Writing is neither a process nor a product; it is an event that transforms those who engage in it. Teachers must acknowledge not just the rewards but also the risks inherent in the writing we ask of our students. Once we understand these risks, we should consider how we can most ethically persuade our students to engage them.
In a recent article for Hybrid Pedagogy, Sam Hamilton claims that though many writing instructors ask their students to “be bold” and “take risks,” such pedagogies actually encourage students to “play it safe” by following the discursive conventions espoused by their instructors. While analyzing 130 publicly available digital writing syllabi, Hamilton noticed a trend of instructors invoking a binary argument in which they warn students against creating grade-focused scholarship that is choked, unimaginative, and safe, while encouraging students to engage in learning-focused scholarship that is free, experimental, and risky.
That instructors felt the need to include these statements on their syllabi demonstrates the dichotomy they imagine between good scholars who take intellectual and conceptual risks, and good students who play it safe by providing the teacher with the type of writing she expects. Hamilton demonstrates that this binary breaks down quickly because most good scholars take very calculated risks within “play-it-safe texts in play-it-safe formats for play-it-safe publishers.” Likewise, students do not seem risk averse; they often take risks with their relationships, health, and lives. Hamilton argues that the reason students avoid risks in the writing class is not because they are timid but because they do not yet understand scholarly discussions, and as such, they do not know how to take risks within these conversations. He says that instructors should not continue advocating for risk; rather, they should “be upfront” about the “methodological” commitments they find most useful and use those commitments to help their students understand academic discourse.
I admire Hamilton’s defense of students who have taken calculated risks by enrolling in higher education only to be characterized as timid by instructors who fail to recognize their own pedagogical priorities. But his conclusion neither accounts for all instructors nor much of the scholarship in the field. I concede that it is probable, even likely, that some instructors who ask students to take risks are in practice asking those students to adhere to certain types of methodologies, styles, inventive strategies, formats, etc., but it is well documented that other instructors genuinely want to see students take risks, a habit they facilitate by encouraging students to entertain new thoughts (e.g. Howard and Jamieson, Kantz, Schwegler and Shamoon), utilize new composing tools (e.g. Selfe, Shipka, Yancey), and research new arguments (e.g. Ballenger, Bean, Davis and Shadle).
These kinds of instructors are not concerned about students ascribing to any particular methodology; instead, they are concerned about students taking the risk of breaking out of their default mental habits regardless of where the break leads. In other words, these instructors see education as an event — an unpredictable engagement between students, material, and instructor — that takes place within the confines of the university. This type of pedagogical comportment is not the adherence to rules for which Hamilton advocates, with teachers being honest about the strictures to which they adhere because they will unavoidably impose those strictures onto their students; instead, this is an experimental pedagogy that transforms students through engagement with the event of writing.
In Joe Panzner’s The Process That Is the World — a book that explores the overlap between the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and the practices of John Cage in order to articulate a version of the latter’s work that is more developed, philosophically engaged, and explicitly dangerous than it is generally accepted to be — an event is defined as a specific material situation in which the potentialities of the assembled actors interact and transform one another in an act of dynamic becoming from which new subjects and objects emerge.
For example, when John Cage famously entered Harvard’s anechoic chamber in 1951 expecting to hear silence but instead hearing the high frequency sound of his own nervous system and the low frequency sound of his own circulatory system, that was an event. Cage’s expectations were subverted by the interactions between the chamber, his physiology, and the atmosphere, which enabled him to rethink his relationship with silence and led to some of his most famous compositions such as “4′ 33″”. In this way, these compositions were not solely invented by Cage because their genesis emerged from his interactions with other material actors during the transformative event. Further, the anechoic chamber is just one of the encounters that helped Cage to compose his silent pieces; other material actors were at work as well (Pritchett).
When the world is seen as composed of a multitude of actors, and events are acknowledged as having agencies that transform humans who can influence but not control the events of which they are a part, then many practices need to be reconsidered, including conceptions of pedagogy. We can get a sense for how to develop such pedagogies, ones that are more ethical and straight-forward than those examined by Hamilton, by considering how both Deleuze and Cage imagined humanity’s comportment towards events, change, and morality.
