Writing Spaces: Technoprovocateurs and OWLs in the Late Age of Print

J Paul Johnson, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

The long list of "online writing labs," or OWLs, compiled by the University of Maine's Writing Center Online offers testament to the range of writing services establishing an identity in cyberspace. Clever and memorable as it is, the acronym OWL can hardly begin to describe the work accomplished in this variety of sites. Being "owlish," going online, it seems, is more a matter of degree than of certitude, as the Maine list suggests, and it is that degree of cyberliteracy that marks some of these sites as provocateurs. Services that call themselves OWLs might offer one, some, or all, of the following:

For many writing centers, an identity on the 'net accomplishes little more than an online pointer to the "real" lab's location. For others, the online identity is more than a simulacrum of the real lab's services -- the writing center serves as an electronic repository for research services and instructional material, even offering some avenues for online tutoring via e-mail. For still others, the online writing center (again, a name that does these little justice) provides not only electronic versions of typical print-based services; it functions as what Eric Crump called in his 1995 CCCC presentation a "technoprovocateur" -- a writing space "where quietly subversive activity can emerge" from the interstices between computer networks and writing centers, natural learning environments both.

A Matter of Participating in Literate Networks

These few technoprovocateurs assume a conception of literacy that looks less tied to print culture than does that of their "owlish" counterparts. In the technoprovocateur site, academic literacy seems more a matter of participating in literate networks than of expressing individual thought. What texts result from the networked activities there might betray more of a Bakhtinian dialectic than an unanswered, unassailable argument. What services are offered seem designed to disrupt the notion that the proscenium classroom is the only valid context for writing. And what constitutes knowledge and literacy seem more social constructions of competing ideologies and contexts than they do prescriptivist ontological givens.

Not surprisingly, it is the author of the word "technoprovocateur" who directs The Online Writery at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where traditional notions of print literacy are subverted in many of the Writery's services. The Writery promotes itself as a "roadside stop for writers, like a rest area with maps and information and other people hanging about." But even more telling than its billing is its epigraph, from education theorist Alan Guskin: "The real power of technology is not that it can make the old processes work better, but that it enables organizations to break old rules and create new ways of working." While much of what the Online Writery offers is designed to support students struggling with the complex demands of print literacy, some of its links are nontraditional and innovative, suggesting a function less like a lab than a technoprovocateur, wielding new communications technologies in reshaping understandings of literate behavior.

The Writery connects writers with other writers (via newsgroups), with "cybertutors" (via email), and with both (via MOO); it reminds visitors that a face-to-face service is available as well. The function of facilitating conversations among networks of writers is among the Writery's more provocative functions, establishing richer contexts for writing than those prescribed in the proscenium classroom and acknowledging the dialogic functions of texts. The Writery's information resources include the expected (online research tools, links to websites, teaching resources, and computer help) and the unexpected: a list of "paperless papers" prompts the question of online literacy; a hypermedia gallery of student work establishes a creative publishing environment; a link to local homepages hints at the new forms online literacy can take; and special interest groups help bond online virtual communities of like-minded cybersouls.

Subverting Traditional Notions of Literacy

Ours is what Jay David Bolter called "the late age of print," and the transitional nature of the precipice on which we balance is apparent at the Writery. Many of the texts to which it offers links are linear print-texts transcribed to HTML for the web-browsing screen. But at least a few others take advantage of the web's inherent multimedia, networking, and hypertext capabilities to subvert traditional notions of print literacy. In short, the Writery has become, in its short history, less an online writing lab that performs electronic experiments in remediation than a sharply struck point about the interrelationships of technology and literacy, simultaneously questioning the ideology of print and creating a writing space in which textual transactions renegotiate literate behavior.

The University of Texas at Austin offers an Undergraduate Writing Center, an OWL based on the Purdue model; but its Computer Writing and Research Labs site functions as a technoprovocateur in a more academic, if apparently less social, environment than the Writery. Online tutorial is a task left to the UWC; the CWRL focuses on class support, pedagogical development, and intellectual pursuits. The CWRL offers links to online classes and student projects; to student resources and handouts; to instructor resources and handouts; to research starting points; to its textual virtual environments, TinyMUSH and MOO; to a local journal, CWRL, that promotes computer-aided pedagogies; and to personal home pages.

Other OWLS, in comparison to these two technoprovocateurs, assume a less radical -- yet by no means less valuable -- purpose. The importance of resources for student writers negotiating the contact zones of instruction and evaluation in the university classroom cannot be underestimated. Rensselaer's Writing Center is one such service; Purdue's On-Line Writing Lab, meanwhile, provides the model on which many OWLs are based. Essentially, these are face-to-face writing centers establishing online support services if not necessarily online tutoring. At the University of Michigan's OWL, a form-based e-mail tutorial supports access to online services and texts. And the OWL at Dakota State University is something of an anomaly -- existing only online, it offers tutorials only in cyberspace.

A Glimpse at Redefining Literate Behavior

Despite the wide range of services offered, though, most of these OWLs promote a literacy of print culture that is closely tied to instruction and evaluation in the proscenium classroom. Despite the wide range of pedagogies and theories available to compositionists, much work done in the field over the last thirty-odd years -- whether structural linguistics, process heuristics, or social epistemic rhetorics -- has resulted in what I like to call "papertext": a technological-epistemological product which locates the writer as a rational, stable subject and presents the text as a coherent, printed totality. It should come as little surprise that many writing centers, even as they establish identities and alter-egos online, should continue to work towards that goal. After all, given their clientele and constituencies, they might be remiss not to do so, for the ability to produce papertext -- an ability that is often synonymous with academic literacy -- carries considerable currency. Indeed, for any writing center, its very institutional charge, its professional reputation, even its funding may depend on its ability to assist student writers' production of papertext.

Yet for fin-de-siècle  student writers the assumption that the work of writing instruction is the production of papertext may be misleading. In the late age of print, more and more academic literacy is practiced with the computer screen, not the printed page, as the communicative medium. In Word Perfect,  Myron Tuman regards the cumulative result of these discursive behaviors -- what he calls "online literacy" -- with trepidation. His reservations are well-articulated and well-grounded. But if there is any one writing space in which we can see this struggle between competing notions of literacy being played out, it is at the site of technoprovocateurs like the Online Writery, where networking and hypertext offer a glimpse of the redefinitions of literate behavior these new textualities might provoke.

Contact the author