9(1), November 1991, pages 47-64

Technopower and Technoppression:
Some Abuses of Power and Control in Computer-assisted Writing Environments

Joseph Janangelo

Much of the research on computers and composition discusses ways that computers facilitate the writing process, make learning more student-centered, and empower marginal writers. Within this panacean discourse of technologically-induced educational reform, computers are portrayed as great equalizing agents--agents that are capable of removing geographical barriers from isolated students, diminishing gender-related inequities in learning situations, and giving physically challenged students equal access to instruction. Yet, this discourse pays little attention to the darker aspects of monitoring and control that can take place in computer-assisted learning environments. It also ignores the fact that the computer--this alleged agent for educational reform--is also something of a "secret agent"--a technological "trojan horse" (Wittig, 1984) that can make students and teachers vulnerable in ways that we never were before.

The promise that technology can help us become what we never were before constitutes what Hawisher and Selfe (1989) call the powerful "lure of computers" (p. 141). Yet, as many teachers buy into what Scharff (1988) calls the "cultural fiction of liberty and equality" (p. 143) and the myth of "better teaching through technology," a fiction is perpetuated on our students and our discipline. The fiction is that there is an implicit equity in the ways that technology is designed and deployed. By preserving this fiction--by crowding our scholarship with the pedagogical success stories and "visionary images" (Selfe, 1989, p. 7) of what the use of computers can do for teachers and students--we neglect to mention certain facts, namely, the abundant evidence of what the use of computers can do to us as well. By celebrating the technology, we avoid the challenge of having to rethink and restructure the powerfully hegemonic social milieu in which it is embedded and employed. We also ignore Kramarae's (1988) insight that while the "new technologies may promise additional competencies and control for those who organize the systems, . . . they may be used for [the] further exploitation of those who don't" (p. 10).

My purpose here is to examine some of the exploitation of individuals that occurs within writing classrooms by those who organize computer systems. In describing what Langdon Winner (1986) calls the "evils" and "misuse" (p. 115) of computers, I will discuss these abuses as they appear in three categories:

  1. Teachers Observing Students: Teachers who, through undetected "lurking" and surveillance, monitor their students' lab attendance, lab hours, and composing time.

  2. Teachers Observing Teachers: Teachers who use computers to observe and monitor their colleagues' pedagogical practices, assignment design, and written responses to students' work.

  3. Students Observing Students: Students who use the anonymity of computer-generated text to intimidate other students.

In describing the dehumanizing aspects of this new "technological presence" (Hawisher & Selfe, 1989, p. xi) in our classrooms, I will discuss the dangerous alliance that is forming between computers and composition. By telling three stories of extreme abuse, I hope to show how computer-enhanced writing environments, if not designed carefully, can inhibit as well as invite dialogue in the classroom. I also hope to show how the special abuses of "control" (Hawisher & Selfe, 1991, p. 63), and the "discipline and punishment" (Foucault, 1979) that are facilitated by the new technology can be used to reinforce existing hegemonies between teachers and students, and to create newer, even more insidious ones.

In discussing the relationship of human beings to technology, Joseph Weisenbaum argues that computers can be used to accomplish great good or great evil (1986). Having survived the first decade of computer-assisted instruction in composition, we can now begin to articulate some aspects of that "great evil." As teachers, we need consider this "liberating vehicle" (Holdstein, 1987, p. 76) for writing in the context of its "attendant pitfalls" (Gerrard 1989, p. 98). We need to ask whether we are using computers as catalysts for educational and social reform--catalysts which help us acknowledge diverse voices and "different truths" (Gilligan 1982, p. 156) in our schools--or as tools of "technopower" (Selfe, 1988a, p. 64) and technoppression--technologies that serve to "exacerbate existing inequities within our classrooms and within our culture" (Selfe, 1989, p. 3). Before discussing some specific abuses, I want to define the terms "technopower" and "technoppression."

Technopower: Using the Technology

Dowling (1980) defines technopower as a power that comes from understanding and controlling technology. Foucault also speaks of "technologies of power" (Martin, Gutman & Hutton, 1988, p. 18). He defines them as technologies "which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination" (p. 18).

