COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 10(3), August 1993, pages 5-28

The Egalitarianism Narrative:
Whose Story? Which Yardstick?

Susan Romano

"[I]t's worth losing your 'hispanic Identity' to society," writes Elena Tamayo, surrounding with quotation marks two very problematic words. "[J]ust remember, you'll never lose it within you." Elena is speaking/writing electronically about her ethnicity, and I, the instructor, am taken aback by this Mexican-American, female student's midsemester assertion on Daedalus INTERCHANGE, the interactive, real-time component of the in-class computer network at The University of Texas at Austin. Networked environments, after all, purportedly authorize students such as Elena, whose voices are muffled in many traditional university settings, to claim and foreground their experiences. Because Elena is triply marginalized--by gender, by ethnicity, and by her status at the university [1] --her statement is particularly disturbing. Elena's assertion disrupts our nascent pedagogical theories about egalitarianism in the networked classroom: She plans to lose her difference rather than center it.

One ubiquitous claim for the interactive, networked classroom is that networking technology markedly facilitates liberation from traditional institutional learning disablers such as the proscenium classroom, the presentational mode, and academic language. The electronic alternative facilitates a redistribution of control over language and knowledge via temporal and spatial reconfigurations and via idiom itself. Not only do students in general benefit from this reconfiguration; those students most effectively silenced by the traditional learning format--those we call marginalized--stand to gain the most.

Indeed, an empowerment of the marginalized constitutes a necessary criterion for contemporary constructs of the concept egalitarianism. And claims for an enhanced egalitarianism are currently central to professional discourse about computer-based classrooms. Selfe and Meyer (1991), for example, identify three conjectures about networked classrooms in need of verification or nonverification. All three are claims for egalitarianism: 1) that computer-based exchanges may encourage egalitarian patterns of involvement; 2) that computer-based conferences may support alternate power structures by erasing socioeconomic cues; and 3) that the anonymity provided by pseudonymous written exchanges further encourages egalitarian discourse patterns. Citing Batson, Bump, Cooper and Selfe, Faigley, and others, Selfe and Meyer (1991) note the "growing consensus that electronic conferences give us egalitarian classrooms" (pp. 164-165). Indeed, local lore at my institution, The University of Texas at Austin, concurs; instructors in networked classrooms at The University of Texas advertise positive teaching experiences grounded in a perceived decrease in instructor dominance and in documentation of increased student participation. In this paper, I will examine some of the issues attached to what I will call the egalitarianism narrative, which has so rapidly gained credence in the field and which serves as a powerful term of authorization.

Clearly teacher subjectivity is one factor among many contributing to the elaboration of this narrative. Feeling their authority comparatively reduced in networked classrooms, instructors account for the sense of weakened control by positing that power has been dispersed among students, a phenomenon often verified by tabulating numbers of messages and words and by plotting patterns of student-student and student-teacher interaction. What is disturbing about using only quantitative data to ground the claim for egalitarianism is that it presupposes an agreement among interested parties that egalitarian classrooms are definable by empirical means--that is, an agreement that egalitarianism is a function of speaking space quantifiable in units such as messages, words, and lines plotted in patterns of interaction. Empirical data of this sort have acquired consensual truth value within the community of computer and composition professionals perhaps not only because such evidence affirms a shared instructor subjectivity but also because as hard data, they hold up under scrutiny in a broader academic community.

By virtue of a frequent housing within English departments, computer-assisted composition shares with composition studies in general a low status that elicits the desire for legitimation as a field (see Stephen North's (1987) The Making of Knowledge in Composition and Susan Miller's (1991) Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition. Indeed, computers and composition might be called a marginalized field within a marginalized field. The point here is not that teachers in networked classrooms are fabricating claims, but rather that they are subject to both institutional pressures and professional self-interest and that their knowledge is situated--gleaned from positioned experience as instructors in powerful institutions.

Computer and composition professionals also have looked to rhetorical theory for legitimation and have found extraordinary compatibility. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if all contemporary theories--linguistic and pedagogic, cognitive and social, feminist and postmodern--converge in the electronic classroom, or, at least, are made more visible there. Many of us who teach in networked classrooms have tried on the theoretical terminology of the past decade--collaborative learning, social construction of knowledge, decenteredness--and are pleased with the fit. Fred Kemp (in press) specifically attributes the legitimating of real-time conferencing within The University of Texas English department to its compatibility with rhetorical theory of the mid 1980s. And Cynthia Selfe (1990) points out that grounding perceptions of the changes that occur in networked classrooms within a theoretical framework assures the validity of our practice (p. 119). Thus, by linking current theoretical discourses and personal sensations of displacement in the classroom to empirical data, proponents of networked classrooms will move the field out of its infant, undisciplined, and anecdotal state into a theorized, self-aware, empirically grounded--and hence authorized--condition.

