COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 8(3), August 1991, pages 5-19

Communication, Writing, Learning: An Anti-Instrumentalist View of Network Writing

Anthony DiMatteo

Network Writing A New Text

Synchronous networking writing in the composition classroom creates a new kind of text for composing and analyzing--a transcript of live speech that casts the talk of writers into the permanent form of a text. Although this textualizing of speech seems a modest outcome of a technological change in the writing mechanism, the experience of writing and reading speech has a radical impact on how teachers and students think about the composing process. [1] Networking writing encourages a broad understanding of the composing process so it appears to have a constituent role in diverse forms of communication. This essay will focus on this widened perspective of writing and will offer ways to understand its value, however subversive or challenging, to the writing classroom.

How might we describe and assess the newness of network writing? The writing of speech makes visible a compositional activity that disturbs the intentionality of our own language use. It alerts us to the difference of utterance meaning and sentence meaning. Rather than mere message senders, writers in real time also feel like receivers of their own messages. The hindsight effect of network writing can prompt a wider awareness of the fluid complexity of communication.

As a student in a first section on the network observed, "any audience would be people like us, reading each others' messages, I guess." Another student, also in a first session, remarked that the audience's impact specifically a teacher's impact, upon message may falsify information. When a student asked him to explain this odd notion, he responded:

By false information, I'm trying to make you realize the true answer to this fascinating question [how does audience influence message?] This means that your response affected my response as well as everyone else's and therefore was able to produce a chain reaction.

This interactive dynamism of communication, so apparent in real-time network writing, requires consideration of the constructive role of speech-writing acts that shape more than relay information. Form these students' perspectives of the effect of messages upon communication, writing seems to initiate meaning rather than to duplicate the writer's intended meaning. To rephrase Paul Ricoeur's (1967) axiom for the process of cognition, writing gives rise to thought (1967), p. 348).

This constructive role of writing in the shaping of communication and thought conflicts with a prevalent misunderstanding of writing as an instrument of knowledge. The terms frequently used in our discourse are a major source for generating an instrumentalist paradigm how language functions. While apparently harmless, the conventional pedagogical advice to "capture ideas with the right choice of words" implies a misleading approach to the way language performs. Peter Elbow (1986) found this approach dominated "competence-based programs" for writing that he evaluated during a three-year study (p. 128). This approach encourages a supposedly utilitarian account of both writing and speaking as a conduit of information that exists in the talk-writer's mind. The information is channeled through spoken or written language to a receiver whose solely passive role is to unpack the message correctly. Considered a vehicle but not a shaper of information, writing neutrally passes on knowledge that exists outside and prior to the writing transaction. When working well, on-task, writing simply carries rather than forms a kernel of information between the writer (speaker) and the reader.

This instrumental view of language naively underestimates the effect of writing as shaping influence upon thought. Unfortunately, it dominates metalingual discourse in many writing textbooks. This is not surprising in light of the linguist Michael Reddy's (1979) disturbing observation of what happens whenever we open our mouths and speak English: "a conservative estimate would be . . . that, of the entire metalingual apparatus of the English language, at least seventy percent is directly, visibly, and graphically based on the conduit metaphor" (p. 298). William Zinsser's (1976) approach to writing is a typical case in point:

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts, or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved. (p. 45)

The problem solving approach reflects the commonplace assumption that people can master their own language by making it match or duplicate what they really want to say. Yet, the facts and materials Zinsser describes do not exist apart from the written language that poses them. Writing has a constitutive rather than derivative status in the making of facts. Network writing affords us the chance to see how we frame problems, to use Donald Schon's (1979) critique of problem solving, by the very terms of our speech-writing. [2] Of particular interest are tacit generative metaphors that come to the fore as we read the repetitive patterns of real time statements that seem to say more or something other than talk-writers intend.

Once we begin the hunt for the conduit metaphor in our speech-writing, the yield is dismayingly abundant. I excerpted an exchange and a few statements from a network session of students in a course entitled Writing for Art and Architecture:

Writer 1:I have an 1890 painting "Undergrowth with two figures" by Van Gogh--I can't believe he was considered mad at the time of his painting, and the same year he was institutionalized at St. Remy. I'd like to write on this piece from a social view.
Writer 2:Madness would be a difficult subject to critique. I guess you mean in saying that, what were the artist's intentions in the painting? But people who are full blown mad seem to be in their own world and it might be difficult to relate his intentions to our world.

