COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 10(3), August 1993, pages 29-48
As recently as 1989, a book titled Computer Writing Environments: Theory, Research, Design could focus on software design and leave the teacher entirely out of the picture. Indeed, in the book's first chapter its authors present a five-item "'wish list' for ideal computer environments" which includes only these items: the environment should permit writers to move easily among aspects of the composing process; should be graphics- as well as character-based; should have hypertext search capability; should have multitasking capacity; and should permit group work (Britton & Glynn, 1989, p. 3). Nowhere on this list is there room for the teacher, save as a distant, post-Newtonian God--the invisible, unreachable creator. More recently, there has been some work on online voice, (Wahlstrom & Jobst, 1991), but voice in this work is still the voice of CAI software, the persona embodied in the program.
With the advent of networked writing classrooms and campus-wide networks, however, teachers' online voices have become an important part of the students' online writing environment. Teachers write "Class News" bulletins that students automatically receive when they log on; these bulletins may direct students to teacher-generated prose of various kinds: prompts, instructions, mini-handbooks, explanatory material, syllabi, grade-sheets, and comments on written work. Through chat programs such as Daedalus INTERCHANGE, teachers can initiate and participate in online discussions. Each of these texts has a voice, both the rhetor and the psyche encoded in the written language in ways yet dimly understood. The texts function together to present a complex entity, a virtual teacher who lives online as Wayne Booth's (1961) "Implied author" lives in the print-text world of the novel (p. 71). In the polyvocal, intertextual online environment, the teacher creates a virtual presence, an online teacher whom the students may meet at any hour of the day, whenever they choose to log on to the network.
In the project we describe below, we have undertaken the first study of the ways in which teachers present themselves in virtual classrooms. We have asked ourselves, "How do we, as teachers working in online classrooms, write ourselves online?" In our computer-equipped classrooms, however, the teacher has a live presence as well as an online presence. Bakhtin (1981) writes of the novel, the "language of a novel is the system of its 'languages' " (p. 262). In computer-equipped classrooms, teachers are the systems of their languages--some presented online, some off-line. We have, therefore, asked ourselves a second question: "How does our online presence relate to our off-line, 'live' classroom presence?"
Notes on Method
At the beginning of our project, six of us divided into pairs. We looked at each other's online language in "Class News" bulletins, in online prompts and messages we left for our students, and in the comments we volunteered in Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions. In addition, we observed our partner's classes, focusing on our partner's live classroom presence. Then, with our partners, we co-wrote drafts of the three sections that follow. We also met regularly as a full group during the semester and the subsequent summer to reflect upon what we were seeing and writing and to focus and refocus the project.
As we proceeded with our project, it became clear that each of us had a different online voice. Yet each of us was, according to our student-teacher evaluations, a "good" teacher. Like the Lake Wobegon children, we were all above average. We could, therefore, freely speak of "difference," but we could not so easily speak of "good" or "bad" ways of presenting ourselves online.
Further, it became clear to us that our online presences existed in a complementary relation to our live, off-line presences. Together the two worked, though in each case differently. We knew of a strand in the literature in our field that assumed that we should each adapt to the computer-equipped classrooms in the same way (e.g., Barker & Kemp, 1990; Handa, 1990; Kiefer, 1991; Klem & Moran, 1992; Spitzer, 1990).
These studies begin with the assumption that technology drives change. Because we were teachers, what we saw was perhaps inevitably different: that different teachers will successfully use technology in different ways, adapting it to their different goals and needs. We came to believe that the relationship between teacher and technology was what Paul Levinson (1990) has termed a "flexible, feedback process" (p. 7). We write, therefore, as soft technological determinists (Pool, 1990, p. vii) who know that we influence, and are influenced by, our environment. How the teacher uses a given teaching environment depends upon the character of that environment, of course, but it also depends upon who that teacher is. As William Carlos Williams tells us, "It all depends. . . ."
But on what do these differences in our use of the technology depend? Is there an environmental/psychological/social equivalent of Williams's red wheelbarrow? Here we need to say that the mix of factors and their patterns of interaction are so complex that we can't arrive at a definitive relationship between a single factor--say, gender--and online voice. Our different online voices are a function of who we are, and who we are is a function of at least these interrelated factors: our race, gender, class, and age; our histories (our personal and professional experiences); our physiotypes and psychotypes; and our values and the resultant pedagogical goals. Further, what we do in a classroom is a function of who our students are and who we perceive them to be. As Sherri and Nick have written, "We use the online environment as differently as we use the flesh and bones that give us physical shape, gesture, and audible voice." In focusing on our differences, we do not mean to advocate an "anything goes" approach to the teaching of writing or to the uses of technology in the classroom.