Because the theoretical discourses that enjoy currency generally have to do with the restructuring of power relationships, the claim that computer technology facilitates such a desirable event is enormously appealing. It does not take much imagination to add on to the claim that such restructuring of power relationships will be of the right sort; it will foster egalitarianism. And this hopeful claim should credit those university teachers who believe in student contributions to the intellectual endeavor that constitutes academia, and those who consider teaching as important a part of their professional obligation as research and publication.

Recently, researchers in computers and composition have called for a more complex understanding and definition of egalitarianism and for improved criteria for determining its presence. Selfe and Meyer (1991), for example, seek ways to "better describe concepts like 'dominance' and 'participation'" and to identify "linguistic structures and conversational phenomena [that] are most useful for describing . . . power relationships . . ." (p. 188). In this paper, I pursue the question of egalitarianism in networked classrooms using an interpretive, rather than a quantitative, methodology. I place a higher value on readings of transcript excerpts and grant such interpretations far more validity than would Selfe and Meyer, who consider them weak (albeit interesting) complements to statistical information (p. 166). Hawisher and Pemberton (1991) advocate triangulation--varied methodologies for testing single hypotheses (p. 83)--and I would argue that careful, interpretive readings are valid legs of the triangulation or quadrangulation that constitutes responsible research. Indeed, the undervalued, anecdotal, interpretive reading may serve as a piece of the "conversational phenomena" that Selfe and Meyer seek. Furthermore, anecdote is especially useful when it fails to support the proposed generalizations by which we would legitimate our practice. Uncertainties and misalignments acknowledge complexity and invite contestation, increasing the number of angles from which to ponder exactly what networking technology does change about teaching and learning. For that is the real question we pursue. Whether or not the egalitarianism claim is valid sometimes or often or never, it seems to me that surely a restructuring of context and power relationships does occur in the networked classroom. And critical examination of that restructuring is sometimes impeded by an insistence that networked classrooms are pedagogically and ethically sound.

Feminism: Methodology and Categories

Cynthia Selfe (1990) has located claims about the computer classroom and egalitarianism within a discourse overtly concerned with power and its redistribution--liberal feminism. I will take up Selfe's assertions to examine some underlying assumptions and point out applicable tenets of liberal feminism left untouched, arguing that we must regard with care our imagined reconfigurations of power relationships. Liberal feminists find themselves in the awkward position of distrusting the very generalizations that legitimating a field entails, and they must live with that contradiction. Practitioners of sound feminist theory must return to anecdote in order to test theory, to ground it not just once in experience, but again and again, noting the simultaneous presence of incompatibilities and allowing the experiences to alter the theory. The practice of liberal feminism requires a willingness to undermine and overturn appealing claims, and a mid-semester message such as Elena Tamayo's--that the claiming of Hispanic identity and a place in educated society are simply incompatible--reminds us to move between theory and practice, to keep these arbitrary but useful distinctions in a dynamic state, not allowing the anecdote to undermine the importance of theorizing the discipline, yet preventing that theory from lulling its believers to rest easy in their doctrine. If we are able to ground practice in theory without allowing theory to predetermine perception, then we free ourselves to observe what else is happening in these classrooms.

My project, then, is to query the egalitarianism narrative, positing that we hobble and deceive ourselves by imagining empowerment within the terms marginalized and egalitarian, which call to mind standard categories--race/class/gender--that may well be refused by the students themselves. Using these categories, which seem crucial to our claims in that they name the marginalized who are to benefit from reconfigurations, entails an inadequate and innocent understanding of selfhood and subject position. Students themselves must claim the categories through which egalitarianism is figured in order for the proposed phenomenon to occur. Marginalized and egalitarian are highly politicized words that count on recognition--not erasure--of difference and inequality, and an egalitarianism figured through unclaimed categories is a meaningless abstraction. Hence, incorporating these words into a statement about networked classrooms and liberation depends upon a claiming of marginality, of difference, by those who experience it. But as liberal feminists know, selves are contested entities, composed of complex particularities that resist reification. Ethnicity, for example, is only one aspect of self, and a student's foregrounding of his or her ethnicity in the classroom is an overtly political act. My search for egalitarianism is a search for that act.

