Tag Archives: nodes

“Play Ball!” MindMap Reframed


So, I puzzled over how to reconceptualize a mindmap 15 weeks in the making using concepts, rather than components. I reviewed our class syllabus for footholds, pondered my case study foci, watched a little ESPN on a break, checked the Red Sox score, and then (you see this coming, don’t you?)…

Baseball Diamond

Baseball Diamond

It’s beautiful, really — but like the game itself is rough around the edges (just look at the recent ejection of a pitcher for “hiding” pine tar on his neck). But, bear with me, let’s see how this metaphor plays out.

Coming up with the bases for this diamond was fairly simple: Pitcher’s mound = Operationalizing Theory, our course initiator. Whether through blogs or assigned asynchronous activities, it seemed we were all swinging away … at first a fast ball (How it Works, Rhetorical Theory), then a curve ball (Foucault), and even an occasional knuckle ball (Prior, Guattari). Thinking next of First Base = Nodes and Agency. Here is our first task, our first accomplishment, our first move into the field of play. Identifying the lineup, determining who’s on first, what’s on second, and on third? (Abbot & Costello say it best.) Here’s where the analogy gets a little squirrely, however; the deeper we went into the game (some might say into extra innings), the lineup and rotation changes. Suddenly, we’re talking about genre as not just a border but having agency, even distributing knowledge. (It seemed so simple when I started.)

On to Second Base = Connections & Communication. We were often asked in our case studies to address the question “What’s moving in the network? How are nodes situated? Describe the nature and directions of the relationships formed.” Again and again, we reshuffled the roster, trying out new combinations, looking for that “sweet spot” of theory to create a FrankenTheory that captured the complexity of our objects of study (dare I say, a pennant?). One of our final readings this term was concerned with Operating Systems, which — come to think of it — captures agency, nodes, movement, and signals for so many of the theorists and readings we covered. So, take a base.

Third Base = Meaning & Knowledge … nearly home. Our network theories always already involved knowledge. Whether it was in terms of creating or distributing, all of our theorists and practitioners (ourselves included) touched this base. You may notice I repeated a node here — the OS makes another appearance. Those kinship patterns — cultural discourse, ways of knowing, ways of learning — have to be embedded here, as well as back at 2nd base. And, wouldn’t you know it, 1st base as well. That’s the power of an ecological system — there’s material transfer happening all over the place.

At last, Home Plate = Why theory? It’s why we came to the park in the first place. I saw this as both the goal of the course, but a destination too. It’s where I locate myself as a scholar, and a practitioner. And true to any baseball game, it isn’t just the bases that matter. It isn’t even the players. We can’t complete this mindmap without widening the reach of this network to include those fans, the “10th man.” This is where we write our Case Studies, add new theoretical layers, toss out uncooperative ones. This is where we find the ecology of our field, where the game really becomes interesting.

Extra innings? Double header? Maybe next time. Right now, I think it’s time for the 7th inning stretch.



An Ecology of Reading Notes: Castells & Neurobiology, or NeuroEco

I’ll start this week with the readings on neurobiology because of my interests in that field. I’m actually quite fond of making references to mind mapping and neurobiology when looking for metaphors to explain critical thinking or other complex activities (whether for my own use or for my students – pity them). I’m sure this has to do with my life-long interest in the sciences, so it’s only natural I gravitate toward such analogies as black holes, synaptic connections, neural networks, and – of course – the Borg.

The Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation from Memory Alpha.org

The Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation
from Memory Alpha.org

While reviewing these materials, I was struck by the overt parallels with our theories covered thus far in terms of networks and network activities: nodes = neurons, boundaries = cell membranes, and neuron-to-neuron transfer = over gaps. So now that it’s clear that both these filters are permanently seated as my reading lenses, these connections – and their links to some of our theorists and our theme – take on a new level of profundity when linking out to ways my classroom pedagogy (and my Object of Study) can be articulated with the help of this week’s readings / concepts.

In sum, this chapter provides an overview of how the brain’s neurons essentially constitute networks within networks, part of the higher brain function – what the textbook refers to as a systems-level operation. These neurons process and transmit electrical impulses and chemical information as part of knowledge generation, transfer, memory, and a host of physiological functions. The description is vividly reminiscent of the chained activity system described by Spinuzzi, except that these neural pathways seem anything BUT “informal linkages” (Spinuzzi “Networks” 74). The textbook section on Neurobiology parallels many of our recent discussions and, of course, Castells’ preliminary chapters outlining a history of knowledge development (a knowledge economy).  Our brains take in information, process that information, and then create some product our “outputs” (“Introduction”).  With advancing technology such as imaging systems, researchers are able to examine knowledge at the molecular level, observing exactly how “neurons talk” by comparing the process to a “24-hour call center” (reminding me of Activity Theory). (This change of perspective remains that of an observer – something our previous week’s discussion pressures thanks to our attention to the Observer vs. Integrated Participant roles we as humans play within an ecosystem.) The specific nodes in this “talking process” that strike me as most compelling and connection-rich are the concepts of “voltage-gated channels” (buses come to mind), “LTP,” and the system of movement / boundaries / and mediators that is the neuron.


A Synapse, Image from Rediscovering Biology, Chapter 10 “Across the Synapse”

I found several of the key vocabulary terms as defined by the glossary important to both this summary and my OoS theory:

  • Neuron = a cell referred to as a type of “battery” which collects and transfers information. Key to communication in cellular activity. In essence, we might see it as an activity node. Two ends, one for reception, one for delivery/transfer. Neurons “make the connections” (Neurobiology video).
  • Dendrite = found on the neuron’s surfaces, akin to a “tree” structure, these receive chemical/electrical messages
  • Axon = found at the opposing end of the neuron, transmits the processed incoming signal to other neurons
  • Membranes = cell barriers, surfaces
  • Synapses = what connects two neurons in order to exchange information
  • Receptors = receiving the molecular information, on a “post-synaptic neuron,” before transferring on the information.
  • Neurotransmitters = molecules that travel “across the synapse and, by binding to the receptor on the postsynaptic neuron,” key to signal transfer
  • Exocytosis = when neurotransmitters are released
  • Vesicles = described like a “soap bubble,” nodes of transmission for the neurotransmitter. The boundaries or membranes essentially carry the information, serving like a moving truck for the information.
  • LTP or Long Term Potentiation =  key to memory. If a neuron is hyper stimulated, say with increased sensory stimuli like neurons become “more sensitive to stimuli.” It has to do with the pre-synaptic and post-synaptic connections. Rather than a synchronous 1:1 pre- post- activity, increased input or stimulation increases the firing duration. This might happen because more neuro-transmitters are released. Or, the receptor is modified somehow (chemically), increasing the action potential.
  • Neurogenesis = a key to adaptation. Apparently the adult brain holds “in reserve” new / potential neurons, contrary to what was previously believed to be limited to early brain development which ceases at a certain maturation stage. New technologies revealed that the brain isn’t as much like a computer – with limited input / data potential – as once believed. Interestingly, this was discovered by looking at the gaps – examining activity that suggested another force was in play (Foucault’s traces).
  • Voltage-gated channels = either open or closed, “membrane potential of the cell,” by chemicals like neurotransmitters. These occur in the cell membrane of the neuron. Essentially, the charged electronic particles (ions) move according to the gradients of the charge (positive moves toward negatively charged areas and vice versa). These channels might be seen as communication avenues, or conditions with a culture that permits (as Castells might argue) potential energies to move information from the local to the global (xxxv) in a “space of flows” (xxxiii).

The dendrites are in green; the axon is in blue. Taken from http://www.uic.edu/classes/bios/bios100/lectures/nervous.htm.

