9(4), November 1993, pages 11-23

"Type Normal Like the Rest of Us":
Writing, Power, and Homophobia in the Networked Composition Classroom

Alison Regan

During discussions about networked writing classrooms, I heard promises of increased "social interaction and engagement, cooperative discourse, intellectual exchanges, and the formation of discourse communities that are student-centered rather than teacher-centered" (Hawisher & Selfe, 1990, p. 10) and of "a means of liberation, particularly for those marginalized in American classrooms" (Faigley, 1990, p. 291). At my university, students and instructors alike said they were finding ways of participating in conversations that exceeded the limits of discourse in traditional classrooms. Moved by their enthusiasm, I came to a networked classroom in 1989, where I have been teaching and learning ever since.

A semester of teaching in the classroom attached to the English Department Computer Research Lab at The University of Texas made a convert out of me. Enough of those promises came true that I have been reluctant to return to a traditional setting. In significant ways, however, the networked classroom failed to fulfill the eulogistic claims I so often heard made for it. I find that instead of easing all the problems of the traditional classroom, the computer medium exaggerates some disturbing and often ignored features of classroom dialogue.

Several researchers have explored negative aspects of electronic classroom conversation, noting that some students take advantage of the increased freedom of expression and engage in disruptive acts of what are known as "mutiny" and "wilding," acts which deviate from the instructor's focus and are characterized by vulgar language and insults (DiMatteo, 1990; George, 1990; Peyton, 1990; Kremers, 1990). I did not, however, observe such behavior in my classroom; what I want to address in this essay is another aspect of computer-assisted discussions. Using data from my Fall 1990 rhetoric and composition class, I want to explore the question of what kinds of exclusions can occur when nearly all students participate and when students are not wilding but are attempting to follow the class plan. In particular, I want to focus on expressions of homophobia that may result in the exclusion of lesbian and gay participants from networked conversation.

Like most instructors, I am eager to hear from all my students, especially those who usually remain silent while a few of their peers dominate class conversation. I found the argument that electronic conversation was "enfranchising, open and egalitarian in emphasis" (Barker & Kemp, 1990, p. 23) appealing. Central to this argument is the claim that when paralinguistic cues are removed, people who are not favored by the traditional social hierarchy (for example, women, people of color, non-native English speakers, people with speech impediments) are more likely to join in class discussions. I am not contesting this claim: my experience and the experience of many other instructors show that such students are more likely to pin in class discussions in the networked classroom than in the traditional classroom.

Many descriptions of computer conferences laud the possibility for anonymity (or a sense of anonymity) which comes with the reduced access to social context cues. It is a mistake, however, to employ computer technology with the goal of making classrooms blind to color, class, gender, and nationality. Even if this were possible, it would not be desirable; a world where everyone can "pass" for a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, native English speaker would be no utopia; it would be neither a more intellectually stimulating nor a more liberated place.

In any case, it is useless to employ such prescriptions for conversational liberation to lesbians and gays, for lesbians and gays are (usually) not marked by social context cues. [1] It seems that when it comes to issues of sexual preference, peer pressure is often exaggerated in the computer classroom. We imagine that once free from bodily constraints (beyond typing speed and facility with language), we and our students will find new freedom of expression; yet, instead of serving as a tool of liberation, the computer medium can become a tool of oppression. When students feel free to express their homophobia, the unfortunate consequences for gay and lesbian participants are isolation, alienation, and marginalization.

Before moving to the networked classroom, I imagined that rather than reducing difference, the computerized classroom might be a place where difference could no longer be ignored because the technology offers everyone equal access to conversational space. A short week of teaching in the networked classroom, however, forced me to recognize that merely providing access to conversational space and encouraging students to "speak freely" do not ensure that students will feel safe in taking that space. I believe that instead of merely providing an open forum for discussions, we need to actively promote what the philosopher Iris Young (1990) has called a "politics of inclusion . . . in which persons stand forth with their differences acknowledged and respected, though perhaps not completely understood, by others" (p. 119).

