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Changing Culture, Changing Public: Redesigning the Rhetorical Public


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.


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.


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———, 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.

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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.

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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.

Notes from Queer(ing) New York: Refusing Binaries in Online Pedagogy

Jen Jack Gieseking
Bowdoin College



In this paper I reflect on the construction and instruction of the outcomes of the Queer(ing) New York course (QNY). The case study of QNY demonstrates the pedagogical work of refusing norms and hierarchies that pedagogical models, particularly online courses, are assumed to maintain. QNY created an open course that queered the binaries of the public/graduate seminar and local/virtual. I draw from queer, feminist, and critical geographic approaches at the moment of the massive, open, online course (MOOC) fervor in order to queer models of online and open education. I also reflect on the impact of the course through in-class notes and data visualizations produced from social media and course analytics. I suggest that queering open education is a pedagogical method that affords scholars ways to examine and refute binaries and, in turn, promote the democratization of knowledge.



In this paper I take up how the Queer(ing) New York (QNY) course queered false binaries that had yet to be taken up by the premises of online education, namely the divisions and overlaps between public/graduate seminar and local/virtual teaching. I draw from queer and critical geographic theories at the moment of “the year of the MOOC” (Pappano 2012). I reflect on data visualizations based on analyzing social media (Twitter) and course website analytics (Google Analytics) produced in the form of social network analysis, geographical statistics, and maps. These data were recorded during the class and in the six months following. For many of those class members that took part, including myself, the course meant a great deal personally and to the practice of democratizing education. This democratization forefronted the experiences and spaces of underrepresented lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) populations whose histories are not taught in most schools before the college level. I suggest that queering open education is a pedagogical method that affords instructors and scholars ways to examine the false binaries that prevent the democratization of knowledge, both for LGBTQ communities and beyond.

The aim of the QNY course was to read the city through a queer lens by examining LGBTQ urban spaces at different scales, including neighborhoods, places such as bars or centers, streets, and the city itself. In over 40 countries on six continents, throughout May 2013 and, for some students, continuing for several months, over 280 students shared in conversations about the practice of queering New York City and how queerness was deployed and has shaped cities, neighborhoods, and places around the world. By making room for students to reply to scholarly articles with wide-ranging ideas of what LGBTQ spaces and places were and were not, deep differences emerged in their perspectives. Bringing together these often isolated narratives afforded ways to collectively produce more multiple, unstable, and, as such, queer understandings of LGBTQ life.

As a scholar of geographies of gender and sexuality, it had long been a dream of mine to teach a “Seminar in the City” (SITC) series course with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS). The free, open, graduate-style seminars are offered by scholars, activists, and artists over the course of four meetings every semester in New York City. I was eager to take QNY to broader publics, both LGBTQ and beyond, but questions remained: how does one structure the traditionally small and exclusive graduate seminar course in a way that would allow for bringing queer theory and activism to the public? How could I build on a course model that meets only four times without any assignments or assessments? How could my own research and teaching help democratize education about queer New York while spanning digital dualisms of the local and virtual? Furthermore, we live in a time of mainstream obsessions with massive open online courses (MOOCs) as the future of higher education. How could I harness the positive work developing from MOOC-mania to bring this particular SITC model of education into an online environment?

These notes from QNY demonstrate the need for pedagogical work in refusing norms and hierarchies that pedagogical models, especially highly popularized MOOCs, aim to maintain. As education scholar Bonnie Stewart (2013c) argues in her article “Moving Beyond a Binary View of MOOCs”:

Dialogue around change in higher education increasingly centres on the illusion of a simple divide: the business model of disruption vs. the status quo of college, idealized. … We need new narratives that stretch beyond the binary of privatization vs. the public status quo.

In other words, Stewart argues that top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions of neoliberal capitalism present themselves as simple, but require confrontation through intense unpacking and critique. QNY, I decided, would unpack and critique the assumptions implicit in MOOCs.