The Field of Observation--English 306

The class from which I take my observations is English 306, Rhetoric and Composition, required for first year students at The University of Texas at Austin. [2] Textbooks were Ramage's and Bean's (1989) Writing Arguments, based partly on Toulmin's logic and terminology (claims, grounds, warrants), and Selzer's (1991) Conversations, a collection of pieces centered on contemporary social issues. Both texts seem ideally suited to the networked environment: Students reading a cluster of arguments in "conversation" with one another should begin to conceive of their own writings as contributive social acts, and Toulmin's logic is useful in exposing the differences in cultural assumptions that give rise to alternate perspectives. Armed with Toulmin's analytical method for understanding their differences, students model online, interactively, the structure of Conversations.

The two pieces anthologized in Conversations provided the focus of discussion during the two Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions that constitute my primary field of observation. Luis Valdez's (1991) Los Vendidos is a play written in the late 1960s and performed by and for Mexican-American farm workers in California during the Delano grape strike era. Valdez fragments the category "Mexican-American" into a melange of caricatures: the pachuco, the revolutionary, the farm worker, the opportunistic entrepreneur, and the educated, upwardly mobile, middle-class person, all "sell-outs" in one way or another. The play opens up many possibilities for discussion--stereotypes, multiple selves, education, speaking Spanish, selling out, how to "be" within the ethnic community, responsibility toward community, and the repercussions of acquiring an education in terms of reenvisioning one's relationship to that community. It is a text by a Mexican-American about being Mexican-American.

Two months before the class read Los Vendidos, several Mexican-American students had used the semiprivate, electronic message board CONTACT to express shock and dismay over some of the anti-affirmative action editorials appearing in The University of Texas newspaper. When we publicly analyzed those articles for claims, grounds, and warrants, however, not one person claimed this issue as pertinent to his or her university experience, even though we talked extensively about the category "minority student." Because I am interested in the centering and decentering of the marginalized and in the differences between logical thinking played out in abstractions and logical thinking grounded in personal experience, I wanted to resurrect the issue of education and ethnicity in a different arena, one that might hamper the sort of distancing that talking in abstractions (i.e., affirmative action as a philosophy) allows. Envisioning my classroom as a liberatory spot, that is, buying the egalitarianism narrative and in addition making the environment particularly safe for the 9 Mexican-American students in a class of 21 by disclosing my own position as Anglo birth parent of four Mexican-Americans, I assigned Los Vendidos specifically hoping that Mexican-Americans might respond to this play as Mexican-Americans, given the variety of entry points and alternative positionings foregrounded in the text.

What did and did not happen during these Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions makes clear to me that because opportunity exists for the marginalized to either center themselves or validate the margins does not mean they will welcome that opportunity. Indeed, those people assigned to ethnic categories by the egalitarianism narrative may refuse altogether the ethnic label. Furthermore, they will not necessarily speak as a unit, nor confrontationally. To ask or expect that they "speak as," as Spivak puts it, only marks the askers' and expecters' positions, political and/or hierarchical. Gunew and Spivak (1989) write:

The question of 'speaking as' involves a distancing from oneself. The moment I have to think of the ways in which I will speak as an Indian, or as a feminist, the ways in which I will speak as a woman, what I am doing is trying to generalize myself, make myself a representative, trying to distance myself from some kind of inchoate speaking as such. There are many subject positions which one must inhabit, one is not just one thing. That is when a political consciousness comes in. So that in fact, for the person who does the 'speaking as' something, it is a problem of distancing from one's self, whatever that self might be. But when the card-carrying listeners, the hegemonic people, the dominant people, talk about listening to someone 'speaking as' something or other, I think there one encounters a problem. When they want to hear an Indian speaking as an Indian, a Third World woman speaking as a Third World woman, they cover over the fact of the ignorance that they are allowed to possess, into a kind of homogenization (p. 413).

The freedom, then, to speak politically or to construct an ethnic subject position necessarily includes the freedom to do neither. The expectations some composition teachers and researchers hold regarding behavior of "the marginalized" mark only those teachers and researchers' own politics, their own interests. And it is precisely at this point that we must interrogate claims about egalitarianism in the networked classroom and ask ourselves in whose mind this proposed egalitarianism exists. Marking out categories for students and assuming that their speech acts fill up those categories only identify our own hegemonies, our own interested expectations.

