Sarah Klein

6/01/01 

New Pedagogy and Practice: Feminism, Composition, and the Computer

Feminist and composition studies occupy, to a large degree, a shared space in scholarly discourse. In recent years, feminist composition scholars have explored multiple critical fields, focusing on female writing teachers and feminist pedagogical practice in composition; gendered reading/writing/rhetorical/learning practices and styles in the writing classroom and in the 'real world'; the feminization (with subsequent marginalization/ghettoization) of composition as a discipline, and feminist issues in administration and publishing; the history of canonical, masculinist rhetorical theory and the recovery of women's roles in composition/rhetorical history; theoretics of identity surrounding literacy and writing; intersections of "otherings" and their impact on composition; and feminism and writing curriculum development. Despite the fact that feminist scholars adopt diverse theoretical stances (reflecting feminism(s) plural) and investigate a range of concerns, they virtually all agree that textual production and literacy represent important sites of power and agency. For example, bell hooks argues that language is a place of political and social struggle, and that literacy acts as the bedrock of a vibrant, advancing feminist movement (Olson and Hirsh 124-5). Further, feminist scholars agree that literacy and textual production have historically been gendered, frequently relegating women to the sidelines. Feminist scholars have historicized women's relationship to these sites, noting that the rise of each new information technology - including writing, print, and electronic - "tends to exclude women from positions of influence" (Hawisher and Sullivan "Women" 173). Donna Haraway argues that "you have to tell the origin of writing and the story of domination together, no matter where you start your narrative" (Olson 50).

Further, feminism and composition studies occupy a common critical site in that they both remain deeply invested in an exploration of subjectivity, of "the relation of people as agents to those things upon which they act," and the forces that act upon "persons formerly thought to be their own masters" (Jarratt Feminism 4). As Susan Jarratt suggests,

Feminisms overlap composition studies, developing a growing body of work on discourses and practices of difference, representation, and the social construction of knowledge and its subjects; composition studies speaks to feminist inquiry where it investigates gendered differences in language, teaching, and learning - the very places where subjects take shape in writing, reading, and teaching contexts, both academic and 'real world.' ( 3)

Since the 1980's, feminist composition studies scholars have contributed to an ongoing conversation about new and emerging information technologies - technologies that increasingly impact composition studies and that simultaneously have serious implications and possibilities for feminist praxis. The discourse around feminist composition and technology reflects the fields of inquiry traditionally marking broader feminist composition discourses, but has also required the construction of new and integrated theoretics and research approaches to account for new electronic mediums and contexts. This conversation remains very much in process, like any vibrant conversation defying finite closures, but it also continually calls feminist compositionists to respond in the here-and-now, through our pedagogy. Based on our evolving understandings of gender, literacy, and new information technologies, we need to remain focused on actively, thoughtfully integrating our most recent and progressive theoretical work with our current and developing practice - for feminist scholars, the importance of a dynamic yet practical praxis must remain a central goal as we delve further into the technological realm.

 

Reviewing the Conversation:
Feminist Composition Scholarship on New Information Technology

Over the past two decades, a number of feminist composition scholars have begun to explore textual production in relation to emerging technologies and new electronic forms of "literacies" arising with new mediums. As essentialist approaches to gender become water under the bridge for most contemporary feminist scholars, they recognize that, in the words of Patricia Harkin and John Schilb, "rhetors and audiences are not found in nature but rather made by the material circumstances in which they live and work" - a position necessitating that they take computers and technologies seriously (5). The conversation is, in many ways, just getting started - As Cynthia Selfe has argued, humanist academics harbor a deep distrust of "the machine," and many continue to be reluctant or avoidant of technology-related fields (Connors and Glenn 512).

This conversation continues to be a complicated one over time, as new technological developments unfold at a rapid pace and as the participants try out new approaches to the questions before them. As Pamela Gay and others have observed, in the early days of this conversation, in the mid- and late-1980's, the discourse was marked by an exuberant optimism about the egalitarian, democratic, and emancipatory possibilities of using computer technology in writing settings - and about the implications of these potentials for women and for the study of gender. In the 1990's, feminists began to temper this idealism through a call for more complex investigation of and theorizing about the use of computer technology in composition, questioning the idea that computerization can inherently or absolutely lead to the realization of these values. This more recent approach fosters and requires a more complicated look at the politics of identity and the theoretics of materiality and subjectivity, with major reverberations for feminist praxis and the study of gender. There has been a move from viewing the computer as a mere tool of word processing to considering more complex technologies and complex schemas of gendered subjectivities in computerized contexts.

