Complex Social Situation

I had a very productive meeting with my thesis committee yesterday. They had read my latest draft of chapter four and made some very helpful suggestions. Here is why I need suggestions at this point:

  • The sheer amount of data that I'm working with is overwhelming.
  • The way I organized the chapter is not very effective.
  • There are some truly important aspects of the research that deserve to be more prominently discussed.

I have been struggling with this chapter for months mostly because I find it very difficult to exclude data and narrow the chapter down to a more manageable size. The reason why it's so difficult is because I was involved in my study as a teacher-researcher, as both a researcher and a participant. As a result, I find myself emotionally attached to a lot of work that my students wrote during the course of the study. Being selective is therefore very difficult.

One of the things that my thesis committee observed about the chapter is that it focuses on three different aspects of the study: writing, reading, and community-building. These three strands, they suggested, need to be more prominently highlighted in the chapter. Together, we decided that I should address each one of these strands separately.

So, this morning, I sat down and, using three different markers, highlighted chunks of the chapter that relate to writing, reading, and community-building. It quickly became clear that an online blogosphere that I created with my students for the purposes of my study is a place where writing and reading are closely intertwined. In fact, the study shows that reading leads to better writing (more expressive, narrative, and personal) and, gradually, to an increasing sense of belonging and community. My students created their own networks by interacting with their peers, by reading and commenting on their work. The ones who benefited most from being part of the class blogosphere were the ones whose posts were based on reading - on specific texts (online articles, own research, other blogs, other comments).

Of course, I knew about this before I sat down this morning to try to re-organize my chapter. But it was the experience of having to separate writing and reading that really made me understand how closely related the two strands are. When we think of blogging, we think primarily of writing. That's why I am sure that there are now many classrooms all over the world where student blogs are reduced to mere writing journals.

While our online environment was based (seemingly) on writing, its development as a community depended to a large extent on reading. The community began to develop only when the students (and I) started to read and thoughtfully comment on each other's work or other texts that they had read.

So, how do I present this in a coherent, linear fashion that is expected from a doctoral thesis? I am tempted to suggest a kind of trajectory which shows that community-building was based on text-based interactions or - to use a simpler term - conversations. The best writers were not those who practiced their craft in solitude but those who engaged with their peers and other texts in the class blogosphere and beyond. This kind of informal learning, a series of ever-expanding informal interactions, was at the centre of their activity in my classroom and led to the development of solid writing skills. Their writing became connective because it was based upon thoughtful and critical interactions with texts. The students became what David Warlick recently referred to as "amplifiers" of each other's ideas. Their interactions with and about each other's work added value to individual contributions and blogs.

All writing was therefore dialogical in the sense that it emerged from a multitude of texts, a choir of voices. As Bakhtin claims, "No utterance in general can be attributed to the speaker exclusively." Every blog entry, every text, was "the product of the whole complex social situation in which it has occurred" (qtd. in Todorov, 1984, 30). Most of the examples of great writing within the blogosphere resulted from interactions with other texts and other bloggers. Conversations fueled writing, and writing, in turn, fueled more conversations until all entries became intertextual and, as Bakhtin claims, there was "nothing individual in what the individual expresses" (qtd. in Todorov, 1984, 43). In other words, blogs, as Jeff Utecht explains, are not really about writing. They're about conversations: "the power of blogs is not in the writing, it is in the thoughts, the comments, and the conversation that they can start, sustain, and take into a million different directions." (I've written about this before: here and here).

How do I discuss writing, reading, and community-building as three separate strands? For the sake of clarity and organization, I need to address them separately. I want to. The chapter needs to coherently and succinctly convey what occurred in the class blogosphere. The challenge, of course, is that I am attempting to discuss and analyze in a linear fashion the kind of environment and process that does not lend itself to a linear view. Our class blogosphere, like any online environment, was a many-dimensional sphere of connections and correspondences. Presenting this "complex social situation" on paper as if it were a simple timeline is challenging to say the least.

_______________________ Notes:

Todorov, T., (1984). Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.