COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 8(3), August 1991, pages 5-19
Synchronous networking writing in the composition classroom creates
a new kind of text for composing and analyzing--a transcript of
live speech that casts the talk of writers into the permanent
form of a text. Although this textualizing of speech seems a modest
outcome of a technological change in the writing mechanism, the
experience of writing and reading speech has a radical impact
on how teachers and students think about the composing process.
 Networking writing encourages
a broad understanding of the composing process so it appears to
have a constituent role in diverse forms of communication. This
essay will focus on this widened perspective of writing and will
offer ways to understand its value, however subversive or challenging,
to the writing classroom.
How might we describe and assess the newness of network writing?
The writing of speech makes visible a compositional activity that
disturbs the intentionality of our own language use. It alerts
us to the difference of utterance meaning and sentence meaning.
Rather than mere message senders, writers in real time also feel
like receivers of their own messages. The hindsight effect of
network writing can prompt a wider awareness of the fluid complexity
As a student in a first section on the network observed, "any
audience would be people like us, reading each others' messages,
I guess." Another student, also in a first session, remarked
that the audience's impact specifically a teacher's impact, upon
message may falsify information. When a student asked him to explain
this odd notion, he responded:
By false information, I'm trying to make you realize the true answer to this fascinating question [how does audience influence message?] This means that your response affected my response as well as everyone else's and therefore was able to produce a chain reaction.
This interactive dynamism of communication, so apparent in real-time
network writing, requires consideration of the constructive role
of speech-writing acts that shape more than relay information.
Form these students' perspectives of the effect of messages upon
communication, writing seems to initiate meaning rather than to
duplicate the writer's intended meaning. To rephrase Paul Ricoeur's
(1967) axiom for the process of cognition, writing gives rise
to thought (1967), p. 348).
This constructive role of writing in the shaping of communication
and thought conflicts with a prevalent misunderstanding of writing
as an instrument of knowledge. The terms frequently used in our
discourse are a major source for generating an instrumentalist
paradigm how language functions. While apparently harmless, the
conventional pedagogical advice to "capture ideas with the
right choice of words" implies a misleading approach to the
way language performs. Peter Elbow (1986) found this approach
dominated "competence-based programs" for writing that
he evaluated during a three-year study (p. 128). This approach
encourages a supposedly utilitarian account of both writing and
speaking as a conduit of information that exists in the talk-writer's
mind. The information is channeled through spoken or written language
to a receiver whose solely passive role is to unpack the message
correctly. Considered a vehicle but not a shaper of information,
writing neutrally passes on knowledge that exists outside and
prior to the writing transaction. When working well, on-task,
writing simply carries rather than forms a kernel of information
between the writer (speaker) and the reader.
This instrumental view of language naively underestimates the
effect of writing as shaping influence upon thought. Unfortunately,
it dominates metalingual discourse in many writing textbooks.
This is not surprising in light of the linguist Michael Reddy's
(1979) disturbing observation of what happens whenever we open
our mouths and speak English: "a conservative estimate would
be . . . that, of the entire metalingual apparatus of the English
language, at least seventy percent is directly, visibly, and graphically
based on the conduit metaphor" (p. 298). William Zinsser's
(1976) approach to writing is a typical case in point:
All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts, or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved. (p. 45)
The problem solving approach reflects the commonplace assumption
that people can master their own language by making it match or
duplicate what they really want to say. Yet, the facts and materials
Zinsser describes do not exist apart from the written language
that poses them. Writing has a constitutive rather than derivative
status in the making of facts. Network writing affords us the
chance to see how we frame problems, to use Donald Schon's (1979)
critique of problem solving, by the very terms of our speech-writing.
 Of particular interest are
tacit generative metaphors that come to the fore as we read the
repetitive patterns of real time statements that seem to say more
or something other than talk-writers intend.
