7(Special Issue), April 1990, pages 53-70

The Face of Collaboration in the Networked Writing Classroom

Geoffrey Sirc & Tom Reynolds

University of Minnesota, General College

The rationale for using a local-area computer network in a basic writing class (the environment in which we teach) is compelling indeed. If one accepts current theories of the social construction of meaning, then one has to believe that a LAN will allow students a broader, richer, more pluralistic view of writing, and that it will help them to conceive of writing as a collective activity. If the network has an interactive dialogue function, the rationale is even more compelling. The basic writer has increased practice in the production of a metalanguage (if the LAN is used by writers as a medium for peer-response on drafts); a written "dialogue" medium which privileges, at least initially, the basic writer's possible facility with oral language; and an overall saturation in written discourse per se. So it was with great hope for improvement both in our basic writers' fluency and in their conceptualization of the act of writing that we began to conduct some of our basic freshman composition classes using networked computers. However, the gap between what theory suggested and what our students did forced us to reconceive much of the classroom enterprise as regards texts, writers, readers, and the social milieu in which such activity occurs.

It was the social linking-together afforded by a network that initially persuaded us to test its power as a classroom medium . We were influenced by Bruffee (1983), who takes from Kuhn and Vygotsky "the view that knowledge, thought, and learning are intrinsically social or collaborative in at least two senses: they involve internalized speech, and they involve ways of seeing tested and shared by a community of knowledgeable peers" (p. 163). The collaborative process offers a direct means of critical inquiry that we thought would be relevant for our students. Bruffee writes:

We must begin to assume that humanistic knowledge, like scientific knowledge, is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all, and that to understand the humanities in general and the process of reading and writing in particular we must understand first the collaborative or social processes of which they are a part (p. 166).

Stipulating that "for the moment we allow the assumption that writing is basically focused, coherent speech" (p. 165), he provides a task- and text-centered explanation of how that act is shaped:

This audible or inward talking-through of our tasks as we do them with a community of knowledgeable peers is itself, in fact, what becomes eventually what we have been calling 'the writing process.' The product of writing results when internalized instrumental social speech (talking-through) is reshaped, revised, and edited to become a composition, a term paper, a dissertation, or the essay I have been writing just now (p. 168).

The movement is steady, from the initial social discussion, through the stages of writing, to the final draft. Bruffee does acknowledge occasional impediments, instances of collaborative knowledge formation when "members or factions of an assenting community of knowledgeable peers differ over incompatible premises on which their work is to proceed" (p. 161). However, what Bruffee (and Kuhn) describe seems pale, bloodless, compared to what we have observed in our basic writing classes. That "focused, coherent" community--indeed, the implicit assumption of task-orientation that underlies his whole scheme--was simply inapplicable to our writers.

Guided by a Bruffeean notion of collaboration, what we expected was the following:

Murph:let's do mine first
Marie who is your audience?
Murph:should probably clarify that embalming and cosmetizing are not in the article
Yurt:why don't you focus who's it good for like Rick suggested: you or all other funeral directors?
Kim:In the second to the last sentence you could use "Lessening their grief", instead of "Helping people deal with".
Yurt:in the second paragraph, explain why it is good in teaching how to deal with greif
Clay:what is your purpose
Marie:I think you could eliminate the "I" and "me" aspect of it and deal with how it is useful to funeral directors and future f.d.s
Murph:my purpose for what?
Clay:the article
Murph:That is explained in the strategy statement.
Yurt:i disagree, marie, why not make it useful for him- he's had to use it
Kim:You could get rid of "to double" and just use "can" earlier in the sentence instead of "to get".
Murph:which sentence Kim?
Marie:But, if the audience is funeral directors, they don't care if it is useful to him, they want to know if it is useful to them.
Kim:Last sentence in the 1st paragraph.
Murph:good point Marie.