We all teach in our University Writing Program, and we share this Program's assumptions: Writing is more usefully considered an activity than a subject; writers learn through practice and feedback; and students' writing will be the center of the writing classroom. In choosing to look at differences, we are acknowledging a matrix of forces that influence choices we make when we present ourselves to our students. Rather than aim for an impossible uniformity (one network, one voice), our time as teachers is better spent finding out where we belong and feel most comfortable in the range of possible voices.
In this project we took as our starting point matched sets of
online texts and transcripts of our class observations. As we
wrote and discussed, we began to focus on specific factors that
seemed, in a particular pairing of teachers, to relate to the
differences we were discovering in our online voices. We felt
the need to find meaning in what we were seeing--to account, in
some way, for the differences we were seeing. In the final drafts,
therefore, Sherri and Nick focused on the ways in which their
different online voices seemed to relate to their different pedagogical
goals; Dori and Dix focused on the relation between voice and
gender roles; and Margaret and Ed focused on their concern for
the ways in which the teacher is heard, or not heard, online.
These three centers emerged from the dynamics of interaction
both between the paired teachers and among members of the full
group. We believe that the meanings that we have made are solidly
grounded in individual experience; and we acknowledge that these
meanings have been mediated by the perspectives of the other teachers
in the group and by our individual and collective need to find
meaning in what we have seen. We therefore begin with a caveat:
Insofar as we may seem to establish a simple cause and effect
relationship between one teacher-difference (e.g., gender) to
one online voice-difference, we mean to be suggestive, not definitive.
Sherri and Nick
Sherri hopes that her students learn to bridge gaps between themselves and others. Therefore, much class time is spent in face-to-face conversation involving students in Socratic dialogues off-line, in groups to talk about their work, or in one-to-one conferences with her during class. Mostly through off-line peer review, but also through some online peer review, she encourages, perhaps forces, students to engage in dialogues with their peers about their ideas and their writing.
Sherri sees herself as a writer teaching writing to students who will, she hopes, see themselves as writers. She hopes that students will become comfortable presenting their work to one another in a variety of ways--face-to-face dialogue, reading aloud, and in-class publications. She brings a constellation of others' writing to her students: newspaper articles, books of poetry, student publications from area colleges, writing from present and former students, national periodicals, government documents, and excerpts from her favorite authors.
She will often read aloud poetry, literature, and writing done by students, bringing her voice to their language and giving it sound, intonation, rhythm. With its ability to duplicate files and distribute them, the network makes it possible for her to make selected texts available to each student online so that they can hear the writing there too. Sherri spends the time necessary to type in writing samples--including student writing--that seem helpful and, at times, inspirational. These texts form an online writer's commonplace book.
Sherri loves the easy access the network gives her students to more prosaic texts, the teacher-texts that she uses to organize and manage her class. Her daily "Class News," syllabus, essay assignments, and attendance sheets are always available. Her online voice is easy and colloquial, close to her speaking voice in its intonation and rhythm. Online she uses verbal gestures drawn from the world of talk--please, thank you, I'd appreciate it if you'd, and doubled exclamation marks. She wants the person on the screen to be an extension of the person who instructs the class.
Sherri's "Class News" for April 28, 1991 is both online teacher-voice and commonplace book. First, Sherri sets the day's agenda; then she provides reminders on files of current interest to the class. Following this she reproduces online two texts from the world of print--a poem and a book excerpt--which she had read aloud to the class the day before. Here is her "Class News" as her students read it. (In the interest of print-economy, we have shortened both excerpts substantially.)
Good Morning, Class --
Today we'll have the period to do peer editing. Mid draft is due at the end of lab on Thursday. (We'll start off Thursday with a discussion about Vanna White.)
Not much news today. Have a good day, and accomplish lots.
- Sherri PS: Check out t:tally if you're curious about your attendance records. PPS: Check out the collaborative creative writing story in g:story. It's growing!! PPPS: Remember that p:dir contains a list and description of files we use. PPPS: THOUGHTS FOR THE DAY:
WRITING DOWN THE BONES
"WRITING IS A COMMUNAL ACT"
A student said, 'I'm reading so much Hemingway, I'm afraid I'm beginning to sound like him. I'm copying him and not having my own voice.' That's not so bad...We always worry that we are copying someone else, that we don't have our own style. Don't worry. Writing is a communal act. Contrary to popular belief, a writer is not Prometheus alone on a hill full of fire.
Writers are great lovers. They fall in love with other writers. That's how they learn to write. They take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees. That's what being a lover is: stepping out of yourself, stepping into someone else's skin....