This idea that technology has historically been used to reinforce oppressive social relations has not escaped the attention of feminist and communication theorists. Rakow (1988) writes that the invention of the telephone, with its casting of men as speakers and women as underpaid operators, was not used to "democratize all social relations," but to "perpetuate and create hierarchies" (p. 224). Kramarae (1988) writes that the perceived causal relationship between technology and "progress" (p. 5) is a myth. She refers to the industrial revolution, with its "separation of men from daily domestic life and the separation of unpaid house and child care work from other work" (p. 5), to argue that technology has been used to reinforce, rather than erase, institutions of hierarchy and sexism.

Fortunately, this practice of using new technologies in the service of older practices (read here pedagogies) has also caught the attention of several composition specialists. Selfe and Wahlstrom (1988) refer to it when they argue that teachers have often "been content to 'see' and 'understand' computers in terms of machines we already know" (p. 57). They claim that by combining our traditional pedagogical practices with our "outdated machine metaphors" (p. 57), many of us use computers as glorified typewriters, word processors, skill and drill machines, student-babysitters, and expensive toys that sometimes talk. While doing this, we have also created special interest groups such as "the Fifth C"--groups which often have plenty of "zeal" (Holdstein, 1987, p. 82), but which sometimes lack "theoretical vision and direction" (Selfe & Wahlstrom, 1988, 61), as well as a specific program for educational reform. In joining teachers who warn us against this "unjustified enthusiasm" (Silver, 1987, p. viii), and the overwillingness of some composition specialists to write testimonials to the stunning success of their "complex mission" (Holdstein, 1987, p. 82), Cooper and Selfe (1990) take a cautious position. They argue that computers, rather than always being at the vanguard of social and educational change, are often used to support "a traditional hegemony" (p. 847). They define that hegemony as one in which "teachers determine appropriate and inappropriate discourse" (p. 847) and take disciplinary action to encourage submissive student behavior.

Technoppression: Panopticonism in the Classroom

As Hawisher and Selfe (1991, p. 62) point out, the Panopticon is a disciplinary device for observing and punishing inappropriate behavior. Designed by Jeremy Bentham for the surveillance of inmates in the French penitentiary, this device permits the watchperson to continually observe prisoners without being seen. As Foucault (1979) writes, in the Panopticon, "by the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery" (p. 200).

For Foucault, the Panopticon constitutes the perfect "architectural apparatus" (p. 201) through which an observer can create and sustain a "power relation" (p. 201) with the observed. This "power relation" remains in place when the inmate--who knows he or she is always potentially "subjected to a field of visibility" (p. 202) and the "disciplinary gaze" (p. 174) of the observer--"assumes responsibility for the constraints of power" (p. 202) and becomes self-monitoring in his behavior. He or she, thus, becomes "the principle of his [her] own subjection" (p. 203) and subjugation.

The possibility of making inmates (read here students) responsible for their own subjugation and intimidating them into obeying us for fear of being "seen" and "punished," illustrates both the effectiveness and the "architectural ingenuity" (Foucault, 1979, p. 216) of the panoptic principle. By placing this "centralization of knowledge" (Foucault, 1979, p. 217) within the figure of the all-knowing, all-seeing teacher, this surveillance device creates in students "a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of [the teacher's] power" (p. 201). It also creates an electronic police state in which students themselves become accomplices in their own oppression.

The scenario of self-monitoring prisoners mirrors the situation of students who do not trust teachers because they feel that they are continually being watched. The suspicion of always being seen is usually experienced with good reason. Within American schools, surveillance of students in order to "train or correct" (Foucault, 1979, p. 203) their behavior is commonplace. As teachers, we have recourse to many methods of observing students' resistance. Some of them include keeping attendance records, giving pop quizzes, spotchecking homework assignments, and calling on students to see if they have read the material.