Deleuze believed that because it generalized universal principles for conduct, rule-based morality closed off a person’s capacity to be changed by events. In response, he advocated for a transformational ethics that judges actions by what new events they both make possible and foreclose. His concern shifted from how he should act to what his actions would produce. Such an immanent ethics acknowledges that the results of any human action cannot be known because it is impossible to foresee all the ways in which any given action will interact with other human and nonhuman actors. As Panzner puts it, “Ethics demands experimentation, risk, and ongoing practices of evaluation. … It insists on courting humor and joy, but also discomfort, irritation, even violence.” Since they are built on volatile ethics, event-based pedagogies are simultaneously exciting and sobering.
If we invite our students to take risks and encounter new ideas, methods, tools, etc., then we are inviting them to transform themselves in ways for which we are simultaneously responsible and unable to predict with any certitude. Though we can set the conditions for different potential degrees of transformation, we can never know where those boundaries are. We can no longer say with the certainty of previous generations — the famous definitions of The University given by John Henry Newman, Hannah Arendt, and Richard Rodriguez — how a university education will transform our students. Instead, we can only say that it will transform each student idiosyncratically. This is the heavy responsibility of the educator, but one that is perhaps tempered in the knowledge that she is just one actor within one event within each student’s life.
Of course, when composition instructors ask students to engage in digital writing, they are inviting a whole myriad of actors to participate in the writing event. As Sean Michael Morris argues, “Digital writing is political because in every pixel, every DNA-like strand of code, we are placing ourselves into the public. Even if we are not writing for a wide audience, even if we make no plans to disseminate our work, the craft of writing now takes place within other people’s software, in other people’s houses.” In this way, the writing process itself — every rhetorical canon from invention to style — emerges not from the individual author but from the event.
When students are asked to circulate their digital texts online, the event becomes even larger, and it invites even more actors. For example, I have cited two works in this essay that students clearly wrote for specific classes. These abandoned artifacts are representative of the assignments that can be found archived on Blogger, Soundcloud, Youtube, etc, waiting to be encountered. And while I believe my entrance into these events is ethical, their use in this argument represents how an unforeseen future audience can still interact with the events of student writing. It’s important to remember when creating such assignments that such events are not inherently safe. Events court violence. In these digital spaces, students are open to the harassment of trolls who may be so innocuous as to write something hurtful in the comments section or so deviant as to SWAT them. Ian O’ Byrne has argued that many instructors do not write for the public because of the potential dangers they will face, so why are some compositionists so cavalier in asking their students to engage in these kinds of writing practices?
Clearly, these networked publics are influential to American social and political life, and the ability to have a citizenry that can both read and write critically in a variety of media is vital to sustaining our democracy. But just because I believe this, do I have the right to demand that my students publish their digital work and put themselves in such potentially hazardous situations? I wonder if I can, as Hamilton suggests, guide students along the lines of my methodological commitments, or if I need to let students decide for themselves the risks they are willing to take.
Martin Weller recently argued that though it has never been more vital for academics to operate in the open — publishing their work on free sites and explaining to the public both the work they do and the theories, methods, and histories that inform those practices — he “couldn’t in all good conscience encourage someone to develop a strong open scholarly identity because of those risky things.” While he finds open work valuable, he does not feel comfortable forcing others into those risky situations. He can encourage them, but he will not force them.
This middle ground encourages risk without demanding it. And a similar relationship to risk is supported by childhood psychology. When children are little, they often engage in risky free-play, such as climbing, jumping, and rough-housing. Peter Gray argues that this play is vital because it helps children to:
- Develop intrinsic interests and competencies
- Learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules
- Learn to regulate their emotions
- Make friends and learn to get along with others as equals
- Experience joy
Gray argues that the decline in free-play over the last half century is related to increases in anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of hopelessness, and narcissism. However, he also argues that if parents force their children into risky play, they increase the chance of psychological and physiological harm. Risk-play is beneficial because children engage in it because they want to.
Perhaps this is the lesson we need to remember when we want our students to engage in public writing, digital or otherwise. The best thing for our students may be to allow them to make their own choices about what they publish in the public sphere and the ways in which they publish it. Perhaps the best thing we can do is teach them how discourse works in the public sphere, encourage them to be bold enough to take risks with the creation and distribution of their own work, and be supportive of them regardless of what they decide.
In the past, I have asked students to compose digital writing pieces and post them online. I am proud of the work my students have done in this area, and I think I have taught them skills that will help them to be better citizens, workers, and cultural participants, but I wonder if I can still demand them to have these types of encounters, or if I would be better off having them encounter more intimate writing events in the classroom, while encouraging them to participate in more public events.
Students know how to take risks; they do it all the time. Perhaps I am better off teaching them how to understand and evaluate risks — asking them to reflect on why and when they take them.