8(1), November 1990, pages 23-39

Distant Writers, Distant Critics, and Close Readings:
Linking Composition Classes Through A Peer-Critiquing Network

Michael Steven Marx

Introduced to the teaching of composition in the mid 1970s, peer-critique groups provide one means of creating a community among college writers. [1] As Thom Hawkins (1976) explains: "Working in small groups is a natural, enhancing environment for active, socially realistic learning" (p. 637). This social context lends itself to the teaching of writing because "Writing is communication. If we don't talk to each other we will be writing in a vacuum" (p. 638). The "talk" of critique groups is not limited to criticism of drafts and final papers.

Group meetings can address all stages of the writing process, from collaborative sessions on discovery and brainstorming to exchanges of oral and written criticism of papers. Although peer-critique groups, as suggested in research done in the mid-1970s and 1980s, provide students with an immediate support network for their writing, the addition of computer networks to writing classrooms has increased the possibilities for collaboration among student writers. [2] Peer-critique groups successfully wed oral communication to the writing process; computer networks nurture this union yet require that the discourse surrounding the interactive learning be a type of informal writing among classmates working on-line.

The most comprehensive application of computer networks to the writing classroom is the ENFI (Electronic Networks for Interaction) Demonstration Project begun in 1987. [3] ENFI classrooms rely on local area networks that allow synchronous (real time) exchanges among participants. In addition, video switching components allow students on the network to view and discuss the same text at the same time. The rationale for using computer networks within writing classrooms reflects principles inherent in peer-critiquing groups. Echoing Hawkins' reasons for peer-critique groups from a decade earlier, ENFI director Trent Batson (1988) enumerates these as "conceiving of writing as a social act, not a solitary task; as a process, not a product; and as a collaborative endeavor (p. 32). As Geoffrey M. Sirc (1988), a member of the ENFI Consortium notes:

The saturation in writing and thinking about writing afforded by this network did much to nurture my students sense of themselves as writers (p. 103).

Written interchanges over a computer network offer important advantages over oral discussions within a peer critique group. Sirc explains,

Too often in oral writing conferences, gestures and monosyllabic grunts can substitute for articulate commentary. When forced to express their ideas in writing, students must focus on what they're saying and how they're going to say it (p. 101).

Batson adds that because network discussions are "written rather than spoken," they give "students a chance to work out ideas in the mode they will use to compose more extended text" (p. 33).

Following techniques of traditional peer-critique groups, Sirc's students engage in brainstorming discussions about paper topics on the network. A printed transcript of this "conversation" provides writers with resources from which to begin their papers.

After drafts have been read by members of each critique group, the students conduct interactive discussions over the network regarding the strengths and weaknesses of each paper. Again, transcripts of these network sessions give writers a record to consult as they revise their papers (Sirc, 1988, pp. 100-101). ENFI Consortium participant Diane F. Thompson (1987) summarizes:

On the network, students can work collaboratively to brainstorm, solve problems, experience writing as real communication with real people, and revise writing to satisfy their peers' immediate curiosity as well as the teacher's standards for composition (p. 92).

Whether meeting off- or on-line, peer-critique groups foster skill in and understanding of the writing process because, as Kenneth Bruffee observed in 1978,

students can often teach each other things which resist assimilation through the direct instruction of a teacher, and in the process, can learn more thoroughly the subjects . . . they set out to teach (p. 447).

However, the written discourse of the peer-critique group process is often seen as ancillary to both the writing process and the finished written product. In traditional peer-critique programs, ideas exchanged orally in critique groups may be as ephemeral as spoken language itself. Although an interactive, synchronous network provides transcripts of peer-group conversations, the length of comments from individual students--ranging from a few words to a brief paragraph--seems to provide little practice for sustained, formal written communication. Limitations also exist between the relationship of this mode of discourse and formal expository writing. Recounting his early experiences with a brainstorming session on the network, ENFI member Marshall Kremers (1988) describes

that students immediately lost all sense of decorum about what is appropriate to say or write in an English class . . . There was much breaking into channels. . . and some flirting, and even some talking dirty (pp. 71, 76-77).

Moreover, Thompson (1988) warns that because communication on a computer network often approximates written speech, it may be a

hindrance rather than a help to developing writers because as [Jeanne] Halpern points out, "good writing must function without the supports of the speech context (p. 24) [4]

Supplementing a traditional peer-critiquing program with an exchange of critique letters between two schools over an asynchronous distance network is one way of eliciting sustained, fully articulated commentary on student papers and providing practice and reinforcement in successful written communication.