This is not to say that employing "effective disciplinary mechanisms" (Selfe, 1989, p. 15) to observe and punish students will make us unpopular in the Academy. Teachers who are tenacious monitors of student behavior are often in demand by school districts, administrators, and parent-teacher associations. Members of these well-intentioned groups may want us to rigorously keep track of students' progress, to pay close attention to their behavior, and to see to it that they are doing their work. What is different about computers is that they present new ways for teachers to watch students--ways in which students can never be sure if and when they are being seen. This new technology, which gives us an invisible yet comprehensive vantage point from which to see students, also constitutes "a new economy. . . of the power to punish" (Foucault, 1979, p. 89) them. This new form of punishment introduces my first story of abuse, which like the two stories that follow it, will also have commentary and suggestions for more equitable uses of computers in literacy instruction.

I. Teachers Observing Students: The Ben versus Joe

It was at a writing conference that I became aware that computers could be used to punish students' acts of resistance. I was talking to a colleague named Ben. We talked about how happy we were to be away from school on a Thursday, and agreed that our students probably felt the same way. I asked Ben if he thought his students would attend class as he had asked them to, and whether they would leave their responses to the class readings on the electronic conference. I confessed that if I were them, I would sleep late and log my work in over the weekend.

At this, Ben said, "One of my students [who I'll call Joe] tried to do something like that." He went on to say, "The guy put his response in on Wednesday night and dated it for Thursday morning, not figuring that I would check the conference with my modem before I left town this morning." Ben went on to say that because he could manipulate the system, he was able to check the times Joe logged on and off. In other words, Ben could prove that Joe had not followed his instructions. When I asked Ben if he intended to do anything with this information, he smiled and said, "I wrote the guy a message and left it for everyone to read." According to him, the message read, "Dear Joe: Thanks for your Wednesday night response, I'm still looking forward to the one you'll write this Thursday morning in class."

Once he had said this, I had the feeling that Ben, a self-proclaimed "disciple" of Freire and a self-evident technocrat, was something of a fraud. On the one hand, I saw him as a teacher/warden who was masquerading as a liberation pedagogue. On the other hand, I wondered if he was obtuse to the irony that he was using computers to oppress the people he was trying to empower. Whatever the case, Ben's masquerade was made even more insidious by the fact that his technological sophistication gave him access to information about his students that many of them would never suspect he would have.

Ben's "scrupulous concern for surveillance" (Foucault, 1979, p. 173) and ability to carry it out were even more covert than Bentham's Panopticon. In a true prison, inmates expect to be observed. Because they are in a perennial state of conscious visibility, they have an opportunity to alter their behavior for the risk of appearance. In Ben's class, the student did not know that he was being watched, or that his teacher could be "everywhere present and always alert" (Foucault, 1979, p. 209) via the new technology. As an unsuspecting, albeit sneaky, "techno/peasant" (Dowling, 1980), Joe presumably thought that with Ben physically out of town, he would be out of sight of his teacher's "disciplinary gaze" (Foucault, 1979, p. 174). Because Joe believed that his teacher could only use traditional methods to monitor his attendance--reading and believing the Thursday morning date that he put on his text--Joe had no opportunity to disguise his resistance, escape punishment, or avoid embarrassment. He could not avoid being seen resisting authority, being caught in the act of rebelling, and being publicly "punished" by his teacher.

Looking back, I find that Ben's disciplining of Joe is interesting in three ways. First, his disciplinary methods constituted a technologically generated and sustained form of surveillance and discipline. Second, Joe's punishment was made more severe, more public, and more embarrassing by Ben's use of the conference as a forum for that discipline. By disciplining Joe in public and in absentia, Ben was able to create for himself a state of omnipresence in his classroom. He could also avoid the potential unpleasantness of chastising Joe in person. Third, Ben used the computer to obscure his own evils: he obscured the fact that he did not trust his students to follow his instructions, and that he spied on them.

