In the spectrum of technologically-induced emotions, is there anything worse than the feeling of sending an email and getting no reply? The sensation is amplified if it’s an important email, one you’ve been worrying about, and whose contents you may have spent hours, even days, finessing. Then, after all that…internet silence. At times like these, I try to imagine the better-case scenarios (they must be busy, out out of town, off the grid) before the worst (they hate me!) Yet no matter how common a phenomenon unanswered email may be — especially for those of us who have not yet achieved inbox zero — I am weirdly sensitized to it, to that experience of non-response.
Of course, email exchanges are only examples-in-miniature of the kinds of communication situations we engage in countless times per day: situations in which someone talks/writes/texts/posts, and others receive the information and respond, or not. For me, the classroom has been the site of some of the richest and most complex communication I have ever participated in. But also, some of the most freighted. I am particularly reminded of the ethical stakes of pedagogical communication whenever I sit down to read and respond to student writing — which is, after all, just another kind of written transmission. How I reply — how I signal to my students the “receipt” of their writing — is of great importance to me. What qualifies as good reception? How can I ensure that my students feel heard, by me, but also by each other?
I know from experience the perils of over-responding. As a novice instructor, I routinely returned student papers covered with copy-edits and dense marginalia. But now, having been trained in the art of minimal marking, I sometimes wonder if there is such a thing as not-enough marking. Although the lore of teaching is that students toss their essays in the trash as soon as they’ve seen their grade, that axiom oversimplifies. I’ve watched students decode my (terribly handwritten) comments. I’ve conferenced with them. And I think, even if they don’t necessarily express it, that many are looking for something beyond the grade: an affirmation, maybe, that what they have written has been read, understood, received.
In some sense, this proof of reception may be what all writers, not just apprentice ones, are looking for. In 1908, Henry James — still stung by the disastrous reception of his play, Guy Domville — was doubly shocked by the poor sales of The New York Edition. “The non-response of both sources,” he wrote to his agent, James Pinker, “has left me rather high and dry.” Literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin goes so far as to suggest, in one of his later essays, that “for the word (and consequently for the human being) there is nothing more terrrible than a lack of response.”
All this is just one of the reasons I am so excited by the existence of digital platforms like the OpenLab. Not only because it gives teachers the chance to respond to student writing in something like real time, but because it gives students the chance to do this, too. In Cathy N. Davidson’s new book, she highlights the positive effect writing online for peers can have on the quality of student writing. And I would speculate that the improvement may be motivated as much by the promise of an expanded audience — and the attendant potential for recognition and praise — as by fear of criticism. As a dissertating student, I’m pretty sure my writing would change, too, if I suddenly learned that thirty people would be reading my chapters, instead of three.
So how can teachers and students harness the audience-expanding powers of digital platforms? Why aren’t colleges, as Jim Groom suggested in a great talk at Baruch last week, “programming the web with great stuff?” This is clearly a bigger question for a bigger post. For now, I’m going to keep thinking about the new modes and methods of response that blogs make possible. What are some best practices for commenting on — and inviting students to comment on — digital writing? How can publishing platforms like WordPress change the way student writing gets written, yes, but also read and received?