Community is having a sense of belonging to a group. Several key concepts are embedded in this simplified definition, the first being the idea that community is sensed or felt on an emotional level. This intangible quality is also suggested in definitions that position community as “a phenomenon” that “does not appear to have a concrete existence” (Brent 214). Phenomena by their nature are not wholly quantifiable, but scholars can work descriptively to identify reoccurring aspects of community.
A second key concept is that of group, which are based on common bonds; the commonality may be being part of the same course, program of study, or organization. Common bonds lead to having shared experiences. Communal experiences strengthen the group dynamic, creating shared history and increasing understanding; students feel closer when they have gone through the same challenges and successes. This also leads to a mutually constructed culture; the community establishes norms and expected/acceptable behaviors.
Another key concept from that initial definition is belonging. Members of community feel that their some aspect of their identity is reflected by a specific group. However, self-identification alone does not lead to community inclusiveness. The individual must also be accepted by the existing group members. Therefore, a community both reflects and reinforces individual characteristics.
This belonging is also reinforced by an egalitarian power structure with foundations in “co-presence and interaction” (Pratt qtd. in Amy 114). This is valuation placed on each member, so that his or her contributions are respected and integrated. Even in communities where power may not be completely equitably distributed among members—a president or team captain for example—power variations are not abused. A community needs a balance between the freedom of speech and behavior and restriction of any violence, verbal or otherwise, that could be directed toward any member (Amy 120). Without co-presence and power balance, individuals are not likely to feel a sense of belonging and community become unsustainable
Meaningful communities must emerge organically. For example, in any of the groups listed above, there will be certain interactions that are established: class meetings, discussion board assignments, or an organization’s event. These interactions may dictate participation in a group, but without that phenomenological feeling, this is not a community. Communities do not “exist in every place, and the differences between places are not necessarily based on the differences between them as communities” (Brent 217). In other words, a community may develop in one class and not in another, even if the conditions set by the instructor—the place— are identical. Camaraderie can be invited by the group interactions, but whether a sense of community emerges seems to rely on the unique chemistry and psychology of the group’s individuals.
Public blogs are often assigned in online writing courses, with students interacting in posts and responses, but whether this interaction is a community or simply the surface appearance of one is debatable. On the one hand, “even if an illusion,” community “has very real effects” (Brent 216). Junco et al’s study suggests that requiring students to interact using Twitter did lead to greater student engagement and academic achievement by clarifying content and providing emotional support. Even if the students did not feel they belonged to a community, the participation had real effects as Brent suggests. Therefore, even if assigning blog writing and responding does not establish a meaningful community, it will encourage interaction that in and of itself has benefits.
However, there is also the argument that embedded within all communities is “conflict and division” (Brent 214). Cliques will be present in an online setting because virtual “communities mirror inequity” in society (Amy 117). Students are bound to be offended, remain silent, and not participate at all (Amy 117). As a result, the interactive blog assignment could potentially result in the kind of power inequities and rhetorical violence that devastate community-building efforts.
While violence did not occur in our class assignment, I can see how there was division. With the exception of Laurie, I have had previous classes with each of the aforementioned commentators. This suggests that within a community, previous experiences will impact how we interact. Others may feel excluded or not as well respected by some peers if they are not receiving the same level of interaction. Even if the selective interactions were a product of comfort rather than intentional exclusion, as Brent argues, effects can be very real.
Another issue is that blogs are not “informal rap sessions with close friends,” they are performances in a class for grades (Amy 122). For example, in the responses I had to my first blog post, I responded to Laurie’s post directly, but when she responded it was to the thread of discussion started by Carol’s response. Then Margie started yet a new direction for the conversations. This shows that although students may be reading and commenting, this work is not necessarily integrated in a way that develops deep communication and community. Responses may only be “performing” interaction for the instructor audience where the performance is satisfied by the existence of a post without sustained involvement.
Interaction has benefits even if that it does not result in a sense of community, so requiring commenting on blogs is worth noting as a design element. However, it is possible use assignment design to also encourage community in an online course if the right intangible mix of students exists—primarily with synchronous activities that can serve “the needs of writers in terms of forming community” (Breuch 151). Breuch notes that “speech patterns and behaviors become lost because of the disruptions of time and space that occur in virtual environments” (144). For example, when Margie left her comment on the first blog entry, I had already posted the last review and I did not respond to her directly. Online students can read and respond to one another at any time, but this can result in responses being posted after the writer has moved on to other assignments and concepts. If we responded to one another in real time, like we did with the tool review, it could overcome any time-related irrelevancy. Maybe adding break out groups, as afforded by Adobe Connect, would help students to engage with the reviews and build conversation that eliminates the effects of time separation. These groups could also help “students have the opportunity to get to know one another,” fostering new relationships and mediating the potentially divisive pre-existing relationships (Breuch 148).
Community Outside the Blog:
As many of my peers will probably discuss, our community lives vivaciously outside of the blogs in our Facebook class group. I started this closed group before our first class meeting, and was inspired to do so after having the experience of being invited to a group for previous classes. I wanted to repeat the positive experiences of support, humor, and clarification of content, which seems to align with Brent’s argument that “the concept of community always seems to contain nostalgia, the idea of an imagined past” (220). We also use this space to build community because it mimics the informal conversation and interaction that occurs in informal physical spaces like student lounges. Through sharing emotional experiences and challenges, we engage in the history-making, culture construction, and norm setting that builds community. Carol has even noted that she was not much of a Facebook user before the class, but engages there more and more. This is because even though a “community may lack tangible substance…it possesses a gravitational pull, a magnetic existence that creates real effects - at its best, social relationships of mutual care and responsibility” (Brent 221). We create these outside communities because we “desire to overcome the adversity of social life” (Brent 221). The adversity of graduate school is very real, and we all express feeling insecure about our abilities and our right to belong to the larger PhD program. We create community to feel accepted as we are, to find “connectedness in all [our] imperfections” (Brent 222). While the instructor may not be able to do more than set conditions for community to grow, not standing in the way of these informal connections is an important step in facilitating community. Past experiences and indirect instructor support are two powerful reasons why interaction outside the course assignments will occur and foster community.
Educational communities have enormous benefits to students. They often provide support and assistance both for personal and academic challenges. For groups facing especially difficult academic expectations, this support system function of community can help people enter “the maelstrom rather than succumb to it” (Brent 216). This support system can often be the difference between discontinued or sustained academic participation, and should therefore be encouraged at every level of the institution.
Amy, Lori E.. “Rhetorical Violence and the Problematics of Power: A Notion for the Digital Age Classroom.” Role Play: Distance Learning and the Teaching of Writing. Eds. Jonathan Alexander and Marcia Dickson. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2006. 111-132. Print.
Brent, Jeremy. “The Desire for Community: Illusion, Confusion, and Paradox.” Community Development
Journal 39.3 (2004). 213-223. Web. 17 Jun. 2014.
Breuch, Lee-Ann Kastman. “Enhancing Online Collaboration: Virtual Peer Review in the Writing Classroom.” Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Eds. Kelly Cargile Cook and Keith Grant-Davie. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood, 2005. 141-156. Print.
Junco, Reynal, C. Michael Elavsky, and Greg Heiberger. “Putting Twitter to the Test: Assessing Outcomes for Student Collaboration, Engagement and Success.” British Journal of Educational Technology 44.2 (2013): 273-287. EBSCO. Web. 26 May 2014.