Technology and Textual Conversation
In the chapter two, I argued in favor of a conversational model for the teaching of composition and rhetoric because such a model would provide an interactive educative experience that more accurately reflects the ways that we actually make and negotiate meaning in our private and public lives. While I believe that many contemporary rhetoricians and compositionists would accede to the conversational model as an ideal for teaching based upon the arguments I made, I also believe that they would quickly point out that enacting such a model would be difficult at best, if not impossible, considering the practical impediments to conducting critical analyses of conversation itself. Historically, the major obstacle has been that the object of study, as well as the means of studying that we suggest, are oral. How can one be expected to interact with colleagues in an oral, verbal mode and then return later to what was said, and how it was said, in order to then talk about the talk? Of course, it is not impossible to do so. Researchers like George and Robin Lakoff, Edward Sapir, William Labov, Barbara Johnstone, Michael Moerman and many others have taken up the study and critical analysis of conversation in great depth and have added to our understanding of human communication through their efforts. But what they have had to do for the most part is to audio-tape conversational exchanges between others, transcribe those exchanges, and then study the transcribed texts.
The difficulty this presents for practically enacting the model I suggest is significant. First of all, audio-taping and transcribing text is a time-consuming endeavor. If one were to attempt such a project within the confines of a semester- length course, one would be able to study only the briefest of exchanges, or only small parts of larger exchanges. The overall coherence, not to mention the spontaneity of corporate dialogue, would be lost in the process of its total objectification. What may have begun as a subjective or inter-subjective experience would be turned into a clinical object of study by laying it, as it were, on the scientist's table and subjecting its anesthetized body to cold scrutiny. "Conversationality" would be lost entirely -- the living exchange made cadaverous. While the class may very well carry on oral discussions, most of what is said would be lost in thin air simply because one hasn't the luxury of time to study it all. One cannot engage in meta-conversation in any comprehensive way because one simply cannot, in regards to the whole communicative exchange, "see" what one is saying or what anyone else is saying as it happens. One of the benefits of writing rather than saying, after all, is that one gets to see what one says.
One might also point out that full conversational participation in oral exchanges is rarely the case. Every teacher is familiar with the young man who sits in the back row all semester and speaks only when he's spoken to directly. Every teacher knows the shy young woman who speaks softly, and rarely. And every teacher knows the student who's vocally dominant, who takes long conversational turns, and who often interrupts the turns of others. Under these circumstances, which are the rule rather than the exception, a pedagogical model based on dialogue would be a positive educational experience for only a portion of the class. Dominant and passive students at either end of the participatory continuum would have some kind of experience undoubtedly; but from either perspective, one could hardly characterize it as interactive. The overly vocal student doesn't hear while the quiet student doesn't speak.
Adding to these considerations are also our concerns that other important features of oral, face to face, conversation complicate the creative acts of speakers and the interpretive acts of listeners/respondents. Primarily, the features to which I refer are those associated with the visual field. Only rarely are descriptions of things like body language included in transcriptions of oral exchange. Leaning forward, wrinkling the brow, rolling the eyes, looking away from the speaker, smiling, etc., are all important visual communication signals that carry great meaning for those involved in face to face talking. None of these things can be captured on audio-tape, and capturing them for later addition to transcriptions would involve detailed critical attention on the part of an ethnographer or the "gaze" of the video-tape. Again, one of the positive characteristics of writing that makes it useful to teaching/learning is that it necessitates the subsumption of the visual into linguistically appropriate channels. Thus, a wrinkled brow in writing would look like a declarative statement that says "I don't understand;" rolling the eyes would look like "I can't believe you said that," etc.
In more important ways than body language, though, the visual field has great impact on the politics of conversation. In general, I refer here to issues such as race, gender, age, body-size, and physical handicap, etc., which bring to bear upon speakers as well as listeners socially and culturally constructed creative and interpretive constraints. The way a speaker looks to a listener or the way the speaker perceives her own appearance strongly effects conversational interaction such that a hearing through or an interpreting through the visual field becomes necessary. A man listening to a woman, for example, may have to hear through visual signals that tell him that the person speaking to him has ample breasts, a small waist, and slender legs; a woman may have to hear through visual messages that tell her that the man to whom she is speaking is tall and imposing. Similarly, white teachers and students have to hear through the visual distractions of their colleagues' dark skin and eyes, and vice versa. All of these visual messages, even if heard only on a subconscious level, are heard profoundly; appealing as they do to cultural stereotypes, they deeply effect the way we hear what a person is trying to say or what we are trying to say in return. Full conversational participation is often compromised when a potential speaker feels self-conscious.
