In Synch With Whom?: Rethinking "Authority" in the Networked Classroom
Janet Wright Starner
Five years ago Lester Faigley speculated about the impact of the networked computing environment on writing instruction in a book chapter titled "The Achieved Utopia of the Networked Classroom." Readers who had exchanged a current-traditional for a process approach to teaching writing could take heart in the potential he held out for them. Faigley described the successes he had had using Daedalus’ Interchange program in his writing courses, and he concluded that the critical elements of a social constructionist's pedagogy were provided by the synchronous writing environment. Here were opportunities for Murray and Elbow's freedom for invention without excluding Bartholomae's attention to academic conventions; here, too, was an answer to Harris' call for community as the technology enabled collaborative practices touted by Bruffee. Faigley’s claim was bold: He downplayed the problems experienced by some early users. He noted, for instance, that he "had heard reports coming from the campuses where ENFI [electronic networks for information] software was being used that students often used profanity and wandered off the topic in electronic discussions, but no discourse of this sort had occurred in this course" (178). In a footnote he suggested that while the "initial response to ENFI discussions was one of anger and frustration, . . . this reaction was later modified" (199). So, no problem, really. We who teach in the networked classroom had arrived in the Promised Land.

Five years is a very long time in computer years. The program Faigley used in 1992 looks pathetically primitive today in comparison with its third generation descendant that we use here in our classrooms. Nevertheless, Faigley's experience and his postmodern critique of it--invoking Baudrillard and Foucault--was, and is, compelling to many. It remains an item on the "must read" list for anyone wanting to get up to speed in the newly emerging field of computer-mediated writing instruction. And much of the literature published since has echoed the tone of Faigley's first report from the trenches. At conferences, on electronic discussion lists, and locally in the excited voices of teachers using synchronous programs for the first time in their classrooms, one can still hear the optimism he engendered.

Of all the many capabilities the computer can provide writing teachers, the networked environment is most revolutionary because it allows activities impossible in a traditional classroom. The hardwired connections between machines and the software that allow users to "talk" to each other, all at the same time, transform a room full of fancy typewriters into a startlingly new communication space. Synchronous writing spaces of all kinds have been embraced as valuable nearly all the time, and student interest, engagement, and work ethic are all taken as given. At the same time, any disasters teachers experience are silenced, explained away by circumstances, or discounted. And occasionally there is the ever so faint implication that any failures may, in fact, be blamed on the teacher herself.

My own experiences with Interchange have born out much of what Faigley promised. The Daedalus program does have the effect of de-centering the classroom discussion. It does encourage introverts to "speak" who would not otherwise dare that in class. It can open up discussion and lead to a deepening of thinking, build a community of students, and produce essays that no one writer could achieve on his/her own. But lest I misrepresent Faigley’s stand, know that he, too, was worried that such claims seemed to good to be true:

No kidding.

In 1599, London publisher John Wolfe printed a best-seller: John Hayward's Life and Raigne of King Henrie IIII.  Eighteen months later, after the Essex rebellion had been squelched, Queen Elizabeth turned a suspicious eye on Hayward's prose history and decided it was seditious. Hayward was arrested for treason, grilled intensively, and imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years. Francis Bacon claims it was by his intervention that Hayward's life was saved. When the Queen asked Bacon to judge whether or not the writing was treasonous, he answered "For treason surely I found none, but for fellonie very many" (2). And when she asked "wherein?" he replied "the author had committed very apparant theft: for he had taken most of the sentences of Cornelius Tacitus, and translated them into English, and put them into his text" (2). This flip reply seems to have defused Elizabeth's darker intentions. But it revealed Bacon's underestimate of the true impact of Hayward's history--not as "chronicle," for others had related the same events elsewhere--but as a literate prose composition, significantly evolved from its oral ancestors. Thirteen years later Hayward could still write bitterly to the Prince of Wales that "a man might safely tell a tale of past times but he might not safely write a history."

