Widening the Classoom's Horizons:

Using the Internet's Usenet News as an Invention Heuristic

(Comments, questions, feedback: J.Unger@ttu.edu)

I want to reiterate something Elizabeth Pass said in her presentation: "match the technology to the task." All too often, instructors fail because they match the wrong technology their pedagogical goals. I want to talk today about matching the right kind of networking technology to the task of developing student's rhetorical stance.

According to Kenneth Bruffee, "writing is primarily a social act" ("Social Construction" 784) and "the matrix of thought is not the individual self but some community of knowledgeable peers and the vernacular language of that community" (777). For the composition instructor trying to develop such social constructionist theories as discourse community and contact zone into a viable classroom pedagogy, it is only logical to try to find a way to put students into real social situations that have meaning for the students. The solution for many instructors is to form the students into groups which discuss orally issues and each other's writing. It seems good on paper for students to mimic in the classroom what goes on in larger discourse communities.

Ironically, a problem creeps in when these theories are applied as pedagogy to the writing classroom. That problem simply is boredom. After a short while, the students realize that they are writing to the same idea-exhausting set of people day after day. The reason is that the class' discussion groups are artificial communities made from the class itself. Most collaborative classrooms remain closed systems, and according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, they must degrade into disorder.

One assumption that must be disavowed is that students in a class are natural peers. Though the students of a given writing class may appear to all be of similar age and background, they are not necessarily interested in the same subjects. Indeed, a number of students-particularly minorities-do not share backgrounds with the majority, just as nontraditional adult students do not share the age of their "peers," creating barriers and making what Bruffee would call "conversation among themselves at as many points in both the writing and reading process as possible" in order to "experience and practice the kinds of conversation valued by college teachers" difficult (Bruffee "Collaborative Learning" 642).

Don't get me wrong: I agree with the many studies and convincing arguments that indicate collaborative pedagogies are more effective than current-traditional lectures, and I am convinced that collaborative pedagogies are indeed quite a bit more effective if computers and software that allow for networked conferencing are involved. Those working with computer-based classrooms have the advantage of allowing students to discuss in groups through writing, and the students in these classrooms initially show enthusiasm for the ability to converse with their peers and an awe over the novelty of using computers to do so. But after the initial novelty wears off, the students begin to realize that they are writing to the same captive audience day after day. So it is no wonder that instructors in both computer- and non-computer-based classrooms, myself included, see boredom set in after a few weeks of classes. The problem remains that the audiences a student writes to-though they be other students-are artificial constructs of the instructor.

A solution to this problem again lies with the connective abilities of the computer. Rather than limit students to a local-area network that provides the student writer an audience of only other students within the class, the alternative is to open the classroom up to wide-area networks-particularly the Internet-and allow the students to seek out new audiences among millions of potential readers, people who, unlike students, are motivated to read solely by their own self-interest.

There are many ways to break the boundaries of the local-area-classroom and open the system up, whether it be simply emailing others on the Internet, publishing essays on the World-Wide-Web, or having synchronous conferences in a MOO. But in order to give you a clear idea of how the Internet can open up a classroom, I'm going to focus on one Internet utility, Usenet News, and how it worked in my classroom.

First, a bit about the course I taught: It was an entry-level college composition course with 15 students. From the beginning, the students had their own email accounts on Tech's VAX miniframe computer and started using them on day two. These same accounts had the capability of accessing the World-Wide-Web, MOOs, and Gopher. Furthermore, the course was paperless: I told the students I would accept no assignments on paper; everything had to be sent to me electronically. The course had four units, each terminating in an essay. Though the students conversed with one another extensively through email over their essays, the primary development tool for these essays was the Internet utility Usenet News. Usenet News (also called Network News or simply Net News) is a misleading name, because it has nothing to do with news. As far as I know, Tom Brokaw will not be found there. Rather, it is a collection of many thousand electronic mail distribution lists, called newsgroups, collected under a single, easy to use menu.

Here is an example of what the lists can look like on a mainframe browser. This client here is VMS News, but the same list can also be accessed with a Macintosh, PC, or Unix client. The lists can also be accessed over the World-Wide-Web and Gopher.

