The Computer Conference: Asynchronous Writing
Edward J. Gallagher

What is a computer conference?
Information Resources makes a distinction between a bulletin board and a conference board (bulletin boards are moderated; you can't post anything without permission), but the analogy with a "bulletin board" is easier for most of us to understand. The conference is an open place on a computer network where we can post or read messages seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, just like we can on the bulletin board in the Drown Hall lobby. We writing teachers are familiar with journals, so I also describe the conference in sound-bite fashion (as well as to indicate its close relation to traditional pedagogy) as "a public interactive journal," since everybody, not just the teacher, can read and respond to every entry/post.

Read horizontally for linear sequence:
The Conference Goals Discussing the goals Class Consideration The Posts
Grading Student Start-up Faculty Start-up Faculty Time Common Questions
The Future Evaluation Conclusion Bibliography Appendices

The Conference
What is a computer conference?
How are conferences used?
Are there examples of conferences to look at?

Why did I start to use a conference?
What do I want to accomplish with a conference?
What does the critical literature say?

Discussing the Goals
Is there more thought between classes?
Do students write more because of the conference?
Does the conference help students write to learn?
Is the conference a resource for formal papers?
Do all students develop a voice?
Is the conference free space?
A place to "publish"?
Forming communities of learners?

Class Considerations
Are conferences appropriate for all class sizes?
Are conferences appropriate for all class levels?

The Posts
How long should the posts be?
How often should students post?
When should students post?
Do I have a deadline for posting?
What for me makes a good post?
What else do I look for in posts?

How do I grade the conference?
What weight does it have in the final grade?
How do I give periodic feedback about the grade?

Student Start-Up
Is it hard to get students started?
What other instructions do students need?
Do students have sufficient computer access?

Faculty Start-Up
Is it hard to get teachers started?
Do teachers have sufficient computer access?

Faculty Time
What impact is there on faculty time?
Do I read all the posts?
Do I respond to all the posts?

Common Questions
Do students read each other's posts?
What do students complain about?
What about students who don't post regularly?
Has there been disruptive behavior?
Is there a thrill factor that may wane?
Are there personal "revelations"?
Does informal writing improve the "product"?

The Future
What new wrinkles might I try?

Has the conference improved writing/thinking?
What's my personal feeling?
What has surprised me most?
How do other teachers feel?
What has been student response?
How does the conference fit with our program?



Appendices  (Do not trust the instructional appendices as time goes on: things change)
1. Description for Students
2. Claims by Cooper & Selfe
3. Opening a Network Server Account
4. Basic Conference Instructions
5. Handling Misplaced Posts
6. Uploading
7. Downloading
8. Student Evaluations (not on web version)


What is a computer conference?

Information Resources makes a distinction between a bulletin board and a conference board(bulletin boards are moderated; you can't post anything without permission), but the analogy with a "bulletin board" is easier for most of us to understand. The conference is an open place on a computer network where we can post or read messages seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, just like we can on the bulletin board in the Drown Hall lobby. We writing teachers are familiar with journals, so I also describe the conference in sound-bite fashion (as well as to indicate its close relation to traditional pedagogy) as "a public interactive journal," since everybody, not just the teacher, can read and respond to every entry/post.

How are conferences used?

It might be helpful to think of these three broad but not necessarily separate functions that conferences can serve, though I hesitate to use such loaded terms for the first two: the traditional, the radical, and the archival. A conference in a particular class, for instance, might serve all three functions. First, conferences can serve the goals of a traditional class in which teachers maintain a good bit of authority. Second, they can serve more radical pedagogies in which teachers empower students by encouraging them to exercise significant authority. And, third, the conference can be used for handy archival purposes--as a place to store administrative or bureaucratic information instead of making and distributing paper copies for everyone. I will talk about these functions in more detail below, but the point I would like to make right away is that the conference is versatile, and we do not necessarily have to see ourselves as revolutionaries to experiment with it.

Are there examples of conferences to look at?

Yes, I will leave up course conferences of mine that exemplify the three functions: <Engl4-12> in Spring 1996 was used to accomplish quite ordinary goals, <Engl191> in Fall 1996 more unusual goals, and my initial and primary purpose for <Epiphany> in Spring 1997 was to store information. To view these conferences, follow the links or simply type the names within the arrows at the main Luna prompt where you type "read" to read your e-mail. For instance: Enter Selection ===> Engl4-12. It's humbling to expose one's course work, so if you look at these conferences, please have mercy.

Archival: The first two topics (Announcements, Handouts/ Bureaucratic Stuff) in each of the three example conferences function as archives. I have taken to eliminating photocopied material--even such basics as a syllabus--wherever possible. I can, for instance, do a syllabus at home and upload it immediately to the conference and be done with it, instead of carrying the disk in, printing it out, taking the time to photocopy it or have it copied, and carrying it to class. And if I know I am going to use the syllabus again, I can file it right on the network server for immediate access next time. The primary purpose of the Epiphany conference for English 491 was also archival, though it served other purposes as well. If you look at topics 9-12 and 17-18, for instance, you'll see that I used them simply to organize various e-mails on various pedagogies for easy reference.

Traditional: There are two things to note about the conference for English 4-12, a traditional comp class. First, if you look at topic 5, you will see me leading off discussion, followed by eighteen posts from the students, followed then by a very noticeable sixteen-straight posts from me commenting on the student posts. Except for one laggard posting well after the deadline, I have the last word on the conference, as well as the first, as well as dominating in-between. Second, if you look at topics 10-13, you will see student papers grouped by the topics they chose, which I used for in-class discussion. In this course, then, the conference enhanced my centered, authoritative role.

Radical: English 191, on the other hand, was a de-centered class in which students had the responsibility for the teaching and learning and in which I-as-teacher tried to disappear. If you look at topic 16 on Louisa May Alcott, for instance, note that my two ejg1 posts (my first is number seventeen!) are indistinguishable on the menu from the other eighty-eight posts, which come several a day for the week we were reading the novel, then a few the week after, then a smattering up to the last day of the semester, more than two months after the first post.


Why did I start to use a conference?

My short-hand answer is that through the conference students write more, think more, and collaborate more. We can accomplish the first two goals through a journal (though I'm not sure a journal really provides the "pressure" needed for critical thinking), but not the third--which is an important part of our program--without great difficulty. Frankly, I rarely assigned journals. I personally didn't see much value in reading or commenting on class issues that were in the past, and, also, the whole journal "machinery" always seemed cumbersome to manipulate (among the unpleasant images that come to mind are pack-horse-ing loads of notebooks to the office, decoding handwriting, frantic rushing to get them back to students, dealing with late or lost journals, journal mounds outside office doors, unclaimed journals strewn in hallways over break months like orphans, and so forth). I was never comfortable, then, with using journals.

My use of the conference, though, did evolve naturally out of my use of "reaction cards." In order to sense what students were learning, to increase personal contact, to keep thinking going between classes, to facilitate idea-banks for paper topics, and to give the experience of "publication," I would ask students to try to fill at least one side of a 4x6 index card after each class and to turn it in next class. I would then read the cards after class, make marginal comments as appropriate, read a few good or bad ones at the top of the following class, return them all, and clarify points that the class seemed unsure about. I was quite comfortable with this pedagogy. The conference, then, was a natural evolution out of my regular teaching practice but enabling such added benefits as saving class time, "publishing" all students, student interaction outside class, increasing the pool of shared ideas beyond the few I selected, and so forth.

What do I want to accomplish with a conference?

In the beginning I pretty much just assigned the conference (as I had done reaction cards) with a relative minimum of explanation in that rush through the syllabus and introductory matters during the first class. Using computers in the "early days" (five or six years ago!) required students uncomfortable with computers to invest significant energy unrelated to class material, however, and thus I gradually developed memos justifying that investment to students. Appendix 1 is a recent version of an ever-changing student explanation, and here is a list of the goals I gradually articulated for myself over the past five or six years, before reading any of the critical literature on conferences for this "Composition with Computers" class.

In general, through the conference, I want students

1) to think more about course issues between classes

2) to write more, and more regularly

3) to write to learn

4) to build a resource on which to draw for formal papers

5) to develop their voices

6) to have a free space

7) to share ideas and viewpoints

8) to "publish" and receive feedback

9) to take responsibility for teaching and learning

10)to form a community of learners

There's a range here from the practical and utilitarian to the idealistic and even utopian, and I don't suppose that you need subscribe to all of the goals to use the conference. If you are running a "traditional" classroom, in fact, free space might not be a main goal at all, as in my English 4-12.

