Investigating "Unnatural" Silences

Margaret Daisley
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst

As I began interviewing, I soon realized that what I had been expecting--looking and listening for online--was different than what was happening in reality. Part of my expectations were due to the limitations of my own experiences using CMC genres in instructional and personal situations; part were due to prior readings of the literature on CMC; and, part were due to my expectations built on Terry's descriptions of envisioned uses of CMC in the class, shared with me the summer before. Because of these influences, and because I knew that using CMC was a requirement of the course, I had expected to "hear" a higher number of exchanges between students online, more "participation." I had anticipated that I would be "listening in on" a large-group conversation. In short, I had been using metaphors for oral discourse to construct my expectations of what would constitute appropriate online participation and non-participation. Failing to find this type of discourse, I looked further into experiences reported by students and the instructor in their interviews, and to reports in the literature for explanations of the silences I was encountering.

I had expected that access and prior experience were the cause of some of the silences and in some respects this was true. Many writers, for example Keith Grint (1989), have noted that one of the primary underlying causes for "failure" or "non-participation" or silence in using CMC in instructional situations is not having basic access to the technology needed and/or the lack of technical expertise to use it. In essence, this is Olsen's secondary definition of "unnatural" silence--a lack of access to the technologies of literacy or the means (time, money, know-how) to employ them. While none of the students in Terry's class claimed to have "no access" to networked computers, only 8 out of the 20 students in the class said they owned their own computers, though not all of these were equipped with modems. The majority (14) of students used various campus sites for access to e-mail and the Internet.

Especially at the beginning of the semester it seemed that getting workable access to a campus site was a problem for many of the students interviewed. Of the four members of Group B, only Student 2 had "home" (dorm) access. This student was enthusiastic about using CMC in the course, and was a veteran user of e-mail and participant in other online genres, such as IRCs and MOOs. Because of this access and experience, Student 2 became "like the secretary" of the group, according to Student 3. Student 3 and the others in the group relied on public access sites on campus, especially the SOM's two undergraduate computer labs. This student, despite no "home" access, was also "enthusiastic" about using CMC because of previous experiences. Student 1, on the other hand (the student who agreed to "cc" copies of group e-mail to me) felt that the e-mailing requirement was "frustrating" and time-consuming, especially in the early part of the semester. In addition to not having home access, Student 1 lacked the types of prior family, school, work and/or liesure experiences that Students 2 and 3 had had. The last student in the group, Student 4, seemed to exemplify a worst-case scenario of not having access, experience, or the motivation to use CMC. During the interview, this student reported spending "hours down the drain" in trying to get access to public sites, and in trying to figure out how to use e-mail to access the online environment. Prior experiences had also been negative, especially the school's required "computer literacy" course where rampant cheating had been evident, and support staff for the course not properly trained. Student 4 claimed that the lack of consulting support and the general maintenance of public sites continuously reinforced the experience as a negative one, adding "especially if you're not really that computer literate, it's like everything gets compounded, you know."

Terry seemed to have anticipated most of these problems involving access, support, and resistance. The experience from the previous year had taught the instructor to expect only a minority of the class to be familiar with e-mail. Getting a campus e-mail account, then, became one of the first requirements for students, and helping students learn basic commands and protocols became one of Terry's primary teaching agendas. However, during one of the first class meetings, while responding to protests about the e-mail requirement, Terry told students that there was "plenty" of access--"24-hour access"--on the campus, although this was far from accurate. My research, which I shared with Terry, uncovered the fact that all public access sites on campus closed by 10 p.m. Most had limited hours on week-ends, if they were open at all. The favored site of use seemed to be the School of Management's two undergraduate computer labs, each of which housed 24 stations. Yet, only 8 stations at any one time at this site could be linked to e-mail and the Internet. Ultimately, however, everyone in the class found some kind of workable access and demonstrated an ability to use e-mail and Internet functions. And, as Terry got to know the students better, and to know what types of problems they were encountering, assignments and expectations were adjusted accordingly. In addition, to address technological problems, the instructor acted as an on-going technical adviser throughout the course, online as well as off-line in the form of face-to-face or telephone discussions.

Although "access" and "prior experience" seem to have some effect on students' uses of CMC, it became clear during these interviews that all students in this situation--even Student 4, the most resistant--were finding ways to access CMC to fulfill the course requirements. Perhaps at least a portion of students' overall initial silence, then, can be attributed to expected or typical student resistance to the required work of instructional situations. However, a much larger portion of this silence can be attributed to my own prior frameworks of reference. As Hymes (1974) describes it, it is our own expectations about what is "appropriate" in discourse situations that marks what also seems to be inappropriate or unnatural.

My on-going investigations revealed, for instance, that much of the "silence" online was due to the simple fact that Terry did not expect all 20 students in the class (much less all 36 students in both classes) to regularly participate in the various online groups, except in two ways: 1) to read the LOCAL and CO-SCHOOL lists for reading and other assignments; and 2) to somehow contribute to the group research and writing assignments--which could then be composed and e-mailed to the list by any member of a group. Yes, there were some assignments in which the instructor expected each individual student to contribute discourse--for example, during the introductions phase, and on the evening the two classes met at the MOO. But for the most part, student CMC discourse was comprised mainly of reading--itself a silent activity--and participating in the writing of collaborative documents, composed off-line and then sent to the appropriate list by one member of the group.

To summarize, then, besides encountering the ethics of balancing my own participation/non-participation as a researcher in an online situation, I also collected data to substantiate the amount of silence due to student access and feelings of expertise. However, in silence I also encountered my own presumptions and expectations about this CMC situation: first, in the predominance of my own use of oral metaphors for online rhetoric; secondly, in my somewhat erroneous construction of the class (or both classes, when joined on the CO-SCHOOL list) as constituting a discourse "community." In reality, students operated as individuals, and as members of small offline groups. Silences, therefore, did not so much define the shape of the class, as they did the shape of each small group working on their collaborative projects. In essence, then, this phase of trying to understand silence follows Kalamaras' (1994) and Ulmer's (1989) constructions of silence as a rhetorical act which is dialogic in nature. Within the ambiguities of interpretation, we look to ourselves--our own "conceptual" and "nonconceptual" knowledges--for answers. Failing to find answers there, we address our questions to others.


At the third class meeting, I handed out a brief survey, which all of the students completed. The purpose of the survey was to determine facts about initiation points into various uses of computer technology, current access and applications, and anticipated future uses. RETURN

The required SOM "computer literacy" course had been completely revamped at the time of this study, but all the students interviewed from Terry's course had taken the course before this revision, except for Student 1. Student 4's description of the unreconstructed course as being less than useful was verified by similar descriptions from other students. Student 1 had attended another college during freshman year and had taken a similar course, described as being about "R-base, DOS modules, spreadsheets, and stuff like that." RETURN

This came to my attention, especially, after a remark made by the first student I interviewed (from another group; a veteran of Terry's previous attempt to integrate CMC use into course work.) "It all goes back to groups more than telecommunications," this student pointed out to me. That is, in management courses most learning activities are carried out in the form of small group work, rather than on individual projects, a fact later confirmed by Terry. RETURN

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