It is here, where the scolding of the student masks the teacher's act of spying, that Ben enacts the role of the punisher to perfection. As Foucault (1979) writes, "Those who carry out the penalty tend to become an autonomous sector; justice is relieved of responsibility. . . by a bureaucratic concealment of the penalty itself" (p. 10). By adopting the technocratic disciplinarian role, Ben had become Joe's autonomous punisher. In this respect, Ben subsumed his own crimes, and replaced them with the self-satisfied tone of an all-knowing teacher who had successfully outfoxed a student who was trying to outfox him. Although Ben essentially exposed his cover while disciplining Joe, his show of power did accomplish one thing: his students learned that through technology their teacher had acquired an all-encompassing disciplinary gaze that they could never hope to resist, subvert, or escape.

In order to avoid resorting to traditional authoritarian teaching methods, I suggest explaining to students that we have the power to observe and monitor their work. Having been honest with them, we can now choose whether or not we want to exercise our power. Second, we should give students a rationale for our actions. We should explain why looking is important to us, why we see ourselves as enforcers of the rules, and why our surveillance of them is mandated by our contracts or school districts. These explanations can help students understand the pedagogical and practical reasons behind our actions. Third, before we look, we should consider whether or not we really want to know about our students' acts of resistance. We might ask ourselves the following questions. What good will it do us as people and as teachers to know these things? How will it help our students learn more effectively?

II. Teachers Observing Teachers: Stanley and Iris Get Even

The penchant for punishing resistance is not limited to teachers who abuse students. I have also seen teachers turn their technologically-driven disciplinary gaze toward their colleagues. One incident centers on Margo, an instructor who taught a computer-assisted composition course. Within her department, word was circulated by some of Margo's students that she was an unfair teacher. They accused her of not using the computer regularly--one of the prerequisites for teaching in the computer classroom. They also said she was mean, that her assignments were unreasonable, her grading standards were arbitrary, and her comments on their texts were hostile. Margo was also in trouble with some of her colleagues. She had achieved notoriety by criticizing her department's teaching practicum, and by ignoring the standardized syllabus. In short, she was portrayed as an uncooperative colleague who was derelict in her duty.

I first heard about Margo's problems from Stanley and Iris, two of her colleagues who also taught using computers. Stanley told me, "We finally fixed Margo!" When I asked what he meant, both Stanley and Iris told me that they had gone into Margo's computer files to find out what she was up to and to expose her insubordination. Iris added that by going through Margo's class files, they could prove that she was not doing her job, and give the Director grounds to dismiss her. As Stanley and Iris discussed their findings, they mentioned that they had used the computer's unerase function to recover some really incriminating evidence against Margo.

To me, the most interesting thing about Stanley's and Iris' surveillance of Margo was that they seemed delighted to have observed their colleague when she thought no one was looking. They never mentioned any remorse about having invaded Margo's and her students' privacy. They even seemed proud that they had found a conclusive way to expose her incompetence. It seemed that Margo's notoriety as a poor team player had created in them a spirit of vigilantism--one in which they felt they should seize any measure possible to expose her incompetence.

Significantly, this incident also shows that computers have the potential to change the nature of teacher observations. Where once a teacher would have had a chance to choose the class he or she wanted observed and the opportunity to prepare an appropriate lesson, things are now very different. With the new technology, we teachers are always potentially on display to our administrators and colleagues. In fact, we are on display to anyone who has the ability to tap into a computer.

This notion of being perpetually on display fits with Foucault's (1979) conception of the "panoptic modality of power" (p. 221)--one in which "supervisors [are] perpetually supervised. . . [through] the uninterrupted play of calculated [yet untraceable] gazes" (p. 177). Quoting Bentham, Foucault argues that the panoptic principle applies to all institutions where behavioral "normalization" (p. 184) is desired, and where "a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection" (p. 206), thus ensuring that standardized behavior is imposed on one and all.

Stanley's and Iris' attempt to punish Margo for her deviance signifies both an "insidious extension" (Foucault, 1979, p. 176) and a technological renovation of the panoptic principle. Heath (1980) claims that the advent of print "made possible new kinds of control over the people"--a control that was predicated on people's self-measurement of "themselves against a widespread norm" (p. 124) of the literate human being. To this insight, Eldred (1989) adds that computers make events "more social by inviting in public information [and] public texts" (p. 209). Although Margo never intended to present herself for measurement against the norm or to create public texts, she was exposed by two techno/crats who used the computer as an absolute "instrument and vector of power" (Foucault, 1979, p. 30)--one that could either render her "docile and useful" (p. 231) or expose her as willful and insubordinate.

