Silence as "Non-Participation"

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"Participation," according to Janet Eldred and Ron Fortune (1990), is a key to judging the "successfulness" of using CMC in instructional situations. Our policies for participation in this medium, however, originate in the metaphors we superimpose on it, they say. If we see CMC as speech--an alternative to the traditional classroom discussion--we will not enforce participation any more than we would in face-to-face class discussion. But if we conceive of electronic discourse as writing, we will require students to participate. On the other hand, as Eldred and Fortune point out, it might be more useful to try to think of this medium instead as the "hybrid" that it is. In doing so, they say, we foreground the pedagogical question we should all ask ourselves: "what kind of participation policy should we implement for computer conferencing"? (66).

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
Margaret's Stuff:
Silence. Silence! Silence? Silence... | Silence and Authority
Silence as Marginalization | Natural Silences | Research Situation
Theoretical Framework | Silences Researcher Encountered | Unnatural Silences
Code of Silence | Silences Students Encountered | Communication Anxiety
Evaluation Anxiety | Silences Instructor Encountered
Silence as Tacit Knowledge | Silence as Listening
Works Cited | Conclusions | Epilogue

It is only because most CMC genres create a transcript or other written record that we have a means for judging its success. It is only because we can, that we do feel compelled to develop measurable "participation policies" and wonder about the reasons for some students' silences in CMC. Shoshanna Zuboff (1988) calls this phenomenon "informating." That is, computer technology in general enables us to automate almost every conceivable task, making them more "efficient." And, as it automates it provides records which give information about the task performed. This information, or data, can then be analyzed and used to make the performing of the task even more efficient or effective. As with more generalized uses of computer technolgies in business settings, CMC can also increase efficiency of operations when used to extend informal communications networks beyond traditional departmental, divisional, and geographic boundaries, as well as the boundaries of time.

In instructional situations, CMC is now used for a wide variety of pedagogical uses: for discussions about the texts or ideas of a course; for informal discourse among classmates; for collaboration on research, invention, writing and revision tasks in groups; for text exchange and peer response; for conferencing, mentoring, and apprenticing; for guest conferences and interviewing; for role-playing and dramatic rendition of texts; for linking together students from geographically disperse sites in conversation and cultural exchange; and, for providing open forums for technical and editorial assistance. What sets CMC apart from traditional classroom discussions, text exchanges, and group work, as Marilyn Cooper and Cynthia Selfe (1990) claim, is that it seems to encourage exchanges which take place on "the level of ideas rather than on the level of personality" (852).

Arguably, such possibilities make good reasons for integrating CMC into instruction, especially at the college level. Not only does CMC seem to make successful teaching/learning methods "more efficient" as it makes use of the dissolution of the boundaries of time and space, but it leaves a record of these activities--it "informates" them-- for later analysis. Yet, what are we to make of the absence of discourse acts and events within these parameters? When we as teachers, researchers, and students examine the recorded transcripts of these activities, how are we to read instances of "non-participation," or silence?

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