Tales from the Cyberclassroom
Janet Wright Starner

Once upon a time there was a . . . and she . . . but all was not well in the village . . . So he . . . but the wind blew, the skies darkened, and the people were frightened . . . so they set off on a quest . . . and the cave was dark, the path torturous . . . Suddenly the beast stretched to his full height, menacing the company . . . As the sun rose they turned toward home, bloodied and ragged but victorious . . .

In another reading space we would recognize in those words some of the formulaic turns of the fairy tale, the fantasy, the adventure story.  Just a few snippets are enough to evoke all the primary elements: a conflict, a quest, and a company’s triumphant return.  The same words would not, however, cue the academic reader to approach the text as a serious essay that unfolded the theory of _____ and applied it to____.  But this is not that "other" reading space, the Book, to which all avid readers are accustomed.  Nor is this a traditional "academic" essay, although it is written by writers who might well call themselves academics, and it does focus on issues and concerns integral to the Academy.  This text is neither linear nor uni-vocal.  It does not aggressively assert a claim and argue its validity to the exclusion of all others.  It does not close down conversation on the issues it raises.  Quite the opposite is true; part of its mission is to open a dialogue and encourage further discussion and study.  It is hybrid and paradoxical, incorporating in its form many of the attributes of oral composing traditions as it explores the experiences and questions of teachers of the linear essays found in books.  It is the story of a shared experience.

By the fall semester of 1996, it had become clear to many that some deeper thinking and conversation was needed about the role of computer-assisted instruction in Lehigh’s First-Year Writing Program.  Individual instructors had been using computers to teach composition courses for nearly eight years, but computer-mediated instruction had been, until that point, a haphazard endeavor.  In June, Scott Gordon and I had attended the Epiphany Summer Institute, held in Richmond, Virginia, for a week-long learning experience and came back with a wealth of information, resources, and new knowledge.  Funded by the Annenberg/CPB Project, Epiphany's mission was "to create initiatives in computers and writing at a minimum of ten universities," to emphasize "teacher support and departmental change," and to "help faculty integrate computers into writing curricula by providing a full spectrum of materials and guidance" to foster that change.  Lehigh University became part of the Epiphany Project's nationwide network of colleges and universities and agreed, as condition of its inclusion, to three activities: to engage in outreach to schools in our area via workshops; to keep a journal that would record all computer-related activity in the department; and to engage in a case study that would involve instructors in computer classrooms, chronicling their teaching over the course of the year.  Edward  J. Gallagher and I were asked to head the English Department's Epiphany Team.  National response to the Epiphany Project was so overwhelming that it was forced to broaden its scope well beyond ten sites. So Lehigh became a "supersite," partnered with Penn State-Allentown, and we fulfilled the outreach component of the bargain by co-hosting an October workshop with Penn State to which instructors from local schools were invited.  I began a record of the department's computer activities.  But the last component of the initiative was less easy to accomplish quickly.

At the same time that the English Department was attempting to give serious consideration to incorporating computer-mediated instruction into its writing program in a thoughtful and orderly fashion, the university's technical support service suddenly underwent a massive restructuring.  The department that emerged from 1996's summer of upheaval transformed the old Computing Center into Information Resources, merging services formerly provided separately by both the Computing Center and the Library.  The College of Arts and Sciences was assigned an LUIR team to serve its needs.  The group was headed by librarian Roseann Bowerman and included librarian Kathe Morrow and technical staff members Sandra Edmiston, Gale Fritsche, Patrick Larkin, and Neil Toporski.  Some of these people had brand new job descriptions, and some were expected to do new jobs for which they had little or no training.  In spite of the turbulence of restructuring, the Arts and Sciences team expressed its willingness to help the English Department in any way possible.  The next year saw regular meetings of the newly created "Epiphany Roundtable" composed of the IR team and teachers from the English Department--myself, Gallagher, and Edward Lotto, Director of Writing.  The hope was that as connections between teachers and IR were forged attempts to integrate technology into the writing program would become easier and more orderly.  Up to that point, there had been little communication between those who built, staffed, maintained, and controlled the software/hardware in our Drown Hall computer labs and the teachers who used them.  The consequences of that lack of communication were, too often, disastrous. The first agenda item for the Epiphany Team was to build bridges with the computer folks.  And so began a fruitful partnership.

