Conditions for Mis/Understanding

Nick Carbone
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Another thing happens as well in cmc. It is done in writing. But usually not as expository or formal writing (although in some lists or groups that may be the preferred style); instead the writing takes on romantic qualities, the "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions," which, unlike Wordsworth, are often not recollected in a state of tranquillity. Much of the writing on the internet is expressive and immediate, coming from the center of the writer, from their core beliefs, values, prejudices, assumptions, and hopes. It is writing, though public, often unfiltered by traditional strategies--such as revision, careful proofreading, defining a context--used to prepare writing for a public audience in print media. It is usually written online and sent immediately after it is written; it is a fast medium. Part of the allure of e-mail and CMC is the instantaneous nature of it (Moran, Feenberg). It is not a medium which encourages or requires strict adherence to American Edited English. This sense of the immediate, of the writing done in cmc as usually one draft, heigtens the emotional stakes of many cmc messages.

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There is then an emotional investment of self, of the writer's sense of their own identity in the messages which go into most CMC; writers 'speak' in these forums in such a way that their is a close identity of the idea to the person, of the text to the being. What this means is that often disagreeing with an idea is the same as disagreeing with the person as a being. Misunderstanding becomes personal because the message is the only trace of the person. The text, the written word, becomes the only form of representation of the self that a writer can present to others.

Yes, this is true of all writing, but it applies differently here. Letters to acquaintances, friends, and relatives, personal letters, are contextualized by the dynamics of those relationships. Letters to editors, college admissions, personnel directors, complaint departments, and legislators to name a few, have their own motifs, their own tropes, which, if not known can be looked up in a book. Writing for publication--academic or general interest--carries for most a sense of struggle. It is a self-conscious decision to craft something which the writer deems publishable in what is usually a competitive arena (the best exception probably being the letter to the editor). People who write to be published usually think of themselves as writers, at least while they're writing. In each of these cases, the writer is representing themselves in their words, but this is usually aided by personal history, recognized genres, or self-consciousness as a writer.

In CMC these conditions do not exist for many writers--not in the ways they are used to. Indeed many probably don't even think of themselves as writing at all. They know they are writing, physically tapping keys and making words come online, but the writing is likely viewed as speech transcribed by the writers. They input the words as they come to them. Derrida would of course say it's not as simple as all that, but from the point of view of most folk on the internet, who is he? It is the perception that what is said represents the writer's 'true' self--even if that self is an alias or character--that can make CMC so intense; it is one of the attractions for participants, the belief that ultimately they'll meet 'real' people online.

We know, those of us who teach writing, how powerful the belief is that first drafts represent what a writer really thinks. It's one of the standard declarations of conferences with students, "but if I change it, it won't be my style," or "this is true writing, it's really me." Students, we know, believe that writing which is changed to suit the academy is writing that is not really theirs anymore. Part of our task is to show them that this does not necessarily have to be true (though sadly it often enough is). One of the benefits of process pedagogy has been to allow more room for this 'true' writing, whether it be in journals, the use of freewriting, multiple drafting included in the portfolio, and in classes with access to online environments, the use of e-mail and CMC.

We also know how upsetting it is for students to get back copy with lots of red ink, with maps of corrections; it's why many of us do not use that pedagogical technique. Yet even the most carefully delivered critique, one balanced with praise, one which celebrates what is good at the same time it suggest what can be better, even the most kind response can still upset a writer. I had one student tell me that she imagined different reactions from me as I read her paper than what she saw as I actually read it. She thought I would laugh, or at least grin at one point, nod at another. What she did was invent a version of me, an incarnation of me as her audience and wrote what she thought would elicit certain responses.

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