Time constraints, participatory irregularities, and the difficulty of accounting for visual field distractions therefore make pedagogies based primarily on oral conversation impractical for teaching/learning in contemporary institutional settings where diverse students meet one another for an hour or two several times each week for the length of a semester or a quarter. Fortunately, though, with the proliferation of computer mediated communication networks at all levels of education, reliance on traditional oral modes of conversation and conversational study is no longer necessary. With the aid of computers and telecommunications software packages such as VAX, Daedalus Interchange, and Norton's Connect, conversation can now be carried on in text, both synchronously and asynchronously, via the electronic conference and electronic mail.
Best described using the analogy of a notebook, a computer or electronic conference is established over the school's telecomputer network and can be accessed by any student to whom the conference moderator (usually the teacher) grants that privilege. Once the conference (notebook) is accessed (opened), any student can read any and/or all entries made to that conference by her peers and can respond to comments made in those entries by replying (writing her own message in the notebook). It is the exchange of messages in the computer conference that constitutes the textual conversation of the class. And, because the talk is captured as an artifact in text, it can also be made into an object for study.
As Richard Velayo explains in a recent issue of Educational Technology, the asynchronous computer conference provides a "medium in which individuals or groups are able to interact with each other primarily through electronic text, without the relative constraints of having to meet at a specific place and time" and, as such, it is a good alternative to traditional face to face communication (20). Certainly, there is great benefit to students and teachers alike whenever the potential for class meeting and talking can be extended in both place and time. For one thing, collaborative activity becomes a great deal easier when arranging mutually satisfactory times for meeting with others becomes less necessary. Coordinating research, brainstorming ideas, asking for clarification, sharing ideas, etc. are made easier by having readily accessible electronic space in which group members can meet at more individually convenient times. But matters of convenience aside, the computer conference is ideal for enacting a model of textual conversation because, as Velayo notes, it encourages interaction, allows responses, opinions, and confusions to be made public, fosters deliberative exchange, and encourages students to learn from one another (20). Without the limitations of oral exchange, textual conversation opens the communicative field by providing a twenty-four hour place where people can speak publicly, can be heard without interruption, where they can listen with care to others, and, if they wish, communicate in the absence of bodily self-consciousness. Although one loses the benefit of the "twenty-four hour" classroom in synchronous conversation, the other benefits still accrue.
To address the first concern advanced by those who may consider implementing a conversational model in the writing classroom, I would point out that computer-mediated dialogue is, by technical necessity, a textual affair. When students and teachers talk to one another on a network, they do so by typing at a keyboard and then sending their compositions from their terminals to those of their recipients. As much as this resembles to the casual observer an act of writing as opposed to an act of talking, the conversational quality of electronic conference and e-mail exchange has been widely noted by first-time users as well as by scholars. Duranti, for example, uses the term "conversational" to describe exchanges in e-mail (65) while Wittig characterizes them as being "between speech and writing" (19). Trent Batson, who developed the first real-time interactive software for use by deaf students at Gallaudet observes that the conferenced class "is like a studio or lab yet a conversation is going on where "all participants can talk at once" and "no one can control the conversation" ("The Origins of ENFI" 103). Janet Eldred in her essay for Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction claims that the value of telecomputing technology for pedagogy lies primarily in its ability to "enhance `dialogue' involving written texts and written knowledge" in communal writing places that "alter the romantic image of the isolated writer by making both writers and their texts accessible and public" (210-11).
Michael Spitzer in his essay "Computer Conferencing: An Emerging Technology" notes that electronic telecommunication is a hybrid form that lies between print and talk. Quoting several conference users who describe the medium as "`talking in writing,' a `panel discussion in slow motion,' and `writing letters mailed over the telephone," he illustrates the surprising and thought- provoking effect excursions into the electronic conference have on new users who, "if they are thoughtful people," he says, "start to think about the nature of this new beast:"
Like print, computer conferencing consists of linear text. Yet the text is less palpable and permanent than print. Like telephone conversation, computer conferencing feels conversational and temporary. Yet it creates a written record that can be retrieved at any time. . . . It is generally spontaneous and has the temporary flavor of a phone conversation, although it is most often more like a conference call than a two-party interchange. Although it disappears after is has been read, it can be recalled for review or printed out as text. It is more extemporaneous than writing, more carefully planned than speech. It takes place over time but can be read as a continuous discussion" (192-93).
