On my bookshelf at work sit a couple of feet of unsolicited student guides to the Internet sent to me in the last year. As sudden as the swells of El Niņo, every publisher of composition textbooks is issuing at least one of these guides, signaling a sea change in orientation toward the pedagogical possibilities of the Internet that is finally being addressed by textbook publishers. Most of these short guides could be used in computer-based and -assisted courses to orient students to resources for research on the Internet, various Web sites, the nuts and bolts of search engines, email, and newsgroups, and the basics of discussion forum netiquette.
Of these, one recent release stands out as a "guide" that applies a satisfying rhetorical approach to new composing venues. Connections: A Guide to On-Line Writing, by Daniel Anderson, Bret Benjamin, and Bill Paredes-Holt, transcends the limitations of many guides by explicitly addressing rhetorical principles and the processes of constructing arguments. The authors designed the book for flexibility: Connections is suitable as a writing textbook or as a supplementary guide; if used as a textbook, a supplementary guide is unnecessary. Unfortunately, the word, "guide," in the subtitle may cause instructors to lose it within their own footage of shelved guides. I hope this does not happen. As a text that synthesizes and refines much recent Internet-based composition pedagogy, Connections deserves a wider audience.
The same three authors (with Chris Busiel) contributed an earlier book for instructors, Teaching On-Line: Internet Research, Conversation, and Composition, originally bundled with the fourth edition of the Scott Foresman Handbook, and now available in a second edition from Longman. In composing Connections, Anderson, Benjamin, and Paredes-Holt converted many of the ideas presented in Teaching On-Line into a text for students. As such, these two books serve to crystallize what instructors and students can gain from on-line pedagogy.
1An eminently usable text, Connections is also an example of excellent pedagogical scholarship and a needed summary of the some of the best, classroom-tested theory and practice in the computers and composition field.
It is not surprising that a book that stresses rhetorical awareness would be sensitive to the needs of its student readers. The discourse is smart but not pretentious, and the authors write intelligibly without talking down to students. Separate "windows" containing definitions of key terms and summarized "Tips and Tactics" of essential points bookend each chapter. Discussion of technical matters is mostly located in chapter one and in several appendices, freeing the authors to concentrate throughout other chapters on the rhetoric of Internet-based writing. Many techniques, such as using Boolean operators to limit a Web search and creating bookmark files, are appropriately located in chapters that employ specific Internet venues and software for particular purposes. Each venue is explored for a variety of purposes: research, conversation, and composition on the Web, in Newsgroups, IRCs, and M**s (an abbreviation for MOOs, MUDs, and MUSHs, all synchronous chat spaces), and although some separation of venues is maintained for the sake of clarity, rhetorical and academic purpose is the overriding mode of organization. Techniques associated with each venue, then, are located according to the specific purposes of these uses. This choice of layout sets Connections off from many "guides" that group all techniques according to separate venues and software. Students are encouraged to analyze online communication in the context of particular rhetorical situations, to join the burgeoning matrix of online communities and conversations, and to connect online interactions with their research projects.
After Chapter One's introduction to Internet structures, the next few chapters in part one situate communication within rhetorical foundations and social constructivist epistemologies familiar to most college writing instructors, although probably less familiar to their students. This approach is expressed in a number of ways. A fact, for example, is defined as "something that is verifiable within a specific group of people at a specific time" (33) rather than as a transcendental signified. The purpose of argument is less to go into battle and win than to discover the common ground seen as a fundamental precondition to meaningful argument, and to further common understanding. The authors briefly touch on the contingent nature of meaning and truth, discussing Columbus' "discovery" of America and sports team exploitation of Native American stereotypes before asking students to consider the controversial implications of common terms such as "mother nature," "family values," and "hysteria." Thus, sensitivity to the impact of language on others is addressed early on and later reinforced. The book's emphasis on critical literacy goes beyond deconstructing ideologically loaded discourse: many examples of student projects focus on such topics as human rights abuses, labor union history, child care at work, and other "Left" progressivist issues; many other examples cover more standard hot button topics, and quite a few focus on the discourse and politics of the Internet.
In Chapter Two some familiar terms are covered: rhetorical situation and context, and the triangle of message, speaker, and audience. An in-class exercise very effectively demonstrates the need to consider these elements. In this hypothetical situation, an environmental activist proposes restrictions on mining to the city council of a small, Western town. The council is comprised of two retired miners, a doctor, a school superintendent, and a younger businessman. Small groups are asked to work through a series of questions aimed at a full consideration of the audience and situation. What values, beliefs, interests, and priorities is each member likely to hold? How should the speaker present him or herself in terms of dress, diction, and evidence? Each group must develop four reasons in favor of restrictions and state why these reasons would appeal to each council member. I used this exercise in a first-year composition class early in the term and was delighted by its engaging effectiveness. Of course, the question remains whether students will translate this audience-based heuristic to formal composition and Internet discourse. Connections meets this exigency in two ways: by giving direct advice on persuasive writing and by grounding their pedagogy in the intense interplay of on-line discussion in news groups, IRCs, MU*s, and Web forums. In each chapter, the basic concepts are applied to examples of Internet discourse, and as the book progresses, students are asked to practice these concepts in practice exercizes, online writing, and research.