As the course was shaped by its moment in time and my own methodological, theoretical, and pedagogical frameworks, its aim became abundantly clear: to explore difference through the lens of the city. The course description read as follows:

While LGBTQ studies has begun to extend itself to look at rural and other non-urban environments, much of the urban still remains to be accounted for, particularly difference within the city. To truly account for our difference, we must queer the city in the way it normalizes groups and spaces, and New York City is an exciting urban environment to begin within. In Queer(ing) New York, we will read work that challenges and queers the normalized histories and spaces of LGBTQ life. How can we queer the neighborhood, bar, streets, and bodies within it to tell stories of difference? Participation in the seminar is free and open to the public. No prior experience in theoretical readings or site analysis is needed; an open, imaginative, and inquisitive mind is mandatory. All readings will be provided.

With a plethora of discussion questions, readings, and interactive technology at the ready, as well as a robust syllabus, we—by which I mean the students, CLAGS staff, and I—began the largest SITC.

During the month of May 2013 over four class meetings, Queer(ing) New York came to life. The course played out as follows: it was live-streamed and recorded on video, live-tweeted, and live-chatted; furthermore, it provided discussion spaces to carry on conversations after class. I took my own notes during class. Readings were distributed to enrolled students via a private link to a shared folder. As the course progressed, I embedded each video on the website and continued to draft posts I made in advance of each class, to post in-class discussions, and also to write the follow-up posts, which included the live-chat feed from the videos and a few student comments.[1]


Designing the Course

When I was designing and teaching Queer(ing) New York, the CLAGS “Seminar in the City” course model stood out in many ways as distinct from the prevalent MOOC model. Since 1999, the CLAGS SITC courses have provided free and open programming to the public about LGBTQ issues, concerns, and communities, and holds an institutional home and affiliation with The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The seminar is a part of a broader organization, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies.[2] In this section, I explore how I drew upon the queer, feminist, and critical geographic thinking to democratize online education through the method of queering some of the false binaries prevalent in the year of the MOOC. I also build from past Seminar in the City courses and my own research, as well as my experiences having led a participatory, open online course (POOC).


A Queer Response to the “Year of the MOOC”

The context and historical moment of the course were key. At the same time I was developing and leading my course, fervor over the MOOC model began to peak. In late 2012, The New York Times ran a series of articles entitled “The Year of the MOOC ” which ran, loosely, from the fall of 2012 through 2013. By early 2013, economist Thomas Friedman declared that MOOCs had revolutionary capacities to transform universities and, most importantly, to make universities less costly by eliminating some of the labor of teaching. Friedman (2013) went on to suggest that what was necessary for an education “revolution” was affordable and easy:

For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

The merits for the masses are clear but the quality of the education remains in question. At the same time, administrators and policy makers determine most of the “proof” of the success of this form of education by rates of completion. The focus on educating for all is an important goal, but obsessions over the low rates of completion do nothing to support actual learning (Stewart 2013b). Furthermore, Meisenhelder (2013) has demonstrated that much of the MOOC fervor, which often touted MOOC courses that adhered to Friedman’s versioning, was instead “hype” because they failed to deliver innovative or interactive pedagogy, and still tended to privileged audiences.

At that time I was employed as Visiting Assistant Research Professor with and project manager to JustPublics@365 at the CUNY Graduate Center, a project to create new forms of knowledge using digital media in order to connect academics, journalists, and activists across traditional silos of knowledge production and social action, and foster transformation on issues of social justice. The project took a critical and radical stance to MOOCs. In brief, we sought to shift the one-to-many model from “massive” to “participatory” by launching our own graduate seminar which was a participatory, open, online course (POOC) (see Daniels et al. 2014). We hoped the POOC course would support the production of participatory action research projects that involved work between students and community partners to create social change, as well as securing certificates of completion for those who completed the required coursework. It is my reading that the positionality and pedagogical frameworks of different institutions and educators is overlooked in the MOOC phenomenon, and I will address this in my analysis.

The SITC model required rethinking online education yet again. The courses aim to reach a broad public audience across education levels; research, activist, or art projects are possible but not expected. There are rarely assignments, and no grades or credit are given. Rather than a full semester course, the classes are offered in four class meetings at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan. Readings are dispersed for free in advance. Just as queer education theorist William Haver writes that “queer theory is queer precisely in its incompletion” (1998, 352), there is no formal SITC model but rather an accumulated pedagogical model. Queer incompletion, like other critical pedagogies, leaves room for development and growth that cannot be planned or affixed in advance.


