Building the Ecosystem
In a sense, the building of a new writing program or initiative is like the writing process itself. It emerges from the existing knowledge base and, through the application of new perspectives and thoughtful reflection, develops into a new approach that is buttressed by appropriate, sufficient, and relevant support. A course/content management system can become a key infrastructural support for human organizations that, in management theory, have come to be understood as “living, self-producing [autopoietic] systems” (Maula, 2006, p. 47). From both information management and environmental studies, we can learn much about how living systems function that is applicable to the study and teaching of writing. We have come to understand discourse communities and genres as systems that are reciprocal, the knowledge and conventions comprising them arising out of a complex web of social exchange and interaction.
The process approach embedded within the hard infrastructure of <emma> brings that pedagogical orientation into high relief by concretizing it in the interface. By making the stages of the writing process visible, the process itself becomes the product and each student's portfolio is not simply a compilation of data but emergent knowledge made tangible through the mini portfolio record of each individual project and the meta portfolio presented for assessment. Our challenge now is to continue to find ways to use the hard structure of the writing CMS to foster connections and support among the various writing programs, so that their shared soft infrastructure of ideas and philosophy can blossom into a fully developed, cohesive, and self-sustaining writing ecosystem.
In studying content management from the perspective of technical writing, William Hart-Davidson, Grace Bernhardt, Michael McLeod, Martine Rife, and Jeffrey Grabill (2008) argued that organizations' websites, the space where institutional knowledge is manifested through the compilation and organization of information, are not products so much as interactive writing processes out of which that manifested knowledge emerges (p. 13). While their study focuses on content management, the same rhetorical understanding can inform the development of course management systems so that they function as more as spaces where “a community of people...write and share information” (p. 12) rather than simply delivering content to a passive receiving audience. Obviously, course management systems like <emma> are designed to be spaces where users contribute content and where a discourse community develops and flourishes within the confines of a virtual classroom space. Where those individual classroom discourse communities and pedagogical practices come into contact with others within the university illustrates James E. Porter's (1992) assertion that discourse communities may be analogous to ecosystems:
Discourse communities may operate a little like ecosystems. An ecosystem is a convenient ecological space defined by certain characteristics that set it off from abutting systems. But shift your perspective slightly and the borders of the original ecosystem break down, because ecosystems inevitably interact with systems abutting them. Discourse communities cannot be isolated from other discourse communities any more than the writer can be isolated as an object of study from his social field. In other words, we need to remember that discourse communities overlap – and are flexible and locally constituted. They may cross academic and institutional boundaries, and they may exist only momentarily. (p. 86)
The question for us now is how to locate these points of contact and make them productive for an institution-wide infrastructure of writing instruction and support.