Conversation about our process of Turning our Conversations into Writing.
Part of Morgan Gresham's and Mike Jackman's Interactive Review of

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by Beth Baldwin

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and speak (mostly) as one here . . .

Like any conversation, more was discovered in the process than just what we intended to talk about. So the title of this section is somewhat misleading. We begin by talking about our process, but we end by reflecting on the interesting intertextuality and precursors of this new "academic conversation" essay style. We see encouragement for what Beth Baldwin has accomplished in epistolary novels, and in the work of the Language Poets, feminist writers, and in a recent CCC article.

Our Process was almost completely computer bound; computer mediated conversation in a very real sense. We kept many programs open and available on our desktop: Netscape (to read the dissertation, test our documents and links, and to browse the web), Notepad (to jot down our thoughts as they occurred), an H.T.M.L. editor (to design the files), F.T.P. (to transfer the files to our server), PMail (in our hopes to get instant email feedback from the Kairos editors), and Telnet (to log on to our directory and change file permissions). We often conceived form and content together - refining icons and navigation in our draft documents during conversation pauses. Although we also worked alone or corresponded by email, we mostly sat side by side in front of the computer and talked, transcribed, coded, typed, ate, drank and listened to light jazz FM.

For example, we would read Beth Baldwin's dissertation on-line, so as to get a real feel of what the reading experience was like in its hypertext setting. While reading and talking, one of us would transcribe interesting pieces of our conversation directly into notepad, including the other collaborator's responses. If we needed to quote from Beth we simply copied and pasted it into our textual, live "conversation." Knowing that we were transcribing, we noticed our rate of speech would often slow down so as not to overwhelm the person typing. We distinguished Morgan from Mike by putting Mike's words in parentheses. But sometimes we forgot to do this and so the attribution of our thoughts is a guess--which is as it should be, because in collaborating our thoughts inspired each other's, though someone else may get credit for hurrying them into words.

Eventually, though, this method created a long, deep (in screen depth) flow of conversation, though the subject matter was not linear. It was like a focused brainstorm, or more appropriate, perhaps, a days-long freewrite (try that on your students). After awhile, rereading our conversation, we could see the several central concerns that emerged for each of us (we had a great deal of consensus on the issues we wished to respond to, much to our surprise).

The consensus is interesting because Morgan's classroom uses both written and face-to-face conversation in a more central function, similar to the way Beth uses it, while Mike has an classroom approach that conceives conversation more as a heuristic to nourish critical thinking as well as the more central writing assignments.

Once we agreed on our central concerns, we used them as an organizing principle, and then revised, i.e. cut, added to, rearranged, and formatted our conversation. We also edited for tone, style and other late revision concerns.

So these documents are edited conversations that (we hope) have the advantages of conversation, meaning-making tone, style and spontaneity, while also retaining the advantages of the contrivances of academic discourse - organization, logical argument, signposts to the reader, what Morgan calls "teaching the reader how to read the text." We hope the conversation also retains the advantages of hypertext on the world wide web - more points of entry to the conversation(s), less linearity (but not none by any means) and opportunities for others to add and revise the conversation, including the way other participants bookmark their own links.

We hope that our document structure also underscores our belief that conversation, whether written on computer asynchronously or arising orally (and synchronously) out of the "hurly-burly" (as Beth Baldwin calls it) of interaction, is still a contrivance with genre markers, power markers, and notions of "good" and "bad" conversation - in short, the same considerations we encounter with writing.

MORGAN: For me, conversation is the core of what happens in my classroom. We engage in muliple conversations--some of those are electronic and some are with texts that have been "stabilized" and printed and are highly respected by the academic community. There are many aspects to the conversation that occurs in the classroom
  • thinking about what has been read or introduced by class discussion
  • writing to self (journal),
  • writing to others (electronically--listserv or email),
  • listening to others (electronically--listserv or email)
  • listening to others face-to-face in small groups or in a whole class discussion
  • writing to incorporate the ideas received from the conversation
  • a text that is printed and bound or a text sent electronically
  • a verbal communication.
  • publishing our conversations first internally to the class in the form of a writing project and then more formally on the web page when the whole class shares a single website for the E'zine.

Issues involved--who's an authority--what does an authority of conversation do? When is it time to publish? what does having the document out in cyberspace mean--who will read these pages?

How do my students benefit from this? They learn to speak, to engage the topic, to engage one another--to recognize that not all worthy topics can be explored in the space of the classroom given time constraints--that we have to choose which to approach., which to continue, which to end prematurely and how to manipulate topics. Are there other things to consider here--authority--resistance, internally persuasive discourse? In what ways do my students resist? Well, one is that they don't see everything we do as learning English skills--as if communication skills are somehow set apart from the typical "English" stuff that we're supposed to be learning. So resistance gets defined as "I wish we'd learn more about English stuff instead of just this computer stuff."