My own experience with electronic conferencing and e-mail exchange bears out the observations advanced by Spitzer and others. While a student in the doctoral program at UNCG in the spring semester of 1990, I found myself in a linguistics course in which the professor required us to carry on a good deal of discussion and collaborative work in a VAXNOTES conference. Suddenly I had to learn how to dial up, log on, and e-mail. I had to learn how technically to negotiate regular communications with class colleagues in the conference and I had to do so from the perspective of a less-than-willing technophobe. Not only did I have to deal with the normal load of course reading and writing, but also with the extraordinary task of learning, as an old dog, new tricks. Fortunately, the staff at our university's research computing center is patient and understanding, and in short order, I learned enough to get by. As a matter of fact, by the end of the semester I was actually beginning to enjoy the bodiless and faceless class discussions that could take place anytime I wanted them to. I wasn't in class, but, paradoxically, I was -- we weren't together, but we were talking.
Four years later, having completed my academic work, I felt driven back to the electronic environment by what Bob King referred to as "the imperative for isolation" associated with the process of [book] writing, logging on to the Internet for more of that bodiless, faceless communion with colleagues that could happen at my convenience. It wasn't exactly a case of misery desiring company as much as it was that I missed the dialogue and camaraderie of the graduate seminar, the social act of thinking through issues with others. It was the social aspect of intellectual conversation that I sought, and having gratefully had the one prior experience, I knew where to find it.
My immediate tendency was to refer to computer mediated exchange as conversation. Somehow, the textual aspect of the communication seemed less prominent to me, even though I was typing my messages, because the level of informality and spontaneity was so high. To my initial surprise, I found even scholarly discussions peppered with anecdotes, casual syntax, colloquialisms, intimacy, and what many of us who are accustomed to reading academic prose would refer to as an unexpected laxity in regards to issues of grammar, spelling, and correctness. In other words, the written word resembled, very closely, the spoken word; as Kinkead concluded in her assessment of student electronic writing at Utah State University, there is an level of informality in this medium that "almost demands that [people] write the way they talk, breaking down the rigid rules of more formal communication" (341). In addition to the superficial characteristics of the prose itself, messages were generally brief, were written in response to previous messages or to elicit response to new issues, and were clearly couched in terms that invited further interaction. Not only, then, did the text read like talk, it also read like a conversational turn where one person took the floor in response to what someone else had said and then yielded the conversational floor to another.
While many of my fellow teachers are inclined to capitalize on the benefits of conferencing, especially of the asynchronous variety, for the purpose of distance learning -- for example, linking two classes of composition students located on different campuses, or extending educational opportunities to handicapped students or other non-traditional students who find it difficult, if not impossible, to attend classes in fixed places at fixed times -- what struck me was the potential that electronic communication might have even to a traditional class in which the teacher wished to rely more heavily on a conversational model. And in the time since my first experience in the medium, I have used both the asynchronous as well as the "real time" conference extensively in my own classes for such purposes. In one case, my composition students were linked to a class in another discipline that met at a different time and in a different place so that students were never face to face while conferencing; the classroom was entirely virtual and the conversation was asynchronous. In the other case, students conferenced in a fully networked classroom at the same time; their conversation was synchronous. But, in both cases, the conversation itself was the focus of, the meaning of, our class.
Many of us are unaccustomed to thinking about the social role a computer may serve. When IBM, for example, first coined the phrase personal computer and its acronym, PC, in order to expand the market for their product into the private sector, the public image of the hard-working, intellectually active individual cloistered away late at night in his home office, face illuminated by the eerie bluish glow of the monitor while he stared with fascination at some kind of magic information only he and the inner circle of PC aficionados could access became the commonplace, the stereotype. And while it's true that early preoccupations with word-processing, spreadsheets, home financial management, skill-and-drill educational software, and video games fostered the idea of the computer as a personal means to private ends, current applications are becoming more social as the technology evolves into a means to connect individuals with whole communities of speakers and thinkers. Turkle, in 1984, commented that
Hysteria, its roots in sexual repression, was the neurosis of Freud's time. Today we suffer not less but differently. Terrified of being alone, yet afraid of intimacy, we experience widespread feelings of emptiness, of disconnection, of the unreality of self. And here the computer, a companion without emotional demands, offers a compromise. You can be a loner, but never alone (307).