My class discussions were conducted on INTERCHANGE, the realtime conversation system designed by the Daedalus Instructional Group. INTERCHANGE was constructed to support and foster classroom conversation, and it fulfills the intentions of its creators. The use of INTERCHANGE for class discussion guarantees that a course which is described in the university catalogue as "writing intensive will be just that--in addition to the normal series of essays, students produce pages and pages of text in every discussion (transcripts for my 50-minute class were regularly 20 to 30 single-spaced pages long).

In this kind of class discussion, the boundaries of student/teacher relations are altered in remarkable ways. Roles become more fluid than fixed; there is no podium or imposingly large desk to reify the instructor's power; the "blackboard" is the computer terminal, and it is only an arm's length away from everyone in the room. At first, it seems that everyone benefits from this kind of conversation. Students have more power to participate in and to direct the classroom discussions; we instructors have many more opportunities to see our students at work as they think and write through problems, form and reform opinions, and alternately support or disagree with each other's positions.

Yet this "open classroom" has its costs; at the same time as the networked classroom offers students opportunities to join in conversations, it also provides them with space to express themselves in ways that may close off communication. In my experience, the voices of gay and lesbian students and instructors are at least as silenced in the networked classroom as in the traditional classroom, and may in fact be more silenced, for the electronic medium provides homophobic students with the space to express themselves in ways that serve to further suppress gay and lesbian voices.

In the traditional classroom, the life of student utterances is short; called forth by an instructor's question or by the desire for further instructor clarification or explanation, they are soon lost. Such is the way with most conversation, inside and outside of universities. Because all the comments made in the networked classroom become part of our permanent classroom files, the networked classroom offers the opportunity to capture and reflect on even the most ordinary student (and instructor) remarks.

As noted earlier, a number of researchers have remarked that the freedom students find in networked discussions is sometimes expressed in vulgar and insulting language. These researchers have concentrated on off-task remarks that are racist, sexist, and often obscene. The students in my first-year writing class devoted a good deal of space to off-task conversations, but I cannot characterize those conversations as racist, sexist, vulgar, or obscene. None of my students cursed obsessively; in fact, none of them cursed at all . While doing class assignments, they discussed the football season and the gubernatorial battle between Ann Richards and Clayton Williams, complained about their physics teachers, and shared information about negotiating the university bureaucracy. Beyond a few snide remarks about the election candidates (no worse than the remarks the candidates made to each other) and a few jabs at their arch-rival Texas A&M, their side remarks were inoffensive. This is not to say that students kept their prejudices to themselves; some of them expressed their hostilities during regular class discussions. The conversation I found most distressing occurred when the students were decidedly on-task.

Several researchers have advised intervening in situations of mutiny or wilding (Kremers, 1990, p. 35; George, 1990, p. 50). This is sound advice--advice I would follow if I observed such behavior in my class. It is less clear to me what my responsibilities are when students are following the course plan. The following series of remarks demonstrates the oppressive possibilities of computer-mediated class discussion. It also forces me to consider when it is important for an instructor to intervene in class discussion and when an instructor should wait for students to challenge one another's bigotry and (one hopes) to convince each other that there are more productive ways to encounter difference than with fear and hatred.

This conversation took place in the beginning of the semester, during the opening INTERCHANGE session . It was the first opportunity the class had to converse with each other online. During the previous class meeting, the students were directed to review and consider a list of 22 research topics, selecting those they wished to explore. The research project is a standard part of the rhetoric and composition curriculum. To ensure that no single topic is researched by too many students at our large university, each instructor receives a list of ideas for research topics from the librarians who staff the undergraduate library and provide students with extensive research support. Students in each class are required to select their topics from twenty-two suggestions.) In the assignment for their first INTERCHANGE session, I directed the students to spend the session sharing their topic choices with classmates, explaining why those topics interested them, and exchanging information and advice about their proposals. It was my intention to serve as observer rather than participant, though you will see that I joined in the conversation.

