Writing Vicariously: The Politics of Presence in the Distance Learning Classroom

Every disappearance is a re-appearance. There is always a face.
Dianne Rothleder, "Disappearing"
  1. As teachers we quickly become attached to our own presence in the classroom, and we know there are a number of ways to lose "it"--to disappear, to no longer be seen or rather to lose control of the scene. With each disappearance, however, there is a re-appearance elsewhere, though different or deferred. For many of us these pedagogical shifts are increasingly mediated by telecommunication technologies--modems and servers that turn our classrooms into telepresences or mediated perceptions of temporally and spatially distant "real environments." Consequently, as more of our classrooms become telepresent, re-appearing in the elsewhere of Internet and Web spaces, questions over the immediacy and intimacy necessary to critical thinking, writing, and learning have become more charged, raising doubts about exactly what or who can be taught at a distance.
  2. According to a 2000 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, fully 87 percent of all large public universities, those with 10,000 or more students, offer distance education courses, primarily through the Internet (Mendels 1). Even at my own institution online summer enrollment jumped from 443 in 2000 to 938 in 2001. Critics of the trend argue that the immediacy (i.e., physical contact) necessary for students to get a maximum grip on critical concepts cannot be replicated in the non-Euclidean, disembodied, information-rich environments of the virtual classroom, while proponents of distance learning programs argue that it is precisely the physical that impedes full access to knowledge and learning.1 These overdrawn distinctions between the physicality of the traditional classroom and the virtuality of the electronic classroom belie an underlying concern if not panic over the kinds of subjects and subjectivities that have become possible in these computer-mediated pedagogical scenes. Like many writing teachers, I have witnessed the increased implementation of distance education programs with a great deal of skepticism, especially given the commercialization and standardization of curricula that usually accompanies putting a course online. With their corporate appropriation and packaging of course materials and their exploitation of a mostly part-time labor force, many distance learning programs undoubtedly work to commodify knowledge, often distilling it into something student-consumers may simply purchase, download, and save on disk. Despite their dangers, however, the faceless interfaces of online courses do hold promise for the creation of viable writing subjects and practices, as new critical ways of viewing and exhibiting knowledge.
  3. Debates Over Online Education

  4. My recent participation in conferences and committee meetings devoted to the subjects of technology and learning has shown me that other English Studies workers are especially conflicted about the distancing effects of computer and especially Internet technologies. In meeting after meeting, talk over the implications of Web-based writing and literature courses nearly always turns into an avid questioning of what exactly disappears (e.g., the body, its race, sex, gender, etc) or gets sacrificed in the trans-substantiation process of going online. For many educators the Web course entails a corporeal sacrifice--one that presumes a fully materialized traditional classroom space, where teachers and students engage in a more physical (thus, more real and demanding) wrestling over perspectives and ideas across the synchronous, messy surfaces of blackboards and seminar tables. Disclosing the assumptions many of us in the humanities hold regarding the material interactions necessary to critical learning, the AAUP's "Statement on Distance Education: Special Considerations for Language and Literature" argues that "Language learning goes beyond the mere acquisition of linguistic knowledge; it involves an understanding of cultural context and the communicative processes that allow the learner to negotiate meaning in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. This learning process requires a high level of human contact, one that is traditionally facilitated by face-to-face interaction in the language classroom" (MLA 13). Granted, the AAUP statement is a welcome alternative to representations of the traditional classroom as a strictly cerebral meeting of minds. However, it also implies a number of easy, at times faulty, notions about what exactly gets sacrificed or remaindered in the online writing classroom.
  5. It is not just organizations like the AAUP who see technology as a threat to the multi-sensory, corporeal identities of the English student and teacher. In a widely re-printed newspaper editorial, Professors Teresa Ebert and Mas'ud Zavarzadeh claim the virtual teacher and classroom imply an insidious substitution--a substitution of training for education, with education as "a process that is achieved by ongoing and rigorous encounters and critique among teachers and students whose give-and-take is put beyond the sphere of commodification" (27). They go on to argue:
    Distance learning has become a cheap teaching tool to train students as content persons. The elite classroom, on the other hand, acts as a dynamic place of critique and debate. It is radically different from the functional, interactive e-education in which isolated students interact with signs on their screen, posting functional questions to other isolated students and to overworked, equally isolated instructors who, in return, provide functional answers. In e-education, instrumental performance is all.... Elite universities and schools will continue to educate their students through close-learning and dynamic critique, while mass universities will deploy distance learning to deliver low-cost content to their students. (Ebert and Zavarzadeh 27)
    In another popularized critique of e-education, Professor David Noble concurs, arguing that the offline classroom is a "sacred space." "In person, you get a sense of me you can't get online. I'm convinced of that. We have five senses. Why artificially narrow the bandwidth?" (qtd in Young 49). Ebert, Zahvarzadeh, and Noble's portrayals of both traditional and online courses reveal an important concern for the institutionalization of knowledge and the rights of teachers to determine curricula. Their arguments, in fact, echo those of many rhetoric and composition scholars who advocate the teaching of critical thinking, writing, and reading against a more traditional "content-based" humanities curriculum. What I question, however, are the assumed connections between distal pedagogy and corporeal sacrifice, as well as the larger, more theoretically problematic, distinctions between virtual and material identity and experience.
  6. Many of my own assumptions about the (dis)embodied nature of learning and writing surfaced last spring when I agreed to teach technical writing for the first time online. To my surprise, the course offered us an opportunity to not simply memorialize or mourn the corporeal sacrifices associated with the virtual classroom and written communication in general, but to chart the body's shifting locus in electronic writing and learning processes. Re-figuring the boundaries between the virtual and real, the discursive and the material, forces us to move past utopian narratives regarding the fully embodied nature of offline classrooms. Feminists in the fields of technology and computer and composition have long recognized Internet and Web spaces as embodied, and thus gendered, locations. Donna Haraway, for example, implores us to leave the polar opposites about technoculture, particularly invidious distinctions between the real and the virtual, at their "well-deserved extremes" and work against our most popular "alien abduction scenario--to be raptured out of the bodies that matter in the lust for information." Katherine Hayles also argues that our experiences of technology are always highly embodied ones. In How We Became Posthuman, she states her desire to "foreground the material conditions of subjectivity," which include "not only the material media that allow me to write this response..., post it to a server..., and from there to servers across the globe, but also the embodied processes that let me think thoughts and type them out, as well as the distributed environment that includes my computer as an independent cognizer performing cognitively sophisticated actions of which I am not even aware" (www.com.washington.edu/rccs). Hayles further claims that changes in embodied, incorporating practices are directly linked "with new technologies that affect how people use their bodies and experience time and space" (Posthuman205).
  7. In their study of women and Web imaging, Gail Hawisher and Patricia Sullivan also represent I-net space as both a virtual and a material microcosm of contemporary U.S. society, with all its asymmetrical power relations. Online environments, they argue, are "neither egalitarian utopias nor spaces devoid of power and influence for women" ("Women on the Networks" 173). The same can be said for online classrooms. For Hawisher and Sullivan, the Web, with its overlapping commercial, governmental, and educational spaces, serves a primarily mimetic function, imitating both the subversions and oppressions of everyday life. Mary Hocks concurs, arguing that electronic forums, far from enacting democratic space, where everyone is on an equal footing, "actually point precisely to the power structures of this communicative social context and to negotiations for meaning and consensus that take place in other arenas of professional academic life" (112). Online courses, she claims, lead us to reconsider/revisit power structures, as they reappear in electronic forums, while at the same time critiquing and modifying the software that homogenizes (117). Like their offline counterparts, therefore, Web courses can lean toward standardization (or sanitization) and replicate commercial and institutional exploitation. At the same time they can provide possibilities for its fleshy subversion.
  8. In what follows, I draw on my electronic teaching experiences, as well as feminist theories of embodiment and pedagogy, to address both what is disappeared and re-materialized in the virtual classroom. In other words, what critical processes of writing or figuring the body can be undertaken in this electronic venue? What imaginary bodies were students and I attributing to various written exchanges and why? How, for example, were our electronic bodies different from (or contiguous with) those we experienced offline? And what does this mean for writing teachers, especially those who are teaching or considering online course components? As I hope to demonstrate, the scene of the online writing course galvanized, more than erased, my ongoing sense of embodiment in the pedagogical process and encouraged course participants to grapple with the effects of a larger institutional disembodiment--a tension traditional classrooms often elide.
  9. Synesthesia and Dead Reckoning Navigation