The textbook chapter’s focus is on neurobiology, and specifically neuron activity and transfer. The video mentions “molecular to global perspectives,” creating a possible node of connectivity with our ecology readings of past weeks, as well as Castells’ discussion of economics. In fact, there is simply so much here that resonates as a potentially powerful metaphor for our exploration of networks, especially those that involve human agency (a link to ANT certainly). The environment of the ecologies discussed last week seem to parallel in many ways with the process of neurogenesis. Changes in the environment (or ecology) affect the nature of the brain circuitry. Behavior and the brain combine, effects moving in both directions. Behavior regulates the response by the brain to the environment, as well as the reverse. Such “two-way” transmission results in transformation, not unlike the systems described by Castells when he explores ways in which “major social changes” – or our environment – are “characterized by a transformation of space and time in human experience” (xxxi), perhaps what might create what he calls a “space of flows” within a networked society (xxxiii).

Castells' The Rise of the Network Society

Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society

Castells’ primary focus appears to be an explanation of what he calls “a new form of society, the network society” which is a culture “based on multimodal communication” (xvii). Rather than providing us another theory, Castells asserts that this is a “structural analysis” (xix) – much like what we read in the Neurobiology Textbook. What is learned? Certainly a host of new terms, but also a means of examining familiar concepts in new ways…concepts such as knowledge, communication, connections, and structures.

Castells’ preface mentions the idea of “mega nodes” (xxxviii), an interesting concept of concentrated power, nodes that serve as switching points in the global network or system of economies. Castells seems to argue that these mega nodes – usually concentrated intersections located at “points of connection in this global architecture of networks” which “attract wealth, power, culture, innovation, and people” – are places of convergence or intersections that are not only geospatial but economic (xxxviii). The function of these mega nodes remind me of a TED video about “filter bubbles” as these mega nodes act as directional potential for those at the farthest reaches of this system, exerting control much like the LTP of the synaptic connections might function. Castells argues that “our societies are…structured around a bipolar opposition between the net and the self,” creating a “structural schizophrenia between function and meaning” (3). His opening chapter (chapter 1) explores the history of technology in terms of a revolution similar to the industrial revolution – what he calls the “information technical revolution” (29). Essentially, information technology is akin to the new energies of the Industrial Revolution” (30). The “pervasiveness” of information technology is woven into everything and “the mind is a direct productive force” in this system, not simply something that “makes decisions in the ‘system’” (31) The computers then become extensions of the mind, and this is where the neurobiology readings intersect, for the neuroscientists now see the computer analogy for our brain’s functioning no longer sufficient – it’s far more complex. Castells’ early chapters also reveal a complexity to which the neurobiology readings create an interesting parallel – or overlay – in the ways that such systems function. Since Castells pointed out early in his book that he was not trying to create a theory, only a structural analysis…even so, it still feels like a theory, given his references to economic/political powers tracing the creation of nodes and driving innovation into the pattern of the system (Chapter 1) and the existence of a “new culture” (xvii).

In fact, it is this local to global framework which pairs so well with the neurobiology textbook reading, especially since Castells is apparently locating his discussion of economies within communication  — specifically an economy based on information. He points to agency nodes, “material foundations of the network society,” that point back to our readings on ecology, and even as far back to Activity Theory and Actor Network Theory. In many ways, Castells’ early chapters illustrate the foundations of a network system that seems to move much like neurons and neurotransmitters do.

It’s all really heady stuff (no pun intended), and its grounding in information being communicated seems to connect in complex ways with the complex neurobiology model we read this week. It may take me a while to process all of this – but there is so much potential applications to studying MOOCs here, I’ll likely need to sift through it to pick and choose.

In the meantime, all this talk of brains and neurochemistry has led me to one of my favorite movie scenes. Perhaps an appropriate reminder of how we must sometimes tread carefully when working with networks and nodes.

Mind Map: Ecologies Part II (March 30th)

Link: http://popplet.com/app/#/1571354

Last week’s activities asked us to apply our network questions to the Ecology readings of Syverson, Spellman, the Cary Institute, and fill in the gaps with Guattari, resulting in new connections for my mind map. And even though Syverson’s was the “applied Franken Theory” example, I really found that article the most compelling (thanks to its connection to Composition, relating back to my OoS). It situated the theory in an already moving, dynamic system with concrete nodes of application and inquiry, reminding me that this is exactly what we’re creating in Popplet.

My take-away from this week’s map has to do with the ways in which definitions shape our application of theory. Granted, that is an obvious observation, but thinking of ecology in terms like agency, networks, and nodes made me realize what a very useful theory it will be when working with my OoS: MOOCs. Even though, as Dr. Julia pointed out, the Academy sees Ecology as a “mushy” science, I believe it is that flexibility that makes it such a dynamic and useful framework with which to examine complex systems — and composition classrooms are certainly complex.  One of our group members in our Google Doc activity last week posed this question: “What is “meaning” in the ecosystem? Is it the interaction among environment, organisms? Is it the tension between these?” This question of meaning must certainly begin with the way we define an ecosystem, and since meaning evolves from perspective, our role and position within that ecosystem — our agency as participants — must become part of our analysis (or so says Guattari).

Our class conversation pointed to a possible reason why I was not entirely comfortable with Latour’s ANT approach, one which Ecology may answer. When we deal with humans and technologies and communications, the variables resist the sort of “flattening” Latour asks us to do. As Dr. Shelley remarked, Latour’s emphasis is on the individual’s trajectory, not the group itself. While this certainly serves a useful purpose in some situations,  in systems within which collaboration and connections are as dynamic as they must be in an “ideal” composition classroom (where the teacher is not the arbiter of perfect knowledge), I’m not always convinced the individual writer is the only player with agency. As the ecological readings point out, it often comes down to how we “scale” what we’re theorizing.

Mind Map Week of March 30th

Mind Map Week of March 30th

So, in my mind map for this week, I “up-scaled” an image to try to show “the big picture.” I made several new connections between our recent readings and some of our previous topics (Foucault as well as the “Where I Write” activity) based on this sense of being part of this emerging ecology of thinking, reading, and theorizing (although I think the Ecology readings could connect to every node in my map in some way). Thus, this is why I included an image (or “snapshot,” as Dr. Shelly called it) of the entire network as one of my Popplet nodes with the subtitle, “Ecologies: What It’s Really All About.” Here is where Guaterri makes a big difference for me — humans / students / teachers are not simply observing the ecosystem. As participants and framers simultaneously, we must see ecology — not from the God’s eye view — but through a lens placed “deep in the weeds,” as part of that ecosystem, with an awareness that as the ecosystem changes we are changed as well. It’s always already in motion.

Case Study 2: AT + GT + MOOCs = Alphabet Soup

Shaffer MOOC crib sheet

Shaffer MOOC crib sheet

Introduction: In my first case study, I examined the Composition MOOC from the lens of structural theory, which provided a foundation upon which to build this second layer of analysis. There are a number of scholarly discussions concerning the technological “space” of MOOCs, including debates of access, politics of labor, and institutional economies. Those will not be the main focus of this case study, however, due to the limits of this project’s scope. Therefore, the second layer of analysis on which this study will focus reveals an area of tension and conflict that seems common to many discussions of Composition MOOCs: pedagogy.

This issue of pedagogy appears central to many debates over MOOCs, and especially for Composition. In her article “A Tale of Two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by Pedagogy,” Debbie Morrison argues that online classroom spaces are “transforming how people learn” and this “is driving the need for a new pedagogy” (emphasis mine). Morrison presents two case studies of MOOCs – one successful and one that was cancelled after only one week — offered by one of the leading platforms for educational MOOCs, Coursera. She asserts that one course failed because of its reliance on a pedagogy that had not adapted its methods to the characteristics that define the web space as a learning space. In particular, she argues that the failed course did so due to its reliance on a “learning model that most of higher education institutions follow – instructors direct the learning, learning is linear and constructed through prescribed course content featuring the instructor,” a method not unlike the way many face-to-face (f2f) Composition courses are conducted. Such methods, she argues, are unsuited for the ways in which the Web “as a platform for open, online, and even massive learning creates a different context for learning – one that requires different pedagogical methods.” If we accept this, then, as Porter suggests, “writing teachers will…have to change their fundamental thinking about teaching composition at the college level” (15). It is this premise that provides a framework for this analysis.

