Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 1 / May 1, 1994 / Page 5

Exploring Computers and Composition: New Processes, New Identities

by John December

NASHVILLE (March 19) How can people learn to write using computers and networks? What happens in the cyberspace that results from such communication and learning? These were some of the questions scholars at the 45th annual convention of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) explored recently in Nashville, Tennessee. While many of those attending the convention focused on traditional methods of composition instruction, some participants attended sessions geared toward electronic communication. Participants at these sessions explored how advances in teaching practices and instruction raise new issues about the nature of online instruction and discourse.

Using computers to help people learn to write is not a new practice among teachers of college composition--students have used stand-alone computers and word processors in writing classrooms for years. However, teachers are now setting up local area networks and connecting these networks to the Internet. On these networks, teachers are beginning to use a variety of tools--not just for word processing--but for real-time and text-based online discussion. These practices extend the classroom walls and give the students ways to write and think in situations never possible before.

Karen Schwalm of the Department of English at Glendale Community College in Arizona developed a tool called the Electronic Forum to extend her class activities beyond the walls of the classroom. The Forum gives students ways to connect to the Internet through electronic mail, mailing lists, and gopher. Using the Electronic Forum, students react to the content of the course and share "exploratory, ungraded, risk-taking" responses with other students online. The Forum also gives students ways to assume anonymous or different identities and take part in discussions on a local or global scale.

Schwalm relates how this conferencing gives students a chance to take part in the global conversation on the Internet and thus opens up new possibilities for essay material. Karen Schwalm relates her excitement when the students discover the power of language and the diverse viewpoints expressed on the Internet. Students find new meaning in their writing. This process can sometimes change the relationship between student and teacher. As Schwalm reports that "we are finding that computer conferencing, especially when it involves access to the Internet, muddies the distinctions between teacher and student." Electronic communication challenges the knowledge of the instructors in the face of students who can often quickly gain network expertise. Karen Schwalm points out, "we all become learners and teachers simultaneously."

Using computers for instruction opens up new possibilities in the classroom and also raises new questions about intellectual property and authorship. The Caucus on Intellectual Property and Composition Studies at the conference held a panel entitled, "Intellectual Property in an Information Age: What's at Safe for Composition Studies?" This panel explored how the fluid nature of discourse and text in electronic communication media raises issues about ownership as well as teaching and research methodology. Laura Gurak, who will be an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota this fall, discussed her PhD dissertation research which used online interactions on Usenet and mailing lists as research data. Because case law concerning cyberspace copyright issues does not yet exist, Gurak points out that "it is still up to each researcher to decide whether to use real names and/or ask permission when citing from the net." The idea of ownership/authorship may change in cyberspace, so the "old notion of authorship based on the romantic tradition"--based on a single author and a single, identifiable text--may not hold up on a network where there are multiple voices creating a collective text.

The nature of online texts was also the subject of a presentation by Johndan Johnson-Eilola of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Johnson-Eilola points out that current online spaces are increasingly "commodity spaces," based on the idea of users purchasing information and moving that information to their personal spaces. Rather than the network of interrelated nodes which hypertext theorists envisioned, research spaces are often "discrete and relatively private spaces for the accumulation and circulation of information-commodities." This notion of the private space arises, according to Johnson-Eilola, from the idea of communication as special, the concept of an author as "an isolated genius blessed with a distinctive voice" and a concept of information as a "concrete, possessible, and saleable commodity." As an alternative to the commodity space, Johnson-Eilola describes intertext spaces as "socially shared networks of text held as communally shared collections rather than discrete objects." Johnson-Eilola says that the World Wide Web (used through the Mosaic client for example) offers the beginnings of such a space, but that it is critical that teachers encourage "students--and professional technical communicators--to look critically and politically at the ways in which they structure online environments; they are and will be the architects of the world in which we will all live."

Using online communication to help students learn to write, exploring the meaning of authorship and property, and delving into the nature of online texts were some of the issues participants at the Conference on College Composition and Communication explored. There were more sessions--exploring how the virtual spaces can create communities and how literacy in these communities can develop. All these sessions demonstrate how the CCCC members are confronting the new issues raised by computers and writing.

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