Theoretical Framework

The course grew from my own research on lesbians’ and queer women’s shifting experiences of social and spatial justice in contemporary New York City. I saw Queer(ing) New York as an opportunity to bring the ideas of those I read and experiences of those I performed research with to a broader public. To do this, I had to take a step back and be informed by queer, feminist, and critical geographic theoretical perspectives in designing QNY. It is this work that helped me rethink the “massive” and “participatory” angles of the MOOC and POOC that were feeding my own version and moment of the SITC course. These theories were essential in illuminating the false binaries perpetuated by MOOC proponents and traditional pedagogies.

Queer theory affords ways of understanding practices, processes, and ways of being that refuse the normative. The work of queering allows for difference, questions the powers behind the purported “normal,” and situates pleasure and politics side-by-side. Similarly, there is a feminist perspective that suggests we need not to move “beyond” difference when “difference itself can often provide the focal point for action” (M. W. Wright 2006, 101). Still, queer theory, feminist theory, and queer and feminist identities are not interchangeable, and sometimes even dis-related. As critical geographer of sexualities Kath Browne writes, queer is not simply an “identity category, but…a fluid set of possibilities and contestations” which remains in the tension of never being “grasped, owned or appropriated” (2006, 888). Feminist and queer appropriations of space and education then share a refusal of norms that fix inequalities to spaces and places, students and teachers, curriculum and pedagogy precisely because they recognize the place of always being in process. Similar to but unlike other critical pedagogies, feminist and queer perspectives on education relate to and develop from issues of gender and sexuality. Both theories also develop from and speak to issues of gender and sexuality, identical to the focus of QNY. I was equally keen not to divorce desire from politics. I sought to make room for discussion around gender, and sexuality in as much as sexual acts in our conversations. It is in seeing and sharing the multiple layers of our complicated lives that we reveal the imbricated nature not only around gender and sexuality, but also race, class, ability, and other identities, as well as various geographies and moments in time.

Critical geography is another layer to my own research and teaching; it aims to develop theories, methodologies, and research that combat social exploitation and oppression while building upon major and minor economic, political, and social theories. Critical geography develops from the theoretical framework that space is produced through social practices (Lefebvre 1992). As such space is not a fixed container, but constantly (re)produced in how it is perceived, conceived, and lived (cf. Harvey 2009). My queer-feminist framework uses the standpoint of experience to unpack not only normative values but limiting and unjust spatial models as well. The QNY course departed from the notions that identities are inscribed in space, and space is a constructed and contested medium of identity formation played out within individual, social, and structural power relations that must not only be addressed through discourse but also through action (cf. McDowell 1992; Bell et al. 1994; Ruddick 1996; Cahill 2006).

The MOOC, POOC, and SITC models incited my interest in a broader pedagogy beyond the local, and along with these theories, crystalized the direction of Queer(ing) New York. The course sought to make space to recognize difference as a process of making space for self and others, a process that is never finished or all-encompassing but always on-going and partial. What remained was putting these ideas into action and unpacking the false binaries I faced.


Theory and Seminar in the City Pedagogy Meet in MOOC-ish Action

Digging into contradictions—often visible in the untidy false binaries that repeatedly arise in our lives—can afford a way forward previously unimaginable. In my own pedagogy, the “massive” aspirations of trending online courses clashed with the aims of the SITC. The SITC model held the aims of public pedagogy in tension with a graduate seminar format, but with a limited reach. While an organization with international reputation, CLAGS’s events are almost solely within NYC and attended by NYC individuals. I wanted to expand the work of CLAGS and the SITC model beyond the local, even while focusing on local NYC history and issues. The virtual element of online pedagogy offered other possibilities. While scholars have refuted notions of digital dualism—that online and in-person experiences are not distinct but imbricated and co-constitutive—the pedagogical dimensions of learning in both spaces at once have been underexplored. When thinking about such publics through the lens of online pedagogy, I was led back to Michelle Moravec’s (2014) longing for “either a synchronous online course or a physical space for collaboration.” QNY would provide both as well as discussion forms to support other time zones, interest levels, and patterns of everyday life.