Peer Critique Letters and a Distance Network

Critique letters--the initial centerpiece of peer-critiquing programs (Bruffee, 1978) are frequently overlooked as important student writing. By combining the skills of critical reading and writing implicit in the philosophy of peer critiquing with the emphasis on audience stemming from classical rhetoric, the critique letter written for a peer-critique network becomes a text itself, rather than a step in the writing process. Joining composition classes from two distant colleges realizes for students the importance of the conventions of written communication and forces them to confront the demands of audience in shaping effective written communication. [5] Writing comprehensive critique letters over a distance network encourages students to treat their peers' drafts as texts worthy of careful analysis and invites critics to develop fully supported ideas, a skill applicable to other writing situations.

In using an asynchronous, distance network to exchange compositions and critique letters between Babson College (a business and management college in Wellesley, MA) and Skidmore College (a liberal arts college in Saratoga Springs, NY), my colleague, Joel Nydahl, and I hypothesized that creating distance between writer and critic would alter students' typical perception of responsibilities for communication in a critique letter, allowing the critique letter to stand as autonomous, transactional prose. [6] An audience of classroom peers often inhibits the writing of comprehensive critiques too, especially given the desire of students to protect friendships and insure social status. In contrast, reading and critiquing drafts written by unfamiliar students over a distance network provides an environment that encourages students to concentrate on the text, not the personality behind the text. Moreover, with or without a local area network, students writing to peers in the same class often rely upon conversations in and out of class to complement their critiques rather than rise to the challenges of written communication. Conducting exchanges of peer-critique letters over a distance network requires students to acknowledge the unique demands of written discourse. As Plato argues in the Phaedrus, writing, unlike speech, is a limited form of communication that can neither explain nor defend itself. A distance network eliminates the opportunity for spoken discourse to clarify the writing, so writing critique letters for a .distance network requires students to "focus on what they're saying and how they're going to say it" (Sirc, 1988, p. 101) and to write comprehensive reader-based prose for clearly defined audiences and specific purposes.

Although a distance network holds many promises for writing instruction, especially when used to augment in-class peer critique programs, establishing a peer-critique network between two distant colleges is a demanding and complex task. Arranging classes and developing the curriculum is as intricate as the technological aspects of the network. Despite year long planning, the logistics of setting up classroom and scheduling procedures brought to the foreground administrative and bureaucratic concerns that the average instructor never faces. In order for two classes to function as a whole united by a peer-critiquing network, the colleges need to have congruent academic calendars. Equally important, semesters have to begin and end on approximately the same dates, and vacations need to coincide so that students at both schools work on the same assignments at the same time. Such requirements limit the number of schools that can connect to each other.

Issues more obviously related to classroom management also increase in importance during exchanges. Our classes had to meet with the same frequency on the same days so that students had the same due dates for assignments. Furthermore, maintaining parallel class enrollments became paramount. This raised its own challenge due to institutional differences. Composition classes at Babson enroll twenty, and those at Skidmore, fifteen; we compromised on sixteen, which gave us four groups of four students for our in-class, peer-critique groups. Using this enrollment figure required special permission from our home departments as well as from our colleges.

After surveying students from the previous year, we chose terrorism as the common topic [7] so that students could write as informed "experts" on the content of the compositions they criticized. But in developing assignments, we again confronted obstacles from institutional curricular requirements. Unlike Skidmore's writing seminars, Babson's composition courses taught research-paper writing skills. An extended definition composition and a mini-research paper proved to be a suitable compromise.

Before students could be active and effective peer-critiquing network participants, they had to receive special training and instruction. They had to learn to compose and revise on a word-processing system, particularly basic functions such as formatting texts and moving blocks of text. More importantly, we had to initiate students into analyzing and criticizing writing productively. To help students realize the criteria for "good" writing that the class implicitly held, at the beginning of the course we replicated an assessment session of first-year composition placement essays. After reading a selection of low, middle, and high range essays, students scored the essays and defended these ratings to their classmates. This discussion helped students articulate the characteristics of writing they themselves valued and gave them the opportunity to learn directly the qualities of writing praised by teachers of composition. [8] Preliminary to the critiquing process itself, such discussions brought to the foreground the importance of thesis statements, fully developed ideas, engaging supporting evidence, logical organization, and coherent sentence structure. Our instructions for revision also looked toward the critiquing process. Adapting guidelines that Nydahl developed, we taught revision as a process moving "from the 'Bottom' to the 'Top,"' first addressing global issues such as organization and development and concluding with surface features, grammar, and spelling. [9] We presented this approach to revision as a hierarchy of issues to address when critiquing a draft.