To this end, I have elected to focus on ways Genre Theory and Activity Theory may be used to illuminate, complicate, or obfuscate the field’s discussion of Composition MOOCs in terms of pedagogy, represented by the work of selected scholars integrated directly into the analysis. Morrison explores pedagogy in terms that are at times reminiscent of Genre Theory, but by highlighting the “variables common” to each course’s design (e.g., course platform, start and end dates), clear influences of Activity Theory may be seen as well. The elements of Genre Theory set forth by Bazerman, Miller, and Popham — in particular the concepts of classification, motives, and systems located in action (Miller 75) — productively draw attention to several key boundaries (or tensions). Especially important are assumptions made about learners and learning (what we might call “motives”) that inform teaching pedagogy. The online space and design of MOOC platforms, as well as assessment and delivery practices, may differ significantly from traditional f2f classrooms, depending on the course. If we explore these differences in terms of genre, these boundaries become sites of “contradiction” upon which to focus this analysis (Halasek et al.).

First, not all MOOCs are created equal. Design features and functions vary, so there is a risk in applying theories to this OoS as if the object is static. Decker defines two of the most prominent forms of MOOCs: xMOOC and cMOOC. The cMOOC is “based on distributed learning and connectivism” described as focusing “on knowledge creation and generation” (4). The xMOOC design “leans towards [theories of] Behaviorism and use more conventional instructor-centered delivery methods” such as “automated grading” (4). Fortunately, Composition pedagogy is a rather consistent node among ongoing networks of debate concerning the role of MOOCs in higher education in that our field’s (ideal) methodology seems well suited to the networked, student-centered learning models advanced by proponents of MOOCs. In fact, Dave Cromier (an early MOOC designer and proponent) asserts that knowledge in a MOOC is actually “an ecosystem from which knowledge can emerge,” a description that lends itself to alignment with the NCTE “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” that is key to our current Composition classroom practice and pedagogy (WPA “Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition”).


However, pedagogy itself – whether discussed in terms of practice or ideological moorings – is a complicated and vast expanse with a wide-ranging history of debate. Therefore, the purpose of this study is not to justify or discourage using MOOCs for teaching Composition, but to locate key nodes and borders upon which these theories may play a productive and illuminating role for those who are assessing MOOCs as a space for teaching freshman Composition.

How Theories Define This Study

Activity Theory: Spinuzzi’s articulation of Activity Theory’s characteristics provides a useful starting point to begin outlining key areas in which to analyze Composition MOOCs and pedagogy. Current Composition theorists prioritize collaborative, process-based, and student-centered learning as underlying motives for classroom design.  However, how to best implement such priorities is a subject of much debate within the field. Scholarly publications highlight this range; from WAC, to vertical writing curriculum design, to the role of reading (specifically concerning literature as primary texts for teaching), how such learning takes place can be discussed productively in terms of networks. As such, networks imply the presence of nodes of activity, connectivity, and interactivity. Examining Composition pedagogy in these terms allows us to examine the border between f2f and online MOOC course environments using Activity Theory principles and vocabulary.

Characteristic #1: In his article, “How Are Networks Theorized,” Spinuzzi defines Activity Theory (AT) as “a theory of distributed cognition” that “focuses on issues of labor, learning, and concept formation” (62). Further, this theory continues to evolve, moving “from the study of individuals and focused activities to the study of interrelated sets of activities” (62)  – networks that may include collaborative learning and development, both of which play significant roles in Composition pedagogy and MOOC structural designs. Such concepts and terms create a framework with which to explore how using a network lens provides a means with which to locate this discussion in terms of borders. As Morrison observes, the nature of a MOOC space does not easily align with the nature of an f2f classroom space. While the basic principles of Composition pedagogical theory must ground both in terms of the aforementioned priorities of student learning (as outlined by the NCTE in “Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing”), the nature of the space – the networks that represent the physical, the theoretical, and what AT calls the “dialectical” qualities of that space – create tensions at those boundaries which represent how to implement that learning. Morrison refers to the importance of “connectivism” as a corollary to “social constructivism,” a thread woven into modern pedagogical theory that states “students learn more effectively” when they are actively involved in knowledge construction that includes their own knowledge bases. Porter’s “Framing Questions About MOOCs and Writing Courses” suggests that if we are to critically assess MOOCs as a space where we teach freshman Composition, we must be critically aware of the design of the space, as well as the “toolbox of [instructional] methods” employed (14). He also highlights the importance of recognizing the differing networks of students who enroll in MOOCs as “a broader audience than simply campus-resident students…in relatively small classes…or via 1-on-1 tutorial consultations” (14).

Characteristic #2: Further, such activities require interaction and, according to the dialectical underpinnings that characterize AT, constitute a means of analysis that relies on a “‘science of interconnections’” (Spinuzzi “Networks” 69) to reveal the importance of networks to development or (in the case of pedagogy) learning. Such interactivity, then, leads to change or growth as a result of operating within a system of activity, one which allows for participants to bring “their own internal rules and expectations as well as external relations with other activity systems” into an operationalized framework (Spinuzzi “Networks” 79). This allowance for individual experiences and/or cultures to become a valued part of the learning environment creates an opportunity for “boundary crossing” if we see the role of instructor no longer limited to the teacher of record. Indeed, in some Composition MOOCs, the common pattern of teacher/node-to-student/node of activity relationships is transformed, much like Spinuzzi describes users innovating to make a space better serve users’ needs (Tracing Genres). Analysis such as Spinuzzi’s can affect information design – including pedagogy and activity networks (course designs) of MOOC or f2f class setting. Halasek et al. describe how the initial course design for their second semester FYC sequence as a MOOC was based on traditional f2f pedagogies, or what they called “grand pedagogical narratives” of “a central doxological status” (157). As they began to modify the course, they created new pathways or activity system that transformed the roles students and teachers played as students began to take on increasingly “teacher-ly” roles as peer readers and co-facilitators in Discussion Boards (158-9). This increase in connectivity that takes place in a MOOC are principles that every teacher of a FYW course who prioritizes peer workshop would acknowledge is a key component of classroom pedagogy.

Spinuzzi structure of activity

Spinuzzi, Activity System, p. 71
“How Are Networks Theorized”

Characteristic #3: [Spinuzzi Triangle Diagram Insert} Activity Theory as distributed cognition incorporates mediation as a key concept. Described by Spinuzzi as “tools, rules, and divisions of labor” (71), mediators are used by individuals within an activity system to “transform a particular object with a particular outcome in mind” in a way that is meaningful and connected to a (discourse) community (71-72). Composition MOOCs as networks are often seen through the filter of traditional f2f structural limitations, leading to concerns such as those described by Halasek et al., who assert that reflecting on “the MOOC learning environment” reveals the “ways we understood – and sometimes failed to understand – our roles as teachers of composition and our students’ roles as writers and learners” (156). Again, the example of the Discussion Boards serves as an example of how Activity Theory allows us to productively analyze the MOOC environment. Halasek et al. observe that Discussion Forums are typically conceptualized as nodes in which student participants depend on the “controlled exhanges…shaped and guided by teachers…and oriented toward assignment expectations” (159). In effect, these learning nodes are mediated in specific ways by a limited number of people who occupy academically hierarchical positions with relation to the student-to-teacher activity pathways. In the revised iteration of their MOOC class, Halasek et al. discovered that students “actively occupied” these learning spaces and mediated the activity as well as the flow of content when they “engaged and even tested the faculty team by making their needs explicit and articulating the problems the instructional context posed” (159). Such meta-participation is then makes students the mediators who transform the learning environment through their activity and co-creating of the space.

Characteristic #4: AT involves “chained activity systems,” a concept that may account for the sort of “organizational…boundaries” that create “informal linkages” between activities that could be interpreted as metacognitive nodes where transfer takes place (Spinuzzi “Networks” 74-77). For Composition, such metacognitive transfer has become an increasingly foregrounded concept in discussions of student writing. In MOOC spaces, this feature of AT becomes especially productive as a way to analyze it as a potentially viable mediator of student writing. Porter’s concerns about MOOC spaces appears centered on the nature of the systems in which learning / teaching take place. He argues that the frame of reference used to classify what is a Composition course is one area of tension in our field’s discussions of MOOCs. This feature then becomes a shared focal point or bridge that links to the second theory of analysis.