It is only through both quantitative and qualitative reflections that insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the QNY model can be reached; they afford lenses into the large and very minute effects of the class. I now take up how QNY unfolded by blending my design of the course, my notes from classes, and data visualizations made about the social media and online metrics from the course. I focus on the two binaries that stood out to me as producing inequalities if not tended to carefully: public education/graduate seminar, and local/virtual.


Public Education in a Graduate Seminar Format

The students were my co-experts on the materiality of LGBTQ spaces and places, as most of them live in such spaces and places everyday. How could I choose readings that allowed them to speak from their diverse experiences and amplify their expertise? Who could read so many pages per week and attend all classes with a full-time job or maybe two, or on top of a full graduate program, for example? Should I provide any sort of certificate of completion to support the needs of those working against traditional models of education while still working against linking learning with assessment in the SITC model? I address the public / graduate seminar binary not only through the readings and my notes from the class, but also through the networks developed from this course as evidence of publics formed from and beyond the classroom.

While the SITC model targets education for broader audiences in a graduate seminar format, theoretically fueled conversations at the graduate level can exclude the uninitiated. The liberal model of public space advocated by Jürgen Habermas (1991) in the public sphere, when fully democratized, guarantees equal access for all. In a related example, Michelle Fine and Jessica Ruglis look at how the public sphere is taken hostage by those with money and power as public education becomes privatized and dispossesses young people of color of their agency and freedom. They write, “The public sphere is being fundamentally realigned, but not significantly hollowed—which is what makes this too seem natural” (2009, 21). The actuality of the public sphere then often results in the exclusion of those different from the group that holds power.

Instead, I embrace geographer Kurt Iveson’s (2007) work which argues for a multi-public model of public space that does not establish a singular notion of public, but accommodates a variety of subcultures and groups in spaces that embrace difference. I made room for variation in levels and types of readings and provided a structure for conversation that spoke to both theoretical and applied outcomes. As such the class aimed to draw upon open and online education to recognize difference through a practice of queering and holding binaries in tension.

The multi-public model of the course revealed itself in various ways. In my notes in our class on LGBTQ neighborhoods, I recorded how students carefully played with notions of “attachment” and “belonging” that did not work the same for all LGBTQ people. Cross-generational perspectives were incredibly eye-opening, allowing students to trace stories of gentrification, inequality, and homophobia that had only shifted location rather than abated. One gay man recounted how the now-fashionable Meatpacking District contained multiple leather bars in the 1960s and 1970s; the making invisible of what would seem like tantalizing history now to mainstream media surprised younger people, and students remarked that this reminded us of the pasts we needed to uncover. Later on, a student brought up how she could no longer have friends in other parts of the city because, since she lived so far from the city center, her networks had become regionalized. This fragmentation of queer life by gentrification and dispossession resonated with findings from my own work (Gieseking 2013a; 2013b), and inspired other students to think about how community is denied LGBTQ people through structural inequalities.

The precariously unsteady and usually underpaid nature of public education also played a role in the course. After and before taxes, respectively, I was paid $84.91 / $100 for teaching QNY. Given CLAGS’s limited budget, I was not aware until I received the check that I would be paid at all. What this course has not paid in dollars it has paid in understanding of self and other, connection, community, and hope. Furthermore, this course has connected my work to a broad queer public that I could not have reached otherwise, both academic and beyond. For this I am grateful, yet I remain mindful that economic remuneration is necessary for any of these projects to support equality.

The students in the class were white, and we spent a great deal of time—often at my urging or the urging of a few students—paying attention to the privilege of whiteness and being middle class. Perhaps our most difficult issue that clarified racial, gender, sexual, and class breakdowns was the use of “we.” Who was this purportedly LGBTQ shared “we”? One student identified as straight on the first class so that we were not even all LGBT and/or Q. Frustrated at even my own use of the word, I remarked in the first class, “Let’s queer the ‘we.’” When we faltered and used the term, conservations developed that we assumed a sense of home with one another. It also came up repeatedly that the isolation from other LGBTQ people and spaces we may have experienced in our lived inspired a desire for an almost mythical community we could not seem to find; I also saw this pattern in my own research on lesbian-queer spaces in contemporary New York City (Gieseking 2013b). We were pulled between the virtual imaginary and the local realities that left us in tension.

