A discourse community, according to James Porter, is a "group of individuals bound by a common interest who communicate through approved channels and whose discourse is regulated" (38). Some may find this description too constricting, and others a bit vague, but Porter’s definition serves as an excellent starting point for examining the discourse community of gatsby-l. Although it is doubtful that Porter had virtual communities in mind when he wrote his often-quoted definition in 1986, the students who enrolled in the course and participated in the list discussions were "individuals bound by a common interest" (whether it was a sincere interest in the subject matter or merely a desire to earn a decent grade); they communicated through "an approved channel" (the gatsby-l discussion list); and finally, their discourse was "regulated" (self-regulated, yes, but "governed" by the requirements of the course and guided by weekly discussion prompts to which they responded).

Although the discourse community of gatsby-l was short-lived, students and others maintained connections beyond the semester. They conversed with each other, with "e-quaintances," and with me both on and off-list. Some also used their experience in this "local" discourse community to join other lists and gain access to other academic and non-academic discourse communities representing various fields of study or interest. For some students, this might mean entering and becoming a contributor to the global discourse community of their chosen field long before they would (if ever) typically have a "voice" in or be recognized by that community. Participation in the course, then, allowed many, especially those who participated in both gatsby-l and amlit1-l, to experience first-hand the phenomena of shifting, evolving, and dissipating circles of discourse which is fast becoming the norm in the information age.

Although these experiences will no doubt aid students in their future and present occupations, let us for a moment consider the nature of academic writing along with its possibilities and limitations. I will not pretend to claim that one semester’s participation in an e-mail list discussing American literature can fully prepare anyone for the challenges he or she will face writing and communicating in the "real" world. There are, however, as David Bartholomae suggests, a number of audiences and styles of writing expected of students before they even graduate:

As a matter of course, students are often asked to put on different rhetorical "hats" as they write a history paper one week, a literary analysis the next. They are rarely given the opportunity, however, to practice using these new voices they are expected to adopt, even though each field has its own unique jargon, styles of presentation, and accepted styles of argument. (135) It is important to remember that, although I contend that students who participated in gatsby-l were given a much more practical introduction to academic discourse than they would receive in a traditional proscenium-based course, I am not proposing that gatsby-l was a "global" discourse community, at least not in the sense that many current theorists use the term. As Joseph Harris complains, "most of the ‘communities’ to which other current theorists refer exist at a vague remove from actual experience: The University, The Profession, The Discipline, The Academic Discourse Community" (14). I suggest, rather, that gatsby-l, while being instead closer to what most theorists would refer to as a "local" discourse community, since its participants were for the most part students in a particular course being taught "at" a particular college, was in fact more of a hybrid of the two.

Gatsby-l provided students with an introduction to the global discourse community of literary criticism by allowing them to not only read from the "canonized" critics’ works which were published in academic journals, but to quote from their peers (and be quoted) just as they might in a professional or academic community; they were even able to "converse" with established critics in MOO sessions and with authors via e-mail. This ability allowed students to truly engage in what literary critic Robert Scholes calls writing "within, upon and against" texts (24). The act of reading, Scholes says, produces a text "within" the text, as Stanley Fish and other proponents of reader-response criticism contend. Scholes goes on to tell us that the act of interpretation produces a text "upon" the text, and the act of criticism produces a text against the text. These three activities, all vital components of the networked, web-based course which gatsby-l participants were enrolled in, are the same three essential activities which professional writers and literary critics spend the majority of their time engaged in.

Of course, much to the chagrin of many literature instructors, most of their students are not likely to follow in their footsteps, and, without coersion by some other instructor later in their academic career, will probably never voluntarily write a critical analysis of any work of literature again. We who are in the profession do hope that students will see the value of such analysis anyway, and argue vehemently of the worth of literature courses to a general liberal education. But practically speaking, we often have very little concrete evidence to back up our claims. The networked, web-based literature course, however, offers the possibility of validating these long-held beliefs, and it is my hope that this study will be one of the first of many to explore the numerous implications of this new pedagogy. Students, though, don’t need to wait for the research to recognize the benefits. In an e-mail message sent to me the semester following the one in which he was enrolled in this course, a frustrated Sir Edward wrote:

. . . one of my courses this semester is one requiring me to attend on campus, and it is so abject in framing the antiquatedness of the traditional classroom!