Indeed, I have self-consciously marked my Mexican-American students by surname for purposes of pursuing my question. I have not acted entirely arbitrarily, however, because for all the anonymity that real-time conferencing affords, many Hispanics are marked from the first day by their log-on names, a marking which suggests an ethnic attachment that may or may not exist and that indeed reifies and generalizes the student in my eyes as well as in the eyes of other students. They have no choice; they are marked. None of the name-marked students saw fit to announce formally her or his connections to the Mexican-American community, neither at the beginning of the semester during message board introductions nor midway through the semester, as did two unmarked students, who, on separate occasions, claimed Mexican-Americanism via their mothers, an ethnicity not manifested in log-on names.

My networked, decentered, collaborative, student-controlled classroom, it seems, made room for subjects who declined to occupy the space called ethnicity that the network had cleared for them. Alejandro, Luis, and Kevin, for example, all marked by their Hispanic surnames, consistently refused membership in that space by referring to Hispanics as "other:"

The three speakers of these messages, created during the discussion of Los Vendidos, do not identify with any of the Mexican-Americans in the text, and they maintain this nonidentification throughout two Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions. It is, of course, a simple matter to discount my naive expectation, as Gunew and Spivak (1989) would call it, that these Mexican-American males setting about the acquisition of a university education would desire to "speak as"; after all, surnames do not make ethnicity, nor do texts necessarily elicit "identification," and neither magically calls forth a self politicized within its ethnicity.

Many class members--mainstream and minority alike--validate the melting-pot metaphor and praise a salvational individualism. They reject categorization by color, as if their dislike of it could erase it. The following messages, all affirming mainstream American claims about the melting pot and the payoffs for individual effort and assimilation, were created by Mexican-American students:

Clearly, then, this classroom writing community does not split nicely along a faultline between dominant/subdominant, hegemonic/subversive, and Anglo/Mexican-American. These transcripts suggest that messages from the marginalized do not necessarily constitute potent contributions to an egalitarian complex of textual production that valorizes, or even exposes, ethnic difference.

If I map Spivak's dilemma onto the community of my classroom, then I must admit having become the dominant culture's representative, the questioner. By expecting or soliciting responses from the students that I have marked Mexican-American, by listening for these students to "speak as" Mexican-Americans, I try to impose upon them a single authentic self. As Gunew and Spivak (1989) note, however, what "speaking as" requires is political self-consciousness, the sense that forcing upon oneself an "authenticity," in this case one called Hispanism, is a temporary act performed specifically to facilitate response to a particular historical circumstance. "Speaking as" requires a sense that the act is temporal and not irrevocably homogenizing.

Perhaps to expect such self-understanding and politicization reveals only my ignorance of what is at stake. Nevertheless, Luis Valdez's Los Vendidos seems the sort of text that might possibly elicit a politicized response. Valdez splits the Mexican-American community into a variety of stereotypes and plays with the power relationships among these types and with the relationships between the Mexican-American community and a mainstream community to which the Mexican-American middle class has access. In some cases, the play calls up temporary, political selves from students. Even so, the question of egalitarianism remains in dispute. I would like to follow with some care several threads of real-time conversation in which Mexican-American students do speak back or simply speak about themselves as Mexican-Americans, actions which presumably would count as signs that egalitarianism is in the works but whose close inspection belies that presumption.

Two Anglo students, Jennifer and Jim, in a fairly extensive exchange, take the Los Vendidos text, which specifically fragments the single category "Mexican-American" into many, and reconstitute these fragments by reducing a multifaceted Mexican-Americanism to twin categories: "Americans" and "illegals." Next, collapsing the two categories into the single one--"illegal"--they engage in a discussion of Mexican illegals and their nonrights as noncitizens that balloons into an overarching classroom text that impedes adequate exploration of the diverse Mexican-American community and the fragmented selves that constitute it. In effect, a conversation about precisely Spivak's dilemma--the Texas (or California) Mexican-American self, its multiplicity, its relationship to community, the American-Hispanic as Mexican, as American, as Mexican-American, as revolutionary, as pachuco, as farm worker, as educated middle-class person--is shut down. These multiple ways of being, suggested by the play, are merged by Anglos into a new stereotype and the Mexican-Americans' opportunity for self-exploration is derailed.

The only Mexican-American who directly confronts his classmates' remarks is Andrew Martin, who, perhaps because he is unmarked physically and unmarked by log-on name, finds a Mexican-American subjectivity something he can shed as easily as wear. Although he joins the conversation confrontationally, Andrew constructs a politicized self primarily through the backdrop of Anglo speech that distorts the text at hand and misrepresents the Mexican-American community. His speech is controlled by another's choice of arena, one that exiles Mexican-Americans from the Los Vendidos text and consequently from the student-produced Daedalus INTERCHANGE text.

