How do students write for civic action? The writing curriculum for both the first-year students and juniors at UMass has a civic component: students are required to identify a social problem, research the issue and its context thoroughly, understand the structures in society that set the boundaries for possible resolutions, and then target a particular individual or group of people who has an actual chance of effecting a change that moves the problem toward a solution.

The students I’ve taught over the past few years know only how to write a research paper on the problem itself; in general, none of them know how to situate the problem within larger social contexts, let alone devise an actual path through the chaotic maze of cultural and institutional systems toward a desired endpoint. In other words, these students have been trained to write in a vacuum, as an exercise to satisfy a curriculum. Recently, a bright student in a junior writing class balked at the idea of actually sending his writing anywhere. “I’m not going to publish in the Collegian! That’s not who I am!” He wants to write to a friend.

Other students have suggested the Internet as an outlet to the larger, less concentrated populations they wish to address: college students, for instance, or young girls struggling with eating disorders. Someone suggested email.

The Technology Fellows have been discussing the efficacy and ethics of using social networking sites as either sources for study or outlets for student writing. The question is why a teacher would ‘move in’ to (colonize?) territory that has been created and maintained as social space, especially when there are so many other internet resources such as blogging and wiki’s.

Critiquing the writing that occurs in social space seems a worthy task, especially as students present themselves online through these media (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, Black Planet, LiveJournal, Xanga, Good Reads, Dairyland.)

My immediate reaction to having students publish to these social networking spaces was, why? The image in my mind was of a standardized requirement in the curriculum, e.g., “for this assignment everyone must publish to a social networking site.” Ick. (I struggle with the enforced conformity of students being restricted to common formats anyway, which are usually chosen for the convenience of the teacher.) However, I can see the benefits of potential circulation if students’ publish specifically targeted writing to a social networking site. Probably I am now going to encourage some of my students (with suitable topics and addressed audiences) to experiment with getting their work distributed through a social networking site.

Meanwhile, the ethical jungle thickens, as I just came across an interesting critique of over-spreading a new information sharing concept and template, from SiliconValleyWatcher.

A social media release is a revised press release that is functional for journalists operating in the computer/information age. The problem is with the use of social media releases to bypass journalists. Tom Foremski proposed the original notion, and a couple of designers have developed and promoted a template.

While such overt public announcements are not (yet!) what students will do, there is obviously an element of promotion necessary to circulate their texts to intended audiences. (The Writing Program is also worried about the circulation of texts to unintended or even undesired audiences.) The question raised by Mr. Foremski regards the respective roles of “journalist” and “citizen” in the construction of public knowledge. Mr. Foremski is absolutely correct in stating:

Companies and their PR firms create self-serving materials. And if those materials, under the disguise of social media releases, fool readers into thinking these are the same as if written by journalists– it does not make the world a better place.

I absolutely agree. Student/citizens are not (yet) representing larger corporations. But, can they (we?!) “fool readers into thinking” that our information is as good as that written by journalists? (Is this what Mr. Foremski means by “the same”?)

Similarly, if those self-serving materials find wider distribution than news stories written by journalists because of sophisticated tricks and techniques–it does not make the world a better place.

Again, I agree that material with the widest distribution is almost always that which garners the most support and believability (along a widely-varied continuum from gullibility to credibility). Pedagogically, I wonder how students will ever develop the skills to discern the differences for themselves if they are not “out there” gaining practical experience. If some of them do write well enough to convince others, this is an optimal achievement of the intended curriculum, is it not?

A retort against Foremski’s concerns comes from Kevin Dugan. He points out that content is the issue, not format. Hmm. I’d say both matter a great deal (see Web 2.0: The Machine is Us/ing Us). Dugan’s view adds nothing of substance to the deeper questions about who has the authority and wherewithal to shape public attitudes that inevitably orient individual identities to participation or passivity.