I am bored to tearfull stress, questioning the seeming rebellion inside, wondering whether I am right in the anger at having to be led like cattle at an infantile pace down a single path of the knowledge. I can't search about following my interest as it is aroused, lest I be culled out by a questioning prod, and spurred for not following along. When we all go together, we all go slow. I have not a faint or lingering scent of doubt that the distance format is conducive to the flexible need that teaching varying unique minds, which is what any body of students is, requires--when done best. In the traditional class, the professor is a kindercare sitter. In the virtual class, the professor is a symphonious conductor! (10-4-96)

Sir Edward, whose participation and writings play a large role in this study, took three different courses with me over a two-year period, the first via a local BBS and the others via WWW; he was and continues to be a strong advocate of the use of computer-mediated communication to enhance learning; more than two years after his last course with me was completed, he remains in touch via e-mail and has even suggested to other instructors in various disciplines that they begin teaching using the methods I have developed.

Participation in the list not only helped students enter a "literary" discourse community, but also helped them to understand relationships between literary studies and other disciplines by seeing how other students and participants drew upon their own experiences and fields of expertise to bring about fresh approaches to the literature. Some of the paper topics included: fashion as a statement of women’s rebellion in the 1920’s; the history of emergency medical services and how today’s EMS technology would have changed the plot of The Great Gatsby; literary critics and their views on The Great Gatsby compared by analogies to various types of fish; and capitalism and the American Dream from the point of view of an American (economically conservative) economics major who had debated on gatsby-l with a German scholar who had grown up under socialism. These varied interests contributed not only to the final research papers, but also to the general listserv discussion. After one student compared the characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan to amoebas, another replied, saying: "...you're a genius. You found a way to multi-task your Biology and American Lit. Well said! I know a lot of scientific types who could really relate to your metaphor about the amoeba! There's a diverse audience out there; and, your statement proves there's a way to spark a bit of curiosity in all of us" (Mary S., Fri, 23 Feb 1996 00:03:20).

Needless to say, the input from gatsby-l participants who were not officially enrolled in the course had a definite impact on the formation and nature of the discourse community that developed around the list. Some of the non-enrolled participants included: a speech pathologist from a major university; an executive of the Small Business Administration; a bioengineering major who had created his own home page for F. Scott Fitzgerald; a fruit science major/agribusiness minor from California; a technical writer; an English MA student from Nebraska studying for his qualifying exams; an archeologist on assignment in New Mexico; and a self-proclaimed "Philosopher of the Epistemology of Fishing, scholar in residence." Each of these "list-crashers" had a unique impact on the discussions of The Great Gatsby, and some even offered advice to the enrolled students when they submitted rough drafts of their research papers to the list.

The remainder of this section will be devoted to exploring the formation and development of the gatsby-l discourse community. The data suggest that: 1) students adapt quickly to the environment, taking up discussion of course-related subject matter with minimal prompting from the instructor, and seem to have little problem leading the discussion, creating a multi-branched discourse with many options for entering; 2) discussions are enriched and diversified by participation of non-enrolled list members; and 3) typically shy and/or non-traditional students participate in the course discussions more fully than they would in a traditional classroom setting. Figure 3 (below) provides a visual representation of the gatsby-l discourse community.

Figure 3: A visual representation of the gatsby-l discourse community.


Although the required course discussion did not officially begin until I sent the first discussion prompt on January 24, several students who had been enrolled in my course the previous semester (as well as some "newbies") signed on to the gatsby-l discussion list early and began discussing the novel on their own initiative. As the following examples demonstrate, initial messages in a computer-mediated course tend to be focused on the task at hand (in this case, discussion of the course readings) and the discussion is quickly generated and shaped by the students. In the following message, two "rookies" begin their analysis of The Great Gatsby by focusing, ironically, on a concept around which I built the course, which was an examination of the "American dream" and how it was portrayed in literature written by authors representing various segments of our society.

