Currents: An E-Journal Literature On-Line: The Best of All Possible Worlds?
by Theodore C. Humphrey
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Currents in Electronic LiteracySpring 1999 (1), <>

  1. During the summer of 1998, I taught two literature courses entirely on-line, using a variety of the technologies that comprise the World Wide Web, the Internet, and our campus Intranet. The two courses were Introduction to Modern Fiction (English 201) and Poetry of the English Renaissance (English 440). Part of Cal Poly Pomona's Digital Summer Session, my courses had no face-to-face meetings. My students and I communicated entirely by e-mail and postings to threaded discussion boards. We operated from web-based syllabi. In English 201, Introduction to Modern Fiction, which students take to satisfy a general education or breadth requirement, students read short stories from a paperback collection of short fiction (Huddle et al.) which they could purchase on-line or from the campus book store. In the other class, a senior seminar in Renaissance poetry for English majors, all texts were available for reading and downloading on-line since all poetry texts of the English Renaissance period are easily available from a number of reliable sources, such as Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle site at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Anniina Jokinen's Luminarium site, and the University of Toronto's Representative Poetry On-line project.

  2. We've come a long way at Cal Poly since 1985 when I began our computer-based composition program and later wrote, edited, and compiled the first five-year plan for academic computing here. Institutional support for classroom applications, especially in English, was severely limited; now one receives serious support and encouragement for a wide array of projects, initiatives, technical support, and training. As a result of this local evolution and the development of the Web as a powerful educational resource, threaded discussion boards quickly became a key element in all of my on-line classes because of their ease of use, their effectiveness in stimulating an on-going extended conversation among and between students, and the ease with which I could assess that conversation and interject my own comments from time to time (to praise, to guide, to correct). And, of course, on-line conversation is much less ephemeral than "ordinary" class discussion, a quality that interested me very much since an essential and traditional component in all of my literature classes is class discussion.

  3. I usually focus my face-to-face classes by announcing at the top of the period a topic or question vitally connected with the reading assignment or with a particular thematic issue on which my students and I do a five- to ten-minute free-write. This written response forms a basis for students' contributions to the in-class discussion. For at least the last 5 years I have been utilizing various electronic means to extend the conversation that occurs in class beyond the limits of classroom walls and time limitations. I think additional reading and reflection generally improves what has happened in the class itself and needs to be shared. I've used subscribed e-lists, had a few quite unsatisfactory brushes with chat room technologies, and straight e-mail mostly for one-on-one discussions. None of these proved, however, nearly as successful as the threaded discussion boards that I began to use about two years ago when my campus developed the Cal Poly Intranet Project and provided access to easy-to-use off-the-shelf software that allowed me to create threaded discussion boards.

  4. My totally on-line and partially on-line courses continue much of my traditional pedagogy--guided reading of texts, prompted and focused writing opportunities, class discussion, teacher's lectures and commentary. What the electronic technology brings us is a wonderful capacity to extend and deepen the most engaging and interactive parts of that traditional pedagogy. In addition to providing access to the on-line threaded discussions, my electronic syllabus for each class evolved from a straight-forward translation of my paper syllabus to an electronic version and now to what has become a detailed, much expanded and enhanced presentation of the entire course in digital form with: many pages; links on the calendar page to direct the student to reading assignments and often to the on-line texts themselves; links within the specific assignments to writing prompts; and links to a cornucopia of on-line aids to learning (including scholarly essays on relevant topics; dictionaries of literary or other specialized vocabularies; on-line encyclopedias; guides to writing literary analyses; historical, biographical, scientific, and other disciplinary resources; the University's web page with its own myriad links to such powerful resources as the University's library; the MLA and other guides for documentation)--in short, nearly everything that students may find helpful to enhance and enrich their learning.

  5. Other of my standard pedagogies are enhanced as well. For instance, in the fiction course, although it is a sophomore-level general introduction to modern fiction, I traditionally assign my students and myself to write a short story. (One student last year wrote about 20!) The idea is not to inundate The New Yorker with our efforts but to gain the kind of understanding and respect for the form that comes only with trying it out. Therefore, the syllabus provides links to specific story writing prompts that invite reflection on ways to develop character, create convincing dialogue, work out plot constructs, etc. as well as direct imitation of passages and techniques from our reading. My students and I post our story-writing efforts weekly on a threaded discussion board. (In my spring 1999 version of this course, I have a separate board for critical discussion of the reading and another for creating and discussing our own stories. This seprartion makes it easier to consider publishing an e-zine featuring the results of this effort.)