Several scholars have been interested in the female teacher and feminist pedagogies in computerized composition settings. In 1990, Laurie George wrote about the female teacher and feminist pedagogy in the networked writing classroom, responding to and revising copious earlier feminist arguments that leaned toward essentializing and proposed a "maternal," model of pedagogy as ideal. She was one of the first to explore the boost to authority, the sense of "being taken seriously," that proficiency with new technologies afford the female teacher in the writing classroom, while also noting that "computer labs do not solve all problems with female authority, and in fact create some" (par. 9). While George recognized the power that the new medium can confer on students in their discourse, she also took a big step in documenting the abusive patterns of communication that may result in networked mediums where students' voices are freed and unbridled in a decentered setting, sometimes recreating and reinforcing social inequities and stereotypes perpetuated in the culture at large. She called for feminist composition teachers to problematize the maternal model, to recognize that they remain "emblems of cultural victimization" in the classroom, and to balance their desire to decenter the writing classroom with appropriate recognition and use of authority where it fosters positive and critical discourse environments (par. 16). Janet Eldred, in 1991, built on George's argument by honing in more succinctly on the material conditions in question, pointing out that students carry their social experiences and "roles" with them into computer settings, and that "language, like technology is never neutral, always socially charged" (par. 14). Eldred's argument revealed the ways in which conventional gendered roles and language seem to reappear in networked mediums, while new inequalities are also sometimes built based on hierarchies of technological savvy (which are also gender-skewed because of inequities of access and training). While not arguing for a specific, new gameplan for praxis, Eldred put out a call to the profession that "our classroom dilemmas do not disappear with a computer network; they change . . . Our task over the next few years will be to discover appropriate pedagogy and to train teachers to use the technology effectively" (par 15).

Other scholars have paid particular attention to the gendered writer-student in computerized composition settings. In the early 1990's, Susan Romano took the problematization of the egalitarian metanarrative of networked composition pedagogy a step further, when she noted that those students considered "marginal" must themselves self-identify with the marginalized identity position in the first place - something female students in writing classrooms don't always do. She noted that pedagogical efforts to use the new mediums as forum in which to explore identities and their fluidity sometimes "reify" stigmatized identities, imposing them on unwilling students whose own self-identity seeks empowerment outside these categorizations - and therefore undermine feminist praxis. In 1999, Romano expanded on her initial argument by responding to scholars such as Anthony DiMatteo who, in the early 1990's, tended to minimize the problematics of both authority in the networked classroom and specifically, the use of pseudonyms in real-time writing mediums. She now calls for a more careful feminist explanation of "to what ends" we "problematize student identities" through online mediums in composition pedagogy, and argues that urging students to "try on" new identities asks them to adopt disempowered ones, requiring an ethical accountability and responsibility in teachers who incorporate this approach into their pedagogical repertoire (255).

In 1990, Janis Forman looked at subjectivity and power dynamics in computer-supported writing groups, questioning notions of an absolute egalitarian potential for gendered student-writers through technology. In looking at collaborative writing groups, she cited the emergence of new hierarchies (led or dominated by an emergent "techno expert" and/or "techno advocate" within groups), arguing that patterns of who takes on these roles are gendered - related to gendered access, comfort level, and proficiency with new technologies that make males more likely to take assertive or even authoritarian leadership positions. In 1991, Selfe and Meyer studied online discourses on mixed-sex networked listservs, arguing that significant differences may exist between rates of participation and assertiveness of participation, with men participating more frequently and more assertively.

