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Changing Culture, Changing Public: Redesigning the Rhetorical Public

Abstract

The idea of the Public and its influence on communication and civic activity has concerned rhetoricians since the Sophists sought methods to persuade the city-state. In fact, many ancient concepts of the Public are strong antecedents to modern ideas on social constructionism, agency in online communities, and exigencies for user-audience motivation. The current concept of the rhetorical Public is changing, however, due to new influences from digital culture. This article posits that modern rhetors must identify not only beliefs and values: they must create spaces where the Public’s expectations are met, where they may play the roles they desire to play, and where they are afforded the means to play those roles. Many of these pressures stem from changes wrought by a growing digital sphere. Thus, this article examines how the digital sphere is reshaping today’s concept of the Public. It reports on the impacts of changing digital-cultural spaces, the advent of online microcosms where fragmented Publics develop knowledge cultures (Jenkins 2008, 27), and, it ultimately culminates in the redefinition of the rhetorical Public for teaching today’s digital rhetoricians.

Introduction

The idea of a Public and its influence on communication and civic activity has concerned rhetoricians since the Sophists sought to teach methods to persuade the city-state (polis). For the sophists, the Public’s common beliefs (doxa) and customary behaviors (nomoi) were the sources for content an orator must use to move the mob (Mendelson 2002, 4). According to Susan Jarratt (1991), the sophists were the first rhetoricians to concern themselves with what the Public considered to be valuable in social and civic spheres. In fact, many of their Public considerations are strong antecedents for modern ideas on social constructionism, community agency, and exigency as being located in social and civic situations. Ancient philosophers too sought to understand the Public by seeking to discover how best to convey truth to the masses. Most notably, Aristotle in Rhetoric envisions the usefulness of conceptualizing the Public to better address the intellectual needs of society through rhetoric. Thus, the work of defining the rhetorical Public began and this work continues to be of interest in communication.

From these classical beginnings in antiquity, the rhetorician’s domain has always been the “‘probable’” in “social and civic places … where reasoned judgments and policies are desirable” (Porrovecchio and Condit 2016, 195). In these arenas, the rhetor’s command of cultural understanding and the affinities of the Public become the most potent fodder for persuasion. The rhetor must identify the beliefs and values of the Public audience and they must create a space where the Public’s expectations are met, where they may play the roles they desire, and where they are afforded means to play those roles. And yet, though these insights remain true, the concept of a Public and how it must be considered for rhetorical engagement is changing. Hence, the purpose of this article is to address how the rhetorical Public is being redefined by attributes of digital spaces and online communications which blur the boundaries between private and public domains.

To begin, though modern rhetoricians still use beliefs and behaviors to inform persuasion as the sophists who preceded them, the Public they address now is much more involved and connected. Today, the Public participates in the creation of what is persuasive directly via instant communication platforms with speakers, user-centered design research for products, and real-time data collection occurring on their devices and in their homes that informs and shapes their day-to-day experiences. This level of Public engagement and interactivity is extending the Public sphere. Thus, Public integration into mainstream digital culture is reshaping the rhetorical concept of Public and, in order for the rhetorician to address said Public, it must be usably redefined.

The traditional definition of a Public, according to John Dewey (1927), is a group comprised of individuals that form an audience facing a similar problem, who recognize its existence, and then resolve to address it. While Dewey’s Public definition attended situations of its era and the time’s political spheres, it lacks today’s extended social spheres and the Public’s development of what Jenkins (2008) identifies as fragmented “knowledge cultures.” A knowledge culture is an organic assemblage of individuals into a group around a particular topic of interest. For example, members of the CBS show Survivor’s subreddit form a knowledge culture, a knowledgeable fragment of a larger reality show invested Public. These digital assemblages form around niche topics connected to the Public en masse who may be interested in superordinate categories, while also belonging to numerous, similar smaller groups.

Further, Dewey’s Public predates the idea that its members are co-participants in devising, shaping, and defining dominant parts of cultural and civic rhetorical exchange (i.e. communications, products, interface experiences, etc.). Since this Public reorientation has occurred, the Public has become a central focus in social communication contexts and a driving force for user-experience research. For example, companies like Facebook and Google conduct large scale Public data aggregation and analysis to make small, incremental changes to their media and algorithms to give users what they want and improve their experiences. Thus, today’s Publics provide a mainstream exigency for communication design work, evidenced by increasing user research interests in all realms of communication.

So, with the development of a 21st century participatory culture enabled by networked communication technology, the Public has evolved from targets of rhetoric into co-creators of social and civic discourse whose contributions matter and who feel responsible for being part of the public sphere (Jenkins, Purushotma, Weigel, Clinton, and Robison 2009, 6–7). As a direct result of the Public joining with the rhetor in the act of creating communication, designing user-experiences for heightened participation and engagement is a key focus of rhetorical research and praxis. Thereby, to support this key focus, the concept of “Public” is being changed in our culture to the degree that their experiences with communication steer its content and they have become integral to the core activity of creating rhetorical discourse.

Hereafter in this article, I begin by briefly illuminating the significance of the Public concept to rhetoric. Then, I go into the historical treatment of the term Public by offering Dewey’s definition. After which, I advance to Grunig’s situational theory of Publics that came out of the 1980’s. These two treatments of Public seem to dominate the philosophy of Publics in current social, academic, and civic areas. Moving from these historical concepts of Public, I discuss how the changing public sphere in response to the digital, knowledge cultures, participatory ideology, and end-user design interests are pressing the dominant Public concept to change away from those of Dewey and Grunig. Following from these pressures, I offer a newly redesigned concept of Public for rhetoricians and instruction. Last, I close with the implications of the new Public concept, the limitations of this scholarly endeavor, and a gesture toward research interests on Publics for the future.

The Power of Publics in Rhetoric

Throughout the history of rhetoric in social, academic and political spheres, the concept of the Public has played a significant role in rhetorical studies and practices. From Aristotle to Dewey (1927), Ede & Lunsford (1984) to Johnson (2004), and from Grunig & Hunt (1984) to Habermas (1991), rhetoric in all areas has relied upon a distinct interest in analyzing the Public in order to communicate persuasively. This above all is the chief concern framing the rhetorical act. The rhetor, to be successful, must be able to understand the needs, desires, and motivations of the Public audience to influence their attitudes and behavior (Locker and Kienzler 2015). For the ancients like Isocrates, so potent was the attention of the rhetorician to the Public that their craft (techné) was the only sure tool for motivating the masses to action for the good of the populace. To many communication scholars, this rhetorical attention to the Public remains the utmost concern.

