The Epiphany Project
Session Notes: Of Avatars & Memoirs
Collaborative Writing & Community-Building with Computers----------

Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Epiphany Project Consultant

I. Warm-Up Exercise: Collaboratively Writing an Associative Web

Preliminary Example:
Topic (homepage) = Food
First Level Page Categories = veggies, meats, dairy, grains
Second Level Page Categories = brussels sprouts, oatmeal, etc.

Corned Beef
Chitlins -- Meats -- Liver
Food ==
Brie Cheese
Onions -- Veggies -- Parsnips

Warm-Up Exercise Web Topic: Childhood Games

  1. Class Brainstorms: What four general categories will we select to fill in the second level of this web?
  2. Individually: Close your eyes and think back to when you were 8-9 years old. With whom did you play? What sights, sounds, actions, gestures do you remember about your childhood play experiences? Once you have a specific memory in mind, write a "screenful." Don't try to edit or refine, just write for about 5-7 minutes on the yellow stick-it pads in front of you.
  3. Build the Web Prototype: Place your story on the associative diagram branch where you think it best belongs.

All good web sites begin with a storyboard like this in which designers begin with a topic, then ask open-ended questions about that topic, using their associations to construct a web that is both navigable and interesting. Storyboards can be composed on paper, like this paper web, on a white board, or with specialized software such as StorySpace, FrontPage, etc.

If this were an actual classroom project: Students who placed their stories on the same diagrammatic branch form natural "communities of interest" or "related link" workgroups. These groups could be asked to collaborate with one another by reading their work aloud to their group, interviewing each other about the stories to identify fruitful avenues for elaboration and clarification, serving as peer editors who respond to revisions, and working as a group to collaboratively write the second-level page text that will contain links to their individual story web pages The whole class can collaborate on writing the top (or home) page for the site.

II. Larger Questions
Why does this "work"—In what way do experiences like these create learning communities?

When the Web first became popular many were jazzed by the images and colors, technology and mystique. Now that we’re settling in and looking around we see that, in and of itself, the Web’s no magic bullet. New central questions emerge, such as "How can we humanize this space to encourage reflective conversations and vivid storytelling?" and "How can we harness the associative processes that are inherent to hypertext authoring using technology as a catalyst for learning that is as generative as it is ongoing?

Answers to these questions are still in the making (and, thankfully, probably always will be), but one of the key precursors to collaborative computer-mediated learning is finding a topic to write about and discuss that is simultaneously universal and connected to the unique prior experiences of each student. Herein lies the beauty of a genre that folklorists call "personal experience story cycles," or thematically-related life story narratives.

III. Examples:
Example 1. Keepsakes and Dreams
Program/Community Context and Philosophy: The Urban Alternative is a catalyst for the development of "learning communities" in which each person participates as both a teacher and a learner. Located in the South Arlington, Virginia, neighborhood of Columbia Heights West, The Urban Alternative is sponsored by George Mason University and has received funding from HUD’s Community/University Outreach Program. Most of the people who live in Columbia Heights West have recently immigrated to the United States and many residents are refugees whose journey to Arlington has been both difficult and traumatic. This extremely culturally-diverse neighborhood includes people from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Somalia, Cambodia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Laos, Vietnam, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Indonesia, Pakistan, Panama, Guatemala, and Korea, and the specific countries represented in the community change each year. In addition to stresses associated with learning about lifeways in their new home, residents also are challenged by daily intercultural interactions with neighbors who are also immigrants.

Given this complex environment, The Urban Alternative is dedicated to the following beliefs:

  • Creating partnerships and relationships between a wide range of organizational and individual resources, taking a holistic or systemic approach to community development.
  • Working "with," not "on." All projects adhere to the philosophy that people should be treated as partners instead of victims, clients, or anthropological informants to be studied. All fieldwork and projects are collaborative ventures during which neighborhood residents participate actively in the documentation, interpretation, analysis, and application development. Projects are designed so that residents participate in meaningful work that contributes to their literacy and professional development.
  • Cultural documentation is a resource that should remain within the community. The originals of all community documentation are kept in an archive that is located in a publicly-accessibly office in an apartment complex within the community.

The Experience: For "Keepsakes and Dreams" we worked with a drop-in ESL class that met two times a week in the community. Gail Matthews-DeNatale and graduate assistant Melanie Rios began by simply attending the class for several weeks, helping people with their work and getting to know the regular participants. After a month, Matthews-DeNatale brought in a range of sample community-based projects: small exhibit panels, documentary photographs, collections of community writings, etc. The class discussed whether or not they wanted to do a documentary project and, if so, what kind of project they would like to do. Other important questions were also addressed, such as with whom they would share the product (in-class only, neighbors, people outside the neighborhood), and whether or not they would try to sell the product or give it away for free.