The newsgroups were started almost 15 years ago by two Duke University graduate students who wanted an information exchange forum with the Unix community (Spafford). Gradually other sites-mainly universities-joined in the slowly proliferating forums until the present when virtually every Internet site, including commercial, government, military, and international organizations, has access to the Usenet. Since the number of sites and number of users constantly increases, there are no hard numbers as to how many people use the newsgroups, but a rough conservative consensus is that around 3 million people from all over the world take advantage of them and read regularly. Readership for any one group can sometimes get as high as the tens of thousands (Mark)-though most groups have a smaller readership. The Usenet thus offers the opportunity to blow away the boundaries of the classroom and enlarge the set of group participants into the thousands.

Students can send and receive messages from people all over the world with awe-inspiring immediacy. For example, one student e-mailed me:

I posted a note to the world about wanting a penpal and boy did I ever get one! When I logged on one time this weekend I had 47 messages from people all over the world! I met people from Australia, Hong Kong, Washington D.C., Kansas, Chicago, Finland, Tawain [sic], New York, and even one from McAllen, Tx.! I told them all my name, where I was originally from, my hobbies, and what my major was. The majority had heard of Tech, which surprised me a lot. Most of them greeted me with a "Howdy, Red Raider!" They were all very friendly and eager to learn more about me. I don't know if I will have time to write back to all of them, but I'm going to try. I have more friends now than I did in high school!

As this message shows, the social dimensions of the Usenet are as wide as the world and can offer the student perspectives never before dreamed of.

At any given site, the Usenet menu may contain from 2,000 to 7,000 lists, each based on a single area of interest. My own students have entered groups as diverse as alt.startrek, alt.death-penalty, rec.travel, alt.discrimination, rec.skydiving, and alt.politics.clinton, with every conceivable topic between these six. Topics include hobbies, sports, politics, philosophy, technical and scientific issues, computer issues, and social issues. There is even a dating list-or two-or three. If a student becomes dissatisfied with the conversation in one list, she or he can simply look for something more interesting. Rather than respond to a prompt from the instructor, the student finds her or his own topics to write about by browsing. By spending a few hours browsing, the Usenet can become a simple yet entertaining invention heuristic.

Once the student has identified a topic of interest, she or he can begin sending messages about it. These messages need not be formal letters or essays, nor should they be. Peter Elbow says that informal writing (freewriting) has the potential to change mentality and consciousness (this connection between freewriting and email was established by Gail Hawisher and Charles Moran):

The original development of writing long ago permitted a new mentality that fostered thinking that was more careful, detached, and logical. But along with it and the indelibility that makes writing valuable came also a mentality that tends to lock us into our views once we have carefully worked them out in writing. In contrast, the cultivation of writing as ephemeral fosters the opposite mentality whereby we use discourse (and writing in particular) not so much to express what we think, but rather to develop and transform it. (289)

Like freewriting, e-mail messages sent to the Usenet are fleeting. They are written quickly without the scrutiny applied to paper writing and read quickly (Hawisher and Moran 630). They may stay on the list for perhaps a week before they are purged and gone forever. But one message may start or become part of a thread-a series of messages on the same topic-that develop the ideas and transform mentalities. On the Usenet, nothing is stable, ideas are always in flux, yet the idea may never really die either, because there is always the potential that someone will rejuvenate it and rehash it some more. The Usenet's ephemerality exemplifies the idea that writing is always in a constant state of revision.

For the composition student, a newsgroup can become a ready-made forum for the development of ideas. Just as students who debate ideas on Daedalus InterChange extract ideas for paper topics from the InterChange transcript, an idea that has been selected and debated on over the Usenet can be ported over to the student's writing for class. The Usenet can thus function as a testing ground for ideas and arguments before they reach the final stage of an essay. Having been previously tested, these arguments are better engineered for a real audience than would be the case otherwise. Criticisms of in-class feedback and revision are that "students are often very forgiving of papers having underdeveloped ideas and claims," instructors confuse students with comments, and students often have a "restricted view of revision," according to Larry Beason (396). On the Usenet, feedback is not forgiving, rather, it is often harsh and direct. It fits well what Mary Louise Pratt calls a Contact Zone: a space "where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power" (34), one that "put[s] ideas and identities on the line" (39). Usenet readers say what they will, and frequently enough, do not spare feelings. "Usenet is a right, a left, a jab, and a sharp uppercut to the jaw," Edward Vielmetti says, "The postman hits! You have new mail." Revision becomes no longer a thing to be understood but a thing to be done in order to clarify and defend oneself.

