Virtual Teaming: Sergey's Experience
Rhetorical Situations in the Wiki
For the three professors administering the project, the tasks of explaining, negotiating, sustaining, and replicating the concrete goals of the team projects, and commenting on the often-changing directions of them—all while trying to allow for a healthy amount of student initiative, interpretation, and chance taking—resulted in the creation of a mix of authority, subordination, and dependence on each other that was most visible in the shared (public) space of the wiki. That is, as each of us was supportive of our own students, we all tried to maintain a status quo in which the team interactions and student subjectivities, rather than rigid rules and cookie-cutter solutions, were the driving forces of the projects.
One of the expected outcomes of this attempt at upholding the status quo was a limited leadership role of each individual instructor in any given project. A less expected and thus striking result, however, was this: The “my students,” “my assignment,” “my class,” “my semester,” and “my discipline” notions became blurry as many of the oppositions, borders, and other normalizing qualities present in them gave way to the Virtual Teams' rhetorical situations, which were channeled through the project communication processes and documents alike.
For this project, the rhetorical situation could be defined as a sum of negotiated understandings and strategies shared, developed, or performed by students and teachers in addressing a communication challenge—that is, completing and succeeding at a loosely controlled assignment and doing so with people of many backgrounds who are scattered across geographic locales and academic disciplines (or outside of it altogether). Ideally, the rhetorical situation is what drives a project, transcending the boundaries of instruction and producing a shared identity (in this case a team identity) among the project participants that delivers the desired outcome.
Communications to fulfill this rhetorical situation could be seen in the daily negotiation, contestation, and correction of the “game plan” of each team (i.e., each individual group of students, the team of three professors collaboratively teaching the class, and the entire group participating in the project). For me, the multiplicity and fluidity of this situation all but defuses the stringent division of roles of a traditional class. Here are two examples:
- 1. For the different stages of the project, all three of us could share numerous stories of being in charge of all three classes of students as we tried to clarify the project parameters and provide prompt feedback on the students' ideas—all of it through open forums accessible by the entire class. While we never contradicted one another in the directions given, steering a discussion without dominating it or crossing into discipline and course-specific conversations that the three of us did not share was a challenge and a learning endeavor. A lot of this challenge and endeavor happened during the invention stages of each individual project. Here is the negotiation process in Group Orange:
A seemingly mundane accord of the two professors may seem business as usual, given that the two comments above signify direct instruction coming from two experienced teachers. The analysis of our own roles on the project, however, calls for a more complex take on the above message exchange. While responding to an avalanche of questions and dealing with ideas and frustrations, the singular voice of any one of the three professors becomes a complex construct of a continuous negotiation of roles, opportune leadership, and professionalism as well as discipline-specific, course-specific, and project-specific knowledge of each teacher. A result of this internal negotiation is twofold: a shared governance of the project processes by the teaching team and a much diminished dominance of the teacher in the teacher-student relationship.
- 2. Another example of the exigence of the project's rhetorical situation came from not knowing what to expect as a teaching team within the Virtual Teams project. This attitude is not to be confused with carelessness as conductors of an underplanned experiment in virtual teaming, but is an effort instead to challenge the conventional ideas of planning and educational outcomes, and our ambitious attempt to engage in what Therese Huston (2009) called teaching what a teacher doesn’t know, which is an experience in sharing the learning part of this educational experience with our students.
For our teaching team, the main strategy in advising the student teams was to have no direct influence on project choices as well as to avoid early, summative feedback on work-in-progress. Balancing ambiguity and certitude (Gajjala, Rybas, & Zhang, 2010) about the measures of quality for the project in general or any of its parts, we made a conscious effort to blend in and lead without dominating or directly telling students what to do.
The assignment’s openness to interpretation and experimentation was of great assistance in such efforts. The broad theme of environmentalism and the directive to study any organization offering services or showing activism on environment-related matters served as an invitation for students to choose their topics on the project. While not all students were eager or ready to do such claiming (for reasons varying from timidity to lack of understanding of project goals or lack of general involvement with the class or this project), the need to agree on an object of study and to create a plan of action for studying it brought about direct dialogue among the team participants. Not always a reciprocal, efficient, balanced, or even simply democratic process, as some of the conflicting student reflections indicate, the dialogue, however, remained the true instigator to fulfilling this rhetorical situation and thus the way to deal with the team assignment.
Further, the variety of the teams’ project choices (i.e., both the specific environmental issues and the companies addressing them) were a result of a “much bolder-than-usual” (a student’s comment) personal involvement and a more complex negotiation of power roles inside the teams. The choices of organizations included service providers such as garbage-handling companies, factory farms, non-profit initiatives, and luxury vacation destinations, all of which addressed the growing range of issues pertaining to the use, reuse, conservation, production, and protection of natural resources. Topic selection required team discussion and compromise and also individual student struggles of being and becoming as reflected in the students' negotiations of their own identities, responsibilities, and ethics related to the team topics.
Perhaps the most vivid example of teams actively learning to communicate virtually was the direct contact with the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, that resulted in establishing an ongoing communication with the hotel’s administration team for two of the three weeks on the project. Resulting from one student’s response to a fairly rocky exploration stage, the Bellagio response was a surprise to everyone. An example of active exploration of real-world opportunities, contacting the hotel ruptured the mundane practices of the traditional classroom and, for many project participants, brought about an awareness of new frontiers for learning and communicating, and, with it, a new reality of shifting borders in the content and method of knowledge making.
For most project members—leaders and followers, the timid and the outspoken, the teachers and the students—the effect of the Bellagio contact was significant: The proximity of the world outside our classrooms, facilitated through communication on a real issue in a real setting with real people, instilled a sense of agency that facilitated better communication. It was also an example of a project taking on a life of its own, through student rhetorical understanding and motivation in this situation, and paving the way to great outcomes and genuine growth of a student learner, a team, and a class community.
Reflecting back on this situation, and considering other scenarios and “what ifs,” I acknowledge the possibility of a not-so-smooth communication process. In our experience, the student contacting the Bellagio hotel was successful in establishing connection with a business and obtaining the needed information. In alternative scenarios, however, the business contact could have been unresponsive or less cooperative, the information obtained could have been unrelated or otherwise unusable/contradictory to the project objectives, or the student’s initiative could have received no support from the rest of the group. However multiple, such possibilities crystallize the strategic potential of a partially unknown, somewhat ambiguous, and not predetermined outcome of a class assignment. These multiple possibilities become learning and learnable moments—through reflection done in online forums, individual student essays, and academic discussion such as this webtext—and serve as tools for developing skills and literacies that matter in educational and professional settings.