That is, we expected a focused, coherent negotiation of a text's meaning, an exhaustive discussion from word- through text-level--suggesting possibilities, posing questions, strengthening purpose--discussion that would provide the text's author with commentary for revision. The above sample is what we received, only it was received from some upper-division students in a "Writing About Science" course who also used the networked classroom for peer-response of drafts. Our first-year basic writers had collaborative conversations such as the following discussion of Nick's paper:

Kevin it was a pretty good paper. Just spelling mistakes kinda crippled it.
Nick:jerald what about your shoes?
Nick:I was rushed
Jerald:That's the problem you wait till the late minute
Nick:Jerald get a Life, a real life
Kevin:get rid of them did'nt you say you had them ever since jr high .
Jerald:I have seen some of your writing before you are a good writer
Kevin:your shoes.jerald It just takes nick longer to put his thought together.
Jerald:Avia are one of the finest most comfortable shoes you can buy
Kevin:in chinas
Nick:Jerald you do smell like you want to be alone, and so does your shoes
Kevin:He had to rush. You have to remember, Nick is not clark kent when it comes to typing.
Jerald:How did we get on shoe anyway but I have on my fresh boat shoes
Nick:I'm not that slow, but I agree
Kevin:OH my GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Boat shoes.

At first, this collaborative conversation seemed more noise than students working in concert toward effective revision. But what we later realized is that this "noise," or static, is a social interchange between students, a conversation that is perfectly acceptable (if a little harsh about Jerald's shoes). That is, what shaped this interaction were social, not academic, concerns.

What, we wondered, exactly constituted the task as these students perceived it? Was it peer-group response or presentation of self? Were they talking about writing or one-upping each other? This interaction pattern seemed to give proof to Goody's (1978) claim that, in such linguistic interactions, "the meaning which is managed and the self to be presented are social products" (p. 3). When we designed the peer-response activity, we had thought that students would "de-novelize" themselves, to use Malcolm's (1989, p. 76) notion, from a (possibly) predominantly oral mode and reinsert themselves into a context of writerly production, the narrative of classroom writing behavior. But these basic writers clearly had a different agenda.

We feel this is an important finding for those about to implement the use of a synchronous LAN classroom in the expectation of achieving immediate collaborative learning. Another teacher (Kremers, 1988) new to this medium also registered his surprise at the strange form his students' interaction took over the network, calling the experience a "mutiny":

[W]hen I first tried to establish [a naturally interactive, spontaneous, informal] dialogue in the lab with my basic writers, I discovered that (1) it was very hard to maintain control of the discussion as soon as I switched on the network, and (2) on the network, my students immediately lost all sense of decorum about what is appropriate to say or write in an English class (p. 71).

If we are going to create the means for productive collaboration in real-time, it's important to explore in a systematic way how it will happen, rather than just assume that the LAN makes such a climate inevitable. Bruffee (1984), for example, sees an already-formed community, "a community of status equals . . . people whose status and assumptions approximate the writer's own . . . a community of knowledgeable peers . . . who accept, and whose work is guided by, the same paradigms and the same code of values and assumptions" (p. 642). Our students may have been guided by a common set of paradigms, but none of their paradigms was the one we had in mind for the task of peer-group response. It's one thing for writing theorists to make assumptions about how student writers behave, but the fact of behavior, sociolinguists tell us, is in the interaction. So Tannen (1982), for example, in discussing rules about grammatical negatives vs. the way people really speak, will note that, "In fact, in interaction, it does not matter how many negative particles a sentence contains" (p. 3). What computer networks are doing is giving us the ability to generate a bottom-up conceptualization of the student writer.

Much of the on-line interaction among our basic writers can be understood best as the wary attendance to saving face, defined by Brown & Levinson (1978) as "the public self-image that every member [in an interaction] wants to claim for himself" (66). Network discussion exposes one to various forms of public treatment: "Thus face is something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction" (p. 66). Unfortunately, for our first-year students, performance of the task of peer-response held only threatening possibilities. Instead of engaging in productive metalinguistic criticism, they spent most of their time saving face. One student summed up the attitude behind this common strategy by referring to the person whose paper was about to be discussed as the "Next victum." We know that for students violence is indeed inherent in the activity when discussions begin with such verbs as "start ripping" or "hack away."