Today, the importance of the Public to rhetoric in cultural and civic settings renders its consideration pivotal to the practice of our art in the social sphere. Communication and Public theory scholar Rosa Eberly (1999) states that “those who hold rhetoric as a productive as well as an analytical art need to keep searching for ways to reconceive of public discourse” (175). To do so, we must consider how we address, teach, and understand Publics and their importance to communication. Thus, redressing the term Public, in general, and adjusting its definition is an important consideration for maintaining effective rhetorical communication. So, to improve understanding of our Public concept, and to discover how best we might revise it, we must first address Dewey’s foundational definition, then Grunig’s past situational theory of Publics to understand their historical roles in cultural communication.

Defining the Historical Public Concept and Theory of Publics

To begin understanding the concept of a Public—to get at how it is conceived both pragmatically and theoretically—we must begin with Dewey (1927) and his definition of the term. Dewey, in The Public and Its Problems, comprehended the notion of a Public as being more than a population of individuals associated by common interest. Rather, he defined the Public as individuals arising and organizing in response to an issue. According to an interpretation by Eberly (1999), Dewey saw what he understood to be a Public as given and taking shape through communication. That is, only by acting rhetorically regarding an issue could a Public become self-identifying and definable. This rallying around an issue frames both Dewey’s and Grunig’s (1984) concept of a Public as formative, active, and reactive in terms of shared communication and associated action in the public space. So, it is from Dewey’s conceptual schema that James Grunig develops and posits a situational theory of Publics.

In Grunig’s (1984) situational theory of past Publics, he focused on the behavior of individuals and the actions that they take in groups to form what he recognizes as Publics. These Publics partake in communication (consuming and producing rhetoric), operate in the context of a situation, and do so in response to an issue or problem. Together, these communications, contexts, and issues form a Public’s stimuli. But, not all individuals in the social sphere (or Publics for that matter) have, recognize, or react in the same manner to any given stimulus. This insight prompted Grunig, in collaboration with Todd Hunt, to define four different types of Publics—nonpublics, latent Publics, aware Publics, and active Publics (Grunig and Hunt 1984, 22). For our purposes, nonpublics, or those not confronted by an issue, lie outside of the discourse setting, what we might think of as the rhetorical situation. Thus, from here forward, the theory’s discussion addresses only latent, aware, and active Publics and how they participate in defining the concept of a Public for our redesigning of the term.

Beginning with the formulation of latent, aware, and active Publics, they all come into existence in relation to a rhetorical situation. The three types of Publics are thus engrained in a setting where rhetoric “respond[s] to particular needs, of [the] particular publics, at [a] particular time” (Eberly 1999, 167). Hence, rhetoric acts upon these Publics in particular ways. For example, rhetoric on an issue may enable latent publics to become aware of a problem, aware publics may become active respondents to the problem, all while the rhetoric may be providing active publics material in the form of possible ideas and potential solutions so they may continue addressing an issue. Thus, latent, aware, and active publics act through and react to their rhetorical situation and respond to their perceived societal needs in that situation.

So, if we apply our knowledge about the concept of Publics—derived from Dewey’s definition and Gurnig and Hunt’s theory—to a situation within the realm of civic discourse, the civic rhetoric shaped and employed by an active Public connects the idea of communication by the public with the goals of the public (what Isocrates termed the Public good). Pragmatically speaking, the concept of a Public is defined by shared communication, identification, and resulting action, while theoretically, it exists situationally in relation to an issue or problem and is shaped by its activity, presumably aimed at service to or support for said Public. With this historical concept in mind, my discussion and analysis will now examine how four modern pressures may be redefining this concept of a rhetorical “Public,” and how these pressures create new rhetorical directions (and stimuli) for our consideration.

Four New Pressures Reshaping Publics

Moving from the analog era of Dewey and Grunig, today’s technologically mediated society opens-up individuals to experiencing a multitude of new communications, environments, and issues every day. Further, multiple forms of online networking allow for the new stimuli to convey and perpetuate beliefs and behaviors in a continuous stream. These techno-cultural changes are forcing the rhetorician’s Public concept, grounded in the definition and theory of Dewey and Grunig, to grow and adapt. The first pressure is that the public sphere where individuals have long participated in the exchange of opinions is extending into realms and communications once private. This is happening through new means of communication and data collection in the home and other once private environs that are now part of the digital public sphere. The second pressure is the formation of large, online knowledgeable communities who are exercising collective intuition and insight to produce more active Publics through increased reach, command of data, and access to information verses historically analog Publics. Also, developing in-kind with the wide dispersal of network communication technologies, the third pressure extends from participatory ideology that is influencing the populace by activating Publics to a degree that the traditional passivity of non-, latent, or aware Publics is being intrinsically counteracted. And, the last pressure comes from the centralization of Publics to the act of designing rhetorical communications via user-centered design and user-experience based interests. As a result, modern Publics and their expectations for discourse are more pronounced than ever before as they have come to see themselves as central to the rhetorical act. Hereafter, looking closely at these four pressures on the concept of a Public may provide us both an understanding of where each has come from and where they may be taking us as we move toward the future.

A Changing Public Sphere Changes the Public

Starting with the outgrowth of the public sphere brought into being by digital environments, we must consider how this change put pressure on the concept of a Public. The most contemporary concept of the public sphere comes to us from social philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ (1991) Structural Transformation in the Public Sphere. Drawing on language describing a public space occupied by individuals participating in discussions of informed, societal opinion in eighteenth century Germany, Habermas begins to articulate his social theory of the public sphere. To do so, he combines the observed German concept of social, rhetorical actions with Greek antecedents—“notions concerning what is ‘public’ … what is not” and the activities of discussion (lexis) and common action (praxis) in matters of the polis (3). To Habermas, the public sphere was a space where private citizens, literate in issues of civil society, come together to form a discursive Public separate from their private lives. This Public entered willingly into culturally open forums, wielded limited information ready-to-hand, and was motivated, often personally, by an issue or problem. However, this public sphere, distinctly owing to its analog origins, does not account for the changes of the digitizing Public and the deterioration of privacy. As communication and cultural experiences went online, Publics entered a digital space where they encountered information access that was far-reaching and beyond their singular knowledge; they came face to face with issues and problems of others which were readily thrust upon them; and, they were confronted with a space where their information was easily captured and made public.

