Presentation Abstract

Discovering Discourse Communities: Hypertext as a Bridge Between Worlds for First-Year Composition Students

For the past three years I have been investigating the effect of using Internet mailing lists in first-year composition courses as a means of increasing the level of critical reasoning evident in student writing. I have done this by introducing students systematically to a number of general-topic or wide-ranging-topic Internet discussion groups of ascending levels of critical discourse over the course of a semester. The results have been encouraging, but I have decided to take a break from this area of research to take advantage of two recent developments. The first development was the introduction of a new multi-media lab in the department. This new facility has a number of computers with 166Mhz and 200Mhz Pentium processors as well as some of the latest multimedia software. The second development is the noticeable increase in the number of first-year composition students entering the university already possessing basic computing skills.

Underlying my previous research was the belief that through practice with a real, unpredictable, audience, students would develop a much stronger grasp of the power and versatility of the written word and their ability to use it effectively. As students actively participated in the discourse of increasingly critical discourse communities, their own critical reasoning skills would increase out of necessity as they adapted to newer demands put on their rhetorical abilities. They would out of necessity stretch and expand their discursive repertoires as they adapted to the newer discourse environments.

In "Discovering Discourse Communities" students write Web-based documents of increasing levels of hypertextuality. Over the course of the semester, there are five essays, each more hypertextual than the one before. Early essays contain few or no links, then links which allow the reader to jump to documents written by students in the same course section (classmates students see face-to-face all the time). Later, students write essays containing links to documents in the other section I teach, and eventually to documents by authors outside the university altogether.

I believe that just as in my research with Internet discussion groups, students in this class also stretch and expand their discursive repertoires as they adapt to newer discourse environments. The catalyst or vehicle which enables the stretching in this class is the dialogue between the students themselves as they learn about building websites, negotiate the effectiveness of the essays they read and write, and grow their own discourse community.

Students learn what a discourse community is as they participate in the growth of their own community, identify the discourse communities around them as they explore the implications of the dialogue they already engage in with their classmates, families, friends, and others; discover what role communication technology plays in creating, sustaining, and revising discourse communities as they reach out beyond their usual educational experience; and become active participants in the discourse communities around them once they realize they have a voice to exercise and a real place to be heard.

Author: Eugene Ortiz


Target Audience: Intermediate

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