Decentering the Classroom: Distributed Expertise as Social Justice Praxis in First Year Composition

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For the past few semesters, my first-year composition students and I have participated in an ongoing, continuous digital conversation on the network writing platform Yellowdig. A variety of approaches to incorporating network writing technologies into rhetoric and composition pedagogies have been articulated by scholars in recent years (Walls and Vie 2017; Mina 2017; Buck 2016; Witek & Grettano 2016). In our iteration of a network writing initiative, we embrace social composition with a variety of targeted goals and outcomes in mind, including enacting a form of social justice work. Yellowdig is an educational technology platform that mimics the look and feel of a Facebook feed, but is entirely private to a particular classroom and cannot be seen, viewed, or commented on by the outside world. Yellowdig contributes many of the affordances of typical social media platforms such as the ability to share photos, use hashtags, tag classmates, comment and respond to the writing of others, and to link to outbound websites. Yellowdig also includes a gamification element: each week, students much earn 100 “points” to fully satisfy the week’s participation goal. Points are earned through participation in the ongoing classroom conversation: writing a paragraph earns students 20pts, responding to another’s comment earns them 10pts, “liking” someone’s post allots 2pts, and so on. Ultimately, this digital conversation provides a platform in which to more fully explore identities, differences, and cultural experiences, and in doing so provides a valuable space in which, I argue, students enact valuable social justice work through everyday digitally-mediated conversations.

One of the most important considerations when designing a learning initiative that makes use of an educational technology is to ask, and continue re-asking, why? Why this platform? Why this initiative? Why this setup? Why this classroom culture? Why this?

Network writing initiatives in the composition classroom mobilize a variety of learning outcomes and deliverables. Here are a few of the more important ones:

(a) Network writing initiatives nurture the development of learning ecologies, when conversation participants are learning with, from, and alongside other participants (see Dadurka and Pigg 2011).

(b) Network writing initiatives encourage a pluralizing of conversations related to literacy, including extending these conversations into the social media sphere.

(c) Network writing initiatives foster attention toward community and identity building, including the encouraging of conversations surrounding difference, diversity, and the local community.

(d) Network writing initiatives nurture the development of distributed expertise, encouraging students to mobilize their lived experiences, perspectives, backgrounds, and literacies as valued, foregrounded knowledges in the collaborative classroom conversation.

I want to focus in on the final component of this list, and propose an argument that network writing initiatives, in nurturing the development of distributed expertise in the classroom, are practicing a form of social justice work.

But what is distributed expertise? Researchers in rhetoric and composition have long inquired into the ways college composers establish an ethos in their writing, as well as to how student composers draw on literacies developed in non-academic environments within the process of composing. What network writing initiatives have the ability to do, in my estimation, is to develop a community in which student voices are empowered to contribute their own unique knowledges, perspectives, experiences, and ways of knowing to the classroom community. In some ways, what we are doing is consciously changing the ways different forms of knowledge are valued, legitimized, and are actively appreciated and respected within a community social setting. Network writing initiatives such as the one I’ve described above value writing and composition very differently than traditional forms of valuation in the composition classroom. Network writing is low-stakes, participatory, open-minded, and flexible. We allow students to set the goals, to determine what conversations are worth having, to decide how those conversations are to be run.

Distributed expertise, then, is an aspiration that we discuss openly, and then attempt to put into practice in the conversation that we enact over the course of the semester. If we consciously approach each student’s lived experiences, knowledges and perspectives as an asset, we are able to create an “ecology” in which all conversation participants and stakeholders are able to enrich the discussions as they see fit based not upon what their textbook or their instructor tells them counts as valuable knowledge, but what they themselves see as valuable knowledge for the classroom community. In doing so, I argue, these students are practicing valuable social justice work with each comment, each keystroke, each conversation they have with their classmates.

In other words, we are decentering the classroom. My sincere hope is that as our discipline moves away from older models of learning dominated by lecturers standing at a lectern in front of a supposedly engrossed, onlooking student body, we can hopefully realize the possibility of a more active, egalitarian, and participatory approach to the design of classroom practice. Education should be active. It should be involved. It should be engaged. By decentering the classroom, even if only at strategic moments and in tactical settings, we can empower students to mobilize their experiences, perspectives, and individual ways of knowing as valuable sites for learning about literacy, rhetoric, and community.

Network writing initiatives such as what I’ve outlined here are not without issues, of course. The
metaconversations that every classroom community should be having need to happen in the online space
as well: we need to discuss questions of accessibility, underrepresentation, mansplaining, othering,
identity, and difference, and we need to do so in a way that allows every voice to be heard and valued,
that allows for every student to be valued for the uniqueness they bring to our community, for the
valuable ways of knowing they uniquely choose to contribute. If we provide students the opportunity to
showcase their voices, to tell the stories they believe to be valuable and to share the connections they see every day between academic and “at-home” practice, we can more fully realize a course design that engages difference as a valuable asset to learning. In this way, students are enacting valuable social justice work in small, yet meaningful, ways. By fostering an environment in which each student can be an expert on their own story, in their own way of knowing and telling, we are able to decenter expertise and clear space for new knowledges to emerge. In the end, we all benefit.

Works Cited:
Buck, A. (2016). “Physically Present and Digitally Active: Locating Ecologies of Writing on Social
Networks.” Literacy in Practice: Writing in Private, Public, and Working Lives, Ed. Thomas, P.
& P. Takayoshi. New York: Routledge, 86-102.

Dadurka, D. & S. Pigg. (2011). Mapping Complex Terrains: Bridging Social Media and Community
Literacies. Community Literacy Journal 6(1), pp. 7-22.

drMina, L.W. (2017). Social Media in the FYC class: The New Digital Divide. Social Writing/Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies, eds. Walls, D.M. and Stephanie Vie. Boulder: The WAC Clearinghouse at the University Press of Colorado, 263-282.

Walls, D. and Vie, S. (2017). Social Writing/Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse.

Witek, D. & T. Grettano. (2016). “Revising for Metaliteracy: Flexible Course Design to Support Social Media Pedagogy.” Metaliteracy in Practice, eds. Jacobson, T.E. and T.P. Mackey. Chicago:
American Library Association.

About Author(s)

Jacob Richter is a PhD student in the Rhetorics, Communication and Information Design (RCID) program at Clemson University. He was named a HASTAC scholar for the 2018-2020 academic years, and may be reached on Twitter at @Richter_Rhetor.

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