The exchange over the distance network did not begin until the middle of the semester; therefore, students participated in in-class peer groups, writing critique letters to their local classmates with the first two compositions. We outlined a four-step process to follow when critiquing drafts: review the assignment to refamiliarize yourselves with the composition's purpose and rhetorical agenda; read all of the drafts in your peer-critique group for a general sense of how this writing task can be approached; reread critically and evaluate one composition to note strengths, weaknesses, and to provide suggestions for improvement; lastly, compose a critique letter to the author. For writing the critique letter, we reminded students to establish some priority among the critical remarks they made as they would in the revision process and to incorporate compliments as well as negative comments; therefore, letters would become well supported discussions of the drafts, not simply lists of errors.

Although these initial critique letters were supported with peer critique group meetings, these very discussions--along with written comments from the teacher responding to the letters--increased students' awareness of the demands of the fully independent, writer-based prose they would have to strive for in their distant critique letters. Prior to going on-line, each class exchanged a packet containing a first draft of a student essay, the critique letter it received, and the second draft of the essay. In addition to exposing students to the writing the other college students' produced, discussions of these texts allowed students to see how different writers respond to written criticism and the problems that occur when a writer's draft receives inadequate criticism.

Once the peer-critiquing network function was fully operational, classes at both colleges received the composition assignments and engaged in discussions of shared readings and resources which could inform the paper. For instance, to introduce the unit on terrorism and to help students explore the complexity in defining terrorism--the task of the first composition--both classes saw The Little Drummer Girl. In addition to classroom sessions devoted to content exploration, both classes received instruction on the rhetorical dimensions of the assignments. Building on skills introduced earlier in the course and reading model texts on other topics, we examined how comparison/contrast, classification, analogies, and anecdotes can be used to define abstract terms. Prior to writing their first drafts, students met in their in-class peer-critique groups to discuss the assignment and exchange ideas and resources. Such lessons also provided students with further criteria with which to analyze and criticize their distant classmates' compositions. Students independently wrote their drafts on microcomputers, which were transmitted to the sister class.

Students received each other's compositions in the next class session. Borrowing procedures from writing assessment, in-class critique group meetings served as "normalizing" sessions to discuss how the distant writers had responded to the assignment and to clarify any questions the student critics themselves had about the assignment. The students decided among themselves which composition each would critique (critique letters were homework due the next calendar day). Putting this choice in the hands of the students decreased the likelihood that the same two students across the network would be critiquing each other's drafts, thus, further alleviating any counterproductive "peer" interference. The critique letters were then transmitted to the sister college, and students received their letters the next day to guide their revisions. We conducted this exchange process on two drafts of the two composition assignments written for the peer-critiquing network.

BITNET: The Technological Heart of the Peer-Critiquing Network

Although peer-critiquing occupied the pedagogical heart of the Skidmore-Babson network, the intercollegiate network BITNET was the technological heart, providing an accessible and quick asynchronous means of transmitting students' drafts and critique letters. [10] Student access to BITNET was another unanticipated obstacle in establishing procedures for conducting the network. Although both schools belong to BITNET, their access policies differ: Skidmore students have free access to BITNET; Babson students do not. [11] The lack of accessibility to BITNET by all participants required us to enforce mandatory due dates so that texts could be transmitted collectively. This situation also caused us to restrict the duties of uploading, transmitting, and downloading files to ourselves and our student assistants. While this increased our work, it made student participation in the network easier; the complicated procedure for transmitting files would have needlessly puzzled or frustrated some students, focusing their attention counterproductively on technology rather than on writing.

