The community of computers and writing has probably developed one of the most comprehensive online professional networks of any discipline other than information sciences. While listservs abound in most fields these days, few have integrated computer technology into their teaching and research to the degree that this community has. Not only do most of us subscribe to multiple and overlapping listservs, which concern educational and philosophical implications of computer technologies, but we have also developed networks of online resources freely available to all interested groups. We offer a brief description of how this community has emerged in order to construct a more heterotopian professional working space (for computers and writing) which extends the concept of raw archive.
For a little over twenty years, teachers of writing at the college level have been exploring the ways in which computer technologies might be used to facilitate learning in their classes. In the-mid 1970s, computers were primarily used for data analysis of sentence and paragraph structures. From the early to mid-1980s, computer labs began appearing across the country on college campuses for general use by students. Teachers of writing explored the ways in which word processors could be used to enhance student writing processes and collaborative work in the classroom. From the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, artificial intelligence and computer aided instruction (CAI) programs were being developed and tested in writing classes. At the same time hypertext systems like HyperCard and Storyspace, local area networks, and Internet email were being developed for pedagogical uses.
During these formative years, academic listservs like Megabyte University and the Alliance for Computers and Writing (ACW) were emerging as crucial resources for researchers and teachers. With the emergence of text-based virtual realities for academic purposes (MOOs) and the WWW, the virtual community exploded in terms of scope and its virtual presence. Since 1994 this community has hosted weekly Tuesday Cafe meetings in Media MOO (now in Connections MOO) and, for the past two years, the C-Fest series in Lingua MOO which corresponds with the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Online journals like Kairos and RhetNet, complementing print journals like Computers and Composition, have become integral sources of our shared knowledge base. A grass roots national organization called the Alliance for Computers and Writing (ACW) has been formed to further consolidate this growing community. The ACW organization sponsors regional conferences and distributes online and print resources. Additional facets of this growing field include the annual Computers and Writing Conference, the Assembly on Computers in English (ACE) which is affiliated with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the Fifth C (computers) subgroup of the Conference on College Composition and Communication.
With such a dynamic professional community both on and off line already formed, the move toward a systematic pre-print system of publication seems appropriate, even natural. We are a community of highly motivated professionals who constantly push the theoretical boundaries of technological developments in teaching and culture. Yet, the vast majority of the new knowledge that we produce goes unread for a minimum of 6 months to a year as it is being prepared for print publication. Granted, much of our research emerges in online discussions and is woven into more complex narratives for publication. But even online exchanges are hampered to some degree by the fear of releasing our ideas before they have been distributed in printed versions. During one of the two MOO sessions arranged by Mick Doherty and Sandye Thomson for the book New Worlds, New Words, for example, Cynthia Haynes quipped that she did not want to share too much because she might upstage her own article.
If we developed a pre-print archive system to which all members of the community contributed their pre-published texts, we could create the most complex heterotopic virtual archive available to date. And because this community is so diverse and crosses so many disciplinary boundaries, this site could eventually house most new knowledge that concerned intellectual property, copyright, fair use, cross disciplinary concerns of integrating technology and into teaching, and more generally the impacts of computer technology on culture at large. The initial work to build such a site would require a substantial financial investment, most likely from a grant source, like that of the Digital Libraries Initiative.
In a recent call for grant submissions, this organization proposes an interdisciplinary, multi-funded opportunity for academics to develop extensive archives or groups of archives in collaboration with other groups: private industry, libraries, etc. Through a unique collaborative effort, the NEH, NSF, Library of Congress, Smithsonian, NASA, and others are sponsoring a $50 million grant, which includes the Arts and Humanities. The sponsors are inviting the creation of testbeds comprising digitized humanities collections from libraries, archives, museums, and historical organizations; the development and testing of metadata for describing and preserving access to digital humanities objects; and other activities that establish a clearer understanding of the ways in which digitized collections can be used for education, research, and public programming in the humanities. Multidisciplinary and collaborative projects "between academic, industry, non-profit and other organizations" will receive the greatest consideration.
Such a grant provides the resources and focus for professionals in Computers and Writing to establish relations among the various humanities organizations--MLA, NCTE, etc. --publishing industry representatives in the esoteric scholarly publications, academic libraries, and business interests in electronic communications, storage, and delivery systems. The aim of building such an archive would go far beyond simple storage of digital artifacts. Like Foucault's notion of living spaces, such an online site would serve as a mirror that "exerts a sort of counteraction on the position" that the communities who are represented see when they examine the site self-reflexively. From the standpoint of the real mirror that Foucault describes as he peers into it, in such an online living space we would "discover [our] absence from the place where [we] are since [we] see [ourselves] over there" (24). Such a mirror functions as a heterotopia when it makes this place that [we] occupy at the moment when [we] look at [ourselves] in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there [or online].
By producing such professional working spaces online, for-profit publishers, electronic agents, and online service and electronic storage providers would be able to link their own financial and cultural capital to the cultural capital of a cross-disciplinary archive. Not-for-profit academics, professional organizations, and electronic journal editorial boards could build in value added resources that would encourage regular and repeated use of this professional working space. Spin-off publications would surely emerge as the archives continued to grow exponentially. Students in undergraduate and graduate classes would likely develop real-world writing projects that contribute to the review and linking systems of the raw materials available online. Libraries would develop reference systems to manage the dynamic body of resources and materials online as professional organizations developed LASE-like disciplinary search engines and electronic agents developed more advanced on-the-fly annotated meta-hypertext engines.
The metaphor of development is crucial, since archival materials, by themselves, effect no action. They only "come to life" when constructed environments provide spaces for work, retrieval of resources, recreation, conference centers, professional conversation, and other functions yet to be imagined. As a third place, like salons of the 19th century or coffeehouses of the 1960s, virtual professional working spaces could be available at a moment's notice; with a virtual announcement of "who's there," scholars and teachers might create a new theory, design a new course, or discuss the latest administrative policies. They may also "have coffee," play a game of chess, or lounge around a fire.
Such a transition scenario for an online Computers and Writing heterotopia forces us to change the ways in which we think of archives, sites, publication, and intellectual property in general. But new paradigmatic work always challenges long held assumptions. What will it take for this vision to be realized? The first step is to imagine it. The next step is to organize and apply for the grants that will initiate it. Relationships among publishers, academics, corporate vendors, and academic institutions would have to be developed on a wide scale. Systems of support would have to be developed and fostered at local, regional, and national levels. And visions of the future would have to be continually revised as new technologies, new complications, and new fears emerged.
The next steps of this process will require extensive collaboration, enormous resources, new metaphors and paradigms. Terms like electronic agents, web editors, and filterers (abnormal discourse) must replace printers and publishers (normal discourse). When these new terms become normal discourse, then production and distribution of knowledge can take new forms. Only a few years ago, the e-print archives were a utopian dream. Only a few years before that, the community of Computers and Writing did not even exist. While a new scenario like the computers and writing community of the future appears utopian now, nearly all of the necessary elements are currently in place to make this vision a reality.