According to law and privacy scholar Daniel Solove (2016) in “The Nothing-to-Hide Argument,” as individuals move online with their information, the divide between what is public and what is private blurs. What was once private information—our habits, interests, and ideas often explored from the comfort of our couch on a networked device—is data mined and collected as publicly discoverable, commercially purchasable information (Solove 2016, 737–40). This intrusion and publication challenges the traditional definition of the public sphere because an individual’s “own realm (idia),” the privacy of one’s own home (oikos), is compromised; the private becomes manifest in a public sphere even if the Public is ignorant about said sphere (Habermas 1991, 3). Additionally, the capturing of personal communications for public dispersal via technologically mediated conversations (those held outside of “the public life, bios politikos”) has eroded the private conversation to the point that all communication thusly mediated is potentially a public artifact (Habermas 1991, 3).

Therefore, these illustrations illuminate the extension of the public sphere into homes and into private conversations mediated by technology through the intrusion of the digital public sphere. As a result, the concept of the Public is reshaped by the cultural “nothing to hide” rhetoric in the public sphere itself. This transforms the fabric of what is Public in our concept. Also, as individuals forsake privacy for networking with the Public, more personal beliefs and attitudes enter into the sphere and weakens the Public as it becomes sometimes “less-literate” and more intimate and, at times, irrational. Hence, the changing public sphere altered by attributes of the digital sphere is fundamentally changing the Public to whom rhetoricians speak and must be accounted in our redesigning of the concept.

Forming Knowledge Cultures Influences the Public

Another digital change influencing the rhetorician’s Public concept is the formation of knowledge cultures in our techno-centric society. Knowledge cultures are communities where participants “share their knowledge and opinions” (Jenkins 2008, 26). These communities arise through audiences who organize themselves organically around specific interests or issues. Thus, by this definition and our understanding of how Publics form, it seems online knowledge cultures and Publics manifest in similar fashion, if not as one and the same. According to cultural theorist and media scholar Pierre Lévy, the knowledge culture serves as an “’invisible and intangible engine’” for what Jenkins calls the “mutual production and reciprocal exchange of knowledge” (quoted in Jenkins 2008, 27). Hence, it seems logical to assert that knowledge cultures may often be the foundation for a modern digital Public that is communing on a cultural or civic interest within an online, networked space.

However, if we compare the past analog Publics of Dewey and Grunig and Hunt’s to the digital ones of Jenkins and Lévy’s knowledge cultures, the difference is that the latter communities always have at their disposal the plethora of data online and the power of “collective intelligence” afforded by cyberspace (Jenkins 2008, 27). Collective intelligence stems from the idea that no single person can possibly know everything there is to know, but, collectively, individuals know things and have skills they can contribute to a shared pool of resources. This implies that every single person has valuable expertise to contribute and that by working together, the collective within a digital Public empowers the individual and vice versa. Additionally, Lévy argues that collective intelligence enables participants to become active collaborators in a knowledge community, which “allows them to exert a greater aggregative power in their negotiations” (quoted in Jenkins 2008, 27) because the knowledge community determines what is and is not knowledge.

Empowerment over knowledge in a knowledge culture may create situations where the digital Public grants itself power over what is good or effective communication with the digital Public sphere even if its membership lacks rhetorical expertise. Therefore, it seems knowledge cultures common to digital communities provide not only access to information, but access to shared intelligence and the power that the collective affords. Additionally, this increased power, alongside the valuing of all members may result in not only collective power over persuasive appeals (both cultural and civic), but also individual power as they feel emboldened by the strength of the collective intelligence of their community. For this reason, the new knowledge culture concept must be attended to by rhetoricians who address Publics. These new collective, knowledgeable, and active communities indicate that Publics are becoming more empowered, banding together, and participating in reshaping their own spaces, while also elevating their own status to that of an invaluable knowledge culture.

Participatory Ideology Shapes the Public

The next pressure on the concept of a Public as hinted at in my knowledge culture analysis is the new social push for participation in communication. This new participatory ideology is due to the empowered status of the Public and its membership in the current digital, networked Public sphere. This ideology has activated Publics far beyond the traditional means of those found in Dewey’s non-networked, analog settings of the past by connecting today’s member of a Public with encouraging and supportive (inter)actions. Just as rhetoricians must consider the influences of active knowledge cultures for strong social and civic discourse, we must attend to the participatory ideology these cultures represent and their effects on modern Publics.

According to Jenkins et al. (2009), today’s hyper-active Public is engaged with the creation and sharing of cultural knowledge through media. This position of power in relation to communicating knowledge makes participants feel central and indispensable to public rhetorical acts. Also, Jenkins (2008) indicates that a participatory Public conflates “media producers and consumers” into a single role, participants (3). As participants, all individuals have agency and interact with one another according to the new cultural perception that everyone in an audience is always-already involved in meaning-making by degrees. This view of participants connects to the idea that a Public in civic discourse may be perceived as an “involved audience” (Johnson 2004, 93). According to Robert Johnson (2004), “the involved audience is an actual participant in the writing process who creates knowledge and determines much of the content of the discourse” (93). Thus, an inclusive, generative view of today’s Public arises from participatory ideology and modern audience theorizing. Just as in knowledge cultures where individuals are central to creating and communicating, participatory ideology posits that everyone has valuable expertise and are expected to be actively collaborating in Public discourse as participants. Therefore, as rhetoricians, our understanding of the Public concept must admit the reshaping induced by current participatory ideology and redesign the term accordingly.

User-based Design Expectations Inform the Public

Our final pressure reshaping the rhetorician’s Public concept is wrought by our own growing interest in user-based design for communication purposes from user-experience research (Hoekman Jr. 2016). By focusing our efforts on designing documents for end-users, we are priming audiences to expect communications to conform to their desires. As such, the employment of design practices in many modes of digital public discourse may have already begun to alter expectations toward more personalized experiences. For example, Steve Krug (2014), an expert web designer and advocate for user-experience design, posits that the fundamental conventions of webpages and how they communicate is rooted in not only being intuitive, but also in recreating positive experiences that are desirable for individual users. Thus, rhetoricians must be attuned to the effects of user expectations when communicating with modern Publics in the digital age. Reorienting communication in this manner requires that today’s rhetor consider how user-based document design effects the Public and its concept of effective communication in light of expectations generated within the digital public sphere.