    In synesthesia, other-sense dimensions become visible, as when sounds are seen as colors. This is not vision as it is thought of cognitively. It is more like other-sense operations at the hinge with vision, registered from its point of view. Synesthetic forms are dynamic. They are not mirrored in thought; they are literal perceptions. They are not reflected upon; they are experienced as events.

    Brian Massumi, "Strange Horizons"

    "So just point through the window and tell me where to start," I had said to the clerk in the marine supply store in Prince Rupert harbor. He gave me a long look, but he closed the cash register drawer, walked to the window, and pointed. "Right there, between those two islands. Can you see the channel?" In fact, there were a dozen islands and as many channels. "No," I said. Reading his face, I could see questions that reflected the doubt in my own mind. Deductive reckoning, ded. reckoning, dead reckoning.

    Kathleen Dean Moore, Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World

  10. Though it is clear that the distance learning subject is no longer warranted by the physical body, what kinds of bodies are assuming its place? While this is hardly a new question, especially in the field of computers and composition where researchers and teachers have been scrutinizing the politics and ethics of new forms of electronic writing and interaction for well over a decade, I do not think we are close to exhausting it, particularly given the rapidly increasing number of distance learning programs. The electronic writing and learning practices now familiar to so many university students and teachers point to not only the changing institutional and commercial contexts of teaching and learning, but our long-held assumptions about the body's role in these practices. In the case of my online writing course, it was the first time many in the class, including myself, had used or navigated the university assigned course interface, and for some it was their very first Web-based course. Thus, we were in the unique position to gauge, through a kind of imposed synesthesia, how the course's various timetables and interactive spaces worked to regulate our body movements (the habits, skills, coordination, and language of our physical bodies) and what new kinds of institutional surveillance this entailed. Our intensive movements through the strange architectures of the course interface and its applications allowed for this conscious synesthesia or abnormal awareness of our usual habits of perception, that is not only how we ordinarily used our senses, but how we arranged them in order to orient ourselves to new classroom surroundings. Several students, in order to get their bearings, strategically hinged their visual memory of Web interfaces (e.g., chatrooms, discussion lists) to their more tactile memories of stepping into a classroom on the first day and slumping into a seat. These were not the "hardy" and "clever" students Walker Percy refers to in "The Loss of the Creature," students who "salvage" the dogfish or Shakespearean sonnet from its "many-tissued" institutional packaging, such as the geography of the classroom, the textbook, the smell of the page, or "the smell of Miss Hawkins" (57). Instead, they invoked past tropisms of the university classroom, along with their own multi-sensory ordinary ways of learning and orienting, and re-marked them. Left for a moment without our standard institutional maps or packages, most of us resorted to a dead reckoning navigation of the virtual classroom, its inhabitants and curriculum.
  11. In "Strange Horizons: Buildings, Biograms, and the Body Topologic," Brian Massumi discusses the role dead reckoning--a self-referential as opposed to exo-referential visual system of orientation--plays in our movements through built and natural environments:
    Its role in human orientation has significant implications for our understanding of space because it inverts the relation of position to movement. Movement is no longer indexed to position. Rather, position emerges from movement, from a relation of movement to itself.... A qualitative space of moving, step-by-step self-reference accords better with my navigationally competent (if at times cognitively challenged) sense of where I am.... Oddly, the first thing people typically do when they realize they are lost and start trying to reorient is to look away from the scene in front of them, even rolling their eyes skyward. We figure out where we are by putting the plain-as-day visual image back in the proper proprioceptive sea-patch. (59)
    When my students and I first stared at, hardly recognizing, the screened interface of the course architecture, many us experienced a visceral sense of disorientation, the need to look away from the scene and roll our eyes skyward, to begin moving through the interface without the usual pedagogical (visual, aural, haptic, etc) cues in order to create a kind of image map of the empty classroom space.
  12. In my case, this meant taking a disconcertingly corporate Web interface and turning it into a more messy, highly rhetoricized scene of writing and learning. Standardized unit links were strung with ongoing discussions on readings and peer drafts in order to disrupt the cleanly itemized timetables and calendars. Initial readings and questions regarding the ethics and rhetorics of electronic communication were invoked throughout the course, giving pause to any tendency to plod through the course interface chapter by chapter, unit by unit. The first assignment--the technoliteracy narrative--encouraged students to get their bearings by reflecting on the ways writing and communication technologies and environments (including the online course) shape how we write and communicate (and learn and think). Because the assignment asked students to draw largely on their personal interactions with writing technologies, it allowed them to get used to some of the more basic online course tools (e.g., posting messages and drafts) before moving on to more complicated applications and tasks (e.g., synchronous chatting, Web design, etc).