But when in conversation with me about the methods and pedagogy, they can ably express why the computers are an aid in what they are trying to express in their "English stuff." So where does this come from--both the theory for the pedagogy and the ability to resist and perform? I think part of it comes from the feminist, social-expressivist underpinnings that gird my practice. Our computer classroom and our computer work help me to further decenter my classes. It's much easier for my students to turn to the person next to them for help than to call me over to them or to come to the other side of the room to ask a question or to get me. Also, we stress the things that we do well--we converse about them--in mini-workshops so that there is a sense of shared authority. (Perhaps I need to explain why I don't participate in the mini-workshops or I need to do something that shows that I can be an authority on something other than the teaching aspect--have to think on this.)

How else does the conversation as metaphor/ conversation as pedgogy work? i know that it's not so simple as just having students talk to each other--I think that a large part of it is having something to talk about. it's hard to speak when you feel that you don't know anything and it seems that our students often feel as if they have very little to say--especially about a language that many of them have been speaking all of their lives. I think that there are complications that I am aware of but don't know yet how to express. why does the conversation work when there is more than one class, work better when the conversants may only be meeting online and hardly work at all when it's confined to a single class?

We see Beth's dissertation, as well as our own response, as part of an emerging genre of the "academic conversation" essay. Whether in hypertext or in print, this genre has antecedents in the epistolary novel (Morgan, who has used student letter writing in very rich and interesting ways, points out that letters are conversations, too) of which Les Liaisons Dangereuse, Pamela and The Color Purple are inspiring examples. Linda Brodkey writes about a pedagogy of letters in "On the Subjects of Class and Gender in 'The Literacy Letters'" (College English 55.1, 1989).

About the influence of feminist writers, Morgan adds,

MORGAN:Well, in "This Sex Which Is Not One," Luce Irigaray calls for a kind of feminine discourse in which conversation is key. She argues that women's langauge is more fluid, more conversational, more non-linear than men's----however, it is important to note that she does not see these language differences as being particularly tied to, by biology, one sex or the other. Using the body as a metaphor, she suggests that language that "plays," that is in flux, allows for a greater opportunity to express multiple meanings and more "authentic" (an adjective!) conversation because it does not freeze the meaning prematurely. This kind of freeplay with language is usually disdained by the academy which favors a more linear structure. She states: "We haven't been taught, nor allowed to express multiplicity. To do that is peak improperly. Of course, we might--we were supposed to?--exhibit one "truth" while sensing, withholding, muffling another. Truth's other side--its complement? its remainder?--stayed hidden" (210).

In the essay "This Sex Which Is Not One," the speaker carries on a conversation with an other--another--who may or may not be a part of herself. It is clearly, however, a conversation--but a conversation in which we only hear the speaker's interpretation of the other conversant. How important is it to hear the other conversant? Depends on the conversation, I suppose. But if we're learning to have multiple-stranded conversations, then I think it becomes more important to hear those other voices. To see all the conversation.

Here's another Irigary quote that might make an interesting click box:

Mike, who has studied the Language Poets, sees how these postmodern theorist/artists used conversation in a critique of traditional academic criticism, much as Beth Baldwin uses conversation as a critique of the traditional academic essay. For example, the Spring 1980 issue of Hills consists of a series of transcripts from the "San Francisco Talk Series." The concept behind publishing these conversations is conceived very much in the way articulated by Beth Baldwin in her dissertation reviewed here. In his introduction to the issue Bob Perelman conceptualizes his ideas of a "talk" as a complex social occasion:

A 'talk' is a broad designation--was the situation educational, creational, dramatic? Was information to be presented or were values to be embodied? Was the focus on the speaker or the community of speaker and audience? The answers varied. All speakers were presented with a common problem: to say something in public. In various cases that meant talking spontaneously, referring to notes and texts, reading written out essays, or abandoning written essays in midstream.

Lyn Hejinian and Barbara Einzig offered further insight into the meaning of the volume Hills/Talks. Hejinian writes:

Hills/Talks comes as close as any volume will for a long time to an articulation of contemporary poetics and a demonstration of the process by which a poetics is discovered.

Thus we see a Language artist appreciating conversation as a process of discovery, much as Beth Baldwin and Bob King both described it and discovered it through conversation. Barbara Einzig comments on the Hills/Talks number, that

It is a rare pleasure, in reading about writing, to be watching nets being cast and drawn back, full of fish of various sizes. The speakers are often talking in modes that resemble "literary criticism," but the talk is distinguished from such criticism by the fact of an audience on the spot ready to contradict, argue, to play ball, and the elegance is not that of a traditional fixed poetics, a statement about, but the vitality of actual poesis in the talking. Exciting stuff.

Einzig, too, then, sees what Beth sees in conversation - something "vital," "actual," akin to creation, something immediately social and rhetorical in its involvement with audience.

In other words, "hurly-burly" - -

The Language Poets, incidentally, maintain a very active presence on the internet.

Finally, in our own field, a recent article of the academic conversation essay was inspiring in the way it artistically contrived to mimic conversation in print form--and it was apparently also a conversation that actually took place. This essay, "Postings on a Genre of Email" by Michael Spooner and Kathleen Yancy. can be found in CCC 47.2 (May 1996): 252-278.

So we begin by talking about our process and we end with discoveries of processes and the possibilities of conversation. What we think especially important is that the conversation, started here by Beth Baldwin, continue. With people "eavesdropping" on it and responding to it -- just knowing that it's here is encouraging.

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