In this class, I asked students to read the following statements and to identify what view of meaning all of the statements shared:

Two students observed that paintings were thought of as places with an inside, and this inside contains the meaning. When I asked, "What doe we study, a painting or an artist's intentions?" I received the following protest: "But we're only now being trained by our design teachers to see what the work says in itself--it's almost as if we have to forget what we've been taught before, that paintings express the artist's mind and it's this hidden message you've got to get through to."

This instrumental view of meaning as some prior determining factor housed inside paintings or writing has wide and disturbing cultural implications. Reddy (1979) writes of the "misleading and dehumanizing" effects of this false model of communication (p. 308). A pedagogy based upon the conception of writing as an instrument or tool of knowledge would tacitly encourage students to adapt rather than change. Education would be conceived statically as a "quest for performativity," as described by Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984, p. 54), that would help make the student fit the system, the marketplace. From this instrumental or performative view, computerized writing streamlines rather than transforms thinking--increased efficiency and clarity of thinking, an augmentation of human intelligence, but not sea-change.

Yet, we must heed the transforming effect of writing and be wary of lurking metaphors that reify intended meaning. These have been the special focus of deconstructive criticism that uncovers generative metaphors such as body/mind and writing/thought analogies underpinning traditional and instrumental thinking. Jacques Derrida has read the unwitting ironies generated by rationalist philosophy when it ignores its own enabling fictions. In White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy, Derrida (1982) shows repeatedly how "thought stumbles upon metaphor" (p. 233). Writing is not only a vehicle for thought, but it also supplements by substitution and replacement, setting up problems of its own making. "Writing supplements perception," observes Derrida (1978), "before perception even appears to itself, is conscious of itself" (p. 224). A change in the writing apparatus accordingly changes perception, alters pathways of consciousness, and creates new opportunities for learning. Therefore, electronic writing arguably provides a chance for a criticism that would caution against looking past or looking through writing, however difficult to fathom the chain reactor effect of a signifier in excess of an intended signified.

Communicating as Task in Network Writing

Because networked writing provides experience of a generalized kind of writing that is not neutral or a transparent duplication of the already conceived, it encourages critical awareness about how communication, or miscommunication, occurs. It stimulates an inquiry of our communication for the noise our language brings to the signifying situation. In order to read the opaque writing of communication, Michel Serres (1982), a philosopher of science, asks, "How does one enter into communication? How does one activate a successful communication?" (p. xxv). This is a problem setting approach that we can assume increases the visibility of our speech-writing acts.

We can consider writing on a computerized network a chance to distance students from a variety of commonplace assumptions about the relations of language to communication, identity, and education. Occurring as a fusion of speech and writing, network writing seems to publicize the self--it taps into so many activities of the self that students frequently feel disoriented by network writing. It can also feel, as the student intimated earlier, like an invasion of privacy. The teacher's panopticon or surveillance technology is used for observing aspects of student activity that are usually inaccessible and perhaps even suppressed. Yet, different metaphors, of bridging rather than invading, of surveying rather than capturing, may also be generated by our thinking about network writing.

Students realize every statement can be open to question and analysis. Meaning is not something packaged within words to be neutrally uncovered. An author only intends to mean something; he or she never controls meaning. The expressed and the intended are different aspects of the way language functions. Words seem forever in the way; they seem even to comprise our way unpredictably. This interference or intervention of writing in the communication process is why staying on task during network writing becomes so problematic. As one student exclaimed during a network writing session, "Heh, aren't we supposed to analyze rather than debate?"

This interference within the circuit of language is perhaps caused by the seeing of speech in real time. Students can critically exploit this new sight by observing any differences between intended and received meanings. This approach advances audience awareness and helps avoid the pitfall of the instrumental view that privileges a writer's intention in the control of how ambiguous language is to be interpreted.