In November 1996, Gallagher proposed a graduate course that would invite students to explore various computer-mediated pedagogies while developing case studies that could act both as prompts for conversation with and a permanent archive for later instructors who were curious and/or interested in adopting new teaching methods.  The course would have immediate value for those who took it for a number of reasons.  It reserved "official" time for them in their schedules to develop and reflect on classroom practices they already employed or wished to try; in a challenging job market, they could add to their vitas some real computer expertise and credentials.  But the course had the potential, too, to bring some institutional order and support to what had been sporadic individual attempts to incorporate technology into writing courses.  The English Department was blessed with fine hardware and software running in a state-of-the-art computer lab, but few took advantage of it, and fewer still explored its potential aggressively.  All the early adopters among the graduate students worked as pioneers—alone and virtually unsupported—and when they left, they took their knowledge and experience with them.  This graduate course, it was hoped, would not only explore the emerging field of computer-assisted composition instruction but would investigate its claims, evaluate its potential, and then make a record for the benefit of future teachers.

The group who elected "Composition with Computers" in Spring 1997 was diverse, composed of five graduate students taking it for credit, two who sat in to observe and/or consult, and two teachers, Gallagher and myself.  Gallagher had used electronic conference boards extensively in his courses, exploring them further each semester, but had never taught in the computer labs. I had been teaching in the Drown labs for five years, experimenting each semester with increasingly complex technologies, and was the department’s Computer Classroom Coordinator.

The course proposal had envisioned student work as an exploration of both theory and practice.  When the CwC course materialized, the group set out to explore what it might mean to teach composition using a networked computer lab: What is this "thing" otherwise called "composition with computers"?  What can it do?  What value does it have?  Does it work?  How can I use it?  Should I use it?  Why should I use it?  At the first meeting, Gallagher provided metaphors that shaped the group’s perception of the undertaking and the written case studies that would document its journey. We would all be "explorers"—teachers and students exchanged roles throughout the semester—and "skeptics" who questioned, evaluating claims made by others as well as our own experience. Members of the IR team attended class sessions from the first day, despite heavy workloads and commitments that required their presence on other parts of the campus.  Further, each agreed to be partner to one of the grad students in the course as they worked through the projects they created for themselves.  We hoped to gain knowledge and understanding we could pass on to those who came after us, while also providing as much information as possible for teachers who wanted to try it to get started as painlessly as possible.  Part of the construction of that knowledge was devising language to express it that would enable others in decision-making positions to decide whether or not to incorporate the technology we had at our disposal into the existing writing program.  The case studies lodged here are a result of that process.

As the reader will discover, while these essays vary in form and content, they share some common themes.  All the writers, at some point, discover that any sane incorporation of technology into a pedagogy must be incremental.  The same advice is repeated throughout: try out one thing, master it, then move on.  Don’t try to do it all at once; you’ll get frustrated.  Another common realization is the connection of computer activities to life beyond the campus experience.  As Harold William Halbert points out, where composing is concerned the difference between our students and us is often only years of experience and "the context of an on-going debate."  Computer classrooms, effectively used, can provide that context and a venue for hands-on learning that the traditional classroom has difficulty achieving--real audiences, real tasks, and real speech-acts that matter.  Furthermore, all the essays are frank, honest, and generous in their sharing of successes and failures.  Each writer has attempted to critique his/her experience against the larger background of theory and other teachers’ experiences with the same or similar pedagogies.  For instance, after laying out the goals she optimistically proposed for the syllawebbed course, Sheila Bauer-Gatsos admits that "in reality, very little worked out as I had planned."  This sentiment is repeated throughout the narrative.  We are all learning as we go along.

What follows may be read in a linear fashion, chapter by chapter.  The hypertexts are arranged in the order their topics were explored during the semester—from least to most complicated technologies: Gallagher, Halbert, Bauer-Gatsos, Goldfarb, Kendig, Woznicki, Starner.  But readers may also wish to skip around to focus on particular interests: classroom authority (Gallagher, Goldfarb, Woznicki, Starner); forms of hypertext (Kendig, Bauer-Gatsos); asynchronous writing spaces (Gallagher, Bauer-Gatsos); synchronous writing (Goldfarb, Woznicki, Starner); World Wide Web (Halbert and Bauer-Gatsos).