 Hayward's use of two different labels for his text is significant. His text, like many sixteenth-century prose histories, is written in a Tacitean mode; F.J. Levy cites Thomas More's History of King Richard III, written in 1513, as its progenitor. But More's work is full of oral residue; it conveys an ambiguous message and invites the reader to open a discussion about events. Hayward's text, more fully literate, closes down conversation and proclaims a particular brand of truth-according-to-Hayward. The difference between tale and history hinges on the reader's response to the text and his/her perceptions about what speaking and writing do. The queen, perhaps quite correctly, saw Hayward’s writing as dangerous because his "history" was both interpretative and analytical, something earlier prose and verse chronicles, shaped largely by oral culture, had declined to do. Hayward's prose marked a transforming moment along the continuum from oral to literate composing strategies. Technology, in the form of the printing press, sent conversationally oriented English prose on the track to literate abstraction. And without writing, Walter Ong reminds us, there can be no "history."

We stand at a similar transitional moment in history. Computers are altering not only the forms of our communal discourse, but they are changing the way we think about reading/writing those texts. Against that background, Faigley's words seem ominous. Much more, indeed, is at stake than "relinquishing some of the teacher’s traditional authority." The ground on which we teach is shifting, and it is time to reconsider what we mean when we talk about student and teacher "authority" and a "community" of writers. The appeal of the networked computing environment has hinged on its claim to de-center the classroom and transform the teacher into a "facilitator," or a "guide on the side." While at face value, these strategies have proven value, the transformation many expect is neither clean nor neat.

It was a little more than two years ago that I decided to more seriously explore the use of the computers in my classroom. I was optimistic and fascinated by the possibilities of electronic writing spaces; I saw in them the potential to correct some of the most nagging classroom problems I experienced. And in the special topic course offered this spring, "Cybercomp: Communications in Cyberspace," I thought I had found a course structure, subject matter, and tools to engage my students in difficult intellectual work. When the first day of class arrived, I thought I saw in the self-selected group who filled the computer lab just what I had hoped for:  students willing to talk confidently about issues they were familiar with and who could write with ease in spaces they were accustomed to. I assumed that they wouldn't fear the technology or be awkward with it, would enjoy using it even more than less technologically able students, and would demand more, rather than less, computer time in class. I had high hopes that they would work willingly on projects because of the subject matter under discussion and because of their expertise. I imagined they would stick with discussion on Interchange longer, and speak more fully because they felt familiar with the technology. And I felt sure they would relish the course syllaweb, would check it more frequently than students less interested in the World Wide Web, and would avidly read assigned Internet texts.

Utopian vision, indeed. Faigley writes:

Indeed, the students in my section of English 10 were not what I expected they would be, nor did they react to the electronic writing spaces as other students have in the past. While they liked computers very much, they didn't like English class. Despite a subject they had chosen, their professed excitement about the experimental nature of the course, their initial enthusiasm for the course web page and final projects, they were no more interested in a second-semester writing course, in any guise, than were other students I've had in the past.

They didn't, in fact, like to read anything at all. Contrary to my expectations, they did not like reading texts on the computer screen. These avid net surfers complained bitterly that they became distracted by links from web sites, and that, in consequence, the reading assignments overwhelmed them. Most of them claimed to hate William Gibson's Neuromancer, the novel that launched the cyberpunk movement, even though they argued vehemently for the freedom of expression his characters espoused. While they seemed to think that the world Gibson portrayed was nothing at all like their own, and could not possibly come true in their lifetimes, I saw--if they did not--alarming similarities between some of their behaviors in class and those of the characters in the book who are isolated, often self-serving narcissistic individuals. In my students’ unwillingness to collaborate, their insistence on flaming each other in synchronous chat, I saw a hint of Gibson's world to come.

Even at mid-semester, their finished writing showed an awareness of form but too little substance. Despite my coaching, cajoling, threatening, most remained content to use a superficial five paragraph essay form, fill in the blanks and wait for the grade: Thank you Ma'am, I'll take that "A" now. These particular complaints, of course, are nothing new or startling, but this group seemed uncommonly resistant to reading and exploratory writing. Worst of all, our forays into synchronous writing were, for me at least, traumatic.

