7(Special Issue), April 1990, pages 33-44

Sharing Authority on a Synchronous Network:
The Case for Riding the Beast

Marshall Kremers

New York Institute of Technology

Trent Batson, founder of the ENFI Project, has noted that teachers writing with students in real-time on a computer network risk losing control of them: "Students on the network bring to bear their natural pleasure in social interaction; writing becomes more like talk. It seems an unruly beast at first, but . . . the way to deal with the beast is not to shoot it dead but to jump on its back and attempt to steer it" (Batson, 1988). [1]

I am in favor of taking this risk because after three years of experimenting with real-time network writing, I am convinced that students working in the heady atmosphere of written interaction can, with careful guidance, learn to handle it. The teaching model I am trying to develop is a networked writing class in which authority is shared, decentralized, distributed, even communal; a class in which teachers sometimes participate directly in the discussion and at other times stay out of things, letting their students take control of their own dialogues; a class in which students compete among themselves for influence in the group through the force of their language and the clarity of their arguments. In the network class that I imagine, writers discover that "authoring" is a verb, and that becoming an author carries an obligation to respect one's audience--to speak, and then to listen.

Reither and Vipond (1989) argue that while social process writing theory has swept through the pedagogical journals, our classrooms bear only superficial witness to it, and that what remains to be worked out are "wholly reconceived and redesigned courses" (p. 855). Teaching through synchronous writing on a local area computer network (LAN) makes that goal easier to obtain because it allows a reconceived and redesigned classroom that supports the theory and pedagogy of collaboration. However, the creation of real-time writing communities takes some planning. Networked classrooms give students a powerful new instrument for writing and carrying on dialogues among themselves. Teachers may feel threatened in such classrooms if they perceive that their role as discussion leader has been taken away. And students and teachers alike may have difficulty with a dynamic in which the traditional rules for governing behavior, for maintaining order and decorum, are no longer appropriate. In a networked classroom, no one needs to dominate the discussion in the way that teachers have always done by lecturing or leading class discussion.

My purpose in this essay is to describe two basic models for a network classroom that will allow teachers to (1) advance the traditional interests of the English department, (2) encourage collaborative writing and, (3) by giving students significant new freedoms, lay the foundation for the sharing of authority.

The Teacher Intervention Model

In conventional models of teaching, passive students allow the teacher to dominate them because they believe that no other relation is possible. At the same time, traditionalist teachers unconsciously force-feed their students the pale imitation of classical rhetoric that continues to influence our pedagogy (despite all the theoretical arguments against it) because they believe that the course objectives require them to do so. As Brannon and Knoblauch (1984) have pointed out,

The traditional writing classroom is familiar enough to most teachers, but let's recall what it looks like before suggesting how it ought to change. The teacher, first of all, occupies center-stage, typically behind a desk that is larger than any other desk in the room, an emblem of authority and power. Students are arranged by rank and file, the personification of obedience, a tidy organizational unit more conspicuous for its corporate image than for the identities of its members. In general, the teacher talks and the students listen; or the teacher gives directions and the students follow them...Almost no student-to-student conversation is encouraged because such talk is regarded as disruptive and impertinent, coming from people who are, as yet, ignorant of the subject the teacher has mastered...The old mahogany desk abides in the hearts and minds of many teachers, who remain closet classicists whatever the superficial shape of their classroom" (pp. 99-101).

At first glance, my LAN classroom looks very traditional as well (cf. Laurie George's description in this issue). Student stations are laid out by rank and file and the room is dominated by the "teacher desk," which houses the file server, the teacher 's CRT and keyboard, and is built up 5 inches on a platform, so that one literally rises above one's students, even when sitting down. To use their computers (IBM PS/2s housed in cabinet-like desks), students look down through a plexiglass screen at the CRT; their keyboards sit in sliding drawers. The room appears to be almost antiseptically sterile. From the teacher station, I can monitor what my students write without telling them that they are being watched. If I were to insist on authoritarian rule as a means for preserving tradition, I certainly have imposing tools at my disposal.