The focus of the following excerpt from the transcript of class discussion is homosexuality, which was one of the research topic options and was also a topic of great discussion on campus and in the university newspaper after the Gay and Lesbian Students' Association staged two demonstrations in the campus free-speech area during the first days of the semester. These 15 messages, which were sent by 8 people (7 of the 22 students and myself), represent only a small portion of the 181 messages generated in the 50-minute class period. Therewere many other conversations competing for the conference participants' attention; the topics of euthanasia, smoking, and censorship received attention that was of comparable length, if not of comparable intensity. [2]

In many respects, this is a typical INTERCHANGE conversation. Judy is correct in her pronouncement that it "really stimulated . . . communication and debate"-the question of whether or not it stimulated "good" communication is another matter. There is much to be said for this exchange; it is rare that one student's remark elicits responses from seven of her classmates, and it is also unusual that students are this communicative in the first discussion of the semester. Judy's classmates certainly followed the assignment, but while heeding my suggestion that they might "help each other to discover promising areas for research by discussing some of the issues associated with topic choices," several of them engaged in a kind of socially sanctioned classroom terrorism. No participant should have to endure such abusive comments.

I was distressed that the discussion of research topics became an opportunity for Gerald and others to articulate their fear and hatred of homosexuals in a way that would not have happened in the traditional classroom, where I would have served as moderator of the discussion. I can well imagine Judy posing her initial question in a traditional classroom, but I would be surprised to encounter a series of responses like those that followed in an educational forum where students wait to be recognized by their instructor before responding.

I do not want to suggest that the conversation would have been more open in a traditional classroom. I recall all too well my own silence in my first-semester English class when we were asked to discuss a lesbian novel that I had read as a high-school student intent on finding representations of lesbians in literature and then re-read for the college course. No one, including me, was willing to join the discussion. "It seems that none of you are prepared this week," our instructor admonished. I remember the cause of my silence very clearly: Discussing the book would identify me as a lesbian. I trusted my instructor would be supportive of my reflections and sensitive to my lesbianism (after all, she assigned the text), but I did not feel I could express myself freely in front of my classmates. Reflecting on my experience in that class, I can see how in some situations the non-collaborative proscenium classroom might actually benefit lesbian and gay students. In that class, where we students never read or commented on each others' work, I turned in an essay comparing several lesbian novels. The production of that essay held great meaning for me; for the first time, I saw that it was possible to make connections between my academic life and my personal life. If the subject of my essay had been a matter of group discussion or if my peers had been called on to critique my work, I doubt I would have been able to write a paper which revealed an unusual level of familiarity with the lesbian canon.

I am certainly not arguing against the practices of having students read each others texts, produce texts in a communal context, or turn texts in as public documents. As an instructor I value the effort to make education a collaborative enterprise, and I continue to require my students to share their work. Technology provides us with tools to turn our classrooms into places where student texts are central; it is important, however, that we recognize how the strategies we use to promote intellectual liberation may actually create additional stress for some students and may limit certain kinds of expression.

Almost a decade after that uncomfortable class period, I found myself in the position of the instructor "in charge" of a student-centered discussion in my first-year English class. Filled with the rhetoric of the decentered networked classroom, I was reluctant to set an authoritarian tone so early in the semester. I was uncertain of my rights as the instructor and of my responsibilities to my students, and I was uncertain of how to turn my classroom into a place where positive gay and lesbian rhetoric counters homophobia. In any case, I am not sure that a lecture on homophobia from me would have proved useful: on two other occasions, I have confronted individual students who expressed homophobic attitudes in essays or in class, only to have them stop attending. I do not believe in tolerating homophobic behavior, but in this case, it seemed best to avoid alienating students in the first week of class. The irony is that through the decision to not alienate certain students, I may have contributed to the alienation of the lesbian and gay students. It is important to remember that I had asked my students to discuss their research topics with their peers, not with me. Thus, instead of intervening in the discussion in a dramatic way, I suggested researching the topic of homophobia (which Judy did adopt as her project) and relied on the students to educate each other.

