RhetNet logoOctober 1994

Tapping the Living Database -- A Practical Activity for Writing Classes

by Michael Day
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

[Submission for the Assembly for Computers in English newsletter] -----*-----*-----*-----*-----


Students in most writing classes produce papers for which the primary audience is the teacher and the primary purpose is to pass the course. Yet our study of rhetoric tells us that citizens need to be prepared to write for a wide variety of audiences in a wide variety of contexts. With the proliferation of the internet, more and more students have access to what Howard Rheingold calls a "living database" of people grouped into virtual communities with similar interests. By first monitoring discussion groups on the network, analyzing the audience and discourse conventions used there, then posting messages to these groups, students can gain experience writing for real audiences spanning the globe. At the same time, they can gain the type of information for research projects that only human respondents can provide.

Activity and Purpose:

After being brought up to speed on the local electronic mail system, students select networked discussion groups of interest to them from sources such as the List_of_Lists and an easily searchable HyperCard stack available by ftp from Dartmouth College. These groups may include (but should not be limited to) those distributed by Listserv and Listproc software, those on usenet, and those on local Bulletin Board Systems. They then monitor discussion for about two weeks, discuss rhetorical strategies and audience in class, and write a short report on the topic and discourse conventions they find. Finally, they post one to five messages to the group or to selected members.

The goal is to allow them to familiarize themselves with the discourse conventions and topics of their chosen fields or interests, so that they might practice using those conventions, discussing those topics, and making connections with other students and professionals in those fields or with those interests. They thus become situated in the discourse community of their profession or interest, and come to understand how such communities are built and maintained. Further, they get practice with a rather new form of information gathering made possible when geographically separate but like-minded people work together to answer questions and solve problems.


Each student needs an internet account, and access to a machine or machines from which this account can be accessed. A class with only one or two accounts might be able to do an abbreviated version of this activity by sharing the account among several students. Students will also usually require some training in basic email, netiquette, and manipulating files.

Current Context:

English 301 is an upper level required class in advanced technical communications at a state land grant technical university. The goal of the course is to teach primarily engineering and science students how to communicate effectively on the job and in a variety of institutional settings. In addition to oral presentation and written memo, report, proposal, and manual writing skills, the students are now being encouraged to learn and use computer mediated communication for collaboration and information exchange. This new direction takes into consideration the veritable paradigm shift we have seen in business and research communications toward greater and greater use of email, email discussion groups, and real- time conferencing. The students in this class usually join technical discussion groups, but some also join hobby and social groups. As outlined above, writing classes such as high school or freshman year composition can also make productive use of such an activity.


  1. Have all students in the class get email accounts, if possible.
  2. Train, or have your computer specialists train them in basic email, internet functions, and manipulating files.
  3. Show them how to get access to the "list of lists" and other databases of networked discussion groups, and ask them to choose one or two groups.
  4. Show then how to subscribe, and have them help each other subscribe. Give them the assignment to monitor the group's activity to gather information for a report on topics and conventions.
  5. After the reports are turned in and the various conventions are discussed by the class, give them the assignment to send one to five messages to the group or to the individual.

The message can be:

A. An answer to someone's query.

B. A question related to a project the student is working on.

C. A general observation or comment on an even or issue.

The subprocess:

A. Compose a draft of the message and send it via email to a classmate who acts as peer critic for aspects of mechanics and style.

B. Upon receipt of the critique, revise and send the message to the group or individual.

C. Save all messages that provide the context for the posting, including the peer critique and the messages from the group or individual.

D. Send in these messages by email as a sort of portfolio to the instructor for evaluation. Alternatively, print them out and hand them in.

Further Notes:

The discussion group activity provides an ideal focus for class discussions of the rhetorical concept of ethos. Students come to understand that if their contributions are to be accepted by the group and answered by its members, they need to make use of rhetorical strategies which give them the persona of a concerned and professional writer. They often do not get responses if they take on the "Gee, I'm just a poor inexperienced student doing a class assignment" attitude. They learn to use the language to achieve a desired effect for a particular audience.
Research Projects:
I encourage my students to try to join groups related to the topic of their final research projects, and to use the groups as sounding boards for some of the questions they need to answer. They have had success administering questionnaires to group members, getting opinions from experts, and having books and articles recommended to them. The information they gather then becomes part of a final research project, which is often a proposal or technical report. And because of the give-and-take of these discussion groups, they often find themselves in the position of the expert, gaining confidence from being able to make recommendations to others.
Evaluation is always a thorny issue since adding the grading hand of the teacher to the equation shifts the audience back to the teacher. Many writing instructors who use electronic mail have suggested that it is best to leave assignments of this sort ungraded so that students can gain confidence in their abilities and know that they are truly writing to an outside audience. Peer critiques and self-evaluations may be a compromise, and some instructors have reported success with this activity despite having to put a grade on electronic mail messages.


Michael J. Day
Assistant Professor of English
Department of Humanities
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
501 East St. Joseph Street
Rapid City, South Dakota 57701
(605) 394-5100