Notice Jennifer's and Jim's choices of pronouns--"our," "us," "we," "they," and "them"--by which they collect and position themselves and the "others," while four messages before, one of these "others," Maricela Morales, attempts to invalidate color and ethnicity as categories.

This class-produced textualization of Mexican-Americans pushes them to the periphery, to a rim from which self-representation, "speaking as" Mexican-Americans, is made difficult because the complex category "Mexican-American" is filled up with uneducated, pitiable illegals who sleep in barns, work in fields, stand on street corners, are poor, and don't belong. Although confrontational and articulate, Andrew concedes the choice of arena, acceding to the category "illegal" by talking about it. Jesse Romero, contributing one message, also enters the conversation via illegal relatives, but he takes a less confrontational route by directing his response to Jim through Andrew. Jesse's message, however, which is the next to the last message of the Daedalus INTERCHANGE session, is the only attempt by any Mexican-American to form an alliance with another Mexican-American:

Confined to the reduced space that the term illegal aliens superimposes, Andrew and Jesse are able to construct Mexican-American subject positions only via their cousins, who do fit into that space. They do not reach a point from which they can explore the contradictions that Elena Tamayo has articulated by her decision to harbor her identity within her, in personal rather than public space.

Andrew and Jesse are not the only ones to respond to Jennifer and Jim. Maricela, a Mexican-American woman who enjoys writing about racism and who enunciates the national myth of sure reward for hard work, confronts Jennifer, but never goes so far as to claim her own ethnicity; rather, she locates herself as an American citizen whose personal knowledge of ethnicity derives not from being Mexican-American but rather from a summer experience interacting with Europeans in Massachusetts. Here is the thread of their conversation, one that was interspersed among the Andrew/Jim exchanges:

A third student, Jose Gallegos, provides an alternative response to the play and to the discussion. Politicized in that he is "speaking as," Jose's messages are nonconfrontational, and they elicit little response. His named audience in two messages is the instructor rather than classmate(s), and he is responding to questions I posed to all students about the play.

During the following day's Daedalus INTERCHANGE session, Jose's rather peaceful exchange about racism with Jennifer (coauthor of the "illegal" discussion) further underscores the difficulty Mexican-Americans encounter in centering experience, even when claiming the textual space. Jennifer responds to Jose's first message about racism, and Jose answers her in a very personal way:

By querying Jennifer about her feelings for him now (and handing her the benefit of the doubt), Jose, for a moment, "speaks as" a Mexican-American living in the present; he centers for just a moment his experience of being Mexican-American. Jennifer, however, does not answer Jose's question. Leaving off the conversation, she creates a message to the class at large, not only reintroducing and reproducing white superiority but grounding it in (pseudo)science ("evolution question") and in Judeo-Christian tradition ("Adam and Eve"), and relegating Mexicans (she does not say Mexican-Americans) to a third rung on the ladder of "other" races as well:

Both Jose and Jennifer locate the issue of race relations primarily in the distant past (Jose's "years ago") or in the "far future." Jim, Jennifer, Andrew, and Jesse, in their thread, locate Mexican-Americanism squarely within the issue of illegal immigration. The question Jose poses to Jennifer, however ("do you hate me because I'm Hispanic? You probably don't . . . or maybe you do"), is a rare here-and-now confrontation; it is ignored. To my mind, evasion of experience encountered now, here, at this university, constitutes a decided disinclination on the part of the marginalized to occupy that subject position and a disinclination on the part of the dominant to respond to such a move. Both groups refuse the category upon which the egalitarianism narrative hinges.

Instructor Presence

When network theorists posit that networked classrooms are new, free spaces substantially different from traditional university enclosures, they may construct the traditional as enemy, the division between the two as gulf, and traditional territory as wasteland. Whereas this plotting of the story of computers and composition serves a purpose, it leaves no room to acknowledge the cultural baggage that the new settlers bring with them to the new land, baggage that may either encumber or enhance their teaching, and more likely does both. I cite yet another thread of these two Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions by way of introducing my own contribution to the reduction of Mexican-American experience.

Bret and Linda, whose boredom admits displacement, engage in what feminists from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf to Nancy Miller call maximizing, that is, reducing the unfamiliar and complex to a manageable, reified unit--to a maxim. Perhaps because they cannot find themselves in this play, Bret and Linda seek to transform it into something concise, graspable, recognizable--into a single, familiar aphorism.