  6. In the Renaissance poetry course, we likewise engage in responses to assigned poems and try our hands at writing some of the more popular Renaissance forms--rhymed couplets and the sonnet especially. As with the final versions of the short story in the fiction class, so with the poems that appear in that section of the poetry class's board: some are simply awful; some display an emerging understanding of the special rhetorical, linguistic, and poetic elements of the form; and some are a genuine pleasure to read.

  7. On the other hand, not all efforts to continue successful face-to-face classroom strategies yielded such solid results. For example, to help students overcome the obstacles of reading "poetry," not to mention Early Modern English, I traditionally spend a lot of class time having my students read the same poem around the circle. By the fifth or sixth performance the poem begins to come off the page and enter the ears and minds of the students. The power of this simple method lies both in their own performances and in the repetition of performances in different voices. Just as a ballad creates and distributes additional information with its tactic of incremental repetition, so each additional performance by a different voice at a slightly different point in the student's growing perception of the poem adds useful and complex information to our collective grasp of the sonnet. In the Digital Summer School version (1998), the totally on-line edition of the course, the wonderful technical and support staff of our Instructional Technology and Academic Computing division (ITAC) and I worked to create a means whereby students could "perform" an assigned sonnet orally and place that performance on my class page to be heard by others. We did this by phoning in the oral performances into an audio tape, translating the audio tapes into digital format, and uploading the digitized versions to the students' sites on my class page. Students who participated (and not all did) reported enjoying the process, but the effects were much less collective than in the face-to-face version. Some problems arose. First of all, the cumbersome procedure placed heavy support demands on the ITAC staff; even more significant, we were unable to replicate the face-to-face conditions of instant performative feedback and the consequent and immediate adjustment that usually occurs in the next student's performance. Also, not all students had sound cards and the technical expertise to utilize even the free audio software readily available. Furthermore, a significant number of the students accessed the class and uploaded their homework from computers available only at their places of employment, usually (I assumed) with consent of their employers; but sometimes it's best not to ask. While in the best of all possible worlds, good poetry will be broadcast throughout the workplace, that condition has not yet, I think, obtained. Thus, this is one transformation of a pedagogy that I haven't quite figured out--yet.

  8. On the other hand, the principal, powerful, and significant benefit of the threaded discussion boards as effective pedagogy is impossible to replicate in the non-electronic classroom. The threaded discussion boards cultivate for most students (not all--nothing seems to work for every student) the joys of discovering that they have a "voice" and that it can be heard in class, unlike many classes in which the most vociferous and outspoken students tend to dominate and, without intending to, intimidate the shyer students, or in which students' different cultural backgrounds hinder more traditional classroom interactions. One notices even today gender-based as well as culture-based differences in classroom behaviors including participation and dominance. On-line, these different modes disappear, and students also are more likely, I think, to challenge the assertions made by fellow students (and the instructor!). In addition, students create--because their responses are in writing--the kind of thoughtful, analytical, text-based commentary that "normal" class discussion rarely elicits because students and instructor can only rarely find time or opportunity for revisiting previous discussions. The technology easily permits, indeed, encourages such "revisiting." These on-going commentaries and discussions, these sometimes extended threads, significantly enhance the learning experience, creating more of the independent thinking that we teachers love to develop in our classes and causing students to value themselves as readers, thinkers, and writers rather than simply as seat holders in a lecture class. Also, students (willingly, I believe) work much harder in the electronic classes; after all, their work is constantly being shared with and receiving responses from their peers as well as their professor. The rhetorical concept of audience emerges almost without awareness into the consciousness and practice of the students.

  9. Thus, I come to what some may consider to be a paradox. Using this electronic technology to present material and guide responses with threaded discussion boards actually creates, I believe, more intimate and thoughtful communities of scholars and thinkers than does the traditional face-to-face class. I realize that some scholars argue that on-line distance learning should be reserved for special instances where the traditional face-to-face gathering of students and teacher is impossible or inconvenient. But if as readers and writers we reflect on how we create personae and a sense of community with our readers and elaborate those means in the give-and-take context of asynchronous threaded discussion boards, I think we might grant at least a different sort of intimate environment for learning if not, indeed, a more intense environment. The ability to extend the class conversation beyond the confines of time and place creates exciting possibilities for generating on-going communities of learning, whatever the particular local institutional conditions might be, because the interaction is in writing, is usually thus more reflective, and is or can be on-going, extending over a period of days or weeks as students re-visit a particular thread. But the teacher must encourage and stimulate this result. To do so, I created "virtual discussion groups," assigning students to groups of 3 or 4 with the particular responsibility of seeking out each other's responses to the writing and story prompts and responding in turn to each of them. In addition, I also post my own "mini-lectures" to the "class lecture board" to introduce concepts and topics, resolve issues that emerge in the students' discussion, or provide general guidance and insight. If a student has asked me a question via e-mail, I may develop and post to the lecture board a mini-lecture in response. Furthermore, I often copy and post here discussions that occur on various professional discussion lists.

