Step 4: Embracing Student Experiences

Composition scholars anticipated a time when technology, including virtual spaces, would democratize writing instruction and support (Monroe, 2004; C. Selfe, 1999). Research indicates students from different communities use equivalent technologies in significantly different manners (Taylor, 1997). Divisions in the physical world are recreated in virtual spaces: socio-economic, ethnic, religious, political, and other divisions might even be exacerbated by the ease with which people can self-sort online (Lee, 2007). Virtual writing spaces should be monitored to address the self-segregation we see on campus, which likely will occur online.

Researchers report that students can perceive differences online, because communities have distinct communication styles, social norms, and experiences (Monroe, 2004). Students sharing stories of their favorite sports moments, or childhood memories of trips, are going to stand apart from students with some disabilities.

To help students express their lived experiences, we need to design virtual spaces that embrace online personas. There is a significant literature on the construction of online identities (Bolter, 1991; Bolter & Grusin, 1999; Kress, 2003; D. Selfe, 2004; Turkle, 1995). Some scholars suggest we adapt “icebreaker” activities to virtual writing spaces, fostering student connections (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). We should also consider open forums, unmoderated online spaces for students to interact casually. Such conversations reinforce the sense of community that is necessary for productive collaboration, peer editing, and peer feedback exchanges (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008).

Creating an online profile, constructing a persona, should be purposefully academic in a virtual writing space. The profiles should allow all students an equal opportunity to express themselves, since research suggests patterns of introversion and extroversion continue in online settings (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). The ideal profile evolves, adding information throughout the time a student inhabits the online community.

… a static learning-profile area that contains brief student-authored biographical information that is available for easy and ongoing reference would increase social presence. (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008, p. 89)

For inclusion to be the unifying ideal underlying writing classrooms and writing centers, we must foreground the obstacles we seek to remove. Only by admitting current and historical barriers can we appreciate their power and the inertia that maintains them. One pitfall we must avoid is the tendency to pressure students to define or examine their lives primarily by disabilities or difficult circumstances they have experienced. Some advocates for the disabled refer to this as the “super crip” persona, a mythology that celebrates overcoming a disability with an exceptional effort (Nazeer, 2006).