It has occurred to me that the desire to tie up all the loose ends of Los Vendidos and dismiss it as of no further consequence was stimulated by reliance upon Toulmin's logic, the system by which this class turned texts into single claims, the tool that I had insisted for half a semester would enable my students to read and write better. Here I cite my irritation at Linda's boredom and my ensuing complicity with the maxim-making strategy:

My hasty insistence that they read this play through claims and grounds encourages the very reductiveness that I disparage. I make this point, however, not to discount the value of Toulmin's logic. Although some consider argumentation a traditional discourse whose goal of rational consensus is a masked political oppression (Vitanza [1991 p.151] discussing Toulmin, Lyotard, and Burke), others would consider that had I been able to direct this Daedalus INTERCHANGE session toward an examination of cultural warrants, then Toulmin's logic would have served well in the networked classroom. I point to my message simply as one example among many possible ones of instructor actions not conducive to liberation of any sort and certainly not constitutive of a relinquishing of control. Indeed, after this message, Linda and Bret directed to me several Daedalus INTERCHANGE and CONTACT messages in which they tried to get the claim "right."

Even in networked classrooms, then, there exists an inevitable instructor complicity with institutional hegemonies, because instructors, however committed to the unpacking of a system of privilege, are not free from a reliance upon the system that forms and informs them. Instructors who willingly share power also unwittingly contribute packets of explosives to the minefield students must negotiate as they go about restructuring context via the creation of textual selves. To rely upon instructor perceptions of power-loss to claim freedom for students disregards our complicity with the very system of tradition we claim either to subvert or to improve upon. New technology cannot entirely dismantle old habits. Rather, the words decentered, and networked, should not become dazzling god-words-in-the-making that mask pedagogies transferred from traditional to networked classrooms or that spring up within networked contexts, pedagogies that deserve our interrogation. The cavalier equation of "decentered/networked" and "egalitarian" results in a failure to acknowledge the strength and pervasiveness of dominant discourse spoken both by students and by instructors.

My classroom is a Bakhtinian, Jamesian baggy monster. It is invitational and supportive and allows grounding of positions in private experience; simultaneously, it is confrontational and combative and demands grounding in public, intellectualized abstractions. Age, gender, religion, sexuality, politics, ethnicity, and class--instructors' as well as students'--come into play. However nondirective and decentered I would be, my politics and training surface in my syllabus and in my class assignments and elsewhere--always. I counter with textual silence certain student opinions and affirm with textual attention others. I promote some students' personal experiences (Jesse's narrative of resistance to border drug dealing, for example) and disallow others (the hatred one central Texas Anglo woman felt toward the Spanish speakers in her high school). Although Jose Gallegos wrote a research paper debunking the heroism of Alamo participants Crockett, Travis, and Bowie, he really wanted to write about marriage and family, but he could read my enthusiasm for the Alamo topic and thought, no doubt, his grade stood better chances there. Kevin Mendoza, the name-marked Mexican-American student who never claimed ethnicity in any way, wrote two papers in which he used "keeping a good image for America" as grounds to support the arguments he was making. I commented each time that the phrase "keeping a good image" was insufficient grounding for his claims. I now think my response, Toulmin driven, was inappropriate. What Kevin might have found useful instead was an instructor's encouragement to explore the complexity of that image whose force he repeatedly asserted. He stood to benefit by a prompting to crack open and expose the multiple self, imprisoned so carefully in a concept he called "image," but my response was driven at that moment by my own feelings of distaste for keeping America's image clean, and I used the tool of Toulmin's logic to depersonalize and authorize my response.

Technology notwithstanding, my classroom bears little resemblance to free space; on the contrary, it is packed with discourses and practices both subtle and overt that shut down as well as open up discursive possibilities. Although I, as instructor, desire a liberatory speech environment for my students, I often move to counteract their impulses. Richard Ohmann (quoted in Clifford [1991]) notes that "'domination filters through a thousand capillaries of transmission, a million habitual meanings'" (p. 41), and the electronic spaces that we assign to students are most certainly not, as Hawisher and Selfe (in press) remark, "uninhabited by teachers."

Definitional Dilemmas

Nina Chordas (1992) takes on the rhetoric of equality, of which the egalitarianism narrative operative in our discipline is a part, arguing that the concept of equality in its varied forms is dangerously vague and charismatic--easy to assent to, difficult to oppose. Working from Raymond Williams's Keywords, Chordas posits that generally we conceive two kinds of equality: 1) opportunity (what happens past the starting gate is just too bad), and 2) fraternity, a problematic concept for a variety of reasons, among which is a dependence upon subjectivities of the fraternity members (p. 214). It is useful to think about the egalitarianism narrative within these conceptual frameworks. Certainly the technology provides equal opportunity--the opportunity to speak without interruption. If, however, speakers squander the opportunity or if speakers are blocked by discourses to which they cannot connect, the narrative consigns them to failure. Indeed, my reading of the Los Vendidos Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions suggests that Mexican-American class members "failed" on both counts: by their own hands in their unwillingness to "speak as" and by the overbearance of a dominant discourse.