This is not to suggest that we expected students to willfully mistreat each other, for, as Brown & Levinson (1978) observe, "it is in general in every participant's best interest to maintain each other's face" (p. 66). Rather, what we observed is that they seemed convinced, perhaps by what they had experienced in past writing classes, that the act of collaboration itself represents a threat. That belief alone would be enough to turn the task from what we, as teachers expected to be a wonderfully enriching small-group experience, into something far more crucial to them . If, as Bartholomae (1985) states, these students are "invent[ing] the university by assembling and mimicking its language while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, on the one hand, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline, on the other" (p. 135), then it is clear that their "compromise," their attempts at denovelization, were fraught with real pain.

An examination of several typical kinds of collaborative comments suggests the enormous importance of the social context in which such compromise and invention occurs. Consider the exchange of pleasantries that begins this discussion of Drew's paper:

Jerald:Lets begin Good morning everyone how was your night
Jim:Nice paper Drew
Drew:Jim I thought you did an excelent job of taking your topic and making it interesting. The topic of cows eating would not generaly apeal to me but I liked your story.
Jerald:Drew nice paper put you should have had more detail you could have showed your exhaustion and the seen where you were running better
Drew:I agree i could have shown better detail.
Jerald:The last line about the fountain of youth was very good I might have to use it someday.
Jerald:What mad you go for a jog at 12:00 oclock and jump in a lake
Kevin:Kevin Grant is here
Drew:It was the middle of the summer, hot, I had just woke up and felt like doing it.
Jim:The description of the lake as a mirror made of water was good, I can visualize that

Jim's first remark, "Nice paper, Drew," contributes little to the production of Drew's paper. Seen socially, however, the remark makes a sort of bridge between the purely phatic nature of Jerald's opening comments and the more pointed commentary that follows. Easing the group into the task, Jim's compliment is another kind of "good morning," one that still holds more social than rhetorical value. Perhaps Jim senses that before he can make a more specific assessment (as in his next comment) he needs to "sign on" with this more general, good-will type of comment.

Another slightly more sophisticated form of this same strategy is seen in Dean's commentary on Jennifer's paper:

Dean:whats blubbery Cheesecake
Jennifer:cheese cake with blue barries
Jennifer:it's great you never heard of it where do you live? on the farm
Jennifer:nothing wring with farms
Dean:we dont call it blubbery just regular cheesecake
Jennifer:this is regular but with topping
John:I liked it butthink you could have described the taste of the icecream a bit
Dean:Good description on your paper
Jennifer:how do you describe it?
Dean:john i agree with John

After pinning down what it is that they're all talking about, Dean makes the polite, harmless comment, "Good description on your paper." More than Jim in the last example, Dean uses the language of writing ("description"), yet his is still a vague, not-so-helpful remark in the collaborative context of producing a better text. Instead of elaborating on his general statement, he stops at a remark that he considers acceptably on-task (teachers use this type of vocabulary, so it must be o.k.). When we consider that Dean makes hardly any comments more discerning than this one over twenty weeks of instruction, we begin to see that the language of writing is sometimes used as a way to escape meaningful personal response on the rhetorical level while at the same time protecting one's public face on a social level . That Dean's comment here holds little rhetorical value is confirmed in his next comment, an "echo" of John, who contradicts Dean's first statement.

In a situation where one's comments remain on the screen for a time, and on a print-out for an even longer time, perhaps it's not surprising that students are reluctant to risk writing-centered comments. What they are left with is an uneasy "acting out" of a sort of post-modern drama in which they are actors, audience, and critics all at once; a drama reminiscent of the film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman, where there's an ostensible text--memorized, rehearsed--that the actors dutifully perform, but that is framed, charged, by a far more interesting text, an unrehearsable one, the tapestry of their personal lives. They read the script as best they can, but the true drama comes when their real lives interfere with their delivery.

