Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Writing Networks or Creating a Community of Writers

I have spent a lot of this month thinking about community. Of course, as those who read my blog know, I have written a lot about community over the past year, but I’m teaching summer classes and preparing my discussion notes prompted me to think about what I have learned about community this summer.

Writing within a community of writers has always been important to me as a writer and so I have always worked to provide that same sense of community for my writing students, but recently I have become very interested in what makes a community and how a community is formed. I know that communities don’t form by accident and simply assembling a group of people does not a community make. Last summer I wrote “What is a community?” and “Creating a Classroom Community;” however it is when I began learning more about social capital theory that I was able better understand how community works. Social capital is essentially the investment of your time, energy, and knowledge in a specific community and the benefits you derive from that investment. A sense of community is important to your willingness to invest and your level of involvement and commitment plays an important role in what and how much you will give to the community.

So what makes someone more likely to invest in a community? Community members have to want to join. Possessing both power and agency are also important for the members of a community to develop the trust essential to social capital. This trust must encompass social controls as well as reciprocity. Building a community requires willing members, trust, social norms, and reciprocity. This summer as a National Writing Project Site Director I’ve had the privilege to observe the formation of four communities of writers (read more in “Transformations, Magic, and the Power of Writing and Writing Teachers”). While I agree that those qualities are essential to creating social capital in a community, I also believe there is an essential ingredient missing from that list. I believe the group members must share a common goal in order for a true community to form from a group of individuals and for social capital to develop within that community.

It seems as if I’m stating the obvious. Clearly the group formed for a particular reason. What I mean is an actionable goal that they are ready, willing, and able to do something about. It is more than believing or caring about the same thing – it is working on something together. I think this is the reason why some classroom communities thrive and others wither on the vine. I’ve long known that we can make community work in an National Writing Project Summer Institute – especially if we take care with recruitment and selection – but this summer the Morehead Writing Project tried an online Summer Institute for the first time and we were more than a bit worried about our ability to create community without the opportunity to bond over parking woes, shared meals, and all the side jokes that come with sharing space for an extended period of time.

What we have found is that we can create an online writing and learning community. Our online group is working together, supporting each other, and bonding. I feel it and see it but more important so do they – and most important of all (to me anyway) is that they see the importance of this sense of community to the growth and development of their own students. In their own words, they have noted that what has made the difference for them in their sense of community is the level of trust and sense of equality in the group as well as the open and available communication streams. We use Twitter (#ENG608) as well as sharing documents that we create together and comment upon those individually written. Trust has been established because we have shared extensively and increasingly openly our fears and failures. We also know that we can trust that help, encouragement, and interest are there from the other members of the group. My less-successful classroom communities did not have this level of trust and reciprocity so this is something I will need to work on. However, a key part, according to the online group, is the sense of equality. The students are taking on leadership roles and with the use of contract grading I am really able to steer clear of center stage and dominating the conversation. Of course, this is easier to achieve at the graduate level so I remain uncertain about how to make it work in an undergraduate class. All this is supported by social capital theory, but I remain intrigued by my idea of a common cause in terms of its impact on community.

Teachers come to a National Writing Project Summer Institute because they want to become better teachers of writing. NWP believes that teachers who write are better teachers of writing and so a great deal of time and energy at an SI is focused on transforming teachers into writers. Once they have experienced the magical transformation and begin to grow in confidence, teachers then embrace this foundational idea. I believe it is at this point that the true community forms. They now have a common purpose and understand how the other teachers in the room can help them learn and grow as writers as well as teachers, but perhaps most important they understand how community can help other groups learn and grow as well.

Similarly, I visited two different writing camps offered by the Morehead Writing Project this summer. Both developed writing communities and the kids had a lot of fun writing, but the second camp focused very closely on “writing for change” and even though the kids involved in that second camp had fewer previous relationships I think they bonded more tightly as a group because they had the mission in common. The first group grew as writers, but I think the second group grew as writers and as people and as a community.

Ronfeldt writes “In Search of How Societies Work” that there are four major forms of organization: Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks. He posits that all other forms are hybrids of these. His theory is that these forms have existed since ancient times, but each “embodies a distinctive set of structures, believes, and dynamics (with bright and dark sides) about how a society should be organized” and each “involves different standards about how people should treat each other.” I really want to think a lot more about his idea of networks and their development as I think those ideas work in interesting ways with my own ideas of community and social capital. I’ve taken a step forward in my understanding of community and network formation as both a teacher and a leader as a result of my teaching experience this summer and it has given me a lot to ponder (and I expect write about) in the future. I'm already starting to ponder these lessons and ideas in terms of my professional writing students and my work as a technical communicator.

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