In terms of classroom utility, the earliest radical developments in software were made specifically for the purposes of allowing "talk." Faced with the task of teaching composition to deaf students at Gallaudet University, Trent Batson was among the first to feel acutely the need for some form of oral enhancement to help students put into practice the use of English in its natural, conversational form. Having never heard natural conversation, students whose only exposure to language had been through traditional print text or sign language had not benefited from workable models of use. "The current generation of teletype devices for the deaf (TDDs) and closed captions on television," Batson said, "have provided glimpses of the `natural form' of English . . . English used conversationally, interactively, for real communicative purposes in daily life. But neither of these technologies . . . is easily transferred to the classroom." Thus, an immediate need for an oral conversational alternative lead Batson to develop the original ENFI software programs for computer networks in the early 1980s, programs that enabled synchronous group conversation for the first time:
To us the computer network was simply a more capable set of teletype devices. We saw that this network might be able to make English into a living thing for deaf students. People typing to each other over the wires in a room full of computers could simulate a spoken conversation and thus, for the first time ever, allow deaf people to directly experience and participate in a live group discussion in English. Because this electronic conversation would be visible and therefore accessible to deaf people, and because this accessible flow of English would be using the natural written form of English -- not the stilted signed English deaf people generally experience -- we called this grand new experiment English Natural Form Instruction (ENFI) ("The Origins of ENFI" 98-9).
Fortunately for those of us who have consequently profited from Batson's pioneering work, the electronically networked classroom has had much broader application to pedagogy than was originally envisioned. Beyond empowering deaf students with the gift of genuine participation in traditional classroom discussions in English as enjoyed by the larger population of their hearing peers, the very act of engaging in textual conversation evoked a number of social shifts in the classroom that foreground the rhetorical nature of commonplace communicative activities to the great benefit of those of us who teach composition and rhetoric, and for whom it has been a formidable task to make the social function of written discourse transparent to, and experientially felt by learners.
In great part, this social shift by which we benefit is related to the relationship of textual conversation to the absence of those visual field or face to face disruptions I mentioned earlier. Most notably, electronic conversation is a disembodied conversation, and as such, naturally recuperates a more democratic, ethical exchange because it occurs in the absence of visual and aural signals that both inform and are informed by stereotypes and socio-cultural hierarchies of power such as race, gender, physical ability, and position of authority. Looping back to allusions made to Tom Kitwood's essay in the "Prelude," the disembodiedness, or lack of visual face to face exchange, is conducive to communicative practices that cultivate the "skill of seeing, meeting and respecting the being of each unique other, in treating his or her subjectivity as of equal value with one's own." The place of this seeing, meeting, and respecting he calls "moral space," and the act of seeing, meeting, and respecting he calls "free attention" -- the skill "of being able to be close to another with a kind of caring objectivity, in which those distortions of understanding, critical judgments, projections and distractions that so often get in the way of real meeting are minimized." He goes on to emphasize that all parties in a communicative relationship must be capable of giving free attention to one another in order for a truly moral, democratic space to be created. His equation
free attention + free attention = moral spaceillustrates the radical potentiality of a more un-affected and un-effected discourse to create a rhetorical space in which all parties involved "take the other's subjectivity seriously, with feeling and understanding, while also being very much in contact with his or her own" (5). In electronic conversation, one is unable to get a point of view in a literal sense so that what one sees of a person is the image one constructs only from clues provided by the text. Describing these characteristics of computer telecommunications, Lockard et. al. note that
. . . all participants are essentially on the same level. Because you interact with others through your computer screen, you never see the other individuals. Rather, you interact only on the level of the ideas expressed. Unless a discussion participant chooses to reveal any of the things that are immediately apparent in face-to-face conversation, such as age, gender, or ethnicity, you will not know these things, not will you be influenced subtly by them (165).
If a textual speaker happens to say "I'm a fifty-five year old black man," then that image gets constructed in the mind of the reader and his reactions to the text's speaker will in turn be affected by the particular age, gender, or color bias that he may happen to hold. But, more often than not, writers of electronic text generally neglect any mention of such specific personal, physical details. Messages tend to be pointed and topical without reference to the physical dimension thus leaving the creation of a physical image to fit a speaker's voice entirely up to the reader. The voice, seemingly separated from it's physical source, travels through virtual space unencumbered by the psychological weight of body image for either writer or reader as an androgynous, ageless, colorless, sizeless equal.