Date: Tue, 23 Jan 1996 21:58:24 -0600

At 06:01 PM 1/23/96 -0800, you wrote:

> I found it to be very close to the events

>toat happen in this day and age because of the lies, cheating, hiding

>secrets from your spouse and your friends, and the misuse of money for

>your owm greed.

> Karen Pittman



Gatsby seemed to be chasing a dream. America encourages, and provides the freedom of this. Lies, cheating, hiding secrets, etc....., I'm sure have

been prevalent throughout the history of man(nothing new here; and is not

a serious problem with our current society). Gatsby is free to do whatever

he pleases with his money. That is another beauty about America; -he has

the freedom of choice and privacy. His money is his responsibility. If he

wants to be greedy, then he can be greedy(greed is a subjective term

anyway). What do you think makes capitalism work? Self-Interest(another form of greed)...

I will agree that his motives and actions were shallow(Daisy is a good symbol of shallowness).

Anthony B. Hanes

In the first message, Karen, who turned out to be a major contributor to the list, compares the morals and behavior of the novel’s characters to those she sees in "real life" around her. This message is typical of her messages throughout the semester, which, although numerous, tended to be extremely conversational in tone. She did, however, manage to spark reactions in other participants, though, as is evidenced by the response from Anthony.

Anthony, in his detailed refutation, displays a passion which will soon be echoed by other list participants. As an economics major and the son of a successful real estate investor, he cares deeply about issues that are "American" in nature, and signs his message with the highly formal "Anthony B. Hanes," a reminder of his socio-economic position. It is easy to decipher that he is the product of a society which applauds economic success, no matter how it is obtained. He claims that lies, cheating, etc. are "nothing new" and that they are "not a problem with our current society." By playing down the significance of unethical behavior, he strikes at the crux of her argument. He then frees himself to claim that even if greed exists, and even if Jay Gatsby is greedy, it is acceptable, even desirable. He asks, then answers, a rhetorical question: "What do you think makes capitalism work? Self-Interest (another form of greed)..."

The above messages, then, help to illustrate several important ingredients in the molding of the gatsby-l discourse community. It is helpful to think of the list participants as players in a game in which the goal is not to throw balls through a hoop as in basketball, but to stay on one’s feet as in a sparring session between boxers or martial artists. In this case, though, the game is not physical, but intellectual. One throws a series of punches (in this case ideas and opinions) at the opponent(s) and defends oneself from the blows delivered by the opposition. Whoever throws the best punches or kicks and puts up a good defense is declared the winner. I am borrowing heavily here from Wittgenstein’s notion of language games, and Lyotard’s contention that "to speak is to fight." Every utterence, says Lyotard, is akin to a "move" in a game of chess; I prefer my analogy of sparring, however, because the language games which take place in the electronic discourse community are much more dynamic, exciting, and immediate than those in a typical discourse arena such as an academic journal.

Another important ingredient in the electronic classroom is the ability for many students to "speak" at once; this is true of synchronous conferencing such as that enabled by software such as Daedalus InterChange in local area networks or educational MOO’s on the internet, but is especially important in asynchronous environments such as e-mail discussion lists. In both instances, several participants can contribute to the conversation at once, which allows for more "words per hour" than are possible in a traditional classroom setting. In the asynchronous environment, however, students have more time to read, synthesize, and react to what their classmates have said, creating a multi-branched discourse with many options for entering, giving the "deep thinkers" a more equal footing with those who tend to be of quicker wit. In addition, students have the ability to read a message over several times, follow a thread backwards to place the message in context, and write and revise their response before making it "public" by posting it to the list.

Students can also, if the course is structured properly, "teach" each other more than I could ever teach them on my own. Although Anthony’s message above touches only briefly on the subject of economics, he shared his knowledge of that field in several other messages throughout the semester. Other students used their knowledge of psychology, history, marketing, and even emergency medical training to shed new light on various aspects of the novel. Again, the extent to which this knowledge was shared was heightened by the absence of the time constraints that are an inherent characteristic of the traditional classroom setting.

