working together for social inclusion in America

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mill U.

Having participated as a host and commenter on several informal academic weblogs over the past couple years, I’ve had the good fortune to meet some promising writers as well as some exceptional unmatriculated scholars of humanities. New to this medium of dialogue, I began to observe some unique pedagogical and communicative characteristics. In the observations that follow, I hope to generate discussion with both distance learning researchers as well as with other online popular education instructors.

Initially, after talking with a fellow presenter at an anti-war teach-in at Western Washington University in November 2002, I began looking for focused online discussions. Shortly thereafter, having left major network news to begin blogging, my new friend—a National Press Club award winner for distinguished online journalism—attracted a significant following with which I was able to present some of the ideas I’d recently had published on activism and social change. Making my way around similarly oriented humanist weblogs, I soon attracted my own following, and a year and a half ago started my own blog.

Comprising the more advanced popular scholars, those I conversed with repeatedly, for the most part, had blogs of their own, and used our elevated personal correspondence and open dialogue as material for initiating discussions with their readers. Many used my blog as a curricular resource, and continue to link to reports, essays, and commentary posted there.

Generally speaking, most commenters on even the more advanced weblogs are not seeking to advance their understanding of social conflict, but rather to use these as outlets to express their frustrations, particularly in regard to their sense of political helplessness. The few that are looking for deeper discussions and recommended reading seem to be those who have already recognized the limits of their comprehension, as well as a notion of how misinformed and poorly educated they are. Once they overcome the initial shock, though, they appear to advance rapidly.

Most of my proteges and students hit a plateau in their thinking, and often disappear from public discussions and private correspondence for a couple months or longer, and then check in with new ideas and problems to surmount. Typically, it is on the degree of systemic social corruption that they have the greatest difficulty (somehow wishing it wasn’t so) and usually require a fair amount of repetition, rephrasing, and anecdotal examples to adequately grasp the context of our criminalized society.

Perhaps unavoidably, many succumb to despair or at least depression, and need assistance in coming to accept the state of affairs and obstacles to putting things right; most are willing to do what they can within that context, but find it hard to imagine suitably productive activities given the spectacularly ineffective nature of conventional activism. I suspect, though, that the largest hindrance to social engagement is their isolation; the bulk of those I correspond with are scattered across the country, and almost universally complain of feeling alone in their communities, unable to locate like-minded residents with whom they can meet in person to talk about what they might collaborate on in their corner of the world.

Part of this isolation is due to the institutional resistance to entertaining new ideas or ways of doing things, which leaves many of my readers cynical about the prospects for meaningful social change, as well as without access to established resources. They can write a letter to the editor or speak at a local event and perhaps encounter others who are similarly concerned, but almost without exception find that all local activist organizations are still stuck in models of engagement unsatisfactory to their enlightened minds, and are often both counterproductive and hostile to those who view reform and moral theatrics as a waste of time. At this point, these scholars undergo some soul-searching, and either return to their studies, discussions, and writing, or abandon the whole social enterprise.

With no academic, social, or economic reward for their efforts, it is only the personal satisfaction of learning and the camaraderie of fellow scholars that sustains them in their transition, and the lack of adequate social network infrastructure leaves them largely adrift. Recognition by co-bloggers and occasional gatherings for the few conferences available to this new milieu are not enough; virtual expression through weblog immersion can lead to network development, but it cannot create or replace community.

Blogging is a means, not an end.


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