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Civic Action in the Cyberpublic: Critical-Rational Debate in Web 2.0

The Project: Although college students have many opportunities to use technology in the classroom, from course management software like WebCT with multiple discussion forums to course blogs, or even collaborative authoring software, they are less often asked to write for the web itself. Their work written for class may be published on the web (in e-zines or other formats), they may contribute to class hypertexts, or even take courses in multimedia and web authoring, but in all theses instances, student writing for the web is typically limited to their own texts and authorship is still seen to be primarily about the writer circulating their voice to others.

This project (and the course of which it was a part) grew out of an interest in the web’s potential as an interactive public sphere where citizens dialogue with one another on issues central to them in the hopes of working toward some form of social or civic action. Once seen as a utopian hope for the WWW in the 1990s, the increasing commercialization of the Web and the attendant emphasis on social uses of web spaces has made the possibility of a new public space where citizen voices vie with those of the media and politicians for equal time, or where diverse groups of citizens begin to discuss their differences across regional, political, racial, and national lines now seems like a pipe dream to many. This course took this “hope” as its central question, seeking to investigate with the students whether the web could, indeed, become a public sphere if individual citizens sought to engage each other in this fashion, if we deliberately sought to engage one another. Behind such an investigation was my belief that writing teachers can and should take a leadership role in helping form burgeoning web spaces rather than only seeking to teach students to write for the web “as is.”

Rather than seek to teach students how to write for web publics, then, the course (Writing in Cyberspace) was designed to investigate what kinds of publics exist and which rhetorical strategies might be most effective not only for particular web genres (blogs, forums, social networking sites) but also for encouraging particular kinds of public discourse and, conversely, which web genres might be most amenable to different forms of public discourse. As part of this investigation, students engaged in three “public participation projects” that sought to engage different models of public discourse in web spaces: Habermasian critical rational-debate where discussion is open to all citizens, Nancy Fraser’s more invitational and experiential rhetoric where like-minded groups (based in similar identities, experiences, or political positions) define an agenda that the collective would then take to the larger public sphere, and Michael Warner’s focus on discursively creating a public sphere through one’s rhetoric.

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