Once we begin the hunt for the conduit metaphor in our speech-writing,
the yield is dismayingly abundant. I excerpted an exchange and
a few statements from a network session of students in a course
entitled Writing for Art and Architecture:
|Writer 1:||I have an 1890 painting "Undergrowth with two figures" by Van Gogh--I can't believe he was considered mad at the time of his painting, and the same year he was institutionalized at St. Remy. I'd like to write on this piece from a social view.|
|Writer 2:||Madness would be a difficult subject to critique. I guess you mean in saying that, what were the artist's intentions in the painting? But people who are full blown mad seem to be in their own world and it might be difficult to relate his intentions to our world.|
In this class, I asked students to read the following statements
and to identify what view of meaning all of the statements shared:
Two students observed that paintings were thought of as places
with an inside, and this inside contains the meaning. When I asked,
"What doe we study, a painting or an artist's intentions?"
I received the following protest: "But we're only now being
trained by our design teachers to see what the work says in itself--it's
almost as if we have to forget what we've been taught before,
that paintings express the artist's mind and it's this hidden
message you've got to get through to."
This instrumental view of meaning as some prior determining factor
housed inside paintings or writing has wide and disturbing
cultural implications. Reddy (1979) writes of the "misleading
and dehumanizing" effects of this false model of communication
(p. 308). A pedagogy based upon the conception of writing as an
instrument or tool of knowledge would tacitly encourage students
to adapt rather than change. Education would be conceived statically
as a "quest for performativity," as described by Jean-Francois
Lyotard (1984, p. 54), that would help make the student fit the
system, the marketplace. From this instrumental or performative
view, computerized writing streamlines rather than transforms
thinking--increased efficiency and clarity of thinking, an augmentation
of human intelligence, but not sea-change.
Yet, we must heed the transforming effect of writing and be wary
of lurking metaphors that reify intended meaning. These have been
the special focus of deconstructive criticism that uncovers generative
metaphors such as body/mind and writing/thought analogies underpinning
traditional and instrumental thinking. Jacques Derrida has read
the unwitting ironies generated by rationalist philosophy when
it ignores its own enabling fictions. In White Mythology: Metaphor
in the Text of Philosophy, Derrida (1982) shows repeatedly how
"thought stumbles upon metaphor" (p. 233). Writing is
not only a vehicle for thought, but it also supplements by substitution
and replacement, setting up problems of its own making. "Writing
supplements perception," observes Derrida (1978), "before
perception even appears to itself, is conscious of itself"
(p. 224). A change in the writing apparatus accordingly changes
perception, alters pathways of consciousness, and creates new
opportunities for learning. Therefore, electronic writing arguably
provides a chance for a criticism that would caution against looking
past or looking through writing, however difficult to fathom the
chain reactor effect of a signifier in excess of an intended signified.
Because networked writing provides experience of a generalized
kind of writing that is not neutral or a transparent duplication
of the already conceived, it encourages critical awareness about
how communication, or miscommunication, occurs. It stimulates
an inquiry of our communication for the noise our language brings
to the signifying situation. In order to read the opaque writing
of communication, Michel Serres (1982), a philosopher of science,
asks, "How does one enter into communication? How does one
activate a successful communication?" (p. xxv). This is a
problem setting approach that we can assume increases the
visibility of our speech-writing acts.
We can consider writing on a computerized network a chance to
distance students from a variety of commonplace assumptions about
the relations of language to communication, identity, and education.
Occurring as a fusion of speech and writing, network writing seems
to publicize the self--it taps into so many activities of the
self that students frequently feel disoriented by network writing.
It can also feel, as the student intimated earlier, like an invasion
of privacy. The teacher's panopticon or surveillance technology
is used for observing aspects of student activity that are usually
inaccessible and perhaps even suppressed. Yet, different metaphors,
of bridging rather than invading, of surveying rather than capturing,
may also be generated by our thinking about network writing.
Students realize every statement can be open to question and analysis.
Meaning is not something packaged within words to be neutrally
uncovered. An author only intends to mean something; he or she
never controls meaning. The expressed and the intended are different
aspects of the way language functions. Words seem forever in the
way; they seem even to comprise our way unpredictably. This interference
or intervention of writing in the communication process is why
staying on task during network writing becomes so problematic.
As one student exclaimed during a network writing session, "Heh,
aren't we supposed to analyze rather than debate?"
This interference within the circuit of language is perhaps caused
by the seeing of speech in real time. Students can critically
exploit this new sight by observing any differences between intended
and received meanings. This approach advances audience awareness
and helps avoid the pitfall of the instrumental view that privileges
a writer's intention in the control of how ambiguous language
is to be interpreted.
