The Epiphany Project
Sample Epiphany Institute Panel Discussion:
The Rhetoric of Electronic Texts

Trent Batson, Gallaudet University
Fred Kemp, Texas Tech University
Paul LeBlanc, Marlboro College
Susan Romano, University of Texas (Austin)
John O'Connor, George Mason University
Bill Condon, Washington State University
Judy Williamson, American University

Note: If you enjoy reading the following Epiphany Institute discussion panel transcript, please visit the "Good Conversations" section of Epiphany's Field Guide to 21st Century Writing. In the next few months we will process other Institute panel discussion audiotapes, including links to these full-text transcriptions in our online guide.

Trent Batson: [Begins by telling a story about an advanced writing course he was involved with a few years ago] This was one of the first times that all these people had really looked at computers and writing. They'd never known hypertext, even thought many of them were writers, a lot of them had never thought about using the Web, the Net, whatever. So, being this person -- myself -- who had been using the networked classroom for a decade, I naturally drew them all into the Deadalus classroom and said, "Let's just try this out." And so they all, of course, had a ball. They got into these different personas, they all started throwing stuff around, because these were good writers. We had these reams of paper after the first session. And I thought, "Oh! this is going to be wonderful!" We had a great discussion and everyone, their imaginations were going crazy.

This was once a week for three hours, and so about two weeks later we did this again. And this time people started getting really sort of fed up. After about an hour, they got a little tired and they said, "What in the Hell are we doing here, writing to each other, when we can just be talking?" You know, "This is is a waste of time, all this typing, and so much work -- why can't we just sit around and just talk?" They were clearly getting fed up with this whole notion of sitting next to these people that they were typing to rather than talking. They were getting fed up with the confusion and the chaos and all the different themes and threads going on, disruptions. So I said, "All right, we'll call it quits."

So for a month we shifted to doing hypertext, we used Story Space. And they all did their Story Space project. We worked for a whole month doing this, in a sense developing a different sense of text and the many voices in their own heads. Then we came back a month later, after all this Story Space experience, and we had another [Deadalus] Interchange [session]. By now, they thought this was the most natural thing in the world.

It had taken them a month away from it, getting accustomed to the idea that there are many voices in their own heads, many ways of speaking, many personas, for them to become comfortable with the many voices in the Deadalus classroom.

This story had no point other than basically that ...

[group laughter, punctuated with calls from panel and audience, "It's hypertext!" and "You find the links!"]

... One link is that last night [opening session, Epiphany Introduction Power Point presentation many of you said, "Why do you have the Statue of Liberty up there?" [in presentation's clip art], well that's because text has been liberated ...

[groans, boos, and laughter]

... freedom now, and now we'll pass it off to Paul LeBlanc.

Paul LeBlanc: I just came from the three C's workshop, the winter workshop down in Clearwater -- a much more hospitable place to be at this time of year. The thing that I was asked to talk about while I was there was the political and economic issues around this as we work as faculty members and department chairs in a time where there are fewer resources in higher ed. and it's an interesting question. There's a lot of gnashing of teeth among the 160 or so writing teachers there. They had chosen technology as one of their primary topics.

What I heard from those folks is that the greatest majority were still trying to get their first lab, couldn't get the teacher training support, were competing for space with the business department or the math department. It was a good reminder that many writing programs, many, many composition folks are still lagging behind -- not necessarily intellectually, though some of the concepts were very new to many of the people at the conference, but mostly they were really struggling to get technology-based instruction underway. The thing that I argued to them was the following. Based on my vast experience of only five months as an administrator, it does very little good to go to the administration with this problem stated as a need. Because, it's like, "Get in line."

Everybody's got a set of needs. But administrators are tremendously responsive to the forces and pressures that they feel from employers in the local area and the need to recruit students, in the sense that admissions, recruitment, and retention are increasingly dependent upon making available the sorts of tools that we're discussing and looking at today. Students are coming and asking if there's Internet access from their dorms, etc., etc.