To transmit files of their compositions and critique letters, students left copies of their essay disks with their professor or student aide at a prescribed time. Each disk was labelled according to the student's critique-group number; this allowed the aide to copy the drafts of the four students in each group into a larger file. The aide next re-saved the four files in ASCII, uploaded them to the VAX, and transmitted them to the other college via BITNET's electronic mail. At the other end, a student aide extracted the files from e-mail, downloaded them into the appropriate word-processing program (WORDPERFECT at Skidmore, MICROSOFT WORD at Babson), copied them into the students' class disks, and left the disks for students to pick up the following day. Either the aide or the students themselves prepared hard copies of the new material to bring to the next class meeting.

Teachers using computers in their writing classes typically have to overcome students' apprehension that their work is at the mercy of the computer. However, there was some truth to this myth in our project. The success of a peer-critiquing network relies to a large extent on the dependability of the transmission network. BITNET is an administratively decentralized network; when we encountered problems with it, we had no single resource to consult. Throughout the project, transmissions from Skidmore to Babson ran smoothly; however, as the semester advanced, transmissions from Babson sometimes failed to reach Skidmore. Regular maintenance work on the VAX computers over which BITNET runs also affected the operation of the peer-critiquing network. When BITNET failed or was temporarily unavailable, we relied upon other telecommunications technologies as "back-ups." Faxing student writings was a quick, but costly, option. Moreover, it limited how students could use word-processing systems to compose critique letters and to revise drafts. Using a modem to access the Skidmore computer directly proved to be a more efficient--although less flashy-- alternative method for transferring files.

Just as we needed to be prepared for technologic breakdowns, we also needed to anticipate human (i.e., student) failures. We developed contingency plans to assure that every draft written would receive a critique. Regardless of whether students had submitted either or both of their first or second drafts, they were expected to write a critique letter. If a student was absent from the critique-group meetings, we asked other students in the group to write two critique letters. On the other hand, if a critique group received fewer than four drafts, the group members selected which drafts would receive more than one critique letter. If a student did not receive a critique letter--either due to absence or negligence by the critic--the professors prepared a short critique of the draft for that student.

Perhaps the greatest caveat of the peer-critiquing network--as for any team-teaching situation--remains the danger of losing individual classroom autonomy. Although we were aware that we would not have the flexibility we were accustomed to, we sometimes felt unexpectedly constrained by the demands of operating an active network. Because of the lack of student access to BITNET, once the cycle of exchanges was underway, the progression of subsequent classes and assignments necessarily became fixed. No longer could we change due dates for drafts or postpone the writing of critique letters. Nor could we linger over a topic of particular interest or spend extra time on writing concerns. The image of "the tail wagging the dog" arose in our conversations and private thoughts even though the peer-critiquing network created less disruption in day-to-day classroom procedures than we anticipated.

In fact, the network brought distinct advantages to our writing classes. Technologically, our students became members of the increasingly important community of the computer literate. On a very fundamental level, students' use of word-processing programs for writing seemed to be enhanced because all texts produced for the course-- whether drafts of compositions or critique letters--had to be on disk to be transmitted. The transmission of files also legitimatized the use of a standard disk-operating system and a single word-processing program within each class. Students no longer complained that their Macintosh or PFS WRITE program could not be used for the course.[12] Finally, because files had to be uniformly and logically named and formatted in order to be transmitted, the introduction of the network taught students the logic behind many computer protocols.

Close Readings of Distant Writings: Critique Letters from the Peer-Critique Network

The critique letters that students wrote for the peer-critiquing network supported our original premise that imposing distance between writer and critic would encourage students to respond more attentively to the requirements of written discourse. At the end of the semester one Skidmore student summarized her experience of writing for the network:

When writing to someone in class, I can talk to them if they do not understand a point. When writing to Babson, I found that I was concentrating on giving a complete critique. I also found a new freedom because I did not have to worry about the Babson student getting upset with me.

Freed from in-class peer pressure, students were able to write honest and thorough critiques. The inability to talk to the author forced students to be attentive to what the writers had written and to weigh their own criticism carefully.

Even though having a distant audience frees the critic from worrying about the writer's reaction, with this freedom comes the burden of providing reasons for any revisions the critic suggests. Exercising this freedom to write with candor, one Babson critic bluntly told a Skidmore writer:

The first thing I would like to say is that your essay does not accomplish anything. Now don't take this too hard. I am not saying that it doesn't say anything. There is a great deal of good information and relevant examples in this work, but a lack of focus and a clear cut thesis has resulted in a paper with no destination. The errors are very simple to rectify ....