I appreciate INTERCHANGE because it allows for differences of opinion, but I also fear it because it can amplify the intellectual and social hegemony of the traditional classroom. In this situation, although Matthew's jibes serve to highlight some of Gerald's homophobia, no one in the class confronts him directly. Even Matthew tempers his critique with his final comment that "there exists no hostility in [his]voice," and that he is "only throwing the subject around." There are many voices in this conversation, but there is no openly homosexual voice-not even my own. If there were homosexual students (and I believe there were), they had no room to speak.

In his initial remark, Gerald engages in the assumption of a community of people in the class who would welcome the death of homosexuals when he addresses his remark to "whoever was thinking about the topics of death and homosexuality." In point of fact, he was the first person to mention those two topics together. Yet instead of countering Gerald's hatred by refusing his gestures towards community building, the class (with the exception of Matthew) follows Gerald's remark with similar scenarios and even (in Maria's case) with a long explanation for the root of his dislike. Maria's remarks seal the conversation: her discussion of what we are taught and her argument that we "can suffer great shock when actually approached with it in any way" effectively remove the possibility of a dissenting perspective. This is not simply a matter of self-censoring (with which gays and lesbians have a great deal of experience); it is a matter of group censoring. We are assumed to be heterosexual. Although the controversial campus demonstrations that served as the impetus for Judy's interest were conducted by gay and lesbian students, the students in my class still treat the subject of homosexuality as something safely outside their conference.

Teaching at the University of Michigan, Schriner and Rice also report instances of homophobia in their networked conferences. "On occasion," they note, "the expressive freedom of a community of writers nearly turned sour. The subject of homosexuality arose, and one male foreign student entered a response in which he advocated public execution of convicted 'offenders,' a practice common in his homeland" (p. 377). They report that the teacher "advised . . . that students who were offended by the discussion should feel free to ignore it and go on to other 'items'" (p. 377). I wonder if it is that easy? Lesbian and gay students should not have to "ignore" homophobic remarks. Schriner and Rice clearly disapproved of the homophobia which threatened to ruin the expressive freedom in their class discussions, yet on one level such advice serves rather as an exhortation to endure.

I am not suggesting that we should shut down discussions of lesbian and gay issues because they might make us or our students uncomfortable. It is important, however, that we be aware of the possible consequences of those discussions, and it may be important that we take an active role in framing those discussions. The very way that homosexuality is introduced into the rhetoric and composition curriculum is problematic. Because I am particularly interested in computer-mediated classroom discussion, I have focused on these instances of student expressions of homophobia, rather than examining instances of institutional homophobia. It is important to note that the materials we use to introduce our research topics offer an example of institutional homophobia. There are, of course, sound reasons for the research assignment itself: it requires students to become acquainted with the university library facilities; to report on, explain, and analyze a topic; and to demonstrate their proficiency in selecting and documenting sources. Yet, to many students (and perhaps instructors also), the assignment looks like little more than the busy work they saw so much of before they made it to college. The lists of topics make this matter even worse for they reinforce the fact that choice is always contingent and suggest that students might be required merely to go through the motions of traversing intellectual territory that has been covered in previous years and will be covered again by countless others.

None of these topics, including homosexuality, is an integral part of the course; death, euthanasia, and government intelligence and espionage, homosexuality are simply offered as potential subjects for outside research. Although it is important that homosexuality be a topic of conversation and study in college classrooms, to include the topic in this way reinforces the marginalized status of lesbians and gays. Certainly, attitudes toward sexuality are controversial in our culture and might be explored in research papers. Sexuality is much more than a subject for debate, and placing homosexuality on a list of 22 possible research topics encourages a limited pro/con approach to the subject. In her essay "Literacy and the lesbian/gay learner," Hart (1988) argues for a different approach when she says that "homosexuality is not a 'controversial issue'; it is a way of loving living, creating homes and rituals, communities, cultures and cultural artifacts" (p. 30). Also, heterosexuality is noticeably absent from the lists of potential topics. (All of the lists distributed by the library staff have slightly different topics, but I am certain that heterosexuality fails to appear on any.) Berg, Kowalesk, Le Guin, Winauer, and Wolfe (1990) note that when homosexuality is introduced as a topic in the composition classroom, heterosexual students are allowed "to remain disengaged, uninvolved; because we asked them to discuss only homosexuality, our heterosexual students [can] treat sexual preference as an issue that applie[s] to others, not themselves" (p. 30). Although I may fault my students for their remarks, I need also to fault myself and my institution for the way in which we introduce this subject.