Genre Theory: Bazerman and Miller effectively lay out the foundational elements of Genre Theory, while Popham provides helpful principles of practical application. In fact, Popham’s concept of border genres effectively frames a means of exposing the instructional “belief systems …that determine the pedagogical methods selected for instruction” in courses, both MOOC and classroom based (Morrison). If we interpret pedagogy as a genre / border, the classroom space – f2f or MOOC – becomes a network of activity within which we might conceptualize and theorize participants (who occupy both learning and instructional roles at various times), assessment practices, media, and even the genre itself as nodes within that network that can become sites of closer analysis. There are several characteristics of genre theory, but for now, I will apply two primary features to this discussion of MOOCs.

Characteristic #1: Bazerman asserts that we must correct the enculturated habit of seeing a genre as just a set of features (322). This contention is reiterated by Porter, Decker, Morrison, Halasek et al., and others who argue that MOOCs cannot simply be treated as a mere duplication of f2f Composition classroom pedagogy. For example, in their article “Digital Genres: A Challenge to Traditional Genre Theory,” Askehave and Neilsen draw heavily from Swales’ seminal work in genre theory to advance the argument that any discussion of digital learning spaces must include an “up-grade[d]…genre model” that incorporates the element of media. Further, they argue that the terms “genre” and “medium” are often conflated, obscuring the importance of “the borders between the two” as distinctive areas of analysis. They assert that such conflation occurs when characteristics of digital spaces push the limits of traditional text-bound frameworks for understanding and studying genre.  This leads to the observation that “media is not only a distribution channel but also a carrier of meaning, determining … social practices [such as] how a text is used, by whom it is used, and for what purpose” (138). Such observations demonstrate the productive potential of applying genre theory to this analysis of Composition MOOCs in terms of revealing key assumptions that drive not only the definition of “genre” but pedagogical ideologies as well. They also raise a question of separation, one which exposes yet another border tension common in discussions of MOOCs in our field: should we teach a Composition MOOC exactly the same way as we teach a f2f Composition class? This is a question that intersects this analysis on points of pedagogy in terms of genre or form as well as activity and agency.

Characteristic #2: Bazerman and Miller add the feature of exigence or motives to their expanded definition of genres. These factors allow us to think of delivery and interpretation (Miller) as ways of discussing participants in networks. When we consider Spinuzzi’s description of activity theory as “the study of interrelated sets of activities” (Tracing Genres 79), the networked nature of a MOOC seems to be a perfect object of examination using this lens to clarify relationships and hierarchies in terms of what Spinuzzi calls “sociotechnical networks” that create spaces for “distributed cognition” (62). Thus, the need to push past a concept of genre that creates a monolithic frame of “the thing” may be transformed and its usefulness for digital spaces expanded when we integrate users’ / participants’ / designers’ motives in terms of  “the role of individuals in using and making meaning” (Bazerman 317). As Miller points out, genres should be seen as a way to accomplish tasks and not simply as a form (151). Therefore, if we see the activity nodes as part of this work, the relationships between nodes in this activity system become an integral part of the pedagogy, and a marker of both pedagogy and MOOCs as potential genres. For a MOOC space, this highlights many of the contradictions or tensions of the boundary created between the f2f genre of composition pedagogy and that employed in effectively designed MOOCs.

Legend, map of Iraq 1970

Legend, map of Iraq 1970

When combined with Activity Theory, highlighting as I believe it will the importance of a networked conception of learning in MOOC spaces, exploring this object of study as a genre may open new possibilities to theorize pedagogies and classroom design. In fact, it is my assertion that this analysis suggests it may become fruitful to see modern Composition pedagogy as a genre that has evolved as our field has evolved, taking on canonical status within our field as theories of practice replace others in terms of dominance. Just as Prior et al.’s argument for “remapping the rhetorical canon” using a variation of activity theory (CHAT) is based on the boundary between print text-mediated ideologies and those informed by the evolution of digital media, our fields’ discussions of MOOC-based Composition pedagogy may require a bit of remapping as well. Genre and Activity Theories may provide the legend (or map key) for this endeavor.

Chris Friend illustrates the usefulness of such an approach in his blog post entitled, “Will MOOCs Work for Writing?” Friend argues that while “[w]e cannot teach all students every intricacy of writing…using a MOOC format, …we can use MOOC strategies to improve our existing in-class teaching efforts.” In a more strongly worded assessment of interpreting the MOOC as part of a genre system, he writes that “MOOCs force a paradigm shift in pedagogy as we consider education in different contexts and at different scales.” His list of “five essential MOOC philosophies that can be applied to face-to-face instruction” echoes Miller’s theory of genres as one that incorporates a social discourse dimension.

However, there is a danger here, one that genre theory illuminates: when we conflate MOOCs with other forms of online education, or see MOOCs as “one size fits all,” we highlight a site of tension common to studies of MOOCs. Friend’s assertion that MOOC practices can actually enhance – but not replace — f2f Composition classroom pedagogy is suggestive of Popham’s theory of boundary genres (283), in which the activity or action locates the site of analysis, typically embodied in an artifact of some sort. Popham’s focus is on forms shared between a medical community network and the insurance / business community network as part of the medical practice ecology. If we interlace elements of activity theory that examine “interrelated sets of activities” (Spinuzzi “Networks” 62), it is also possible the boundary form may become the pedagogy itself. Each boundary suggests a system of networks in play, carrying with them “influence” and “relations” (Popham 280) that stem from the social discourses and expectations described by Miller’s three-level model: pragmatic (action) + syntactic (form) + semantic (substance of the “cultural life”)  (Miller 68). This model highlights the nature of relationships inherent not only between theories but in their analysis as well.

Nodes & Agency: Relationships Defined & Transformed by Theories

Both Activity Theory as defined by Spinuzzi and Bazerman’s System of Genres are particularly helpful frameworks when theorizing Composition MOOCs as networks in terms of the relationship between nodes and agency. In their article, Halasek et al. argue that MOOCs are currently analyzed through two “grand pedagogical narratives” that create a system of “doxological status” informing such analysis. In these forms, the instructor and student occupy defined hierarchial positions, or nodes, with the teacher in the dominant knowledge-delivery role. The pedagogy of a more traditional f2f Composition classroom platform created by this model then serves as the “dominant hierarchical genre form” used to analyze all alternatives (157). Halasek et al. see these as “entrenched narratives” that “rigidly define the respective roles of teacher and student alike, making it difficult to imagine alternative learning dynamics” (157). Given the overlaid network of academic institutional histories, such systematized pedagogy may be read as part of a larger system that may be useful for mapping the “pathways” (Bazerman 99) or networks of learning as well as instructional design in any analysis of MOOCs as an object of study.

Spinuzzi applies Activity Theory in terms of connected activity systems in which mediators – which in this case may be the digital space itself, the technology, or the pedagogical system that functions as a genre – provide the “tools, rules, and division of labor” (71) to create a system suited for “distributed cognition” (69). With respect to Halasek’s argument, Spinuzzi’s characterization of “contradictions” as “engines of change” and transformation (a key component of Activity Theory) becomes a means of considering the impact of designers’ pedagogies as well as the agency afforded users in this learning space.

The most obvious nodes discernible in a network-theorized classroom such as a Composition MOOC are the participants (students, tutors, and instructors), as well as the means of mediating the connections between them: the technology itself. Such articulations of nodes function similarly whether seen through a lens of Activity Theory or Genre Theory. For example, by classifying participants as nodes of activity, pedagogical considerations driven by a student-centered learning environment are revealed to function along lines common to social constructivism, emphasizing collaborative features but also “cognitive orientations” of the pedagogy informing course structure (Morrison). If this “cognitive orientation” mirrors that of a writing course in which the instructor-to-student hierarchy of delivery is dominant, Genre Theory may prove effective as a means of identifying characteristics of that pedagogical style which informs the direction and function of network connectivities. If, on the other hand, the nodes are connected in multiple, non-hierarchical ways — such as the student-to-student group learning or embedded tutor-to-student conferencing described by Halasek — such characteristics reveal a pedagogy at work that may create sufficient differentiation that would require we examine Composition MOOC spaces as a separate genre within a larger system of Composition education. Such framing might lend credence to arguments that these cMOOC designs validate their place in higher education as a manifestation of the possibilities born of extended application of our notions of the student-centered theory of writing pedagogies.