In instances when the class did not have clear consensus, like-minded discussion groups were formed and these groups developed persuasive presentations that they made to the other class members. After several sessions of discussion and negotiation, the class decided that they wanted to make a booklet, they wanted to learn how to enter their stories into a computer, and they wanted to share their work freely with neighbors and interested persons outside the neighborhood.

Participants were asked to write stories in response to the following three questions:

  • What are your most meaningful memories of your parents?
  • What is your most valued keepsake (i.e., object, cultural tradition, family story, etc.) and why do you care about it so much?
  • What do you hope and dream for the future?

Because the participants had limited English proficiency, the passages that they wrote were often very brief. To help the authors practice spoken English and add more detail to their stories, participants used these first drafts as starting points for audiotaped interviews. Afterwards, the interviews were transcribed and participants reviewed the written transcripts to flesh out, correct, and revise the written stories. This fieldwork relationship was an ongoing dialogue that had many iterations, creating a cycle of opportunities for mutual learning, speaking, writing, class discussion, and intercultural dialogue Participants learned how to do basic wordprocessing and enter their drafts and revisions into a computer—quite an accomplishment because none of them had ever touched a computer before! These stories were compiled into a booklet that was distributed to local community members.

What Was Accomplished: Observing the excitement that the project generated and the pride participants displayed for their booklet, we surmise that this was a very meaningful experience for all involved. But aside from the positive impact this project had on classroom community, it also served a number of other purposes:

  1. As a forum for intercultural dialogue in which participants expanded their understanding of each others’ worldviews and grappled with differences in beliefs about accepted gender roles, domestic violence, and the appropriateness of physical discipline in child-rearing.
  2. Participants experienced the processes of writing for real purposes, conversational speaking, interviewing, and computer literacy.
  3. The project created a meaningful dialogue between community residents and university-based affiliates of the Urban Alternative, functioning as means for non-residents to learn about community needs and interests. Some of the conversations that began during this project extended into the collaborative development of other Urban Alternative projects.
  4. Based on interests expressed by community members, representatives of The Urban Alternative were able to help specific individuals apply for grants, obtain scholarships for further study, find employment, and develop ideas for spin-off projects that contributed to the community.
  5. Products from "Keepsakes and Dreams" and spin-off projects include a booklet, Web site <>, and a community calendar of photos and stories.

Challenges: The most challenging aspect of this project was remaining faithful to our collaborative and systemic philosophical beliefs. Most people, especially "professionals" with years of training, do not know how to work with communities without taking over and steering or controlling the process and cheating participants out of their deserved agency. Because collaborative projects are inherently emergent, they take more time and involve an ongoing, subjective, often fuzzy process of suggesting, assisting, questioning, listening, and letting go.

This kind of collaboration requires a completely different relationship than that of conventional anthropological, sociological, or folkloristic "fieldwork" in which outsiders come into a community, collect data, maintain a framework of objectivity, leave, analyze, and publish for their academic peers. The collaborative process is also radically different from conventional school/community partnerships, in which professors, teachers, schools, non-profits, or businesses pre-define program goals, procedures, and objectives.

As opposed to the one-shot or short-term display approach to community education, collaborative fieldwork involves the initiation of long-term relationships. Even after the booklet or other "product" has been produced, these relationships continue in different contexts, but toward related ideals. Engaging communities in actual co-productive work places community members, teachers, students, professors, and social service professionals in relationships that are fundamentally, paradigmatically different from their previous roles. Viewed in this light, collaborative fieldwork functions as a catalyst for the creation of learning communities, energizing spaces in which each person discovers new avenues for learning and opportunities to share personal expertise.

The Online Manifestation of Keepsakes and Dreams: In reviewing the Keepsakes and Dreams web site guestbook entries, we notice that some contributors choose to use their real names and identities, while others write with the voice of another person. Whenever we enter into this creative space—sometimes known as "flow", the lines between lived experience and imagined experience and the memorable recounted experiences of others begin to blur. The power (sense of community) is in the personal connection or interaction with someone who is a well-rounded entity in our minds—even if that person is an illusion. At this point we enter into the realm of avatars—entities who seem alive to us because we are somewhat familiar with the range and complexity of their accumulated life narratives, questions, hopes, and dreams. This is the stuff that fiction and literature are made of.

