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

3. Intervention and Control in the Classroom: Some Concerns

Sabrina Reed

As Alexandra Pett explains in the preceding paper, the English 2201 Pilot Project at Mount Royal College gave instructors an opportunity to consider the impact of technology on issues of pedagogy, workload and instructor authority. The move to classes of seventy-five students, a cumbersome number for a composition class, was predicated on using computers to teach the grammar component of the course, e-mail to connect with students and markers to evaluate student papers. Our experiences at the College highlight Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen's assertions that computers exist not on their own but as part of an existing social structure which they both influence and are influenced by. They conclude their essay by asking the question, "How does each network or use of computers promote or inhibit social construction and social interaction between individuals, collaborators, discourse communities, and the larger community?" (Duin and Hansen 1994: 111) In terms of the Mount Royal College Pilot Project, how did the changing configuration of the classroom, made possible by the introduction of technology, change the dynamics of interaction between teacher and student?

The most striking change for instructors and students focussed on the instructor's ability to intervene in student learning. In large classes, the weaker students have more of a tendency to "fall through the cracks" and to become anonymous than they do in classes where the instructor can intervene directly in student progress. The impetus switches to the student's desire to ask for help and away from the instructor's ability to offer it. Because the instructor marks all papers, the instructor of a class of twenty-five students develops a sense of each student's strengths and weaknesses; but in a large class, the instructor relinquishes some of this ability to monitor the student to a marker. This paper will discuss the implications of using markers and how the primary instructors used e-mail to compensate for less face-to-face contact.

Certain aspects of the instructor/marker/student relationship caused difficulties. English 2201 is a fifteen-week course in first year university-level composition. During the term, students must write four essays of 750 to 1,000 words each, with an emphasis on persuasive writing. In the first semester of the Pilot Project, the primary instructors alternated markers for each assignment, an approach which created problems for all concerned. Students complained that each marker had slightly different expectations, while markers and instructors found that consulting with a new person for each assignment added unnecessary work and stress. In the second semester of the Pilot Project, therefore, each instructor worked with one marker for the duration of the course, allowing markers, students and instructors to form more permanent ties. Even with this change, however, many students mistrusted the markers. Evaluations of the Project showed that students wanted direct feedback from the instructor and felt that the marker's comments did not accurately reflect what the instructors said in class. Instructors counteracted these concerns by allowing students to discuss all marks with the instructor (though there were few such grievances in actual practice) and by some instructors reading all papers over quickly to ensure fairness. A quick comment at the end of each paper by the instructor minimized resentment and allowed the students to feel that not one, but two, people agreed on the mark that had been given, perhaps an example of the "positive effect of ... personalization on student achievement or attitudes" (Dwyer and Sullivan 1993: 140) mentioned in one study. Such an approach, did, however, require considerable time and lessened the benefits of having a marker in the first place.

In general, many of the problems students had with markers could stem from problems with the act of marking itself. As Lil Brannon and C.H. Knoblauch have pointed out,

I.A. Richards has said that we begin reading any text with an implicit faith in its coherence, an assumption that its author intended to convey some meaning and made the choices most likely to convey the meaning effectively. As readers, therefore, we tolerate the writer's manipulation of the way we see the subject that is being addressed. Our tolerance derives from a tacit acceptance of the writer's "authority" to make the statements we are reading. (Brannon and Knoblauch 1982: 157)
"In classroom writing situations," however, "the reader assumes primary control of the choices that writers make, feeling perfectly free to 'correct' those choices any time an apprentice deviates from the teacher-reader's conception of what the developing text 'ought' to look like or 'ought' to be doing"(158). Thus, the marking situation takes authority away from the writer and places it on a marker whose standards may be difficult for the student to follow. The writer's creativity is subsumed by the marker's power to judge. As Brannon and Knoblauch put it, "this correcting also tends to show students that the teacher's agenda is more important than their own, that what they wanted to say is less relevant than the teacher's impression of what they should have said" (158). Although the teacher/marker's experience, judgment and taste should benefit the student (and the current academic set-up requires that students receive grades), the marking situation can dampen creativity by instilling fear and feelings of inferiority.