  13. The technological literacy narratives, which I discuss in more detail later, provided a critical framework for the entire course, including project two, a case study that focused on technical writing, the Web, and ethics. There we explored some of the legal and ethical issues--such as intellectual property rights, software piracy and copyright--currently facing technical writers, especially in relation to computer technologies and software. Throughout project two, students engaged in role-playing, simulating the electronic exchange of emails, memos, and letters in a workplace scenario. Questions of ownership and electronic writing required students to continue grappling with their online writing/worker identities. Should information be free? Who is considered an author, a writer, or a consumer in these concrete writing situations? Just as issues of author identity become complicated in digital environments, questions regarding the authenticity of student work and identity hang over the electronic classroom. Projects three and four thus asked students to describe and analyze a current workplace or organizational writing context of their own, including the audience(s), what kinds of information they may need, the writer roles, and what they expect the writing to do. After reporting the writing and research practices and documents in a particular situation, students composed proposals for change in their respective workplace, community, or organizational contexts. Finally, project five consisted of a collaborative Web design project, which included critique and revision of our actual course interface, in addition to other local not-for-profit Web sites.
  14. Despite my best efforts to work against the course architecture's tendency to frontload information, the course schedule and list of assignments initially intimidated many students, who sent repeated emails regarding their computer and writing histories. This initial intimidation was partly due to the course's dependency upon textual, not verbal, interaction. What would constitute an "ordinary" peer review session in a conventional classroom turned into a more formalized procedure (uploading the text, downloading the text, writing out a response, uploading the response, etc) in the electronic forum. As we all discovered, "information flow"--the production, distribution, and exchange of information--was a crucial aspect of the course. It, in fact, became the course's "backbone" in lieu of the shared, physical space of the conventional classroom.
  15. Though most students were taking an online course for the first time, the majority was already literate in the primarily epistolary discourses of online forums, such as chatrooms, email, Web sites, electronic journals, and threaded discussion lists. So while they were suddenly aware of and struggling with the discursive maneuverings necessary to create immediacy, intimacy, and interchange (e.g., creating a student persona, participating regularly in the pedagogical "scene," constructing a relationship with the instructor, etc) in an online classroom, they still had trouble identifying these same strategies in their nonacademic, everyday electronic writing experiences. The majority of students, for example, discussed everyday email and chat communication in ahistorical and instrumental terms, as if these relatively new technologies had always existed or always been necessary to the facilitation of "less expensive" and more efficient communication. On the other hand, most students were able to reflect on the ways the course discussion lists and chat sessions constructed (or obstructed), not just mediated, particular forms of learning and interaction. In other words, the disappearance of the human--in this case, the teacher and all the trappings of the English classroom--took on an effectivity in the scene of the online classroom that it no longer carried elsewhere and contributed heavily to that inceptive sense of shared anxiety. Beginning course correspondence was replete with questions regarding location--particularly my institutional and pedagogical location--as well as the whereabouts of other members of the course. We all seemed complicit in one big disappearing act, a hoax on the physical world, in this case the "university"--a trick students already took for granted in their electronic exchange with friends, relatives, fellow workers, and countless others.
  16. Oddly enough, dispensing with my physical presence created a concomitant sense of increased accessibility. For though it diminished our physical or geographical proximity, the course interface also extended our work time and space, making us all more instantly and continuously available and thus in some ways more intimate than we would have been in a more traditional course setting. My online persona and personal e mail interactions with the students, more than the course homepage or textbook, were insistently landmarked. I, or rather the electronic traces of me, became some "thing" (with "thingness" as tantamount to control, especially in cyberspace) to move toward, away from, and around. The following apology was a common postscript to student inquiries and essays: "I must admit, this has been an interesting experience to date with this online class. I like the class very much. I also find it hard at times not to have the class time to discuss and ask questions. So, i hope im not nagging you to death. I just always seem to have questions. :) thanks again." While students like this one were expecting more, not less, efficiency from a paperless, nonverbal pedagogical exchange (i.e., "it is nice to have a neat finished copy [of course materials] which can be saved in an electronic memory file that takes up little or no space"), they instead had to grapple with a leaky, sometimes evasive, classroom that slipped in and out of their homes and offices and required them to reflect on their shifting academic writing practices and expectations.
  17. Many of these reflections were captured in an assignment I referred to earlier--the technoliteracy narrative. Students were to compose and post "autoethnographies," in which they recalled a particular moment or event when writing and reading technologies figured prominently in their lives. Many, including Bianca, chose to write about the new navigational literacies demanded by distance learning:
    Prior to taking this course I felt that I was fluent in my computer skills.... EH 372 online was quite different than my previous computer tasks. This course introduced me to my first experience using the computer and its Internet services to complete a course.... When I went home and tried to reach the [course] site my attempt was unsuccessful. A caption that read 'This version is not compatible with the USA online course' appeared on the screen. This was an issue that I had not considered upon taking this online course.... I attempted to retrieve the course site on my computer at work and I was successful. Once I logged on to my course I was surprised to see the format in which the course was set up. I was very curious from the beginning as to how an online course was taught. Once entering I learned that the E-mail was a central form of communication for the course. It was evident to me that my E-mail address was more than just an address it would become my voice for this course... I based my perception of this class on previous knowledge concerning my use of the web and in house lectures. These closed minded views escorted me to a bad start.... An online course requires more imagination and greater use of visual concepts. I found myself reading my classmates E-mails to visualize who they were. The experience of this online course is sort of like a blind date. I have my own perception of how everyone should look and act, these perceptions were all conducted by the E-mails and phone calls. It was a pleasure to review the picture of the instructor on the home page. The picture gave warmth to this particular writing technology.... It seems that with in house classes there is confusion about a topic one can just verbally ask a question. With the online course I've found myself printing out my assignments that are on the site and reading them over and over.