It's much better to be a tribal writer, writing for all people and reflecting many voices through us, than to be a cloistered being trying to find one peanut of truth in our own individual mind. Become big and write with the whole world in your arms.
It's also good to know some local people who are writing and whom you can get together with for some mutual support. It is very hard to continue just on your own. I tell my students in a group to get to know each other, to share their work with other people. Don't let it just pile up in notebooks. Let it out. Kill the idea of the lone, suffering artist. We suffer anyway as human beings. Don't make it any harder on yourself. (page 79-81)
-- Richard Wilbur
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed
My daughter is writing a story....
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy: I
wish her a lucky passage....
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I
wish What I wished you before, but harder.
Sherri's professional and personal background influences the way she uses the technology. As a writer who is especially interested in poetry, she chooses to affirm the value and legacy of the poet's oral tradition. Sherri's family, which is Dutch Calvinist, lived a life surrounded by sermons, songs, and story telling: Orality is what she knows. She values the network because it allows her to bring her oral presence online. Further, because she also values gap-bridging and community, she likes the way in which the screen can hold a chorus of voices, hers as well as Wilbur's as well as a student's. It lets her place her students' voices with the voices of other writers, writers from outside the class. The chorus on screen echoes the voices that resonate in her classroom.
For Sherri, the online world is a mere extension and record of the dynamic off-line world; for Nick, in sharp contrast, the off-line world feels ponderous and the written, online world seems dynamic. Nick uses his audible presence minimally: to greet the class, to joke, to guide them into the online world. Nick swears he cannot organize a successful off-line class discussion. When he tries, the discussion falls into silences he feels compelled to fill; when he fills the silence, students speak less--not at all what Nick wants, which is a free-wheeling exchange of ideas among the students.
In his writing class, Nick hopes to provide a structure, a space for the writers to move in and explore--one in which they define the interior; one in which they can come to understand what they do well, how they can do better, and what they can do to find this understanding from each other rather than from him. He limits his online voice to in-class writing prompts, class documents, "Class News," and his participation in computer-mediated discussions. Most of what is online in Nick's class comes from his students: their drafts, their finished essays, in-class writings, letters to one another, and class anthologies. About 90% of what is online comes from the students.
Still Nick doesn't want be remote from his class. Therefore, he plays with his online voice, has fun with it. Here's an example of his online voice, found in his "Class News" of March 13:
- A researcher is working on the issue of how to cite online sources. See O:Inter.doc in the O: please. We're grappling with the same dilemma, and with your permission I'd like to send her the transcript of our struggle. Read the document and we'll discuss it. Then do one of the three choices below that is appropriate for you.
- Foist, the editors of the first pub[lication] will use today to work on getting that tome ready for press.
- Secont, one of the folk who decided to submit their qk3 entry to the document that will be sent to The Graduate Voice will need to proof that piece.
- Thoid, the rest of us will retoin to INTERCHANGE to muddle over this citation issue.
This seems to us a verbal performance: Nick begins with an outback "G'day," modulating quickly into the American southern "Y'all," and then into a Brooklynese "Foist," "Secont," "Thoid." This performance brackets his description of a full, online agenda for the day. Nick wants this performance to entertain, yes, but also to throw the students off balance, to destabilize the students' sense of the teacher and make students rely on themselves.
The written performance is also a function of Nick's history. Reflecting on this particular "Class News," Nick writes,
I remember being in a whimsical mood when I wrote this. I know I never would have attempted such a delivery orally; it would have been much stiffer--even given the mood that I was in when I wrote it. It's like this. I have a friend who spent a summer working at the box office of a summer stock theater just outside of Skowhegan, Maine. At the time, she went up to work this job from Hartford, Ct. where the two of us were students at the University of Hartford.
I spent a lot of my free time that summer writing to Amy, sending her missives from where ever I was on whatever I had handy. I wrote her letters on paper place mats, from the self service gas station where I cashiered, writing one letter on a role of cash register tape and sending that. I sent her a plate where I wrote the letter from the outer rim, following the contours of the plate, into the center. I wrote it from a bar, I wrote past the grease stains from the burger that had been on the plate, and I wrote it giving a full description of what was going on around me.
Late in the summer a few friends and I went to visit Amy. We spent the weekend, saw Arsenic and Old Lace, swam in the lake, drank in the bar across from the theater, met the actors there, the director, the stage hands. Of all the comments I heard, all the remarks that stayed with me, the most lasting is the one from the director. "Gee, Nick's not as interesting as his letters." Some element of that has always stayed with me.