"Composition with Computers" has made me more sensitive to the need not only for such a list of goals but for taking time to discuss it with students. I have become a bit lazy, using the archival function of the conference simply to store my explanation and telling students to read it there. But narratives-from-the-trenches in our class have made it clear how little students may initially share some of what seem to us axiomatic goals, and thus how important it is when introducing a new pedagogy to take the time to explain it in some detail.

What does the critical literature say?

Cooper and Selfe situate the conference within a framework similar to the "traditional" and "radical" classrooms I described earlier, and they see its role as part of the ammunition with which the latter attacks the former. They say that traditional forums encourage intellectual accommodation and discourage intellectual resistance, limiting effective understanding and use of language. They see the need for non-traditional forums that disrupt teacher-centeredness, encourage resistance through language, enable "internally persuasive discourse," and allow students to communicate with one another. I have added a longer list of their claims in Appendix 2.

Cooper and Selfe say we can make the computer fit in with and validate the value systems in our traditional classrooms (on the order of my English 4-12), or "we can draw on the revolutionary potential . . . to create non-traditional forums that allow students the opportunity to reexamine the authoritarian values of the classroom, to resist their socialization into a narrowly conceived form of academic discourse, to learn from the clash of discourses, to learn through engaging in discourse" (on the order of my English 191).

They clearly side with the latter option, which, I suppose, is the characteristic voice of the critical literature on conferences, as well as other computer pedagogies. For instance, when Hawisher and Selfe point to the dangers of the uncritical enthusiasm that permeates much writing about computer pedagogy (a phenomenon we noted in our class) and even invoke the spectre of Foucault's Panopticon when discussing the teacher hovering over "free" conference space, they clearly still work in service of revolutionary goals.

Now, I find it self-reflectively interesting to note that, unexposed to the critical literature till this semester, and simply following my nose to a large extent, I have used the conference in both "traditional" and "revolutionary" ways without seeing them as opposed. So, though computer pedagogy tends to come at us clothed in the rhetoric of change, I guess I'll repeat what I said earlier, that the conference is versatile, and we do not necessarily have to see ourselves as revolutionaries to experiment with it.


Let's take a look at each of the ten goals I listed on pp. 6-7.

Is there more thought between classes?

There can be, just like with the reaction card. Without something like this, what would many students do? Read the next assignment or read or copy notes--worthy but pretty passive activities. Or do nothing. Writing makes students "produce," and writing for the immediate class audience may induce more careful thinking. In addition, reading what others are saying has the potential to stimulate new ideas and to generate constructive conflict of opinion.

I especially hate the feeling of dead time during the five-day lag between some of our class meetings. I think that's a terrible learning rhythm. Before the conference I would, in effect, say to students, "I'll see you next class," but now the expectation is that I will "see" them outside of class as well. The class now meets every day of the semester in virtual space. The opportunity is there for a completely different kind of intensity and engagement.

The conference is more dynamic than my reaction cards. The conference creates a flow of ideas; some students post right after class, some right before the next one, some several days or weeks after class even. Students who check the conference every day and perhaps more than once a day, as I do, will find almost constant occasions to engage class issues.

Ideally, students would check the conference daily, and this may happen if study habits change and computers are more integral to study spaces. Frankly, my realistic expectation now is one visit between classes, so the potential for inter-class activity is not nearly being tapped. (I plan to experiment with "requiring" more frequent visits, however, for writing a post and reading many others can be too much to do in one visit.) But, even so, my sense is that the intellectual ante in classes has been upped a notch already. I know I don't feel like I once did that I have to "reach back" every class.

Do students write more because of the conference?

Now that I think about it, this goal doesn't really apply so much to my classes. Students in most of my classes were doing the reaction cards, which was about the same amount of writing as a conference entry. But what I'm signaling here is that I want students to write more than most classes where they probably still write mainly when a paper or a test is due.

In general, why have students write more, and more regularly? All writing teachers would probably agree that the more writing practice you do, even in informal ways, the better you'll get, or, at least, the more chance you have to improve (see next sections). Probably agree that it is our job to create as many writing/thinking situations as possible. A student who does a screen per class will write 25-40 more pages on the conference over the course of a semester, depending on how often the class meets, a not insubstantial amount.

Does the conference help students write to learn?

Well, in a way there is no specific qualitative improvement here over the reaction cards. I asked for the same kind of writing there as I do now--writing that "chases" ideas (I give thanks to Greg Skutches for that apt verb)rather than summarizes class discussion. In the language of our policy statement, I am looking for writing that "goes beyond." In Appendix 1 I describe the conference as "a place where you pick up an idea or ideas and go after it or them in an aggressive manner. Sometimes headlong, sometimes reckless, but always energetically. And it doesn't matter if you come to conclusion or closure."

The potential is there, though, for a big difference from the reaction cards. If students will read what others have written and try to go further, or if students will reply to each other, occasioning layers and cycles of "answers," then it seems to me that the conference has a lot to offer in terms of accomplishing what I understand to be a major goal of Epistemic theory. I don't think I have seen enough of these things happening yet, however, and recently I have done more to encourage interaction through exhortation and even to require it through specific rules (see pp. 24-25).

Is the conference a resource for formal papers?

Our policy statement says, "The primary quality of effective writing . . . is thoughtful ideas" (p.11), but I have always found the invention stage troublesome for my students and, frankly, for me. I have always felt that invention is the writing stage least susceptible to being "taught."

In the reaction card days, I could ask students to thumb back through their collection, reflect on the ideas they had stored there, and see what topics came up. But obviously there was no group consciousness brought to bear on the process. Where do ideas a step beyond what everybody else is saying come from? How does one know what others are saying and thinking? Some students have no problem with this, are naturally creative. Perhaps all we can do for the others is arrange a process that stimulates discovery, and that simulates a course of action that will become habitual. We aim for this stimulation and simulation during class time, of course, but time and other factors often limit or inhibit involvement of all students. The conference can help. The conference requires all students to float preliminary ideas within a context that exposes them to the ideas of many others.

My experience is that I can always see a few direct links between posts and paper topics, and my instinct is that many links will always be indirect and invisible anyway, the result of almost unconscious shaping. I also have a sense, interestingly, that my personal conferences at the invention stage have decreased. I get very little any more of "Prof Gallagher, I have no idea what to write about," and when that happens I am now in the habit of turning to the bank of ideas on the conference and scrolling through them with the student till something percolates. It seems to me, in fact, that students who use the conference regularly have less "excuse" for not being able to shape their own topics.

Do all students develop a voice?

Sometimes class discussions "go great." Sometimes I ask myself what criteria I use when I have that feeling. Sometimes the answer is that "they" got to "my" points without me lecturing. Sometimes it's that several people made very provocative points that everybody could benefit from. Sometimes it's that everybody seemed to be involved. This last point is the one to linger on here. What do you think is the average number of regularly active discussants in class--10% 25%? 50%? Whatever, I'd like all students to "speak" in class every day, but they rarely do, and the conference can help that goal.

The conference complements in-class discussion for students in many ways. It allows all students to "have the floor" when they want to speak, when they are ready to speak, without waiting for the teacher to call on them, without worry about getting cut off, without rushing because teacher or student cues indicate others want the floor. The conference enables shy students, students who take longer to process information or form ideas, students who don't function at 7:55 AM, students who are sick and miss class the opportunity to participate. It allows people second and third thoughts, the possibility of building on or revising their class ideas (think of the good class participators whom you have to cut off in class before they are done).

The conference allows students who want to develop complex ideas the time to do so. It allows students to find textual evidence or to think of examples for points that need that support. For the few but growing number of students who have access from home, it allows contact over breaks or weekends away. If the conference is kept open into a following semester, it allows class community to transcend the "end" of the course.

The conference is a safer space for students who feel or who are marginalized in some way, who have something of a personal nature to add, who want to avoid being jumped on immediately, or who want to challenge a teacher. It even allows me to add things that I didn't have time for or got shut out from saying.

The conference is open all the time. In fact, it decenters what happens in the classroom. It might be more appropriate to say, then, that the class itself is open all the time in a way that eases many of the problems with face-to-face discussion.

I encourage in-class discussion, of course. I do what I can to engage the quiet ones in what I consider important experience, and in the old days I would read good cards from those people in class. But the conference provides another dimension. I have rarely not been pleasantly surprised at high quality posts from people quiet in class. (It is no surprise that the opposite is also true, that some very talkative students sound shallow on the conference.) All the quiet ones do not emerge on the conference, of course; some students simply are not engaged, have nothing to say. But, curious for "harder" evidence, I recently calculated that out of seven dead-quiet students in a class, three were among the strongest on the conference posts, and their contribution, with its value for them and for others, would not have happened otherwise.

