7(Special Issue), April 1990, pages 71-84

Under Erasure: A Theory for Interactive Writing in Real Time

Anthony DiMatteo

New York Institute of Technology

From my first encounter with real-time network writing in my Basic Reading and Writing course, synchronous written interaction has challenged my sense of how students learn to write. Most confusing has been the provocative focus upon a writing that blends speech and writing, talking and composing. This merging of two traditionally differentiated forms of communicating goes against the grain of many received notions about what is supposed to go on in an English class. First of all, it violates the traditional belief that students should never write the way they speak. Even more disturbing is a new classroom dynamic in which students' discourse takes control. I no longer have hegemony over classroom language; no longer select who is to speak, what questions are to be answered, what style is to be used.

When the linguistic freeplay that synchronous writing seems to promote erupts into the sovereign domain of academia, disorder--or the appearance of it--becomes the order of the day. From this upheaval, questions emerge that are normally buried beneath a weight of institutional props and procedures bent on maintaining student deference to the teacher's language and authority. The disquieting but vital impact that real-time writing has in the classroom generates fundamental inquiries into what writing and learning are, and what teachers of composition hope to achieve. We first ask, how can teachers respond positively to the need for a reappraisal of learning in the clear absence of a new theory of learning? Second, how do we teach effectively in a classroom where speaking appears as a form of writing? I will attempt to address these questions after describing the diverse human makeup of my open admissions classroom, which is networked. I hope to show how real-time writing has both positive and negative effects upon an ethnically and culturally mixed student population.

The Multicultural Classroom and the Dynamics of Separation

Real-time writing encourages democratization--anyone can send a message--and at the same time puts into writing (both online and on paper transcripts) some of the far flung prejudicial notions currently at work in the world. As my colleagues Marshall Kremers and Laurie George have also witnessed, real-time writing can be a weapon of rebellion and vulgarity as well as an instrument for free expression and discovery. Indeed, the transcripts reveal diversity and dividedness in many ways.

The students enrolled in Basic Reading and Writing at the New York Institute of Technology are drawn from a global population. This semester I have students from various ethnic groups: Iranian, Turkish, El Salvadoran, Jamaican, Haitian, Afro-American, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italian and finally Anglo-Saxon. My classroom never feels like a "melting pot," never feels as if my students recognize the obvious pluralism as a benefit enabling them to learn more about the world. Ethnic and racial difference is instead a source of separation, the otherness a source of fear or antagonism. Like students usually sit with like. In the face of such disunity, I have resorted to teaching international literacy, a fluency in any topic any of my students might have an interest in. This individualized approach promotes self-esteem among my developmental students who feel "in the know" about a pet subject, but a classroom discussion is difficult to sustain.

Besides ethnic plurality, another feature of this mix of students--its gender make-up--presents a no less compelling challenge. In one of my classes, I have one woman and eleven men, a gender distribution that has strained relations, and resulted in the woman's becoming the target of some abuse. Although she, like the rest of my students, has an American high school diploma, her English abilities are not conversationally fluent and surely not up to "college-level" writing (hence her presence in my basic class). The writing group that includes her usually considers itself more blessed than the all male writing groups, who show envy and have frequently raided the network channel where the group with the woman is working.

One attitude my students emphatically share is their reticence, even opposition, to writing about their own values. They do not want to tell me about themselves. Thus, following James M. McCrimmon's (1984) advice against prescribing to students "what they are to write and how they are to write it" (p. 11), I allow them to choose a subject of their own to research and their topics seem to reflect their interests and experiences: the Stealth bomber, the F.D.I.C., steroids, cocaine, Ollie North, Manuel Noriega, Paul Robeson, stereo amplifiers, and male clothing fashion. However, drafts of their research papers show that they do not see a connection between their writing and their lives. They can find out information about any topic but have a very difficult time writing about why they find it interesting. "I happened to see this program on TV" has been a frequent explanation of why they chose a topic.

In their attitudes about themselves as writers, my basic writing students resemble other developmental classes I have taught. They often feel like failures. My present class is somewhat unusual in that many have been marginalized by the politics of the world in which English has represented not infrequently the language of exile. "Religion is no big deal in United State [sic]," writes my El Salvadoran American. "There are a lot of guns in hands of the criminals in New York," writes my Iranian American student. They tell me people laugh at their accents. English represents the subject they have always had difficulty with. Despite different experiences with English, be it the new language of a refugee or the mother tongue of a New Yorker, my developmental students feel threatened by or alien to English.

