CHWP A.18 Reed, Pett & Rigg, "Pedagogy in the Electronic English Classroom: A Cluster"

2. Thresholds: New Ventures in Teaching Composition

Alexandra Pett

Is it possible to teach composition to classes of 75 students? Will students' writing skills and ability to think and write critically improve demonstrably in a fifteen week course that involves large classes, an asynchronous arrangement with an open computer lab, teams of markers and monitors, and collaborations among both students and teachers? In September 1997, after almost a year of software survey, upgrading of an old computer lab, and much departmental debate, six members of the English Department at Mount Royal College set out to challenge a number of assumptions about the teaching and learning of writing. To assess the project, Patricia Harvey, from the College's institutional analysis division, prepared to collect data, adapting an instrument from Stephen Ehrmann's "The Flashlight Toolkit" that tracks students' attitudes to technology (see Ehrmann 1997).

Traditionally, English 2201, Composition, has been taught in a four hours of instruction per week format, with each instructor responsible for all the marking in the course. In order to ensure that students get the individualized attention they require, class size is limited to twenty-five students. We decided to adopt an alternate format for teaching English 2201: students would meet in large lecture sections of seventy-five students for three hours per week of class time. Instead of the instructor doing all the marking, markers would be hired to mark all essays (four per term), with the instructor marking the final examination. The additional one hour of class time would be given to students to use grammar software and to communicate with the instructor and classmates through e-mail. In this configuration, the use of e-mail was designed to compensate for the lessening of individual instructor contact which could occur more readily in the smaller classes. In choosing software, we decided to focus on simplicity, technical support, and ease of access. Though we looked at many designated grammar and writing programs such as Norton Textra Connect, Daedalus, and CoreText, in the end we decided to use Pegasus Mail, Microsoft Word and the Simon and Schuster Workbook for Writers (both paper and disk versions). We reasoned that most students would have at least some knowledge of word processing software and that the learning curve would be less daunting if we used a readily accessible office software package rather than a more specialized system.

The Thresholds Project was designed to solve some departmental contractual and professional problems, but from the beginning it led to the surfacing of important political and pedagogical concerns. Many faculty called the use of markers "exploitive". Others objected to the use of student monitors in the computer lab. Although the monitors were not assigned teaching tasks, inevitably they answered students' questions and demonstrated the use of software. Although the project was termed "grass roots" because it stemmed from the English Department's urgent need for new ways to teach composition as well as new curriculum, many observers both inside and outside the college saw the project as merely self serving and cost saving. From the perspective of faculty, the new alignments on a teaching team did provide some much needed relief from hours spent in the classroom. Overall, however, most evidence suggests the project was not cost saving and faculty ended up spending more time online than the actual saving in classroom hours.

Our venture in teaching writing to large groups exposed us to other uncomfortable yet challenging situations. Perhaps the most serious was the claim that large classes would contradict the mandate of the College for small groups. As one department member stated, "If we make a whole lot of decisions about our key writing course, then we define ourselves in a new way." We knew, moreover, that technological intervention could serve as a point of leverage for other kinds of change.

As Romy Clark and Roz Ivanic underscore in a recent book on composition, The Politics of Writing (1997), collaboration among writers can lead to important questions about the authority of the institutions where writing is taught (Clark and Ivanic 1997: 19). Essentially, as a group of English teachers, we agree with their statement of a kind of pedagogy "that does not merely enable learner writers to take on the dominant practices of a discourse community but rather questions them and opens up the possibility for challenge" (19). Ideologically committed to offering learners more options in modes of delivery and better equalization of opportunity for those with physical and learning disabilities, we imagined a classroom that would be inclusive of learners and allow for different constructions of self and voice, both online and in the communities of the larger classroom groups.

Because of the widespread changes we made, the English Department engaged in debates about the teaching of literary texts not only in literature classes but also in composition classes. As one department member said, "The method of delivery in the kind of environment we have created in the pilot project is not suited to the process approach but to the discussion of literary texts." Mostly, however, we continued to use the process approach to teaching composition, but we began to define process in a wider sense. We drew on some theories about post-modern curriculum as "a process of development, dialogue, inquiry, transformation" (Doll 1993: 13). We expected substantial change in students' thinking and we initiated more elements of metacognition than had previously been used in our courses.

At the beginning of the project, we chose a text, Thresholds: Literature-Based Composition (edited by J. Sterling Warner; Warner 1997), that provided us with a thesis statement for the course. A selection from the writing of Joseph Campbell underscored the importance of new beginnings, new adventures and experiences and archetypal journeys. But what is the arrival and departure of heroic journeys in the context of technology and in the post-modern landscape? The idea of a journey "out of control", to use the phrase of Paul Virilio, became part of the logos of the course. As Virilio suggests, in the world of technology "everything arrives without there being any need either to travel or to leave in the slightest physical sense" (Virilio 1993: 10). Beginnings and endings disappear, creating a new sense of time, space and light: "Currently, with the revolution of instantaneous transmissions, we are witnessing the beginnings of a type of general arrival in which everything arrives so quickly that departure becomes unnecessary" (8). How, then, do students using technology approach the writing of introductions and conclusions? Writing and reading inevitably reflect the altered time sense of technology use.