It stays with Nick in the pedagogy he chooses and in how he presents himself to his class, his online/off-line combination. He believes his students can learn from one another, he believes they should collaborate, and he believes that their voices and writing should be the focus of the class. He doesn't trust himself audibly; he feels he sounds better in writing. So, for Nick, the network provides a place where he can leave writing for his students that says what he wants to say and the way he wants to say it, and that saves him from having to say too much.
And because it is the students who come to fill the system with their works, words and voices, Nick's online voice becomes only one voice in the chorus of voices that constitutes his class. His voice is distinctive, certainly; one of us termed his online language "Nick-Speak." His online voice leads, but it does not dominate or obscure other voices. The resulting environment encourages students to lead from time to time, to try out an occasional solo. The students provide each other with three to four comments on paper to Nick's one--they edit and produce the class publications, they bring in writing prompts for the class, surveys for their classmates to do, topics for the class discussions--and all of these Nick saves online. The class can always refer to these texts: viewing an earlier draft, recalling a peer-review letter, or recalling someone's comment in a discussion so they can quote their classmate in their paper.
Dori and Dix
As Dori and Dix watched each other teach, they noticed that the constraints (or liberties) of their genders shaped the ways in which they make use of the online persona. To be more specific: When Dori watched Dix teach, she noticed that off-line, he tends to be very personal, to get close to his students physically, to de-emphasize his authority by minimizing the hard and fast boundaries between himself and them. Online, he is a bit more formal, stricter, even paternal in places. The opposite is true of Dori: Although her online persona is funny and nurturing, even slangy in places, her physical presence is much more aloof and businesslike than Dix's.
This much said, they do want to note that although they see gender as a key influence on how they use their off- and online voices, they do not believe that gender is the only factor. The differences they observed are probably accentuated by their different ages and years of teaching experience. For Dix, at 40, the danger of being misperceived by his students as "just one of them" is less than for Dori, at 28. Being old enough to be their father allows Dix to enter his students' world without being taken for an inhabitant of it.
Notwithstanding these other factors, Dori and Dix gravitated toward gender in their discussions as they considered the reasons that they mix off- and online voices as they do. What they discovered was that both of them tend to use their online voices to do what they are not completely comfortable doing in person. What lies behind these choices seems to them to have a lot to do with boundary issues--and to be pretty persuasively accounted for by some current thinking on the often dissimilar ways in which men and women assume or diffuse authority.
These conclusions can be clarified through a reading of excerpts from their observations of each other's classes, excerpts which they think tell at least this part of their story. While observing Dix's class, Dori noted the way in which Dix established a friendly, nonauthoritative physical presence in his classroom:
. . . Dix seems to be walking around to his students and talking to them individually. I notice right away that he doesn't wait for them to raise a hand or call his name, he just saunters over and asks what they're working on or how they're doing, then if they want to talk, he squats down and looks them right in the eye as he talks "up" to them. I've observed Dix in this posture--sometimes he even touches them on the shoulder as he explains something.
In this same class session, Dori noticed that Dix's online presence was much more authoritative:
I log on. I notice immediately the kind of tone that Dix takes with his students from the command in his News file. The news is quite civil, even somewhat formal (in a gentlemanly kind of way).
While Dix's students are busy with a short writing activity, Dori calls up the online prompt that directs Dix's students in this writing. She notes its authority and, relative to his off-line presence, its formality:
The exercise is full of specific instructions which are almost formal (--consider describing the place or I would really rather it be something little...) and yet extremely non-threatening and polite (This doesn't have to be..., I would really rather...) On-line, his authority is unquestionable (for instance, he tells them they are to read aloud at the end of all this, and states his preference about what they write on) and yet he gives them choices. He doesn't tell them exactly how to do the exercise, but asks very firmly that they "consider" doing it a certain way.
Dori concludes that although "his on-line voice is really not all that different from his actual physical presence," it is "slightly more formal, more strict and polite." Dix seems to use his online voice to maintain a sense of order and authority in the classroom. Off-line, he bends the rules a bit more, not observing the student/teacher boundaries she establishes in her classroom. Dori notices this as she watches Dix move among his students in his classroom:
As Dix's students write, he walks around the room. After a while, he starts talking to them individually, asking them what they're doing, almost like he doesn't want to be left out. Again, he crouches on the ground, looks up to them. He is very animated as he talks to one woman, and again, comforting. He nods his head a lot, smiles. Here is a teacher who is anything but authoritarian or severe, and I can see the students responding warmly to him.
This observation led Dori to reflect upon the constraints that
she operates under as a female teacher.