To begin the reorientation, the rhetorician may start from the concept of document design. Document design refers to how communicators assemble documents to create an agreeable, useful experience for the audience. According to Karen Schriver (1997), communication scholars need to persuade an audience by discovering and attending to a “reader’s needs” by appealing to their “goals and values” through design elements (11). While this represents an approach to communication familiar to rhetoricians addressing rhetorical situations, the modern audience in the public sphere may come to expect civic communications to mirror their expectations, perhaps even to put their own opinions first and foremost (i.e. consider the social media echo chamber). In other words, the Public may see itself as the most important part of the rhetorical situation and devalue the message and/or purpose of the communication because of their perceived “elevated status” as a focal point of design. In this situation, if the digital Public sees a communication as ignoring its authority, power, or import, it may, according to Dentzel (2013), disregard or even attack a communication for its apparent inattention to the Public’s interests. It is the elevated status of the Public developed by user-based design practices and changing digital communication environments that rhetoricians must be most aware of as they take-part in developing social and civic discourse.

Furthermore, the modern networked audience expects their experience with a communication to be informed by a vested interest in what they want and what they believe is best for the Public to which they belong. Thus, in the user-based approach to communication design, the Public expects rhetoric to seek to not only meet their individual expectations, but also to be democratized to promote inclusion and well-being of the Public (Dentzel 2013). All the while, as alluded to previously, users of modern communications expect interaction and for it to be easy. They expect to contribute and they expect to be a valuable part of a communication once they participate (Jenkins et al. 2009, 6–7). It seems we as rhetors today have a difficult challenge before us. Thus, user-experience design expectations are redesigning our rhetorical discourse and reforming the concept of the Public itself. As contemporary rhetoricians, we must reshape our concept of a Public to include how its expectations are informed by the practice of user-based design and networking as well as the other pressures previously discussed.

Reconceptualizing the Rhetorician’s Public

Based on the initial definition and theory of a Public and the preceding examination moving from the concept’s past to present day pressures, a newly redesigned concept of the term emerges. Extending beyond the traditional definition, rhetors must attend to several new aspects of Publics as they prepare discourse for the public sphere. First, they must attend to Publics as being both personally, as well as publicly, invested in the rhetorical situation. As the public sphere has enveloped more aspects of the private sphere due to the digital, Publics have formed more intimate connections between the discourse and their identity. Second, our concept must acknowledge digital Publics as potentially less objective, but more prone to wielding personal expertise and powerful collective intelligence drawn from online communities and from vast stores of networked cultural information that are immediately available to them. Last, rhetors must employ a Public concept wherein Publics see themselves as central, generative contributors to democratized communications. That is, our concept of the Public needs to acknowledge the desire of individuals not only to be included, but also valued by a clear and vested interest in their contributions, concerns, and experiences. These aspects of the rhetor’s redesigned concept of a rhetorical Public must be considered to affect social and civic audiences successfully in the contemporary cultural environment surrounding discourse in the digital age.

Closing Remarks on Reshaping the Rhetorical Public

Though it is impossible to have the definitive and final word on a concept so rich and varied as the rhetorical Public, observations concerning its definition and theory in this scholarship are noteworthy. They begin to direct our research and suggest future redesign work for this and other terminology central to the shared disciplines in the fields of English, Communication, Technology, and Design. First, though the Public is still defined by shared communication and action as Dewey articulated, those traits have taken on new depth as members infuse their daily lives with a more personal relationship to Publics and more shared opinions are taken up to inform the digital public sphere. From this realization, I caution that our Public, in theory, may feel differences of opinion as attacks on themselves or their identity.

A second observation is that while Grunig and Hunt’s situational theory of Publics is accurate in its assessment of Publics as existing situationally, their theory could not have predicted the inward articulation of today’s Publics. That is, our more self-interested and self-centric Publics may see themselves as the most important part of a situation, and therefore they may see themselves as the locus for its creation. This may result in forsaking messages and purposes in the discourse that do not focus on “me.” Again, in light of this finding, I warn that a new Public may seek out echo chambers that reflect their ideas back to them out of overemphasized self-importance. Additionally, this new conceptual Public may be easily alienated by social or civic discourse that fails to replicate the collective knowledge of the fragmented groups to which they belong. But, in any event, how rhetoricians need to respond to this reconceptualization of the Public is beyond the scope of this scholarship which is geared toward redesigning the concept of a Public and pointing toward some of the needs we must consider prior to teaching it.

So, in closing, for the concept of a Public and how this scholarship has endeavored to encourage its exploration and consideration, there is much more work to do. This is especially true regarding how we teach rhetoric to respond to the Public as it changes. Though this article has begun to consider some of the changes of social spheres—the influences of knowledge cultures, the reshaping of participatory ideology, and the informing of user-based design—there remain clear lines to be drawn showing how exactly these considerations align and derive from how we teach the dominant definitions and theories of Publics posited by Dewey, Habermas, Grunig and Hunt, and others. To undertake that exploration, I leave it to the next rhetor who picks up where the sophists left-off, ponders Dewey, study’s Grunig, Hunt, Habermas, Jenkins, and others empirically to discover where our definition and theory of Publics is heading next and how we need to conceive it for continued successful social and civic discourse.

Bibliography

Dewey, John. 1927. The Public and its Problems. Chicago: Swallow Press.

Dentzel, Zaryn. 2013. “How the Internet has Changed Everyday Life.” Ch@nge: 19 Key Essays on How the Internet is Changing Our Lives. Madrid: BBVA.

Eberly, Rosa. 1999. “From Writers, Audiences, and Communities to Publics: Writing Classrooms as Protopublic Spaces.” Rhetoric Review 18, no. 1: 165–78.

Ede, Lisa, and Andrea Lunsford. 1984. “Audience Addressed / Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 35, no. 2: 155–171.

Grunig, James, and Todd Hunt. 1984. Managing Public Relations. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. Structural Transformation in the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hoekman, Jr., Robert. 2016. Experience Required: How to Become a UX Leader Regardless of Your Role. New Riders.

Jarratt, Susan. 1991. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

———, Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice Robison. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Johnson, Robert. 2004. “Audience Involved: Toward a Participatory Model of Writing.” In Central Works in Technical Communication, edited by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber, 91–103. New York: Oxford University Press.