Such is my students' predominant attitude, and their placement in Basic English instead of Freshmen Composition only confirms the pith and marrow of past experiences. My students share an assumption about writing that Sondra Perl and Arthur Egendorf have identified with unskilled writers who believe that their writing must "conform to the a priori specifications for acceptable products" (Perl and Egendorf, 1986, p. 262). Clearly, my students have already been exposed to pedagogies of exhortation rather than to ones of knowing.

Breaking Down the Barriers: Writing on a Network

However, when this diverse student body confronts synchronous network writing, which requires them to write their talking, the dynamics of separation begin to alter. "Participate in an electronic conversation over the network," I ask them, "in which you find out about your interview partner." My students at first reluctantly put up with me and my "gizmo" approach to teaching writing, and they laugh when I say they are enjoying writing over the network. They don't consider what they are doing as writing because they like this writing; they seem like determined nondancers found tapping their feet. Consider this initial exchange over the network between two students:

Andrew:what is this supposed to be doing
Ronald:we're talking, I mean writting about each other
Andrew:why can't we just talk the normal way
Ronald:Because we need a record for work at home, guess
Andrew:But I like to see the person Im talking to
Ronald:yeah, now you can see only what I mean
Ronald:this is like a phone call or a video game
Andrew:but watch what you say because its all on tape
Ronald:who the hell cares. let the stuff hit the fan
Andrew:I know he can read this so you got too talk right I guess

Clearly, I have to convince them that this experiment with writing is an experience they can build upon, but how can I instigate a reevaluation of writing? How can I demonstrate that network writing offers a basic freedom in writing situations when their network writing is so unlike the privately composed, model- or teacher-based prose they have unsuccessfully tried to write virtually all their academic lives?

Teaching writing through synchronous interaction on a computer network feels like being on a threshold in several senses. The real-time writing screen maps out discourse in a familiar hierarchy of forms. The representation of the writing instrument, with the teacher window at the top of the screen, the continuously scrolling polylogue in the middle, and the private composing window at the bottom (see Figure 1), calls to mind a well known configuration of the psyche in which the ego shapes itself out of an inner struggle between superego and id. Indeed, the mistrust that Andrew evidently has for teachers results in a repression that makes him feel censored and uptight about what he really wants to say. The real-time screen reflects the inner strife of individual psyches. However, the real-time writing that occurs between regions of authority and impulse does not develop only from an internal encounter with language in the form of a privately voiced thinking, an ego-centered, lonely battle, but from a shared external one graphically represented as an exchange with others.

[Figure 1]

Figure 1. REALTIME WRITER (RW) User Interface

How our writing is situated within the writings of others rather than how our writing expresses ourselves in isolation becomes an apparent feature of real-time writing which paradoxically appears both as speech and writing. Boundaries of speech and writing blur. We seem to face a new kind of writing that occurs along side or outside the very hierarchy silently asserted by the semiotics of the screen. I say "outside" because it is neither the writing of the authority at the top of the screen nor the composing at the bottom that accounts for or controls the directions real-time writing takes. Rather, an unpredictable and unruly exchange of ideas creates an open-ended, forward moving discourse that wanders endlessly and which has deviation as its most persistent theme (we may recall the root meaning of discourse, discursus, signifies digression, a running to and fro). An obstreperous freeplay authorizes and sanctions real-time writing. A representational activity that cuts across divisions of self and other, author and audience, it generates discourse whose only rule of operation is to keep going, "letting the stuff" project upon the screen, if I may rework my student's metaphor.

Upon the electronic blackboard of real-time writing, a new horizon for learning appears, forcing us to re-examine conventional speech-writing oppositions and differences. Real-time writing reveals processes of language that merge speech and writing. Provocatively, synchronous network writing not only precedes speech, it allows speech and writing to appear as a single activity. Discussing the impact of network writing in the classroom, David Fletcher (1989) observes, "Many students report that [real-time] writing . . . is a natural bridge between talking and writing and allows them to develop their ideas through conversation" (p. 59). More than a bridge, real-time writing seems, impossibly, both the origin and agent of speech. This new quality of writing strongly calls to mind Jacques Derrida's (1976) concept of "arche-ecriture," or writing as a sociological and intellectual activity, always already there in any discourse. Arche-writing or arche-synthesis constitutes "not only the pattern uniting form to all substance, graphic or otherwise, but the movement of the sign-function linking a content to an expression whether it be graphic or not" (p. 60).