Image from "MOOCs From the Student Perspective" Pepper Lynn Warner

Image from “MOOCs From the Student Perspective” Pepper Lynn Warner

Aside from the human participants engaged in this classroom network system, activities such as, writing, writing assessment, and collaboration can also be explored as nodes as well as sites of movement with the MOOC space. The forms they take are heavily influenced – as is true with any genre – by the dominant classification system at work. The pedagogy, if we accept this as a type of genre, dictates not only the participants or agency at each node but also what tools will mediate this activity. In the case of a Composition MOOC, the platform-as-node influences the means of writing and assessment. However, the pedagogy-as-genre will be reflected in these nodes and the relationships between nodes. For example, in a cMOOC, multiple layers of assessment are made possible by the non-hierarchical nature of the teaching model. Students and embedded tutors may be part of the assessment process, as well as the teacher of record (Decker 7). The dominant role of peer review in a typical f2f Composition classroom is expanded in ways mediated by the open, massive digital space of a MOOC. Such design is mediated further by the pedagogically-driven choices by the class designer – the instructor. However, student input driven by navigational habits may be interpreted as influential agency in determining the network activity and nodal importance.

However, there are tensions which cannot be so easily mitigated by framing MOOCs in this way. Friend’s article demonstrates some of the risks revealed by applying genre theory to discussions of Composition MOOCs, particularly in terms of pedagogies. Friend argues that “we can use MOOC strategies to improve our existing in-class teaching efforts” tends to conflate the two spaces, perhaps running the risk of narrowing this discussion into nostalgic frames. While his suggestions may at first glance legitimize the composition MOOC by validating its pedagogical methods as potential “levers” (Bazerman 79), it also exposes a controversial border space in which both Morrison and Porter situate their arguments. Such “space to space” transference points to the argument made by Glance, Forsey, and Riley that a conflation of these genres creates additional tensions in discussions of pedagogy, or what they refer to as “the potential disruptive nature of MOOCs.” They write, “A difficulty with the analysis of MOOC structure and its pedagogical foundations is the question of how similar a MOOC is to existing online courses offered for distance learning or as an extension of face-to-face delivery of courses as part of a so-called blended delivery. In some ways they are not and so the analysis of MOOCs is inherently not that different from research examining the benefits of online delivery of courses generally.” Therefore, even if we treat pedagogy as part of a genre system, there still remains the question of transfer when it comes to the “massive” environment of MOOCs.

Networks & Distribution of Content:  Meaning In Motion

Askehave and Nielsen assert that the multi-dimensional nature of the WWW promotes the argument that “the medium forms an integral part of the genre and should be” considered as an important part of any analytical model (128-9). Mapping paths within this networked medium used to distribute content or meaning-making (inherent to any discussion of pedagogy) raises the question of how MOOC spaces affect not only the relationships between participants but activities as well. If we accept the premise that everything is moving in the network that is a MOOC – student identities, navigation, student compositions, collaborative energy, instructions, links to materials, assessments and feedback – does the network alter this content or meaning in substantial ways that can be usefully theorized? Some Composition MOOCs, like the one taught at Duke University, crowdsource feedback and assessment to some degree. Bazerman’s observation that we consider systems of activity as a way to “identify a framework which organizes…work, attention, and accomplishment” (319) might be used to consider not only the MOOC as a networked space but also activities such as assessment and collaboration using such features as crowdsource response and Discussion Boards. The “Massive” quality of MOOCs significantly complicates the Composition practices as well as the pedagogy, but if we think how activities might be located at carefully constructed nodes that create parcels of space, a system within a system, would that mitigate this concern? Bazerman explains that a “genre system” focuses “on what people are doing and how texts help people do it, rather than on texts as ends in themselves” (319).  The problem arises when we see a genre (like pedagogy or like the Composition classroom space) as just a collection of features, that “makes it appear that these features of the text are ends in themselves, that every use of a text is measured against an abstract standard of what correctness to the form rather than whether it carries out the work it was designed to do” (Bazerman 323).  In the Composition classroom envisioned by most of our field’s scholarship on pedagogical issues, this work is process- and feedback-dependent. Yet, Activity Theory encourages us to see activities in terms of “modular configuration[s] of work” (Spinuzzi Tracing Genres 75). In a cMOOC, roles of student and instructor (and pedagogy) are transformed due to the nature and demands of the space upon the ways these “nodes” interact.

Digital Humanities Course Page, University of South Carolina

Digital Humanities Course Page, University of South Carolina

Conclusion: Activity and Genre Theories are productive lenses through which to examine the ways we might explore Composition MOOCs as pedagogically informed spaces. What these two theories do not allow me to explore is the very real impact played by technology itself in terms of exerting agency, mediating behaviors, and user navigation (whether in the formalized role of student or teacher) in the same way that Actor Network Theory might have allowed. However, seeing the technology as a mediating tool may fit more cleanly into discussions of pedagogy, providing a familiar node from which the conversation can proceed and evolve. Technology does play a role in transforming the way we read, the way we think, and the way we teach – the question becomes one of degree. Activity Theory foregrounds the movement, the relationships, and the connectivity of a network, perhaps neglecting the power of those elements that make activity possible – things like space itself.

What these two theories do allow me to explore is the motivation that shapes the choices a learner or a teacher makes in terms of transmission (knowledge, assessment, identity). Both lend themselves powerfully to pragmatic applications of pedagogy. If we accept Miller’s observation that genres must be “grounded in the conventions of discourse” (67), then in the case of a Composition MOOC, we must consider another system may be at work, another type of discourse that is native to online spaces. Miller asserts that genres change as cultures change, leading us to treat genres as “cultural artifact[s]” (69). Along these lines, can we approach pedagogy as a genre as well – and thereby as “cultural artifact” (Miller 69) – wherein our theories of Composition pedagogy become the determining forms of practice, static no matter what the space? When defined as “reproducible,” a genre should certainly carry over from space to space; and perhaps some features of Composition pedagogy do (for example, collaborative networking, activity- and student-centered classroom practices). Yet a MOOC is not the sort of f2f classroom envisioned by our field’s discourse community by any stretch of the imagination, which raises the question of whether a different genre of pedagogy is required when analyzing this Object of Study. Should we, like Prior et al. suggest, “remap the canon” of Composition pedagogy to account for the “contradictions” (Spinuzzi, “How” 72) created by that space? Should we treat pedagogy as exigence because it must be more than “form or event” and be seen as “social action” (Miller 164)? Such questions may remain unanswered until our field can avoid conflating many of the nodes of this discussion – what Porter refers to as “a dangerous elision” (16) – which are used to define or frame the nature of a MOOC as a space for learning. Some argue it is a platform of materials, “an object to be bought and sold as if it were a textbook” (Porter 17). Others argue that all MOOCs are defined as if all share a common delivery focus, yet as Porter observes, there are significant differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCS which can be described in terms of motivation and nodes of interactivity (Activity Theory) or in terms of applying a universalized “formalist frame” (Genre Theory) to generate a framework for analysis (25). For all of these reasons, it is clear that these pedagogical / conceptual borders and related tensions are far from being resolved.  Popham’s concept of boundary forms may offer a fruitful next step forward in this discussion. By treating cMOOCs as a genre whose boundaries often create sites of contention in discussions of Composition pedagogy, Popham’s strategies for “crossing boundaries” begins with locating “recognizable commonality of certain elements” like form (284). It may be that applying these two theories fulfill Popham’s recommended triplet of Translation, Reflection, and Distillation (284) to create a useful bridge over which we may navigate such boundaries in future discussions of the place of MOOCs in Composition. Theoretical lenses such as Genre and Activity Theories offer valuable framing devices with which to move such discussions forward — a necessary direction given the suggestion that MOOCs may not be a “fad” that we can easily dismiss.

