Monday, March 27, 2006

What is an audience?

I'm going to do a bit more reading before I begin full-blown writing, but I want to do some thinking out loud here. Obviously, audience has been a part of composition pedagogy for a long time. Figuring out exactly how to deal with the issue of audience has proven difficult. As early as 1947 (and probably earlier), there were calls for having students write for "real" audiences, those outside the classroom. This has been accomplished in various ways. One has been to introduce peer review, but that has sometimes been problematic. Another has been to "publish" student work in a class newspaper or magazine. Still another has been to encourage students to submit to real publications such as newspapers or magazines.

These methods have met with varying degrees of success. Sometimes the mere impracticality of peer review or publication gets in the way of even attempting them. The web makes some of these methods more practical and chapter 2 of my dissertation offers very practical ways of publishing to the web and attracting an audience.

Even with the practicalities out of the way, you're still dealing with a set of novice writers confronting a real audience. How do we, as teachers, help them deal with that?

I guess I'm dealing with several questions here. First, there's the issue of why have a real audience at all. That's addressed on many fronts, most interestingly from the cognitive-develomental perspective of seeing how students conceive audience in a typical writing assignment. Second, if you buy into the first proposition that a real flesh-and-blood audience is a good idea, then you have to confront all the issues that audience brings with it.

And it doesn't erase the ways in which students will construct an audience. Even when face with real people opposing their views, students sometimes still write as if they were writing to their peers or only to people who disagree with them.

So why have an audience?
  1. Students are not particularly good at constructing their own audience without having dealt with an audience besides a teacher. Having something real gives them good starting point.
  2. Closes the feedback loop. In a writing transaction, there is a reader who reads something and has a reaction to it. Most of the time, that reaction never reaches the writer. In the blog, it does and so the writer can learn from that feedback either to improve the piece commented on or to improve future work.
  3. Provides many viewpoints. A worldwide audience as we had on the blog drew from many different walks of life.
  4. Writing for an audience is motivating.
  5. Goal of writing is to have an effect on a reader. Even if the teacher does their best to respond in ways that show they've been affected by a piece of student writing, they still grade the paper and that gets in the way.
  6. Having an audience that interacts with the work via the blog shows how readers play an active role in their reading of a piece.
  7. Removes some of the artificiality of the classroom.
What issues need to be tended to?
  1. Confrontation. I'm thinking about Long's assertion that the audience-writer relationship is usually grounded in adversity. The writer is trying to persuade the reader that his point of view is "correct." In some ways, this is something that's really made manifest on the blog. It doesn't take long for students to become confrontational with each other or for someone to wander in and disagree with the students in an aggressive way. We must constantly strive to break that dichotomy.
  2. Audience analysis/construction. With the blog, we have an opportunity to have an idea of who's reading our work. We can analyze what kinds of sites people come from to get to our blog or find out what parts of the country they live in. That tells us a little bit about who's reading, but not all. We still must aim our writing for an "ideal" audience. Who do you want your audience to be? The blog feedback helps begin to determine who you do and don't want to attract to your writing.
  3. On the other hand, one also realizes that you don't always have control over who reads your work or how they read it. Certainly one can reshape ones work to help achieve the desired effect in the reader, but you will still be left with uncertainty.
  4. Negative feedback. What to do when someone comes in and slams the student.
  5. Stage fright. Students who are so afraid of writing in public, they get severe writer's block.
I think I want to structure this chapter as follows:

A Lit Review which will cover many aspects of audience, but focusing especially on how people have attempted to get students to consider more than the teacher audience that's built into every class. I will also cover some of the cognitive work that's been done to show how many novice writers (students) conceive of audience. I will think about whether a blog means we're addressing or invoking an audience and in what ways one might be constructing an audience.

In the lit review as well, I will also look at work that's been done on web writing and audience, mostly from a pedagogical standpoint.

Then, I'd like to have a few pages, 5-7, that show some examples from the blog, looking at such issues as confrontation within and without the class, ways that some students show some sophistication in who they're writing for, compared to the beginning when it's pretty obvious they were writing for themselves.

Lots to do here--could be fun.

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