Much of this conversation was possible because of the readings for the course. The social science graduate seminar format I based QNY upon involves the close reading of selected texts. Critical feminist geographer Cindi Katz calls for making use not only of the “big boys” or “major theory,” but also to accept theory-making from the ground up as “minor theory” (1996, 166). I read Katz’s call as applicable to teaching with broader publics. As is the case in LGBTQ studies, theory is often prioritized. I chose instead to not include “big” queer theorists such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Jasbir Puar in order to forefront experience as equal to theory. Selecting anti-disciplinary readings when possible refuted the invisibility of LGBTQ concerns by showing how imbricated LGBTQ life was with all methods of study. These readings carefully worked across diverse identities (race, class, gender, and sexuality); a range of experiences (homelessness, cruising, AIDS activisms, and gentrification); and varied periods of time (1890s­-present), and spaces and places such the City of New York itself, a specific bar, and neighborhoods ranging from the gentrified and chic West Village in Manhattan to the predominantly working class neighborhood of color Jackson Heights.

Graduate seminars are often devoted to discussing around 80 to 120 pages of journal articles and academic book chapters per weekly two hour meeting. I cut the number of readings to around 40-60 pages per week split between two to four readings, as the two hours of class still required enough material to support thoughtful conversation. Further, rather than present only the selected works, I wanted students to be able to find readings that interested them. They also repeatedly sent emails and raised points I felt could be best dealt with through access to further materials. I thus selected a total of over 333 further recommended readings which I listed in a Zotero list and on the site. Students were ecstatic each class to see more and more readings appear, eager to access work and ideas about LGBTQ people and spaces that many had only dreamed existed.

Continuing the SITC model to delink learning with assessment, I did not require any assignments. The MOOC model amplified the link between learning and assessment (Stewart 2013b). However, I decided to allow those who wanted such a certificate to reach out to me regarding a final paper topic and ask their own university for credit in exchange. While I did not want to push assessment, I also wanted to leave room for those students who could use credit toward a degree although no students chose to do so.


Social Media and Space

In this section I turn away from the structure of the course and the classroom and focus instead on the social media from the course in order to understand how the course developed as a network of learners. Investigating the role of networks in online education, efforts toward highlighting and supporting isolated individuals have proved successful (Reffay and Chanier 2003), and I hoped creating publicly accessible networks could do the same. The Twitter hashtag #CLAGSqNY allowed for those able and unable to tune in as the class took place/aired to keep the conversation going, and I used Twitter to continue conversations in other courses (N. Wright 2010).[3] I rendered a social network analysis to understand how this space propagated connections rather than exclusion.

giesking1Figure 1. Social Network Analysis of #CLAGSqNY Hashtags on Twitter in May 2013.


In Figure 1, each dot or node is a person or group tweeting. Each line or edge indicates they mentioned or were mentioned by someone else connected to them. A total of 502 tweets were collected using the TAGS Explorer v5 macro (see Hawksey 2013). I then used a Python script to distill handles and mentions in a .csv file of 84 nodes and 151 edges before importing into Gephi, an open source data visualization software for social network analysis (see Cristiano 2013). I activated the functionality to show who were the hubs of conversation that most folks talked through, i.e. betweenness centrality which indicates how often a node appears on shortest paths between a network which indicates level of influence. Those tweeting had three degrees of separation. The colors of the different groups are based on modularity which reveals sub-groups who tended to speak to one another.

