Online discussions, online courses, and heteronormative binaries

Posted: October 6, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Both of the articles I’m looking at today were published in Computers and Composition. The first is “‘Always a Shadow of Hope’: Heteronormative binaries in an online discussion of sexuality and sexual orientation” by Heidi McKee. The othere is “Power, language, and identity: Voices from an online course” by L.E. Sujo de Montes, Sally M. Oran, and Elizabeth M. Willis.

Let’s start with McKee.

McKee’s article is telling us about an experience she had with an online discussion in one of her classes. She believes that asynchronous online conversations have a lot to offer, giving insights that are unavailable in face to face (f2f) communication (316). First, though, she talks about the heteronormative binary. That is, the binary of there being two genders: male and female. Men act one way, women act another.

Of course, when dealing with people who don’t fit into that binary, we run into problems. But we still have to deal with the binary before we can move past it. McKee tells us that “movement away from homophobic understandings and toward more complex understandings does indeed have to work within and through heteronormative binaries” (317). She thinks one of the best places to have these conversations, to make these moves, is online.

Why? Well, there’s the same danger online. McKee tells us that “online, just as in real life, discussions of sexuality often become polarized into pro-con debates where violence and violent attitudes towards homosexuals erupt” (318). Of course, online, it’s harder to become physically violent. And by adding in the asynchronous element, the time to stop and think, that violence can be mitigated at least a little. People can move through asynchronous conversation at their own pace, which is good because, as McKee tells us, “a learner can only move so far at any one time and that individuals need time to assimilate new knowledge so that it becomes present knowledge, thus expanding their learning capabilities” (322). Having the time to stop and think lets people who have never dealt with these issues to digest them, to think, and to move forward with their learning.

This, McKee tells us, is also where the binary can be helpful. She says that “in discussions of sexuality, particularly those involving participants who have never or seldom discussed issues of sexuality before, situating discussions in binaries (at least at first) can be beneficial because it begins with what are familiar – male/female, heterosexual/homosexual – binaries that shape so much of the thinking in our country” (322). Starting with that binary allows people to investigate it. And indeed, coming down in support of homosexuality without being homosexual allows  students to describe and create a space between the binary (323).

The important element here is the online one. McKee thinks that what  “online environments enable is the potential re-examination of this demarcation that may not occur in oral class discussions because unlike communication in oral discussion, students’ online words exist for participants to read and analyze, either individually or collectively” (323). In other words, there is a record of what is said, and people can not only be held accountable for their words, but there is less concern of ‘putting words in people’s mouths’ and there is a text that can be examined and analyzed.

The other benefit of the online environment is the inclusion of newcomers to a conversation. “In a f2f discussion, newcomers either do not hear what was said by those who have already left or they hear what was said mediated through others, which often results in a condensation and, of course, rephrasing … which is potentially much less powerful than the person’s original words” (325). In addition to keeping the words there to be seen rather than rephrased, the online environment also allows feedback and more focus to the communication (333).

Are these conversations valuable? McKee certainly thinks so. And more than just valuable from a pedagogical standpoint, she says that these conversations are important for another reason: “Discussions of sexuality need to begin somewhere – without them we have a silence that is dangerous and detrimental to people’s growth as individuals and to society as a whole. We need to encourage discussions of sexuality and we need to make room for and learn how to work within and through homophobic binaries” (334). Certainly, if there is no discussion of a subject, there is no way to move away from the fear of the unknown that such a subject may have attached to it.

Teaching online has some distinct challenges though, things that must be kept in mind. So we turn to de Montes et  al. to see what some of those challenges are. There is obviously need online for a different kind of teaching. As they write, “Student success in online classrooms is especially dependent on the ability of the instructor to effectively organize content, provide clear assignments, and use assessment methods that provide timely feedback on student progress” (252). But just being prepared as a teacher is not enough. There are other elements that make online teaching different.

De Montes et al.  tell us that “Web-based courses offer learning and teaching environments full of promises and challenges” but remind us that not everything is positive. They remind us that “students at the margins are disadvantaged” and that “As classrooms become more culturally diverse … it is not safe to ignore issues of race, ethnicity and power, or assume they are in the ‘off’ mode” (268). As much as we might want to pretend there are no issues of power at work in an online classroom, it is undeniable.

Worse, denying such relations can be harmful to the class as a whole. They write that “turning a blind eye on race, ethnicity, and power denies minority students the conversations and confrontations critical for ethnic identity development” (268). In other words, if we pretend that this diversity isn’t there, we are harming our students and depriving them of the ability to develop their identities and their confidence thereof.  It is because of this that “all educators are obligated to address bias and privilege in their disciplines” and also that “good intentions are not enough to give voice to those who have been historically voiceless” (269). De Montes et al. are telling us that we need to help these marginalized groups find their voices, and that by trying to ‘ignore’ differences results not in an level playing field, but rather in a further marginalization of those who are already disadvantaged.

This article was about race, but the implications for sexuality are, I think, pretty clear. If we try to say that it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality someone is, we are implictly priviledging the heteronormative binaries. We need to point attention at the in-between or outside groups if we want to have any hope of escaping that binary.

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