This disembodiedness had a profound effect on one of my students in particular in the fall semester of 1994. Massif (a pseudonym), a young African- American male with dark skin and a very imposing, heavy build, was not accustomed to speaking face to face in class or in other social situations without having to be self-conscious about his bodily presence. First of all, he was accustomed to having to be heard through his skin color -- the stereotypical and misconceived associations that some people make between race and any number of other features (intelligence, character, attitude, etc.). In addition, he had to be heard through his body size, the mass of his physical presence. As a matter of fact, when I first assigned my students' pseudonymous usernames by randomly pulling from the hat the preselected names of mountain ranges, Massif misinterpreted. Several weeks later, he told me he was surprised to learn that his name had been randomly chosen; he thought I gave him the pen name "Massif" because its sound resembled him -- "massive." In any case, he was my one student who most benefited from the separation of his words and thoughts from the visual field. As he said at the end of the semester, "for the first time, people are listening to what I have to say, not because of what I look like, but because of what I actually have to say. I'm being judged by my words and not by my appearance." Without visual interferences associated with either race or body build, Massif's contribution to the conversation could be more clearly heard; free attention, in the medium as he experienced it, was high.
Massif was also very sensitive to the effect the disembodiedness had on his own projections, the way the visual field often brought to the interpretive task his own biases:
I was challenged in the sense that I was having to interact with people who had no faces, including no smiles or frowns, people without hands and bodies so that I might read their body language. . . . I was challenged because these people did not know me and I had to prove myself worthwhile of their interest. I did not know how they looked, how they dressed, nor was I able to hear their distinct southern drawls or haughty yankee accents; I was forced in this manner to be totally objective. They were merely words on the screen, and to these syllables strung together, compiling sentences, forming paragraphs, and complete (or incomplete) thoughts, I had to respond. I had to react free of bias, because I had nothing to base any biased responses on.
The long term effect of being able to both give and to receive free attention did, as Kitwood suggested, create a new kind of moral space. As another student, Manaslu, observed "I think we all learn[ed] how people really feel deep inside; that normally can't be seen on a person's face."
But it is not only the relationship between student interlocutors that changes in relationship to disembodied talk; the relationship between the teacher and her class is also effected. In a traditional, proscenium classroom, the hierarchy of authority is a vertical structure where the teacher is figuratively, if not literally, above her students. Lessons, the course content, are broadcast, moving from up (the teacher) to down (the students) and in such a way that all valid learning (the learning that counts) is filtered through the teacher whose serves as a sort of Freirean bank-teller. Contemporary composition theory, positing as it does that writing and learning occur in social contexts, has prompted many teachers to try a variety of remedies for the verticality of the classroom in an attempt to make the teacher seem less the "sage on the stage" than the "guide on the side" (Schofield 581). Sitting in circles and other changes in student/teacher positions, peer review, and collaborative works are some such remedies with which most of us are familiar. But, as Batson observed about his own classroom experience, "these decentralization efforts . . . failed to make me, at least, a less dominant presence in the classroom" because "there is something about the basic communication dynamic of the traditional face-to-face classroom - - the heavy presence of the teacher -- that supports, perhaps demands, verticality" ("The Origins of Enfi" 101). This latter observation, of course, is not unique to Batson. It is the same realistic confrontation with classroom dynamics that prompts Bartholomae, in his exchange with Elbow, to suggest that such decentralizing maneuvers can, at best, only hide the teacher (63).
The effect of teacher-as-authority-figure has been well noted in the field, especially in terms of writers' audience. Although we encourage our students to write for "real" audiences rather than for the teacher-as-audience, we and they cannot escape the fact that the teacher really is, when all is said and done, the audience. As a matter of fact, the teacher is the audience that counts because it is the teacher who will do the evaluating. Bartholomae suggests that we can do little more than hide this reality, and rather than hide it he thinks we should simply embrace it. Elbow, on the other hand, has suggested that a re-thinking is in order: "Teachers are not the real audience. You don't write to teachers, you write for them" (Writing With Power 220). Interestingly, writing for them instead of to them entails either a two-way pretending game in which "the student pretends to explain something to someone who doesn't understand it; the teacher pretends to be this general reader reading for enlightenment" rather than assessment (Writing With Power 221), or not thinking about audience at all (Writing With Power 225). The problems with this kind of make-believing bothered Batson:
My problem in writing classes seemed to be that during class we worked vertically but the students were expected to write horizontally; or pretend to write horizontally. In other words, Don't address me, the teacher, directly, taking into account what I know and don't know, and that I am going to grade you and all that, but pretend to be writing to some vague audience out there. . . . The class works in a jungle gym of surmisals, a let's pretend authenticity. It's a highly convoluted communication structure, yet we expect students to take it in stride and work within it ("The Origins of ENFI" 100).