One limit of authorial intention is suggested by how writers imagine audiences differently. Targeting an audience is rather different from contacting one. For example, in their first network encounter, basic college writers in anonymous groups of four were to discuss the implications of a cartoon by Oliphant. The cartoon was split in two--on the left side a tribe of men were about to sacrifice a woman who was bound to a post; on the right, a hooded person sat in an electric chair. In the foreground of the cartoon were two males, one dressed as a tribesperson, the other as a modern day middle-class person. The tribesperson turns to the middle class male and says "some things," to which the modern male adds "never change," completing the sentence for the savage. One student writer, under protection of a pseudonym, observed over the synchronous network, "People get scapegoated all the time and it's always the weak who get axed." Another student responded, "What do you mean, the weak?" "Well, look," the student responded, "it's a woman that's sacrificed, and it's probably a minority person being electrocuted." "So are women and minorities the weak ones? Couldn't these people have done something wrong and they're getting their just punishment?" From these comments, the four members of the group went on to assume that the "scapegoat" comment was made by a woman or a minority person and the "justly punished" comment by a white male. Both writers accused each other of being prejudiced, one towards minorities as victims, the other towards society as always right. When they finally stated their names over the network, the group felt surprised to learn the "scapegoat" writer was a white male and the "just society" writer a Hispanic woman. Their earlier statements had reflected a prejudicial sense of audience who were made the targets of the writer's message.

Interacting with unknown others, this group felt a need to fill in identities that reflected an individual writer's projected sense of his or her interlocutor. This filling in amounts to an erasure of the otherness of others because they are treated like an extension of the writer. One way to describe this relation of writer to reader is that the writer sees the reader as a vehicle through which the writer attempts to actualize a preconceived image of the reader. We try to get through to this image rather than make contact with another.

As instructors aware of generative metaphors, however, we can attribute this reductive operation to an instrumentalist understanding of communication. To communicate successfully, we must be aware of the static our language brings to the signifying situation, and how it reflects unspoken, perhaps unconscious terms we have posed tacitly to ourselves. The Oliphant discussion provided my class with an example of how utterance meaning and sentence meaning drift in different directions. Students treated writing mistrustingly because it allegedly always has an author behind it who is hermetically sealed off from detection yet who, at the same time, somehow controls the flow of meaning. "You say this because you are that" was the aphorism our class analysis advanced to describe the prejudicial Oliphant exchange, a transcript of which we read in class the next day.

How can we understand and work against this division of communication? The sovereign signifier lurking outside language, on the margins of statements, is comparable, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychiatrist Felix Guattari (1983) have argued, to the psychoanalytic understanding of the self that is dominated by, in the words of Jacques Lacan, "a few essential and formalizable articulations." One powerful articulation is the splitting of the subject or self between two discourses: "The subject of the statement is the social person, and the subject of enunciation, the private person" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 265). Yet, as I will argue throughout this paper, networked talk-writing provides us with a valuable connecting or bridging occasion to make discourse flow against the schizoid separation of statement and enunciation, of public and private selves. To read the writing of speech is to make available different ways of positing relationships with ourselves and others and avoid the entrapment of our own reductive formulations about how we communicate.

Talk-writing, in the words of Mark Poster (1989), "brings to the fore the rhetorical, figurative, performative, and self-reflexive features of language" (p. 10). This foregrounding in networked writing of the fictionalizing and problematical element of knowledge, language itself, poses as a common project the making of a discourse about discourse. Certain notions about education and learning do stand in the way of this communal project. Students often assume, as David Kaufer and Gary Waller (1985) have observed, that knowledge is incorrigible, that words and sentences are manipulatable outer shells of knowledge, and that there are fixed rules about exercising these skills. Writing is restricted to a "knowledge-telling practice" (pp. 75-80). The experience of network writing can provocatively counter these biases by encouraging a critical awareness of the plural and conflict-ridden ways that language situates knowledge. As teachers, one way we can promote thinking about a shared generalized writing cutting across the cultural boundaries of private, isolated selves is to explore how network writing poses problems for critical analysis. We can become aware of complex issues of communication that teachers and students face together.

