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Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet

Editor: Todd Taylor, Irene Ward
Publisher: New York: Columbia University Press, 1998
Review Published: November 1999

 REVIEW 1: Anna Mae Duane

College composition instructors have traditionally had a hard lot. Saddled with heavy workloads and awarded little prestige, they are often relegated to the bottom rung of an English department which is itself largely undervalued by an academy increasingly enamored with the hard sciences. And it doesn't look as if things are going to get easier any time soon. Now, in addition to the formidable task of teaching college freshmen how to write effectively, comp teachers are expected to implement computer technology in the classroom. For quite a while now, pundits have been testifying to the miraculous possibilities of the Internet in the classroom, but no one's quite sure exactly how the magic is supposed to happen. In fact, there's a growing body of theory arguing that the classical logic and rhetoric of freshman comp are distinctly at odds with Internet communication. If so, the introduction of cyberliteracy necessitates an entirely new stance toward education. The implications are staggering.

Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet offers eleven essays that examine this uneasy classroom union of cyber and traditional literacy. As a pastiche of arguments representing widely divergent political and theoretical perspectives, the book reflects the postmodern medium that it takes for its subject matter. Drawing from pedagogical theorists like Peter Elbow, poststructuralists like Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, and cybertheorists Donna Haraway, Cynthia Haynes, and Lester Faigley (whose 1996 address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication is the first piece in the collection), the essays postulate the myriad impacts of the Internet on the mind, the body, and the university. Many of the authors who candidly describe their attempts to implement computers in the classroom offer engaging, if at times disturbing, responses to a question haunting the halls of English departments across the country: Now that we have computers at every student's desk, what are supposed to do with them?

At its most hopeful moments, Literacy Theory suggests that the Internet delivers on the promise of poststructuralist theory and is capable of bringing nonlinear, nonhierarchical interaction to the classroom. And in line with much postmodern scholarship, the authors are strikingly effective when deconstructing the old guard of traditional literacy, but are often hard put to offer a viable replacement. The strength of this book is that its authors don't elide this difficulty; many of the contributors face it head on. Admittedly, some of the essays do wax rhapsodic about the achieved paradise of the computer classroom, but in the best articles, the authors are willing to confess their collective fall from grace and discuss the difficulties of introducing the Internet into a goal-oriented classroom. Theory and praxis are repeatedly brought into sharp contrast as the insights gained from student interaction offer a sobering counternarrative to the heady optimism that permeates some of the articles' more explicitly theoretical moments. Speaking from within a conversation that often discusses the wonders of cyberspace in terms appropriate for evangelical testimony, this collection gains its power from its willingness to blaspheme. Many contributors suggest that the Internet falls well short of the revolution it seemed to herald. Indeed, several essays argue convincingly that cyberspace is quite capable of reinforcing the very intolerance and injustice its proponents believe it uniquely capable of destroying.

Johndon Johnson-Eilola's essay "Negative Spaces: From Production to Connection in Composition," offers a particularly apt example of the clash between often overly optimistic theory and problematic praxis that resonates throughout the collection. In his earlier book, Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing, Johnson-Eilola discusses the possibilities of hypertext as a social technology, and perhaps it is his enthusiasm for this new medium that allows him to envision freshman composition as a course in "hypertext bricolage." He makes the suggestion (one likely to win approval from first year-composition students everywhere!) that computer literacy means the demise of the individually produced research essay. As we move into this new era of communication, Johnson-Eilola argues, the emphasis must be on process rather than product. The era of discrete individual creation is over, and the college student of the future will be judged not by what she creates, but what she collects. A paradigm of shared knowledge and creative collaboration will ultimately replace private ownership of ideas. To demonstrate the advantages of privileging collaborative process over individual production, Johnson-Eilola reprints a passage from the ERROR 404 essay, the product of a collaborative on-line writing seminar. What follows is a series of semantic fragments, including a theoretical discussion of the body, a joke about an AT&T slogan, a request for virtual fellatio, and a stand-alone bibliographic reference.

This essay -- a text comprising random, tangentially linked thoughts -- makes for interesting theorizing, but seems an unlikely replacement for the persuasive essay in the college classroom. One doesn't need to be a die-hard advocate of old-fashioned logic and rhetoric to see there are serious flaws in this pedagogical model. No, it isn't an affection for the past that prompts objections to pastiche-writing for freshmen as much as an anticipation of the future -- the very future that Johnson-Eilola and others describe so persuasively. As many of the essays in the collection point out, globalization offers the individual an ever-increasing barrage of information, much of it designed to benefit multinational corporations and the interests that serve them. In the face of such an ideological onslaught, students would be far better served by learning how to analyze the logic behind the soundbite rather than learning how to string them together without criticism or synthesis.