The real argument to be made here is that literacy behavior is clearly changing. Speaking as somebody came out of the corporate sector in the last three years, we are seeing that writing and literacy behaviors look different than they did before. Now I'm not, Eric Crump was with me and Eric would have all classes take place in virtual space and no text would look like traditional texts and traditional composition pedagogy would just disappear. I think that's much farther out than I would feel comfortable planting my flag.

That said, I think there's a very good argument to be made to college administrators, that there's no group of people in the whole academy who are in a better position to train students for those workplace demands of tomorrow, those new literacies, new forms of working, than rhet/comp departments. Who else could do it? No one else in the academy could do it. And that's an argument not only for equipment, but I would also argue that it's a programmatic and a curricular argument. The argument is really this, in my mind. Composition instruction as we have known it will certainly change. There are people on the panel today who would argue that "Comp 101" should look very different or should start to look very different. I would argue that we already have too much on our plates. We're a very embattled profession because we've signed on to teach people to write better in 15 weeks.


Ed White would argue, talking about assessment, that the locus of that assessment for us, of our success should come at the end of four years when everybody's been engaged in this process through a writing across the curriculum program. Nevertheless, we're the ones who still get criticism for not having students write better at the end of 15 weeks.

So that need -- clear writing, clear sentences, clear paragraphs, in many cases, the stuff we struggle to do -- isn't going away with the new literacies. It's really an argument to continue composition instruction in its place, in its breadth within the curriculum, but also [establish] new sets of courses that also address and accommodate [new writing contexts].

Now, there's lots of overlap here, clearly. We're going to want to use lots of the tools that we're talking about in our traditional comp courses. Bu we need to talk about the kinds of things that happen, for example, and a place like Houghton, where I was, when Lotus notes comes in and now information is really organized and shared and held and communicated and constructed and understood in very different ways than it was only five or ten years ago.

I think, again, out of my very short experience with development now doing the "Presidential handshake" [fundraising]. What I've come to understand is that people will give resources not to needs and problems, but to that which excites their imagination.

If you can give the language and pitch that your administrators can take to the boards and to foundations and to local employers, it's a very, very powerful thing that's not to be underestimated. There's probably not a governor or state legislator around the country right now that isn't trying to pitch its workforce as the "(fill in the blank) place" that you ought to come to because we have people who understand how to operate in this paradigm.

I think there is still within the work world, the corporate world, a tremendous influence on what is a rather conservative notion of back to basic skills. But they're really talking about training people for the factory floor.

Those same organizations are also talking about people with decontextualized skills, higher level critical skills, problem-solving skills, and that's the pitch to make. Those are the people your institution wants to train in most cases. I say that recognizing that institutions have a wide variety of missions and populations which they serve. So that's my big mouthful, my 4C's thing condensed -- actually you've gotten a much better deal.


I think it's a very powerful argument to make. We can talk a lot about this stuff, but it really boils down to resources again. You can get lots of equipment, but if you're not getting the sorts of support you need for training, if you're not getting the tech support that you need to get those TCP/IP addresses straight when crashes occur in the lab as they sometimes do -- it's inevitable -- it's really bad. In that case, you would be crazy to take on the task in a sort of martyr or evangelical role as, in fact, we've all probably done.


Susan Romano: I'm going to be very short. All of the stories that I tell or sentences I say are from other people's mouths, so you can consider that hypertextual or plagiarism as you please.

Bill [Condon] was talking about his teaching, in which his students explored private and public identities, and I was reminded of a very short paragraph in Habermas's Structural Transformation in the Public Sphere , where he points out that Madame de Stael used to hold house parties for writers and friends in her home and after dinner and conversation, she would send them out to separate bedrooms and have them write letters to each other and then they would come in and exchange these letters and it just struck me as this great precursor to real-time writing and to fictionalized persona.

And Habermas's argument, it's hard to say how this plays out, but it was his argument that this fictionalizing of the self in a letter, a private kind of a literacy and a literacy that took place in a home space, that enabled the later literacy activities in the bourgeois public sphere that took place in the coffee houses in England and the Table Societies in Germany. So he's making that connection, calling the private literacy practices enablers of public discourse, which has always been very important to us in rhet/comp, the ways of thinking about public discourse. So he's arguing that the ability to fictionalize a persona is very important for being able to participate in public discourse.