I'd better add that the conference complements not replaces in-class discussion. I would not ever want to do away with face-to-face discussion, and I continue to urge the quiet students to develop oral skills. But the conference enables all members of the class to "speak" as never before, and it may help the quiet ones gain confidence to engage more in class discussion.

Is the conference free space?

In the traditional classroom the teacher powers everything--making the syllabus, setting the requirements, starting class, finishing class, fronting students, standing above them, choosing subjects to talk about, talking about them, selecting others to talk about them, selecting which reaction cards to read, grading, perhaps even choosing where and when the class meets. In order to have their ideas "published" to the class in pre-conference days, for instance, my students would have to write their reaction cards to attract my attention. All ideas were funneled through me.

So, is the teacher's authority diluted when a conference is used? Not necessarily. The conference can certainly be used as another means of exercising authority, of centering the teacher, of running a "traditional" class. In English 4-12, for instance, I was consciously authoritative and "loud" on the conference. I had been dissatisfied with the amount of concrete attention I have given to making direct practical comments about student writing, and student evaluations showed that I could do better helping them understand how to improve and on what basis they were being graded. Thus, I did two things in English 4-12: first, for most of the course I made "writing teacher-type" comments on every post, and, second, I had students upload their papers, arranged to use a computer classroom periodically, and did public analysis in some way of every student's work several times during the semester.

The conference in English 4-12 enabled me to accomplish traditional needs better. I felt much more effective, and student responses on the 2-3 relevant evaluation questions rose noticeably. Now, there are problems--like frayed student feelings, perhaps even inhibition, from "public" criticism and the potential for plagiarism when papers are uploaded on a public conference--but, frankly, I felt for the first time in my teaching career that I had an efficient way of using student writing to do the most basic things that writing teachers do.

I have not used a conference in a large lecture course, but I know that teachers who have done this describe the conference as a way of discovering student errors or misconceptions that they can then correct--another way of the centered teacher using authority for good purpose.

I have used the conference for "radical" as well as traditional means, though--as a way to de-center significantly, as a way to create "free space." In such cases, such as in English 191, I simply participate on the conference as one of the group, and, let me tell you, I know what it feels like to be de-centered. Interestingly, my experience is that discussion virtually always begins in a spot different than I would have chosen. Moreover, your ID on a message menu has no more impact than anyone else's, and students can choose to ignore you if they want. I have had the empty feeling of asking a question that doesn't get answered or of sweating over a great comment that doesn't seem to cause a ripple--sure signs that nobody cares about me or that my ideas aren't that great when competing with others. I have been judged wrong but always respectfully, as far as I can remember--which actually may be unfortunate, for more healthy disrespect would be a sure sign that the conference was truly free student space. I've been criticized on the conference for not letting someone talk in class. I've had students say that they wish the course were arranged in another way. And so forth.

It's always tricky to figure out whether to respond, whether to engage in self-defense, or to be silent when such things happen. It's hard to wait to see if someone else in the group will respond for you, but that may be the best strategy, though I can see, too, that drawing a teacher out, making a teacher respond, is an exercise of student power and authority. Even wondering if or how to respond to some sort of student "challenge" makes me feel vividly how power in the conference space is reversed.

I must say that fully achieving a sense of the conference as student space, if that is your purpose, is greatly enhanced if and when some students will "step out" a bit either in the content or tone of their posts and see that if censoring or opposition is to occur it will have to come from the students themselves.

I must also say that this idea of "free space" might be the trickiest part of using this pedagogy. If you use a conference, even in a traditional class, prepare to have your feelings about and experience with teacher authority rattled around a bit. Prepare to have your students say "anything." The issue of student etiquette in computer space has been a continuing concern in "Composition with Computers" this semester, and I will say a bit more about my one "bad" experience later (pp. 26-27).

But I was struck writing the first draft of this essay that there is a certain irony in calling the conference free space in a non-traditional class when I set it up. Ultimately, the teacher owns the space, opens it for the students, probably creates the discussion threads, and can certainly shut it down at any time. Free space???? Perhaps the radical potential here will not be fully realized till students "freely" set up their own spaces! I wonder if they are permitted to do so under university rules?! In any event, as a result of this realization, I took the symbolic experimental step this semester of opening the conference but not setting up the topics under which students post. It was up to the students to set up the "New Topic" and thus to choose what to discuss. The students were not quick to take their freedom. It was one month before a student initiated a topic, and it is fair to say that the conference never became an integral part of the course.

Is there sharing of ideas and viewpoints? Can students "publish" and receive feedback?

I'll focus here on English 4-12, the "traditional" class I talked about in the previous section. Our policy statement speaks of the desirability of "Demonstration and analysis of models. . . . [Students] can profit from being shown--shown both how a writer solves various composing problems and what a successful text (on a particular topic) looks like" (p. 12). I'm not sure that the statement imagines much less endorses analyses of student "products" rather than analyses of writing by others at the students' drafting stage, but that is how I used the conference. I know that public analysis of student papers is fraught with peril (p.13), and I have seen the frowns on colleagues' faces when I mention it. Sharing and publishing and feedback can and do occur in the conference posts, of course, but I have also used the conference to publish student papers and to generate feedback on them.

One inevitably thinks of Emily Dickinson--"Publication is the auction of the Mind." It is "tonic," shall we say, for students to have their papers, not just their drafts, out there for everybody to read, and not only to read but to evaluate. Now I have always tried to bring in student work, either sample essays from another class (almost always, unfortunately, on different topics)or papers or parts of papers from the current class, most often anonymously, but either way seemed defeatingly cumbersome to me because of the various filing, snipping, copying, time lag, and so forth involved. Instead, I have experimented with having students upload their papers directly to the conference, and I've moved periodically into a computer classroom to discuss them.

Things I like about this method include: the ability to assign student papers as homework, timeliness (discussing papers on the very day they are turned in), students can learn from their peers, students can see how others approached the same task, my ability to use lots of examples and to show everybody's work, students receive a vivid sense of audience, easier preparation for class discussion, lots of flexibility in the class itself, lack of busywork.

The English 4 class was the "Sports" course so I was able to draw on a sports analogy and describe the days we publicly discussed papers as "game film days." I assigned all or part of the papers as homework, so we could have general discussion of whatever they responded to. But I also had planned something to show in each paper. I presented the examples in general terms--What do you think of the opening? Does this argument seem to work? Etc.-- but, frankly, as a centered teacher/"coach" in this class, I had an answer that I was looking for. I can't say that students liked this method, but higher student evaluations showed they felt it had value. Every student had some aspect of his or her work discussed on the big screen five times during the semester (I'm sure there are ways of posting the papers anonymously should you want to do that), and I had more significant discussion than I have ever had on the qualities of effective writing and on my own grading standards.

There was a problem getting the papers posted, however. I was not too familiar with the process, my instructions were not very good, and the variety of student software and of sites from which they uploaded complicated matters. You can see that many papers that made it to the conference came up with skewed lines and so forth. Students complained vigorously about these difficulties, so better instructions than I had then are needed, and Appendix 6, drawn up by Hal Halbert drawing on Dave Leight, is a step in that direction. I am told that the process is easier now through Windows 95 and Netscape than through the way I was using.

Do students take responsibility for teaching and learning? Form communities of learners?

The last goal. The most utopian. A "community of learners"--students who will take much of the responsibility for teaching and learning upon themselves, who will work together, who enjoy teaching and learning and working together. I must admit that I have actively experimented with ways of pursuing this goal over the past three years. A conference will not produce such a community on its own, but it is a major contributing factor when joined with others in a concerted effort at decentering.

I'll focus here on English 191, the "radical" class I talked about above. In order to work toward a community of learners, this class ran almost totally on discussion by small groups with rotating members, student facilitators of full class discussion, and student presentations. I participated in the groups, only facilitated a few early full class discussions, tried not even to be the person signaling the beginning and end of class, and didn't attend the last four classes. We met once a week at night for a film series with snacks, and a student hosted a dinner at her house. I made minimal appearances on the conference board, trying to make it student space, though I made sure that each student got 2-3 private replies from me during the semester, and students were assigned to reply publicly AND privately to others.

Though I don't pretend to any systematic knowledge of what helps create a community of learners, three conditions do come to mind right away: that students get to know each other, that they feel they are listened to, that they sense the teacher is serious about yielding responsibility. Though not perfect, my sense was this class went well--there was serious discussion in class and on the conference, students reported talking about class issues outside class, students made new friends, and, perhaps most significantly of all, classes continued when I was not present.