I wish I could be as nurturing to my students, as friendly, as Dix is with his. I think it's a gender issue, in a way-- the amount of comfort you're able to dish out, that is-- because I realize now that I am always afraid of teaching this way. I'm afraid that if I were as tender a teacher as Dix, I would immediately fall into the mother category. I am always fighting against being their mother, so I have to keep my boundaries clearer, my voice slightly more crisp, with less room for human compassion, perhaps, which is a shame. In my presence, I hold back a feeling of warmth.
Dori's introduction of gender as a topic preceded and conditioned much of what Dix noticed as he watched her teach. Yet he feels certain that he saw moments when she acted in such a way that she could maintain clear physical boundaries between herself and her students--boundaries that she feels she must establish lest her students, especially her male students, misread her instinctive friendliness. In her physical presence, Dori tries to downplay traditional female qualities. Online, however, she permits herself to be playful, gentle, and inventive--much more so than Dix. As an example of this playfulness, here is her "Class News" on the day Dix observed:
Hi students. I hope you've all recovered from the electroshock therapy.
Your final drafts, essay #4, are due today. I'm being nice and giving you the first ten minutes of class to get them printed out and on the front desk.
Please write me a note at the end of your essay, telling me how you felt about my comments on your mid-process drafts: did they help you, confuse you, anger you? Did you agree with things I said? It would help me to know how my comments are affecting you and your essays.
Dix wrote the following by way of commentary:
First thing I notice is the insiders' joke (about electroshock therapy) in the opening. The presence of a private joke here tells me something about the kind of relationship Dori is trying to have with her students. It makes me realize that my news has little humor--I'm not very personal there.
Dori expresses what she wants from them in terms of her own needs. I like this--it seems truthful to me to talk about our roles in these terms. Then she signs her name. As if this could come from anyone else? Maybe this puts a name on what may otherwise sound like a voice that one cannot talk back to. It makes me wonder whether the tonality of the news is mainly determined by the medium--whether any shifts in timbre we make are enough to personalize what may seem to them like the high school intercom, a voice that can not be talked back to. My own online voice is more like the intercom.
Afterward, Dix and Dori both realized that she uses her "Class News" (as well as other online prompts and instructions) to create a friendly, gentle rapport with her students in a place where it feels safe to do so--through the written, disembodied voice of the computer screen. Like Nick in the previous section, she would rather be a 'presence' online than off.
However, when asked why, she returns to the issue of gender. Because she is female, she feels she cannot "pal around" with her students off-line as she sees Dix doing with his. Thus, what Dix reported seeing didn't surprise her: She very consciously preserves a stricter physical boundary between herself and her students. Dix described her more reserved, aloof off-line style in this way:
Dori seems to leave her students alone (in a way that I don't). She moves around a lot, goes over to a computer on the margins and seems to be doing some business of her own, writes a new update on the white board, etc. She's very hands-off in a good way, I think, in a way that's fitting for the technology.
I sometimes feel that I'm crash-landing on top of my students. And even if it's at a subliminal level, I often feel like I'm selling my students on something. Dori doesn't seem to.
Dori is typing away as I write this. Doing something of her own? Or is this an act? Sometimes in my class, I fake like I'm writing something on my own--often when I give them a short writing assignment that I don't feel like doing.
"Let's take a couple minutes on this, Okay? Make sure you get to read what everybody else wrote. In a few minutes, we'll take a break." She has just gotten up to say this. Now she's giving back a journal to its owner. Someone asks something I can't hear, and she responds by saying that she never makes comments on journals. She doesn't apologize for not doing so. She doesn't offer a rationale. I notice this because in a moment of weakness, I would have done both. This cool, authoritative style of hers seems very different from the persona I see in her online prompts...
As they read each other's observations and talked about these
differences in their teaching styles, they could not help but
notice the ways in which they seemed to be, almost accidently,
using the technology to uphold stereotypical gender roles. Dori
tends to do her mothering online, while Dix maintains order there.
The reasons for this pattern, they believe, have a lot to do
with the context in which they teach. In universities, where
gender issues are hotly contested, understood as enormous (and
often highly disturbing) in their implications, it makes sense
that teachers would attempt to find safety by presenting themselves
as somewhat androgynous. If gender (not anatomy) comes to feel
like destiny, probably most teachers seek to be free of its constraints.
For Dori and Dix, the parts of themselves that they are uncomfortable
displaying (as male and female teachers) resurface in their online
voices. In other words, they started to see the online voice
as a place where suppressed but deeply ingrained parts of the
self find expression.