By opening Pandora's box of communication issues, we can expose commonplace notions of education that separate students and teachers into passive and active components of education. Of special note is the way networked writing makes a dialogical process the driving motor of the classroom, a dynamic that Paulo Freire (1985) finds opposed by the "banking education" that has dominated education in the West (pp. 57-67). In this paradigm comparable to the instrumental model, the teacher owns the knowledge, the verbalizations that are deposited into the passive, acquisitive minds of students. The networked writing classroom can become a powerful extension of this depository education: student speech in this technologized environment is more accessible than ever before and, therefore, can be corrected or adjusted to what a teacher-dominated institution finds acceptable. However, the networked writing classroom can also be a means to achieve what Freire terms a "problem-posing" education. Students and teachers grapple with the inscriptive powers of language flowing through and against the isolated subject. The networked writing classroom can raise a "consciousness of consciousness" of how discourse is embedded with culturally bound assumptions about the world.

Clearly this embedded material can occur by means of generative metaphors discussed above, but the fluidity of network writing can make us aware of how we think about communications so that we can entertain alternate metaphors to those our language may inadvertently forward. The following transcript from a different Writing for Art and Architecture class than the one sampled earlier shows again how several students made numerous statements regarding meaning as somehow residing in paintings or in the mind of the painter. Yet, drawing on the network-writing scene, this session began to pose multiple approaches to the way paintings and language have meaning. Writers wrote about the function of criticism under pseudonyms to encourage sentence meaning awareness:

9190:The writer's critical function is to aid the audience in understanding the relative information in the work or works.
5955:To become more aware of issues and ideas that you didn't see before.
5955:It opens other angles.
3564:what if you don't completely understand the concept and theory behind the work
1638:that's a problem but can't we point out differences between techniques as well as differences between eras?
3564:But of what importance are techniques and eras? I think it is deeper than that.
9190:a work of design retains the original idea and becomes an inspiration for later works.
1638:the originality of an idea can't be totally understood because it comes from the soul.
9190:One of the functions of criticism is to reveal the idea of the work because the idea is the work's source!
3564:you mean a theoretical system?
0834:Can't sometimes ideas originate by the work itself?
9190:ideas do originate from the work itself but these are secondary ideas stemming from the source idea
5955:I think it's more the painter or writer creates and then the creation performs. Kind of like what we're doing now.
0834:then that creation can affect everyone differently, not just express a source idea?
3564:you know in a lot of my design courses they teach us to look at things rather than through them--they become more visible that way.

Rather than formulate objectives of criticism, these writers felt it necessary to discuss their own terms for how or where a work's meaning occurs. The observation, "the painter or writer creates and then the creation performs," is forwarded to get by the impasse of seeing the work as a container of meaning that the artist put into or expressed through the work. By looking at rather than through or behind works of art or even sentences, more is seen--and it is precisely this looking at process directed towards language that network writing can stimulate. The group of writers above went on to talk about whether artists and writers controlled the messages sent to audiences. "I don't really think so," a writer remarked, "because each individual can make his or her own interpretation of the dialogue or the performance. It's more like a conversation we have about works." Students' statements about how works mean began to reflect the polyvocal dynamics of network writing. A work is a performance or a catalyst of dialogue.

Different metaphors for the making of meaning became available as students connected the network writing situation to other signifying situations such as works of art.

The Relations of Learning and Network Writing

Networked writing can promote a community based upon dissent rather than consent, upon an awareness of the availability of alternate generating metaphors if we allow its polyvocality a place in the classroom. We should not set up a linear program for networked writing that would be solely used as a pre-writing exercise for writing the privately constructed essay. Rather, the turbulence of network writing should foster thinking about how we shape reality through symbols. Language transforms the world. It does not duplicate or represent. Essay writing and networked writing are components within a collage we construct about our finite relations with others.

Reading transcripts of networked writing, however banal or talky they seem to professors, is a prime task for its writers. Reading their first transcripts of networked writing, students can see the breaks and flows of classroom communication that has been made visible as a process shaped by language where only linguistic neutrality had been assumed (we say only what we mean because language is assumed to be transparent).