In many ways, the introduction of technology changed the reading habits as well as the writing of students. In my own case, the use of a variety of literary texts (including poetry, creative non-fiction, essays, short stories, parts of books) combined with reader response strategies. My composition class was thus an introduction to reading and writing about texts. I asked students to begin analysis of a text with their own readers' questions and to take inventory of their lived experiences as a base for both writing and reading. Electronic journals offered opportunities for self-connections. As others have stated, "Reader-centered perspectives on text have significant implications for teaching with technology and researching the effects of technology" (Ray and Barton 1991: 291). In a classroom linked to technology, students' reading patterns change; though only a small portion of the assigned reading was online, students commented in e-mail on what they read. Their reading and writing became multi-layered and self-reflexive. Rhetorical analysis of texts by non-canonical writers such as Isabel Allende, Julio Cortazar, Amiri Baraka, Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros and Junichiro Tanizaki introduced them to the pluralism of international writing communities and led to much discussion of the impact of race, class and gender on writing styles. At the same time, they were experimenting with different constructions of identity as they wrote online and used the internet. E-mail communication indicated their willingness to challenge authorities at the same time as they remained passive in other contexts.

Fragments, cyber commentaries, metafictions, ironic reversals of all kinds intrigued the readers in this composition course. Students seemed to expect arresting and disturbing experiences in their reading. In Allende's short story, "Our Secret", for example, the narrator tells us of the stages of intimacy that develop between a man and woman who discover that what they have most in common is physical and emotional scarring from the torture chambers of another country. Post modern styles (illustrated at the beginning of Thresholds by Loren Eiseley's "The Brown Wasps") connect with the fast moving images and icons of windows formats. Writing about a text can provide an important intervention to restless reading. As much as possible, I tried to balance the "living on the edge" quality in the reading with mind focussing activities in the classroom. Timed free writing, meditative visualizations with writing to follow, written answers to other readers' questions helped students to offset the feeling of visiting rather than owning a text. Since the spatial realities of technology encourage if not demand imaginative re/creation, I suggested self inventory as a way of knowing the self.

In many ways, the shapes on the computer screen and the designs of software impact on the way students construct meaningful selves. The fragmented consciousness of the literary texts we discussed was matched by the visual layouts of the computers and software. The outcome of such dizzying variation in thinking and response was a willingness to introduce many different approaches to literary texts and to their own writing. For one student, Allende's text dealt not so much with torture as with suicidal attempts; the essay on suicide that followed this discussion brought in multiple perspectives as well as different voices (from the student's youthful memories of a brother who committed suicide to an awareness of moral issues and addiction). Since technology itself has the potential to be both positively and negatively addictive, students used the classroom and computer lab contexts as the subject of discourse, arguing both sides of the debate over whether technology is a curse or a freeing power for humankind. Maybe the dominant message of the course was the way in which humans cannot control either themselves or their worlds. I believed further that the learning of new technology and the discovery of a different kind of classroom could encourage "letting go" of the stereotypes about learning which often disable students.

Moreover, learning in all forms involves stepping out of the known world and reaching for new tutelary figures, however strangely presented. The journey shape, with the problematic point of re-entry to the past world now changed, gives students some imaginative vehicles for expressing opinions and ideas. Going into the inner self is like entering the cyberworld; what you return with is knowledge. Words then allow knowledge to be communicated to readers. For example, the moment of realizing that the writer is himself/herself observed is apparent in Julio Cortazar's "Axolotl" when the man who watches axolotls in the zoo in Paris sees himself as an axolotl. He watches and meditates on the strange creatures on the other side of the glass cage until he is not frightened of them even though they devour him. What does it mean to think? The "threshold" themes and inquiries connected well with the technology to suggest to students the transforming power of becoming writers themselves.

The short readings of the composition course are well suited to online reading and to in-class discussion, especially with readers who are only beginning to learn how to read for long periods at a time. Since many new writers and readers are now heavily influenced by the boutique atmosphere of such large bookstores as Chapters, where writers read as shoppers browse, snack on books and chocolates, and wander often aimlessly, the melding of post-modern curriculum with a variety of media provides a familiar environment.

English departments have much to learn about the new markets for both writers and readers. Increasingly, we are aware of collaborative authorship, collaborative readings and collaborative learning spaces where teachers and markers work together. The project assessments prepared by Patricia Harvey further indicated that students want easy access to the software from off campus sites; e-mail was the technology they could least do without and they wanted to be able to make better use of it (Harvey 1998). Having layers of responses to their writing (from instructors, other students and markers) helped them to improve their writing. The more they used e-mail to write, respond and edit, the better their writing became. A final vote of confidence in faculty came from students in the large sections who spoke highly of their teachers. Rather than showing that classroom teachers are redundant, the technology enhanced writing program served to foreground teaching expertise.

In December, 1998, after three semesters, the pilot project using large classes ended. Although I felt regret over the conclusion to the Thresholds experience, I knew that the project's impact on the teaching of writing at Mount Royal College would be long-lasting. I had mixed feelings about the role of markers; overall, however, I concluded that the dedication of the markers to thorough assessment of students' writing was positive. As a teacher, I knew also that the use of visual materials, the public performance of talking with large groups and the multicultural curriculum had extended my competence in composition instruction. The most important aspect of Thresholds, finally, was increased understanding of the importance of linking collaborative learning and teaching to technology.

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