So that's just something to think about, a story.

The other thing that I wanted to say about the rhetoric of electronic text comes straight from the session that I attended this morning where, to draw a little bit on Paul's [LeBlanc's] talk about multiple literacies, I think we need to think about what expertise students to need to have when they go out into the world, and I'm drawing on the thoughts of a number of folks here, so apologies all around.

In the sessions I attended this morning there were two sorts of literacies that people definitely privileged. One was a kind of multi-tasking literacy that Ann Woodlief's students do when she had them move from the Web to whatever application she's using to StorySpace and she's teaching them to move fluidly back and forth among these multiple venues for writing. And I do believe that this is a literacy that our students need to acquire. But on the other hand, some of us are interested in a more focused literacy, where students performed very sustained inquiry with a lot of attention to one particular task, so I don't think that you can abandon that sort of literacy either.

Bill Condon: I thought that Trent picked the Statue of Liberty [for clip art in opening Power Point presentation] because she lifted her lamp beside the golden door. And because of this dual image of an entry into a safe harbor, a refuge, something you fly to, which is a lot of what electronic texts have become, but also a kind of opening up of new frontiers, new challenges, and new possibilities. An entry into the a land where life, let's face it, is not going to be easy for quite some time. And that is where we are in thinking about the rhetoric of electronic text. We just about have pulled the baby in off the doorstep, we've decided to adopt electronic texts and now we're already into this whole issue of rhetoric-and we haven't even settled on what the texts are going to be.

We have a kind of continuum, if I can suggest it this way, from e-mail to the Web and hypertext. So that, in one sense, all e-mail messages look alike. How original can they be? And yet in another sense it doesn't take very long, you don't have to be too much of a veteran of e-mail before you recognize the signs of a real amateur. The e-mail message that comes to me that begins, "Dear Bill," or is one, solid long block of text, or has every line that has little widows on it. You start recognizing the things that happen to people when they're not quite into the form yet. And you begin to realize that already there is a substantial literature generated by names like Gail Hawisher and Charlie Moran, Kathi Yancey and Michael Spooner, all about the rhetoric of e-mail.

On the other hand, we've got web pages which, on one level, all seem to look different. There are infinite possibilities. And yet, you don't have to work with them very long before the rules start to become clear and again you can recognize the amateur web page and, the worst of the web and the best of the web. You look at the sites and you can tell the difference immediately, somebody who knows what they're doing and can really use the tools and somebody who really just sort of threw something up there and it's not terribly comprehensive. So in one sense, those web pages that all look different, are all alike in the same way that the e-mail messages that all look the same are all really quite different.

And we sit here, in one sense, having just gotten the hang of teaching students to improve their writing in paper texts and we're confronted with a fairly infinite variety of new texts. And so in a sense we're being set free, being unchained from some of the constraints of print culture. And we're asked to expand our repertoire, which opens that golden door to the land of opportunity, but also the land of challenge, and trouble, and struggle, and hardship before we win our way to a new life.

Fred Kemp: I want to try to explain something that's difficult for me to understand myself, but it has influenced me greatly in the past several years, thinking about this idea of the rhetoric of electronic text, what's going on with e-mail and these mutable discursive forms of writing that weren't possible without computers. During the 16 years of teaching that I did before I started using email, MOOS, MUDs, interchanges, and different real-time programs, I always thought of writing and rhetoric, words themselves, as presumably to carry freight. They were something that had to be gotten across from the writer to the reader, from the speaker to the listener. I thought that the words were most effective when the reader or listener comes up with the same thing that the writer had intended. It was very clear to me that this was what effective diction is, what Sharon Crowley calls CBS: clarity, brevity, and specificity. The traditional model is: getting across what you want to get across clearly and creating an effect in the reader that you had intended.

Since I've been immersed in electronic texts in a number of different ways, I'm beginning to see what I think is another job of rhetoric, and maybe it was there all along, but I couldn't see it before. When I first started programming, we would program closed-in programming. In other words, we would ask a question of a user and then the user would give an answer. And if the answer was the same one that we had programmed in, then bells would go off or it would play the "Rose of Texas" or something like that, and the student was presumably reinforced in knowing that which I already knew, that which I wanted the student to know. And that seems to be the model for my reductive view of what writing and effective discourse was-to carry these ideas and to effect the reader in ways that I wanted. I had control over them, and the more I controlled the language, the more I controlled the rhetorical situation.