I have refrained from quoting conference posts thus far. When I see them in critical articles, I am always skeptical about how selective they are to prove a point, and sometimes I frankly don't see in the posts what the author does (I think they lose something if you weren't in the conversation). What I did was shut my eyes and run the cursor along the menu for English 191. It stopped at Katherine Hepburn/Little Women, and I will cite just a few posts there relating to a sense of community that seemed to be forming that early in the course (weeks 2-3)--and invite you to browse through as well to see what you see.

Interestingly, SDS3 begins the conversation with a comparison of the two film versions, which is not where I would have started discussion in a centered class, not realizing that virtually all of the women in the class would have seen the contemporary version. SDS3 sides with the older version and poses a question mid-way into her post based on conversations with other students. A few posts later MEN2 takes an emotional opposite stance in the comparison. Two days later JCL5 says she's read all the posts before her and spins out several very specific and thus more convincing reasons why she sides with the newer one. A day later KKH2 differs with the difference between the versions advanced by others and ends up valuing both versions. The same day KMB6 acknowledges the main conversational thread in her opening but immediately takes up another topic. The next day SMH3 returns to the original thread, copies in another person's previous post that she likes and expands on it further. The next day we find EBC3 changing her mind about which version she likes as a result of class conversation with MEN2. Four days later I make a post asking some questions that nobody found interesting enough to respond to! Then EBC3 finds another revision in thinking to make as a result of conversation, and SMH3 returns once more, this time to disagree with prevalent views. Finally, we see KMB6 and EBC3 thinking back to this film about three months after the conversation began. Bottom line, I think we see students initiating a topic of interest to them, arguing all sides, listening to each other, responding to each other, changing opinions because of each other, and engaged long after the class "occasion" for thought has passed.


Are conferences appropriate for all class sizes?

It's possible that a smallish seminar with lots of discussion might not find a conference so necessary, but I would say it could be useful there still as a record of ideas and as a place to talk outside class. I'd say, though, that in some sense large lecture classes might benefit most from a conference--feedback for the teacher, a sense of community where it's hard to foster, and at least some writing activity. I've found the comp class size almost ideal, however--just large enough to need channels of expression and a bonding mechanism, yet small enough to absorb all voices.

Are conferences appropriate for all class levels?

I have used conferences at all levels. They seem to me natural and easy to integrate with English department goals at each undergraduate level--the first-year writing course, the 100-level distribution courses for all majors, the 300-level courses for our majors. My own personal experience is that the quality of the posts and the intensity of participation is less in the required composition courses compared to the other elective courses, but conferences somehow seem even more necessary to me at the lower level. I have used conferences at the graduate level but mainly just for archival matters, as in the <Epiphany> conference for English 491, rather than integrating them into course pedagogy. Why? I teach less at the graduate level? Stronger classroom traditions at the graduate level? Firmer lines of authority? Less reward for innovation? In fact, riskier to innovate there? Pressure to cover material? A more individual environment? Different rhythm to graduate study and graduate student life? Student time pressure and access to computers? Students already write and talk a lot? Much higher expectations for informal writing by teachers? It seems important to me that future teachers must experience these pedagogies as students themselves in order to make proper choices about using them, however, so I do plan to incorporate the conference differently in a graduate course next semester.


How long should the posts be?

My usual guideline now is that students fill one screen--18 lines at approximately 14 words per line = approximately 250 words. My sense is that this length encourages developing a thought-burst to a reasonable point or encourages generating a reasonable range of ideas to be explored more deeply later. My sense also is that most of us are still at a stage where we find longer posts hard to read on computer screens. The idea, it seems to me, is to push students beyond conversational terseness without moving into the kind of investment of time and thinking that comes with developing a point in essay-depth or in organizing several points. I haven't thought to express my expectation in time terms before writing this essay, but I suppose I'd expect that a student normally spend 15-20 minutes or so writing a post and another 15-30 minutes or so reading and responding to others.

How often should students post?

I have tried a variety of guidelines: every class, once a week, once (or twice, etc.) per unit/author/work, when/if the spirit moves them (thus, no specific requirement). In most cases and usually always in composition courses, I have now settled into requiring one post a class, even though several vocal students always complain that they don't have enough to say to post that often and that many posts from others are boring. Still, I think that generating five-six pages of thought explorations between each formal paper is reasonable and necessary exercise, and, moreover, the creation of community demands that people come together regularly. The common sense goal is that the habit of exercise will bring about improvement.

When should students post?

I know some people have students post before class, using the posts to generate ideas for class discussion. That never quite felt right to me, but before writing this essay I hadn't thought to pinpoint why. I think it's because the posts were mainly summaries. Thus, I have favored having students post after class discussion--within a day after class is the guideline. I describe the post as third-level thinking and preparation on the way to the formal essay: read and formulate ideas, which you bring to class and mix with others, after which you post on the conference, and then after which ultimately you think about writing an essay. My hope is for conference writing that is a notch or two above summary and which is informed by exposure to group discussion.

Do I have deadlines for posting?

My guideline is that students post within a day after class, while ideas are hot, while class conversation on a particular topic is going on. In reality my hope is that they will at least post before the next class. I do not monitor this at all. I simply try to explain that students who post too late get out of sync with the conversation, run the risk of not being read by others, and are probably wasting their time. I do usually set, though, periodic deadlines for catching up, such as the class before each paper is due, in order to have everybody's ideas available as a resource as papers are being written. I create a dummy post at deadline time with the title of "DEADLINE" or with a row of XXXXXXX's, so that it is easy when scanning the menu page to see which posts are late and can legitimately be ignored or penalized. The student or two who waits to the very end and then makes multiple posts going back several classes makes you homicidal most times, but occasionally a late post sparks re-thinking that is beneficial.

What for me makes a good post?

If you were asking students to post before class, you might suggest they pose a question from their reading, or summarize what they read, or reader-respond from their first impression, or have a fresh reaction. I ask students to post after class, and, as you can see from Appendix 1, I specifically ask students to "chase" ideas, even without worrying about capturing them. In my scheme, I want them to subordinate first impressions and summary of class discussion in order to move into something that really interests them and will make a contribution to the group. I try to call class attention early on to some model posts.

What else do I look for in the posts?

It is, of course, important for the sense of community as well as for the stimulation of outside ideas that students read the posts of others, so I do say I expect that they show in a reasonable fashion (sometimes through a specific number guideline, sometimes through specifically assigning people in rotation as responders) that they are listening and responding to others. I now usually add this in to the mix of instructions at a point later in the course when the conference seems to be running well. I also recommend for their own personal growth that they return periodically to earlier posts, reflect on them, and post again on that "old" topic when appropriate.


How do I grade the conference?

First, I'd say you need a statement about what you are looking for in individual posts, what expectations you have over a series of posts (like how many posts, whether some should respond to others, whether there should be some revisiting of earlier posts, and so forth), and that you point out some good models--by reading them in class, projecting them if you are in a computer room, making positive comments about specific posts on the conference itself, etc. Then, too, it is a good idea early on to reply privately to weak posters, giving advice for doing better and/or referring them to other posts for models.

I have tried a variety of ways of assigning grades: 1) subjective feeling 2) quantity only, a check-off system (90% done is an A, 80% a B, and so forth), and I've counted the posts myself (ugh!), had students count them and self-report, had students "print screen" the menu pages and circle their posts (I liked this but print screen capability doesn't seem universal, though I understand that you can do it easily through Netscape) 3) quality only: I simply make the judgment from all the posts, or another way is to have students turn in printouts of their three or five, etc., best posts (a tip of the hat to Barry Kroll for this idea) 4) a combination of quality/quantity. Choice may depend on specific circumstance: if you are trying to make the conference truly "student space," for instance, perhaps the quantitative measure is the best--as teacher, you force them to write but you are not judging what they write.

What weight does it have in the final grade?

My usual scheme in non-composition courses now is something like this: 60% three papers, 20% conference, 20% class discussion. Thus, the conference is equal to one paper and one-fifth of the total grade, and the grading scheme puts significantly more weight on the formal writing. I like splitting the conference out like that. The problem in the composition courses for me is that the conference, class discussion, and good citizenship et al. must fit under the one class grade. For me, it's harder in that scheme to make the significance I give to the conference visible.

How do I give periodic feedback about the grade?

I usually give a signal at the end of the comments on each paper, though I hesitate to give specific grades at that time. In other words, students know that they got, for instance, a B on a paper and can figure exactly where they stand in that category, but I do not give a grade for the conference till the end. Instead, I give short descriptors, for instance, "3 out of 5" if I am using the #2 method above, a sound bite like "You have done all the required posts but they are mainly summaries. I'd like to see your posts moving beyond class discussion" if I am using #4.

Another way of feedback is through the actual response you make to student posts publicly on the conference or privately via e-mail. Students who see you responding positively to their posts will know they are doing well. If you aren't responding (students seem to talk to each other about who gets replies and who doesn't)or are fussing in some way over responses, that sends a grade message too.