Krug, Steve. 2014. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web and Mobil Usability,3rd ed. Pearson, newriders.com.

Locker, Kitty, and Donna Kienzler. 2015. Business and Administrative Communication, 11th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Education.

Lunsford, Andrea, Kirt Wilson, and Rosa A. Eberly. 2009. The SAGE Handbook of Rhetorical Studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Mendelson, Michael. 2002. Many Sides: A Protagorean Approach to the Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy of Argument. Chicago: Springer.

Porrovecchio, Mark, and Celeste Michelle Condit. 2016. “Part IV: Perspectives on Publics.” In Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, edited by Mark Porrovecchio and Celeste Condit, 195–97. New York: Guilford Press.

Schriver, Karen. 1997. Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Texts for Readers. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Solove, Daniel. 2016. “The Nothing-to-Hide Argument.” In Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security, reprinted in Everything’s an Argument with Readings, edited by Lunsford, Andrea, John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

About the Author

Philip B. Gallagher is a professional and technical communication scholar specializing in Communication Design Theory and Pedagogy, New Media Learning, and Applied Communications. He is finishing his PhD in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at Iowa State University (2020) and has an MA in English with an emphasis in Composition, Rhetoric, and Professional Writing (2012) from Eastern Illinois University. His current research includes: rhetorical design theory and process in business and technical communication; knowledge management in virtual communities; the development of New Media instruction, embodied cognition, and phenomenological writing studies; and the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion in Higher Education.


Image courtesy of Flickr user Andrea Hernandez
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Participatory Culture and Distributed Expertise: Breaking Down Pedagogical Norms or Regulating Neoliberal Subjectivities?

Kimberly Mair, University of Lethbridge

Abstract

While participatory pedagogies and inverted classrooms contest the norms and forms authority that operate in the conventional classroom and attempt to respond creatively to the challenge that Web 2.0 presents to higher education, they may also reinforce the requisite affect and rhythms of production that are characteristic of flexible labor. Drawing upon observations from a course on digital culture delivered in an inverted and participatory classroom, this article discusses the effectiveness of experiential, decentered, and collaborative classroom environments for meeting the demands of early twenty-first century higher education but examines contradictions inherent to these critical pedagogies. This paper argues that the intensive labor and constant affect-based interactions that participatory pedagogies demand may inadvertently undermine their critical force by enacting forms of neoliberal governance. The discussion concludes with provisional thoughts about how to navigate these contradictions by building a critique of the pedagogy into the course structure.

 

 

Critical pedagogies that emphasize performative and participatory activity are effective in breaking down and contesting the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom that otherwise tend toward passive absorption and recall on demand. The move away from both older banking (Freire [1970] 1997, 61) and newer information exchange models in education is even more urgent when we take seriously that “knowledge and information in their exchangeable form are easily accessible on the internet and Wikipedia,” an observation that prompted Groot, Pape, and Vilvang (2015) to ask: “What, then, is the singular project of higher education that stands out from a mass of knowledge traders?” (1). For them, that project would entail the generation of “movements of thought,” in which “it is not a stable piece of information that moves from point A to point B” (1), but one that engages directly the problem of “how to make different modes of thought resonate, how to think with another thinking” (2).

In preparation for a third-year undergraduate course entitled Digital Culture and Society, I attempted to shape its curriculum into a metaphorical platform for experiential engagements that would disrupt conventional assumptions of the economy of knowledge in the classroom by positioning the students as collaborative knowledge producers who each bring plural knowledges into the space for reworking, rather than as receivers of ostensibly crystallized, knowledge. Since I gave the course a thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0, I wanted its form to make operative the social processes of concern in the course, such as shifts in communicative practice and values, the withdrawal of the singular author or originator of knowledge claims, and so forth. Making such processes operative indeed made space for “movements of thought” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1). I noted how easily the values of critical pedagogies, such as those central to the inversion of classrooms, synthesized with the unique concerns of the course topic of digital culture, as these are in many ways consistent with the emergent norms of Web 2.0 culture and its “central cultural logic” of sharing (Shifman 2014, 19). Yet, over the duration of the course, I became aware of inherent contradictions in the participatory and performative potential of inverted pedagogies.

Concerns have been raised about inverted models, particularly in the context of fiscal pressures on education that may emphasize technology as a solution to increased demands with fewer resources, while de-emphasizing the value of immediate engagement with instructors. As Harden (2015) has observed, however, the critical focus of inverted models does provide “means for educators to resist that outcome” (378). Perhaps this danger pivots on where the imperative to invert classrooms emerges, with the institution or with the educator, and whether it is administratively or conceptually driven. But, my immediate concerns depart from the possible administrative exploitation of what are meant to be critical learning models that, done well, are usually more, not less, labor intensive. That these learning models are more labor intensive, not only for faculty but for students as well, is my point of departure. With the learning strategies and forms that my course implemented, student labor was both extensive and sometimes invisible as work. I argue that, as much as these forms rework and disrupt conventional classroom practices, they may inadvertently contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for entrenching flexible labor arrangements. Following this, I will conclude with a brief preliminary reflection upon how I have attempted to activate this critique as part of the content in a subsequent offering of this course. Before developing my critique, I will situate my discussion in the course’s pedagogical underpinnings.

Participatory and Web 2.0 Cultures as Content and Pedagogy

The course’s thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0 culture followed Henry Jenkins’ work in both of its streams: fandom studies and participatory classrooms. Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, et al (2013) advocate the “participatory classroom,” which acknowledges the emergent shift from the expert paradigm of one-directional knowledge transfer to a collaborative model of knowledge production known as distributed expertise (188–189). Distributed expertise anticipates that each participant has knowledge and experiences to contribute. It favors course designs that enable and encourage the active mobilization of each participant’s expertise in both learning and teaching, although the latter often occurs through informal mentorship—a central value of some fandoms [1] and one that is consistent with the positive popular discourse of so-called Web 2.0 culture generally.