One limit of authorial intention is suggested by how writers imagine
audiences differently. Targeting an audience is rather different
from contacting one. For example, in their first network encounter,
basic college writers in anonymous groups of four were to discuss
the implications of a cartoon by Oliphant. The cartoon was split
in two--on the left side a tribe of men were about to sacrifice
a woman who was bound to a post; on the right, a hooded person
sat in an electric chair. In the foreground of the cartoon were
two males, one dressed as a tribesperson, the other as a modern
day middle-class person. The tribesperson turns to the middle
class male and says "some things," to which the modern
male adds "never change," completing the sentence for
the savage. One student writer, under protection of a pseudonym,
observed over the synchronous network, "People get scapegoated
all the time and it's always the weak who get axed." Another
student responded, "What do you mean, the weak?" "Well,
look," the student responded, "it's a woman that's sacrificed,
and it's probably a minority person being electrocuted."
"So are women and minorities the weak ones? Couldn't these
people have done something wrong and they're getting their just
punishment?" From these comments, the four members of the
group went on to assume that the "scapegoat" comment
was made by a woman or a minority person and the "justly
punished" comment by a white male. Both writers accused each
other of being prejudiced, one towards minorities as victims,
the other towards society as always right. When they finally stated
their names over the network, the group felt surprised to learn
the "scapegoat" writer was a white male and the "just
society" writer a Hispanic woman. Their earlier statements
had reflected a prejudicial sense of audience who were made the
targets of the writer's message.
Interacting with unknown others, this group felt a need to fill
in identities that reflected an individual writer's projected
sense of his or her interlocutor. This filling in amounts to an
erasure of the otherness of others because they are treated like
an extension of the writer. One way to describe this relation
of writer to reader is that the writer sees the reader as a vehicle
through which the writer attempts to actualize a preconceived
image of the reader. We try to get through to this image rather
than make contact with another.
As instructors aware of generative metaphors, however, we can
attribute this reductive operation to an instrumentalist understanding
of communication. To communicate successfully, we must be aware
of the static our language brings to the signifying situation,
and how it reflects unspoken, perhaps unconscious terms we have
posed tacitly to ourselves. The Oliphant discussion provided my
class with an example of how utterance meaning and sentence meaning
drift in different directions. Students treated writing mistrustingly
because it allegedly always has an author behind it who is hermetically
sealed off from detection yet who, at the same time, somehow controls
the flow of meaning. "You say this because you are that"
was the aphorism our class analysis advanced to describe the prejudicial
Oliphant exchange, a transcript of which we read in class the
How can we understand and work against this division of communication?
The sovereign signifier lurking outside language, on the margins
of statements, is comparable, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze
and psychiatrist Felix Guattari (1983) have argued, to the psychoanalytic
understanding of the self that is dominated by, in the words of
Jacques Lacan, "a few essential and formalizable articulations."
One powerful articulation is the splitting of the subject or self
between two discourses: "The subject of the statement is
the social person, and the subject of enunciation, the private
person" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 265). Yet, as I will
argue throughout this paper, networked talk-writing provides us
with a valuable connecting or bridging occasion to make discourse
flow against the schizoid separation of statement and enunciation,
of public and private selves. To read the writing of speech is
to make available different ways of positing relationships with
ourselves and others and avoid the entrapment of our own reductive
formulations about how we communicate.