If the Usenet seems too frightening a place to send novice writers, the composition instructor should look for ways to turn this argumentative environment to her or his advantage. I, for example, have found that one of the most difficult things to foster in beginning composition students is a sense of stance. Students long socialized to believe that any sort of argumentation is unacceptable have difficulty arguing a side in writing. Thesis statements have a tendency to identify parts rather than make a significant point. In order to be read and responded to on the Usenet, a message must be interesting, assertive, and specific. One student posted a message to bit.listserv.catholic saying simply, "I need help understanding The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Can anyone give me a better understanding of the book? Please help me and send me a message a.s.a.p.!!!" A.S.A.P., she got a half-dozen responses politely asking her what part of the book confused her. It is doubtful that any exercise on specificity given by me or any student's peer critique would have had as much impact as the replies of these strangers.

Likewise, the messages of others can stimulate in students a desire to take a stand. One student wrote in her e-mail log: "I wrote a woman in New York a not so nice letter. Her boss was thinking about hiring a mentally retarded person. She was not for this at all because she didn't want to have to train some 'stupid idiot that can't even write his name.' Those were her exact words. That really put the fire under my pan!"

Fred Kemp recently wrote on an email list that flaming is true writing. Flames generate passions that drive responses and counter-arguments. Paul Vatalaro in his article "Writing Response Groups and the Role of Adversity" in a sense agrees: "despite what professional conscience dictates, negative elements like adversity, tension, and frustration can contribute to the ultimate success of response group activity, because they instruct the students in the realities of group dynamics" (129). Such tension and frustration teaches the student that in order to argue convincingly, other tactics may be needed. The audience must be analyzed.

Another student's log illustrates such learning:

Yesterday when we were in unews, the one particular item I found truly iteresting [sic] had to of been the hospitalization of the five year old girl. To recall, this little girl was having to return to the hospital after having a seven organ abdominal transplant. The writer made a big deal about this patient returning to an intensive care unit, which in all actuallity [sic] is not a bad thing at all. The writer of this story obviously has never worked in a hospital, because if she/he had, then they would know returning to ICU is not such a big thing. I say all of this because I happen to be a phlebotomist at this Country's biggest heart trasnplant [sic] hospital. I work at Methodist, and have seen many transplant patients come and go. The reason I say returning to Intensive Care Units is not a big deal, is due to the fact, anytime a transplant becomes ill for what ever reason, they are always put back into an IC unit. Reasons for this action vary, probably the most important reason is to keep problems to a minimum with the new organs. Another reason, comes from the fact ICU nurses are better trained to deal with transplant problems, then [sic] are the regular floor nurses. If people didn't know all this information about transplant recipients, then I could see why they might tblow [sic] things out of proportion with the return to an intensive care unit.

Here, the student has realized that his specialized knowledge is not shared by everyone and therefore he has identified himself with his reader.

The flip side to these communities is that people who agree back each other up. One student of mine posted a message titled "I can't believe you people!" to the alt.abortion.inequity newsgroup arguing a pro-life stance. There were many challenges to her post, but she also received a few private messages of support such as this one: " yes, there are folks out there who agree with you-I'm definitely one of them. I'm a single mom.... But even if I wasn't, I definitely know that life is sacred, and EVERYONE deservies [sic] a chance to live!" Such supportive messages-received in one form or fashion by virtually all of my students-help the students realize that they are not writing in isolation, but rather as part of a social group that thinks about things in a given way.

Again, the key in writing to the Usenet is understanding the audience. A Usenet primer for new users warns, "Be familiar with the group you are posting to before you post! You shouldn't post to groups you do not read, or post to groups you've only read a few articles from-you may not be familiar with the on-going conventions and themes of the group" (Von Rospach). As the primer says, every newsgroup is different from the ideas discussed to the formal conventions of writing. After posting a message to alt.dear.whitehouse in a form he thought was consistent with other newsgroups, one student received a reply that said, "In future posts, please try to form your article in the shape of a letter." Messages in the form of a letter are rather unusual for the Usenet, but that helped the student learn how idiosyncratic a given discourse community can be.