Too, in 1998, Hawisher and Sullivan argued that "electronic networks, neither egalitarian utopias nor sites devoid of powers and influence for women, offer women a way into the male-dominated computer culture. But gaining access to this culture means that women must confront issues of gender and power in the construction of their views of e-space" (173). Additionally, they suggested that e-spaces tend to collapse the public/private binary that has historically shadowed women's social realities, and that a wide variance exists in women's experiences and interpretations of their textual production in e-spaces (undercutting essentialist notions that "all women" experience technological mediums similarly) (178, 193). Hawisher and Sullivan urged further research and theorizing around gender disparities online and "women's persistence in spite of them"; women's disagreements about e-space, the silencing of women online, online violence against women, the nature of online communication, the disparities of access, and a vision of "appropriate online feminist actions" (193).

In direct dialogue with Hawisher and Sullivan's 1998 essay, Margaret Morrison, a participant in their study of women's discourse online, argued that the discomfort female writers experience about the instability of identities in cyberspace may prove challenging, but is ultimately a positive and necessary feminist experiment. Morrison too argued that the experiences and orientations to e-spaces vary widely among women, but suggested that cyberspace inherently intensifies straightforward identity formulations in a way that may cause a struggle for some women. In avoiding essentializing categorizations based on sex, Morrison argued that playing with and "working through" rather than "taking up" subject positions may be a productive exercise facilitated by e-spaces (213-14).

Scant, but vitally important, scholarship has also alluded to new technologies' impact on the feminized disciplinary state of composition. In 1993, Lisa Gerrard was probably the first, and certainly one of the only, feminist composition scholars to undertake a direct and sustained critique of the increasing de-feminization (and subsequent de-ghettoization) of composition as a discipline. She cited the computerized writing classroom as a site where this trend becomes most visible, and suggests that as new technologies imbue the profession with increased prestige and "legitimacy," the field becomes more divisive and authoritarian, and males tend to take on more prominence. She argued that a crisis of professional values has emerged, and that it carries mixed consequences for female teachers and students of composition. Gerard looks suspiciously at changes happening with regard to the status and nature of the field, suggesting that within computers-and-composition studies, the direct link between theory and practice is fading. Her scholarship speaks to the feminized double-bind of a gendered profession, and raises many questions specifically about information technology's implications for feminist composition praxis in these new contexts - questions yet unanswered.

Infusing Current Practice with Emerging Theoretics: Where Do We Go From Here?

A primary challenge for this first decade of the twenty-first century is to bring more and diverse scholars into this important but still developing field of inquiry, examining more fully the many intersections between feminism(s), composition, and information technology - the many yet-to-be-explored territories that will shed new light on the questions still looming around praxis. Scholars have just recently begun publishing on new and little-explored areas such as women's production of visual "text" on the Internet (Hawisher and Sullivan 1999); women's empowerment through composition in e-spaces and the implicated political possibilities for feminism(s) (Hawisher and Sullivan 1999); women's 'media fandom' and sci fi online fiction writing (Clerc, in Cherny and Weise 1996); the disembodiment fostered through Web communication and its gendered implications (Ullman, in Cherny and Weise 1996); new forms of hypertexts and their relationship to collaborative production and feminism (Mally and Marshall, in Cherny and Weise, 1996); and the gendered identities adopted in online MUD discourses (Kendall, in Cherny and Weise, 1996). To fully form a progressive scholarly "conversation," more scholars must take an active interest in the issues related to technologies, and those in the fields of composition, feminist, and technology studies (as well as those in related areas such as education) need to forge cross- and inter-disciplinary perspectives and theoretics, expanding upon the new fields of inquiry constantly emerging -- This particular conversation must be dynamic and flexible, because the technologies themselves proliferate and change at such an astounding pace.

Equally important, we must take Lisa Gerrard's imperative seriously, consciously striving to preserve composition's explicit linkage and integration of theory with practice. This marker may represent one of the best traditions of composition studies, and feminist praxis too demands nothing less. The scholarly voices participating in a truly progressive, ongoing dialogue about gender, writing, and technology must continually propose, implement, and evaluate ways in which we can embody the most recent research and theoretics in our pedagogical practice. In the best goals and traditions of feminist and composition praxis, our emerging theoretics must directly inform our practice, and we must likewise identify ways in which our everyday classroom experiences can inform and enrich our theorizing.