Since I've been at e-mail for the last seven or eight years, and have been working in these very, very chaotic and complex environments-and I mean "chaotic and complex" in good ways-I begin to see that what language does is not closed in. At least, in my mind, the best thing it does is not closed in. It acts as a kind of stimulation. It stimulates other kinds of constructions than just those that I had anticipated.

So the words are not carrying my freight, the words are carrying my contribution that will result in knowledge or understanding or a delivery that I probably didn't anticipate and probably shouldn't anticipate. This is very spacey and Eric Crump and I are along the same lines in this way, as Susan and I have been discussing recently.

What this means is that, to some degree, we have to give up certain kinds of control and authority. And not only in our classrooms-that's the student-centered versus the teacher-centered-but even in our discourse. We have to see our words as not existing as an individual quality, but existing as a part of something greater. And that this greater thing, this new life or new world, benefits from what we say not because we to control it, because we are effective, or because we are manipulators.

That's not exactly what I mean to say, I'm trying to get at something that's difficult to explain, but when you begin to see electronic rhetoric in those terms, I think it makes it easier to see what goes on in these classrooms. For example, in the Daedalus demonstration classroom I had to keep reasserting control. It was necessary for me to do that because we had a certain amount of information to get across--we had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in so doing I was competing with the computers, I was competing with the software.

I think that's one reason people sometimes have difficulty teaching with this software, because we come out of this sense that we want them to know what we know, we want them to believe what we believe, we want them to be intellectual clones and therefore we have some sort of parental joy. If we can give that up to some extent, and I think you see this in an e-mail discussion, I think you learn to value the rambunctiousness and the attack/counter attack, struggles, apologies, backing off, and everything that goes on, you begin to see the validity of that kind of action, which is a more intense version of what goes on in the virtual realm.

So that's what I'm, sort of thinking through. And if you're confused now, that's o.k., because I'm not supposed to be getting across meaning here. All I'm supposed to be doing is stimulating the community ...


... it's a wonderful cop-out for not having CBS!

[more laughter]

John O'Connor: Fred and I are on the right side of this panel for a deliberate reason, because it's on your left. So I going to try to add to his perspective.

First of all, I want to say that I think Paul's right. The claims and assertions that writing faculty can make certainly have an affect around here [GMU]. Those students here who have strong writing coursework skills and a little bit of computer savvy are picked up in our knowledge industry in Northern Virginia very quickly.

But to go back to electronic texts, I'd like to emphasize the electronic. I think that we think of it as electronic text, with the emphasis predominantly on text, and we're still dealing with. Even though it might be hyper and it might be collaborative, it's still in some sense linear and about words.

One of Trent's pictures last night was electrons rather than atoms. If you start to think of the electronic part of text, then we should be writers not just of text but of page design, so that we are becoming conscious, in ways that we didn't a few years ago, of the graphic. The importance of the icon here, the importance of the different fonts. Even just in email there's emoticons and the breaking of rules. For example, in electronic text, the change from who knows if you "shall" or "will," "who" or "whom." Exclamation points - the old composition teacher in me cringes at the seven exclamation points at the end of various pieces of student writing, but that's also part of the new electronic text.

So is all of the design. The packages we saw this morning are all terrific pieces of software (Norton Connect, StorySpace, Common Space, Daedalus Interchange, etc.), but we didn't look at web pages. And I don't know whether we should be looking at Pagemill or FrontPage or hypertext design of Web Forum. The implication of how we're using sound in our writing, how we're using images in our writing, the various jokes about clip-art in Trent's presentation. We now will write beside some overly-used phrases "cliche" - are we going to say that in the future about various kinds or types of images? I don't mean to add, well, yes, I guess I do mean to add more to us as writers, but we're writing a lot more than words these days and to be conscious of the rhetoric of electronic text, the electronic is multimedia, is hyper-media.