    Bianca's narrative suggests the importance of developing an imaginary classroom body and the scopic ability to construct a sense of self and other in this virtual environment. Although the ability to imagine or invoke an audience is important in any academic writing situation, it becomes even more complicated online where all interaction depends not on the physical facticity or performance of the human body but upon an imaginary (no less "real") one, including the instructor's. In this case, the "instructor" was enacted and represented by a digital image--a white woman's body, seated and smiling in front of a computer workstation--which prompted Bianca to attach a sense of warmth and intimacy to the generally masculinized writing technologies. That any sort of warmth was enabled by such an image is testament to the connections at my institution (where the vast majority of instructors are white) between the visual markers of sex and race and pedagogical proximity or the unspoken intimated relations between teachers and students.
  18. Interestingly, it was her email address, not her essays, to which Bianca assigned voice within a largely nonverbal environment. Experiencing a conscious form of synesthesia, Bianca was able to articulate her struggle to seethe words and the words of her classmates as voices and bodies--posed and in motion. In response to a lost sense of control and expertise, she sought to embody or incorporate the course machinery, to engage via images and figurative language on a more familiar physical level in her education. The transition wasn't a smooth one, as Bianca experienced ongoing trouble accessing course materials and discussions, due to platform incompatibility and a conflicting work schedule. Frequently, the course technology extended Bianca's usual sense of her classroom self and body beyond her reach, an issue to which we'll have occasion to return.
  19. Although the majority of students, like Bianca, were also enrolled in offline courses on campus, only two of them dropped by to see me in my office, and even these meetings had an air of surreptitiousness, as if we were transgressing some established yet unspoken public/private boundary. Though I took these meetings as face-to-face opportunities to clarify assignments and expectations, it was clear that we mainly just wanted to see each other--meet in the flesh, as if that in itself were clarification. Because I was curious how students would or would not utilize the course communication tools to establish some kind of classroom presence, I didn't require a certain number of offline or online office visits, nor did I require a minimum number of email exchanges among class and group members. I expected the quantity and modes of interaction to simply unfold, as part of the collaborative structuring of the course and its assignments. Marilyn Cooper names these exchanges, including the ones cited above, examples of a postmodern pedagogy, in which "electronic conversations...dissolve the romantic illusion that individuals develop a unified identity through aligning themselves with universal truth in the process of contemplation" (143). Instead of verifying consensus or correctness, email conversations and threaded discussions become navigational tools, where students moved across discursive registers, appropriating popular and academic discourses on technology, to develop an embodied sense of place and identity. Each post gave away coordinates, placing students in the thick of a discussion or outside of it depending on choices (not always their own) in citation, style, and of course, timing. Many students quickly discovered that the most successful exchanges (in terms of amount and quality of feedback) were those that constructed a conversation or rather, a scene of conversation--a virtual roundtable. Through these regular electronic exchanges--primarily around issues of technology and the ethics, practices, and teaching of technical communication--we came to know each other and ourselves differently, but no less intimately, than we would have otherwise. Because the majority of our meetings were virtual, the electronic texts became more like parts of our skin, what Martha Petry calls "permeable skin," "as permeable and open as the eyes on our faces,...the outer membrane, the surface layer, the rind or peel of fruit, a film on liquid" (1). Like our physical skin, this permeable electronic skin was networked, taking signals from the technological and rhetorical environment and changing accordingly.
  20. I suspect behind the initial barrage of emails was a fear of losing one's grip on the classroom, the world of the classroom--a fear of dismemberment. Invoking Marshall McLuhan, as the Internet was extending our navigational and pedagogical reach, it was also making us more permeable or vulnerable to miscommunication and error, a simultaneous extension and amputation, a bipolar form of dis/connection.2 The anxiety over this dis/connection--a kind of body dimorphism--is one that erupts when the perceived boundaries of the body are breached. Our bodies in the electronic classroom were incomplete without their electronic attachments, attachments that sometimes rendered a body more aligned with a "true self" and other times at odds with it. A common analogy for this phenomenon is driving a car. If driving is a form of self-amputation (the wheels do the walking), then at the same time it extends or collapses our sense of space, time, and self. Road rage, for example, may largely be a response to this self-amputation, to the anxiety accompanying the threat to bodily boundaries and control over those boundaries. Obviously, in terms of interaction and feedback, driving a car is quite different from taking a distance learning course. Yet, e-courses too invoke the desire to articulate a contained, unmalleable, error-free body of pure information. Online, my students and I became more invested in correctness--meaning the "right way to write"--amid and against the noise and entropy of networked communication. Students identified with their writing in ways they hadn't in less mediated classrooms. Texts--their words, images, design, and distribution--took on more weight as the "carrying cases" of student identity in lieu of their more physical classroom subjectivities. On course, no text (no attempt at participation or control) made it through the course server intact.
  21. Writing and Other Intimate Attachments

