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Final Thoughts and Feedback

Professors Nesson,

I enjoyed this class immensely and I learned a lot, so please take any of the following thoughts and suggestions as constructive critiques and real attempts to engage with the project and goals of the course. I learned some practical things in the course (the various “how-tos” like using a wiki, using Audible, etc.). I also learned some theoretical/academic things, like the history and basis of various open source movements and technologies. What I would have liked to do more of, and I think there is a way to do so, is connect these two parts of the course. Not surprisingly, the connection I envision is in the third part of the course, the attention to empathic argument.

I think empathic argument, which we only really began to discuss in the last third of the course, should be made more central sooner so that we can see that it is the kind of argument at which the various cyber media (particularly those which welcome/encourage/depend on dialogue and response) excel most. Another way to put this is to say that all three areas (practical cyber technologies, theoretical/ideological cyber movements, and empathic argument) are about connections between and among people. I have come to realize that those connections, and the “network effects” that result from them and make the network greater than the sum of its parts, are the real focus of the course.

I think, for instance, that the connection to be made between empathic argument, de-centralized networks, and the structure of wikis provides an exciting model of truth-seeking in the court of public opinion that may be a great counter-example to the adversarial approach of a traditional courtroom. For example, Wikipedia’s policy of editorial neutrality through multiplicity of views seeks truth not as the result of contest between two opposing parties (the model of a courtroom or the point-counterpoint of a newspaper editorials, or a traditional debate) but through a form of empathy. You have to see and understand the various views on a particular topic in order to contribute to a Wikipedia entry on it. This is not to say that there is no contestation or disagreement in Wiki form; there is plenty. It is just to say that the format of the Wiki, a de-centralized network where all the parties are seeking to convince each other and to work collaboratively at the same time, suggests a different, and powerful way of arriving at truth (and at understanding).

The other major part of the course (Wow, there were quite a few! It’s quite an ambitious course.) was, of course, the project. While I enjoyed my project and feel like I did learn something while doing it (about OpenCourseWare, about making an argument online, about blogging, about podcasting, etc.), I can’t help but feel that it was disconnected from the rest of the course. Partly this was my fault for not being more involved with it sooner. But also, the course was not clearly organized around the final projects until the end. I wish that I had begun work on the project sooner, but I also wish that the structure of the course had insisted upon that and had really encouraged (maybe even required) that multiple people be involved with each project. I understand that the desire of the course was for people to motivate themselves about something they were passionate about and for that to be all the impetus they needed to move forward on the projects, but some more requirements along the way would have helped. I think, for instance, that it would make sense to require law school students and extension/at-large students to collaborate on each project. (It would also make sense to require them to use Second Life; it’s a great resource and lots of fun, but without some sort of impetus to do so, even I, who was already familiar with SL, didn’t find myself going there much.) The immense potential of the connections outside of the law school was not taken advantage of by most of us as it could have been.

The nature/subject of the projects in the class varied widely, which is good, but I also think that this was out of desperation on the parts of some students, trying to find SOMETHING to do some kind of project about. While everyone at law school cares about something passionately, it’s not always clear, at least to me, that those things fit well into projects aimed at the court of public opinion, which made choosing and designing a project difficult. This is something else I wish we had addressed more directly: the “jurisdiction,” as it were, of the court of public opinion: what kinds of decisions/arguments are best made in the court of public opinion and what kinds don’t really have a large, public audience? Of course, one can always say that everything can be argued in the court of public opinion, as long as you make people care about what you’re arguing for/about. But, I think that is sidestepping the question, since some topics clearly lend themselves to this sort of approach and others (strictly private matters, matters that are structurally not amenable to public influence, matters that require a lot of education to grapple with) are much more difficult to approach in that venue. I would have liked it if we had addressed this question directly in class, instead of just looking at examples of how such arguments are made.

In conclusion, I learned a lot in this course and enjoyed it a lot. I wish I had done more on the project (which is, of course, my own fault), and that I had known more what the course was going to be like when I signed up for it. Since this is the first time you have taught the course and since I know that feedback is important to you, I’ll close with some suggestions. The freeform nature of the course and the “gee whiz” aspects (the multiple examples of cool stuff online) made the course fun and accessible, but some clearer structure from the beginning and clearer/more requirements for participation would help a lot. Finally, I know that I’m not the only person in the course who was taking it in conjunction with a clinical at the Berkman Center. Have you considered trying to connect the projects to clinical activities, at least for those who are doing both? It seems like some of the Berkman Center clinical projects (though not mine, unfortunately) are actually taking place in the court of public opinion, so connecting to those would make a lot of sense.