This covert surveillance has important implications for the future of teacher observations and evaluations. First of all, some administrators may advocate using computers to observe teacher performance. Feeling pressure from school boards and parent-teacher associations, they may want to use computers to track student progress and to monitor teacher pedagogy. For example, instead of requiring teachers to submit their lesson plans, principals and other interested parties could browse through these files unobserved. If the school district is interested in using computers to preserve cultural literacy or to go back to the basics, the school district could hire people to engage in "visual eavesdropping" (Selfe & Wahlstrom, 1986, p. 292). This would ensure that a teacher is covering the assigned material in an appropriate, non-subversive manner. Furthermore, if the school district had a mission of examining teacher proficiency, it could use computers to monitor a teacher's language errors--to spotlight the mechanical and grammatical mistakes that he or she might make in composing assignments and responding to student texts. Some groups may argue that the panoptic principle offers added incentive for effective teaching. They might also claim that it builds a certain reality factor into the teacher-observation process. For example, if teachers did not know when they were being observed, they would be on their best pedagogical behavior. Because they would have no chance to prepare a "great lesson" to impress a previously announced class visitor, teachers would probably always work very, very hard to see to it that they and their students rarely have a dull or underprepared moment. In short, by being continually susceptible to "compulsory visibility" (Foucault, 1979, p. 187), teachers may be easily intimidated into doing their job.

This rationale for teachers being pedagogically "scared straight" by technology resembles one that is sometimes used to defend extensive reliance on student evaluations to judge teacher effectiveness. But using the panoptic principle to ensure that teachers do not mask their incompetence by giving effective lessons only on observation days, does not guarantee good teaching. At best, it only guarantees good theatre--the emergence of an electronically driven "stage-space" where nervous teachers always work hard to look like they are doing a good and responsible job. At worst, the functioning panopticism in the teacher-observation process suggests that good teaching can be inspired by paranoia and fear of exposure. As in a prison, the panoptic principle casts the teacher-observer in the role of a "head-warder" (Foucault, 1979, p. 250)--someone who can see and not be seen, and who can interrogate and expose a teacher's nonconformity with the "ruthless curiosity" (Foucault, 1979, p. 227) of a grand inquisitor.

Margo was ultimately lucky: her inquisitors were indiscreet. Stanley and Iris talked to many people, and they blew their cover before they could do any real damage. Margo's problems were ultimately exposed the old-fashioned way: some students complained, in person, to the director. Yet, in the hands of more sophisticated observers, this new method for covert teacher surveillance could become incalculably more dangerous. It could transform our classrooms, which already have elements of theatrical spectacle embedded in them, into a "coercive theatre" (Foucault, 1979, p. 251)--one of vigilantism, surveillance, and fear. Given the computer's powerful potential for creating classroom conditions in which paranoid teachers and unsuspecting students are both visible and vulnerable at every moment of their interactions, Foucault's question is as telling as it is circular. "Is it surprising," he asks, "that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons" (p. 228)?

When teaching with computers, we need to look out for ourselves as well as for our students. We need to remember that just as files can be locked and erased, they can also be unlocked and retrieved. When composing syllabi and assignments, or when responding to student writing, we can treat these texts as if they were public documents--ones that may have multiple and unanticipated audiences. We can also respect our colleagues' privacy. By employing standards of decency and collegiality, we can resist browsing through their work. If we suspect that someone at our institution may not be above this kind of spying, then we may also want to ask our unions to include in our contracts words about computer use in the teacher evaluation process.

III. Students Harassing Students: Writing With a Purpose

Computers, which can be used to punish people for their transgressions, can also be used to harass them for holding dissenting opinions. Much like the invisible vantage point that computers offer to teachers who spy on their colleagues, the anonymity of computer-generated texts--particularly electronic conferences--gives students new ways of punishing one another. To illustrate this point, I will discuss Ella, one of my students who was victimized by her classmates' abuse of an electronic conference.