Works Cited

Askehave, Inger and Anne Ellerup Nielsen. “Digital Genres: A Challenge to Traditional Genre Theory.” Information Technology & People 18.2 (2005): 120-141. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

Bazerman, Charles. “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People.”  What Writing Does and How It Does It. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. 309-339.

Cormier, Dave. “Knowledge in a MOOC.” YouTube Video, 2010.

Decker, Glenna L. “MOOCology 1.0.” Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses. Eds. Steven D. Krause and Charles Lowe. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014.

Friend, Chris. “Will MOOCs Work for Writing?” Hybrid Pedagogy.  28 Mar. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

Glance, David George, Martin Forsey, and Myles Riley. “The Pedagogical Foundations of Massive Open Online Courses.” First Monday 18.5. 6 May 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Halasek, Kay, Ben McCorkle, Cynthia L. Selfe, Scott Lloyd DeWitt, Susan Delagrange, Jennifer Michaels, and Kaitlin Clinnin. “A MOOC With A View: How MOOCs Encourage Us to Reexamine Pedagogical Doxa.” Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses. Eds. Steven D. Krause and Charles Lowe. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014.

Levine, Alan. “A MOOC or Not a MOOC: ds106 Questions the Form.” Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses. Eds. Steven D. Krause and Charles Lowe. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014.

Miller, Carolyn. “Genre As Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167.

Morrison, Debbie. “A Tale of Two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by Pedagogy.” Online Learning Insights: A Blog about Open and Online Education. 4 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2014. <http://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2013/03/4/a-tale-of-two-moocs-coursera-divided-by-pedagogy>

Popham, Susan.Forms as Boundary Genres in Medicine, Science, and Business.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 19 (2005): 279.

Porter, James. “Framing Questions About MOOCs and Writing Courses.” Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses. Eds. Steven D. Krause and Charles Lowe. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014.

Prior, Paul, Janine Solberg, Patrick Berry, Hannah Bellwoar, Bill Chewning, Karen J. Lunsford, Liz Rohan, Kevin Roozen, Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau, Jody Shipka, Derek Van Ittersum, and Joyce Walker. Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Spinuzzi, Clay. “How Are Networks Theorized?” Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. NY: Cambridge UP, 2008. 62-95.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

CHAT Reading Notes: Feb. 18th

 “Given the collaborative and integrated nature of this week’s assigned readings, I’m opting to treat them all in one post.”

The addition this week of the Kairos publication on canon reform, Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity, extended many of the frameworks I’ve been applying thus far to our class conversations as well as my OoS. (Even more, as it pertains to teaching composition.) Coming on the heels of an operationalized theory (Spinuzzi), the authors and researchers involved with the creation of this collaborative work — itself the very epitome of a network — evoked a strong link to the Rhetorical Situation theorists we began with (Bitzer, Vatz, Biesecker). However, I think I imagined Foucault’s most throughout these readings. This seemed especially pronounced in the introductory section as the authors argued that “classical canons have always represented only a partial map of rhetorical activity” (Prior et al., “Introduction”). Even in the construction of this node-based composition, Foucault “speaks” to me. After all, this text resists in multiple ways the homogeneity of linearities that Foucault argued were germane to a book-based literacy and culture (with which Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola concur).

As I annotated the text, I remarked how appropriate it seemed that the “Mapping Page” – or the “Start Here” node – serves as the main navigation hub, yet the nature of the web text allows the reader to enter at many other points, driven not by a directed funneling of cultural convention or theoretical bias, but by reader-centered agency. Even so… it also occurred to me that the authors may have also purposely built in familiar rhetorical structures in their decision to place each node / design the overall structural image of the page, possibly creating some of the latent system (a “back door,” of sorts) to the type of navigation system assumptions we text- / book-based readers / scholars might operate under. For example, the introductory text is located in the upper left corner of the web page, which for Western readers signals the “starting point.” This despite the rhetorical choice of situating the “core text” (made especially visually relevant by it’s stand-out choice of red as the color, along with it’s circular shape differentiating it from the rest of the articles (all square).

Map Overlay: ESRI, 2008; Geoscience Australia, 2008

Map Overlay: ESRI, 2008; Geoscience Australia, 2008

Perhaps, just as it seems Shipka and Chewning were doing in their visual construction of their research text and Prior et al. suggest by offering multiple versions of the “Core Text,” these authors are creating a “mapping overlay” for us, using both the canon of rhetorical tradition as well as their remapped and reconceptualized view of rhetorical activity. While I do not believe they intend to suggest a 1:1 trade, the layout does seem that the same logic is at work, the same understanding (Foucault’s rules) of how knowledge sharing works for readers. In other words, I wondered if this is a means of foregrounding the multimodal levels of this network of ideas in a way that makes the invisible structures — whether the gaps or the traces –- (Foucault) more visible? Reviewing my Foucault notes, I discovered a statement that captures my sense of these two rhetorical activity theories existing within the same plane. Foucault is writing of objects, but might we see the concept of rhetorical canon / rhetorical activity an object of analysis as well? Of course, this is precisely what Prior et al. seem to be doing in their proof of concept. Foucault writes that “[b]y deriving in this way the contradiction between two theses from a certain domain of objects, from its delimitations and divisions, one does not discover a point of conciliation…. One defines the locus in which it takes place; it reveals the place where the two branches of the alternative join; it localizes the divergence and the place where the two discourses are juxtaposed” (152). At the same time, I imagine Foucault would see the traditional rhetorical canon as every bit a “traditional history of ideas” (166), a force of sorts that hides or resists the types of “discontinuities, ruptures, gaps, [and] entirely new forms” (167) which Prior et al. propose as necessary to the transformative effects of technology and multimodalities. Through this juxtaposition of theories, the Prior et al. collaborative text (could we even refer to this as an “event”?) seems familiar as a “redistributions” (Foucault 5) of the familiar nodes of rhetorical activity.

The authors’ definition of CHAT is based on activity theory, so it is no surprise (but a delightful discovery) that the “Core Text” offers not one but three activities of reading and knowledge making by presenting what at first glance seems to be the same text delivered through three forms: PDF, Audio, and HTML. I took the time to review all three forms, and found that the Audio version provides the “motives” (Miller 152; Bazerman 309) behind the rhetorical activity, narrating as he does the “traces” of the creative context that are lost in the PDF and HTML versions: his daughter crying, music, sounds of nature outside.

"You Are Here"

“You Are Here”

Place, then, becomes part of the discourse – a reference to the book Cognition in the Wilda very relevant concept to analyzing multimodal and networked spaces of work and creativity. His design magnifies his point about the limits of the traditional canonical elements of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery, and addresses his question, “What mediations, what kinds of detours, might delivery of a text involve?” (Prior, “Core Text: PDF” 6). This approach offers us what I might call a more “open” means of applying a sense of reading and/or texts as engaged with a system of networks, a map which demands we consider a complete “remap the territory” (Prior, “Core Text: PDF” 17) that we call rhetorical activity instead of a “retrofit,” in large part due to the binary framing pattern of speaker / audience on which the original canon was built. Given the complications and multiple possibilities for identifying just the act of “reading,” what Prior refers to as “lamination” (“multiple frames or fields co-exist[ing] in any situated act”), such thinking carries considerable weight for our work with networks.

Prior’s “Remaking IO” builds out from here, providing a case study in which such a remapped canon might apply to multimedia tests. However, I did wonder once again: are we still relying on the basic “genetic” elements of a traditional canon – the way we refer to language, text, author, reader, reception all seems to suggest that there is a multi-dimensionality here which may still rely on much of the same knowledge base. I was reminded of the 3-D chess set in Star Trek. The pieces in this 3-D game are the same, as is the goal, but the board has changed and therefore requires us to re-see the connections and possibilities from a very different sense of motion (potential energy of nodes once again – activity theory). With the new “board,” some new moves are now accommodated, and the flow of activity has been altered – or has it merely been expanded? This is the image I think of when I read Prior’s explanation of remapping and lamination.