Another restriction of the communication process that network writing can help break through is the top-down model Freire found so characteristic of academic discourse. In first sessions on the network, networked writing is heavily teacher-oriented. Students wait for the teacher to tell them what to do. They write task-related language only when they think the teacher is on-line with them. They perform for the teacher alone, scoring points in front of the grand evaluator. We may borrow and modify a line from T. S. Eliot's Wasteland to describe this kind of teacher-targeted student language--the student "do the policed in different voices." When the teacher is thought not to be on-line, students either drop out or clutter up the screen with chatter, cursing, mocking, letting language flow over the dam that teacher-dominated education has constructed (perhaps a hydroelectric plant is a more exact metaphor--student-thinking is the flow broken and converted into a standing-reserve of energy to be channeled into the system). This centrifugal noise, however, should not be treated as verbal detritus.

Here is another sample of an initial session on a synchronous local area network from a Writing for Art and Architecture course I teach:

Writer 11:anybody out there yet?
Writer 11:is anybody home?
Writer 13:yes, I'm home.
Writer 11:I was beginning to think everyone was absent.
Writer 12:I wish I was.
Writer 11:Looks like we have a real cheerful bunch today.
Writer 14:there's only 45 minutes left.
Writer 11:Relax. just run this assignment off the top of your head.
Writer 12:As usual.
Writer 14:who goes first?
Writer 13:yeah, who gets analized first.
Writer 12:does anyone have an interesting painting?
Writer 11:The oil on canvas "Path in the Ile Saint-Martin, Vetheuil " (1880) by Claude Monet is somewhere between abstract and realistic. Monet applies light green, blue, red and yellow in heavy, loaded \brushstrokes. His painting techniques seem hurried \and careless. The abstractness of the "town" can only be discerned by the viewer standing at a distance.
Writer 11:that describes my painting - any comments?
Writer 14:you know I just don't think paintings should be analyzed to death.
Writer 12:Writer 11, is yours a practical approach to describing?
Writer 11:I too don't think paintings should be analized at all. Just like writing shouldn't. Art should be accepted for its aesthetic value.
Writer 11:heh, what's wrong with my description anyway?
Writer 14:lots of times I think too much is read into paintings, things the artist probably never thought about . . .
Writer 11:sorry, lost my head. I thought for a moment my description was being criticized.
Writer 13:Who's to say what the painter means, but the painter?
Writer 14:it comes from the visual aesthetic value of the painting, not the analization of the painting.
Writer 15:I'm channel raiding. I have the sneaking suspicion that you are an art major, writer 14, who just got ripped in a professor 's critique.--join the party!

There is a real resentment here against overreading and intrusiveness that the students associate with their education. Rather than dismiss this session and so many others like it as so much off task socializing and chatter, I want to explore the metaphor of home used to describe writers working together over the same network channel. Against this metaphor, or redirecting it, one student wished she was absent, really at home, I guess, where a forced analysis of art would not have to occur. Perhaps she would paint, free from the analysis of others! Art and criticism are assumed to be incompatible activities, a cleavage related to the difference between school and home. These students feel there is something parasitical about criticism, about school, which feeds off a creativity they do not have. This thinking about criticism and school can plausibly relate to the political dimension of education in which school is a only a preparation for real life.

Can the writing of speech somehow bridge the great divide of home and school? Can teachers use technology to intervene successfully, rather than constrictively, instrumentally, in the lives of students? This is not just a practical issue if we consider that instrumentalist thinking may be embedded in modern technology. Critiques of technology have been directed against an allegedly inherent reductiveness. Martin Heidegger (1977), for example, called modern technology a systemization of nature. Technology "enframes" or destines nature to be revealed as an energy source for the machine. Enframing is the essence of modern technology, Heidegger maintains, "the gathering together which belongs to that setting-upon which challenges man and puts him in position to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve" (p. 305). This enframing tendency of technology dangerously links up with the instrumental view of communication. Network writing, provocatively called "home" by writers 11 and 13, can be an instance of enframing of the self. Michael Heim (1987), in his philosophical appraisal of word-processing, employs Heidegger's concept of enframing to caution against the speed and temporality of computerized language. The engineering of computers treats human beings as input with the machine, as a periphery of the machine. "The terms we use to describe the phenomenon of writing and thinking on the computer will set up the way in which the phenomenon becomes visible," he warns (Heim, 1987, p. 100). We should especially beware subservience to instrumentalizing or enframing because it is an "all encompassing" aspect of our technologized culture (p. 80).