Margaret and Ed
Margaret sees herself as a manager. She believes that students learn by actively writing. As a result, her classroom is a busy place teeming with activity, lots of writing and lots of writing-related talking, all of which requires managing. Margaret's managerial mode is businesslike but at the same time informal and relaxed. Ed notes this quality in one of her online texts, a record of class attendance:
3/10/92: Absent: Holly Bileau, Brindy Braverman, Andrew Brodsky, Janice DoCarmo, Karl Juthnas -- is everyone in line trying to get tickets for the ball game?
Attendance is being taken, absences noted and recorded, but there are lives to be lived outside the classroom, Margaret suggests--lives that include the on-campus presence of an NCAA-contending basketball team. Margaret feels that this online informality offsets factors that might distance her from her students (factors such as her age  and her strong off-line presence), and make her students see her as more approachable. Ed observed, however, that Margaret's live presence was approachable too, and that in the classroom her demeanor
"suggests that all questions, all problems, whether related to the network or to writing, are important, are worth exploring, and deserve attention. Such an approach naturally leads to a good amount of noise and bustle."
Margaret's students seem to perceive her online and off-line voices as generally similar. One student wrote the following in response to a request for feedback:
I don't feel that there is very much difference between the way you give instructions in class to how you type them in on computer. The point gets across either way. The only difference is that the writing on the computer may seem a little more formal than when you speak directly to us.
Margaret's age, her experience as a parent, and her supervisory experience in business make gender work differently in her classroom than it seems to work in Dori's. And unlike Nick, Margaret feels that--when the situation dictates--she can organize a successful live classroom discussion. "I was always the one in elementary or high school," she says, "who, when the teacher left the room, would try to get the other students to stop throwing spitballs out the window and get back to the task at hand." Some things never change. Today, Margaret sees herself in the role of teacher as, ultimately, the manager of the writing and talk that she tries to motivate her students to generate, as they work toward taking the reins of "author-ity."
A factor that seemed to Margaret to override all others was the newness, to her, of the computer-equipped classroom environment. In the group, she was the new kid on the block; this was her first semester in the computer-equipped classroom. So for her, to an extraordinary degree, the semester was one of transition and of learning. In the traditional classroom, where Margaret had learned to teach, she had used her spoken voice (with the print reinforcement of blackboard reminders and handouts) as the vehicle for managing: initiating exercises, notifying students of assignment parameters and deadlines, and sustaining class discussions. After working with students with diagnosed learning disabilities, she had learned that some people learn best through visual media (print and graphics) and others learn best through the spoken word. She had therefore developed the habit of using two channels--spoken voice and voice in print--repeating in one medium what she had said in the other, accommodating what she saw to be her students' different learning styles.
In moving from the traditional classroom to the computer lab, Margaret felt that the spoken voice was not as effective a medium for the work of managing. She had to work harder to get students' attention when addressing the class as a whole. When Ed visited her class, he observed this difficulty in action:
The room is especially quiet: students attentive ...Margaret's voice carries very nicely without straining. Several minutes into Margaret's presentation the majority of students are listening; several want to turn their attention to their screens. Like any good speaker, Margaret is trying to pull them all in.
The architecture of this computer-equipped classroom works against lecture and traditional discussion formats. Students neither face the front of the class nor sit in the now-familiar workshop circles used in process writing classes. Instead, students sit in rows facing each other, a configuration which encourages peer interaction. For one-on-one discussion and small group conferencing, this works well. Ed noted, when he visited Margaret's class, that this aspect of her class was going well:
Peer editing session underway. Some talking in small groups, some writing, working on their own. Margaret and one student having a lively, five minute talk, then Margaret moves around the room dealing with various questions, or simply checking in on people.
But standing and talking to the whole class seemed to Margaret not to be working well. It seemed, in her words, the "annoying commercial break that interrupts a favorite television show."
As the semester progressed, therefore, perhaps influenced by Nick and the other teachers in the group, Margaret began to use her off-line voice less and rely more on the online world as the locus of much of the managing that she would have done in a traditional classroom. This change did not work well for her. By mid semester, her students began to claim confusion and ignorance about assignments and due dates. After reflecting on this situation, Margaret decided that her online voice was becoming lost in what seemed to her a "kudzu-like" profusion of online texts. Her voice was right there online, prompting, responding, spelling out assignments and deadlines, and yet a significant number of students could not seem to hear it.
She took two corrective actions. First, she began to manage the online space more thoroughly, cleaning out the proliferating text files and returning to her online voice some degree of salience. Second, she began again to project a powerful off-line presence, making a point of spending a few minutes at the beginning of each class talking about the very things that were also spelled out online.