Not limited to relatively empty (rhetorical) remarks, the social value of polite, on-task comments extends also to more substantive discussion of student texts. In the following example, Kevin's paper about visiting a prison is taken up by the group:

Jerald:Kevin in your paper I think you should picked one thing in the Institution and descibed it like the cell or the gounds
Kevin:No. I did describe the cells and the ground.
Jerald:One or the other
Nick:I agree with kevi
Kevin:Mr. Sirc told me to describe the whole place.
Jim:The description of the door closing and being shut off from the world was good
Kevin:Man you should have heard that door. It sound like a big can crusher scared the hell out of me
Jim:Maybe you could have said that in the paper
Nick:Like jerald's shoes [ can crusher ]
Kevin:Well did say how loud the sounded when it opened. did'nt I ? I forgot what I wrote. There cells compared to the males cells are better looking.
Jim:How about: The door slammed shut behind us, it sounded like a big can crusher

Jim risks a fairly specific compliment on the description of a door dosing. If we consider that comment, and what comes after, this seems to be a very good instance of the type of collaboration we look for in peer-group critiques. But the rhetorical weight of Jim's comment is considerably lessened if we consider the context in which he makes it: Jerald and Nick are at odds with each other; Kevin is beginning to feel indignant himself at Jerald's fiat-like comments; Jim, uneasy at this level of emotion in a classroom (he later changed sections after the first-quarter sequence), attempts to make peace by giving a compliment. Jim may be completely sincere in his comments to Kevin, but they hold a social value that is at least equal to the rhetorical value.

For some students, the task of critiquing others' work is so threatening that even the polite kinds of comments we've been looking at are perceived as personal attacks. Nick's responses to Jerald's commentary in the following discussion reveal his anger following some tough criticism on past papers.

Nick:I feel that my story was alright
Jerald:First you talk about the comparison between LA law and then you talk about a whole different topic explain what you where trying to do l feel you spent more time on this one than you did last quarter
Nick:I just gave an example between the two stories.
Jerald:less grammer and less spelling mistakes than last quarter how many mistakes?
Jerald:You should have just talked about the violence or how good the show is or about the characters
Nick:thats a run on sentence jerald
Kristen:I think it was a good idea to show how some people who get involved in pushing drugs and stuff don't actualy understand that it is wrong. I never thought about it like that.
Jerald:but you covered eveything in three paragraphs Base head
Kristen:but maybe you could concentrate on that aspect more. it seems like you should either concentrate on why you like the show or else how it relates to your life but not both
Nick: buss it

Having worked especially hard at this paper, Nick is looking for some positive words about it. Jerald's fairly neutral comment is picked up on by Nick as more of what he's received in the past, however. Returning Jerald's imperatives with his own criticism of Jerald's grammar, Nick makes use of the situation to wage a personal battle with Jerald. The conversation quickly loses sight of the task and becomes nothing more than an unpleasant social encounter between Nick and Jerald.

At times students seem to know they are on dangerous ground when collaborating; before things get too caustic, as they did in the previous example, a threatening comment will serve to end meaningful rhetorical discussion. Take Dean's commentary on Jennifer's description of ice cream, for instance:

Dean:I dont understand when you say your fingers have to experience the ice cream and not just your mouth
Jennifer:the cold any sticky haven't you dripped before all over your self
John:its extremely rich and creamy and sweet
Jennifer:sorry i'm a mess eater
Dean:just kidding
Jennifer:john knows what up thanks
Dean:Its kind of confusing the way you say it
Jennifer:so i should elaborat it more and explain on the eating or on the mess or on both
John:not a heck of alot more
Jennifer:or on none
Dean:just make it less confusing

After Dean says he's confused, Jennifer wants to know what it is that he doesn't understand. Avoiding any more specific commentary, especially--after John doesn't back him up, Dean tries to end the discussion by gruffly stating, "just make it less confusing." Like Jerald above, Dean uses the imperative to shore up his threatened public face. Discussion on writing gets only so far before its threatening nature brings the social aspect to the fore.