    As long as we adopt the Narcissus attitude of regarding the extensions of our own bodies as really out there and really independent of us, we will meet all technological challenges with the same sort of banana-skin pirouette and collapse.

    Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

  22. Understanding the electronic classroom and its apparatuses as physical extension or prosthesis complicates notions of technology and especially writing technologies as simply instruments of control over our bodily boundaries and representation. In introducing their groundbreaking collection of articles on the study of gender and writing technologies, Kristine Blair and Pam Takayoshi make an interesting distinction between "body-machines"--machines that produce "nothing but the body"--and the image and text production tied to writing machines, like the Web, "where women occupy the position of production agent" (5). Quoting Susan Willis, they place machines like the Nautilus home gym outside the realm of labor. Later, they complicate their own categories with a discussion of the JenniCam, a Web site created by Jennifer Ringley, where people can log on and based on close-up digital photographs of a patch of skin here, a bump there, guess Jennifer's body parts. As an author/producer, Ringley, they argue, is in a "position of control, although this position is complicated by the fact that what she is controlling is her position as object to be consumed" (8). Blair and Takayoshi's distinctions place the body on both sides as producer and object, with agency located in control. What is missing, though implied, in their discussion is how the body itself--its gendered constructions, its very materiality or "realness"--as articulated by the JenniCam must undergo re-production as both subject and object. The body cannot simply serve as ground or given in a particular technological or writing context, but is co-constitutive with the apparatus.
  23. As my students and I discovered, we weren't leaving our bodies behind; they were being extended, amputated, reproduced by and through us via particular writing technologies and our experiences of them. Online we projected ourselves through different bodies and simultaneously changed the way people interacted with us. In other words, we all came to inhabit the "you" produced by the virtual address of the course technologies and their users. Teletheorists, John Canny and Eric Paulos argue, "This is not mimicry or impersonation or acting. When the self has adapted to this new environment, it is as true as it ever was" (293). Our online bodies were in a sense actualizations of a self. In the context of online learning environments most interactions are experienced as imaginary in the sense that they are connected to the "shifting body images and ideas of others" (Gatens viii). Embodiment experienced through the imaginary body, Moira Gatens argues, is not simply fantasy or folklore but intricately bound to "those images, symbols, metaphors, and representations which help construct various forms of subjectivity...those ready-made images and symbols through which we make sense of social bodies and which determine, in part, their value" (Gatens viii). In the following excerpt, Brenda, another member of the class, describes an ICQ exchange that helped her "make sense" of herself as a student and a writer in this online new environment. Through her identifications with the ICQ software (an "I seek you" instant messaging program) and her virtual classmate, Tony, Brenda articulates and performs a student body disciplined by the course's fluid yet demanding timetables. Our usual investments in physical attendance seemed to intensify around deadlines, which, as Brenda indicates, demanded their own versions of "showing up" and survival:
    The thing that stands out most in my mind is the night that Tony and I spent together preparing a memo. I told Tony that the chat would get in our way while we worked on it, so I suggested ICQ. ICQ's file transfer feature is fast, and the program is very small (it fits in the tray as a small icon and 'yells' at you when someone is sending something). Tony and I stayed up until about 3 a.m. working on the memo. We passed it back and forth and I got a working copy going. With each piece he sent me via file transfer, I stuck it into the 'good copy' on my end. At that point, I added graphics and text, proofread, revised, etc. The whole time, we chatted from the tray of Windows. It was as if we were in the same room together. In fact, we felt each other's weariness as the night drew on. We thought we would see the sun rise in determination to get our A. The next day was very hard for both of us, but we were satisfied with our 'masterpiece' (as we called it)...and it was worth it....He seems very dedicated to what he does. I was very surprised that he stayed up so late with me on the memo. We stayed up until about 3 a.m. and both of us have full-time jobs. We only got about 2 hours of sleep that night. He seems like the kind of person that believes that he should do whatever it takes to get an A--same as my belief. We were able to do a lot of serious work, and yet keep each awake and happy (compliments, praise, a little joke every now and then)...that's what one needs at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning. I must say, he is the first person I ever met that has the same beliefs as I do.
  24. Noted earlier in this piece, Hayles suggests a critical framework for discussing the imaginary or electronic body in relation to contemporary writing and communication technologies, like ICQ and other group chat applications. According to Hayles, changes in embodied, incorporating practices are connected to new technologies and the ways they direct our experience of time and space: "Formed by technology at the same time that it creates technology, embodiment mediates between technology and discourse by creating new experiential frameworks that serve as boundary markers for the creation of corresponding discursive systems" (Posthuman 205). More than a medium, therefore, the distance learning creates a portable scene for students like Brenda, becoming a theater that dis/connects us to past schoolroom practices and intimacies, allows us to repeat them, and performs their strange reappearance. The same technology that allowed for identification between Tony and Brenda seemed to divide the rest of the group. By Brenda's account, other members were inaccessible by ICQ or chat. Cindy, for example, communicated mostly by phone, despite her designated role as the "writer and typist" (an odd distinction considering the writing labor undertaken by everyone in the group). And Matt, the group's "graphics person," became "kind of invisible." "I love his layouts," writes Brenda, "That is really all I know about him so far. He tries to make it to the meetings, although he missed the first one due to work... He doesn't really communicate a lot. I tried to call him a few times, but he is never home.... I am always home, and I will be available to work on that part of the project with him. I see him on ICQ quite a few nights, but he does not speak...even if I send him a message. It could be that he is somewhere else and does not notice me."