Robert A. Schwegler adds to Knoblauch and Brannon's position by stating that

the paradigms we employ to conceptualize the relations between teacher/readers and student/writers in a composition class are political. First, they guide the distribution and exercise of power in the classroom society. Second, they reproduce in various ways the relationships that characterize the larger societies to which we and our students belong. (Schwegler 1991: 216)
In this context, Schwegler makes the point that "Views of the teacher's role as authoritative, authoritarian, and prescriptive have dominated traditional approaches to composition instruction and have led to an emphasis on form" (216). In a desire to be seen as objective, instructors rely on the measurable aspects of writing such as grammar and structure, and minimize the effect of subjective responses. As Schwegler points out, however, all response to writing has a subjective element, and students can benefit significantly when an instructor acknowledges his or her subjective response to the text.  Richard Straub also looks at the authority of the marker by analysing marking styles ranging from "Directive" to "Facilitative" (Straub 1996: 223). He suggests that "The critical questions have to do with when and to what extent we as individual teachers exert control over student writing through our comments" (247). Similarly, Karen L. Greenberg writes,
all grades, evaluations, and assessments – no matter how naturalistic, contextualized, multidimensional, and richly descriptive – are exercises in power. The 'phenomenology' of grading, evaluating, and assessing always involves asymmetrical attempts to shape experiences and identities, to control others, to establish or maintain authority. When we respond to student writing, we are in control. (Greenberg 1998: 277)
Interestingly, the main benefit instructors in the Pilot Project reported was that the presence of a marker altered this adversarial dynamic. While many instructors would agree with Nancy Sommers' statement that "we comment on student writing to dramatize the presence of a reader, to help our students to become that questioning reader themselves" (Sommers 1982: 148), they might also say that such an optimistic assessment of marking is difficult to achieve in actual practice. An instructor functioning as a marker is not just any reader, but a reader who can fail the student or negatively affect the student's grade point average. While the student/teacher relationship should ideally be one of trust, the tension between the instructor's role as teacher and the instructor's role as judge can cause friction. Anyone with experience of teaching and marking, for instance, has probably experienced the post-paper chill that can descend when the instructor hands back the first set of papers. Often students spend more time thinking about the instructor's power to pass judgement than they do about what the instructor is trying to say.

Because they were using markers for the first time, instructors in the Pilot Project thought a great deal about how the act of marking affects the classroom dynamic. Used to marking all papers themselves, the five Mount Royal College instructors were well aware of the exercise in power involved in evaluating student work. They found, however, that when there is a marker, the instructor can become the student's ally, working with the student to improve his or her writing. Instructors encouraged students to consult with them about their essays and provided help in the formation of ideas and approaches. In addition, when students came with complaints or concerns about their grades, instructors could help them meet the marker's expectations, rather than feeling defensive about the grade they themselves had given. If we go back to Brannon and Knoblauch's comment on the instructor exerting "primary control" (Brannon and Knoblauch 1982: 158) over student texts, the benefit of having markers was that authority over student writing was split. Instructors maintained authority over the information presented in the classroom, but they did not sit in judgment to enforce that authority. Instructors could make suggestions on how to meet the expectations of the marker, thus making themselves advocates for the student's improvement rather than arbiters of success and failure. Many of the instructors in the Pilot Project found this to be a liberating experience.

It is important to note, however, that the instructors in the Pilot Project did not see the use of markers as a way to avoid contact with students. The stereotypical view of classes with markers involves large 300-seat classrooms where the instructor cannot recognize students' faces, let alone know their names. In contrast, teachers and students at the College expect a significant amount of contact and interaction. Thus, while one form of instructor/student contact, the act of marking, was shifted onto the marker, instructors tried hard to maintain student contact and to know what their students were thinking and writing. Instructors used e-mail as a way of commenting on student writing and minimizing the lack of direct student contact caused by having seventy-five students in one class. All sections of the Pilot Project included an e-mail component to the course. Although many students could, and did, e-mail the instructor at any time, all students were required to use e-mail to receive part of their final grade.