Gallagher’s electronic conference board represents an entry-level use.  His essay is designed for the curious, the skeptical, the interested who want to know what it is, how it works, how it fits into our writing program, what its advantages are in both practical and theoretical terms. Initially he felt comfortable trying conference boards because, as he explains, their use evolved:

The conference board achieved the goals Gallagher had in mind for the response-card activity and enhanced it in ways he did and did not expect.  He provides a thorough exploration and justification of the uses for the board as well as a detailed "how-to" section for those who would like to try out the technology in their own classes. He concludes: Halbert’s document problematizes the definition of "research," contrasting its conception as tool, shared by professional writers and academics, with that of first-year writing students who see it as "an end in and of itself, not a means of engaging oneself with an issue and forming a unique claim."  He explores, as background to his claim, the problems with traditional research methods when attached to the "research paper" process most students experience in school.  He makes several claims for the advantages of "reintroducing our students to research and composition through the use of computers."  He provides a detailed listing of assets available to Lehigh students, but readers from other schools may take cues from what is available here that may be similar at their institutions.

In her essay, Bauer-Gatsos straightforwardly addresses one of the course’s critical issues: "like many readers, I do worry a bit about people who call computer-mediated composition the ‘Holy Grail’ of instruction."  Her case study concentrates on extending the boundaries of the traditional classroom by using the World Wide Web to enhance and supplement course work.  She discovered quickly that there were all kinds of ways she might employ the internet and settled on two for her focus: syllawebs and on-line education. Her local goal was to "reach conclusions about whether or not these tools can help us fulfill our mission in the First-Year Writing program."  But as with all the other projects, she learned much that has broad appeal to anyone using the Internet to teach.

Bauer-Gatsos includes a helpful definition section for beginners, and the section on "claims" lays out the argument for using syllawebs, questioning them as she presents them.  In a tough assessment of her experience, Bauer-Gatsos admits, "In reality, very little worked out as I had planned."  That did not prompt her, however, to give up on using the technology, concluding, as she does:

Goldfarb highlights her experience using the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment (DIWE) against the background of her initial anxieties.  Her worries will sound familiar to any who have contemplated, or tried, teaching in a computer classroom: "Am I afraid of teaching with computers . . . do I know what to do with all this hardware? Am I afraid my students will know more than I do?. . . Will using technology make my students better writers?. . . How does this program fit into the writing process?. . . Will using the computers . . . make me a better teacher . . . or just make what I do in the classroom that much harder?"

Goldfarb's experience is yet another example of the unexpected incident in the computer lab teaching the instructor as much as the students: "The students felt that as the [writing] space was designated for their group, the space was theirs. I, on the other hand, being the instructor and having created this space, still felt that it was mine."  Not only did perceptions differ about the space, but the task at hand.  Further, this startling collision of viewpoints forced Goldfarb to rethink her pedagogical beliefs.  Who has authority in a de-centered classroom?

Kendig’s paper explores the uses of hypertext.  Her experience is particularly interesting because of the fear and resistance that "teaching" hypertext tends to evoke.  This new writing space made possible by computers is, after all, the antithesis of the freshman essay: it isn't focused; its argument or narrative doesn't flow linearly; it doesn't have an obvious point.  Indeed, every reading is a "misreading."  To encourage student writers to engage in such composition seems, at first glance, folly.  And yet, it is the very strangeness of reading and writing hypertext, that makes it a valuable teaching tool.  Since it is in many ways the "negative" image of the kinds of compositions first-year writing courses hope to produce, it throws those products into sharp relief—providing an opposite against which its positive may be more clearly viewed by beginning writers.  Kendig notes:

Kendig found most rewarding the sense that students felt engaged because "they were no longer waiting for a decree on the ‘correct’ meaning of the works."  Throughout their collaborative exploration of hypertext fiction, Kendig reports that she is surprised as often as her students; they react differently than she expected, or the outcome she expects not only does not come about, but something happens that she has not anticipated.  On reflection, she concludes that most of these surprises were positive and beneficial in ways she couldn't have anticipated.

