a tenured professor of religion with doctoral degrees in canon law and theology (and, by his nickname’s implication, as a Jesuit), and maintained that façade in July 2006 interview with reporter Stacy Schiff for a New Yorker article, when in reality he was a twenty-four-year-old community college dropout named Ryan Jordan. In January 2007, he posted his true identity and autobiographical details on his Wikia user page; and in early March 2007, the story hit major news outlets and raised a furor on various weblogs. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, asked for Jordan’s resignation from Wikia, telling the Wikipedia community that “Wikipedia is built on twin pillars of trust and confidence.” Finally, on March 19 — four days before Warnick’s presentation — the New Yorker released an apology by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. In this apparent attempt to salvage ethos, Warnick found the small change in Wales’s language interesting: “Wikipedia is built,” Wales wrote this time, “on trust and love.” Of course, Warnick pointed out, Wikipedia has a page on the Essjay controversy. Ultimately, Wikipedia seems to do some things well and other things less well: Warnick compared the relative lengths and amounts of detail on the Wikipedia entries on ethos, on the Essjay controversy, and on the television show Lost. Given its relative strengths and weaknesses (which would seem to emerge from the three factors described above), Warnick suggested, there are three approaches we might take to using Wikipedia in our classrooms. We can ban its use as a source outright, of course, and this is an approach some have advocated. We can allow using it as a starting point for research, but require additional documentation and verification — after all, as some have asked, would you allow students to use a conventional encyclopedia as a primary source for a research paper? Finally, Warnick suggested, we might encourage students to actively involve themselves in contributing to Wikipedia and directly engaging both its promise and its flaws. So doing, he concluded, might be a project with remarkable possibilities for collaborative writing.

James Donelan’s presentation, “Hegel and the Machine: Scholarly Self-Creation in the Digital Classroom,” set as its project the construction of a philosophical answer to a problem in advanced scholarly writing: how do we help students make the transition from good, competent, first- and second-year college writers to independent scholars who can conceive and complete their own large-scale intellectual projects? Donelan described the way he set up an online collaborative space wherein students might work on their projects and construct themselves as scholars, and I wish he might have offered more information about that online collaborative space, since doing so might have offered fuller illustration of his approach and grounded in more concrete and practical terms the philosophical issues he was grappling with, of which there are two:

  1. We must attempt, Donelan argued, to better understand students’ subjectivities as scholars in relation to our pedagogy.
  2. We must attempt, he added, to better understand the relationship between students’ subjectivities and the technologies they use.

Donelan pointed out that composition’s work with discourse communities and various forms of empirical studies of writing are deeply rooted in the American pragmatic philosophical tradition and the idea that truth is what lets us get things done. What’s largely absent or unacknowledged in the pragmatic perspective, though, is that students don’t all decide that they’re scholars. What such students require, Donelan argued, is a self-identity as a person who engages in projects of critical inquiry; a genuine scholarly ethos. Here I’m concerned that I may have missed Donelan’s meaning, because he seems to be arguing for two separate critical undertakings: first, shaping students in our own image as scholars, and second, allowing for students’ self-realization in their own rhetorical projects, whether scholarly or non-scholarly. In other words, I’m uncertain as to how much I agree with the implication I’m taking from Donelan that scholarly identity is the ideal end-state of scholarly activity.

Donelan suggests that we restore Hegelianism to the classroom, that we see the work of the classroom as helping students to construct a scholarly identity in relation to what’s taught. In that sense, students’ chosen writing projects become a foundation for self-production, and pedagogy demands not only a set of writerly skills but a self-identity in relation to that set. How, then, Donelan asked, do computers fit into this picture? One now doesn’t need to be in the library in order to conduct research, and while this may be useful in terms of increasingly distributed access, Donelan worried that it may be also be problematic in terms of the lack of focused continuous attention: while the proliferation of online social networks has enabled students’ access to information, Donelan suggested that it’s also a causal contributor of the phenomenon of continuous partial attention, which can interfere with intellectual inquiry and sustained concentration. There is a tension, then, between the ideas of writing as intellectual inquiry and writing as participation in an online social network, and the environmental obstacles to sustained scholarly concentration are an aspect of The Digital, Donelan argued. (This capitalized use of The Digital is my formulation, not Donelan’s, but it’s a shorthand way of pointing to both the broad context of our increasingly wired culture and the narrower context of actual online activity that Donelan seemed to be addressing.)

In fact, Donelan suggested, the most significant problem with The Digital is the fact that The Digital as an environment is a wholly rule-bound universe. Donelan invoked the scholarship of Cindy Selfe on virtual worlds to suggest that, in their prescribed and rule-bound determinate paths, they forbid the Hegelian engagement and transformation Donelan seeks. Virtuality, Donelan suggested, creates a space that is both pleasurable and limiting, wherein all alternatives are already plotted. Here I disagree with Donelan, and I’m concerned that he’s constructing virtuality and The Digital in a very narrow sense that doesn’t acknowledge the radical heterogeneity of social, ethical, economic, political, and intellectual activity in Second Life, World of Warcraft, social networking sites, and elsewhere. In other words, there’s a Derridean polarization being set up between the positive, superior sense of The Real and the negative, inferior sense of The Digital, and this polarization elides the fact that students’ online activities are very much a part of material and social practices of their everyday lives.

As an alternative to the prescribed and rule-bound determinate paths ascribed to The Digital, Donelan proposed instead a phenomenological pedagogy. We cannot simply teach writing, he argued: teaching writing is and must be a recursive act grounded in examination, analysis, and self-reflection. We must see the subject coming to self-consciousness through self-reflection’s perpetual return. We need to help our students figure out who they want to be.

There’s much to admire and agree with in Donelan’s conclusion. In that final statement, though, I feel an uneasy tension between the roles of facilitator and master. It strikes me as another implied binary: the teacher is the one who shapes the student, and the student is constructed as a space of intellectual absence or lack, someone without agency except that which the teacher might grant. That’s a rhetorical construction of students I’m not entirely comfortable with.

CCCC07 F30: Self in Online Environments