Perhaps the kind of collaborative comment that is most representative of the critiquing process is that of a suggestion for change mitigated by the kind of polite, surface-level comment demonstrated earlier. Kevin's comments on Jerald's paper describing a summer job illustrate:

Kevin:jerald your paper is good, although the part about you filing up the truck about thirty times could have been left out . another thing where were you in Minnesota! china[?] jerald are you over there.
Jerald:I was in Florida
Kevin:by the way where is my stapler what part of florida how hot was it
Jerald:North east Florida. 100 degrees Blistering Not acloud in the ski
Kevin:it,s a real good paper, it has a lot of detail. also l think the ending could have been a little better You sort of left me hanging!

In prefacing any negative comments or suggestions for revision with good-will remarks such as "good paper," Kevin stays on-task and also maintains a polite front. Such comments involve a sort of double-cancellation: not only is the polite comment somewhat devalued by the critical one that follows, but the critical comment is softened and its message confused by the positive one. By coupling these two kinds of comments, Kevin positions himself in a stance of neutrality. Given the frequency of such double-cancellations, as time is given over to attacking and re-positioning public face, the ultimate effect is to stall the traditional academic dynamic of a writing class.

When students weren't ignoring the academic task we set for them in favor of struggling for social advantage, they were simply abandoning the task entirely in order to talk about matters that truly interested them. And they would do that quite often. Drew probably got secret points of approval from the group for using his descriptive assignment to showcase his restored truck. It wasn't so much his actual handling of the description in his text that spurred lively commentary, but rather the actual truck itself. Who wants to talk about writing, when you can talk about someone's wheels?

Jerald:Drew I would like to she your truck someday
Kevin:Drew what color was the upolstrey in the truck.
Drew:choclate brown leather the outside will be sunset red
Kevin:Is that metalic paint the one with the little crystals in it
Drew:no, polyurothane i did a 68 camaro with metalic paint and was disapointed
Kevin:Sounds pretty mean, what kind of mags are you going put on it craigar centerlines.
Jerald:I did a bike in flat paint and was disappointed
Kevin:didn't we all.
Nick:Nice paper Drew, but why did have to fix so much of the truck. You did mention he hardly ever drove it. what year did you get the truck ?
Drew:i like things different
Kevin:are you going to give it a low profile. drew
Drew:the truck was green yes Kevin
Kevin:kick ass!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! that's going to be mean as hell.
Drew:exept for the engine
Kevin:are you going to run nitro drew
Drew:it has a 99 horse power slant six

Seeing them abandon the collaborative project we had planned for them was (no developmental inference intended here) like watching children at a birthday party leave behind "Pin the Tail" in order to go off and dig up millipedes.


We believe that network interaction increases the opportunity for self-knowledge. For example, after a few weeks on the network Jennifer decided to share her autobiographical paper on the recovering alcoholic student, which she had initially insisted was to be read by the teacher only. Students use their conversations to share information about their hometowns, backgrounds, and tastes, forming a bond based on revealing a personal, collective history, an ad-hoc community, negating the importance of whether or not such conversations are on-task. They form, to use Hebdige's (1979) term, a "subculture," whose style can be seen as a form of resistance by marginalized, subordinate groups against the dominant authority. Groups denied access to the dominant culture (basic writers, by definition) have traditionally evolved their own rituals, languages, and styles. The non-writerly behavior, then, of our students suggests an oppression, an ignorance born of disenfranchisement. Their discourse, in such a reading, becomes reminiscent of patois, "spoken for centuries," Hebdige reminds us, "beneath the Master's comprehension" (p. 64). The use of "in group" markers such as "cuz" or "basehead," even when used disparagingly, serves to define a subcultural identity. That the network itself, with its ominous ability to oversee and record their every interaction, represented the dominant culture to them is quite possible. Baudrillard (1983) speaks of the "obscenity" inherent in the modem communication network,

where the most intimate processes of our life become the virtual feeding ground of the media . . . [in] a whole pornography of information and communication, that is to say, of circuits and networks, a pornography of all functions and objects in their readability, their fluidity, their availability, their regulation, in their forced signification. . . . It is the obscenity of what no longer has any secret, of what dissolves completely in information and communication (pp. 130-131).