Multiple-user domains (MUDs) and their subsets, Multiple-use domains/Object Oriented (MOOs) are alternative sites for synchronous conversations in writing.  John R.Woznicki’s project will help readers’ understandings by categorizing--he places unfamiliar acronyms in spaces that are familiar: all MOOs are MUDS, but not all MUDS are MOOs.  Introducing a fascinating line of thinking, Woznicki asserts that we ought to reconsider the concept of "play" in writing instruction:

Full engagement means that students take over their own learning process.  Since MUDS are a "road leading outside the classroom," they can facilitate independent learning by encouraging students to look beyond their own peer group and teacher for feedback about their writing and for models. This larger exposure helps to break down the isolation of the particular class and erode students’ insistence on writing for the teacher as that teacher becomes one of many "authority figures."

My essay "In Synch With Whom?: Rethinking 'Authority' in the Networked Classroom" reflects on a particular classroom disaster, musing on its larger implications to the practice of synchronous writing in the composition classroom.   The Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment (DIWE), the MOO, and internet chat rooms all provide classroom spaces for writing in real time, and the claims for their usefulness inside the composition classroom stem, in part, from the way in which they tend to de-center the teacher's role in class discussion.  But what happens when the best of intentions beget unpleasant results:

Foregrounding computer-mediated instruction against the background of technological change since the sixteenth century, I explore the role of teacher and student in late twentieth-century cyberspace.
For this world also which seems to us to sing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale.  And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the self-same tale and contain as well all else within them.  Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing.

At some point in each one of these essays, every writer concludes that something valuable has happened in the computer classroom: at least one use of technology has enhanced a deeply cherished traditional classroom practice; at least one goal, unattainable in the traditional classroom, has been achieved.  Indeed, this narrative makes clear that some of the most frightening methodological changes produced not disasters, but benefits.  In fact "surprise" might articulate best the primary response to the semester’s work.  Experiments worked out differently than teachers expected; "truths" surfaced that no one could have anticipated; conclusions came, but sometimes to startlingly different questions than the interrogator had proposed; what seemed at first simple turned out to be quite complex and vice versa.  The course made manifest, in very literal ways, the claims of social epistemic rhetoric.  We came to the knowledge we now have about teaching with computers as we shared the stories of our classroom experiences.  We "know" what we know about computer-assisted composition because of perceptions shaped by group talk and individuals’ written texts.  And that seems logical.   Teaching writing with technology is a new and evolving field; "it" is being constructed by those who practice it.  This reality is what makes our endeavors exciting and terrifying at once.  Few fields plowed by the workers in the discipline called English are so new: what area of literary criticism, for instance, can compare in terms of its newness as a paradigm?  Which has still to name, classify, explain, categorize the phenomena observed?  Moreover, though we worked with texts, those texts had a habit of transforming as we observed them [linear essays into hypertext; conversations into written transcriptions], and the writers producing those texts were themselves  transformed by the act of creating in a new medium.  Much was being juggled all at once.  The course accomplished several outcomes simultaneously: individuals came to new understandings of the language of the technology, its potentials and dangers; a collaborative community was formed; knowledge was generated; a group order was constructed out of individual disorder.

As with any writing about technology, these essays are already outdated, but they are not obsolete. They narrate the quest.  Although the modern scientific world abandoned tales long ago as reliable conveyors of truth, stories continue to form our reality.  It is through listening to others’ voices that we often adjust our perceptions.  "Life" is made up of the stories we tell ourselves about each other and what has happened to us over time.  Postmodernism takes as given the notion that language is the architect of reality, and that language is itself socially constructed.  This document bears out the notion that knowledge is, indeed, a product of interactions within conversational circles.  It is as much about reading as it is about writing.  The fact that it is the story of the graduate course called "Composition With Computers" is almost beside the point.  This is a tale of language and how meaning gets made.

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, email me at
starner@wilkes.edu or jwrightstarner@worldnet.att.net
URL: http://www.lehigh.edu/~ejg1/Janetintro.html ~ Updated: 5/98
Lehigh English Department