Silences Encountered by the Researcher

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

It was somewhat awkward, at first, to act as ethnographer in the physical classroom and computer lab, but in that setting, at least, my physical presence in the back of the room as I sat taking handwritten notes was a constant, if not glaring, reminder that I was there. My presence on the computer network was another matter. As the semester began to gear up and students were introducing themselves online as instructed, I began to feel acutely the awkwardness of my own online invisiblity, and realized how unethical it was to "eavesdrop" for research purposes and not make my listening--my silent presence--more visible. Although students at both schools had been advised of my presence as a researcher that semester, only MU students were reminded of this by my constant physical presence in their classroom. Yet, how to become visible in the online discourse situation, without becoming intrusive? Finally, after seeking advice from both instructors, and realizing that even in the physical classroom my voice was occasionally heard, I plunged in and made a short statement in which I identified myself as a researcher, and tried to maintain a balance between informality and a more formal description of my scholarly interests and background. To remind students of my presence as a listener as the semester progressed, I occasionally posted a comment or question.

My point about a researcher's online presence and silence is not simply to narrate an interesting moment of instructive self-reflection that emerged from the study. Ethnographic research, like all social and physical sciences research, has experienced recent criticism about representations of "objectivity" and "validity" (see especially Beach, et al 1992; Herrington 1994; Mishler 1990). As researchers, we arrive at our projects already "inscribed" with the languages and thought systems of our own disciplines. And, in the writing of our studies, we reinscribe them by employing particular vocabularies and tropes (e.g. the anthropologic "arrival story"), as well as documentation and citation devices which serve to portray our collection of data as scientific (Herndl 1991). To establish validity--to "unmask the masked researcher," to use Herrington's (1994) phrase--researchers in site-based studies are expected not only to include participants in the data collection and observation phase, but also to make clear our own inscriptions in published accounts. As such, understanding how one's own presence, and inscriptions, effect such a study becomes an ethical matter as one goes about the process of constructing meaning.

Hence, having solved at least some of the problems created by my own online silence, I turned my attention to the online environment. There, from my perspective at least, it began to seem as if there was more silence than discourse. Even in the first assignment phase--introductions--the voices of many of the 36 students were notably absent. After this phase wound down, there seemed to be very little "discussion." Why was this? And then, activity picked up slightly again as the MU students, now assigned to groups, were instructed to recruit group members from OU. Again, not every one of the 36 students participated, but at the end of this phase Terry and the OU instructor posted group assignments to the CO-SCHOOL list. After this phase, students were instructed how to "cc" each other to facilitate small group communication and then, student discourse seemed to disappear from the LOCAL and CO-SCHOOL lists almost altogether.

I truly felt as if I had been left alone, in the dark, in silence, except for my face-to-face encounters with Terry's students. How could I possibly research anything about CMC if there was no CMC communication among students? At this point, I posted another comment to the CO-SCHOOL list, asking if anyone would put me on their group's "cc" list. Two students, each from different groups, responded and offered to do so, but only one actually followed up. This was Student 1, from Group B. Yet, the exchange of e-mail among members of Group B also seemed to be minimal. The silence became deafening. What did it mean? It was at this point that I began to do taped interviews with Terry and with students from two of the groups. Due to the limitations of space here, I will focus only on the experiences of students from Group B.

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