Ella was initially perceived by many of her classmates as being strange. A first-year college student of Soviet extraction, she had recently moved to the United States and spoke with an accent that they could not easily understand. In class, she freely shared her disapproval of the values of American college students. In an oral presentation, she described them as lazy and immoral. She also lectured them on the evils of their presumed indulgence in premarital sex, alcohol, and drugs. As you might imagine, Ella's talk was not well received by her peers.

In this class, I instituted an electronic conference. I explained to my students that their bulletin board would be a non-academic space where they could exchange ideas freely. My students decided that I should be a read-only conference participant. Initially, the conference topics were social in nature: they ranged from campus events to television events. Students wrote entries such as "Janet is a brat," and "Robert is a stud . . . in his dreams." Ella was also mentioned in the phrase "Ella talks funny."

Immediately after Ella's presentation, she became the cause célèbre of the conference. That night, one student altered the conversation so that it no longer progressed in linear order. The student scrolled back to the phrase "Ella talks funny," and replaced it with the words, "Ella sucks." This person also changed the text font so that these words were capitalized and blinking; he or she then wrote a note at the end of the conference that directed readers back to the revised entry. Given my students' hostility towards Ella, it is not surprising that this entry caught their attention. Almost immediately after that initial revision, it became a group pasttime for students to read, revise, and comment on what they soon called the "Ella entry."

At first, the entries were simple, yet abusive. Some students added crude words for "penis" to the phrase "Ella sucks," and then tagged on different nationalities of men and a variety of animals. A day later, the word "sucks" was replaced with the word "fucks," and was accompanied by a reference made to Ella's father. The next day, someone changed the sentence's structure to the words, "Ella is . . . ." Ensuing additions included words such as, "rude," "ugly," "fat," and "stupid." When that structure became a bore, it was changed to, "Ella is a . . . ," and words such as "cunt," "slut," "pig," and "Commie bitch" were added.

As this happened, I realized that our bulletin board was not being used as a site for liberatory student exchange, but as a public forum for the harassment of an individual who had been ostracized from the group. By exploiting the anonymity of their computer-generated text, Ella's classmates could accomplish a dual goal: first, they could punish her publicly for having offended them, and second, they could persecute her without fear of reprisal. Through technology, my students had a perfect method of character assassination and were virtually invulnerable to repercussions.

This bleak picture of computer conferences complicates the scenario drawn by several composition specialists who describe them as potential sites for dialogical and "egalitarian" (Cooper & Selfe, 1990, p. 852) student exchange. Teachers and theorists like Cooper and Selfe argue correctly that electronic conferences, if carefully orchestrated, can constitute "powerful, non-traditional learning forums for students" (p. 849) because they invite candid dialogue, and "encourage writers to resist, dissent, and explore the role that controversy and intellectual divergence play in learning and thinking" (p. 849). They argue that by permitting students to engage in "disruptive" (p. 853) behavior--interrupting one another, ignoring ettiquette conventions, and including taboo topics--computer conferences encourage students to think and write "against the grain of convention" (p. 853). "Instead of validating school authority," they argue that, "computer conferences can be set up to encourage egalitarianism and competition that takes place on the level of ideas rather than on the level of personality" (p. 852).

For these teachers and scholars, it is the careful orchestration of the conversation and the "relative anonymity" (p. 852) of computer-generated text that give this discourse its "egalitarian nature" (p. 852). In writing about student-teacher exchanges, Cooper and Selfe (1990) summarize Spitzer's (1986, 1989) defense of this anonymity when they note that in computer conferences, "what is said becomes more important than who said it" (p. 853). According to Spitzer (1989), computer conferences can eliminate the reader's awareness of the writer's "age, sex, race. . . and other distinguishing characteristics" (p. 195). As a result, he concludes, the writer is "more likely to attend to the quality" (p. 196) of the text than to the identity of the writer. If Spitzer's view is correct, computer conferences can provide discourse forums where conformity of vision and consensus of opinion are not the ultimate goals. They can also become a space where philosophical opposition and dissonant opinions are given a legitimate voice; a space where "discourses come into conflict" (Cooper & Selfe, 1990, p. 866) as writers express their perceptions of the world in a "reduced risk" (p. 867) environment.