There is, however, a great irony in suggesting that the LAN gives me Orwellian powers, for I have seen colleagues come away from an interactive session trembling with anger and frustration, convinced that they could never teach successfully in so disruptive a classroom. I have been in the midst of the fray myself (Batson, 1988, p. 9; Kremers, 1988; Peyton, 1989a, p. 49).

In fact, before students understand that the network belongs to them and can advance their interests, there seems to be a kind of mutiny going on. They write a lot of garbage, some of it obscene. That they do so is objectionable, but I have come to realize that it is neither a sinister plot by them to overthrow the class, nor is it permanent. What they are experiencing is the shock of being granted total freedom of expression, a privilege we can hardly blame them for being unable to handle since we never gave it to them in the regular classroom.

On such occasions, I find it desirable to intervene in the network conversations. I do so not because I want to control the class, but because I want to learn from my students; I want to write with them rather than talk at them. Such participation is a challenge because in order to act as a true collaborator, as a coequal, instead of a dictatorial authority, I need at times to carefully coordinate the real-time dialogue in order to move it in productive directions.

Rather than use the network to dominate my students, then, I use it to help them find ways to channel their energy. The problem is how to help them to work productively--to become authors-- while nurturing, in Batson's phrase, their "natural pleasure in social interaction." When inexperienced students first try writing in real-time, they need guidance. Authorship on the interactive network simply demands too much; they can' t handle the responsibility. For example, I asked a group of basic reading and writing students to develop dialogues in small groups as a pre-writing activity before individually drafting a brief essay. First, they read an article about the Japanese notion of "wa" (teamwork), and then I asked them to discuss the question, "Would you like to work for a company, Japanese or American, guided by managers dedicated to 'wa'?" I divided them into groups of four and assigned each group to a different channel on REALTIME WRITER (RTW). Here is an excerpt:

Mark [2]:This is what we are going to do the workers will have to do wa and the compony will be run the American way for truth justice and of course the american why!!!!
Tony:dont forget to write
Anthony:altitude lou I LOVE U WA WA WA WA WA WA
Mark:The company sould be run as an american company! Fish
Tony:My company will run the wa i want it to run so wa u gonna do about it
Louis:Tony when are you going to to tint my windows?
Tony:later just thnk about wa is going on
Mark:I told you that you could have the Wa SMA. I just want the company run the american way.
Tony:mark i get the sence that u are seriouse about this wa stuff
Mark:No I'm just bored and there isn't anything to type.
Tony:so a waaas hapinin hot stuff

Except for Mark, who isolates himself from the others by taking my assignment somewhat seriously, these students show no interest in the subject or the purpose of the dialogue. Their talk has no direction. Anthony's wordplay is moderately clever (he hears echoes of the Beatles in the word "wa"), but he shows no desire to collaborate, to work with the others. Tony challenges Mark, who backs down ("No, I'm just bored"). This group got nothing out of their time on the LAN. Clearly, when this happens, teacher intervention is justified.

What's needed is not teacher dominance, but rather guidance that allows students to participate in a dialogue that they feel drawn to as co-equals, as collaborators, with the teacher acting as a mentor, as someone to ask questions and offer prompts. Let me illustrate with another excerpt from a transcript generated by a

remedial writing group. The subject for this pre-writing dialogue was the rape and beating of a white woman in Central Park by a group of black youths, an event which had been widely reported by the news media:

