Assignment and Context
This resource focuses on the first of three public-participation projects in the Writing in Cyberspace course. For project #1, students began by reading Habermas and applications of Habermas to web spaces, investigated various websites to see whether Habermas’ ideas could work on the web, and conducted rhetorical analyses of such online “debates.” The class practiced rational-critical debate by analyzing others’ debates through the lens of stasis theory (i.e., questions to assess what’s at stake in a debate) and more traditional rhetorical analyses of the use of logos and ethos in web spaces. Armed with such a background and writing practice in logical debate, students then chose a web space to participate in for the space of approximately two weeks.
Their projects focused on this web interaction. Each student included in a portfolio a print-out of the entire conversation they engaged in as well as a 5-6 page reflective piece on their experience and what it led them to think about the viability of this model of public discourse for the web. [The directions for this assignment are included below as a Word document.] While the students were inevitably disappointed that their attempts to engage rationally were frequently ignored and/or met with much more emotional and illogical responses, some found that as they sought to debate based in logic and research while maintaining an ethos of mutual respect for their interlocutors that others sometimes began to response in kind, leading some students to speculate that over time, individuals could influence the form and function of the debate. Others, initially enamored with this approach (seeing it as the most effective form of public discourse) became more aware of the limits of logic (specifically the lack of personal experience and emotional appeals) and came to question whether anything like a “consensus” could ever be formed in web spaces where the anonymity of comments led to little investment in each other.
Such experiences led to critical questions about the role of power in such discussions (how some got listened to more than others), definitions of social action itself (was it collective action or influencing individuals to take action?), or even whether the role of debate ought to be defending one’s position (some students’ debates became conversations where information was shared as they and their participants sought to learn more from each other). Many students, in fact, learned that their own positions, after the interaction, had changed or they were less sure about them.