Given this careful design, computer conferences can help diminish the forces of racism, sexism, and classism that plague our classrooms. They can also give students opportunities to "re-construct and re-think existing social structures and visions" (Cooper & Selfe, 1990, p. 867) as they express their opinions anonymously, apart from the traditional "patterns of power" (p. 867) that govern face-to-face conversations.

But how essential is the careful design of the discourse space to the success of an electronic conference? Does the new technology, when left unattended, create more opportunities for oppression than for liberation? Given Ella's experience, I would answer "Yes." In interrogating the egalitarian possibilities of electronic conferences, I am not questioning the value of these spaces. I am only underscoring the fact that this discourse forum is not ideologically neutral, and that it is easily subject to abuse.

Consider for a moment the major benefits of computer conferences: they encourage student "role resistance" (Selfe, 1989, p. 8) by offering writers a public forum in which to engage in "disruptive" (Cooper & Selfe, 1990, p. 853) behavior, and they accord students a sizeable degree of anonymity. In discussing this "role resistance"--this suspension of turn-taking conventions and etiquette rules--Cooper and Selfe claim that it is "the irreverence of the entries" that reveals the "egalitarian nature" of computer conferences and is "central" (p. 857) to their success. Cooper and Selfe argue that students, freed from the obligation to contribute only academic prose to the conversation, are now invited to "dissent not only intellectually but linguistically and stylistically as well" (p. 857) by using taboo words, and special fonts and features to get their messages across.

But what if the student has become too irreverent (Kremers, 1988) for social purposes? What if his or her message is one of hatred, sexism, and/or bigotry? I would argue that the potential egalitarian nature of computer conferences is dependent upon how carefully the teacher has orchestrated the space. "Non-traditional forums afford opportunities for resistance," but not for "wholesale revolution," write Cooper and Selfe (1990, p. 863). Yet, in Ella's case, where the conversation rules were not clearly established, this forum afforded her peers multiple opportunities to anonymously humiliate her in public.

The danger here is that the anonymity of computer-generated text gives writers the option of publishing discourse without taking responsibility for its contents. With no hallmark to identify them, some writers may feel free to speak their minds, even when they know that they are being offensive or hurtful. Inscribed within the writer's freedom to be both candid and anonymous is the potential to menace others. For me, the possibility that this new anonymity may facilitate the disclosure of a writer's true feelings takes on a darker resonance when it is measured against the abuses of power by irresponsible individuals, and the anxiety experienced by the helpless targets of a hostile conversation. To qualify the point that in a computer conference, "what is said becomes more important than who said it" (Cooper & Selfe, 1990, p. 853), I would argue that the opposite is also true. The identity of the writer can matter a great deal depending on what the writer said.

When establishing computer conferences, we can discuss with students the abuses we have seen. We can let them know that we realize this forum can be abused, and that we plan to train them not to abuse it. We can also use role-playing techniques to teach them lessons about harassment. Students who assume the voice of individuals who are being harassed are not likely to enjoy the feeling. Furthermore, we can involve the students in the process of creating some behavioral rules (e.g., no cursing) for the conference.

Conclusion: Suggestions Toward a More Equitable Distribution of Technopower

In thinking about what we can do to use computers in the service of human beings, I believe that a rigorous and healthy skepticism needs to be developed by those of us who use technology to support literacy instruction. This skepticism could help us formulate guidelines to protect students and teachers from being made more vulnerable by technology. As a discipline we can still be "visionary" (Selfe, 1989, p. 18), but our vision could include an awareness of the computer's capacity to increase human exploitation, and a knowledge of how it can constrain, complicate, and compromise our ability to teach effectively. My suggestion is that, just as we are creating new pedagogical theories to help us use computers with sophistication, we should also create new ethical theories to help us use them with humanity. Doing this could help us create more egalitarian learning environments that will prove accessible, "amenable" (Selfe, 1989, p. 18), and adaptable to the many competing discourses that seek a voice in our classrooms.