The files continue to proliferate, or, as Margaret writes, "the kudzu grows," as a consequence of her goal: to encourage a lot of talk and a lot of writing in her classroom. In all of this activity, some of the texts whose function it is to manage and direct this activity--assignments and due dates, for instance--lose their centrality and definition. Online, one text file is much like another. Margaret, therefore, continues to maintain a powerful "live" presence in the classroom. In the traditional classroom she had used both print and her spoken voice to manage. In the computer-equipped classroom her online and spoken voices both carry the load.
Ed uses his online and off-line voices for two distinct purposes. His online voice functions as a prose model; his off-line voice is relatively spare and directive. Whenever Ed writes anything to be shared with students online, he demands more of his audience as readers than he does when he speaking to them. Ed's online voice is meant to be read; it is consciously literary, placed online as a model for his students. Ed wants to take advantage of the difference between what appears on the screen, which can be recalled with several keystrokes, and what is spoken, which sometimes cannot be recalled at all. The online voice that results is more consciously literary, more like reading than conversation. Ed's use of his speaking voice, by contrast, tends to be limited to short and specific directions for the class, directions that usually lead to the for-him-more-voluble world on the screen. In Ed's classroom, in contrast to Margaret's, online is the place for students to learn most about what's happening in class.
The written quality of Ed's online voice is evident in the following passage, part of a writing prompt Ed uses to introduce the idea of keeping a journal:
I think it's safe to say that our skills as speakers almost always exceed our abilities as writers. (Think of a really terrific argument you might have had in the past. Where did all of that eloquence, that devastating irony, those verbal bombshells come from?) A journal might be one place in which we can talk to ourselves in an equally immediate way, unconcerned about being "correct" or about the need for revision.
Ed's concern here is not primarily with establishing a close bond between writer and reader; he is not seeking, in this particular online exchange, to win over students by adopting a one-of-the-gang tone of voice. Rather, the writing is meant to hold up over repeated readings. In its entirety, it attempts to do more than give a simple direction ("now begin writing a journal entry"), but to convey something of the instructor's feelings about keeping a journal. A serious assertion about the value of using journals is supported, Ed hopes, by the more formal tone of voice.
Another piece of writing, which remains online throughout the semester, concerns Ed's method of evaluating final drafts:
I use a grid rather than a grade because I think that it might help you focus on a range of skills that go into good writing. Writers can only learn to assess their own--and other writers'- - strengths and weaknesses when they have learned that good writing is made up of a number of individual components.
Here, as in the previous example, the somewhat distant tone grows out of Ed's view that writing meant to last (for one semester, at any rate) must rely on a voice that does not wear out its welcome. The risk of sounding too bookish or stuffy is offset by Ed's desire to have students take the writing, and its message, seriously. For him, at the other end of the spectrum from stuffy lies the informal presence that tries too hard to seduce. Students may recoil from one as much as the other, Ed believes. His choice reflects his greater degree of comfort at appearing too distant rather than too close.
After observing his class, Margaret noted another side of Ed's online presence. Although the above examples represent what she calls the "instructor voice," Margaret also sees Ed employing what she calls a "participant voice." She sees this presence emerging most during Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions. "In these sessions," she writes, "Ed is open, personal, self-effacing, and humorous, sharing stories of his background and honest reactions to thoughts and events." Yet even during these computer-assisted discussions, which tend to be the most informal part of the class, Ed feels that his online presence remains more formal than the students', or, at best, calculatedly informal. Ed began an Daedalus INTERCHANGE session with the following prompt, direct and colloquial, yet containing something of the instructor's voice as well:
The most direct and to-the-point reason I can give for liking to teach 113 is that it allows me to read essays --lots of essays. Why do I like reading them? Among other things, I like reading someone being smart. Some breakthrough moment when someone puts an interesting thought on paper or says something well (or both).
Please take ten or fifteen minutes to tell us about such a moment in someone's essay in Publication 2.
If you don't have Pub2 with you, look at someone else's.
If all else fails, tell us about a moment in your own writing that's smart.
In response to a comment made by one of the students after reading the prompt, Ed wrote the following:
Kent, you raise a good point. I certainly don't mean to say that it's a miracle to read something smart in 113. By "breakthrough" I meant more the sort of thing that happens when a writer knows that he or she is saying something important (maybe not 100%-new-and-never-been-heard-before, but important), and that sense gets communicated to the reader. You can tell it when you write it, and you can tell it when you read it, too. In a way, I guess it is a miracle, but not the sort you might think I mean.