Talk-writing, in the words of Mark Poster (1989), "brings
to the fore the rhetorical, figurative, performative, and self-reflexive
features of language" (p. 10). This foregrounding in networked
writing of the fictionalizing and problematical element of knowledge,
language itself, poses as a common project the making of a discourse
about discourse. Certain notions about education and learning
do stand in the way of this communal project. Students often assume,
as David Kaufer and Gary Waller (1985) have observed, that knowledge
is incorrigible, that words and sentences are manipulatable
outer shells of knowledge, and that there are fixed rules about
exercising these skills. Writing is restricted to a "knowledge-telling
practice" (pp. 75-80). The experience of network writing
can provocatively counter these biases by encouraging a critical
awareness of the plural and conflict-ridden ways that language
situates knowledge. As teachers, one way we can promote thinking
about a shared generalized writing cutting across the cultural
boundaries of private, isolated selves is to explore how network
writing poses problems for critical analysis. We can become aware
of complex issues of communication that teachers and students
By opening Pandora's box of communication issues, we can expose
commonplace notions of education that separate students and teachers
into passive and active components of education. Of special note
is the way networked writing makes a dialogical process the driving
motor of the classroom, a dynamic that Paulo Freire (1985) finds
opposed by the "banking education" that has dominated
education in the West (pp. 57-67). In this paradigm comparable
to the instrumental model, the teacher owns the knowledge,
the verbalizations that are deposited into the passive,
acquisitive minds of students. The networked writing classroom
can become a powerful extension of this depository education:
student speech in this technologized environment is more accessible
than ever before and, therefore, can be corrected or adjusted
to what a teacher-dominated institution finds acceptable. However,
the networked writing classroom can also be a means to achieve
what Freire terms a "problem-posing" education. Students
and teachers grapple with the inscriptive powers of language flowing
through and against the isolated subject. The networked writing
classroom can raise a "consciousness of consciousness"
of how discourse is embedded with culturally bound assumptions
about the world.
Clearly this embedded material can occur by means of generative
metaphors discussed above, but the fluidity of network writing
can make us aware of how we think about communications so that
we can entertain alternate metaphors to those our language may
inadvertently forward. The following transcript from a different
Writing for Art and Architecture class than the one sampled earlier
shows again how several students made numerous statements regarding
meaning as somehow residing in paintings or in the mind
of the painter. Yet, drawing on the network-writing scene, this
session began to pose multiple approaches to the way paintings
and language have meaning. Writers wrote about the function of
criticism under pseudonyms to encourage sentence meaning awareness:
|9190:||The writer's critical function is to aid the audience in understanding the relative information in the work or works.|
|5955:||To become more aware of issues and ideas that you didn't see before.|
|5955:||It opens other angles.|
|3564:||what if you don't completely understand the concept and theory behind the work|
|1638:||that's a problem but can't we point out differences between techniques as well as differences between eras?|
|3564:||But of what importance are techniques and eras? I think it is deeper than that.|
|9190:||a work of design retains the original idea and becomes an inspiration for later works.|
|1638:||the originality of an idea can't be totally understood because it comes from the soul.|
|9190:||One of the functions of criticism is to reveal the idea of the work because the idea is the work's source!|
|3564:||you mean a theoretical system?|
|0834:||Can't sometimes ideas originate by the work itself?|
|9190:||ideas do originate from the work itself but these are secondary ideas stemming from the source idea|
|5955:||I think it's more the painter or writer creates and then the creation performs. Kind of like what we're doing now.|
|0834:||then that creation can affect everyone differently, not just express a source idea?|
|3564:||you know in a lot of my design courses they teach us to look at things rather than through them--they become more visible that way.|
Rather than formulate objectives of criticism, these writers felt
it necessary to discuss their own terms for how or where a work's
meaning occurs. The observation, "the painter or writer creates
and then the creation performs," is forwarded to get by the
impasse of seeing the work as a container of meaning that the
artist put into or expressed through the work. By looking at rather
than through or behind works of art or even sentences,
more is seen--and it is precisely this looking at process directed
towards language that network writing can stimulate. The group
of writers above went on to talk about whether artists and writers
controlled the messages sent to audiences. "I don't really
think so," a writer remarked, "because each individual
can make his or her own interpretation of the dialogue or the
performance. It's more like a conversation we have about works."
Students' statements about how works mean began to reflect the
polyvocal dynamics of network writing. A work is a performance
or a catalyst of dialogue.
Different metaphors for the making of meaning became available
as students connected the network writing situation to other signifying
situations such as works of art.
Networked writing can promote a community based upon dissent rather
than consent, upon an awareness of the availability of alternate
generating metaphors if we allow its polyvocality a place in the
classroom. We should not set up a linear program for networked
writing that would be solely used as a pre-writing exercise
for writing the privately constructed essay. Rather, the turbulence
of network writing should foster thinking about how we shape reality
through symbols. Language transforms the world. It does not duplicate
or represent. Essay writing and networked writing are components
within a collage we construct about our finite relations with
Reading transcripts of networked writing, however banal or talky
they seem to professors, is a prime task for its writers.