In considering the need for humanistic theories of computer use, Winner (1986) claims that "the most accurate observation to be made about the philosophy of technology is that there really isn't one" (p. 4). In awakening from this "technological somnambulism" (Winner, 1986, p. 5)--this "blind faith" that technology's design and deployment is "politically benign" (p. 58)--we could work toward developing an ethical theory of computer use that would emanate from a philosophical perspective, rather than from a technocentric one. We could also work toward developing a pedagogical program for the future--one that could keep this potential catalyst for educational reform from becoming a tool of further oppression.

To be effective, this program should do at least three things. First, it should acknowledge the agist, classist, sexist, and racist forces present in our classrooms. Second, it should give us ways of envisioning computers apart from the machine metaphors "previously established for us by computer scientists" (Selfe, 1987, p. 55). Third, while dispelling the pervasive myth of the political neutrality of teaching (Berlin, 1988), the program should interrogate the particular dangers of teaching with computers. Education "reproduces the dominant ideology," write Freire and Machado (1987), "but this is not the only thing it does" (p. 39). To this idea, Berlin (1988) adds that, "a way of teaching is never innocent" (p. 492). He admits that every pedagogy "is imbricated in ideology, in a set of tacit assumptions about what is real, what is good, what is possible, and how power ought to be distributed" (p. 492). As for the current unequitable distribution of technopower, Winner (1986) reminds us that "our instruments" of oppression are "institutions in the making" (p. 54), and that when we use technology, "we repeatedly enter into a series of social contracts, the terms of which are revealed only after the signing" (p. 9).

When revising the terms of our contracts with technology, I wish to argue for changes in both our philosophy and pedagogy of computer- assisted literacy instruction. I have been interested in sharing these stories with other teachers to observe their shocked reactions. "Why would Stanley and Iris spy on a colleague?" "Why didn't someone in the class tell the other students to stop picking on Ella?" These are the questions that I have been asked most often. Not surprisingly, though, no one has ever asked me why Ben would spy on Joe. I guess that the idea that a teacher would use any means possible to track a student's resistance runs deep in culture. Yet, these reactions surprise me. A given technology always tells us something specific about the culture that designed it, and sociology tells us that within any culture there are always individuals ready to exploit any available invention in order to advance their agenda. Given this knowledge, it seems naive of us to go on teaching as though we can be sure that when we use computers, we are automatically improving the quality of our students' lives and instruction.

Despite our beliefs, we should also realize that even the most cautious and philosophically sound solutions we propose will be provisional and incomplete at best. As Hawisher and Selfe (1989) admit, "Teachers familiar with the power and complexity of using computers for writing realize they will never have solutions for every problem that using computers generates" (p. 119). "We are just beginning to learn what this medium can do and how it can be used," they argue; "Exciting times lie ahead" (p. 199).

Exciting times, and dangerous ones as well. As humanists, we face times in which we will want to renegotiate the "fine print" of our contract with technology. In the process, we will want to retrain ourselves, our students, and our colleagues in ways of using computers to support the multiple tasks of literacy, humanitarianism, and social change. Cynthia Selfe (1988b) is right when she says that, "Computer support for English programs will succeed best when we are able to create our own uniquely humanistic vision of computer technology" (p. 71). Somehow I am even more moved by the specter of suspicion raised by an anonymous lab consultant--someone who left an unsigned entry on a computer conference that could be a warning, an indictment, and a challenge to us all. The message (Selfe & Eilola, 1988) reads, "Don't underestimate the difficulty and skill involved in forming an alliance between people and computers" (p. 343). It's a message worth heeding.

Joseph Janangelo teaches in the UCLA Writing Programs.


  1. The author wishes to thank Bruce Beiderwell, Gail E. Hawisher, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Farrell J. Webb for their comments and insights on this manuscript.


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