by Beth Baldwin
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
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.
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,
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:
If we keep on speaking sameness, if we speak
to each other as men have been doing for
centuries, as we have been taught to speak,
we'll miss each other, fail ourselves. Again...
Words will pass through our bodies, above our
heads. They'll vanish, and we'll be lost.
Far off, up high. Absent from ourselves,; we'll
be spoken machines, speaking machines. Enveloped in
proper skins, but not our own. Withdrawn into
proper names, violated by them. Not yours, not
mine. We don't have any. We change names as men
exchange us, as they use us, use us up. It would
be frivolous of us, exchanged by them, to be
so changeable. (205)
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
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.
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
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.