Is it hard to get students started?

You need to be aware that first-semester students must open their network accounts. About 2/3's of my students last fall had done so before our first class, but that meant I had to nudge 1/3. See Appendix 3 for the procedure. In my experience, there is no problem the second semester.

I have found a dramatic reduction in the amount of instruction I need to offer students in the five or six years I have been using conferences. I used to have a lengthy handout with "print screen" graphics to walk students through. There was a time when 1/3 or 1/2 way through a course, people were still not on or were having severe difficulty. Even with last Fall's first-semester students I noticed virtually no lag; by the third class everybody had mastered the basic mechanics. Still, instructions are necessary (see Appendix 4).

If you are in a computer room or can schedule time in one, of course, introducing the conference via a run-through on the big screen is quick and easy, literally taking only a few minutes of class time. With upperclass students, I'm finding that only about 20% lack computer familiarity enough to begin the conference virtually on their own, with a bare minimum of direction. If course goals include group work and creation of community, then forming groups right away with the purpose of making sure everybody can use the conference is a natural activity.

As impetus for students to visit the conference right away, I have now taken to posting the syllabus there rather than handing it out. Students have to go to the conference immediately and regularly to find out their assignments. Usually, too, I will make a first post or two to get things going or to provide a model of what a post might be.

What other instructions do students need?

Depending on your purposes, you might want students to know how to add new conference topics of their own (Appendix 4). I have been the one to set up the topics in my classes, but, as I mentioned, this semester I'm letting students do that. Students sometimes post in the wrong spot on the conference, and thus it helps to know how to move messages around (Appendix 5). You also may want to have students upload papers or drafts to the conference (Appendix 6). Students may also want to download posts to use in papers or to turn in for grading (Appendix 7).

I would really like to do more with students uploading papers to the conference or sharing drafts individually via e-mail. Thus far, many students have had difficulty doing this. My sense is that you need very specific instructions about how to do this from different sites on campus and from different wordprocessing software. Some students who successfully uploaded would find line formats all askew. Some working from programs other than WordPerfect could not figure out how to make an ASCII file. Some have lost papers in the transmission process. And so forth. This kind of thing has frustrated students and caused pressure for me. Bad enough getting a paper done well on time without worrying about negotiating the technology too. But some clear instructions should take care of this.

Do students have sufficient computer access?

At a recent meeting the registrar complained about poor computer access for both on- and off-campus students, but my informal polls indicate that as many as 80% of the students in a class report very easy access--a computer in their rooms, or next door, or in the fraternity house, etc. Almost all the others say they can regularly use a public site. In upperclass courses, a few students who live off-campus complain that they don't come back to campus at night because of safety or weather reasons, etc., and this limits their access. Access has only been a problem for occasional students and never significantly in my experience. But maybe I have been lucky. Graduate students should realize that students at other schools, especially commuter schools, may not have the generally easy access students here have. What we want to avoid is assigning projects that take inordinate student time and energy simply negotiating the technology.


Is it hard to get teachers started?

Janet Starner said recently that she thought the conference was a natural first step for faculty into the world of computer pedagogy because it is simply an extension of e-mail, which virtually everybody is now using. I think that's right, and we see in the department more people using conferences, even some first-year teachers, and even without lots of prior instruction. Another plus is that you don't have to be in a computer room to use this computer pedagogy, so the technology is not "in your face" in the way that makes many people feel uncomfortable. The word seems to be spreading, then, and I'm not sure, frankly, that much persuasion or instruction will be needed before long to encourage people to add this dimension to their courses. It may become a routine matter for many.

As usage grows, people will probably teach each other, especially teaching fellows sharing offices, but I would think one workshop would get people started. The main incentive, however, will always be a link to teaching styles and goals. The main advice is the common sense one of not trying to do too much at the beginning. I have simply tinkered over a half-dozen years, adding and subtracting little-by-little.

The process begins, however, with opening a conference by contacting Cindy Sipos in Information Resources (cas6, 83011) and doing her paperwork. You must do paperwork for each new conference.

Do teachers have sufficient computer access?

Everybody here has access to an office computer, and many faculty have computers with modems so they can work from home. I'm not sure the latter situation is true for many teaching fellows and adjuncts, and I that is probably inhibiting. I know I like to do my conference work in the quieter, more leisurely atmosphere at home. And the department must work to upgrade the computers in all offices to make efficient use of this and other computer pedagogies possible for everybody.


What impact is there on faculty time?

There is a general feeling among administrators sometimes that the computer will save time. I have not found this to be the case at all with the conference. In fact, the conference can take enormous time, and one has to be careful. Naturally, there is the time that must be given to start-up and the first frustrations of getting used to how the conference works, but my sense is that this will be minimal. The big thing is that the conference, far from dehumanizing students by treating them en-masse, personalizes students enormously, and personal contact simply takes more time. Frankly, this initial and this continuing investment of time may not be appealing to some (many?) teachers. But my sense is that the conference significantly improves the quality of my time and increases student payoff. I know my students better and am able to do things I want to do with and for them easier and better.

Do I read all the posts?

Yes, I try to. I don't think it's too bad in a comp course of 20ish students meeting twice a week = 45 or so posts a week to read. It has been a pleasant burden in classes I've had with 30-40 students meeting thrice a week = 1400 or so posts a semester! I used to hear even "authorities" saying we didn't have to read or comment on journals, just check them off as done, and that always sounded dishonest to me, especially when viewed from the student perspective. I personally have always figured that if you assign it, you should read it and reasonably carefully. One important goal of the conference, moreover, is community, so I do try to read everything. And I have a sense that students know when you aren't "there" (Catholic upbringing?). The reading can take a lot of time, though. Believe me.

Do I respond to all the posts?

I have done all kinds of things here, from responding to every post for most of a comp course to staying silent for about half the class in an upperclass multicultural course. I find that usually what I do in the "radical" settings is respond publicly to all students in the first week or two--to make sure they know they have an audience, that someone is "listening"--till the conference gets
off the ground a bit. After that I respond as the spirit moves me. Often I lag a week or so behind
the syllabus in my posts so that the students have the first shot at setting what to talk about. Often
once or twice later in the course I will try over several days to respond to everybody again to let
them know I am still there. Lately, I have experimented with replying privately for the most part,
leaving the public conference mainly to the students. The private response encourages more
personal content, and I have had lots of signs that receiving several individual "letters" from the
prof breaks down barriers and enhances the student-teacher relationship significantly. But the
responding can take a lot of time.


Do students read each other's posts?

I must admit I had it in my mind that the conference would read like a conversation. That does happen but not nearly in the way I imagined it or imagined "seeing" it. In my original mind's eye, students would read through the board and then post within that frame of reference. As I said, that happens, but my sense is that often the posts are set pieces written without relation to whatever is already on the board. Often, then, in my experience students post before reading what others have written. Thus there can be a lot of repetition of ideas, and occasionally there is a post that seems to have an astounding ignorance of the post immediately preceding it.

I had been worried that these set pieces meant that students were not reading other posts, but discussion in this class made me realize that I was envisioning a script more proper to Interchange and synchronous writing than this asynchronous environment. Conference writing, in my experience, tends, on the whole, to be more formal than synchronous writing. Some students think significantly about their posts before they open the conference, come with pre-conceived ideas of what they want to say. So, the more I thought about this "problem," the more I saw it was in my pre-conception.

But it is essential that students read and respond to each other's work, and I have done teacherly things to encourage these activities. I have asked students to reply to, say, the posts of three others on the public conference. I have lately taken to asking students to make a specified number of private replies. In effect, I'm trying to start a habit of one-to-one talk. Students seem to like receiving personal mail on class issues. I can't monitor this activity, of course, and simply try to explain why it is a good thing. In addition, I know of classes in which the students are broken into groups of, say, five and reply to people in their groups. It may simply be insecurity, but I like to have tangible evidence that there is mutual reading going on.

What do students complain about?

In my experience student reception of the conference has definitely been positive, but a certain number of students consistently complain about three things: having enough ideas, enough time, and enough patience.

Some students complain that they don't have enough ideas to post something significant once a class, as is my usual expectation these days. These students want longer intervals or a when-they-have-something-to-say formula. I have tried other guidelines, but they simply have not worked as well for me. I guess I sometimes trot out a sports metaphor and ask them what would happen if a coach said it was ok for players to come to practice whenever they wanted.

Some students complain that they don't have time to read all the posts. I have some sympathy for this in the big three-times-a-week classes. As I mentioned above, some teachers form students in smaller groups (so that there are several conferences in a class) as a way to deal with this. I have not tried this method yet, but I'm not real sympathetic with this complaint in the smallish comp class. I recommend that these students visit the conference daily or frequently rather than trying to get through all the posts in one shot.