Still, how can we be sure that this is a good environment to bring novice writers into? The stories of pornography, for example, are unfortunately true. And although computer-based pedagogists have been writing for some time that computer conferencing creates more egalitarian environments, power structures different from face-to-face discussions, and environments where gender, race, and status do not have importance over the ideas discussed (Selfe and Meyer 164), it is legitimate to question these assumptions. Cynthia Selfe and Paul Meyer write,

Unfortunately, while we, as composition scholars, have a great stake in determining the validity of such claims, we have as yet provided little objective evidence for them. Most current descriptions of computer-based conferences rely on either hand-chosen anecdotal evidence provided by conference participants or hand-selected excerpts of transcripts chosen to illustrate a particular point. The few studies that do offer more objective evidence about these claims are hard to find; hence, many of the claims made by teachers who use conferences in their classrooms remain untested in any systematic fashion. (164-5)

The Usenet, unfortunately, unlike the singular conferences of which Selfe and Meyer speak, is so large that such testing becomes impossible. A researcher may upon joining alt.skinheads or alt.evil will note that egalitarian values are tossed out the window. Shocking profanity, sexism, and bigotry of all sorts rears its ugliness all over. The Usenet is, after all, representative of the world, including its least wholesome aspects. Everyone with every agenda can get on Usenet. As one Usenet primer document notes, Usenet is not a democracy, it is an anarchy (Salzenberg).

But I counter that in the Usenet's size is an advantage that quells fears that some newsgroups cannot live up to egalitarian ideals: immense diversity. With a minimum of 2,000 newsgroups and 3 million participants world-wide, there is the potential for running into every sort of person and idea. The best the composition instructor can do is warn students beforehand that they will be shocked, they will be offended, and they will want to avoid certain conversations, but they will also find many things they agree with and many, many, many ideas that they will want to write about. The composition instructor can take comfort in the fact that such exposure is exactly the social remedy for helping students write meaningfully to real audiences.

I hope what I've just talked about doesn't sound contradictory to Elizabeth Pass' call for group training or Amy Hanson's call for instructor training. No, we definately still need training, because technology by itself is not a panacea. Instead, consideration of technology's role in the classroom and its effect on learning must complement considerations of the instructor's role and the student's role. Otherwise, we will be unable to avoid failure in the networked computer classroom.

Works Cited

Beason, Larry. "Feedback and Revision in Writing Across the Curriculum Classes." Research in the Teaching of English 27 (1993): 395-417.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind.'" College English 46 (1984): 635-52.

--. "Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge: A Bibliographical Essay." College English 48 (1986): 773-90.

Elbow, Peter. "The Shifting Relationships Between Speech and Writing." College Composition and Communication 36 (1985): 283-303.

Hawisher, Gail E. and Charles Moran. "Electronic Mail and the Writing Instructor." College English 55 (1993): 627-43.

Mark, David. "Readership on Usenet of Some Geography-Related News Groups." Usenet document. News.lists, 13 Feb. 1994.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Profession 91. New York: MLA, 1991. 33-40.

Salzenberg, Chip and Gene Spafford. "What is Usenet?" Usenet document. News.announce.newusers, 28 May 1994.

Selfe, Cynthia L., and Paul R. Meyer. "Testing Claims for On-Line Conferences." Written Communication 8 (1991): 163-92.

Spafford, Gene and Mark Moraes. "Usenet Software: History and Sources." Usenet document. News.announce.newusers, 28 May 1994.

Vatalaro, Paul. "Writing Response Groups and the Role of Adversity." The Writing Instructor 11 (1992): 128-34.

Vielmetti, Edward. "What is Usenet? NOT." Usenet document. News.admin, 7 May 1992.

Von Rospach, Chuq, Gene Spafford, and Mark Moraes. "A Primer on How to Work with the Usenet Community." Usenet document. News.announce.newusers, 28 May 1994.