William Corvino seems to share these doubts about the Internet's ability to free us from the grasp of multinational corporations. Building on insights gleaned from William Gibson's classic Neuromancer, Corvino argues that "cyperpunk literacy is not a force for change in a world where corporate reorganization is the only change possible" (44). According to Corvino, computer communication is no more than "a diversion, an entertainment" (44), that allows the "talented individual to amuse himself in a word that is -- with reference to any substantive change in material conditions -- always the same" (44).

Later in the collection Raul Sanchez argues persuasively, that at least as far as the mind/body problem is concerned, the Internet leaves things very much the same indeed. In his article "Our Bodies? Our Selves? Questions about Teaching in the MUD," he contends that the belief that cyberspace effaces the body (and hence the various prejudices attached to it) is an overly easy answer to a centuries-old question. Borrowing a phrase from Allucquere Rosanne Stone, Sanchez argues that, disregarding the body as "meat" -- a stance articulated by Gibson's Neuromancer and embraced by many cybertheorists -- is no more than "an old Cartesian trick" (97). To leave the body behind is to ignore a constitutive force in identity formation, particularly for women and minorities. In other words, forgetting the body means forgetting those whose lives have been deeply affected by society's attention to their bodies, because of disability, illness, color or gender. Disavowing the physical means disavowing physical difference, and as Sanchez contends: "By now we might have realized the road to this horizon is paved with the bodies of the powerless and the disenfranchised" (97).

The third section, Electronic Pedagogies, points out the Internet's transformative power can be as easily compromised in the classroom as when confronted with globalization or prejudice. As Todd Taylor argues in his essay, "The Persistence of Authority: Coercing the Student Body," the supposedly liberating presence of the computer in the classroom proves disturbingly conducive to an environment of discipline and domination. As Taylor describes his decision to design a computer classroom in a way that allows him to view his students' screens at all times, he realizes that he is placing himself more squarely in a centralized position of authority than he would in a traditionalclassroom. Yet, given the increased possibility for distraction inherent in the computer-assisted environment, he as professor felt that increased surveillance was necessary if he hoped to actually teach anything. Faced with the option of pretending not to notice his students surfing online datingservices while he was trying to lead them through an assignment, Taylor went with the Panopticon.

Even when the presence of computers do allow the professor to shed the trappings of control -- a cherished goal for liberal pedagogues who argue for shared teacher-student authority -- divisive power struggles do not become a thing of the past. In the most compelling essay in the collection, instructors Terry Craig, Leslie Harris, and Richard Smith chronicle "The Rhetoric of the Contact Zone," in which a very hopeful experiment in cross-cultural germination collapses into bitter conflictbased on religious and socioeconomic prejudices. In this experiment, students from a large urban university were paired with students from a smaller rural colleges. The classes were asked to convene on a MOO (Multi-user Object-Oriented domain) and discuss a variety of texts selected by the instructors to create conversation about race, gender and religion.

Conversation they certainly got. But instead of the fragmented playful dynamic of "dissensus" that was supposed to force sharper thinking among the individual students, the domain facilitated the formation of group allegiances which progressively consolidated into ugly conflict. The individual colleges somehow crystallized into small nation-states, with their respective students showing fierce loyalty to each other and great antagonism towards the outsiders. Rather than freeing students from their own identities (whether it be small town churchgoer or big city cynic), the MOO allowed them to abandon personal accountability in favor of siding with the larger group. The teachers, by virtue of their disestablished stance in the project, could do little to defuse the mounting hostility. The interschool rivalry became dangerously intense, with students hurling intolerant epithets as well as virtual left hooks (at one point a student in the domain punches a cyber-representation of the other in the face). Once again, it seems, the revolution serves up more of the same old stuff.

As almost every essay in this collection indicates, the Internet is no panacea for the ills plaguing English teachers. But if it's not what we hoped it would be, what does this new medium mean for the classroom? Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet offers no easy answers, and for that alone it is a worthwhile read for teachers across the curriculum. The arguments contained in the various essays offer a fragmented, and often contradictory, vision of the future of the computer-assisted classroom, but one message seems fairly stable: the Internet isn't going to let any of us -- students, teachers, or administrators -- remain comfortable for very long. If, as many have argued, effective learning involves disturbing old ways of thinking, then these essays do make a case for the Internet as a learning tool of tremendous power -- a power that merits caution as well as celebration.

Anna Mae Duane:
Anna Mae Duane is pursuing a Ph.D. in American Literature at Fordham University, where she teaches composition and rhetoric. This spring, she begins work on a dissertaion examining the cultural work of the child in early American literature.  <DUANE@fordham.edu>

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