Some students complain about having to read boring and repetitive posts. I do have sympathy with this one. I mention that what I try to do is to put a bit of pressure on people who seem to be wasting our time on the conference by my private or public responses to them. But that it would probably be more effective as well as being their responsibility for them to do the same thing. This is student space, I say; if there is a problem, students need to address it. They have some power to exercise.

What about students who don't post regularly?

There always seem to be 10-20% of the students who wait to the deadlines and do multiple posts. This has been a bit of a problem for my classes since my deadlines are often right before papers are due, and everybody is busy with the papers. The posts simply don't get read, and they do the writer and the group no good. It has all the look (and the reality?) of students simply meeting the letter of a requirement. The conference obviously works best when there is steady, regular participation.

There are things to do; I personally just haven't gotten around to experimenting with them yet. I could ratchet the deadlines for posts somehow, making them shorter. I could penalize posts later than the day-after-class guideline. I could say no more than three posts at one time, or something like that. It occurs to me as I write this that I have been reluctant to introduce draconian measures in a space I would like to as free as possible. These post-dumps are frustrating, but I guess I haven't seen them as so big a problem that something needs to be done.

Has there been disruptive behavior?

In the five or six years I have been using a conference, I have found students polite and respectful, treating the conference seriously. They have disagreed, occasionally strongly, but I don't remember name calling or ad hominem behavior. They have taken unconventional views, sometimes expressed passionately, but I don't remember intentional abrasiveness. Now, I'm not sure whether this civility is good or bad! I have the ironic sense that students will not consider it their space until they cross a few boundaries. But because students are together in relatively small classes, holding personal face to face discussions, in a context where I am preaching the "community of learners" sermon, it is perhaps hard to imagine the kind of flaming that one hears about and occasionally experiences on internet discussion lists. Maybe I've just been lucky.

I did have one incident in an upperclass course that might be relevant here, though. A student made a statement that the white race is superior to others, a statement that was certainly construed as racist. Other students e-mailed me, immediately wanting me to do something--censor the student, punish him, something. The key thing was that they wanted ME then to step in, even though I had set the conference up as THEIR space. I was frankly puzzled about what to do but decided to see if people would work things out themselves. I responded to those who wrote me telling them that and with a few options about what to do. It was tense for a short while. There were some aggressive conference replies. Then some firm but more reasoned ones. Eventually the students bothered by the racial comment asked for class time to confront the person. Not everybody was happy with the sideline role I took, but, in truth, the students did work it out themselves, which I still think is best. But I was lucky. There could have been a big blow-up. There is definitely the risk of uncivil behavior in "free space," as we have heard from Janet Starner and Jennifer Goldfarb in our class in regard to Interchange.

Is there a thrill factor that may wane?

I think so. For a while the conference was a brand new experience for students, and there was a kick out of being "explorers," of being involved with something "different" than friends in other classes. But "Even the new becomes boring," said a student last semester. Sigh. Now the conference idea is at least familiar to most students, even if they haven't used it before. Inevitably, some of the glamour will wear off, but this is probably more likely to happen with, for instance, English majors, who could find themselves members of 2-3 conferences in a semester. That seems less likely with our diverse bunch of first-year students. Maybe.

Are there personal "revelations"?

Yes, there have been personal revelations--a lesbian "came out," a woman talked about an inter-racial relationship, a man who could pass for white brought up his mixed heritage, stories of rape and near-rape came out, even intimations of sexual abuse. These come with the territory and are almost what one hopes for if the class starts to feel like a community. I have talked about some personal things in detail even--being present at the deaths of my father and mother, for instance. I can understand why such things would not appeal to some teachers, but I don't see them as problems. And these revelations occur in "regular" classes as well.

Does informal writing improve the finished "product"?

Funny, when I posed this question that students and teachers alike ask, I was reminded of a recent personal experience that is relevant to what we'd like to see happen. Barbara Traister gave the department the assignment (like writing a paper) of deciding on a curricular question. We were to share our thoughts on e-mail (like a conference board) and come to a conclusion so we could vote. The question was knotty, and initially I didn't know how I felt, but writing in the context of other department members clarified my thinking. I wrote four posts--three drafts and a final "paper." First, I asked a few questions to get some facts, then I summarized objectively the views on both sides expressed by others, and at that point I sketched out what seemed the basic issues needing consideration, before finally drawing my conclusion and supporting it. My final product was enhanced by, in effect was the result of, the interim steps. My own "writing through" the assignment indicates to me the formal benefit of informal writing.


What new wrinkles might I try?

How about two sections of the same second-semester course sharing one conference? Or assigning something not covered in class at all to see what students do with totally fresh material? Or saving material from one course and making it available to a following class, inviting members of the first course to later revisit their comments and the comments of those who follow them--creating a community that spans "generations"? Or, for sure, accessing the conference from a web page? Or Janet Starner's "Each One, Teach One" idea--having students give 10-minute lessons on using the technology? Or having students assume conference pseudonyms? Or, for sure, integrating other computer pedagogies, such as Interchange or web research, with a conference?


Has the conference improved writing/thinking?

Wow, this is a big question, and maybe THE big question. But I tuck it in here quietly because I really don't know how to do it justice. I feel the conference has, on the whole, improved my classes. Feel. But proof? Evidence?? Support for that claim??? I don't know. Both Scott Gordon, in returning from an Epiphany workshop, and Barry Kroll, on first hearing of Epiphany, fairly passionately warned us about the uncritical enthusiasms of people "epiphanied." In "Composition with Computers" we have tried to heed the advice to be skeptical, and, indeed, several of us have had classroom experiences far from the utopian scenarios in the critical literature.

But what is the standard of proof in the academic world? Was it "proof" writing would be better that led us to adopt peer conferences? Proof that led us to choose an Epistemic writing program rather than other kinds? What proves that student writing is better now that we have writing specialists than when we didn't? For all we do, is student writing better than it was ten, twenty, fifty years ago? I don't know.

Fred Kemp (admittedly not a disinterested voice) has an interesting article in the Epiphany Field Guide on "The Limits of Proof in Writing Instruction," in which he says, "The problem is that much of what changes teaching in the humanities, at least, does not follow any clearly articulated methodology or rules of evidence. . . . Often, perhaps more often than we realize, we change what we do in the humanities because of our enthusiasms, not because somebody has proved something. It is the ideas we experience as truth in our own minds, in our own convictions, that transform our lives as teachers, not necessarily the proofs assembled under specific rules of evidence."

So, I don't know. Do we need research, studies, experiments? Kemp suggests that the whole question may be moot, since the world around us is rapidly moving to writing completely on computers without waiting for us to decide whether people write better on them or not. I don't know. All I can do at this stage of my very preliminary work with computer pedagogy is say that I feel the conference has, on the whole, improved my classes.

What's my personal feeling?

Quite simply, I can't imagine teaching undergraduate courses now without a conference. The conference was a natural evolution from my previous teaching practice. It seems to further our Epistemic writing program goals. It fits with my current experiments in decentering. Students have responded well. It feels right and comfortable. Interestingly, experience this semester shows me just how integral the conference has quietly become to my teaching. The guideline for posts in one undergraduate course this semester is "when you feel like it," and I can see, first of all, how that undercuts many of the goals I set for the conference, and, second, how detached I feel from both the students and the subject matter. My conference history has obviously accustomed me to greater personal contact, more complex thinking, and the stimulation of a variety of voices, and without these things I now feel depressingly empty.

What has surprised me most?

I taught science fiction here in the 1970s with an anti-technology slant. I literally taught courses in which I said that--for the sake of an academic exercise--we would treat technology as the enemy to try to understand its dangers. I taught "cocoon dystopias" like E. M. Forster's "When the Machine Stops," in which people live isolated lives in a networked world within the machine. Dehumanization.

But I don't feel that way actually experiencing some of that reality now. I do not find the students dehumanized. Quite the reverse. I hear their voices as I never did in prior classes. Many times I receive messages from each student 20-40 times a semester. I know students I wouldn't know otherwise because they are quiet in class. And there is a sense in which their messages seem "personal," even though they are on a public conference. I haven't quite figured that out yet. This feeling of humanization is the biggest surprise.

Of course, we do not live in a totally networked world like Forster described. It's important to remember that the conference is only a piece of a pedagogy in which face-to-face meetings are still prominent. The Machine has not taken over, and I have no desire for it to do so, nor do I sense a move in that direction. It's a part of the action, a part that has an important role, but a part. Neither I or my students have any desire to give up class meeting as far as I can see.