To accomplish this and to propel the discussions about gender and technology, our actual practice in the classroom ought to reflect the recent problematization of computerized writing settings and of the egalitarian myth that has oversimplified these mediums. We must continue to directly address the lingering differentials in gendered access to and assertiveness within electronic writing spaces. Too, the recent scholarship requires that we use and evaluate electronic spaces more critically than in the past; that our practice recognize the fact that the technology, the teacher, and the student negotiate exist within multiple contexts rather than autonomously; and that we must find a better balance between the poles of decentralization and authority for meeting feminist goals in the computerized writing classroom. Thus, we're charged with a complex but viable call-to-action.

In order to empower both teachers and students to more critically evaluate and more equitably and positively make use of computerized writing mediums, writing programs and administrations must make the move to implement in practice, and to some degree "institutionalize," the new theoretics. We must begin with the teachers of writing themselves. Graduate students (the constituency providing the vast majority of undergraduate writing instruction) must not continue to remain sidelined within, or unaware of, the scholarly conversation surrounding gender, composition, and information technology. When their practice is not informed by the most recent research and theory on subjectivity and technology, pedagogical practice suffers for it, as do students. And, as Eldred has argued, appropriate pedagogy and teacher training remain inherently linked (par. 15). The multiple concerns related to subjectivity, power, and technology that face writing teachers can be better addressed by providing relevant, hands-on technology training for TAs as well as providing ongoing supported access to current composition technologies, and by consciously integrating the field's current research and theory into teacher training, peer support, and workshop/inservice programs. Such initiatives can be spearheaded by freshman writing programs, professional writing programs, and related administrative structures that train and supervise grad student writing teachers.

As a vital second step, scholars in the field and administrators of undergraduate writing programs must also take direct initiative to encourage graduate student instructors to not only make use of new technologies, but to think and dialogue critically about them. Without this foundation, graduate students, the newcomers to the scholarly field, cannot and will not take an active part in keeping this discourse, research, and practice progressive or even current. Too, they cannot impart to their undergraduate students critical perspectives and technological skills which they themselves do not possess. In order to be well equipped for these tasks, training for new TAs in writing programs ought to incorporate new texts and the most current readings to build recognition of the problematics and complexities of these mediums, as well as providing graduate student teachers opportunities for training, access, and practice with appropriate computer software and hardware. In approaching the complex web of subjectivity, composition, and technology critically in these teacher curriculums, we might integrate the "diversity" readings in the 611 syllabus, for example, with the "technology" readings, assigning one or two articles that deal with the conflation of these concerns. This approach can be more difficult and challenging, but it encourages new teachers to think about the issues in truly complex ways rather than "tokenizing" the technology in the same ways "gender" or "race" tend to get tokenized in our curriculums.

In addition, freshman writing program administrations need to make more of an effort to educate new TAs about the initiatives on campus that address issues of technology, pedagogy, power, and identity, encouraging graduate students to forge educational and cooperative bonds with more advanced faculty interested in technology issues and the humanities (for example, at UM, the mysterious and little-known MITH program spearheaded by Martha Nell Smith). Our scholarly publications in this field, as well as our syllabi for training graduate instructors, might further investigate which current software programs and networked e-spaces work well in undergraduate writing settings, and which pose specific problematics in the classroom. Too, graduate student teachers can be encouraged to share, evaluate, and contextualize their experiences with technology in writing pedagogy with their colleagues at composition conferences, through submissions for publications, and in dissertation research - as well as in the standard weekly "support and mentoring" sessions led by administrators and experienced teachers. For new teachers in particular who approach the classroom mindful of subjectivity and/or holding feminist values, the more dialogue, networking, access, and training, the better - for these opportunities truly equal "empowerment" for both teachers and students. As the research has suggested, the computer hardware alone, decontextualized and approached merely as a neutral "tool," will never usher in the new horizons we desire for our classrooms. And it starts with the teacher.