The other point I'd like to make is that we shouldn't do it alone. The courses in New Century College are team taught, they're learning communities of 15 credit courses that try to challenge the structure of "three times a week, fourteen weeks, you gotta sit in rows, better sit up front." Steve's point about learners being teachers, students learning from each other, the electronic text allows us to do that in all sorts of ways. We can work with graphic designers, we can work with psychologists interested in the human-computer interface, and others, trying to make a new rhetoric that either is coherent and clear or is chaotic and complex, depending on what we want to communicate.

Audience Questions and Comments: (Note: Audiotape sound levels did not pick up the exact words -- the following are discussion excerpts that have been paraphrased)

Lee Odel: E-media change what it means to compose -- our conception of composing is expanding enormously.

Fred Kemp: Didn't mean to imply that we're talking "either/or" replacement philosophies -- the Tofflers talk about alternative channels of learning, and digital processes have opened this up even more, but that doesn't mean shutting others down.

Greg Ritter: John was saying that text is becoming multimedia. My father is a graphic designers and he's appalled at the graphic design on the Web. This got me to thinking about where our rhetorics come from -- top down, bottom up? The Web uses lots of unconventional page layout.

Pam Takayoshi: I've got a different take on what you just said, because I don't think that the definition of rhetoric is getting changed as much as the technology is making writing teachers see something that was always there. We've always has these multiple ways of looking at text. If you look at People Magazine versus the first paragraph of a student essay, versus television commercials, it seems to me that what technology is doing is bringing in ways that we've always had text, but have never talked about because as writing teachers we always thought that we had to teacher the 8.5 by 11 inch page essay.

Greg Ritter: But I think we never talked about it because, up to five years ago, designing something that looked like People Magazine was capable only be people who had a lot of expensive typesetting equipment and now an 18 year old with a good PC and Pagemaker can design something that looks like People Magazine.

Susan Romano: That brings up the question of what a teacher's role is, when we intervene and when we just let things happen ...

John O'Connor: It's true that there are a lot of God-awful web pages out on the Internet, but we ought to be talking about the design, because text is now just one part of a larger whole.

Bill Condon: I think it's also important to remember that, though some kinds of text present far more than 8.5 by 11 writing, some present far less -- like email. There was a survey last year that I found surprising that, of all the people who have access to the Web, only 3 percent have actually used it -- we're not talking about the difference between numbers of folks who have and haven't "built a web page." I think it's a function of how many people out there have Web access and don't know it, like AOL users who get lost in chat rooms. But over 80 percent of the folks who have Internet access are users of email. So we're working on the one hand with texts that are incredibly richer, in terms of the resources that we could bring to bear rhetorically, than we've ever known before -- and certainly spread more broadly over the population than we've even known before. Probably much fewer than 3 percent of us are graphic designers. But at the same time we're dealing with a different electronic text that is much sparser and, in which, I would argue that we ought to advise people to use the cliche. What is an emoticon but a cliche? And we tell people, with good reason, "Use those things!"

Dickie Selfe: I've got something that keeps bothering me and nagging at me that speaks to the importance of understanding rhetoric, getting involved and staying involved and critical of the whole episode. We have to keep saying these things aloud, because as we become involved and we require students to dabble with the technological addiction -- I'm willing to say that's what we're dabbling with here, not just with our students, but ourselves as well. We, I think, are required to also give them some kind of critical apparatus to approach those technologies. I don't see any way of not getting involved in order to create that critical apparatus. So that's my dilemma. You've gotta do it, I think, because they're going to be exposed to these environments someplace and I think we're one of the few disciplines that's willing to take on that task. Nobody else really seems to care.

Pam Takayoshi: There's this frustration that I see in teachers when I'm training them how to use a computer lab and they're doing it for the first time. It's the realization that it's not just about word processing, it's "now I have to teach graphics, and now I have to think about helping them be critical of computers."

And so this issue is a really important one for us as writing teachers to be thinking about, because I think it points to the way that technology changes a lot of what we do and a lot of what we've always thought about what we do. That thing that we were talking about earlier, the graphics issue, I think that computers have revealed to us how long we've been holding on to a form that's really not in dominance and more in our culture.   said  
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