How do other teachers feel?

It is not clear to me. I sense that there has been a ripple of increase in the number of teaching fellows using the conference, and I will try to get some numbers on that. I believe three other faculty have used conferences, and I'll try to get some info there too.

What has been student response?

I have not done specific evaluations of the conference, but I have mentioned a couple of things above that some students complain about: a lack of ideas, not enough time to read the posts of others, a lack of patience with boring posts. Miriamne Krummel, however, did ask specifically about her conference on her evaluation, and her student responses are in Appendix 8. Of 20 responses I'd say four are clearly negative, three a mixture of good and bad but tilted to the good, and thirteen clearly good. One would have to say that Miriamne's students found the conference beneficial.

I guess I'd like to say something about student evaluations in general. I would use them with caution in regard to new pedagogies, and more cautiously the more radical the pedagogy, especially in the beginning. Hal Halbert pointed out to me a good post on the Epiphany list about the need for student training as well as faculty training when we use a new method. If the pedagogy is different, one might expect students to suffer some disruption from usual habits and behaviors that have been succesful for them in school, and thus they may give some bad evaluations. Students may simply not share our goals or have completely different expectations about using computers. It may not be clear to a student brought up in individualistic, competitive America, for instance, to value a community of learners. Period. So, it's important to listen to what students are saying, whether good or bad, but ultimately to trust yourself for a while.

How does the conference fit with our program?

Frankly, all I know about the Epistemic theory on which our program is based is what I see in the program guidelines and what I have sensed teaching in the program for several years, but it seems to me that the fit is nice. The conference seems especially appropriate to the program's first and fifth informing assumptions--the use of writing "as a tool . . . for critical thinking" (p. 1) and "learning to write within an on-going social exchange" (p. 3). And the computer conference can enhance each of the four strategies highlighted in the guidelines: teacher-student conferences; discussion, invention, and brainstorming activities; peer workshops; and demonstration and analysis of models (pp. 10-12).


Computer pedagogy will not fit everybody's style, but if you've a mind to explore a bit, I think the conference is a good first step. It's close to familiar practices, can be used in traditional or radical ways, is only a notch more complicated than e-mail, does not require moving to a computer classroom, and to me seems comfortably related to our program goals. The common sense advice is to go slow, try not to do too much at first, perhaps work it in for a section of your course.


Collins, Jane. "Writing for a Community: Using Internet Newsgroups for a Student-Centered Classroom." (Last revised 2 Dec. 1996). Field Guide to 21st Century Writing. Epiphany Project. (8 May 1997).

Cooper, Marilyn M., and Cynthia L. Selfe. "Computer Conferences and Learning: Authority, Resistance, and Internally Persuasive Discourse." College English 52.8 (1990): 847-69.

Flores, Mary J. "Computer Conferencing: Composing a Feminist Community of Writers." Computers and Community: Teaching Composition in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Carolyn Handa. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1990. 106-17.

Hawisher, Gail E., and Cynthia L. Selfe. "The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Classroom." College Composition and Communication 42.1 (1991): 55-64.

Kemp, Fred. "Limits of Proof in Writing Instruction." Field Guide to 21st Century Writing. Epiphany Project. <http://> Under "Scrapbook Pages."

Selfe, Cynthia L. "Technology in the English Classroom: Computers through the Lens of Feminist Theory." Computers and Community: Teaching Composition in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Carolyn Handa. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1990. 118-39.

Spitzer, Michael. "Computer Conferencing: An Emerging Technology." Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction. Ed. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe. New York: Teachers College P, Columbia U, 1989. 187-200.

---. "Writing Style in Computer Conferences." IEEE Transactions on Professional Communications 29.1 (1986): 19-22.

Appendix 1 | Appendix 2 | Appendix 3 | Appendix 4 | Appendix 5 | Appendix 6 | Appendix 7

Appendix 1: Description for Students


 I'm gonna ramble a bit about the conference, some practical things, some philosophical:


- keeps thinking going in the gaps between classes

- encourages sharing of ideas

- creates class community

- gives people quiet a forum

- serves as a source of ideas for formal papers

- liberates you from the teacher's agenda or ideas

- enforces regular writing practice

- allows you to write "freely" as well as "formally"

- provides a place to "publish"


To my mind, the good posts are not simply summaries or records of what happened in class discussion, whether in small group or plenary session. They can be that in part, of course, if nothing else is cooking.

But there's something more. I'd like to see you "chase" an idea for a while. For me the verb "chase" captures the flavor of the function of the conference. A place where you pick up an idea or ideas and go after it or them in an aggressive manner. Sometimes headlong, sometimes reckless, but always energetically. And it doesn't matter if you come to conclusion or closure. You don't have to "capture" the idea(s).

That means, I think, that you feel yourself moving beyond whatever occurred in class. If you look back, it is to go forward. You are adding to where you were before, where the class was before.

That means, too, that you do not have to worry about polishing the entries for each class. Do not concern yourself with grammar and mechanics. Be spontaneous and informal. Freewrite. Brainstorm. "Talk."

And you should think of adding to what is on the conference before your post as well. Read what others are saying. I think that a person reading the conference should be able to sense developing threads as he or she progresses chronologically through the conference. Show you are reading the conference and writing with that context in mind. Try not to repeat what is already there. Take into consideration what other's say that affect what you say.

So I do want to sense that listening to others and responding to others is part of your participation. And note that you can F10 reply to sender as well as making public posts. It can be a thrill to have someone engage you directly on your ideas. Try to make that happen even tho I will have no official record of it, and you are not doing it for me.

Perhaps the last thing I might suggest is that you don't shut off the past. Something about today's class or news might spur a thought about last week's class. Ok, go back and do a post. And occasionally browse back yourself to see what other people may have added at a later date.

QUANTITY: The minimum is one entry per class. But why not do more sometimes? It is not realistic to suppose that you will always find multiple stimulations and provocations in your own thoughts or in others, but when that does happen keep going on the conference. Suggested length of each entry is one screen.

TIMING: My guideline is that you do your post within a day after class. While ideas are fresh for you and your readers. And if people wait and load up at the deadlines, then it becomes

impossible to read and process the mound of posts. That defeats the purpose, almost guaranteeing that you will not get read. It wastes your ideas. Periodic deadlines: midnight of the day of the class before papers are due.

ASSESSMENT: At certain points I will ask you to report the number of your posts (Quantity)
and to print out a certain number of your posts that you feel are your best (Quality). This will
also give you an opportunity to revisit what you have written. I will be reading all your posts and
replying privately as the spirit moves me. I am not trying to reply to every post. I assume that I
will make several replies to everybody over the course of the semester, but don't panic if either I
don't seem to send you much or I send you a lot. 

Appendix 2: Claims by Cooper & Selfe about Conferences

- Traditional ways lead to accommodation

- Accommodation is bad because . . .

- Students need to resist as well as accommodate

- Students need internally persuasive as well as externally authoritative discourse

- Students need to talk to one another as well as to the teacher

- Disruption is not rebellion against learning

- Students will bring up ideas teachers would never have thought of

- Students interact with each other openly

- Students don't have to compete for the floor

- Students can talk as much as they want

- Students don't have to be formal

- Conferences are like letters or journals

- Conferences have the synergy of group discussions or conversations

- Conferences help fulfill goals we already have that are frustrated by traditional forms

- Conferences encourage students to resist, dissent, and explore the role that controversy and intellectual divergence play in learning and thinking

- Traditional forms empower and oppress at the same time

- Teaching students to value convention alone may not be the best for them

- Change is the goal -- change is good

- Resistance is not the same as opposition

- Students introduce their perspectives and take on more authoritative roles

- Conferences are egalitarian

- Competition will be on the level of ideas not personality

- Conferences privilege good writers not just forceful physical personalities

- Students are free to stick on topic or not

- There is more emotion on the conference

- Conferences are more personal than the classroom

- If a teacher gives up authority, students will learn

- Irreverence on the part of students is ok

- Students are more likely to question on the conference

- Conference space is new space for otherwise excluded students

- Students learn to listen to multiple voices, different truths

- Students develop the ability to discriminate

- All students improve by the experience

- Conferences encourage attempts to reconstruct and rethink
Appendix 3: Opening a Network Server Account from a Public Site

If you are working at a machine other than a public site, run Access on your PC, select Network Server, and proceed from step 7 below.

You must have an ID card before you can open an account.

1. Turn on the PC.

2. Refresh computer? Type N.

3. Welcome to Windows 95. Read and click OK.

4. Double click Lan Access 95.

5. Click Host.

6. Click Network Server.

7. At the login: type open and press the Enter key.

8. Type your Social Security Number (without hyphens) and press the Enter key.

9. Press y to verify your name and then press the Enter key. If your name does not appear, you must go to room 394 or room 194 in the Computing Center, or call 758-3830, and ask to have your name added to the database.