The product of such writing is a text that reaches no conclusion--more radically, a text whose inconclusiveness is its strength. Not only does no one have the final say, but even the notion of a final say is brought into doubt. The text, traditionally understood as a stable place of organized and fixed language, disappears. According to contemporary theorists of composing, the absence is a liberating experience. Ann Berthoff (1984) has urged teachers to design writing exercises such as a "dialectical notebook" that promote "the value of keeping things tentative" and that "forego closure" (p. 30). Perl and Egendorf (1986) define writing as "what makes discovery possible by creating possibilities for discovery," and as "the carrying forward of an inchoate sense into explicit form" (Perl & Egendorf, pp. 258-260). What real-time writing makes conspicuous is a kind of tentative writing that precedes all representations however garbled or polished, voiced, visualized or thought. How and what words mean, the signification settled upon, is forever a temporary resolution. Thus, synchronous writing lends evidence to a prime tenet of Derrida's (1972) theory of language: "language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique" (p. 254).

The sudden invisibility of the fixed text results in the erasure of the teacher's authority. Indeed, real-time writing first feels like a pedagogical guillotine. However, it eventually proves to have the reverse effect of that French contraption for a kinder, gentler approach to execution, because synchronous interaction instead connects head to body, teacher to class. In the absence of stable text and the authority based upon a reading of such text, my students confront a writing situation that privileges their own speech. They create intensely visible language out of what they consider to be forgetable, facile words--their own talk and conversation. They develop a sense that when they talk, they are "drafting" themselves, composing their own identities through a speech that is also a writing made utterly tangible. Such a novel and important learning experience conflicts with their traditional assumption that learning is the ability to comment on and recall the teacher's words. This new language dynamic (we are what words we use) demands consideration for what it tells us about learning.

A viable theory of learning must account for several features of the synchronous writing classroom. My students, divided into groups of talk-writers, face the otherness of language directly. No longer working in just a medium of self-expression, they project a self whose power resides not in separation from others but in an ability to collaborate with them. This empowerment of the individual within an enabling group demands a reorientation of thinking about the conventional definitions of the writer and his or her audience. The group unit, emerging from the erasure of the isolated self, must write to converse, a collective activity. The writing of such interactive selves requires a different evaluation by the teacher who now must consider the work for its effectiveness as a vehicle of group discovery. How well students integrate themselves within a polyscripted group, not how well they stand out, becomes the focus of grading.

That real-time composing in the classroom and the talk-writing it requires elicits a post-modern approach to thinking about learning should not surprise teachers who have felt the novel challenge of establishing a text in such a classroom. This essay is an attempt to follow J. Hillis Miller's (1983) recommendation for working out a pedagogy for the teaching of writing commensurate with "the most advanced insights into language" (p. 55). As Miller argues, deconstructive approaches to language pertain not just to hallowed writers of the literary canon because deconstruction is not a theory of stylistics but one of language and its unsettling impact upon all claims to knowledge. It is a theory that examines how all knowledge contains a fictive quality by employing, in Michel Foucault's (1972) description, "a discourse about discourses" that tries "to operate a decentering that leaves no privilege to any centre" (p. 205). It applies to what basic and advanced writers do. How and why real-time writing demands a post-modern approach are issues for careful examination. As a writing/talking/thinking activity, it requires a theory of language and learning that brings into play simultaneously many facets of intelligence. The fact that it has been described as "bridging" supposedly separate discursive acts (talking and writing) should make us note the unnaturalness of such divisions.

The merging of speech and writing that real-time writing allows is not just the innovative result of a new technology for writing. The fusion occurs because of a cognitive activity that is prior to the separation of speech and writing. This arche-writing, which is more than speech and writing and yet generates the representing activity of both modes, is the constant factor within all discourse or sign systems. The breech caused by its division into distinct forms of communication with writing supplementing speaking appears in real-time writing but in reverse fashion. Speaking usually carries the natural voice of the self, and writing is the acquired voice, the artful voice. In real-time writing, however, writing functions as the primary activity--it precedes speech, which first registers as a graphic representation, before it can be sounded. Provocatively, there is thus a graphic dimension to speech that is anterior to its phonic dimension. The voice of speech is seen before it is heard. Of such writing/speaking turnabouts, Jonathan Goldberg (1982) observes,

The reversal . . . is extremely significant since a normative boundary is crossed. The opposition of speaking and writing is analogous to the opposition of nature and culture, of interiority and exteriority. As Derrida argues in Of Grammatology, this opposition is weighted in terms of value and sequence, so that the terms nature-inside-speech are granted priority and value, spirituality. However, they can be reversed, and Of Grammatology is intent upon the reversal that allows writing-culture-exteriority to precede or replace the opposing terms. (p. 15, note 7)

In real-time writing, a comparably reversed perspective upon writing and speaking emerges. Writing now constructs the voice of identity, and speech acquires a silence and a secondary or supplemental quality usually reserved for writing. Speech and writing have switched traditional roles. This novel sense of exchangeability promises a liberation from ethnocentric and phonological prejudices about the voice and accent of language anchoring the sense of self. It promotes an intellectual and social dimension of language no longer grounded solely on the auto-affective experience of hearing oneself think and speak.