In addition, we need to enrich undergraduate writing programs and curriculums with opportunities to address subjectivity and technology early on. In encouraging students to not only use and consume technology, but to evaluate it critically, we empower them and challenge them in directions critical for democratic discourse coupled with responsible, careful consciousness. This process need not be held aside for upper-level students in the final years of their college education - it can and should start with the very first university writing courses, in freshman writing programs. For example, the official departmental freshman writing reader, "Perspectives," might include at least one essay whose content/theme deals with technology and its contexts, appropriations, problematics, potentials, and/or impact - this is one rather simple way to introduce critical thinking from technology-related discourses as an integrated facet of the freshman writing curriculum, and to make students a part of this discourse as they learn to rhetorically analyze it. Too, direct efforts should be made to schedule into the freshman writing syllabus time to (a.) write in networked computer settings at least once as a class; and (b.) to critically evaluate the experience together as a class through discussion and reflection. This approach is a two-part punch, because current feminist composition scholarship strongly suggests that we foster both access and critical thinking skills in using technology in our classrooms. Encouraging students to "use the computer" is a hollow goal when we don't process this endeavor thoughtfully with our students - discussing issues such as variance in access and comfort level with the technology, what happens to classroom discourse when it enters this new medium, how students experience their subjectivity and "voice" in these new settings. By taking the time to encourage such processing with our students, we model for them a more complex and responsible way of using technology.

Finally, we must maintain and reinforce the standard library instruction given to students on using and evaluating digital information sources in their research and writing, presenting new technologies as part of a balanced, thoughtful approach to research and composition that requires their own active, critical investment. Current pushes in education to give "every student computer access" or "get a computer into every classroom" are only a first step - and in some ways, a shortsighted one. Our future efforts must aim far beyond the current norms for simply "digitizing the classroom."

Of course these various initiatives will come at a price, both literally and figuratively. Most avant-garde projects do, because thinking and working "outside the box" always requires new allocations, re-evaluations of traditional modes, and sometimes tough decision-making. Academic structures and administrations are bureaucratized and not always particularly quick to adopt new schemas. Particularly in this case, some of the changes necessary require the cold hard cash of substantial financial investment, to allocate funds for hardware and software purchases and upgrades, as well as professional technical support, for ever-changing technologies. Such allocations can indeed be a drain on other areas, particularly during the current transitional periods for many departments and universities, when resource allocation is hotly debated, and often most slim for the arts and humanities. Further, as Selfe and others have argued, many compositionists, as well as feminists and other humanist scholars and their administrations, remain uncomfortable with and wary of new technologies and their applications in the classroom. Dialoguing with our diverse colleagues and highlighting the far-reaching implications of the choice to either (a.) integrate or (b.) ignore technologies may be a difficult and sometimes thankless endeavor. New ways of understanding "literacy" will challenge institutions to wholly re-evaluate, and perhaps reconceptualize, their missions and means of going about the business of education.

The challenges and problematics of overhauling curriculums and policies deeply rooted in bureaucracies may account for the reasons our approaches to technology have not advanced as quickly as has much of our theorizing. However, taking a new approach to subjectivity and technology in composition settings remains imperative, particularly for those who advocate feminist (and anti-racist, and anti-classist…) values. The hurdles and challenges at hand in instigating real change may make feminist composition study of new technologies one of the most lively and relevant conversations in academia today. The stakes are high, because as Selfe has suggested, literacy in America is increasingly defined as computer literacy. From pedagogical, political, OR theoretical standpoints, we cannot afford to ignore new information technology and its social and cultural implications. For, as feminist scholars and many compositionists have long argued, subjectivity, and thus power, operate in and through sites of literacy and textual production/reception. The new literacies will increasingly impact the very real, material conditions of ours and our students' lives.

 

1.

Noi ex: Annas, Desmet, Hollis, Jarratt, Rubin, Stygall, Yee.

2.

ii ex: Bolker, Brady, Farrell, Flynn, Rubin, Stygall.

3.

iii ex: Enos, Goodburn and Leverenz, Reynolds, Ritchie and Boardman, Schell.

4.

iv ex: forthcoming from Jane Donawerth, Logan, collections edited by Lunsford and

Wertheimer, and Ritchie and Ronald.

5.

v ex: Caughie, Harkin and Schilb, Hawisher and Sullivan, Worsham.

6.

vi ex: Brady, Hesford, Jarratt, Logan, Min-Zhan Lu, Yee.

7.

vii ex: Malinowitz.

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