The patterns in these tweets point to three major hubs of communication that formed on Twitter, namely @CLAGSNY (Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, in-person in NYC), @jgieseking (me, in NYC), @meganbigelow (Megan Bigelow, in-person in NYC), as well as other nodes in NYC and abroad. We also see four nodes off to their supposed lonesome to the left, yet each of these individuals took part in the in-person course. The few larger nodes tell us that communication on Twitter often took place between a few people. The large number of individuals with only one line to and from another indicate that these individuals only spoke to one person or made an announcement mentioning another person. Those individuals with more than one line show multiple networks developing between, at least, this group of students. While Stewart (2013a) suggests that a massive network is one of the key offerings and outcomes of online pedagogy, QNY shows how marginalized groups forge connections in smaller numbers as well, often without the benefit of funds to support such ventures as is the case of my pay for teaching QNY. I suggest that the communication via Twitter, as well as other formats, and the connection built through discussions of course readings, evidence a production of a public course in a graduate seminar format that helps democratize education.


The Local and the Virtual

Geographic scale (e.g., body, home, local, national, global) is socially produced in the power dynamics, social and political relations, and economic structures by the everyday ways we operate (Smith 1992; Marston 2000). More recently, critical geographer Geraldine Pratt and literary theorist Victoria Rosner (2012) have reimagined scale through a feminist lens to show how scales are permeated with one another. The authors trouble the seeming masculine/feminist binary of global/local by calling for examination of “the global and the intimate” to reveal the ways geographic scales infuse one another in the people’s experience and action (Pratt and Rosner 2013, 1). In their framework, intimate relations are simultaneously global and local, just as the global is experienced in and through the intimate and all the scales in between.

Balancing the global and intimate informed my thinking about how to bring an SITC course to the larger public through the Internet. Namely, how could I bring the local and the virtual in conversation with one another to extend Queer(ing) New York to people beyond New York City? A course on New Yorkers by New Yorkers repeated the exclusion and navel-gazing tendency of large gay cities, and my aim with this course was to amplify difference for greater understanding. Furthermore, while my course focused on New York City and enrolled undergraduate and graduate students from NYC schools, I also wanted to reach many people who may not be in school. Given CLAGS’s limited budget to advertise and the very specific focus of many of the courses, enrollment, defined as a student expressing an interest to take part in the class and attending at least one class meeting, typically ranged from about 5 to 10 students. How could this model be expanded using only my budget of zero dollars and the volunteer labor of the CLAGS staff?

Digital video, social media, and web sites afforded me the chance to bring this course to life in, about, and (technically) out of place. Public enrollment via EventBrite allowed students to register per class for in-person or online enrollment. I had hoped for 25 students in the classroom, as previous Seminar in the City courses had drawn 5 to 10 students. I found myself opening up more and more seats until I eventually locked down the number at 55 in-person enrollees, fretting about whether we even would have enough floor space. Over another 225 people had enrolled from places across the world to tune in online. The CUNY Graduate Center provided free and open livestream capabilities. I designed a website on my own server that included the syllabus, a feed of the #CLAGSqNY hashtag, a link to a course Facebook page, links to readings, the course blog—which invited anyone to comment or join as a blogger—and information about the instructor and sponsors for the course. I also announced the course in LGBTQ academic and activist networks via online listservs.

At the same time, I framed the weekly classes across various scales of the City of New York—neighborhood, bars, streets, and the city itself—to show how the processes and practices of injustice and resistance work across levels. Across scales, these local and virtual spaces afforded students a shared geographical imagination to repeatedly link issues in New York City to the other places they resided in or had visited. About halfway through our first class, students went around the room and pushed each other to rethink the experience of the popular West Village neighborhood through the vantage of different identities (e.g. being black and trans, a little person, overeducated, age 64). Geographies also mattered, as a couple that just moved from Wyoming spoke about their excitement arriving in NYC. Around the room we continued to go for a good fifteen minutes. Finally I stated (per Marie Hicks in her @histoftech account): “The thing we all have in common is difference.” By focusing on what Haver referred to earlier as queer incompletion, the students could allow for difference and specificity to flourish side-by-side. As I repeatedly pointed out to students, even the course title Queer(ing) New York expressed making room for queer practices and identities in the room and online. The title and course structure left room to both be and do queer within a place and about a place.