  25. Though Hayles' framework only implies the role writing might play as an intimate attachment, extending and amputating the body in relation to time, space, and others, her assertion of the material interrupts our ready assumptions about the disembodied nature of information and text, if not the very acts and technologies of writing, and points to the contingent or contiguous relations among the anatomical, textual, and imaginary body. While writing this article, for example, I became aware of my own body's otherness, its subjectivity and role in the writing process, this time through a bodily discomfort with the computer, my home office, and a jogging injury. I felt stuck and interrupted on many different levels while at the same time physically engaged with the text. I remembered how Simone de Beauvoir built in the possibilities of "interruption" into her own process, choosing to write much of Second Sex in a salon and incorporating comments uttered and overheard in this "public" space. "To be present in the world," she wrote, "implies strictly that there exists a body which is at once a material thing in the world and a point of view toward this world" (7). Just as the time-delays of the Internet remind us of the stretches of modems, routers, servers, and telephone lines, the body's interruptions too give us a sense of time passing, a sense of distance and space. Speculating on this body project, I strangely became more distanced from my own...or it seemed so. Similar to a stunt pilot, whose success depends upon her ability to "fly by the seat of her pants" through her physical connections to the extended body of the plane, I was waiting for the project to take me over, for a particular kind of intimacy with the writing and its apparatuses--to dismantle the interface or interskin of the body and its needs in order to become one with the text, the computer. It's a desire that I am now convinced resembles those our society has deemed pathological--bulemia and apotemnophilia--both modern day pathologies that highlight our contemporary imaginary relations to our bodies as objects as well as subjects in their own right. The desire to control or amputate (parts of) the body may have compelled many to sign up for the distance learning course in the first place. Course advertisers promised an alien abduction of sorts--machines rescuing bodies from the fleshy, mortal inefficient encounters of the traditional classroom. However, as Bianca and Brenda's accounts indicate, the online technical writing course provided not an escape from the meat but another scene of bodily disjuncture. Lost in the electronic passageways of a strange course architecture, we were forced to revisit our emotional and libidinal investments in the "physicality" (and our sense of control over it) of the classroom space and its participants--the sound, taste, and touch of its institutional packaging.
  26. Theorists in the fields of human-machine interaction and computer-mediated communication measure the syntagmatic relationships between human and machine in terms of "intimacy," meaning the "subjective match between the behavior of a device and the operation of that devise" (Fels). For example, in order for a musician to achieve any level of authentic expression, she must have a high degree of machine-human intimacy, which "determines the match between the variety of musically desirable sounds produced and the psychophysiological capabilities of a practised performer" (Fels). If there is no intimacy, the effectiveness of communication is poor. A typical case in which intimacy is very low is when a person first uses a new software package and experiences the kind of synesthesia I alluded to earlier. The interface and its classification systems are, for a brief period, non-transparent, and we are conscious of how our senses are (not) categorized and engaged through our (non)interactions with the computer. Thus, in the online writing course it became interesting and essential to explore our shifting sense of intimacy, or lack thereof, with our machines and other class members, with its highest level achieved when we were completely unaware of the machine interface (as in Brenda's case) and were intimately linked to the images and texts we were creating. As one moves along the intimacy continuum, the writing/interaction becomes more emotionally charged and disconnected from the result obtained, until one embodies or incorporates the writing machine, or rather one is incorporated or embodied by the machine.
  27. Appropriating the term "intimacy" from its gendered, domestic contexts helps us name the tacit range of attachments students created with the course software and the other participants. Consider this announcement from ecollege, the contracted distributor and manager of the university's online courses:
    "What's New?" - Tired of clicking around to find out what students have contributed since the last time you were in your course? Many professors commented that they were spending too much time looking for "what was new" in their courses. This innovative feature on the Course Home Page tells professors, as well as students, what has happened in the course since the last time they were there (or for any specified amount of time).... This saves both you and your students time, while allowing you to focus on the students, not the software.
    Besides reinscribing a consumerist desire for the "new," the announcement reveals contradictory impulses for an invisible application that mediates yet enables even more direct access. At the same time the software interferes, it extends. In a discussion of email communication and its effects on classroom dynamics, Cindy, another member of the class, echoes this same technological promise. According to her account, computer technology no longer mediates professor-student interaction but extends and facilitates it: "I feel that computer technology has greatly enhanced the relationship between student and instructor. Electronic mail has become an extremely useful means of communication with professors, as it has made them more accessible. It has changed classroom dynamics in such a way that it provides for more active participation, allows more openness and puts students more at ease and provides a fun upbeat environment while students learn how to handle the changing technologies." Cindy's narrative and her appropriation of popular, utopic perspectives on communication technology are obviously different from Bianca's. These differences--contradictions highlighting the many interacting social and cultural factors that inform the degree of intimacy a person may feel with a machine and/or person--deserve political and ethical consideration. The rest of this article will focus more specifically on how teachers and students might perform such a critical reconsideration of classroom technologies through a feminist pedagogy of embodiment, a pedagogy that analyzes the rhetorical and material conditions that enable our favorite technological fantasies (e.g., the alien abduction narrative), along with the less uniform attachments that often develop alongside them.
  28. A Feminist Pedagogy of Embodiment