For instance, I had students write me progress reports before each essay was due. These reports encouraged the students to begin their papers early, got them writing in a less formal way, and gave me an opportunity to assess their progress and to answer questions. Similarly, when students sent online drafts of their papers as e-mail attachments, I used the "Insert Comment" function of Microsoft Word to send them feedback on their writing. Admittedly, using e-mail did not solve all the difficulties around student/instructor contact. Some students simply ignored the e-mail requirement, and lost a percentage of their grade in the course. Those who habitually did their work at the last minute resented having to write about an essay that they had not started. Others, however, sent detailed notes on what they were planning; indeed, many sent me entire rough drafts of their essays. Thus, while using e-mail did not automatically motivate all students, it provided many with a forum to discuss their work.

David Coogan, in his article, "E-Mail Tutoring, a New Way to Do New Work", has discussed the power of e-mail to "offer new opportunities for collaboration that are not tied to the printed page or the writer's single voice" (Coogan 1995: 175). He continues, "e-mail tutorials place the paper in a continually changing context of communication: A writing tutorial becomes a discussion in writing. The student sends a paper, receives comments, writes a response, receives more comments, and so on" (175). For some, the disembodied space of e-mail allows for an easier interaction between student and instructor, more time to reflect, a finding supported by Janet Eldred's comment: "Although computers have been blamed for their dehumanizing effects, for their reducing of human personalities to numeric codes, many instructors and students alike comment on just the opposite phenomenon, on the computer's ability to make the writing classroom a much more personal space" (Eldred 1991: 2).

By far the most interesting result of using e-mail in the course was the way it helped certain students to communicate with their instructors. Perhaps because e-mail is perceived to be more "anonymous" than face-to-face communication and "not subjected to the reflective scrutiny we usually give to the language we inscribe on paper" (Hawisher and Moran 1993: 630), some students told me they felt empowered by the use of e-mail in the course. They felt they could communicate more readily with instructors, often asking questions which they were afraid to ask in class. Many times, I had students who were extremely reluctant to speak up in class send me e-mails which showed that they had been actively considering the class content. As Hawisher and Moran point out, "Research in various fields has suggested that the lack of paralinguistic cues ... invites participation in group e-mail discussions from those who normally refrain from speaking face-to-face" (634).

More importantly, e-mail takes away some of the constraint to be "correct" which can deaden student creativity. In spite of all warnings and evidence to the contrary, many people still see e-mail as a disposable form without lasting consequences. Thus, something written on e-mail has more latitude in terms of content and correctness than a piece of writing committed to paper. While I would not advocate ignoring the rules of correct grammar, attention to these rules in the drafting phase of the writing process often limits the student's ability to generate ideas. E-mail, with its perceived flexibility and lack of "rules", can thus serve as a way to encourage students to write. Certainly, students' comments on the course indicated that they enjoyed expressing themselves in this medium.

To conclude, the 2201 Pilot Project provided instructors with valuable opportunities to question and challenge their pedagogical assumptions. While time savings were minimal, the project allowed instructors to organize their workloads in new ways, which provided more flexibility and, in most cases, increased instructor satisfaction. While students lost some of the one-to-one contact of smaller classes, they gained a different kind of contact through the use of e-mail and the loosening of traditional boundaries which seems to come with this medium. If nothing else, the project provided valuable opportunities for collaboration between colleagues and helped to expand the ways in which faculty approach the teaching of composition.

On the negative side, concerns over whether or not the Department should use markers caused problems from the beginning of the project. The most unsettling aspect of using markers was the creation of a new (to the Department) class of employee and the potential for exploitation. In an environment where sessional instructors were used to teaching their own sections of 2201, the prospect of being "only" a marker created worry about loss of autonomy and the creation of a marking "ghetto". On the other hand, some of the markers preferred the anonymity and lack of constraint of being a marker. They did not want teaching jobs, but rather wanted to work out of their own homes. Still, the job implications for markers remained the most problematic part of the Project. In fact, since the time this paper was presented in 1998, the Project has been put on hold because of this controversy.

The introduction to this cluster quotes Chris M. Anson's vision of the future student and the jobs that technology may force on the Academy. In the end, we must be careful to adopt the positive potential of technology without creating a group of workers who lose status because of it. Instructors from the Pilot Project will continue to experiment with ways to broaden student contact through the use of e-mail but in smaller, more individualized classrooms.

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