The respective characteristics of Web 2.0 culture and participatory culture overlap but are distinct (Hadas 2009, 1.2). Web 2.0 culture denotes the practices that emerge from the platform infrastructure of the Internet that provides sites to be filled with users’ content and generates sharing and interactivity that the read-only websites of Web 1.0 were not equipped to support. The ideological promise of Web 2.0 culture, however, recasts consumers as participants and creators and, therefore, it elides the distinction between producers and consumers (Hadas 2009; Jenkins [1992] 2013). More significantly, the discourses that surround Web 2.0 culture suggest a democratic communicative sphere by emphasizing its ostensible decentralization. Tim O’Reilly, who acknowledged the “interactivity, flexibility, and participation” (Coleman 2013, 207) of platform-based applications on the Internet by proposing the name Web 2.0, stresses its potential to foster “collective intelligence” (Hadas 2009). Web 2.0 also purportedly has the capacity to endow the speculative “noosphere” of the fused global mind (Manivannan 2012) with a “perfect memory” (Mayer-Schönberger quoted in Manivannan 2012). Tensions reside here due to the broad signifying force that the name Web 2.0 has taken on in a “constant conflation” of technologies and practices that “obscures the sociology and history of some digital projects” (Coleman 2013, 208). While the appeal to the supposed decentralization of Web 2.0 is often challenged (Mayorga 2014; Shifman 2014; Lanier 2011), Coleman asserts the distinction between “corporate-owned, proprietary platforms” and free software development or collective projects (208). So, while the promise and potential of so-called Web 2.0 cannot reside above critique, Coleman reminds us to give attention to which efforts and technologies we mean and how they operate “ethically, politically, and economically” (209) when we use this term.

The concept of participatory culture, however, speaks to long-time fandom practices, involving both affective and critical reading (Jenkins [1992] 2013, 277–278); the production of “borderlands” between texts and everyday life (3); cultural activism; aesthetic production that blurs the creator-consumer distinction; and the making of alternative communities (278–282). It long precedes the advent of digital platform infrastructures, but its characteristics overlap with the creative, non-hierarchical promise of the Web 2.0 culture of sharing. Jenkins and Kelley, et al (2013) outline the characteristics of a participatory culture as follows: “low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement”; mutual “support for creating and sharing”; “informal mentorship”; members’ belief that their contributions are significant; members’ feelings of social connection that extend to contributions made by members of the group (8).

In several respects, contemporary understandings and practices of participatory culture, now extending to more anonymous and ephemeral digital communities, rely upon the technological infrastructures of Web 2.0. Paul J. Booth’s (2012) study of video mash-ups forwards that today’s remix culture relies heavily on the use and re-working of different texts and genres to produce cultural “rupture” (5.4). In the context of the digital sphere and its reconfigurations of communication, participatory culture promises to re-work cultural logics and social arrangements, giving the impression of control to participants who make up networked communities. This control, however, is highly dependent upon the digital spaces in which activities occur. Financial and digital capitals, as well as membership in new social arrangements, are unevenly distributed (Mayorga 2014).

Having made this distinction between these overlapping concepts, I will elaborate how they inform and mirror my pedagogical assumptions in the design of this course. Like digital spaces and networks, classrooms are marked by uneven distributions of various capitals, and while a participatory course design does not level this terrain, it does make interventions into models of teaching that appeal to the image of a knowledge economy. As with Freire’s critical use of the word “banking” to describe one-directional teaching strategies, a course that is designed to participate in the knowledge economy assumes its material in terms of units possessed by teachers or books, consumed by students, and then exchanged for credit in examinations and assignments. A course that approximates a participatory culture emphasizes experiential learning by having students engage directly in the processes relevant to the course topic rather than primarily consume course materials that explain them. By focusing on processes, knowledge is then understood as ways of thinking and making rather than information or facts that are today readily available, and even debated, without classrooms of higher learning.

In this course, students’ experiences were supposed to be much like those in Web 2.0, as students ‘shared’ their ideas and took control of their activities through the collaborative production of their term projects. Groups were also to approximate participatory culture by fulfilling the characteristics outlined above. Although I assigned scholarly literatures, the experience of working in this way was intended to be a central ‘text’ of the course by which emergent social arrangements, communicative practices, and values in digital culture could be felt and negotiated rather than merely read about. Finally, this pedagogical approach assumes that learning is not an interior process but happens through active meetings among thinkers, objects, and environments. Having elaborated the critical pedagogical assumptions that draw from inverted models as well as from the scholarship on participatory classrooms and distributed expertise (Jenkins and Kelley et al., 2013) that guided the development of this course, I will provide some details about it before moving on to my critical observations about the contradictions presented with this approach in terms of its inadvertent complicity in preparing students for neoliberalism’s flexible labor arrangements.

The Participatory Course and Fan-Fic as Scholarly Activity

I responded to the official course title of Digital Culture and Society with a thematic of participatory culture, using scholarly readings to emphasize the following in the content: oscillations between materialization and dematerialization (Hayles 2012); new modes of communication; emergent norms and values; and new forms of subjectivity that are tension-ridden between, on the one hand, Barry Wellman’s concept of “networked individualism,” concerned with self-branding and production of social connectivity and communion, which is often used to describe contemporary social production (Shifman 2014, 30, 33–34), and, on the other hand, the economy of unreality that David Auerbach observes on 4chan message boards, which minimizes identity, trading subjects for knowledges and experiences (Manivannan 2012). In the course’s formal organization, I primarily used an inverted, or ‘flipped’, classroom model. I did minimal lecturing each week. Lectures focused on the most challenging aspects of theoretical matter in scholarly literature, and students were required to engage with learning materials and do preliminary work outside of class. Given its thematic, the course was participatory in its content and form. Mirroring the conceptual content of the course, students engaged directly in creative fan culture production in collaborative groups online outside of class time and face-to-face in the classroom over a period of three months.

Fandom production that values free space to create resonates with the ways in which communication ideally occurs in Web 2.0. The perceived gap between students’ routine communication practices and the scholarly conventions expected in the academy has perhaps never been greater. Instructors can build upon the ways that students communicate, and students can also be positioned to see how their communicative practices implicitly cross into scholarly conventions. I suggest that fandom practices, such as fan-fic, offer a productive meeting ground. Fandom strategies displace the authority of primary texts and offer creative license to students making their own texts using informal types of citation through intertextuality. More crucially, fandom strategies encourage active reading and re-writing practices that extend or question, fill in gaps, and posit cultural critiques of dominant narratives (Jenkins [1992] 2013). I used fan-fic prompts from the second class meeting on to unsettle classroom routines, initiate collaborative work, develop relationships, and explore assigned texts.[2]

The novel S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013) provided a common point of departure for the collaborative projects. S is an example of an ergodic novel because it requires unusual and laborious reading practices. It was particularly relevant to the course because it demands reading practices that mimic and amplify the non-linear experience of reading online, while calling for supplemental searching that crosses into other media external to the book to meet its intertextual knowledge requirements. Yet S also exaggerates the sensorial experiences of reading a material, hardcover book. The book is heavy, difficult to handle, and its specifically placed interleaved objects will fall out if the reader is not careful with every movement. The pages are artificially aged and seem to have been treated with the subtle scent of old books. Its content is broadly concerned with communication technologies and reading as authorship.