    Texts about the multiple construction of the sexes and technology may have consequences only if they take risks. If they do not seek to control what they achieve. Perhaps they will move the world only if they themselves are also moving.

    Stefan Hirschauer and Annemarie Mol, "Shifting Sexes, Moving Stories"

  29. Focusing on embodiment, as opposed to an idealized, abstract notion of the Body (a regular figure in Western philosophy) allows for critical classroom inquiry into the "mechanisms of change, for it links a changing technological landscape with the instantiated enactments that create feedback loops between materiality and discourse" (Hayles 195). In its emphasis on the dialectical relationship between ideology (technological and otherwise) and its individual instantiations, Hayles' approach is in line with Beauvoir's understanding of the body as an outline or sketch of the kinds of projects--machines, texts, classrooms--it is possible for us to have. The body, according to Beauvoir, is not a thing produced or producing but a situation as experienced by the human subject and interwoven with its projects. In her reading of Beauvoir's Second Sex, Toril Moi emphasizes the complex approach to subjectivity necessary to the notion of the body as situation: "Understood as a situation in its own right, the body places us in the middle of many other situations. Our subjectivity is always embodied, but our bodies do not only bear the mark of sex.... The body is a style of being, an intonation, a specific way of being present in the world...the body is our perspective on the world, and at the same time that body is engaged in a dialectical interaction with its surroundings, that is to say with all the other situations in which the body is placed. The way we experience--live--our bodies is shaped by this interaction" (68). Embodiment, therefore, is other and elsewhere from our idealized notions of the Body; it is generated from the noise of interaction, difference, excess and deficiency.
  30. As I have already suggested, building a course and its inhabitants primarily through electronic interaction made it impossible to continue taking the body--both its physicality and virtuality--for granted. It became something that had to be articulated and performed. Hayles, relying on Michel de Certeau's theory of cultural appropriation, situates embodiment, along with articulation, at the level of the individual and historical: "Embodiment is akin to articulation in that it is inherently performative, subject to individual enactments, and therefore always to some extent improvisational" (196). How, though, might one create a writing pedagogy that establishes proximity to this other and elsewhere, to what manifests itself in the "noise of difference," when we are caught in institutional discourses and fantasies that attempt to represent and circumscribe the "idea of the body"? Helene Cixous, though not addressing embodiment specifically, releases the corporeal--its excesses and deficiencies--into the gaps and events of textuality, what she calls "the deserts of the body," the deserts of écriture feminine. Embodied resistance, in Cixous' view, is not external to textuality but rather is the continuous re-writing of the body as the text itself obstructs linearity of thought and "struggles endlessly against the movement of appropriation" (155). Re-writing the body, as opposed to disappearing or even resurrecting it, thus requires a pedagogy of listening--to the noise, the silences, the surprises and excesses, to the flesh that can be more subversive than any one, standardized form of critical pedagogy. It requires a pedagogy of response and responsibility to the incipient tension between individually articulated experiences of embodiment--the deserts, the ruptures, the events--and hegemonic cultural constructs of technology and the body.
  31. How, for example, might one respond to the tensions and contradictions inherent in another student, Ivy's text? Her technoliteracy narrative begins with what many would deem a dominant technological narrative, aggrandizing the efficient and ubiquitous nature of communication technology and its superiority over face-to-face interaction: "[E]veryday technologies and school technologies differ very little. Families use email to keep in touch just like businesses do. This lack of difference is a reality of our society. A step toward a less personal world, but an efficient one." The rest of Ivy's narrative, however, points to her very personal attachments to the same technology: "The Internet seemed like the perfect place to look for new friends.... I do not like to waste time and exchange small talk, and I am also too impatient. I would rather seek out friends in a more controlled atmosphere. I like the option the Internet personals give in regards to the specifics. For example, many people list their likes, talents, and hobbies up front. This can eliminate all the games played when we meet someone we do not care to talk with again." Despite her desire for control, Ivy also understands that online intimacy requires "leaps of faith" and physical risk:
    The Internet allowed me to find the open minded friend I was used to dealing with. I had never had to deal with my sexuality in south Mississippi, since I came out four states away.... With my childhood in mind, I had extreme reservations about utilizing the technology of the late 20th century to seek out these friendships. I recall reading the email I received. I had this feeling of fear and suspense. I had no idea what I was doing. I was only focused on making friends. The emails went back and forth a few times. The basics were discussed. At this point our first names were only revealed. Then the time came to share more and the communication hit a climax. The most ironic moment occurred. We both had grown up in the same town and down the street from each other. This realization scared her to death.... This is where a leap of faith had to come in to play.
    Ivy then speculates once again about the role of the Internet in others' lives--this time portraying it as a less than efficient medium. "The Internet allows for this fun and fantasy world to exist. If one really stops and realizes how easy it is to post a webpage about someone, they should be skeptical of all information across the web. People can choose to write anything they desire. The technology of today has allowed for us to move away from the trusting society we once were. The imagination is a great gift, but the reality is people's lives are affected at times by this Internet world."
  32. I understand the contradictions in Ivy's narrative as more than simply examples of organizational incoherence, but as articulations of embodiment--individual instantiations of dominant narratives about technology, sexuality, gender, and the body. My responses thus focused on the gaps and tensions in the narrative in order to highlight the collapsing and changeable boundaries between Ivy's virtual and real worlds. Instead of replicating Ivy's initial distinction between the clean, efficient nature of email communication and the time-consuming games of real interaction, I pointed to places of overlap, emphasizing the material qualities of her virtual exchange and visa versa. "If email relieves you of the messy, time-consuming process of getting to know someone," I asked, "what takes its place? Doesn't one spend hours online getting to know another?" And near the end of the piece I suggest another contradiction, a point of inquiry: "You say you are often surprised at how people behave differently offline, that they turn out not to have any 'social skills'. Why is this realization such a surprise? What in your email exchange indicated otherwise?" With these responses, I hoped she would understand her narrative as a kind of feedback loop for future engagement and exploration of Internet technologies, and as such, it would allow her to approach them differently, in an under-determined way. The responses themselves were in a sense instantiations--material interruptions or events in the writing process. Rarely did they facilitate a cleaner, more contained narrative that would take up less space. In fact, I often posted multiple drafts and responses, cluttering the course server with works in progress (texts on the move) well after the final "deadlines."