After the basics of rhetoric, students are introduced to argumentation in Chapters Three and Four. Chapter Three focuses on distinctions between facts, opinions, and arguable claims. The basis of the approach is a somewhat simplified application of Toulmin argumentation. Some instructors might object to this streamlining, worried that Connections trims too much fat from argument structures. However, while concerned with argument, Connections is not primarily a book on argument. These chapters do provide an adequate foundation upon which instructors can scaffold. With the Web, instructors can link to additional materials on Toulmin reasoning and argumentation if they wish to. Furthermore, in later chapters, the authors apply many of the elements of persuasive argumentation to online venues, thereby reinforcing the concepts laid out in the early chapters. Through the consistent application of core concepts, the authors achieve an effective balance between teaching rhetoric and discussing the complex exigencies of online communication.
Part Two covers using the Internet for research; Part Three teaches collaboration and conversation in Internet communities by working through the major venues for the purposes of local collaboration in the class as well as long distance interaction. The last chapter in this part introduces students to hypertext, leading into the fourth and perhaps strongest part, Building and Design in Hypertextual Environments. Chapters in this section apply sound rhetorical principles to the design and composition of class projects in MU*s and on the Web. In an unusual turn, MU* construction is addressed first. This section demonstrates the appeal and potential of MU* construction projects and thoroughly discusses the need for defining a clear purpose to guide the design and choice of a "framing narrative" that can successfully fulfill its purposes. Examples of MU* projects with persuasive purposes demonstrate a number of design options and their implications for readers.
Jeremiad on Play
The Home(Page) Improvement and the Web-Building chapters that follow are equally excellent, and since Web site composition is available to many instructors and students, this section should prove especially useful. The instructions, options, and design perspectives taught through these chapters are thorough and well-considered. Eschewing sole reliance on the new click, drag, and type HTML editors, Connections advocates a basic knowledge of HTML, recognizing that even expensive Web-building software produces files that require tweaking and that some of these software products do not allow access to the HTML file. Hypertext composition, the authors note, requires "a new approach to the process of composition" (253). As with MU*s, Connections stresses academic purposes in considering page layout, spacing, and features, and the use of graphics to enhance information and argument. Students are advised to balance their need to control the reader's path through the document with hypertextual conventions of navigational choice through multiple pathways. The authors are refreshingly up front in their prescriptions for effective hypertext composition, such as annotating links, that are sensible without being too restrictive. Students are challenged to use the potential of new media within the constraints of academic and rhetorical purpose.
The book ends by projecting intelligently into the future of the Internet. This is a hazardous business, especially since the promised Internet II had not been announced when this chapter was composed. Even so, their prognostications are based on solid reasoning about how the Internet is likely to be used. Appendixes follow, summarizing useful sites, MU* commands, HTML code, copyright and fair use regulations, and MLA citation style for on-line sources.
Connections is not a perfect textbook or guide, but who has ever seen such an animal? Connections may be, however, the rare book that comes close to the ideal for many instructors in the computer-based composition classroom. In these courses, anthologies of essays are no longer required, since the course texts may be located in cyberspace. As with any such course, as well as ones that combine print and on-line composition, instructors must adapt a textbook to their own plans and syllabuses. Connections offers no obvious structure of assignments, no sequences as in Ways of Reading. (If you want a textbook based on a course syllabus, check out Butler and Condon's Writing the Information Superhighway.) As with MU* access, much is assumed of the instructor in this book, and for some instructors, those assumptions may prove to be too much. In anticipation of this problem, a fairly extensive Web site for the book is located in Allyn and Bacon's Compsite (composed and designed by Anderson). The Connections site is replete with exercises from the book, and links are provided to many site URLs featured in the print text. An impressive resources page features links to a wide variety of sites useful to composition students, on-line or otherwise. The site is not organized exactly like the book, appearing to be laid out more according to venue than is the book. Nevertheless the site is a wonderful supplement, and we certainly ought to see this as a hopeful trend. The Connections Web site does not, of course, replace the book. Allyn and Bacon has applied some restraint in the self-promotion opportunities of their Compsite; some shameless sales pitches are evident, but not unexpected.
The best news for instructors is the section of the Web site on teaching the book which includes an online Instructor's Manual (by the authors) and links to resources on MU*s, email, newsgroups, the Web, and so on. This may not answer all your questions, but it is a good start. If willing to use Anderson et al's Teaching On-Line in tandem with Connections and the Web site, while working with the panoply of resources and people available in cyberspace, even minimally experienced instructors can assign this text with confidence and adapt it successfully to any composition course emphasizing research and argument. Instructors more experienced with the media and technology are likely to feel pretty much at home with this book. These days, you can't ask for much more than that.
1Earlier in composition's history, book-length scholarship was often published in the guise of textbooks. Young, Becker, and Pike's 1970 Rhetoric: Discovery and Change is one example. Ironically, Addison-Wesley Longman, the publisher of Teaching On-Line, has no discernable Web presence.