  10. Since we all benefit from the external and traditional discipline of deadlines and assessment, I require students to post by a certain time each week their initial responses to my prompts and their discussions of each other's responses from the week before. I monitor the groups and their responses closely and provide weekly grades by e-mail to every student. Without the technology I could never have provided that kind of consistent feedback. With it, students know exactly where they stand and may see the work of every other student as well, often a powerful incentive to greater achievement because the weekly grades form about 50 to 75% of the basis for the course grade. In addition, I can focus and sharpen the assessment dialogue at regular intervals throughout the quarter. Since students are assessed weekly and may respond immediately to me via my own e-mail, the dialogue goes on sometimes privately, sometimes publicly.

  11. Are there downsides to this enterprise? There are, of course, some. For one thing, the workload is very heavy on the teacher and student both; but it is work that students can tuck into the cracks and crevices of their other activities. One may "attend class" in one's pajamas if one wishes and at any time on any day, limited only by access to a computer with an internet connection, and one may do so without worrying about baby-sitting or job conflicts. These considerations are significant at institutions like Cal Poly where the students are almost all employed and many are married with children or other significant obligations. Where on-line courses are listed cheek-by-jowl with courses taught face-to-face, students may also be confused about class meetings and not be appropriately aware of the special needs of such courses; problems arise with enrollment regulations because totally on-line courses are not adequately "tagged" as such. A simple solution might be to group all totally on-line courses in a separate section in the term course list, cross-referencing them in their normal disciplinary locations. An institution's particular requirements for registering in these classes and professors' e-mail addresses could be provided as well. For instance, reaching students enrolled in on-line classes before the quarter began was challenging because they often did not use their campus-issued e-mail addresses, preferring to use outside providers instead.

  12. Access issues still appear but with less frequency than just a year or two ago. Increasingly, students everywhere have private access to adequate computers. Most institutions like Cal Poly continue to provide a number of Internet-connected work stations in general-purpose labs as well as site-licensed software and technical help to enable students to access the Internet from home. And many campuses are exploring the possibility of developing lease-purchase programs that would give each student a top-of-the-line PC when he or she enters the university. In addition, one might encounter other access issues that focus on the needs of special students, especially those who are perhaps blind or otherwise differently abled because the Internet, while heavily text-oriented, also relies on much graphic material. I can only suggest that this is a topic that merits additional consideration and discussion. Many campuses, Cal Poly included, have centers that provide Disabled Student Services including access to special computers and other technological support. Such centers provide one sort of institutional approach to this problem of access. However, such services may not be available to the off-campus student.

  13. Are there other downsides? Well, yes and no. I have always loved the face-to-face contact and interaction with my students, getting to know them as individual human beings, so I missed that 2- or 3-times-a-week contact with them. However, I gained the conviction that, since writing is a mirror of the soul, I got to know most of my on-line students better and more profoundly than all but a few of my "regular" face-to-face students. With those classes that I teach in a "mixed mode" face-to-face but using the on-line syllabus and threaded discussion boards I have what is perhaps the best of both possible worlds.

  14. But there are additional worlds that we must consider and acknowledge in our evaluation of the on-line teaching experience for literature. Those worlds are the industrial, the business, the commercial and professional worlds into which many our literature students will inevitably move upon graduation. A serious additional benefit of teaching literature classes on-line and using e-mail and threaded discussion boards is that doing so helps students in all disciplines develop a set of skills in high demand in the contemporary business world. A recent report on National Public Radio (4 February 1999) articulated the increasingly important role played by e-mail in nearly every area of business and professional life. Teams of individuals located in widely separated physical locations collaborate in drafting and revising reports and doing other significant work without the burdens of face-to-face meetings, without the expense of shipping people around the world, and without the challenge of meshing disparate schedules. Increased productivity and lowered costs result. It's easier and cheaper to ship an e-mail than a person across thousands of miles. And e-mail messages are usually more carefully and thoughtfully crafted than impromptu speeches from the meeting room floor. Thus, on-line literature courses in addition to helping students master significant content and powerful analytical skills give them added--and "real-world"--skills. No university Department of English should be careless of such collateral benefits. No teacher can ignore our shared responsibility for making our students employable. Thus, I would amend my earlier statement by saying that teaching literature on-line gives us the best possible of several worlds.
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