Reading their first transcripts of networked writing, students
can see the breaks and flows of classroom communication that has
been made visible as a process shaped by language where only linguistic
neutrality had been assumed (we say only what we mean because
language is assumed to be transparent).
Another restriction of the communication process that network
writing can help break through is the top-down model Freire found
so characteristic of academic discourse. In first sessions on
the network, networked writing is heavily teacher-oriented. Students
wait for the teacher to tell them what to do. They write task-related
language only when they think the teacher is on-line with them.
They perform for the teacher alone, scoring points in front of
the grand evaluator. We may borrow and modify a line from T. S.
Eliot's Wasteland to describe this kind of teacher-targeted
student language--the student "do the policed in different
voices." When the teacher is thought not to be on-line, students
either drop out or clutter up the screen with chatter, cursing,
mocking, letting language flow over the dam that teacher-dominated
education has constructed (perhaps a hydroelectric plant is a
more exact metaphor--student-thinking is the flow broken and converted
into a standing-reserve of energy to be channeled into the system).
This centrifugal noise, however, should not be treated as verbal
Here is another sample of an initial session on a synchronous
local area network from a Writing for Art and Architecture course
|Writer 11:||anybody out there yet?|
|Writer 11:||is anybody home?|
|Writer 13:||yes, I'm home.|
|Writer 11:||I was beginning to think everyone was absent.|
|Writer 12:||I wish I was.|
|Writer 11:||Looks like we have a real cheerful bunch today.|
|Writer 14:||there's only 45 minutes left.|
|Writer 11:||Relax. just run this assignment off the top of your head.|
|Writer 12:||As usual.|
|Writer 14:||who goes first?|
|Writer 13:||yeah, who gets analized first.|
|Writer 12:||does anyone have an interesting painting?|
|Writer 11:||The oil on canvas "Path in the Ile Saint-Martin, Vetheuil " (1880) by Claude Monet is somewhere between abstract and realistic. Monet applies light green, blue, red and yellow in heavy, loaded \brushstrokes. His painting techniques seem hurried \and careless. The abstractness of the "town" can only be discerned by the viewer standing at a distance.|
|Writer 11:||that describes my painting - any comments?|
|Writer 14:||you know I just don't think paintings should be analyzed to death.|
|Writer 12:||Writer 11, is yours a practical approach to describing?|
|Writer 11:||I too don't think paintings should be analized at all. Just like writing shouldn't. Art should be accepted for its aesthetic value.|
|Writer 11:||heh, what's wrong with my description anyway?|
|Writer 14:||lots of times I think too much is read into paintings, things the artist probably never thought about . . .|
|Writer 11:||sorry, lost my head. I thought for a moment my description was being criticized.|
|Writer 13:||Who's to say what the painter means, but the painter?|
|Writer 14:||it comes from the visual aesthetic value of the painting, not the analization of the painting.|
|Writer 15:||I'm channel raiding. I have the sneaking suspicion that you are an art major, writer 14, who just got ripped in a professor 's critique.--join the party!|
There is a real resentment here against overreading and intrusiveness
that the students associate with their education. Rather than
dismiss this session and so many others like it as so much off
task socializing and chatter, I want to explore the metaphor of
home used to describe writers working together over the same network
channel. Against this metaphor, or redirecting it, one student
wished she was absent, really at home, I guess, where a forced
analysis of art would not have to occur. Perhaps she would paint,
free from the analysis of others! Art and criticism are assumed
to be incompatible activities, a cleavage related to the difference
between school and home. These students feel there is something
parasitical about criticism, about school, which feeds off a creativity
they do not have. This thinking about criticism and school can
plausibly relate to the political dimension of education in which
school is a only a preparation for real life.
Can the writing of speech somehow bridge the great divide of home
and school? Can teachers use technology to intervene successfully,
rather than constrictively, instrumentally, in the lives of students?
This is not just a practical issue if we consider that instrumentalist
thinking may be embedded in modern technology. Critiques of technology
have been directed against an allegedly inherent reductiveness.