Kremers:Antony--do you think the attack on the jogger was racially motivated?
Antony:I believe it was a ratial attack. Those immoral human beings were taken out their frustrations on that innocent woman.
Kremers:So you tie race and economics together, Antony? They attacked her because she was a symbol of rich, white people?
Antony:Yes, they attacked her to make a statement, to feel power over someone.
. . .
Matt:Mr. Kremers, did I do something wrong, or is it that you don't like to give me questions?
Kremers:Are you feeling rejected, Matt?
Matt:Yes, I'm so sad.
. . .
Carmen:I think the comparison you make with Matt, and the boys in the Park are different.
Kremers:In what way, Carmen?
Carmen:In what way, Carmen? Matt feels rejected in this class only, but those boys feel rejected everywhere.
. . .
Lola:Well, Dr. Kramers. Perhaps there are white collar joggers just as they black collar, hispanic collar, and oriental collar joggers that go jogging in Central Park. My point is still this, it could of been any women jogging. Personally, I feel any individual who is cruel to do such a crime should be highly punished.

By prompting these basic writers, by leading them with questions, I created a rudimentary Socratic dialogue. Unlike a conventional class discussion, however, in an ENFI dialogue, students are empowered as co-equals, and the discussion follows a course that is difficult for anyone to predict. It is more spontaneous, more organic. Despite my attempts in the regular class to get these students to work together, at peer editing and other collaborative exercises, I found it very hard not to dominate the conversation, sooner or later. In contrast, each time I logged the class onto the synchronous network, I really had little idea where we were going next. In the excerpt above, for example, I was surprised by Antony's use of the word "frustrations," because it implied that in addition to the innocence of the victim, the attackers may have had motives that we should take into account, certainly before rushing to judge them. Equally surprising was the way Carmen picked up on my use of the word "rejection" in relation to Matt's query ("did I do something wrong?"); she seems to join Antony in asserting that the attackers possibly acted out of legitimate frustration ("those boys feel rejected everywhere"). And Lola's associating the word "white" in "white collar" with race instead of economic class showed a similar sensitivity to the racial side of the story.

By committing their thoughts to writing, and then immediately "publishing" them, these basic writers made visible what they felt, what they had to say at the gut level. By thus objectifying such raw emotion they put it at a distance, the better to see what they had to say. In conventional class discussions (I had them for three non-ENFI hours and two ENFI hours per week), these students were shy, reticent, unwilling to engage me or each other in dialogue. Yet during the ENFI sessions (which they attended more faithfully than the conventional meetings), they wrote with enthusiasm.

By intervening with this group, I tried to encourage them to generalize, reason, follow a line of thought, pick up on someone else's thought, to think and listen. Working with them this way felt like playing the game Concentration. After observing my use of this approach, Peyton (1989b) noted that "[it] can be helpful for maintaining a coherent thread of discourse with each student, but can be demanding on the teacher, who must juggle several conversations at once" (132-133). As much as possible, I hoped to liberate them from my prompts, letting them explore among themselves the implications of their generalizations. In doing so I had only limited success, yet seeing students ignore me to pick up on each other's messages led me to ask, what happens when students write on the LAN without any intervention by the teacher? Can students be trusted to make good use of their time if no authority figure is present?

The Non-Intervention Model

Although the teacher-intervention model has it place, after a bit of field testing I have discovered that a synchronous network can create a naturally teacherless classroom. That is, once students get used to the freedom the network gives them, most prefer to be left to themselves on the LAN, seeing my intervention as interference. However, I do have one basic rule: to provide contexts for student interaction that let them express their natural creativity.

To tie network discussions to the principal objective in my composition courses, the writing of essays, I have developed what seems to be a reasonable middle-ground between teacher domination and total freedom. I create role-playing scenarios that are linked to an essay topic, and then I turn the network completely over to the students (Kremers, 1989). At times, I have gone out of the room for as long as thirty minutes; at others, I sit and observe. For example, at one point we discussed and wrote about the plague of fires in the Amazon rain forest based on a series of readings. The scenario I wrote for the class went as follows:

There are 3 players in each group (with each group assigned to its own channel: Sako Noguchi, a Japanese timber merchant; Pat Tree, an American environmentalist; Landis Baron, a Brazilian cattle rancher. The scene: the three of you are sitting around a table in the Antimari Cafe, a favorite hangout for ranchers, intellectuals, timber merchants, and dissident scientists. Noguchi is ready to close a deal with Baron. However, Dr. Tree wants to nail down some sort of written guarantee that there will be no harvesting of trees without his approval. Instructions: the goal of your dialogue is a pint statement that summarizes your shared view of how the rain forest can be protected, despite competing interests.