Our students, both first-year and upper-division, were well aware that the sign for writing has been reified in our programs as a certain kind of performance text. But it was the first-year students who used the network medium to displace, fracture, and repossess that sign, reproducing it to serve their own ends. Ironically, they did this using bits and pieces salvaged by the hegemonic order's inculcation of the sign. So Dean's use of the word "description" serves not our purpose, but his. As Hebdige explains, subcultural groups typically engage in such repossession, wherein the dominant culture's objects "can be magically appropriated; 'stolen' by subordinate groups and made to carry 'secret' meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination" (p. 18). Most student writing exists as an inversion of forms, on many levels-- for example, note the number of student papers in which the presiding trope is irony. This dynamic, socially and historically, forms, in Hebdige's words, an underworld, "a beautifully intricate alternative universe, where dominant culture's norms and cliches are inverted" (p. 54).

So an approach to network behavior from a social-construction perspective is relevant but needs re-positioning. Our first-year students engaged in a form of social invention described by LeFevre (1987):

Invention, conceived broadly as the process of actively creating as well as finding what comes to be known and said in the discourse of any discipline, is, I think, best understood as occurring when individuals interact dialectically with socioculture in a distinctive way to generate something (p. 33).

Indeed, after watching our writers on the network in their collaborative "conversations" we were forced to ascribe an even more acute meaning to LeFevre's "collective" notion of invention, which she sees "not as an entirely passive act of people who are acted upon by their socioculture, but as an act that is to a considerable extent influenced by forces originating in social collectives" (p. 82). Our writers were most assuredly engaged in a sociocultural interaction, and not at all passively. We began to realize that our initial dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that the locus of the act or the dynamic toward which the interaction was moving was not composing. We felt puzzled, for example, that so few of their peer-group response comments were seen to have "boomeranged" into the final drafts they turned in after they finished the medial draft conference sessions on the network. And, of course, we were surprised to see such a high percentage of what we defined as "off-task" behavior. So students weren't staying on the strictly defined academic task of text-centered response much, and when they were, they weren't using the commentary and suggestions from that response in later versions of the paper.

We had to realize that we had mis-conceived the task. Invention is the social act that LeFevre claims; the key word in her title is not "social," however, as so much of current theory would have it, but rather the definition of the exact "act" occurring in the social setting. We wanted that act articulated by our students in terms of behaviors centered around a traditional concept of growth in writing. We realized we had defined that act too narrowly around such standard process behavior as revision operations, surface features, audience, purpose, and so on, as well as the metalinguistic commentary for articulating that behavior. Hence, the raw materiality of our students' social behavior in seeming to invert or displace the task as we set it in reality showed us the limits of our linguistic conceptualization of texts and writing; rather than going off-task, they were on-task at a much more significant theoretical level.

What the upper-division students (whose network writing appears at the beginning of this paper) showed was that they are utterly socialized to the academy, with the graded parameters of its task demands; they are savvy about how to get an "A." Their dialogues were mediated by a common, acculturated notion of successful student behaviors, tacitly reinforced, it seemed, with the GPA-oriented reason for those behaviors. For example, when Kim wondered if Abbas (a pre-dental student) thought his own dentist should have used the method for crown lengthening Abbas described in one of his papers, Abbas answered with a remark that seemed to indicate the locus of the upper-division student's ultimate concern: "At least he wrote a few recommendations to the dental schools that I applied to." Our basic writers were mediated by a much rawer sense of social history, so their task became the broad historical struggle for meaning Cottom (1989) speaks of when he says, "A discourse of authority cannot be established unmarked by conflicts" (p. 42). The record of their dialogue became an important text to study (for us, included), breaking apart the walls of the classroom, walls that such theorists as Bizzell (1982) and Bartholomae (1985) would have us believe exist within a so-called "discourse community." That community, judging from the duteous task-orientation of the junior-senior writers, might be a far more traditional and far less newsworthy construct than those theorists think. The upper division students' collaboration was remarkably calm and trouble-free; each paper was discussed in model collaborative fashion. When criticisms or suggestions were made, the writer of the paper never balked, but rather thanked the commentor:

Sarah:I don't understand the last sentence in the second paragraph. it is confusing
Kim:I'm confused: You say there are three categories for crown lengthening and then you go on to describe four cases. What's the deal?
Sarah:should you say that three case studies are presented?
Rob:It seemed sort of jerky throughout the whole thing. There is a lot of information to be covered in the article and it does not flow very well in the abstract.
Kim:That would help clear it up for me.
Abbas:Ok, the I can see the problem in that sentence, sarah
Ann:In rick's explanation of an abstract he says not to include details and just give the main argument about was is covered in the article.
Kim:I agree. This seems to be a rewrite of your rewrite.
Ann:maybe entering the cases gives toomuch detail
Sarah:do all articles have an argument, though?
Abbas:I just summarized every paragraph into one sentence
Ann:the argument should just be what information the article is trying to convey.
Abbas:Ok, I will take the details out of it
Kim:If you could find a way to condense it further I think you would have a better abstract.
Sarah:I think leaving out the details of the case studies might be a good idea. Just mention that they are in the article.
Rob:Good idea
Ann:not every paragraph needs to me summarized at times if it gives detailed examples.
Abbas:Sounds good to me

Highly efficient, very on-task, but this just did not jibe with our notion "that authority is always a source and product of struggle, which may be irrational as well as inequitable in its social effects" (Cottom, p. 11). It was the basic writers who provided us with a compelling mural of social interaction, a struggle for true power in discourse; the upper-division students' interaction was very carefully circumscribed around the limited, formal rules for the successful completion of the assignment, with far more references to the instructor and what he wanted than were found in the first-year students' transcripts. Bruffee wonders, "Does anything distinguish critical discourse about language from critical discourse about other things, such as competing scientific theories?" (1983, p. 167). When students converse, he claims, their conversation is "about relationships in an academic or intellectual context" (1984, p. 645). In his desire to inscribe students into the academic, the intellectual, the scientific, into "a community of knowledgeable peers," Bruffee deracinates them from stronger, deeper ties to the popular or personal. We found "critical discourse about language" was better compared to "critical discourse about other things," such as Camaros; and when students conversed, their conversation often bore little concern for the academic or intellectual.

The basic writers' networked discussion was trivial in terms of negotiating a text's meaning (i.e., in terms of our initial categories of "on-task" and "off-task"), but it was highly significant in terms of negotiating a larger cultural meaning of public stances and identities. If they learned less (and we're not saying they did) about the text as a formal object, they learned more about the way texts are received in the world. The upper-division students did fine with their "task," providing a model record for student commentary on texts, but that task seemed trivial, little more than the passive reception and reproduction of a tired culture, when compared to the lively interchange around the subject of discourse, the true nature of collective meaning-making as a problematic dynamic, which became the task-turned-inside-out of our basic writers. For the upper division students, the site of their interchange was the physical, formal text; for the basic writers, the physical texts pressured apart, opening up the formal objects as social situations in which to live and breathe, bicker and laugh, draw allegiances, express doubts, plot aggression, and even flirt. While texts can always be read with deliberate certainty, as the upper-division students demonstrated, they can also be "obscure objects of desire," open to as many lived, political desires as possible, as shown by our first-year students' work in conference. To use Barthes' (1977) terminology, the upper division students had a concept of the formal object to be responded to as "work," orthodoxical, monistic, closing in on the signified, spoken about in terms like "quality" and "taste"; the basic writers, whether they knew it or not, were responding to the object of discussion as "text," open, plural, paradoxical, which

answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination. . . . coming from a disconnected, heterogeneous variety of substances and perspectives; lights, colours, vegetation, heat, air, slender explosions of noises, scant cries of birds, children's voices from over on the other side, passages, gestures, clothes of inhabitants near or far away (p. 159).