Martin Heidegger (1977), for example, called modern technology
a systemization of nature. Technology "enframes" or
destines nature to be revealed as an energy source for the machine.
Enframing is the essence of modern technology, Heidegger maintains,
"the gathering together which belongs to that setting-upon
which challenges man and puts him in position to reveal the real,
in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve" (p. 305). This
enframing tendency of technology dangerously links up with the
instrumental view of communication. Network writing, provocatively
called "home" by writers 11 and 13, can be an instance
of enframing of the self. Michael Heim (1987), in his philosophical
appraisal of word-processing, employs Heidegger's concept of enframing
to caution against the speed and temporality of computerized language.
The engineering of computers treats human beings as input with
the machine, as a periphery of the machine. "The terms we
use to describe the phenomenon of writing and thinking on the
computer will set up the way in which the phenomenon becomes visible,"
he warns (Heim, 1987, p. 100). We should especially beware subservience
to instrumentalizing or enframing because it is an "all encompassing"
aspect of our technologized culture (p. 80).
A successful teacher intervention in networked writing should
first of all criticize itself as an intervention, an institutional
break of the flow of discourse. Are we damming up students as
a standing-reserve for a consumer society? This is an issue I
raised with my art and architectural students the next day in
class. I wanted to discuss the noise factor of their conversation.
Which language should be called noise? The off-task language of
everyday life (is anybody home?) or the on-task language of analysis,
the "dead air" language of school, as a student had
described it over the network in a different class. In this instance,
I wanted my intervention to instigate thinking about killer dualities--art
vs. criticism, home vs. school, creativity vs. analysis. Are these
dualities an isomorphism that run through our culture, comprising
a schizoid metaphysics of binary oppositions as Deleuze and Guattari
(1983) propose? In class, my students and I realized that what
seemed like only trivial conversation actually broached issues
as profound as those that had been technically assigned.
We need to heed Michael Heim's (1987) warning about the terms
we use to describe the electronic information environment. Throughout
my paper I have used terms like flow and break, dialogue,
polyvocality, noise, communication and community. I
have tried to avoid terms that seem more to apply to Heim's medium-emphatic
technologies rather than element-emphatic. The terms subject/object,
self-expression, form/content, would be medium-emphatic. Medium-emphatic
technologies would be typological and chirological where material
resistance to communication, inking or printing on paper for example,
would tend to make the medium the message. An element-emphatic
medium such as word processing promotes a sense of the ease of
communication, heightens awareness of the element rather than
the medium of communication. The element is the message, to paraphrase
Michael Heim. Accordingly, the danger of electronic writing is
its apparent seamlessness. The discursive element, the symbolicity
of language, can appropriate human selves, and can turn people
into language machines. This negative transformation occurs in
the absence of critical thinking. Language can entrap us within
the ideological sediment so fluidly carried with it. Critical
intervention in this flow has an emancipatory task--the issue
for teachers is to intervene in order to decolonize the self,
decode the axiomatics that are embedded within communication.
I want to end by quoting two passages from Michel Serres (1982)
that we teachers of electronic writing should bear in mind in
our work in the writing classroom. Both quotations remind us that
disorder must come before order, a sequence that makes us necessarily
critical of constrictive communication metaphors such as instrumentalism.
Serres' passages ask us to ponder the situatedness of life and
rationality and how our language may set problems for us that
we then attempt to "solve." Serres defines the human
machine: "The body is an extraordinarily complex system that
creates language from information and noise" (p. 82). In
the same essay on the origin of language, he maps out the narrow
realm of the reasonable where we can presumably locate our modest
The "rational" is a tiny island of reality, a rare summit, exceptional, as miraculous as the complex system that produces it, by a slow conquest of the surf's randomness along the coast. All knowledge is bordered by that about which we have no information. (p. 83)
It is precisely these conditions, noise and information, boundedness
and unboundedness that characterize the writer interacting with
others through the machine. They suggest diverse, rich metaphors
for the communicational processes swirling beyond our fingertips
in network writing.
Anthony DiMatteo teaches English at New York Institute
of Technology, Old Westbury campus.
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