The class dialogue that followed lasted for about an hour and wasn't particularly noteworthy, except that the student playing Landis kept dropping in little asides that suggested a follow-up I hadn't planned on. Here is an excerpt:

Sako:We are not going to chop down all the trees. There are a lot of trees in this rain forest. And you, Landis, could use the cleared land for a new and bigger ranch to hold your cattle.
Pat:I've been down to look at the land and it looks bad. It will only be fertile for one year. Then become nothing. IT WILL NEVER REJUVINATE ITSELF BECAUSE ONCE ITS CUT DOWN THATS IT.
Sako:If we could just draw up a little agreement saying Landis will not cut more than 2% of his trees, and he will build some kind of ranch or something to utilize the land-- would everyone agree?
Landis:You do not understand local politics. Local politics are settled in blood and the law is carried in pistols. The forest is burning and the farmers are getting ready to take back the land for their own use. But I am the law. [BANG. A shot rings out as the body of Pat Tree slowly slumps over and a red crimson stain starts to form on the white table cloth . The ranchers hold a fiesta in honor of Senor Baron.]

Because I wasn't present when these students were writing, I had no idea until I looked at the printed transcript that anything interesting had happened. I decided that, indeed, Landis's decision to kill Pat Tree was potentially useful because it suggested that these students might enjoy turning next to a narrative: that their dialogue had suggested the outline for a story about greed and corruption in a remote part of the world. Until I saw the transcript, I hadn't thought to assign a narrative; I had planned a highly structured argumentative essay. So, by not intervening, I let the students set their own direction for their writing.

At the next class meeting (in the conventional classroom), I wrote on the board: "Dr. Pat Tree did not deserve to die." In discussion, the students decided that while Dr. Tree had come to Brazil to save the rain forest, he ended up as a sort of spy for the Sierra Club and got killed because he knew too much. Then they wrote narratives to resolve questions that bothered them, such as who was guilty of the murder.

To my surprise after a few such scenario-writing sessions, some of the students started appearing at the door of my office just before class to help create that day's scenario by looking over my shoulder at my composing screen and offering suggestions. So not only did they collaborate with each other to create the types of writing they found meaningful, they collaborated with me on how to teach the course.

Authority Sharing in the Future

The possibilities of role-playing and other forms of creative written interaction for developing students' writing ability and sense of responsibility for their learning extend to a distant horizon. For the most part, however, the students I have worked with so far have not taken up the offer of partnership as readily as I have wished. Many of them approach the network with passivity and fear. My colleagues at the New York Institute of Technology report similar impressions of their students' first sessions on the LAN. Laurie George (1989) says that her students' initial approach is less "interactive than interinsultive." Tony DiMatteo (1989) says that at first students feel "censored and uptight about what [they] really want to say." Rather than use the network to get to know each other and to generate ideas for writing, or even to complain about the service in the cafeteria, they compose graffiti-like messages and wait to be told how to proceed. Left to themselves, most wait for someone else to take charge. They are amazingly slow to catch on to what could make their lives as writers, as students, easier and more rewarding. Only after much practice and encouragement do they even begin to form a writing community, a group that is capable of generating useful ideas.

The reason for such fear and trembling is obvious: decades of teacher dominance in the classroom; decades of talk about authority sharing with little practice. A great effort of the imagination is required to envision the teacherless classroom replacing the traditional teacher-dominated classroom, even though Peter Elbow was writing this as early as 1973:

When we are in any class or meeting we tend to feel that the goal is to achieve agreement. We habitually feel frustrated if we have discussion with great difference of opinion but no final agreement. The teacherless class asks you to break out of this habit. It brings out the maximum differences but it asks you not to fight things out or try to settle on the truth. Only by inhibiting the compulsive urge to settle things can you bring out the maximum differences. The striking thing about most classes, meetings, and discussions--especially in comparison to a functioning teacherless class--is that there is usually such a poverty of difference, a poverty of disagreement" (pp. 110-111).