Anthony DiMatteo (1990) has argued that the teacher in real-time networked classroom discussions "no longer [has] hegemony over classroom language; no longer select[s] who is to speak, what questions are to be answered, what style is used" (p. 71). This kind of claim, which suggests that instructors might be divested of the institutional power that accompanies their position at the university, is misleading. Though the computer-assisted classroom is undeniably more democratic than the traditional classroom, the instructor retains her or his institutional power outside of the classroom even as she or he sits down at a terminal with her or his students for fifty minutes three times a week.

In any case, even if we wanted to relinquish our institutional power, our students might not let us. The title of this essay alludes to an incident that illustrates this point. "Type normal like the rest of us," one student ordered another in the final minutes of an INTERCHANGE discussion. The story behind the line is telling: the student who made the comment did not issue it from his or her own terminal; the message was sent from the terminal I had been using for the class period. The command was directed to a student who insisted on making all of his contributions to class discussions in full capital letters, a habit which annoyed many of his classmates. Though during an earlier INTERCHANGE session a peer had suggested that he "Stop Shouting," he continued to assert his right to type as he pleased. When I left the room for a few minutes, the unknown student took advantage of the occasion to pirate my "signature" and send the heavy-handed typist a message. The result of the terminal switching was that the command looked as if it was issued by me. On the transcript it reads: "Alison Regan:/ John-- Push that little button on the keyboard marked "CAPS LOCK" and type normal like the rest of us."

This exhortation serves as a reminder of two important points: first, even the instructor who shares authority remains identified with institutional power, and second, any person who is "different" disturbs the classroom environment. The command to "type normal" is nothing less than a command to be normal; John's remarks were never unreadable, they simply did not conform to the standards maintained by his classmates and instructor.

Thus, even within a space where expression appears most free, institutional and social forms of authority remain. Although I am as enthusiastic a user of networked classrooms as anyone, I believe we need to rethink our rhetoric of computer-mediated liberation and find new ways to ensure that we provide our students with an open and accessible forum-a forum in which differences are acknowledged and respected. We need to further explore the kinds of exclusions that can occur even though our students are on-task and find ways to counter those kinds of exclusions. We need to recognize that lesbian and gay writers feel alienated in our classrooms, and that alienated students are less likely to be empowered to write, whether or not the subject matter covers lesbian or gay topics. We need to acknowledge the risks of selfdisclosure at the same time as we encourage all students to contribute to conversations. We need to turn our classrooms (networked or traditional) into places where we actively counter the vicious stereotypes about gay and lesbian people that college students (and others) so freely articulate.

Alison Regan is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in Rhetoric and Composition at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently conducting research on the history of writing instruction at The University of Texas. Alison Regan's e-mail address is ALISON@AUDEN.EN. UTEXAS.EDU.


  1. I make the argument that lesbians and gays are not marked by social context cues advisedly. Many lesbians and gays suffer harassment by strangers, and many report experiences of recognizing other lesbians or gays without their being explicitly identified as such. Clearly, some lesbians and gays are marked by social context cues in some situations.

  2. I have not edited entries for correctness. I have changed the students' names. The number to the left of the writer's name signifies the location of the entry in the series of remarks made in the course of the INTERCHANGE session. In this case, there were 69 preceding and 111 succeeding entries made in the 50-minute conference.


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