Quoted references in this review, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the November, 1994 update of the MBU FAQ, compiled and distributed monthly by Locke Carter of the University of Texas.
Currently, better than 90% of MBU subscribers apparently have academic connections (.edu electronic addresses); however, there are a half-dozen AOL addresses, and a number of industry-based subscribers. Of the better than 30 academic institutions represented on the list, only three have double-digit subscribers: The University of Washington with 30, the University of South Florida with 18, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha with twelve. Chunks of subscribers from one place may be explained by the fact that occasionally, MBU will play host to a "class" -- that is, a Computers-and-Writing instructor will require his/her students to subscribe for at least a short while, or perhaps an entire term. This is certainly a reasonable assignment, but teachers may consider the netiquette of announcing their intentions beforehand, rather than having two dozen well-intentioned students announcing themselves individually.
Some others schools represented include, in no particular order: Kutztown State, Cal-Chico, Ball State, Wellesley, Canisius, Michigan Tech, Iowa State, Purdue, Rhode Island, Bowling Green and Hawaii. There are numerous non-American addresses on the MBU subscriber list, with most, but not all of these situated in Canada.
It's only fair to point out that in its more recent history, MBU did have one minor upheaval; in July of 1994, listowner Fred Kemp "killed" MBU -- that is, he deleted the entire list of subscribers -- and restarted it from scratch. The problems leading to Kemp's decision were mostly maintenance-related; as he noted at the time, "the physical list is wildly corrupted and I am receiving lots of complaints for a situation I have no control over." It speaks well of the list that within the first 48 hours of MBU's "new incarnation," there were 110 re-subscriptions.
There are many different ways to classify a list's "readership" and "tone," but in essence they all mean the same thing: who uses this list and why? When Locke Carter asks the question, "What Do We Call What We Do? What Do We Call Ourselves?," he provides his own answer:
The term "Megabuns" aside, there are always the questions about what it is that we do exactly, and by extension what we call ourselves. "Computational Rhetoric" is straightforward (if a little boring), emphasizing our use of computers in rhetoric. "Techno-rhetoric" is a little more general, and covers all sorts of technological innovation. If you do rhetoric over networks, you could do "Netoric." Some suggest terms that do not emphasize technology, but the era, as in "Postmodern Pedagogy." There's always "Hyper- or Virtual-" or "Cyber-" anything, giving us the possibility of "Virtual University," "Hyper-Teaching," or "Cyber-Comp." These may be issues that vanish as technology becomes part of everything, but we still have room for creation at this point.Although Kemp is not an obvious voice on MBU -- he posts only occasionally, and is effectively transparent in the discussion -- he has in the past had some intriguing ideas about what lists like MBU can accomplish; in this reviewer's opinion, the most interesting is this:
The forming of a learning community. Regardless of what information is sought or provided, if the majority of talkers on a list imply a common set of beliefs and values, then a group, however loose, begins to coalesce, and all the dynamics of group formation begin to occur. On a national list, a group identity begins to be asserted, one that people can tap into and employ in their professional and personal pursuits in complex but important ways. Although the social element of learning is much talked about these days, how this is manifested over the Internet is not well understood.
"Interfaces" was a continuing thread from the previous several days discussing the advantages of visual interfaces from the standpoint(s) of Mac and/or Windows users; additionally, the subject line "ELLIS software" asked MBUers for opinions about ESL software, while the "Connect at a distance" subject line asked about the feasibility of using software in a Local-Area Network (LAN) to allow students to work outside classtime.
The thread "Flaming research" began a series of posts on MBU that lasted several days, in which members shared specific text-based and on-line citations regarding the concept of flaming in CMC. Another short-lived thread, originally entitled "access," allowed several subscribers the opportunity to discuss the question of ethnicity and computers, societal boundaries placed on computer use, and how the name we use in posting to a group may cause other listmembers to create assumptions about us.
Other various threads, many of which were "conversations" between two or three people on which the list was invited to eavesdrop, included a clear-cut definition of "spamming the net" (posting to hundreds of newsgroups simultaneously), and a discussion of the banking metaphor for education as it relates to the CMC classroom. Finally, there was a post advertising a summer workshop of interest to many listmembers, including application information.
This is a fair representation of the kinds of topics that appear regularly on MBU; discussion of software and hardware issues often intersect nicely with suggestions about pedagogical approaches -- Carter is quick to remind us that "An implicit goal of the Megabyte University community is to try to share and pool our teaching experiences in (CMC) settings."
Topics do "recycle" quite frequently, especially when there is a large influx of new subscribers who were not present during earlier discussions of a particular issue (such as at the beginning of the school year or when a class joins). This kind of recycling has, on occasion, led listmembers to express frustration and even sign off; it may be partially addressed by the addition of an MBU archive to which new members can be referred. MBU is not currently archived, though as Carter explains, "Leland McCleary is doing an exhaustive study of MBU, and has been saving these discussions since October 1992 (with a few gaps). Last I heard, he was expecting to make these archives available as soon as his study is complete, which should be the end of 1994." If and when that archive becomes available, Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine will post the appropriate information in an upcoming issue; currently, Carter's FAQ does an admirable job of providing short-hand answers to many of these questions.
In sum, if you are at all interested in teaching writing with computers (on the 'Net, in a LAN, or in a non-networked CAI environment) at any level from grade school to graduate school, Megabyte University is an invaluable resource.
Mick Doherty is a PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. His current projects include "Cyber-based Prose: Re-S(h)ifting Flower in the Computer-Mediated Classroom" to be presented at the 1995 Conference on College Composition and Communication.
Copyright © 1994 by Michael E. Doherty, Jr. All Rights Reserved.