At the end of January, David Leight, who was also teaching a section of this course, and I carefully set up a series of questions in Interchange conferences. Our goal was to have our two classes meet and discuss the issues together. The conversation began, as most Interchange discussions do, with light banter and socializing, but experience had directed us to build time for that into the lesson. In fact, the first question directed their attention to the writing space itself: what did they notice about it, we asked; how was it different and what was it good for? Although a few lone voices within the small groups we had set up attempted to get the conversation turned around to serious work, they were largely unsuccessful. A few weeks later, taking a different approach and posing different questions, I tried the program again with no better luck. I was frustrated and confused. How could Interchange fail so miserably in this, of all classes, when it had worked so well in others?

The turning point came when I decided to use Interchange to allow them to talk about their difficulties, worries, and desires for the course. The semester wasn't progressing as any of us had envisioned, I thought, and I solicited their input. I decided to give it one more try. Perhaps my earlier questions had been flawed. Perhaps I'd set up too many conferences. I wasn't sure that it wasn't teacher error that had caused the problems. In order to get an honest picture of their needs, I let them use pseudonyms to sign on. Once again, there were the initial banter and distracting side-tracks. But this activity continued, and I realized that they were successfully resisting any attempt to engage them in a serious consideration of the course. My breaking point came when, hearing laughter, I looked up at the screen to find someone had used my name as pseudonym in a message that blurted to another student, "f____ you!"

I snapped.

Shaking with anger, patience all used up, I announced that class was over, gathered my books and walked out.

So What happened?

A student later told me that he could easily explain why the class didn't use Interchange to its potential: precisely because we are savvy computer users, he said, we see the Daedalus program as technically inferior to others that do the same thing. Therefore, we spend our time complaining about how bad it is rather than discussing the issues proposed. This probably is an accurate reflection of this particular student’s understanding of the behaviors, but it doesn't explain the language or the distractions. I countered--what about the vulgarity and profanity as well as the insistence on getting off-track and avoiding the assigned topic of discussion?

That is simply a result, he said, of their familiarity with chat rooms and Inter Relay Chat (IRC) where the object is to flame any speaker you think is a fool or has a wrong-headed idea until he shuts up. Suddenly, I understood. The goal of these chat spaces is to bludgeon people with your point of view until you end up victorious--the best talker wins--in short, to shut down conversation. I immediately thought of Richard Lanham’s agonistic Rhetorical Man, the educated product of an oral culture:

The hope and claim of the synchronous writing space is that it will open up conversation and resist closure rather than shut it down. Likewise, the content of my students' conversation can be explained by their perception of the space available to them. They saw Interchange as Inter Relay Chat [IRC] and could envision no other way to approach it. IRC ‘rules’ framed the discourse, not academic conventions. Significantly, the few students in the class unfamiliar with IRC used the writing space in ways I expected because they saw it not so much as an electronic writing space as a blank sheet of paper on which to write their considered thoughts.

It's clear to me that my students see the computer as useful, but for different reasons than I do. One writes that he uses the computer for entertainment. Many of these technologically advanced students say that using the computers in an English class is not a good idea! Another writes that Interchange might be appropriate for small children, but not at the college level. They are ultra-conservative when it comes to writing instruction. They value the current-traditional approach because they have mastered the kind of product which will achieve a good grade in many high school English classes. Their essays "flow good," as they say, but they don't fill that smooth prose space they are creating with ideas developed through a process of deliberate critical thought.

The situation drips with irony. My classroom certainly did de-center, and my students did take "authority" for their voices, but they ran with it to places I didn't want them to go. They certainly were "engaged," but in different tasks than I envisioned for them. The capabilities of the computer networked environment allowed them to take control of their own learning, but what did they learn?

In The Violence of Literacy, Elspeth Stuckey writes: Tamara Kendig's students could suddenly see, by reading unfamiliar and frustrating hypertext fiction, the choices that authors make when they write linear text. In the same way, I can see by reading the writing and behaviors of my computer-savvy students, how "regular" students may be approaching networked computer writing environments. They have helped me get beyond what "everyone knows" and "says" about such an environment to what may really be true about it.

