English Ph.D. Dissertations


Community Revisited: Invoking the Subjectivity of the Online Learner

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English/Rhetoric and Writing

First Advisor

Kristine Blair (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Salim Elwazani (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Richard Gebhardt (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Bruce Edwards (Committee Member)


In this project, I argue that the communal potential of online education has been limited to an essentialized and inflexible notion of community that has served as a yardstick of success for education across levels and disciplines. Tracing the roots of the limited understanding and uses of online community to two themes in sociology and communication - the instinctual drive toward community-building and the egalitarian promise of online technology - I propose examining online communities in light of a fundamentally different bind - a discourse that allows divorcing the notion and practice of online community from the notion and practice of any other discourse, particularly face to face communication, and enables assessing and appreciating online community as a dynamic concept in its own right. Such approach to online community allows for a more informed idea of communicating online that resonates with the many paths of identity and literacy formation afforded by online technology.

The empirical part of the project examines the online interactions in a distance learning class, focusing on the subjectivities of its students. Using both qualitative and quantitative data, the study explores the role the online subjectivities play in the formation and functioning of an online community. Situating this project in a larger discussion of collaborative education, I examine how the newly established subjectivities of students and teachers both reflect and problematize the traditional understandings of community.

The analysis of subjective power and knowledge suggests the idea of online community as open source, which points to the individual agency of every constituent of the communication process and promotes consideration and inclusion of the subjective understandings and performances of communal interactions. An open source community observes a shift from building and preserving the communal to locating it in the practices and performances of community members. I argue that a vibrant, multimodal, and flexible idea of community could be a revisable structure based on the needs, skills, and goals of the users and the possibilities of the technology that harnesses online communication.

The project also emphasizes the need of an additional exploration of the power relations in limited-access entities, such as online classes, mapping the ways in which subjective power plays into the construction of community, and welcoming the individual knowledges and performance of communal communication online that present new possibilities for a more inclusive, diverse, intellectually-fair and challenging education.