The Impact of Real-time Writing on Learning

I believe this rethinking about writing and speaking that real-time writing encourages has a positive impact upon student work. A sampling of student work on the network reveals opportunities for learning outside the usual configuration of authority and textuality in which the teacher dominates access to the book, and his or her speech is the main preparation for written tests, an approach to writing Cooper (1984) unfortunately found to characterize the "standard writing program in American high schools" (p. 12). Real-time writing, with the fluidity it enables, the nearly automatic production of a protean and unruly discourse naturally generated by verbal free-play, surely conflicts with the prescriptive and error-seeking pedagogies Cooper censures. At the same time, real-time writing promotes many of the positive features that, according to Farr and Daniels (1986), writing programs must have to be effective vehicles of learning. It certainly immerses teachers "in the natural and spontaneous language which their students use," increases students' sense of authorship, and insures that dialogue is a main activity of the composition class (pp. 49-68).

There are some pitfalls to watch out for when real-time writing becomes a main activity of the class. Students have learned to distrust and dislike the writing situation. The ambivalence Derrida sees in all writing is especially true of theirs. "The verbal text is constituted by concealment as much as revelation," writes Gayatri Spivak, prefacing Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology. To avoid my students' sense of failure in writing, I must somehow get around their language even as they write it. I must help them reengage or reconnect or even disconnect, come out from under their own erasure of English as a non-relevant, impersonal task that occurs only in official situations they have usually not done well in before. To some extent, I have to de-institutionalize language, as it has become a hindrance rather than a means of liberation for my students. Network writing almost shocks my students into rethinking the possibilities of what writing can be. The technology makes demands similar to those of Derrida's approach to reading and writing. In Spivak's description, Derrida "is asking us to change certain habits of mind: the authority of the text is provisional, the origin is a trace; contradicting logic, we must learn to use and erase our language at the same time" (Derrida, 1976, p. xviii). For my basic students to assimilate the writing of English into their lives and connect academia with self, they need to develop "the strategy of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself" (Derrida, 1976, p. xviii). They must deconstruct failure in order to succeed.

This primary need for overturning, rewriting, or erasing their previous disconnections with writing often manifests itself immediately when students use the synchronous LAN for the first few times. Many begin to curse obsessively, even randomly, while trying to appease me by explaining that their profanity is not directed at me or my machine. My task is to channel that energy and power constructively and avoid policing it strongly. If I were to police their writing dogmatically, I would end up re-affirming their valuation of speaking as power and writing as powerlessness. What seems like a tidal wave of obscenity and puerility offers a dynamic I cannot ignore or suppress.

I introduce into the network conversation the idea that graffiti is an ancient form of writing, and I ask for speculation on why it occurs. We eventually manage to develop enough material for an essay, but it is extraordinary that language excluded from academic and "proper" discourse almost always becomes the early focus of real-time writing even in advanced college writing courses that my colleagues and I have taught. My students were more than willing to describe examples of graffiti, but I caused a considerable pause for thought when I asked them how their own first interactive writing could be considered a kind of electronic graffiti. They were not subverting or protesting authority over the discourse of the class; rather, the bottled-up aggression created by the institutionalization of language had exploded on the screen. Their written violence heralded their entrance into a previously alien zone of education. Reacting against dichotomies of public and private, outer and inner, academic and personal, their writing and talk, by occupying the same space, comprise the source of an immediate and seductive empowerment.

I learned the hard way that I could not ask them to censor themselves and at the same time retain interest in what they were writing. Rather than demand that they expunge their language, I had to ask them to translate foul language into other terms that would still concentrate on and express the emotions the profanity had only inarticulately conveyed. Whenever I tried to suppress their language, I forced many of my students back into a silent underworld no teacher may enter. My graffiti notion was something of an idea borne out of panic, but it proved to be a sop for the institutional authority that guards the door to keep the written and the spoken word distinct. "All those who enter academia shall not write the way they speak," appears emblazoned upon this door. My students need to unlearn this lesson that creates a schism in the way they experience writing and speaking.