The commitment to bridging the local and virtual involved a lot of labor that the class took note of and even cheered on. As I did for the heavy labor involved in the POOC, I had collaborators in this labor to make this local and virtual classroom possible. On their own time, CLAGS staff members designed and hung course flyers and pushed out announcements of their course to their mailing lists. I also announced the course on various mailing lists. At least one staff member agreed to be in class at all times in order to live tweet and handle questions from online participants while making sure the live-stream continued to run. The staff also booked the live-streaming and handled room reservations. Without the hard work of CLAGS staffers, the course would have been impossible. I also reached out to a number of CUNY Graduate Center organizations and programs to sponsor the course in order to spread the word further.[4] As I mentioned early on, my own positionality within the university as a Visiting Assistant Research Professor and my long-term relationships within the institution were essential. Very few graduate students are permitted to teach SITC courses, and without my deep knowledge of the technological offerings within the university, the online component would have been impossible. Further, the kind of multi-interest sponsorship grew from my own networks. Turning this power and knowledge into a participatory endeavor and embracing the work collaboratively gave me more energy and increased the recognition of the course throughout campus and beyond.

In the remainder of this section, I share the Google Analytics data on the QNY course site to reflect on who showed up online. Educational scholars Simon Shum and Ruth Crick (2012) made use of identical datasets to study what they refer to as learning analytics, or evidence of who and how people engage with online learning environments. While such data are never wholly accurate and do not fully depict who took the course or watched the videos, the large enough sample provides some insights as to who viewed the site and how geographies were connected through the course. It is invigorating and poignant to see who was taking part, where, and for how long because it is these elements that spoke the most to the participatory nature of the course web site.

As of October 28th, 2013, exactly six months after launching the QNY course website, it had 1,308 unique visitors, and a total of 2,331. This means that 43.9% of those interested in the site came back more than once. Studies have shown that users stay on a webpage for about 10-20 seconds (Nielsen 2011), yet QNY course site users spent about 3:56 per visit, indicating that they perused the site and its materials with uncommon attention.


clagsqny-figure-2-1024x645 Figure 2. Number of Sessions per Country on the QNY website (Google Analytics).


There is a striking reveal provided by the local/virtual binary in the purported location of IP addresses that pinged my server. The countries with the supposed top ten IP addresses (United States, Canada, Germany, UK, Brazil, Sweden, Austrailia, Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey) indicate that the course tended to reach those in more pro-LGBTQ regions, but also crossed boundaries into less welcoming nation-states. Regardless of their exact locations, focusing on a seemingly local place while connecting across the Internet also brought other people to the city and gave them access to it as well (see Figure 2 for a map of the number of sessions per location). More revealing is the data regarding language usage. While just under 93% of all visitors came from browsers set to the English language, other top languages included Portuguese, German, French, Swedish, and Spanish. This language data suggests that the course crossed linguistic boundaries as well as physical ones.


Figure3_GiesekingFigure 3. Percentages of Unique QNY Site Users by State and District of Columbia (Google Analytics). Note that some states did not appear in the Analytics.


Again, while IP addresses can be less than revealing, within the United States a total of 42 states are represented, and the breakdowns were equally interesting (see Figure 3). Given the course’s focus on New York City, it is unsurprising that nearly two-thirds (60.3%) of the users came from IP addresses supposedly in New York State. Given which states ban same-sex marriage as of October 31st, 2013, which I take as an indicator of state attitudes toward gays at the policy and social level, I found that 15.8% of all new visitors were from these states. If we go a step further and remove the State of New York, there is no statistically significant difference between those who viewed from states with (23.9%) or against (15.8%) same-sex marriage laws. From global maps and usage statistics to intimate in-class experiences, QNY asserts itself as a multi-scalar intervention to bring together the seemingly disparate local and virtual.


Discussion & Conclusion: Of Tall Ships and Queering Online Education

In completing this record of QNY, I also record its incompletion. The course is, in many ways, still on-going and remains partial. Not only is the course site still live, but the students continued to organize offline after the final class. In the fall of 2013, two of my students created a course reunion in the form of a queer sailing trip on a tall ship around Manhattan. We told stories of LGBTQ people on waterfronts as the sun sank. Other students put together two parties in their own homes, inviting all of the class members to both. While the Google Group they asked me to create has seen no activity, a number of students mention they are just happy to have it around and know the connection to the ideas and people that made this class possible exists. Many SITC courses include a field trip, whether it be a moment of activism, an academic walking tour, or a performance. In June of 2013, over a dozen students and I gathered to walk from the Christopher Street Piers, through the West Village, into the artist housing at Westbeth, and then on to a long brunch and conversation. The queer, feminist, and critical geographic approach we took in the classroom came to life on our walk as a mishmash of academic ideas, historic anecdotes, and personal memories, and social media and posts to the website about the class’s jaunts kept us connected to our online peers.