10. Next type the 14-digit bar code number (without spaces) from your ID card.

11. Press the Enter key to indicate that you agree to the LUIR policy statement. Your user ID and Password will appear on the screen.

12. On a piece of paper, write the user ID (4 characters) and initial password (7 characters) assigned to you.

13. Press F# to exit.

14. You may now log into the Network Server with your own user ID and password (refer to steps 2 and 3). At the login prompt: type your user ID and press the Enter key. At the xxxx's AFS Password, type your password and press the Enter key.

15. You are strongly encouraged to change your password once you start using the Network Server. To change your password, type password at the LUNA main menu on the Network Server and follow the instuctions.

Appendix 4: Basic Conference Instructions

1. Get into the Access program. This is the program that lets you e-mail people.

2. At the "Main" LUNA menu, type the name of the conference exactly. For example: Enter Selection ===>Engl4-12.

3. To select a topic already on the conference, use the up and down arrow keys to move the cursor in front of the topic you want. Then hit ENTER. If the screen shows only one post on the menu, page up to see if there are others,

4. To post (send) a new message under that topic already on the conference, hit F9 when you are at menu screen. When asked to "Enter subject," make up a title that explains briefly what you are talking about. Then hit ENTER. When you finish your message, hit F3. It should now appear on the conference.

5. To read someone else's message, move the cursor in front of the message and hit ENTER.

6. To post a reply to someone else's message so that everyone will see it, hit F9 while looking at the message. The original message will appear on screen with ">" marks in front of the original text. You may edit the original message with the backspace key, the delete key, or by hitting SHIFT F6 to delete a line of text. When you are finished typing your response, hit F3. Your message will be sent to the conference board, but it will not appear on your screen until you leave the topic thread (hit F3) and then come back.

7. To reply in private to a message so that the person who wrote the message will get your comments like a regular e-mail, hit F10 while the message is showing. When you are done, hit F3. The computer will then show you the message. Then hit ENTER or F4.

8. To reply in private while showing the original message, hit SHIFT-F10 while the message is showing. This will place the original post in your message. Text of the original message will have a ">" on the left side of the text. You may leave the entire original message there with your reply or edit it in any way you wish. When you are finished, hit F3.

9. To add a new topic to the conference board, hit F10 after steps #1 and #2 above. Give your topic a title, then hit F3, and it will appear on the topic list.

10.To exit the, hit F3 until you get to the main Luna menu.

With thanks to Hal Halbert and Dave Leight

Appendix 5: Handling Misplaced Posts

In the beginning, students sometimes post under the wrong topic. In that case, tell them:

1. When looking at the misplaced message, hit SHIFT F1.

2. You will get a screen with a long awkward file name, something like /home/ejg1/engl4-12: 1.1.

3. Type over that file name with a short name of your own, deleting the rest of the given name.

4. Hit Return. Your file is now in your network server file.

5. You will get the misplaced message back with a note in the bottom left corner: "Article written to <the file name you gave it>."

6. Now go to the proper topic for the message.

7. Proceed as if you are doing a new message: hit F9, enter a title, hit return.

8. At the blank screen, hit SHIFT F2 (Merge).

9. When asked "File to Read," enter the file name you gave in step #3, and hit Return.

10.You will now find your file on screen, highlighted, indicating that you can edit your message at this point if you wish.

11.Hit F3, and now the message will be in the proper place.

12.Return to the topic menu and put your cursor next to the title of the misplaced message.

13.Hit SHIFT F4 and a minus sign will appear in the left margin, indicating the message is to be deleted.

14.Complete the deletion by hitting F3.

Appendix 6: Uploading a paper from WordPerfect 6.1 to the conference

Note: these instructions are meant only for computers in Drown 10 or Drown 20.

In order to be able to post a paper to the conference board, you need to UPLOAD your paper to the Access menu. Once you upload it, you will have a text file that you can post to the conference board OR that you can mail to anyone you want to read it.

Part A: Getting your document "ready" in WordPerfect:

1. In WordPerfect, save your paper as you normally would. Example: Hal.wpd

2. Move the editing cursor (the blinking | ) to the very beginning of the paper.

3. Change the font from "Times Roman" to "Courier." To do this, go to the "Format" and then "font" menus. Scroll through the "font face" box until you find "Courier." The font names are alphabetical.

4. Then go to the "File" menu and hit "Save as . . ." Rename the paper so that the suffix (the ".xxx" label after the main name) is ".asc" like this: Hal.asc . Before you hit "Okay," go down to the bottom of the "save as . . ." dialogue box and click on "Save File as Type" and scroll up to "ASCII (DOS) generic word processor(*.*)" and click on "OK."

This will save your paper in ASCII, a specialized computer language that almost all word processors can read. You will lose a lot of your fancy formating, though, which is why you want to save a separate copy of your paper in WordPerfect format.

5. If the computer says the document already exists and asks "Do you want to replace it?" hit "Yes."

6. "Close" the document immediately. If you hit the "Save" icon you'll be asked if you want to save it in WordPerfect 6.0/6.1 or ASCII. To move it to e-mail, it will have to be in ASCII.

7. Exit WordPerfect completely.
Part B: Getting WinFTP ready to use:

1. At the Windows 95 desktop, go "Start," "Programs," "LAN Net Apps," and then "WinFTP." (If "WinFTP" is not on your desktop, install it. Double-click on the "WinInstall" icon. Scroll down to "WinFTP." Click on it and in a moment the computer will tell you it is installed. Click on "Exit," then go back to "Start.")

2. In the dialogue box, change "Host" to read "" (without the quotation marks), put in your network ID at "UserID," enter your password, and change "HostType" to "Auto Detect." Tap on "Connect." You can change from input field to input field using either the mouse or the Tab key.

3. Your drives will appear on the left, your e-mail account on the right.
Part C: To upload a WP 6.1 document into Access

1. Make sure your WP 6.1 document has been saved in ASCII; otherwise, it will not save to e-mail correctly. See part A for details.

2. Click on drive "a:" (scroll if necessary to find drive a: on the left). The list of files on your a: disk should appear.

3. Click the ASCII bubble near the bottom (in a row near the bottom to the left of "Binary" and "L8").

4.Tap on the file you would like to move to Access. Then click on the arrow in the center of the two windows pointing to the right. The file will move to the right and appear in alphabetical order. Click on "Exit."

Get into the Access program.

2. Type "send" as if you are going to send an e-mail.

3. Enter appropriate address and subject information.

4. Once in the editor, hit Shift-F2 (the Merge command). You will be asked for a file name. Enter the name of the file you uploaded using WinFTP. Your paper should appear.

5. Once your uploaded text appears on the screen, you may need to fix the text that has scrolled off the right side of the screen. Start by going to the beginning of each paragraph or block quote and inserting a blank line. Insert a blank line by placing your cursor on the far left margin of the first line in the paragraph and then hit "Enter." Once you have inserted lines between each paragraph, go to the beginning of each paragraph and hit SHIFT F1. This should realign your text's right margin. If you hit SHIFT F1 without inserting lines, your paper will turn into one big paragraph that is hard to read.

6. Hit F3 then Enter to send.
 Part E: To post your paper on the conference board:

1. Get into the conference board like you normally would. Move to the thread where you would like to post.

2. Enter the editor and hit Shift-F2 (the Merge command). You will be asked for a file name. Enter the name of the file you uploaded using WinFTP. Your paper should appear.

3. You may have to do #5 from Part D above.

4. Hit F3.

With thanks to Hal Halbert and Dave Leight
Appendix 7: Downloading a file from the conference board

Access method of downloading:

1. When you are reading a conference post you would like to download, hit Shift-F1. The Access program will ask you for a file name. Enter a memorable file name and write it down. Then hit Enter. This process will save a copy of the post to your storage space in Access.

2. Go to WinFTP. Enter the same information you did in Part B, step #2, in Appendix 6. Your e-mail files should appear on the right.

3. Put your disk in the disk drive and click on [A]. This will activate your disk drive.

4. Highlight the e-mail file you saved in step #1. Then click the arrow pointing to the left. The disk drive should activate and the file should appear on left side of the screen.

5. To open the file to edit or print the file, simply start up WordPerfect and retrieve the file. If you get the "Convert File Format" dialogue box, the computer may say "Unknown Format." Use the arrow to scroll down and tap on "WordPerfect 4.2."

With thanks to Hal Halbert and Dave Leight 

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, email me at Lehigh English Page
URL: ~ Updated 5/98