The students’ ongoing task was to work intertextually between scholarly literature, the novel, and their experiences of participatory culture in various modes. Many of their assignments, including the central collaborative project, demanded that they relinquish attachments to individual ownership and authorship of their production. In a limited sense, their contributions were ideally anonymous, as on 4chan, but not quite, obviously. I gave no specifications about what the final products should be. In terms of content, they were simply instructed to respond to S., while drawing from the conceptual materials in weekly academic readings. Evaluation was process-based and focused on groups’ routine practice of the principles of a participatory culture, as observed on their discussion and planning blogs and in participatory group time, for which they had between fifty and one hundred minutes per week over the term.

In addition to the attempt to subvert conventional authority emanating from the instructor and from assigned texts by animating participation in active knowledge production and contestation, the submitted assignments were creative, and relied upon popular cultural texts as well as on experiences. One aspect of Henry Giroux’s notion of border pedagogy as a “counter-text” (1991, 52) to traditional forms of pedagogical authority involves the treatment of official texts and popular cultural texts—not as the conduits for knowledge transmission, but as objects of study in themselves. Border pedagogy also enables students to “create their own texts” (54) under “conditions that allow students to write, speak, and listen in a language in which meaning becomes multi-accentual, dispersed, and resists permanent closure” (52).

The participatory modes operating within and outside of the classroom produced a high-level of solidarity among the students, and fostered intense friendships among many of them. Of the six groups, social connectivity was indeed achieved in all but one group that organized their activity with a means-ends logic. Having individual work from the students in the course from which to draw comparisons, the scholarly and creative quality of the works produced were, in most cases, higher than what would have been produced by individuals, as they were marked with the different strengths and interests of each group’s various members, which had dialogical mobility within the strongest groups over the duration of the term.

Despite the successes of the course, it became evident to me that the participatory modes of learning embedded into the course design presented inherent contradictions. While the pedagogical practices associated with distributed expertise and participatory collaboration break down the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom, they also appear to contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for immaterial and flexible labor arrangements. I observed that these strategies encourage practices that are consistent with the policy and human resource buzzwords of “creativity,” “participation,” and “community” that art historian Claire Bishop notes have been borrowed from 1960s discourses and deployed in service of self-sufficiency in the so-called “new economy” (2012, 14).

Do Participatory Classrooms Produce Post-Fordist Laborers?

Alexander R. Galloway has argued that, in post-Fordist arrangements, we can no longer distinguish between leisure and labor activities. Drawing upon Galloway’s observation, as well as Tim O’Reilly’s uncritical concept of “algorithmic regulation,” which denotes a process by which algorithmic adjustments respond to immediate data that evaluate whether algorithmic outcomes are aligned with preferred ones, Steve Holmes (2014) addressed the practice of bitcoin mining as a “hybrid game-like” environment that directly “participate[s] in structures of knowledge/power” that appropriate not only game play, but also browsing activities, social media posting, blogging, and so many of the routine activities that many of us do in daily life. He shows how these leisure activities are submitted to the surveillance of algorithms and become acts of immaterial labor that convert “play into [someone else’s] profit”. Holmes’s aim is to extend critiques that focus on game play that simulates other environments to show that “global communications networks have converted all of space and time to gamespace” and produce a sort of “algorithmic subjectivity” that responds to neoliberal demands both economically and at the level of conscious desires. It is a surveilled and regulated subjectivity, but it gives the appearance of individual agency. While we learn from Holmes that the mining of crypto-currencies brings into sharper focus the relationship between leisure and labor—a relationship which is more subtle in the context of browsing on Google Books, being engaged in what Mayorga (2014) describes as the “playful labor of participation in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms,” or even in gaming where informal markets flourish—this presents an intractable contradiction to the subversive potentials of new modes of communication in digital space, as well as to the emergent values that are associated with these modes.

These participatory and inverted pedagogical tactics also creatively blur the lines between leisure and labor for students. While this animates the class and the course material, it also normalizes patterns of self-exploitive labor (Bishop 2012, 236) for the precariat of the new economy. Related to this, the participatory principles of social connectivity and mutual valuing of contributions make affect, an integral aspect of what mobilizes the emergent flexible immaterial laborer, central to the student experience. When the collaborative groups achieved strong social connectivity, something that could only be accomplished through sustained attention to the building of relationships, their work sometimes appeared less like work and perhaps felt like mere play or social activity. Sometimes, their work took the form of care and mutual support, as a couple of students encountered personal life challenges and sorrows over the course of the term, which seemed to become part of the groups’ interactions. Given that the participatory form of the work was so relationship-based, personal grief could not be tidily externalized, as it is in most conventional classrooms. At the same time, the digitized, inverted learning arrangement that supported these participatory collaborative projects could, in fragmentary and undifferentiated time-space, intrude upon the most precious aspects of whatever could be said to be left of personal time or existence in always unanticipated moments. As Italian Autonomist scholars have been warning, work time in post-Fordist arrangements is increasingly separated from the physical laborer: “When we move into the sphere of info-labor, Capital no longer recruits people, it buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and contingent bearers. De-personalized time is now the real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time has no rights” (Berardi 2009, 192). But, while time is separated from the physical laborer, work is not. The present structure of labor, Marazzi (2008) observes, is one that aims “to fuse work and worker, to put to work the entire lives of workers,” including or especially their “emotions, feelings, their after-work lives” (50), under the relentless demand for the worker “to respond to unforeseen and unforeseeable situations, emergent situations, those situations which make any sort of planning impracticable, assigning a central role to occasionality” (51).

I saw students attempting to respond to the paradox presented by the simultaneous separation of time and fusing of work. It was common for students to log on to group blogs well into the night to produce complex contributions and detailed, personalized, and affirmative responses to other contributions that had accumulated over the day. This was, after all, what I had hoped for, but I did not anticipate the ways and extent to which it would draw students into the temporal rhythms and the hijacking of care that is characteristic of the new shape of labor. Alternative pedagogical models are indeed grounded in critical perspectives, but the practical effects of their forms may support kinds of learning and practice contrary to the critical spirit of such models.