This is the way Ed sounds on Daedalus INTERCHANGE, however much
he encourages students to speak freely themselves in this medium
and to forget, at least temporarily, about matters of grammar,
style, and spelling. Margaret finds this voice "inclusive
in two different senses of the word: He seems to use it to bring
students into his sphere as instructor, and he seems to use it
to include himself within the students' arena." For Ed,
the emphasis remains on the first of these two inclusions. He
uses the written word much more than the spoken, and he relies
on a formal presence online to convey his ideas and expectations
in the composition classroom.
Our project leads us to the inevitable call for more research: more research on the ways in which different teachers make different use of online teaching environments. "Voice" may be a good place to begin. There has been some thought given to the roles teachers might play in online conferences (Davie, 1989; Feenberg, 1991), and there has been a study of the "voice" that is carried in the language and structure of CAI software (Wahlstrom & Jobst, 1991). But our study is the first thorough look at the ways in which teachers have written themselves online.
Beyond what we have learned about online voices, we have been reminded that teachers are people, that people are different, and that different teachers make different use of the same technological resources. We have focussed on the ways in which we inscribe ourselves online, yet the different online and off-line presences we have found are keyed to other differences in ways we do not fully understand. We have just scratched the surface; more work needs to be done.
Our project suggests that in studying the ways in which teachers operate in computer-equipped classrooms, differences among teachers are more significant and important than similarities. A physiological feature such as height determines the ways in which teachers can make use blackboards; so differences in race, gender, class, age, pedagogical goal, and life experience will determine the ways in which individual teachers can best make use of a particular online teaching environment. Often our literature assumes that the nature of technology is self-evident--that technology is what it is, and that users of a technology need only to be shown how it works to make it do what it must. Our experience tells us that what is self-evident about technology is a function of the person who views the technology. Sherri noted, for example, that she had trouble visualizing the virtual space of the network. Her use of the technology was therefore different from Nick's and Margaret's--and appropriately so.
Our study has implications for teacher training as well as for research. In the discussions that accompanied the drafting of this article, we all recalled, at some point, our beginnings as teachers in these computer-equipped classrooms. We had had different levels and kinds of experience with computers. Some of us were IBM-folk, and some were Mac users. Most of us had not used networked computers. The training workshops that preceded the semester did not--and could not--fully prepare us for the virtual classroom we were about to enter. To a degree we were all, like Heidegger's dasein, 'thrown' into a virtual world where we had to find our voices. We learned about the technology by using it, and by reflecting on how we were using it. Our reflection was helped along by the formal visits we made to one another's classes and through the discussions with our partners that fed the writing of this article. But we've learned as much, too, from our informal encounters--the open classroom doors that permit our colleagues to enter, use a free terminal, ask a question, and visit. Through the network, we have kept up an active exchange of e-mail messages, and we have created an "open" directory where we can share files. Our training comes less from learning how to master the system, although that happens along the way, than from seeing one another teach. We are fortunate in our variety and our community.
Our experience leads us to suggest, therefore, that a teacher training program connected to computer-equipped classrooms should not present a single model of the "good" or "appropriate" use of a computer-equipped writing classroom. Instead, a teacher-training program should present, as this essay does, multiple models--a range of possible/actual ways in which teachers have integrated the new with the old, the new with the given. Further, the training program should communicate to the teachers the belief that models outside the described range are possible and valuable.
Such a training program would encourage its participants to reflect upon their own teaching, preferably in the light of their direct experience of others' teaching--experience in the role of colleague, not evaluator. The focus of this reflection might well be upon the different ways we do the same thing--in our case, the differences among the voices we found in our online texts.
Our experience suggests as well that we should not be too eager
or quick to see teachers' behavior in computer-equipped environments
as in some way resisting the new technology. It is more useful
to see this same behavior as the incorporation of the new into
the old, a "complex merging of old and new" (Bishop,
1990, p. 129), the adjustment of a complex, functioning system
to the presence of a new element. Further, the argument that
one should teach in a particular way in an online environment
seems to us, as teachers, a bit simplistic and even a little arrogant.
If we could all agree on the desired outcome of teaching, and
if we could agree on the strategies that would produce this outcome
for all teachers and all students, then perhaps we could speak
of "good" and "bad" ways of using a computer-enhanced
teaching environment. But, given the differences among ourselves
and among our students, such agreement seems a distant, unlikely,
and, in a cultural democracy, even an unwelcome possibility.
Nick Carbone, Margaret Daisley, Ed Federenko,
Dix McComas, and Sherri Vanden Akker are PhD candidates in the
English Department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst;
Charles Moran is a professor of English at the University; Dori
Ostermiller is an MFA graduate of the University. All authors
teach in the writing program at the University.
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