Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Designing Digital Arguments via an Iterative Collaborative Pedagagogy: A Case Study

[This is a first draft of the manuscript I hope to submit to Hybrid Pedagogy, newly structured to introduce the overall project and each of the eight group topics. This lacks visual and media components that I will add in later.]

I'd like to report on a pedagogical experiment in producing and sharing knowledge which I have conducted in connection with teaching a course on rhetoric and civilization at Brigham Young University in early 2016.

Following iterative and collaborative processes derived from design theory, I've had my students create historically informed, digitally-mediated arguments about contemporary topics. Our assumption has been that communication is critical to civilization. And thus, given our current period of profound changes in communication, we can expect to see -- and perhaps be part of -- substantive changes to civilization. The stakes are real.

Equally real is the role to be played by amateurs like students. Thanks to lowered thresholds for participation and the new ease by which content can be created and shared, it is not just the experts and professionals who may contribute. The shifting grounds of authority and power is one of eight group topics addressed by students. In becoming a critic of social authority, publicly addressing their concerns, my students have exercised a kind of digital citizenship. Ours has been an experiment in digital citizenship, learning that digital literacy is a franchise, a privilege to be claimed that is perhaps as consequential as voting within a democracy.

Being a critic of society and its dogmas is a tradition from at least the Enlightenment. Another of our student groups has examined facets of our digital society that advance Enlightenment ideals like brotherhood/sisterhood and tolerance. But, being true to Cartesian skepticism, they have also seen how our contemporary media contribute to, not just address, social problems.

Civilization may seem to be coming apart at the seems as we are subjected to the barrage of highly charged online communication. All the more reason for us to understand the conditions of 21st century literacy -- another of our group topics. Today's literacy is more than reading and writing, and more than technical proficiency. It requires new kinds of tolerance: for others in a plural society; and for the shifting, sometimes shifty media which we both produce and consume.

Like the experimental philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, embarking on proto-scientific fields not yet fully codified, we have to go into the laboratory where both chemistry and alchemy are intermixed. The format for our project is one such experiment. We've tried to follow a tiered content model that also blends blogging and video with traditional text-based argumentation. We must experiment with our tools of communication, figuring out their rhetorical force, their affordances and limits. A willingness to experiment and a tolerance for false starts along the way, it turns out, are fundamental principles of 21st century literacy.

Another such principle for today's literacy, one meriting its own category as a topic for us, is that of connecting and collaborating. Of course the individual is empowered as never before today, broadly enabled to have his/her say through our new outlets and media. But we are increasingly aware of the need to work together. Collaboration has always been key to civilization. But what happens when collaboration can take place across the boundaries of space, time, culture, or nationality?

Nationality has been a strong component of personal identity from the time of the Renaissance, but the Renaissance also encouraged individuals to claim their own identity. Today, identity is a major topic, and we have learned that there is power in the personal as never before. That is why we have practiced literally putting a face on our arguments: we are more likely to be understood, to be drawing into meaningful discussion, if we are willing to be present with our words in pictures and video -- ways one could not be so much in print.

Such elevating of the individual is characteristic of the Romantic period, and civilization today is both enhanced and threatened by the highly open nature of digital culture. Openness is a key value of our digital civilization, enabling collaboration and the repurposing of content without so many of the barriers that prevented such use and sharing in the past. But it turns out we want a paradoxical combination of openness and control -- another of our group topics in this project. We do not profit from our new means of communication if we keep barriers up; but, if we do not create structures and measures for privacy and for the organization of knowledge, we risk violating the trust that is needed for people to work together meaningfully in society.

Society depends upon human relationships, and relationships are being subjected to profound reconfigurations due to our highly mediated and electronically connected world today. This is why human relationships earned its own place as group topic in our project. In some ways we are enhancing those relationships; in other ways, diminishing them. And while we cannot go back to a society absent our electronic mediations, we can educate and control ourselves so that the new tools reinforce and not threaten our key human connections.

While we encounter so much novelty, and our civilization is subject to such constant change, it becomes all the more important for us to stay grounded in the perspectives provided by history. Although each of the group and student projects have an historical angle, we have an entire group whose topic is dedicated to showing us patterns of the past in order to make sense of our rapidly evolving present day.


  1. I really appreciate the way that the 8 topic groups are nicely tied into one article. The flow in connecting them is good, and does not seem choppy. I think this is one evidence that we picked good topics, because they can connect and flow quite well.

  2. After reading your paragraph on digital society, I realized that each of our group members really are criticizing society and the effects of digital life. I feel we could really use that angle to better unify our topics.

  3. I hadn't thought that our topic was "putting a face" on the argument before. With this new thought I have a better idea that I should focus on visuals and make sure that the audience will know who I am through my own writing.

  4. thanks for the clarification on the overall argument! This post has helped come up with new ideas for tying my individual post more closely in line with the class theme.

  5. I think the description of our section (literacy) as a "new kind of tolerance" may be misleading. Although tolerance is a part of it, the majority of this topic revolves around discernment.

  6. I think this is a great overview of the project. Recently our group has shifted away from experts versus amateurs so you may need to reshape the paragraph in reference to our group.

  7. Good overview. Will this be the format of the final work to be submitted to Hybrid Pedagogy? On another note I think that this does a good job of providing a brief overview of connecting an collaborating.

  8. This gives me some direction. Thank you.