It's too early to draw any firm conclusions yet. But this much seem clear: the networked classroom does change power relations and problematizes the definitions of teacher authority and community we have made comfortably commonplace. By its very presence, the technology changes the dynamics of the classroom. The computer is not a value neutral tool; it is an agent of change.

Hal Halbert asked me a while ago, after listening to my tale, if I would continue to teach in the computer classroom given my experiences this semester. I answered immediately in the affirmative. Why? Just like John Hayward, we find ourselves in a transitional period. Written prose is changing its shape. Composing strategies are altering before our very eyes. Who better than composition teachers to respond to that change and guide student writers into writing/speaking spaces that will allow for difficult intellectual work and reasoned democratic exchange? If we don't tackle this problem, who will? As professional readers and writers, we are in the best position to not only realize what is happening but to help shape the direction of the change.

In spite of the difficulties and fractured self-image I underwent this spring, I remain convinced of the potential of the networked teaching and writing environment. All has not been lost. And, finally, the fruits of that perseverance are slowly, but surely, appearing on my desk.

Alex excitedly posts his hypertext essay to the web, availing himself of the real audience there for him. He critiques the DIWE program, using our class' experiences as support for his claim.

Jon Z., in response to a call for student papers from Daedalus' newsletter, Wings, significantly revises his draft three times--something he has never done--and asks not only for help from his classmates but also a description of the kind of audience he'll be writing for.

Joe H. posts a plea for help with paper #4 on the conference board--and gets answers--something neither he nor his classmates have done to this point.

The final web project makes one group realize that some texts may be better left in print form. For the first time they imagine an audience for their written communication and realize that what they have produced may not appeal to or even be read by those for whom they wrote. By composing in hypertext, they've learned a valuable lesson about linear texts.

Joe Y., in a paper about the value of hypertext, very handily lays out the advantages of web information for certain subjects, proving that he can, in fact, read with a critical eye and lay out well-sequenced support for an evaluative claim. He reports being happy to write the paper--a first for him in any English class.

John B. writes a paper praising the Invent module of the Daedalus program, claiming it allowed him to develop his ideas in ways he was unable to do by himself. He goes on to critique other parts of the software and make creative suggestions for its improvement.

Caryn H. writes a well-reasoned draft, posts it to the conference board, and asks for help with her revisions from fellow students. Her writing has improved remarkably since the first paper. In January her drafts were tentative and lifeless. Now her voice sounds confident and authentic, her claim thoughtfully developed.

I tried the Interchange conference board one last time to get them to brainstorm about the final paper while sharing their ideas with others. All the talk in class about the appropriate use of language in differing discourse spaces paid off. This time they stayed on task, tested out ideas with others, gave feedback and support.

I have managed, with most of the class, to achieve the potential I hoped for. In the last analysis, the semester has been a resounding success. I’ve learned at least as much, maybe more, than my students. But even if I could not end on such a hopeful note, I feel I must continue to explore these new writing spaces in response to the changing perceptions my students bring into each new semester's classrooms. I suspect my cybernauts--in their skills, perceptions, and attitudes--are just a preview of what will soon be commonplace among each new crop of students. Further, I believe absolutely that the ability to think critically and write well are indispensable skills for each member of our democracy. In an age of increasing separation from each other, of deteriorating communities, of abrasive and divisive public rhetoric, we need to teach students how to authorize their own reasoned claims. Now, more than ever, we need avenues to build community. And we can no more resist the effect of computers on discourse practices than Queen Elizabeth could resist the printed word, try as she did to control and repress it. Is this brave new world frightening? It sometimes seems so to me. But it also fascinates and excites me. It holds the possibility for improved and as yet unimagined communications among men and women of good will. And that prospect is well worth exploring and helping to create.

Works Cited 

Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1992 .

Hayward, John. The first and second parts of John Hayward's the life and raigne of King Henrie IIII. Ed. John J. Manning. London : Offices of the Royal Historical Society, University College London, 1991.

Lanham, Richard. The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Stuckey, Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1991.

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