Moving on to Van Ittersum’s Data Palace, dealing with another canonical element – memory – provides a pivotal tool for applying this concept. Van Ittersum writes that one goal of CHAT is to “direct our attention” to new nodes of activity, expanding our approach to rhetorical activity to incorporate systems terms – the role of the culture (the laminated layer offered by cultural-historical theory) AND the individual (the rhetorical canon’s binary core). Van Ittersum’s work points to an experiment that may impact the way I explore MOOCs in terms of seeing this a system of transfer and navigation, along with tools of memory (like using digital tools to maintain our note-taking records, for example), to see online activity as the means to “mobiliz[e] information within complex systems of tools, environments, situations, and people” – which in every way describes online classroom spaces like MOOCs.

Karen Lunsford’s work on “Remediating Science” in terms of socialization was a fascinating look at the “other” directional flow of this networked means of understanding rhetorical activity, one that rests heavily on cultural-historical theories of genres, I think, when that genre is both the text as well as the delivery / medium. Lunsford demonstrates that while conventions and rules (Foucault, Bitzer, Vatz, Biesecker, etc.) may inform the discourse community’s knowledge framework (i.e., what should a journal article look like), the digital system of publication itself “informs, shapes, and itself evolves thanks to the need to remediate a standard means of discursive practice – sharing of knowledge, a publication” when that publication moves to a digital space (Lunsford). She refers to the negotiations among those involved as an attempt at “alignment” of all the activity taking place (or being forced forward) between nodes – the researchers, journal editors, discourse community members, peer reviewers, publishers. CHAT, then, successfully “direct[s] attention” to ways in which the rhetorical activity of a science journal editor “is situated in concrete interactions” (Prior et al., “What is CHAT?”), framing the ways these nodes function and interact to “co-construct” this culture’s “material, formal, and social practices” (Lunsford).

Finally, as I pointed out in my MindMap blog commentary for this week, the project of Jody Shipka/ Bill Chewning in “Live Composition” modeled for me what Prior et al. refer to as “images of rhetorical activity” (“Introduction”).  The purpose of this article seemed to be to demonstrate how applying views made possible by varying network activities (audio narration, text-mediated narration, image-mediated narration), as well as moves to “recontextualize” the event (the act of narrating) and the composition activity at the center of the analysis, cause us to “pay attention” to the nodes of production as well as the text being produced (the artifact). The synchronization of each of these nodes creates yet another distinctive “remediation” of the narrative event, demonstrating and making visible (Foucault) the complexity of this human activity in ways that a traditional process model might not capture in such a degree.

The article is multifaceted, and at times seems to be approaching the text from multiple entry points. The introduction sets the stage to begin “rais[ing] questions about whom and how many people are recognized as active participants in the production of a process narrative” (Shipka and Chewning). Each iteration privileges different information and lenses, whether the student voice, the teacher’s curricular designs, the researcher, or the reader’s response / interaction.  Further, just as the CHAT lens is designed to do, the authors point to “the importance of attending to what participates in the production and reception” of this narrative. Their attention to the types of “mediations …[and] kinds of detours” that might be produced through these means are also under scrutiny (Shipka and Chewning).

At the forefront of my mind as I was navigating (not “reading”) this text, I found myself recalling the importance of Foucault’s attention to the “here/not here” of trace as part of conceptualizing discourse and history. In addition, I was reminded of Spinuzzi’s comments on disruption/innovation via “resistance…and chaos” (20) –- both in the way the authors describe their motivation behind the classroom activity at the center of this piece, as well as in the very design of the delivery.

Such disruptions were also part of my experience as a reader of Shipka and Chewning’s rhetorical activities in the form of their article’s design and flow. For “Telling 4,” I found myself at an impass when the .wmv file refused to play on my Mac. So in order to “participate” in the telling, I had to circumvent this software issue. Perhaps this was an intentional move on the authors’ part, to select a non-universal media player, as a way to suggest (draw our attention to) the barriers, borders, or limitations of the network’s reach? Or perhaps this was simply a glitch, with no rhetorical meaning intended at all. Yet, because we are using the CHAT theory to explore the canon as an activity, rather than static nodes or rule systems, such an event or deviation certainly must become part of the analysis – a continued lamination of parts (Prior, “CHAT”) in this complex human activity of discourse and discourse analysis.

Reading Bibliography:

Lunsford, Karen J.  Karen J. Lunsford: Remediating Science: A Case Study of Socialization. In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Prior, Paul. “Remaking IO, remaking rhetoric: Semiotic remediation as situated rhetorical practice.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Prior, Prior, Janine Solberg, Patrick Berry, Hannah Bellwoar, Bill Chewning, Karen J. Lunsford, Liz Rohan, Kevin Roozen, Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau, Jody Shipka, Derek Van Ittersum, and Joyce Walker. Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

“Introduction + Navigation”

“What is CHAT?”

“Core Text”

Shipka, Jody and Bill Chewning.Live Composition: Four Variations of a Telling.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Van Ittersum, Derek. “Data-Palace: Modern Memory Work In Digital Environments.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.


Case Study #1: MOOCs and Theory

The Power of Analogy: MOOCs and Hardware Theory (How Stuff Works)

The Value of the Lens

The value of what we might call “hardware theory” (for this project, this reference is to the collected “How Stuff Works” readings) is both practical as well as theoretical when used as a lens through which to analyze my object of study: a Composition MOOC. In fact, it appears to be a nearly flawless fit, given the overlapping functionality of the vocabulary used to define MOOCs in this instructional video:

“What Is A Mooc?” EdTechReview:

Further, the theory provides concepts that are key to understanding not only the hardware but also the relationships between hardware and software when used to make and exploit connections.  These very same concepts often mirror the issues, practices, and structural considerations of an online composition classroom space like a MOOC.

As the image below suggests, a MOOC is not yet a widely accepted educational space or practice. In fact, the tensions and reservations frequently expressed by

day of the MOOC gif

Creative Commons image; author M. Branson Smith

those in higher education toward online learning in general (but especially for freshman writing courses) seem to be based most commonly in pedagogical theories (Kolowich). For example, Jones and Singer, in an article to be presented at the 2014 CCCC, make the observation that these tensions exhibited toward educational MOOCs are not just manifestations of “techno-phobia,” but “a conflation of the … model with the whole of the MOOC movement” (1). In other words, the individual writing classroom application is interrogated in the context of a larger trend. While framing the subject in this way seems to drive many of the discussions in our field, and often incorporates a discussion of access-as connectivity, a narrow focus on pedagogical theory may not closely examine network paths as physical / mechanical components that allow such connectivity to take place.  Therefore, it may be productive if we first examine this structurally to reemphasize how a MOOC’s networked structure may actually reinforce some of the Compositionist’s pedagogical outcomes (i.e., WPA and NCTE frameworks) as Glance, Forsey, and Riley explore in their article.

The Network as Infrastructure / Space 

A MOOC, as the above video describes, is “learning in a networked world” (Cormier), but is in some very basic ways very much like off-line courses in that it involves students, assignments and materials, a facilitator, activities that promote knowledge or data generation, assessment, and an infrastructure or space where this learning and communication take place. Applying a network / hardware lens in order to define this object of study builds upon these pre-existing instructional design systems, frequently using language that carries over from the face-to-face composition classroom (assignments, essays, peer review, due dates, writing process, etc.). Yet, as Cormier states, “a MOOC is not a school; it’s not just an online course. It’s a way to connect and collaborate while developing digital skills.” Interestingly, a MOOC is described not simply in terms of knowledge or skill dissemination; it is described in more dialogic, distributed agency terms. Cormier even describes it as “an event around which people who care about a topic can get together and work and talk about it in a structured way.” Therefore, an additional means of analyzing this educational space is needed, in order to account for the digitally-mediated spaces of access and the means by and degrees to which the technology itself informs and defines this as an object of study.