Real-time network interactivity makes such a leap into the debate of issues that a teacherless classroom allows easily workable. As I have shown, given guidance and planning, students are quite willing and able to take up the challenge of authority sharing if the teacher doesn't, consciously or unconsciously, thwart the climate for the testing of ideas by not believing that students are capable of sustained and responsible teacherless collaboration. Such an attitude can prevent us from effecting significant change.

During the next decade and beyond, meetings will be held and work will get done by people using computer networks, both wide-area and local-area. [3] The success of professionals in any institution will be directly linked to their skills as collaborators and co-authors of reports and other documents. Thus, writing courses that provide opportunities for networked writing in a teacherless classroom can assist students. The pedagogy that writing teachers bring to such a course, however, may fail to meet their students' needs if it can't help them to realize the full dimensions of network co-authoring. Used as a heuristic tool, a forum for posing and testing and debating conflicting data, a network conversation can be immensely powerful. Much of the "talk" that the participants generate goes nowhere, but by the sheer force of minds coming together, ideas emerge and are represented as text. A brainstorming session on the network can generate a kind of heat that takes the participants by surprise and leads them on to discovery.

On occasion, during a network dialogue that goes well, I am reminded of George B. Leonard's (1968) description of real-time collaboration in the computerized classroom of tomorrow:

No matter how many times you visit the Basics Dome, its initial effect is literally stunning. It takes a while for the nervous system to begin processing; first, you have to surrender to the overwhelming sensory bombardment that comes from every side. There are, around us, forty learning consoles, at each of which is seated a child between the ages of three and seven, facing outward toward the learning displays. Each child sits at a keyboard...fitted with a number of shifts so that almost every symbol known to human cultures can be produced ...The dialogue then begins...Through Communal Interconnect (CI), the material on one learning display sometimes influences and is influenced by the material on nearby displays. This makes the learning process more communal. It helps tie together all forty displays into a single learning-art object, enhancing learning and appreciation" (p. 148-150).

That future is now. Our students are ready to take responsibility for their own dialectical interactions whenever we are ready to let them.

  1. In this essay, I use the term "ENFI" to refer only to the ENFI Project or Consortium or to activities carried out under its auspices. Thus, an "ENFI class" was created to provide data for the ENFI study. Throughout, l use terms such as "synchronous writing" and "network classroom" to describe uses of a local area network that are not necessarily limited to the work of the ENFI Project.

  2. I have not altered the network writing shown in this excerpt and in those that follow in any way, except to change the students' names. I have used ... to show breaks in the conversation.

  3. Speaking at the Fifth Computers and Writing Conference, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Ann Hill Duin described the wide-area network groupware she and her colleagues have developed, which they call "CW" (for Collaborative Writing). Howard (1988) reports that, according to Duin, "Within five years, three-fourths of a person's communication in the work place could be transmitted by electronic mail and other avenues of telecommunications" (p. 15-16.)


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George, E. Laurie. (1989, May). Female authority in the computerized classroom. Paper presented at the 5th Computers and Writing Conference, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

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Knoblauch, C. H. & Brannon, L. (1984). Rhetorical traditions and the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair, New Jersey.

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Kremers, M. (1989). Using role-playing scenarios with Realtime Writer. In D. Beil (Ed .), Teacher's guide to using computer networks for written interaction (pp. 153-156) Washington, DC: Realtime Learning Systems.

Leonard, G. (1968). Education and ecstasy. New York: Dell.

DiMatteo, A. (1989, May). Under erasure: A theory for network writing in the basic English classroom. Paper presented at the 5th Computers and Writing Conference, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

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