Beyond this initial scenario, the results of these exercises demonstrate a need for re-exploration of what writing is. To my mind, the process approach to essay and paragraph writing my students collaboratively experience recalls the original function of the essay as conceived by Michel de Montaigne. "Que sais-je?" asked Montaigne; "What do I know?" The essay was the result of a personal interrogation that eventually would decenter philosophical enterprise in the course of Western inquiry. Essay writing, like the new science, eventually called all into doubt. It is fitting that this initial role of the essay, to disturb the known, to destabilize the hierarchies of scholasticism that Montaigne saw as vanities, should be rediscovered or revealed by a new writing technology that seems at first to be so anti-essayist.

Real-time writing also offers a rich opportunity to investigate the role of identities in discourse. As students write their polylogue, their names automatically register on all the monitors. For one session, I have students withhold their identities for as long as possible by logging onto the network with the last four digits of their social security number. John or Jane is now 1407 or 5630 on the screen. I ask that they remain anonymous until knowing identities becomes necessary to continue the discussion. I use this ploy to suspend talking. In fact, I want them to think of writing, not speech or listening, as a means of self-representation. I find that students who remain anonymous the longest usually do the most writing. Also, when students do not know the identity of the author of a statement, they are more likely to deal with the truth or falsity of the statement itself rather than the personality "behind" it. They also feel encouraged to write their minds in this nameless, risk-free environment. Furthermore, the connection between anonymity and writing can generate a rich investigation of the role of naming in language. Holding off personal names concentrates analysis on the written polylogue.

Real-time writing also generates material from within the class for learning about writing and communication. Using transcripts from the anonymously written conversations, we discovered how knowing or not knowing names can stop or subvert communication as well as advance it, and how withholding proper names can encourage communication through intellectual means. This discovery prompts other insights. Students become more aware of how identities can blind discourse to things otherwise observed. When identities are withheld, stereotyping can be put on hold.

Another real-time writing exercise that dramatizes important language issues is topic exploration or brainstorming. Groups of three or four students choose a topic from a list and pool ideas as a preliminary step toward writing group and individual essays. One group selected the topic "parents and children: the question of discipline" and gradually decided to write a group paragraph advising parents of a need to "let go" of their teenagers:

7400:Which topic are we doing? Is it "how much discipline is toomuch discipline," or "when should parent start letting o of their children/"
8569:but too much discipline can make a kid into a home boy or unable to make decisions
7058:thats right, he will grow up to be a wise guy
7400:So I tske ot that we are going with when should parents start letting go of their children
7101:What do you mean 7400? You mispelled a few words
7058:i think that the topic when should parents let go of thier children and why is a good topic

The four members quickly became embroiled with questions about when and how to "let go." Finally, the group decided they had enough material for writing a thesis paragraph and an outline for an essay on how to discipline. As they attempted to write this essay, they immediately ran into a conflict: how could they connect the apparently opposed concepts of "letting go" and discipline? Their examples of the need for adolescent liberty and for tolerant parents had exceeded the concept of discipline when they had hoped to supplement or demonstrate its meaning. Their resistance to criticizing the term 'letting go" kept them from realizing the metaphorical nature of the expression.


"Letting go," with all its contradictory implications, is an apt metaphor for the intellectual resistance basic students need to develop and for the deconstructive, positive impact that computer networks can have on the experience of writing in the basic English classroom. Elbow (1986) also finds this metaphor appropriate for advising teachers about the process needed for learning: "Significant learning requires change, inner readjustments, willingness to let go" (p. 150). The influence of real-time writing furthers this challenging process required by learning. The breech between speaking and writing begins to heal. From this development, new possibilities emerge. Synchronous network writing does not allow discourse to unfold in a single dimension alone. It opens polysemantic approaches to traditional topics usually examined for right and wrong perspectives and not for the rich ambiguities the topic

as a topic attempts to control. It advances an interactive experience of learning that makes evident how onerous and problematic the idea of a topic is because of what Faigley (1986) has described as the variables in reader knowledge, writerly style, and cultural as well as textual constraints (pp. 140-141). Furthermore, in "real time," speech and writing together comprise a discourse that defers closure. Their joining merges margin and text, explanation and example, a dualism which goes under erasure in the different spacing of language that network writing allows.

In this novel spacing, we seem impossibly to look around ourselves, around speech and writing at a dark antecedent inscription, more a trace than a writing, an always already there representing factor that makes for or brings with it representability. This trace defies or disallows analysis because it is what brings analysis into being; it demarcates the limit of speech and writing, and at the same time allows us to think of difference. This is why real-time writing is truly open-ended and promises and demands a new kind of thinking about what language and learning are.


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