Despite the freedom critics claimed to experience when writing to a distant audience, the distance did not serve as a buffer behind which student critics hid to offer their blunt assessments. As this critic's remarks demonstrate, much of the criticism was softened with sensitive qualifications ("I am not saying that it doesn't say anything") and compensatory praise ("There is a great deal of good information . . ."). Indeed, the distance-critique letters between classes complimented the author an average of four times.

Reflecting, perhaps, this greater sensitivity toward the writer and a developing bond of collaboration between the critic and writer, explanations more frequently accompanied suggestions for revision. Sensing that a first draft did not fulfill the purpose of an extended definition, another critic wrote:

Basically, you classified the effects of terrorism but you didn't really define the term. For example, your second paragraph introduces direct victims, people whom the terrorists plan to harm or who they want to kill. You should also explain why the terrorists want to commit the violence. This would make your essay more complete . . . . So if you add a little more of what terrorism is rather than what it does, then the essay would fully answer the question.

As valuable as the actual recommendation is, the manner in which this critic presents his suggestions is equally important. He uses the terms "classified" and "define" from earlier class sessions on extended definitions to differentiate the purpose of this paper. He also immediately locates the problem specifically within the text by directing the author to "your second paragraph." By first observing objectively what the paper does, the critic establishes the legitimacy of his suggestion to refocus and expand the draft.

Another example demonstrates how fully the critic needed to engage intellectually the writer's idea to convey her doubts about its appropriateness. In his first drafts of the extended definition of terrorism assignment, a Babson student attempted an unusual analogy between a political terrorist and a dentist to which the critic responded:

This idea is really original! Because of this it is essential that your meaning is clear. If visiting the dentist is an act of terrorism, then is all fear terrorism? I'm not sure if this is what you mean to say, and it is crucial to make the distinction between the two if there is one. If there isn't a difference between the two, then you need to go on after this example to explain to the reader why you feel there are none. You are right in saying that not all terrorists come in nice, neatly stereotyped packages such as you describe, but be careful that you don't imply that all dentists are terrorists. Make sure that the fear that you describe in the dentist visit is the result of the same force as when an airplane is hijacked. If you can work this paragraph out, I think it could be a very provocative aspect in your argument.

Although praising its originality, the Skidmore critic pushed the analogy to its limits to uncover for the writer its implications. Her concentration on the concept of "fear" requires the author to consider the differences among various types of fear provoking situations to arrive at the role of this quintessential element of terrorism.

Composing a critique letter for the distance network affected the specificity of what the critics said as well as how the students offered their criticism. On average, the letters written for the peer-critiquing network were 100 words longer (425) than those prepared for in-class exchanges. This added length did not come only from the necessary explanations the critics provided. Recognizing that they would not be present when the writer read the critic letter, many critics made a much more concerted effort to ground their remarks specifically in the draft. Using "copy-block moves," critics more frequently included exact passages in their letters before commenting on them. For example, rather than simply chastising the writer for inappropriate diction, one critic cited:

You start off with 'Terrorism is a heavy word. . . .' You must think of your audience in this situation. Being a teenager, I might understand what you mean by 'heavy' but others might not.

Focusing on the text rather than on the writer of the text made it easier for critics "to respond to the words, the meaning, and the paper as a whole," as one Skidmore student noted.

Students also began to employ the critical terminology of writing more frequently in their letters. As noted above, students bemoaned (or applauded) "thesis statements." They called for "smoother transitions," reminder the writer to "try and tie the paragraphs together with transitions." Critics regularly invoked the reaction of "the reader" or "target audience" when suggesting revisions. They discussed revision as the need to "reorganize" ideas or "to combine them in a different order." Extraneous material needed to be "omitted" or "narrowed down" because it formed "a tangent away from the assignment." On the other hand, critics encouraged writers to "elaborate' upon, "expand," or strengthen promising ideas by "adding more details, examples, and even a counter definition." Despite the occurrence of rubber-stamp comments in peer-critiquing activities, impressionistic words such as "vague," "cloudy," and "awkward" typically occurred no more than three times within a set of sixteen letters. As one student explained: "I wanted to make sure that I made useful suggestions because they couldn't get in touch with me; so my critique needed to be self explanatory."

