II. PARTICIPATION, OBSERVATION, AND ANALYSIS

AUTHENTICITY

I have selected an ethnographically-based case study approach to the dissertation because my analysis is qualitative rather than quantitative; since my method of teaching is so new, I am doing more exploring, examining, and analyzing than "proving." My conclusions, rather than being formal pronouncements of how every writing course using the World Wide Web and CMC could or should be taught, will, I hope, lead to hypotheses based on what happened in this particular instance, contributing to a growing number of localized studies from which more general conclusions may eventually be drawn by future researchers.

Also, since I have been a "participant-observer" throughout the process, I have made an attempt to be as objective as possible by using a variety of sources for my data, a method ethnographers refer to as "triangulation," which may include "direct observation, interviewing of people, listening to their conversations, securing life-history accounts . . . [and] arranging group discussions" (Blumer 41). This practice is used frequently in composition research, and is particularly relevant to this study since, as Lauer and Asher contend in Composition Research: Empirical Designs, "[u]ndergirding triangulation is a conception of knowledge as social construction, a collaborative search, interpretation, and reinterpretation of complex acts in context," and that "the validity of this kind of research comes from a continual reciprocity between developing hypotheses about the nature and patterns under study and the regrounding of these hypotheses in repeated observation, further interviews, and the search for disconfirming evidence" (40). They further explain that methodological triangulation, as it specifically relates to composition studies, also can include using "multiple observers, collecting writing samples, conducting interviews with students and instructors, and taking copious notes" (42).

COMPLETENESS

While analyzing the data, I tried to be as flexible as possible and leave room for subcategories and the possibility of other significant phenomena which I may not have been quite aware of until I fully immersed myself in the data. As Odell and Doheney-Farina put it, "ethnographers are continually engaged in a process of discovery. They must not limit their capacity to discover by setting up rigid, tightly focused research questions" (511).

Keeping all this in mind, I began my analysis with as open an agenda as possible. I knew that I had a lot of data to contend with, including transcripts of several course e-mail lists, personal notes, memos, and more. My first task was to decide which course(s) to focus on, then to decide which aspect(s) of the course was most interesting and relevant to current studies in the computers and writing community. Even after narrowing down my time frame to the Spring 1996 semester, I realized that I was still overwhelmed with data which could be analyzed from several different angles. I decided that my analysis would concentrate on not one particular course, but, as I have discussed earlier, mainly on one e-mail list, gatsby-l, which was shared between the two courses; even then, the scope of the dissertation had to be further narrowed to include only those messages which centered around the list discussions, survey responses, and the research paper rough drafts, peer critiques, and final drafts based on The Great Gatsby. My final decision of what to analyze and how to analyze it, then, was based not only on relevance and interest, but alas, also on sheer practicality.

PARTICIPANT AWARENESS OF THE RESEARCH

Although all of the participants in the course were aware that they were participating in a constantly-evolving method of instruction (as I continually reminded them, especially when technical difficulties beyond my control interfered with the progress of the course), and some had taken previous courses from me in which they filled out surveys and forms giving me permission to use their work in research or publications, none were aware that this specific semesterís course was going to be analyzed for the dissertation. I believe this helped reduce the phenomenon known as the "Hawthorne effect," in which participants in studies consciously or subconsciously give the answers they believe the researchers want to hear, thereby adversely affecting the accuracy of the results.

USE OF MULTIPLE SOURCES

In addition to my attempts to distance myself from the intimate details of the formation of the discourse community of the list by withholding my own opinion as much as possible, and my efforts to reduce the Hawthorne effect, I also attempted to ensure as accurate a depiction as possible by using a variety of sources (see figure 1). They included, but were not limited to, the following:

Figure 1: Multiple sources of data.


 

 
 
 
 

The largest amount of data was contained in the messages sent via the gatsby-l e-mail list. All essay prompt responses, research paper rough drafts and annotated bibliographies, peer critiques, and final drafts were sent as e-mail messages to the list. I spent a large portion of time in the early phases of the data analysis reading these messages and grouping them into categories based on patterns (repeated occurrences rather than isolated instances) relating to the following concepts:

Of course, each message did not fit perfectly or solely into any one category, so some messages ended up in more than one (see figure 2). In this study, then, the same message(s) may appear more than once in order to exemplify a different characteristic of the course.
 
