Some thoughts about ‘Presence’ in Writing and Language

In Week 1 of the ModPoMOOC, we were asked to read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson’s poems, which are new to me. I have found that they resonate with the research I have been involved in for the past few years. This research has been exploring what we mean by emergent learning and the factors that influence this. (I wonder if I will ever again be able to write the word – This – without thinking of Emily Dickinson!)

In the work we have been doing, which we have called Footprints of Emergence, we have identified 25 factors which we think can be described and discussed in relation to the balance between prescribed and emergent learning. We have arranged these factors into four clusters, one of which is Presence and Writing. This was the last cluster we added in developing this work and it remains the most difficult to articulate clearly.

Clusters and Factors

Clusters and Factors (from Footprints of Emergence). Click on the image to enlarge.

Roy Williams, my co-researcher, has expanded on his thinking behind this cluster in these slides

and also on our public wiki

This past week I have been thinking a lot about what we mean by ‘Presence’. It has been very significant in online teaching and learning for a number of years and I am now finding, through the ModPo MOOC, that it is even more significant in poetry and writing than I had imagined.

A consideration of presence is also central to the work of Garrison, Anderson and Archer. For Garrison et al. a deep and meaningful learning experience is created through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence. They discuss this in their paper

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Garrison Anderson and Archer(Source:

In the paper they discuss the categories and indicators of social, cognitive and teaching presence, which they consider to be the essential elements of a community of inquiry.

This suggests that if we want a deep and meaningful learning experience in any learning environment (ModPo could be an example), each participant needs to develop a social, cognitive and teaching presence.

In the ModPo video discussion of Walt Whitman’s Poem – Song of Myself   – the question of what presence means in writing and language was also briefly discussed. Here, unlike Anderson et al., who seem to assume that there is something we call presence that we need to develop, the discussion was more about ‘what is presence?’  The explanation from the video discussion that aligns with my own thinking was ….. The words of the poem, the language, is the experience. The writer is gone, but the presence of the writer remains.

This fits with a definition that presence is ‘A person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen’.

The person is not there but is there.  And it is easy from this to see how writing can enable this development of presence.

But, what has become clear to me from reading Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s poems is that presence is not only in the hands of the presenter, the poet, author, writer, but also in the hands of the reader, receiver, listener, audience.

As Michael Sullivan, a ModPo participant, said in Week 1

The possibility of poetry is indefinite for the writer and thus depends on the reader for completion – Michael Sullivan

For me Emily Dickinson is much more present than Walt Whitman. I feel I can empathise with her. Her words resonate with my thoughts. I have written about the riddle of resonance in learning before, with my colleague Matthias Melcher.

In the work I am doing with Roy Williams on emergent learning we explore presence and writing using the following questions and descriptions

Cluster Presence / Writing
Exploring, articulating and networking yourself, your
ideas, and your feelings
Factors … Solitude & Contemplation
Is the course schedule very busy and interactive, or
does it incorporate space for quiet reflection?
S + Cont Too much inter/activity < … > Personal space for exploring, reflecting on and developing ideas, aspirations and values.
Is all interaction formal and micro-managed, or is
space also provided for casual encounters and conversations?
C. Enc Highly formalised interaction < … > Chance, serendipitous encounters
Does the learning include collaboration / cooperation
in networks, in & beyond the course or event?
Net Formalised, inflexible groups < … > Initiating, creating, engaging with new contacts and groups.
Hybrid modes of interaction
Is the ability to work in, and abstract from, several
modes (text, visual, face-2-face) integral to the course?
Hybrid Mono-media, mono-modal, abstract interaction < … > Diversity and choice of media and modes
In/formal writing & engagement
Is the ability to use a range of forms of interaction, and develop and articulate ideas and perspectives across them, integral to the learning?


It is interesting to think that Emily Dickinson (and perhaps even Walt Whitman) didn’t need networks, lots of interaction and different modes of engagement to establish a presence, but I suspect she did need solitude and contemplation and space for this.

Ironically, for a lot of people MOOCs might be the last place you would go for solitude and contemplation. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to establish a presence in MOOCs, but why I can feel Emily Dickinson’s presence so strongly in her poems.

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