Emoticons and Community Building in “Learn” (Final)

In this last entry about emoticons in “Learn,” I’ll try(ha!)  to reconcile scholarly views about the value of paralinguistic cues like emoticons and students’ (and some instructors’) ambivalence about whether their use is credible or rhetorically appropriate. 

First, what do emoticons do?  Rhetorically, what’s their function?  I see them not only as a feature peculiar to online communication but, in Burkeian terms, as a strategy for enabling identification with others, or the sharing of substance—inseparable from persuasion (you’ll find here a note-form sketch of “identification”).  Emoticons can help create identification among participants who have reason to trust each other, or in a situation when they can reasonably assume they can “give face” without being threatened, or when power relations are theoretically equal … or all of the above.

In “Learn,” I think it’s safe to say relations are cordial, trust is present and has increased (at least among students), and all participants feel safe enough to express reasonable positions without feeling a threat to their “face.”  These conditions are basic to productive learning and knowledge-sharing.  But as you said, Jeff, in your comment on my previous emoticons entry, students and even sometimes instructors are uncertain about how to “read” an emoticon in terms of what that says about not only the person’s character but (in the case of an instructor reading a student) what it says about the writer’s ability to construct academic discourse.  Since “Learn” is necessarily grounded on a student-teacher power dynamic, unavoidably, within that dynamic, undoubtedly students will always feel they’re being “judged” in some way, shape, or form (sometimes by each other as much as by the teacher). 

When I posted in the “Emoticons” student seminar forum (see previous entry), I also said this:

I find it fascinating that WebCT doesn’t have emoticon tools.  As a student in a WebCT space, I hesitated for the longest time to use emoticons in case it made me “seem” less serious than all the other deep thinkers in the group.  (I wonder if some of you have been experiencing the same uncertainty here—essentially a concern about ethos.)

Student postings implied that it’s almost always rhetorically infelicitous to transfer one type of online language, Netspeak, into a classroom setting, which is (even in online form) traditionally associated with “formal” discourse.  It’s reasonable to assume that because emoticons are often equated with Netspeak, an informal (even semi-literate) shorthand form of communication, then using emoticons within a learning community places the speaker at greater risk that her or his “good character” will be “judged” and found wanting.  (It’s almost on a par with attitudes about using the first person in academic discourse, but that’s a whole n’other topic.) 

Yet I as the teacher not only use emoticons in “Learn” but do so a lot more often than the students.  In the context of ethos, identification, and giving face (I mean this in Erving Goffman’s sense), I have less to “lose” by using emoticons than do the students.  I see using them as a way of giving face, which means in this case relinquishing the privilege of creating a formal “professor”-ethos because I want to flatten that pesky student-teacher power curve a bit.  In this way, I hope to convey an ethos of as much trust and “safety” as possible, within the constraints of a student-teacher power dynamic, which in turn I hope creates a more productive learning environment.

But does my emoticon strategy work?  Does it make any difference? 

If both students and teachers seem reluctant to transfer these paralinguistic cues into online classroom discourse, then I wonder if this is partly because what Peters (2004) calls the “dominance of expository teaching” (p. 31) still pervades online learning communities.  Or the ethos of expository teaching predominates?  Either way, online collaborative teaching/learning is shot through with (creative) tension between that dominance and the process of shifting toward a more eclectic, interactive, and autonomous learning universe.


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