Even in a system of surmisals the teacher in a writing classroom is a problematic figure that strongly effects students' conscious and unconscious attitudes about what they say and how they say it to the degree that they are concerned with evaluation.
In contrast to the proscenium environment, however, the networked environment is a more level structure as Batson discovered in 1985 when he went on-line for the first time with his students and discovered the "horizontal classroom, the classroom where horizontal is the default and vertical is hard to achieve" ("The Origins of ENFI" 101). In electronic exchange, the teacher is visually no different than her students; all are text on the screen, judged and responded to according to what they say rather than who they are -- the teacher is just one more interactive participant in the conversation. If in the traditional classroom she is up on the stage while her students are down in the audience, the networked classroom changes the situation not so much by sitting her down too, but by inviting everyone onto the stage at once, into the communicative arena. Now, as Michael Spitzer remarks, "instead of writing for their teachers, [students] write to one another" (65), and this "one another" just happens to include the teacher if she also participates in the talk. Not only, then, is there a democratization among students, there is a democratization of the entire classroom community such that the I-It becomes, across the board, a we:
We did sit in a circle, each of us behind our display screens . . . but in a sense we were not actually there. The physical setting in the room, oddly enough, had little effect on how we related. . . . Our physical reality had diminished to such an extent it was as if our minds were talking directly among themselves. Social trappings, the hierarchy that defines and confines us, had diminished and quieted. . . . We had found "neutral" social space (Batson, "The Origins of ENFI" 101-02).
In my own practice, I too have discovered in computer mediated, textual, conversation a "we" -- that essential social relationship between the plural I and Thou from which meaning can be collectively negotiated, from whose platform the rhetorical process can be both enacted and observed almost simultaneously. No longer is the rhetorical set-up contrived; no more pretense that the relationship between writer, subject, and audience is an honest one. As opposed to monologue, whose audience may be merely metaphorical, dialogue and multilogue cannot exist without a real audience, and a real audience is what one gets the moment one enters an electronic conversation. When one makes a comment, one gets a response so that the rhetorical act has authentic consequences from lateral positions such that no longer is the onus of assessment on the teacher alone; it's a public affair. When one says something to someone else, the other person will respond with approval, dissent, or confusion; they will affirm, encourage, ask for clarification, or disagree. Elbow says "it's a relief to put words down on paper for the sake of results -- not just for the sake of getting a judgment" (Writing With Power 220), and in textual conversation -- words on a screen rather than on paper -- the result one gets is further conversation, the essential human interaction that cements the communicative bond and holds people in relationship with one another. "I want you to understand me" becomes the motivation not only for speaking in the first place, but also for speaking more clearly, for sharing more details, for considering what listeners may or may not already understand, and for listening with care to how others respond.
The desire we all feel to be understood and to understand others in human relationship is not normally a desire we bring easily with us into a composition classroom where the primary mode of being understood is to write our thoughts in isolation on the page, to take it as an object outside of immediate communicative acts with others, and to turn it into an artifact -- a particular, polished point of monologue -- to be understood not by our peers in vital interaction but by the teacher as judge of our art. What we're trying to do, of course, is to make our thinking and our rhetoric visible so that we can understand and can be understood in return, but more often than not there is no one really there who cares to listen and no one we care about hearing us. But, the more immersed we are in conversation, the more likely we are to find our desires kindled. With textual conversation, the audience and our social relationship with them is real and is almost immediately felt. But unlike oral conversation, the exchange doesn't simply disappear into thin air. Almost as soon as we enter the conversational exchange, our contribution is made "rationally-visible" because it's in text, and we can do, as Shotter recommends, critically describe our communicative acts from within the act itself; we can see, as it unfolds, the process by which the social negotiation of meaning is made, the kinds of conflicts and misunderstandings involved in the creation of meaning, and the authentic way social transformations occur (60).