Think back to that early example in which Nick and (later) Kevin start capping on Jerald's shoes in blatant off-task counterpoint during one of their peer-response conversations. Nick weaves this commentary in and out of that session, at first good-naturedly: when Kevin says the prison door closing sounded like "a big can crusher," Nick goes off-task to say, "Like jerald's shoes [ can crusher ] ." "What about jerald's shoes?" he insists, a few lines later. Then later, in response to Jerald's brutally frank critique of his paper, Nick falls back on mocking those shoes as the only way to restore his own dignity: "jerald what about your shoes?" Kevin, wanting to buffer the harsh criticism his friend's paper received, joins in the shoe war: "Avia," he smirks, "get rid of them did'nt you say you had them ever since jr high." Nick collaboratively builds on his newfound ally's notion of how old Jerald's shoes are in stepping up his attack, "Jerald you do smell like you want to be alone, and so does your shoes. . . . those shoes smell so bad that they don't even want you ." What gives you the authority to criticize me when you wear those kind of shoes, Nick is asking. That's the kind of question the upper-division students would never dream of asking in one of their peer-response sessions, but it seems like one of the truest questions, one that strikes at the heart of cultural preconceptions inherent in interpretation, at the way ideology acts as the horizon against which language is articulated. Writing students should learn that readers often don't like one's text for a host of meta-textual reasons. That the locus of this articulation should be fashion is not surprising. Barthes (1983) comments on the way in which fashion can "interpose, between the object and its user, such a luxury of words . . . such a network of meaning" (p. xi). And Hebdige shows just how much of the interaction between the individual and the collective socioculture is implied in a pair of shoes:

The raw material of history could be seen refracted, held and 'handled' in the line of a mod's jacket, in the soles on a teddy boy's shoes. Anxieties concerning class and sexuality, the tensions between conformity and deviance, family and school, work and leisure, were all frozen there in a form which was at once visible and opaque (p. 78).

Bruffee cites Kuhn to insist that the kind of "debate" that must occur to resolve differences in interpretation among community members has little to do with personalities:

To understand why science develops as it does, one need not unravel the details of biography and personality that lead each individual to a particular choice, though that topic has vast fascination. What one must understand, however, is the manner in which a particular set of shared values interacts with the particular experiences shared by a community of specialists to ensure that most members of the group will ultimately find one set of arguments rather than another decisive (p. 164).

Deferring a desire, the "vast fascination," to "unravel" threads--whether threads in a mod's jacket or simply threads of student discourse--appears questionable after watching our students engage in meaning-centered network discussion. "The approach to a destination," Cottom reminds us, "is always a detour of subjectivity through society" (p. 29). "Details of biography and personality that lead each individual to a particular choice" may be insignificant to understand science in Kuhn's eyes, but not in ours. If a science of writing proscribes such details, it becomes a dull rehearsal of forms.

The received wisdom about educational technology is the way in which it can empower students. Authorizing carefully limited uses for powerful technologies such as a classroom network, with its ability to blow open discourse for students, eviscerates its potential. We have to allow students authority in setting potentially powerful tasks of their own, and we have to learn about the importance of self- or collective-sponsored student tasks. Some instructors using networks, e-mail, and other media for collaborative discourse are realizing that the electronic traces of interaction over such media allow students to create a significant new kind of written text, one that deserves full attention in the writing class. Now that writing can be mediated by a technology that allows for the archival recording of personalities immersed in the interface of language and power, it is up to us as instructors to continue such evolution in our definition of the act of writing.


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