 

Figure 2: Overlapping categories of gatsby-l messages.

 
 
 
 
 
 

ANALYSIS OF DATA

After deciding upon the categories in which to group messages, then searching for particular messages or message "threads" which would best exemplify the development of a discourse community, social acts of invention and construction of knowledge, etc., I began reading through the questionnaires and identifying student responses which proved especially enlightening. I then noted the numbers of the questions which elicited the most telling responses, and reviewed the other questionnaires, looking for corroborating or conflicting statements. From these responses I was able to gain an overall sense of the studentsí attitudes toward the course, the subject matter, each other, and me, the instructor. Although studentsí impressions were for the most part positive, opinions were much more divided when it came to my (perceived or otherwise) lack of participation in the listserv discussions. Much of the information gleaned from this part of the investigation will be included in Chapter VI.

My next step was to identify and contact several students to conduct follow-up interviews. Rather than choosing one student as a primary informant, as is the practice in many studies, I felt this study would gain a sense of balance as well as credibility if I utilized the views of several "informants." In the interviews, which lasted about 45 minutes to an hour each, I read through the questionnaire again, asking students to elaborate on their responses to the questions. I made it clear to each student that the interviews were being conducted for two reasons: one, to help me as a researcher understand the workings of the course and analyze it for this study, and two, to help improve the course for students who may enroll in it in the future. Keeping this in mind, I usually reminded each student at least two or three times during the interview that I was not looking for compliments, but for constructive criticism and gut-level commentary (although some, by nature, did not seem to be reminded as much as others).

When choosing which students to interview, I tried to aim for a varied sampling of student "types": I was able to interview students of various ages, socio-economic backgrounds, marital status, and level of academic progress. Two areas, however, were largely beyond my control: gender and race. Since the students in the course were mostly female, the gender of those interviewed reflects this status; out of eight students interviewed, six were female and two were male. Also, since the overwhelming majority of students at the college, and especially of those who enroll in the internet-based courses, is caucasian, only one of the students interviewed was of a different race.

Listed below are the interviewees and some biographical and demographical information about them (except where otherwise noted, I use pseudonyms rather than real names to protect the privacy of the students). In addition, I have included information about two non-enrolled participants, a technical writer and an English graduate student.

English 1302, Composition and Rhetoric II

English 2327, Survey of American Literature I Non-enrolled participants NOTE: The following two gatsby-l participants, who, like Lisa, were not enrolled as students, and gave permission for me to use their real names in this study. GOALS AND EXPECTED OUTCOMES

It is my hope that this study will help bring about a more informed understanding of some of the issues which are currently at the forefront of research in computers and writing, specifically those which relate to teaching in a "cyber" or "virtual" learning space. Some of these issues, as mentioned previously, include:

Does the formation of a local discourse community aid students in reaching traditional course objectives, and if so, how does it also prepare them for entering into the larger discourse community of academia or their chosen professional field? · signs of collaboration, language games, invention as a social act, negotiation, consensus and dissensus, dialogicity How does this use of CMC incorporate and/or alter collaborative theories of teaching writing, most of which have been developed by those teaching in a traditional classroom setting? · evidence of writing as a process (in individual papers) How does the student interaction and subsequent revision of assignments on the course e-mail list support/expand the notion of a "process" theory of writing instruction? · changing roles and relationships How does "delivering" the course through a hypertextual medium such as the World Wide Web and communicating almost exclusively via e-mail change both the duties and skills required of the instructor and the possibilities of independent learning afforded the student, and finally, how does teaching using computer technology alter traditional teacher/student roles? Section III briefly outlines current discourse community theory, and examines the gatsby-l discussion list in light of this theory. Special attention will be paid to the formation of the community as an "academic" discourse community, and its effect on the ambiance of the electronic "writing space" or "virtual classroom."

Section III