In "Online Education: An Environment for Collaboration and Intellectual Amplification," Linda Harasim suggests that the potential for computer mediated education is best explored by looking a five attributes that distinguish it from more traditional pedagogical models:
The attributes of time and place independence are, as I have mentioned, less important to us for this particular study. The remaining three, however, constitute fundamental characteristics that make textual conversation such a rich medium for teaching and learning. The fact that electronic conversation is a "many-to-many" form of communication is particularly important as it relates to the social nature of learning. With the teacher now decentered, students are re-centered both as learners and as sites of knowledge, i.e., as active participants in the meaning- making process and not merely as recipients of the course content. In the electronically conferenced classroom, everyone can talk and everyone can listen at the same time. In Fragments of Rationality, Lester Faigley relates observations he made following his experience in a networked classroom in 1988. Here, he contrasts discussion in a traditional class with the textual discussion of his class working synchronously in Interchange:
As people enter the textual conversation, either jumping right in or "listening" a while to orient themselves before responding to issues of interest, a web of meaning begins to grow as threads of both harmony and discord criss-cross one another in the dialogical space. Although everyone can talk, and can talk at once, the experience for an individual is that he gets a full turn on the floor without interruption (no one can stop you in the middle of a sentence while you type at your keyboard). He takes his turn, listens to others, gets a response, and then, if he wishes, responds to the response or moves on to other conversational tangents which arise from the same original prompt. And while the individual feels that he has received the free attention of his classmates because they have at least given him an uninterrupted turn on the floor, his colleagues who may actually be "talking" themselves at the same time rather than "listening" are having similar experiences of the uninterrupted turn. In this manner, the dialogue unfolds in time. Faigley notes that
Although the printed text of such exchanges may appear to be chaotic or "fragmented," especially at first, as the web grows with time one can find "identifiable lines of coherence that run through it" (Faigley 178). These lines of coherence intersect strongly at nodes associated with hot messages in such a way that the meaning of the conversation (the hot topic) gradually grows out of the noise. Here, we can loop back to Shotter who spoke of the "unordered, hurly- burly" of conversational interactivity (7) which is not exclusionary, but is "continuous, non-eliminative, inclusionary, [and] multi-voiced" (9), comparing the networked, textual conversation favorably to his description of everyday oral interactions. And, as in the oral exchange, order arises from the hurly-burly in the networked exchange -- the hot topic, the center of gravity.
Admittedly, finding oneself as a teacher suddenly decentered, is a decentering experience in itself. While many of us promote the idea of the democratic classroom, collaboration, social-construction of knowledge, and student-centered learning, what we've done so far in practice to achieve this end has fallen so short of the mark that we pretty much have not experienced any real displacement of ourselves as center of the class, as arbiter and director of meaning. One gets the impression in reading Faigley's account of his Interchange class, for example, that his loss of control of the floor was a jolting experience -- one that he interpreted positively, but nevertheless a jolt. One of the things this decentering means in real experience is that you may provide your students with a prompt for conversation (a question about shared readings, a invitation to speculate on current events, etc.), but you cannot very well control the direction their conversation will take beyond the prompt. Your topic truly becomes the rhetorical topos: a place, a point of departure. Sometimes, although rarely, the hot topic that emerges will coincide with the hot topic you intended. More often, though, the group will diverge, negotiating its own center of meaning. This means that teaching in the conversational environment makes it quite difficult to promote specific ideological agendas or "right" ways of thinking if, for example, your topic involves any social, political, or cultural issues (which, of course, all topics in some way do). Once you, as site of authority and topical control, lose your place on center-stage, your own ideological position is just one more position among many. With the level of participation up, suddenly students who would not verbalize dissenting or unpopular points of view for fear of negative teacher evaluation are verbalizing their opinions with relative ease and a remarkable degree of openness. This means that the Christian fundamentalists are talking as much as dyed-in-the-wool liberals; people with deep-seated ethnic and moral biases are talking as much as those who favor diversity and choice; those who think that women belong at home in the kitchen are talking as much as those who think that "women belong in the House, as well as in the Senate." Not only are they all talking, but the teacher really isn't able to bestow approval upon one while silencing the other because she no longer controls the floor.
I think that many of us fear that in losing control of the floor, our class discussions may disintegrate into Morton-Downeyesque shouting matches. None of us really want to see our students express open rancor for one another. Faigley shared these same concerns when he undertook his Interchange experiment in 1988, particularly since he used a pseudonymous networked discussion (students using pen names as in the class I taught with Massif):
For the most part, I share Faigley's experience. I have only rarely seen profanity and flaming in the networked conversation. I emphasize profanity and flaming, though -- the two used together to verbally attack another's point of view. I have seen profanity in electronic discourse just as often as we see it in our students' informal (and sometimes even formal) writing. What I have seen only on occasion, however, is profanity associated with any kind of name-calling or other kind of abusive verbal attack. But none of us should really fear the possibility of such expressions in our students' exchanges or worry too much about discussions that begin to take on the rancor of talk-show prose. As a matter of fact, there's a great deal that can be learned when the rhetoric slips. On the few occasions where some flaming occurred in my classes, the event turned out to be an important rhetorical lesson for the flamer and for the rest of the class because the flamer's colleagues generally reacted to such verbal displays with censure and opprobrium. Rather than the whole conversation disintegrating into a flame war, the offending comments were either met with silence or direct remarks of disapproval. Again, I believe that this social-checking demonstrates our desire to keep the conversation going -- students themselves did not wish to elicit silence or to see silence ensue. As teachers, we need to trust the social desires of our students to act as a checks-and-balance force in regards to such rhetorical situations. One need only reflect on similar "real life" successes to see that such checks-and-balances work fairly well -- no teacher or legislature, for example, passed a law censoring from all social intercourse the expression "nigger." The reason one doesn't use this expression is not that it's censored but that it's censured -- its use brings with it so much social opprobrium that one is disgraced by its use and must suffer exclusion (silence) or direct criticism. Students who indulge in flaming and in name calling soon learn through experience that such language behaviors are pure folly. I, for one, have never had to intervene in my authority role to put the flames out.