Bishop (2012) observes similar political ambiguities in the rise of post-studio participatory art since the 1990s. Some of the observations that Bishop makes about participatory art resonate with the kinds of pedagogy I am describing. She notes that both contemporary participatory artistic and curatorial production re-work conventional ways in which artistic production and consumption have been conceived; involve “post-objects,” which are situational, process-based, and conceptual; and disrupt the positions of artist and spectator to make all positions into those of participation (2).

Participatory and creative pedagogies can make similar interventions into knowledge formations. First, participatory classrooms overturn the expert model of knowledge production that assumes only an elite few possess knowledge to be imparted to others (Jenkins and Kelley, et al 2013). Second, these pedagogies involve process-based collaborations that are assumed to translate into flexible skills and knowledges that extend beyond the classroom context, rather than conventional pedagogies that focus on completed assignment-objects. Third, in some ways, they flatten and disrupt the positions of instructor and students and make them all participants (with the significant exceptions of course design and evaluation).

On the surface, these interventions into the dynamics of one-directional models seem positive, but Bishop argues that artistic practices are increasingly blurring with those of formal social institutions under the demands of the current neoliberal political context of fiscal austerity, privatization, and individualism. She considers how public arts funding criteria, coupled with the receding of social institutions, has meant that art is increasingly evaluated and publicly supported in terms of its achievement of a desired “social task” previously pursued by social services agencies, education departments, and so forth, rather than by its achievement of formal aesthetic properties. One of her concerns about the assumption that artistic production ought to fulfill social tasks is that it relies upon “‘post-political’ consensus” (277) to legitimate art. Bishop remarks that:

this is a story that runs in parallel with the rocky fate of democracy itself, a term to which participation has always been wedded: from a demand for acknowledgement, to representation, to the consensual consumption of one’s own image – be this a work of art, Facebook, Flickr, or reality TV. (277)

Similarly, participatory pedagogies and their collaborative assignments may rely upon a student-driven consensus that hastily resolves contradictions (Marlow 2012), erases dissent, and produces difficult contributions as refuse rather than as potential generations of “movements of thought” that provoke us “to think with another thinking” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1-2).

Activating Critique within the Course Structure

Having acknowledged the unwitting complicity of this course design with the regulation of “good” neoliberal subjects, the outstanding task is to discover how to turn that complicity into an object of critical interrogation, without losing the animating potentials of alternative learning practices. This is one of the ubiquitous tensions that university workplaces present to instructors: how to assert a boundary between work and life while still activating your care in your work. For instructors, one way of activating care (but not necessarily boundaries) is to experiment with learning models, but when that experimentation seems to support the most exploitative aspects of contemporary work conditions in the structure of student learning, this calls for further intervention. A possible route for navigating this contradiction would be to retain the form of the course but to activate the critique within its content—it is after all inherent to the topic of digital culture—to prompt engagement with the ways in which the course has enacted forms of neoliberal governance and normalizes flexible rhythms of labor.

In a more recent iteration of this course, I incorporated this critique by assigning texts that underline the connections between digital leisure and flexible labor to show how activities in the course participated in the simulation of neoliberalism that Holmes discusses. For instance, since collaborative groups communicated outside of class time using a free blog platform that featured advertising space, which would be populated if their sites attracted enough visitors, they were prompted to consider how their posts to each other could make profit for other organizations. Further, not only did groups use texting and social media to keep in touch between meetings, several incorporated Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram into their final projects. All of these forms of communication, whether used instrumentally or aesthetically, provided opportunities to examine the production of value and leisure-labor blur, as well as the de-differentiation of labor and subjectivity in new flexible forms of production.

Relative to the students in the first version of the course, for whom I initiated the critique only in the closing reflections at the end of the term, students in the second version, for whom this critique was part of their curriculum, seemed unmoved by it. The first class was reflective about the critique; the second class seemed to ask: So what? Many of the latter stressed the convenience of working in groups using plural digital platforms, even when their communications and work unpredictably crossed well into the evenings and weekends. It is unclear what contributed to the difference in the responses, other than that, in general, the first class was more diversely digitally immersed and thus more attuned and invested in the implications than the second one. While student life is generally marked by fragmented time, the force of the critique relies upon students to imagine their indefinite futures structured by this de-differentiation between labor and affective subjectivity. Yet, this de-differentiation may be pervasive enough that it now appears neutral. If so, this neoliberal commonsense poses a unique challenge to animating this critique.

If flexible forms of teaching and learning respond to the demands of early twenty-first-century education by engaging emergent modes of communication and production, they also enact the “friendly” relations of power of those modes, which are affect-based and threaten to exploit students’ social bonds or to coerce students into performing bonds that they may not feel. Perhaps this critique of the pedagogy could be forceful if it were initially displaced from the students’ immediate experiences by putting the fictional novel and fan-fic writing exercises to use. Since the critique is also relevant to the protagonists in the novel S, it could be explored creatively through collective writing exercises that respond to key moments in the narrative. In a follow-up reflective exercise, students could be prompted to examine the similar structure of their own activities in the course. While it may seem counter-intuitive to build in a critique of pedagogy as it is delivered, it offers a rare experiential opportunity to examine contemporary neoliberal conditions that seem natural and convenient.

Acknowledgements

This work would not exist without the highly engaged students of the Digital Culture course. I wish to thank the University of Lethbridge Teaching Centre, especially Victoria Holec and Bernie Wirzba of the Learning Environment Evaluation Project. Finally, I am grateful to the editors and reviewers for constructive suggestions and feedback.

Bibliography

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Notes

[1] Hadas has challenged the simple conflation of participatory culture and fandom by acknowledging multiple logics in fandoms. Notably, Hadas has observed a discourse of “organized-community” that appeals to “the rhetoric of private enterprise and stresses the importance of norms and standards” that stands in contrast to a discourse of “free-space” that calls for constructive and supportive contexts for production and mentorship (1.2).

[2] The second offering of this course included exploration of the similarities and differences between these strategies and academic conventions.

About the Author

Kimberly Mair is Associate Professor of Sociology and a Teaching Fellow (2016-17) at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. Her research is concerned with the aesthetics of communication and social theory. Her book Guerrilla Aesthetics: Art, Memory, and the West German Urban Guerrilla was recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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