A successful teacher intervention in networked writing should first of all criticize itself as an intervention, an institutional break of the flow of discourse. Are we damming up students as a standing-reserve for a consumer society? This is an issue I raised with my art and architectural students the next day in class. I wanted to discuss the noise factor of their conversation. Which language should be called noise? The off-task language of everyday life (is anybody home?) or the on-task language of analysis, the "dead air" language of school, as a student had described it over the network in a different class. In this instance, I wanted my intervention to instigate thinking about killer dualities--art vs. criticism, home vs. school, creativity vs. analysis. Are these dualities an isomorphism that run through our culture, comprising a schizoid metaphysics of binary oppositions as Deleuze and Guattari (1983) propose? In class, my students and I realized that what seemed like only trivial conversation actually broached issues as profound as those that had been technically assigned.

We need to heed Michael Heim's (1987) warning about the terms we use to describe the electronic information environment. Throughout my paper I have used terms like flow and break, dialogue, polyvocality, noise, communication and community. I have tried to avoid terms that seem more to apply to Heim's medium-emphatic technologies rather than element-emphatic. The terms subject/object, self-expression, form/content, would be medium-emphatic. Medium-emphatic technologies would be typological and chirological where material resistance to communication, inking or printing on paper for example, would tend to make the medium the message. An element-emphatic medium such as word processing promotes a sense of the ease of communication, heightens awareness of the element rather than the medium of communication. The element is the message, to paraphrase Michael Heim. Accordingly, the danger of electronic writing is its apparent seamlessness. The discursive element, the symbolicity of language, can appropriate human selves, and can turn people into language machines. This negative transformation occurs in the absence of critical thinking. Language can entrap us within the ideological sediment so fluidly carried with it. Critical intervention in this flow has an emancipatory task--the issue for teachers is to intervene in order to decolonize the self, decode the axiomatics that are embedded within communication.

I want to end by quoting two passages from Michel Serres (1982) that we teachers of electronic writing should bear in mind in our work in the writing classroom. Both quotations remind us that disorder must come before order, a sequence that makes us necessarily critical of constrictive communication metaphors such as instrumentalism. Serres' passages ask us to ponder the situatedness of life and rationality and how our language may set problems for us that we then attempt to "solve." Serres defines the human machine: "The body is an extraordinarily complex system that creates language from information and noise" (p. 82). In the same essay on the origin of language, he maps out the narrow realm of the reasonable where we can presumably locate our modest teaching methodologies:

The "rational" is a tiny island of reality, a rare summit, exceptional, as miraculous as the complex system that produces it, by a slow conquest of the surf's randomness along the coast. All knowledge is bordered by that about which we have no information. (p. 83)

It is precisely these conditions, noise and information, boundedness and unboundedness that characterize the writer interacting with others through the machine. They suggest diverse, rich metaphors for the communicational processes swirling beyond our fingertips in network writing.

Anthony DiMatteo teaches English at New York Institute of Technology, Old Westbury campus.

  1. Other teachers of writing have remarked upon the novel qualities of network writing. Geoffrey Sirc and Tom Reynolds (1990) observe, "Some instructors using networks, e-mail, and other media for collaborative discourse are realizing the electronic traces for interaction over such media allow students to create a significant new kind of written text, one that deserves full attention in the writing class" (p. 69) . Sirc and Reynolds argue that interactive writing demands a broadened understanding of "on-task" writing in order to include social dimensions of the writing experience exhibiting "the raw materiality of our students' social behavior" (p. 65).

  2. Donald Schon (1979) stresses the need to become aware of how we construct problems which we then go about solving. "Problem-setting" has "more to do with ways in which we frame the purposes to be achieved than with the selection of optimal means for achieving them" (p. 255). To criticize the ways our language sets problems, we need to realize how our own "generative metaphors" regulate or control how we "see things as" (p . 254). Schon is specifically concerned with social policy setters who respond to the "blight of urban housing," for example, in ways dictated by their own disease metaphor (p. 262). Michael Reddy (1979), in the article mentioned above, applies Schon's observations on the unconscious use of generative, metaphors to the way language is spoken about.


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