Despite these advantages, the opportunity for discussion was greatly missed by writers, who wanted to question their distant critics, and by critics, who wanted to learn more about the distant writer's intentions before they commented further. As one student concluded of the network: "The biggest disadvantage was not being able to talk to them." An asynchronous transmitting network does not permit the immediate, interactive dialogue between writer and critic that a synchronous network affords. Although an asynchronous exchange of messages between writers and critics over BITNET's electronic mail system would have helped bridge this gap, the Babson students' lack of access to BITNET made e-mail untenable. Mail or telephone conversation, which was neither promoted nor prohibited in class, although it was available to the students, went unused.

Some Skidmore students, however, initiated conversations with their Babson critics by attaching messages to the ends of their drafts or critique letters. One student appended this note to the end of her second draft:

I really enjoyed your critique. You perceptively touched on many points that kind of bothered me as I was writing the paper, but that I didn't want to deal with at the time. When you mentioned the things I should change, I only wish that you had elaborated on what I should do with them more, although this was very thorough and logical critique. Thanks for your time; I hope you do really well on your paper.

Overtly, this note attempts to begin a dialogue between the writer and critic. But rather than solicit clarifications, the student attempts to guide the critic in the formulation of his critique letter. The subtext of the note reminds the critic that direct interchanges are greatly limited on our asynchronous network; therefore the critic needs to respond more attentively to the extra demands this places on his written discourse. The critic responded graciously to this reminded: "Thank you for the note, it is always helpful to find out how I can help critique your paper better. I'll try to be very specific with this letter." A detailed two-and-a-half page, double spaced critique letter followed.

Tone, rather than content, prompted another student to "interface" with his critic. Upset by what he perceived as a lack of sensitivity in the critique letter, the writer attached this note to his Babson critic:

Who died and made you king? Why don't you try treating everyone with a little respect. . . .If you are a business major, then you will in the future have to deal with other people, and this, sometimes, cannot be in person or over the phone. If you write in the way that you have, you will grow to be a very poor and lonely person. You do have some good ideas that I followed, but in order for me to really get anything out of your poor critique try writing like a person with feelings (if you have any).

Even in their sarcasm, these comments show the writer's awareness of the dynamics and demands of written communication. Moreover, the student believed his comments were justified, not only because of personal offense, but because composing for the distance network emulates future, post-college writing situations. The Babson student who provided the next critique began:

Primarily, let me say that my fellow classmate who critiqued your letter [sic] got quite a laugh from your ending paragraph hinting to his future as a '"poor and lonely person." I think that was hysterical; probably the truth knowing this guy's character. I think you need to take criticism less seriously, this is only college and we are supposed to be having fun--so ease up.

This exchange approximates the playfulness of the worthwhile, though atypical talk, which initially frustrated Marshall Kremers in his use of an interactive network in his ENFI class.

Whether through direct exchange of drafts and critiques or indirect communiques between writer and critic, the enlarged writing community of the peer-critiquing network and the writerly introspection it fostered were benefits everyone appreciated. One student provided the following overview of the experience:

Reading other people's papers gave me different perspectives and different ideas on how to approach the paper. Then in critiquing someone else's paper, I realized the things that I would have wanted to see in a paper, and found that some of my suggestions to help him helped me also.

The use of a distance network to exchange drafts and critique letters between composition classes at different colleges creates a distance between student critics and student authors which, ironically, brings students closer together in analyzing and discussing written texts. Because of the increased understanding students have gained about the demands of effective written communication, a distance peer-critiquing network also brings students closer to their own writing.

Michael Steven Marx teaches at Skidmore College in Sarasota Springs, NY.

  1. Kenneth Bruffee (December 1978) presents one of the original models for peer critiquing programs in his article "The Brooklyn Plan: Attaining Intellectual Growth through Peer-Group Tutoring." Liberal Education, 64, 447-468. See also Bruffee's textbook (1985), A Short Course on Writing: Practical Rhetoric for Teaching Composition through Collaborative Learning (3rd ed.), Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

  2. Joy Kreeft Peyton provides an annotated bibliography of research on synchronous, interactive networks in writing classes in "Computer Networks for Real-Time Written Interaction in the Writing Classroom: An Annotated Bibliography." Computers and Composition, 3(5), 105-122.

  3. ENFI began in 1985 at Gallaudet University under the direction of Professor Trent Batson as an approach to improve deaf students' fluency and grammatical instinct in English by participating in group interactions in writing over a computer network. Now expanded to the teaching of writing to all students and funded by the Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting Project, the ENFI Demonstration Project Consortium includes Gallaudet University, the University of Minnesota, Carnegie Mellon University, New York Institute of Technology, and Northern Virginia Community College.