Claims for egalitarianism that are grounded in student narratives and responses to questionnaires subscribe in part to the second definition: egalitarianism as a fraternal relationship, or, more palatably perhaps, as the communal experiences of members of a functional family. Egalitarianism so defined in networked classrooms relies upon students' reports of their comfort and sense of empowerment, and this methodology is attractive because it allows students themselves to create and/or affirm the egalitarianism narrative. Interrogating these grounds, however, entails entertaining the possibility that students who feel empowered and who call the networked classroom a site of shared power may, by alternate standards, not share power at all: Does a nonnative speaker whose culturally different messages seldom elicit responses from classmates verify egalitarianism simply because she feels a comparative relief from the pressure to perform orally? Both student and instructor constructions of classroom-produced egalitarianism depend upon experience, and current experience must be articulated in terms of previous experience. Conceivably, students enthusiastically putting out message after message may not notice or report exclusionary tactics of other students. Similarly, students who call the networked classroom nonegalitarian--some white males perhaps--may fail to read their discomfort as evidence of an equitable restructuring of power relationships. It seems to me that we cannot have it both ways--reading positive reports by some students as evidence of egalitarianism and negative reports by some other students also as evidence of egalitarianism. A body of student-produced data reporting felt changes in power relationships affirms only that changes have occurred. Whether or not these changes effect an egalitarian environment is a matter of student and researcher subjectivity.

Surely student sensations of empowerment will vary according to the idiosyncrasies of each class member and the ensuing collective idiosyncratic character of each class. And configuring classrooms by race, class, and gender certainly does not account for all variables, for other sorts of marginalizations--dyslexia, sexual orientation. Given the dynamics of interactive discourse, surely distributions of power alter from class to class, from day to day, from message to message, and even within isolated messages. Perhaps it is more appropriate to conceive of empowerments in the plural rather than in the singular and to plot these empowerments as multidirectional phenomena. Students engaged in interactive discourse find themselves situated in multiple, contradictory, rhetorical contexts with the making of each message, and these contexts alter with each successive message. Empowerments are phenomena caught up in the mad pace of interactive electronic exchanges; they necessarily wax and wane in rapid succession. And like the technology, the intersecting subjectivities inhabiting our favored categories--race, class, and gender--are volatile. So long as we choose to talk about composition courses as cultural studies, which we inevitably do when we invoke race, class, and gender, then our claims necessarily must abide unpredictability and instability because the construction of self is so.

Undermining My Reading

As a willing but skeptical participant in the effort to corral egalitarianism, I have located its absence/presence in the Los Vendidos transcripts as a function of textual representation of complexity within the ethnic category Mexican-American, and of self-representation, that is, students' acknowledgment of the category assigned to them. My definition requests assent to propositions: First, that acknowledging a Mexican-American ethnicity in a university setting includes textually representing university experiences; and second, that public ownership of personal difference is essential to egalitarianism. Were I to use quantifying methods to support my interpretive findings, I would point out that in a university writing class composed of 9 Hispanics and 11 non-Hispanics, in which Hispanics produce nearly one-half the textual volume (221 of 503 lines during the first Daedalus INTERCHANGE session), university-educated Mexican-Americans are mentioned only five times, twice by the instructor, twice by a Mexican-American student who calls educated Hispanics "he" and "they," and once by a Mexican-American student who announces the necessity of trading ethnicity for education. In short, neither condition requisite to egalitarianism is present.

Nevertheless, readers of these transcripts, interpreting the action differently, may claim otherwise. One might attempt to read the silences of those students who do not fill the ethnic spaces that I and the technology have created for them as politicized silence. These silences may well be as rhetorically complex as speech. Perhaps silence is a powerful, hyper-political resistance to being "spoken into" discourses that experience has told these students are not empowering--the discourse that reduces all Mexicans to illegal aliens, to be sure, but also the discourse of ethnicities that I would impose. Possibly the silent students were learning nothing about the social structures that support inequalities that they did not already know, and perhaps this textualized, networked conversation constituted not lessons about systems of power but a recapitulation of old lessons already learned.