Example 2: Cyber Rescue
It’s funny how one form of communication sometimes blends into another. How one (usually more familiar) medium of communication inserts itself into another. In Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence, two entities correspond over a number of years, developing a quirky and intriguing relationship via artistically-rendered letters and postcards. Images, genres, and texts are interwoven to create the illusion of a relationship based in written collaboration. Is it a book about postcards? Is it about a quirky relationship that seems to unfold over time—even though "time" only exists in the readers’ turning of pages?
(Note: Just a few days before this workshop, Bantock's newest book was released. Entitled The Venetian's Wife, this piece is about a quirky relationship that develops between two strangers via email. One of the pen pals is a ghost!)

Postcards exist on the Web, too. The "Cyber-Rescue" exercise was created as a means of playfully exploring the potential of this blended medium. See <> for a full account of the exercise. This exercise was developed by Matthews-DeNatale while teaching a course on "Emerging Issues in Research: Language and Technology" for the School-Based Masters Program at George Mason University’s Institute for Educational Transformation. With the help of a graduate student enrolled in the seminar (and with faculty consent), we "borrowed" the personas of several well-known department members, set them down in far-flung places, and invented a suitable dilemma. We then used MIT’s Electronic Postcard web site to send e-postcards to course participants, requesting help. For example, one faculty member, known by all for her interest in things spiritual, supposedly wrote this message:

I am trekking in Nepal, researching the spirituality of the people in this country. It has been a truly rich and rewarding experience. Unfortunately, today as we hiked up to a village located high in the Himalayas, our sherpa guide became ill with altitude sickness and he had to turn back. Needless to say, as a dedicated teacher-researcher, I forged on! Luckily, I've found a temple in the village that has direct Internet access. I can't correspond with each of you individually through e-mail because of the long distance rates, but I could use your help in finding Web-related resources about the area that would help make my stay more comfortable and enlightening. I'll check the newsgroup "gmu.course.iet710" at 3:00 your time to see what you've found for me. By the way--if you could, please check in at IET, because I suspect my wicked evil twin may have been released and could be impersonating me! I'm having a moving experience, wish you were here—Sharon

The power of this message is in the sense that someone the reader knows (or could have known) is reaching out for help. This illusion of real-life need creates a motivation for using the Web as a research tool and newsgroups as a vehicle for communication and information-sharing that is otherwise absent from the technology. Here’s a sample newsgroup response to another professors request for help identifying African artistic and cultural resources:

Boy! Have you had a trying day. The artwork we found in Africa was breathtaking! Among the many splendid pieces of art, this was the one that kept us dancing on-line, all the way to Zimbabwe. Some of the other sites you may find intriguing and helpful as you continue your journey are:
"Indigenous Peoples of Zimbabwe," Sculpture/Chapungu.htm1
"Chapungu Village,"
"Zimbabwe Page,"
"Shona Religion and Beliefs."

Ann, We hope you enjoyed your on-line experience. See you when you get back. Don't forget the souvenirs. E-mail to let us know if your trip was a success. It was so nice to hear from you. We wish we were there with you. We can just imagine what a wonderful trip you are having. We can just hear the sounds of the electric drums. Did you see Nelson Mandela? He recently published an autobiography entitled Long Walk To Freedom.... Have fun! See you at the African American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.!

With this message, we’ve come full circle from fiction back to memoirs—the play world is so compelling that it blends back into the students’ real worlds, prompting them to interact with an avatar as if they might bump into her in the near future. Written reflections at the end of this experience reinforce this idea:

I can only liken today to a set of firecrackers with a long fuse. All day long the spark climbed up that fuse and then suddenly at 3:30 [the time when they were posting reflections to the newsgroup], the firecrackers started going off as I made connections, one after another. It was a powerful experience and a worthwhile day.

The time we spent on the computer was most helpful. Today was the first time that I have really felt like something was going to work out and I would leave with a feeling of accomplishment. This tells you something about how I have felt about earlier [computer] experiences.

It was a fun exercise and gave us some direction on how to use the Net as a means for research rather than as a toy for uses such as surfing.

It felt good to have something positive happen to me with the computer. I haven’t enjoyed the Web thus far. But the dilemmas were fun!! ...I got a taste of success. I think I’ll do another set of hours and see what happens.

The computer search was fun for me and for my partners. We enjoyed trying to solve Sharon’s problem. We were thinking of it as a game and then we suddenly realized that the information that we were pulling up was real. It was like the whole thing was "fixed," but really everything we pulled up wasn’t. What a neat way to learn something.   said  
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