  33. Listening and responding to the "fleshy excesses" of the text is just one way to access the corporeal and attending issues of difference. Virtual spaces need to be understood as worlds constructed in and upon gender, racial, and socioeconomic differences, with high-stakes not just for women. As Margaret Morse notes, "Lack of access to the technology of information society threatens to screen out vast parts of the world population behind a curtain of silicon. After all, a network is defined as much by its holes or what it leaves out as by its links.... [T]he data entry worker is different from the programmer, the cultural entitlement of a little girl to cyberplay is not the same as a little boys" (188). If our goal is to encourage students to adopt a critical technological literacy, it must be a literacy that no longer situates technologies or gender as simply neutral tools and concepts.
  34. I was reminded again of the political stakes informing material/virtual boundaries and Internet literacy education nearly a month after I had agreed to teach the online course. On my way home from a 4 C's computer literacy workshop, I looked up at the Memphis airport TV monitor in time to catch President Clinton disembarking from Air Force One. He was returning from what reporters called an extended spring 2000 tour across the "Digital Divide"--a term used by that administration to represent the looming gap between the have's and have not's of computer technology. Clinton had just delivered a speech on the Internet and social progress to the people of the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico. The speech centered upon a provocative ironical figure--the figure of the Navajo Code-Talker, who helped to develop an impenetrable communications link between the front lines of the allies in the Pacific during World War II. Clinton explicitly points to the irony in his selection of this particular figure, establishing throughout the speech a dialectical relationship between the Code-Talkers (many of whom were standing in the crowd) and the engineers who developed the Internet: "If you think about it, the system the Code-Talkers used has real similarities to the beginning of the worldwide network we call the Internet. Both systems were developed for sending information quickly, securely, and reliably during times of war. Both had the power to change the course of history." In this case, however, the speech's ironical effect depends upon the dialectic's asymmetry. In the Navajo Nation, only 30% of homes have phone service, let alone an Internet connection, while 37 percent of the households are completely without electricity. In the hope of opening up "new markets" in impoverished areas, Clinton suggested to the Navajo Nation that Internet communications technology would help them "leap-frog over some of the biggest hurdles to develop their economic and human potential." The technology, he went on, "can make great distances virtually disappear. It can be the greatest equalizer our society has ever known." Unfortunately, these leap-frog claims (appeals to a disembodied vault up the socioeconomic ladder) nearly always accompany such arguments for technological and scientific progress and often translate into well-intentioned yet exclusionary social and educational policies. At my institution, for example, arguments for the importance of computer literacy have resulted in policies requiring students to have access to email and Microsoft software application programs despite the lack of a necessary infrastructure, such as widely accessible computer labs and increased technical support.
  35. Picked up by both government agencies and the popular news media, the images and figures of the digital divide work in a dialectical relationship to the dominant ideology of the Internet as the great equalizer. It is this same dialectic that is at work in many of the narratives cited above. Returning to Bianca's account of her shifting attachments to technology, we can understand it as an articulation of her changing relationships to her body, her political and social situations, as well as their mediations. Because neither Bianca nor Ivy discuss gender, sex, or race in any overt way (despite the assignment's focus on these differences), it is impossible and unwise to connect their online experiences to any assumed offline racial and cultural identities. Our usual ways of knowing or marking these differences are put into question online. And it is this putting into question that should be of pedagogical interest. Why does the image of a white, seated smiling female instructor add "warmth" (establish intimacy or distance) to the course apparatuses? How does Brenda explain her connection to Tony and her invisibility to Matt? How did the group imagine Matt, the "graphics person" vs. Cindy, the "writer"? With these questions, the struggle to corporealize the subjects of the course becomes in itself the site of inquiry and invokes a responsibility to the materiality of writing and writing technologies. Responsibility, however, implies the ability to respond--hence the importance of paying attention to access, to the gaps, to those bodies disappeared from our various electronic publics. More specifically, this means allowing students the tools (assignments like the technological literacy narrative and case studies involving Internet ethics, censorship, and intellectual property) and spaces, such as discussion lists, chat sessions, and the margins of their texts, to reflect upon how they are reconstructing the writing classroom and their identities as student writers via dominant narratives of technology and the body and how much of this textual and electronic reconstruction is collaborative--with the machine, internet policies and laws, the course interface, and class members.
  36. As technology critic Andrew Feenberg predicts in a recent discussion of online education: "One possible outcome [of increased automation] is a society reflecting in all its institutions the logic of modern production, obsessed by efficiency achieved through mechanization and management. The Internet could serve this technocratic project in hitherto projected domains such as education" (114). But he goes on to argue that "one can also envisage a very different outcome modeled not on the factory but on another modern institution, the city. The city is the place of cosmopolitan interactions and enhanced communication. Its god is not efficiency but freedom" (114). A writing pedagogy focused on the messy (rhetorical and material) interactions and attachments associated with going online would assist such a model. For Feenberg and for us, the emphasis on technological choice and flexibility, in the face of de facto distance education policies and standardized interfaces, is especially relevant here.3 Students and teachers in online writing courses have the unique opportunity (if taken) to critically reflect upon the complex, embodied experiences of electronic communication and written dialogue. Furthermore, if we agree with Feenberg that "the online environment is essentially a written world," then it follows that perhaps it is the ideal place to teach writing.


1. E-education advocates who perceive distance learning as a democratizing tool, argue that it relieves us of the "constraints" of the body. Though this is true on one level, because indeed physical and geographical constraints do impact pedagogical exchange, this argument too often absolves the university of responsibility for re-shaping its architectures and time schedules in order to provide better access and mobility to all students.

2. For more discussion on issues of reach, access, authority, and authenticity in relation to the Internet technologies and the new field of telepistemology ("the study of knowledge acquired at a distance"), see Ken Goldberg's edited collection, The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet(3).

3. Providing more space for writing (i.e., text-based interaction) in online courses does not promote their efficiency. Thus, it is doubtful such measures will be popular among administrators (or students and instructors) who privilege cost-saving educational techniques over labor-intensive ones. Highly interactive online courses require highly engaged, visible, accessible instructors and students and as a result, are often much more time consuming than traditional courses.