I would like to consider two additional messages produced by Andrew Martin, the unmarked Mexican-American who butted heads with Jennifer and Jim over illegal aliens. I read his messages as an attempted language move, to use Lyotard's term. This is Andrew's first message of the first Daedalus INTERCHANGE session, composed before Jennifer and Jim began their discussion of illegals:

And this is his second message. It is not possible to tell whether he composes in response to Jennifer and Jim's discussion, which has already begun.

The following translation is mine, not Andrew's, and is not part of the Daedalus INTERCHANGE text:

Listen to me those who can read this message. The capacity to understand more than one language is power and not misfortune. All that is needed is ambition and the will to work. It's not a matter of color or country of origin. It has to do with how much you want something, and if the opinions of others matter to you so much, then you'll never achieve anything. To those who can't read Spanish, I told the rest that we should gang up on you Gringos and pay you all back for the pain of our parents . . . America sucks. Viva Mexico! just kidding.

I am calling this message a paralogical move, that is, an attempt to change the rules by which the language game in progress is played. Had Andrew been able to elicit responses in Spanish, had he been able to gather a consensual community able and agreeable to pursuing a discussion in Spanish, then perhaps, but not necessarily, a different sort of self-representation might have occurred among the Mexican-Americans in the class, and the lines separating class members would sketch out differences not visible without this move. Some Anglos would be excluded, and some Mexican-Americans as well. That Andrew anticipates the exclusivity of his rule change is clear. At the end of the message, he mistranslates what he wrote in Spanish, thereby creating a joke available only to competent bilinguals. And yet this Lyotardian move did not flourish. New discourse was not sustained, and new alliances were not formed.

My reading of Andrew's message forces me to acknowledge that Andrew does indeed textualize a multiple self. He constructs subjectivities within two idioms and reverses what might be construed as socially acceptable behavior within each one by valorizing the "color doesn't matter/individual effort does" mainstream narrative in Spanish, and naming himself the avenging son of Mexican ancestry in English. The "just kidding" at the end of his message verifies his gaming strategy.

Similarly, I must acknowledge that Elena Tamayo, who plans to bottle up her Hispanic identity in order to progress, in effect announces that to be Mexican-American is a matter of negotiating multiple subjectivities. Elena is getting a grip on what's to be no longer publicized when she chooses to empower herself via education. Perhaps her classmates who refuse ethnic subjectivity are simply farther along than she, having learned already that claiming one's ethnicity problematizes self-legitimation at the university and elsewhere. Here is Elena's complete message:

A Grand Narrative?

I would hate to see the egalitarianism narrative function as a legal text--as a promise whose occasional fulfillment grants it an unexamined legitimacy. Such promises are dangerous because when they do not materialize, failure must be declared--on the part of the instructor, a particular student, or a particular mix of students. Claims for an automatic egalitarianism engendered by technology are particularly invidious because if the technology is inflexible, infallible, and ever-enabling, then human beings absorb blame for failure. Each exemplary success story suppresses alternative stories and knowledges about interactive, electronic discourse, whose authors are fearful of bringing them to light. I wish for more moderate aims for classroom happenings and for less stunning accounts of real-time conferencing. As instructor in these classrooms, I need the freedom to not measure up to utopian claims so that I can notice what it is that students do with words without trying to fit these words into a grand narrative. And egalitarianism is indeed about to qualify as a grand narrative within our discipline. I want space to think about the riddle that really does interest us and that we have not yet unlocked: not how can we affirm that technology converts classrooms into egalitarian spaces, but rather what are the multiple phenomena--positive, negative, and polyvalent--that networking facilitates or mandates? How does it alter the way we currently construct the act of writing?

Hawisher and Selfe (1991) recently have argued that we must guard against utopian dreams, hold ourselves accountable, and turn over the stones in our networked classrooms to expose the pillbugs and fireants (here in Texas at least). In response, I am pointing out that although we should use networking technology as best we can to incubate and nurture even the most temporary equitable relationships, we must recognize the reifying impositions upon marginalized students that accompany the pursuit of egalitarianism; we should acknowledge the heady appeal of the term and the difficulty of defining it; we should confront the difficulties of quantifying a dynamic process by means of static textual traces.

Susan Romano is an Assistant Instructor at The University of Texas at Austin; her concentration is rhetoric and composition.


  1. Elena is enrolled in a program for minority students designed to decrease minority attrition. This affiliation imposes upon her, in addition to personal and familial pressures, an institutional mandate to make good at the university.

  2. Students at The University of Texas may receive credit for English 306 by earning a score of 550 or above on the English Composition Test. All students who score below 550 are required to take English 306.


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