Another relation to network is also the most obvious: the medium. While initially the term might be read as a reference to the digital nature of the course, the medium might also be explored as a node of communication. For example, Pappano writes that “the lecture” – however brief — is still the most commonly used delivery / pedagogical tool with which to share knowledge. MOOCs frequently deliver course content via short instructor videos, but also may rely on discussion threads (a common feature of Blackboard) or blogs to facilitate connectivity or activities assigned. The home page of Georgia Institute of Technology’s composition MOOC explains that its platform is comprised of a series of instructor-generated videos, along with “recorded ‘Hangout” discussion sessions. These are “complemented by” other, unspecified multimodal materials for assessment and activity.

Nodes & Buses highway

Borrowing terms from articles found on the site “How Stuff Works” offers a beginning, but there are publications that highlight the usefulness of this analytical approach. For example, Jeffrey Young refers to the means by which the classroom becomes a node of dispersion and connectivity as a “platform,” a term that connotes a physical launching or foundational place upon which the classroom emerges. However, his article refers to a software component (Blackboard) much the same way others might refer to a physical classroom or institution. Thus, this hardware/software “node” of the online learning network structure opens new possibilities of discussion in terms of theorizing digital spaces, from platforms like Blackboard to Facebook, Google Hangout, or online tutoring (Fredette 32).

By incorporating the analogies afforded by such articles as “How PCI Works,” the concept of a bus — defined as “ a channel or path between the components in a computer” (Tyson and Grabianowski) – may serve in some situations as a synonym for a network node, a focal point of transference and intersection. If, as the article states, we understand a bus as a means of connecting all of the vital components of a computer to the primary hub – the central processor – it is possible to extend this powerful analogy to the way an online classroom functions. In the case of a MOOC, this is especially advantageous as the concept of a “serial PCI” may be used to discuss both agency of participants as well as the relationships between nodes. The “serial bus is a one-lane road” (thanks to Leslie Valley’s research into buses for the video), while a parallel bus allows more traffic, in multiple directions. This analogy suggests a means of thinking of the multiple network paths made possible by a MOOC classroom design. Whereas a f2f writing classroom often involves one node of facilitation or direction (the instructor herself), typically in the direction from instructor to student (although in a very effective student-centered design, student-to-student learning also takes place), a composition MOOC may be designed to allow multiple avenues. For example, in the MOOC at Georgia Institute of Technology, the instructor as well as learning center tutors participate in the instruction; conceivably the student-designed multimodal assignments also contribute to the learner-centered knowledge exchange. By thinking of this system of exchange in this way, issues with labor, technology divides, and other areas of tension frequently associated with online learning may be discussed in terms of structural terms.

The structural nature of a network itself provides new ways to interrogate and explore a MOOC as an educational space. Thinking of such a system in terms like routers or switches or modems allows us to focus on the subject of information transfer, which raises the subject of agency. As instructors – whose packets of information may be disseminated through texts or eBooks as well as discussions, videos, web activities, etc. – we must examine how such information delivered from a distance might be transformed by the path and mechanisms of transference. For example, a successful MOOC experience demands that the technology – like a router —  “handles the traffic to and from other networks” or nodes in a way that maintains the integrity of the material. But we might also think of the boundaries (which may be how we might see routers) MOOC students must face. What if a student experiences access issues due to technology? Further, routers serve as gatekeepers of information, moving, redirecting, or even halting information between networks. Such a concept resonates strongly among Compositionists, as student access and agency have become bywords for our field over the past several decades. Moreover, using such hardware terms allows us to consider the identity assignment function of a router when discussing issues of digital identity and persona when planning for a Composition MOOC.

In summary, some of the most compelling ideas prompted by this theory when examining my object of study has to do with connectivity, another article found at the “How Stuff Works” resource. In the FYC classroom – whether f2f or online or in a MOOC – the collaborative nature of the course design is an essential element. It is likely safe to state that Compositionists reject the idea of an FYC classroom that follows the Banking Theory model (Friere) that was so prominent in our field’s past. This hardware theory provides powerful, analogous language and imagery with which to explore what is still an emerging topic of study: the MOOC.



Clark, Donald. “MOOC Platforms: A Primer – Biggies, Newbies & Freeboters.” Donald Clark Plan B. 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Franklin, Curt. “How Cable Modems Work.”   20 September 2000.  HowStuffWorks.com. Web. 10 February 2014.

Fredette, Michelle. “How To Convert a Classroom Course into a MOOC.” Campus Technology. 27 – 30. 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.

Glance, David George, Martin Forsey, and Myles Riley. “The Pedagogical Foundations of Massive Open Online Courses.” First Monday 18.5. 6 May 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Google Course-Builder.  https://code.google.com/p/course-builder/

Head, Karen. “First-Year Composition 2.0.” Georgia Institute of Technology. Coursera.org.

Jones, Sherry and Daniel Singer. CCCC 2014 – “Composition on a New Scale: Game Studies and Massive Open Online Composition.”  Forthcoming Presentation, Conference on College Composition and Communication. Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.

Kolowich, Steve. “Why Some Colleges Are Saying No to MOOC Deals, at Least for Now.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

McGuire, Robert. “Building A Sense of Community in MOOCs.” Campus Technology. 31-33. 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.

Pappano, Laura. “The Year of the MOOC.” The New York Times. 2 Nov. 2012. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Tastic, Raz. “The Computer Bus.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6Rw2Q7KPIE

Tyson, Jeff, and Ed Grabianowski.  “How PCI Works.”  2 May 2001.  HowStuffWorks.com. 10 February 2014.

White, Joshua. “The Ultimate Student Guide to Navigating the Writing MOOC.”  MOOC News & Reviews. 26 June 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.

Young, Jeffrey R. “Blackboard Announces New MOOC Platform.” Wired Campus. 10 July 2013. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.


HTW Activity Response 2: Daniel’s Social Network Nodes

I may be an oddity, because I only use one social networking site: Facebook. I have a Twitter account, but never use it. I know Google Hangout exists, but I haven’t used it either. So, I thought I’d subdivide the ways I use FB through some of its built-in naming or organizational tools that are designed to create network nodes: family, friends (with some overlap through work), and membership in groups. I completed this activity shortly after completing Leslie’s activity on Buses, and so when I began to draw connecting lines between groups, I began to think of how a single line can represent a means of transferring data … which I think this illustration implies. What this image could have included as well are unseen / untracked dispersion patterns. Facebook allows sharing, which often leads to data moving iSocial Network_ HTW Activity (Daniel)n unexpected, sometimes unintended ways. For example, I see a lot of interesting material posted on my ODU groups, which I then Share with either Friends or Work acquaintances because I see relevant applications / appreciations there. So does that mean I serve as a sort of CPU, or is that the Facebook space? And these connecting lines I’ve drawn — I’ve represented them as “serial buses,” but would it have been more accurate to represent them as “parallel buses”?

Interesting cross references here!

First Connections: From Readings to Mind Maps

This initial attempt to make visual connections — a digital/visual synthesis — of our materials this term first proved daunting. Although, I must admit, over time I have become more of a visual learner/thinker than I ever thought possible. For a time, I was all about the text, the linearity. However, perhaps because of my experiences with digital media and freshman composition, the broader canvas offered by visual media seemed to allow me more freedoms. On a meta level, this network as a framing device is allowing me to “ping” on connections in ways I might have taken longer to make. I must say, this is an exciting way to begin. I fear, however, that without Popplet, my walls would be covered in sticky notes before too many weeks would pass!

My choices reflect the primary readings from week one, which — in my mind — established a useful groundwork of terms and concepts with which to frame my thinking. Combined with Foucault’s approach to discourse by examining the networks and “negative spaces,” the discussion of ‘rhetorical situation’ by Vatz, Bitzer, and Biesecker — for me, anyway — helped to ground the more philosophical Foucault into the realm of the practical, into potential application. My assigned “How It Works” readings on WiFi / Mobile fit neatly into this emerging web of connections because they all focused on the characteristics or qualities of the objects — the technological media that facilitates the connections. For me, this layering of materials suggests a need for a 3-D rendering, which isn’t possible with Popplet as far as I can tell. But it would be an interesting project.

ENGL894 Knowledge Mindmap

Initial Connections: Creating the Network Nodes