    The schools participating in ENFI use the CompuTeach CT Classroom package. It includes a local area network (10Net), an interactive communications LAN ("Citizens Ban" CB utility), and a video switcher. Other interactive LANs include Daedalus INTERCHANGE, developed at the University of Texas, Austin and CECE TALK used on Carnegie Mellon University's Andrew System.

  4. Despite these qualifications, Kremers and Thompson (1988) strongly endorse the use of interactive, synchronous networks. Although the language on the network may have be atypical for an English classroom, Kremers deems it "purposeful stuff." The network conversation is "a writing session in which [students] had a lot of fun, never once asked for my assistance, and eventually camp up with substance for completing the assignment" (p. 77). Thompson also positively concludes that with careful teacher mediation, a synchronous, interactive classroom network allows writing teachers to converse with their students in writing; and intervene in the seamless process of pre-writing, writing, and revision; all while addressing the communication needs of real people--the members of the network (p 25).

  5. In addition to the Peer Critiquing network between Babson and Skidmore Colleges, Northern Virginia Community College has employed a distance network to link English classes at its Manassas and Woodbridge campuses. A part of the ENFI consortium, this interactive, synchronous, distance network run by Diane F. Thompson and Cathy Simpson is in its third year of operation.

  6. The planning for a distance network between two college writing classes was initiated by Joel Nydahl, Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Program at Babson College in Spring, 1988. The Center for Information Management Studies (CIMS) at Babson College provide funding and course release to Nydahl. The project was funded at Skidmore College by a Faculty research Grant

  7. As a textbook for this part of our course, we selected Opposing Viewpoints: Terrorism. Ed. Bonnie Szumski (Ed.) (1986). Greenhaven Press: St. Paul, Minnesota. We supplemented these readings with articles from newspapers and magazines to keep classroom discussion and student research current.

  8. In these sessions, I used diagnostic essays the students had written the previous summer to be placed in writing seminars at Skidmore. Babson does not require diagnostic essays of all its students, so Nydahl used a collection of essays from the English Composition Board's writing assessment program at the University of Michigan where both of us had previously taught.

  9. In revision as a "Bottom to the Top" process, the "bottom" refers to the foundation of the composition, the features which are primarily responsible for the essay's ability to inform, persuade, or entertain readers. In contrast, the "top" means the surface elements of the essay. Nydahl differentiates these levels by explaining: "Problems 'at the top' of a composition typically can be corrected by the writer's roommate (nearly anyone can add a comma or open a dictionary to correct spelling or check word choice). But only the writer can correct problems 'at the bottom' of his/her composition. After all, the writer is the only one who knows what she/he wants to say."

    To strengthen the connection between word processing and revising, we also introduced the four primary activities of revision in terms of computer functions: Insert (adding materials), Delete (cutting materials), Block Moves (rearranging materials), and Typeover (correcting surface errors).

  10. For further description of the capacities of BITNET, see "Software Lets Schools Plug Into ED.Network With Worldwide Links." T.H.E. Journal, 16(9), 50.

    In addition to BITNET, other networks have similar capabilities to those we describe here. On a national scale, Internet is the major alternative to BITNET. Regional networks such as NYSERnet and NEARnet also offer transmission capabilities. Even if a college is not connected to a major network, the asynchronous peer-critiquing network presented here can be replicated by using a modem to dial directly into schools' mainframe computers.

  11. Babson's policy is based on two considerations: (1) BITNET operates from the VAX computers reserved for faculty use, and the college administration was unable to grant even a small number of students access to it for security reasons; (2) students would be unsupervised in their use of BITNET and might either overload it by making contacts with friends at colleges around the country, or, worse yet, send troublesome (i.e., obscene) messages.

  12. In schools where Macintoshes are the preferred system, MS-DOS computers might fall into disuse.


Batson, T. (1988). The ENFI project: A networked classroom approach to writing instruction. Academic Computing, 2(5), 32-33, 55-56.

Bruffee, K. (1978). The Brooklyn plan: Attaining intellectual growth through peer-group tutoring. Liberal Education, 64, 447-468.

Bruffee, K. (1985). A short course in writing: Practical rhetoric for teaching composition through collaborative learning (3rd ed.). Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

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