As I wrote this paper six months after the QNY seminar’s conclusion, I received an email from one of the students, “N.” I never met N. in person. He emailed once during the seminar to say how much he was enjoying it and again, after the course, out of the blue. He wanted to let me know his Master’s thesis on social design would now draw upon queer theory and LGBTQ studies to examine the role of LGBTQ people in the increasing gentrification of an East Coast city as a result of taking my course. More emails like N.’s have since showed up in my inbox, and they are one example of how queering open education starts ripples of change that help democratize education and refuse the privatization of the public sphere. We do that work by queering the false binaries that prevent from working across difference in many ways.

My effort to teach readings from across disciplines with diverse methods, populations, and arguments afforded entry points to ideas that related to individual lives and pushed those ideas across scales and levels of power. This thinking across scales is evidenced in both the global and intimate stories revealed by data visualizations and in-class notes. Further, Queer(ing) New York in the classroom made way for queering New York in person. By queering binaries of public course/graduate seminar and local/virtual, my pedagogy and scholarship have expanded and been questioned.[5] The CLAGS SITC model spoke to concerns I had about refusing hierarchical norms in education, particularly those reasserted in mainstream MOOCs. At the same time, the SITC framework encouraged drawing upon best practices from different types of teach, including those in the POOC, which allowed for maintaining a queer attachment to uncertainty.

Much of our work together also led to imagining and enacting other worlds, such as queer sailing adventures and walking tours. As educational theorist Maxine Greene writes, “To imagine is to think of things being otherwise” (2009, 30). A telling example of our using our difference—and shared difference and outsiderness at that—to imagine other worlds came when discussing Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign in class. Some found the idea hopeful, but most found the message empty because the suffering and bullying of LGBTQ youth is not responded to but tidied over, i.e. it will get better . . . someday. A response I shared and students retweeted and mentioned often embraced the philosophy of the course: “It gets different, not better.” My students, CLAGS colleagues, and I sought to imagine other ways of connecting and transforming through pedagogy for and about queer people, place, and experience.



I am thankful to my reviewers, and to the editors of this issue who brought this important topic into conversation. I am forever grateful to the staff of CLAGS, Kalle Westerling, Benjamin Gillespee, and Jasmina Sinanovic, and to the CLAGS Director, Jim Wilson. Without you, QNY would have never happened. Working together allowed this course to grow and reach so many, and I remain thankful for your brilliance, support, and kindness. I am also and most thankful to my students. Without you, there is nothing to queer and nothing worth queering.



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[1] No counts are available of the number of views of the course videos via the livestreaming software.

[2] Per the CLAGS.org website, CLAGS is “a platform for intellectual leadership in addressing issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals and other sexual and gender minorities.”

[3] A full archive of the #CLAGSqNY hashtag is available here.

[4] The course was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women and Society, The Center for Place, Culture, & Politics, and the Environmental Psychology Program.

[5] Earlier on in my academic career, I began to create the Gender, Sexuality, and Space Bibliography which I share publicly now via Zotero; many students commented what an exciting resource this was for them and I have continued to expand it as a result.



About the Author

Jen Jack Gieseking is a cultural geographer and environmental psychologist engaged in research on co-productions of space and identity in digital and material environments, with a focus on sexual and gender identities. S/he pays special attention to how such productions support or inhibit social, spatial, and economic justice. Jack is working on her first book, Queer New York: Constellating Lesbians’ and Queer Women’s Geographies of New York City, 1983-2008. Jack is Postdoctoral Fellow in New Media & Data Visualization in the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative at Bowdoin College. S/he is co-editor of  The People, Place, and Space Reader, with William Mangold, Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert. Jack can be found via her website jgieseking.org or Twitter at @jgieseking.


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