Link/Age: Composing in the Online Classroom: A Writing Teacher's Response
Susan Halter, responding
Upon rereading Joan Latchaw's and David Silver's reviews of Joan Tornow's Link/Age, I had to wonder what inspired me to begin negotiating for space in this issue of Kairos for yet another response to the book. The reviews seem more comprehensive than I first realized, both mentioning the main point I wished to make: that this book can be read as a resource for teachers who are new to teaching writing in a computer classroom and who are, perhaps, leery of the challenges ahead. Yet, my first readings left me with the overall impression that this book was a piece of academic scholarship, focused on theory and philosophy, and that its ultimate value hung in the question of its effectiveness as ethnographic study. That's a discussion I was not then, nor am I now, prepared to enter. Yet I found the book a valuable resource, one that inspired me to quit just talking about teaching online, in reality using the computers in my classroom for little more than word processing, and do it;. The book is also a resource that I have recommended to several teachers who for two years have been telling me they want to teach in the computer classroom soonmaybe next semesterbut they just don't know enough about computers just yet.
More interested in practice than theory when I picked up the book, I skimmed through the Preface and Introduction, but when I hit Chapter One, I was hooked. I immediately found myself transported to the basement of the undergraduate library at the University of Texasbut the weird thing was that to my mind it looked exactly like the computer classroom I had helped build two summers (and at least a couple of lifetimes) ago. The classrooms couldn't be more physically different, but we, too then believed we were sailing in uncharted waters.
We held several workshops that spring and summer, even before our classroom was built. Fred McFarland from Norton Publishers came, and so did Myron Tuman, technology and literacy scholar and developer of Norton Textra Connect , the software we'd chosen as the framework on which we'd build our composition classes. Fred patiently led us in a day-long hands-on demonstration and practice session, and we saw how easy it was to learn to use the software to help manage our assignments and our students' responses. Myron showed us how teachers at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa were using the program to enhance their English classes, in both composition and literature. We had two of the best minds in the business with us, both experienced navigators who had been this way before, to chart our course for the wonderful things that we could do once classes began in the Fall. We took it all in, oohing and aahing at what we were being shown, what we could do with just a bit of instruction, but as soon as the question period opened up, it was the same refrain: "What kind of problems will we have? What bad things are going to happen while we're in this classroom?"
Fred tried, and Myron tried, but despite their having dealt with probably hundreds of startups like ours, their reassurances fell on deaf ears. Looking back on it, I see that given the context of their workshops, there really wasn't anything they could do to reassure us: we needed to see firsthand for ourselves that adding computers to the classroom mix wouldn't create a slew of insurmountable problems any more than it would solve all of those we already faced.
Nevertheless, read as a resource for teachers who are suddenly offered the "opportunity" to teach online, Link/Age can reassure, not by delineating worst case scenarios, but by providing narratives which flesh out the possibilities, giving teachers new to online teaching a feel and a context for what might occur. We're dealing with faculty who, for the most part, are experienced classroom teachers. Their questions arise from a failure of the imagination, perhaps: their inability to deal with fears of what might happen because, while they've been in countless classrooms before, both as students and teachers, they've never been in one full of computers. And likely as not, their minds are full of hype and jargon and promises and threats that go along with putting computers into writing classroomsmissing are the human students, the only familiar element they will face. Tornow supplies those students and with them, the perspective that the teachers need to regain in order to face with a modicum of equanimity the as-yet-unknown problems that will crop up in any writing class. Seeing Burns composition class in the context of Tornow's book conveys better than any other means I have seen to date that, in terms of the unknown, this is really just another composition class. Good things happen, as do bad ones, but most of the problems you will encounter will be problems you're familiar with and have dealt with before.
One objection that came to mind, and one that I might need to address with someone to whom I would recommend this book, is that the class Tornow writes about was taught eight years ago. It bothered me at first that, in a field that changes so quickly, the course was so old. But as I read on, I realized a couple of things: first, that the basic means of electronic communication have remained the same over these past eight years while changes in technology only have made doing these things easier (improved interfaces), and second, that I was thinking as much about how Burns used the two texts for his course as I was thinking about the technological interface described in the book. I see both of these things as reassuring to experienced teachers wavering over whether to make the leap. Technological innovation doesn't move as fast or change as radically as they may have perceived, so maybe they can catch up, and the foundation of the course is still the papertext (at least in Burns' class), and papertext they can deal with.
I'd like to be able to say that this book has made some converts, that people who were putting off coming into the computer classroom have started asking for entry, but it's too soon to tell. Where it has made a difference is in my work. I could see the benefits of teaching online, but my efforts to incorporate real use of the various communication programs available to us was generally half-heartednot because of fear, but simply because there was always something "more important" to do. I have used e-mail extensively in professional activities, and MOOs to work in real time with people I would only have dreamed of working with just a few years ago, and the web in a variety of ways to discover and disseminate information, but it is only after reading Link/Age that I realized how much I owed it to my students to expose them to the same tools that I cannot imagine functioning without todayan ironically late recognition in someone who has always believed that in order to teach writing, I needed to write, and to continually challenge myself with new kinds of writing so I could teach from real experiences similar to theirs. And it inspired me to spend a day creating a five minute offline web presentation for a division meetingwhen I was asked just to "talk about" the resources available. The actual demonstration, inspired by the detailed narratives and leaving little to the vagaries of the imagination, has sparked more interest and requests for information than any of the talking and writing I have done on this subject over the past couple of years.
As the previous reviewers have mentioned, the book won't fulfill every reader's wish list for what it should be, but reactions will vary. As a teacher who juggles five class preps a semester and who keeps a dozen or so books on her bedside table, dipping into one or two a night almost at random, I didn't even notice what Latchaw calls the book's "disjunctive" composition, although I did find, as Silver does, some of the metaphors overburdened at times. For what it's worth, my biggest problem was with the discussion of the differences between Lanham's definition of transparency and Tornow's (page 14 and Chapter 20), for whatever reason, that still has me befuddled! But the book moved me to restructure my classes to better use the electronic resources available to us, and I am hopeful it will do the same for my colleagues who are looking for reassurance that they can do the same.
A postscript: as I was putting the finishing touches on this response, I happened upon Paul Molinelli's detailed review of Link/Age in the National Writing Project's Summer 1997 Quarterly. His focus is also on the way the book can inspire teachers to bring their classes online, further affirming this text's usefulness to a variety of different readers.
Comments to Susan Halter, firstname.lastname@example.org.