While we have to entertain the possibility that profanity and flaming may occur in the electronic conversation, we also have to entertain the possibility that the meaning-making process that goes on can change us as much as it can change our students. In other words, we have to be willing to be vulnerable and open- minded to the same extent as are our students. Bob and I call this new ontological positioning meta-liberality; we have to become liberal about being liberal, harking back to the ideals that inform liberal humanism in general rather than insisting on our individual interpretations of what it means to be liberal, or conservative, or American, or open-minded, or democratic, etc. We have to accept that, in the conversational model, we cannot appropriate the authority to "mean" or to "know" outside of the collective. Chances are that in a class of twenty students and one teacher, there will be twenty-one interpretations of meaning and knowing, none counting for more than the others unless an individual can assert good reason to sway more people into her interpretive camp. One of Faigley's students gets right to this point when he says that
. . . your opinions and comments come across the screen for everyone to read and interpret. . . . All comments were treated with the same respect and courtesy. All comments were based on their own merits. The students' comments were just as important as the professor's. However, this would not have been the case had the professor's comments been highlighted (182).
This means that there are no dimensions to carry the argument, the meaning, except for the rhetorical dimension. The ability an individual has to create a hot message, to attract hot responses, to initiate the formation of nodes of meaning, or hot topics, rests with her ability to speak well, to speak clearly, and to exercise a reasoned appeal.
But, if we are no longer able to securely advance our own ideologies in the composition classroom, we should feel very secure in our ability to provide an authentic interactive environment in which students (and ourselves) can learn a great deal about the ways that meaning and knowledge are negotiated. By making the conversation "rationally visible," the power of rhetoric can be seen as a real, living force, as something "everyday" on the one hand but profoundly important on the other. Following the hurly-burly of conversational interaction, which is at least initially a divergent activity, a period of idea linking or convergent activity ensues in which the rhetorical paths to common ground can clearly be traced and reflected upon (Harasim 56). Transcripts of textual conversation can be studied, even as they are in the process of being produced, so that we can see the linguistic choices we make and assess the effect of those choices upon those with whom we share a social, dialogical bond. More important than advancing any individual ideology, the role of rhetoric in creating ideology can be seen, can be talked about, can be high-lighted.
I find it a curious phenomenon that relatively little has been written about what happens to people in electronic spaces. As one of the Mercury astronauts once commented about the early space program, there seemed to be more interest in describing how one got to space than there was in describing what it actually felt like to be in space. Likewise, with computer technology; there is a plethora of information about the technology itself, but relatively little that describes what it's like to be in electronic space, what happens to people who communicate via computers, or how they feel about their communication. While Faigley may feel prompted to describe the networked classroom as a utopian dream come true, I will at least say that I'm very excited by what my students and I have experienced in our electronic conversations with one another, very excited by the possibility that computer telecommunications and networks provide for those of us who are interested in conversational pedagogies. But, those of us who go into that space do so as pioneers, without having a great deal of narrative at our disposal to tell us what it's like or what to expect. My teaching collaborator and I will continue to share our experiences with others in the hope that more teachers will join us in enacting what at this time is merely an experimental model for learning. Our experiences lead us not so much to issue a call for more research as they do to call for more practice, more teachers willing to venture outside the traditional classroom where one can do little in terms of "practicing what one preaches" no matter how much we invite talk, no matter how much we try to decenter ourselves. Such ventures, as all adventures, require a willingness to risk losing control, to risk even failure, but, as with all adventures, taking a risk promotes learning and growing. Thanks to the technological tools and the spirit of adventure I've discovered in my students, the journeys for us have been successful and rewarding.