In other "pre-class" list activity, some returning students renewed their acquaintance. Instead of just a superficial "Hi, how was your Christmas?" type of conversation, though, the focus began just where it left off--intellectual debate based on the course readings. In the following example, Sir Edward sends a relatively tame message to another "veteran," JW (Sharon Wells), with whom he had several heated disagreements during the previous semester’s discussions. In his response, Sir Edward appears to strike a conciliatory tone, finding in JW a compatible sparring partner rather than an enemy to be defeated; this message helped redefine their relationship roles as friendly competitors rather than despised adversaries, and although they still had disagreements throughout the semester, they were, for the most part, based more on logic than emotion:

On Tue, 23 Jan 1996 23:11:15 -0600 JW Smith wrote:

>I did not care for this book at first but later got involved in the story.

>I think the story was about a death of innocence on the part of the

>narrator. He got, inadvertently, involved in the extracirricular activities

>of the others. I also believe that Gatsby demonstrated how difficult it is

>to reconcile a dream with reality. After "stalking" Daisy for quite a while

>it is hard for him to accept that she is really in his house and he has to

>realize that she is a real person and not a dream. The light on the boat

>dock not being special anymore is an example of the loss of the dream with the arrival of reality.


JW...I also did not develop a gripping interest until late into the book.

I'll have to think more about your idea of lost innocense on Nick's part,

but the issue about dreams for one's life must indeed be the largest moral

that Fitzgerald had in the novel, with maybe the quality of a woman's

love, or lack of, of a second import.

It was in the middle of chapter 7 that everything seemed to come together that the lengthy first 2/3's of the tale was developing towards. Action finally started there and a clear statement from Fitzgerald about the

vanity of Gatsby came forth:

...But with every word she was drawing futher and

further into herself, so he gave that up and only

the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped


and on the next page:

...Thirty--the promise of a decade of loneliness,

a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning

brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But

there was Jordan beside me who, unlike Daisy, was

too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from

age to age.


Sir Edward

(Wed, 24 Jan 1996 07:24:57 PST)

In her message, JW begins by immediately commenting on two "literary" topics--theme and symbolism. This was characteristic of her work in earlier courses as well as her performance in this course. In several e-mail messages (to the list as well as in private messages to me) JW related her distaste for "theoretical" criticism such as psychoanalytic, feminist, etc. and if given the choice, always responded to the prompts asking for a formalist analysis of a given work. In this message, she boils the theme down to one sentence, in which she states that "the story was about a death of innocence on the part of the narrator." Although this was her third course using the e-mail discussion list format, she still politely prefaces her opinion with "I think," a subtle way of avoiding complete responsibility for her statement, and leaving open the opportunity for others to disagree without "killing off" her idea. In her final statement, though, she is bolder, asserting that "[t]he light on the boat dock not being special anymore is an example of the loss of the dream with the arrival of reality." Thus she throws out two ideas to the list, one concerning the theme and the other concerning the symbolism of the light on the dock, offering them up as fodder to spark if not an impassioned, at least an intellectual, debate.

Sir Edward, thirsting for the opportunity to share his observations, does not even bother with social pleasantries or formalities, but rather leaps right into an academic discussion; he does, however, begin with the atypical (for him, anyway) assertion that he agrees with JW about something. "JW," he states, "I also did not develop a gripping interest until late into the book." With this opening remark, he seems to take on a more conciliatory tone than in his previous semesters’ conversations with JW, and saying "okay, here’s something we agree upon--let’s build upon that and start afresh." Of course, Sir Edward would not be content to simply agree, but rather than using his typical "attack dog" approach (for which he had been rebuked by other students in the previous semester’s course), he politely comments that he will "have to think more about [her] idea of lost innocense on Nick's part."

Sir Edward then picks up on JW’s previous comments upon the novel’s theme and offers his own view, beginning a discussion of two other elements of the novel, plot development and characterization. By following the conversation between JW and Sir Edward, other list participants can now respond not only to my initial discussion prompts (which at this point in the semester have not even been sent out yet), but also have three other choices or "threads" which they can join: theme, plot development, and characterization. Providing opportunities for students to introduce their own topics is an important factor in creating a student-centered, open forum in which ideas are freely exchanged without fear of reprisal or censure by the instructor.

Of course, it would be false to assume that the students felt completely free to say anything they wanted. They were, after all, enrolled in a college-level course for credit, and no matter how much an instructor attempts to "empower" the students or give up his or her role as the authority figure, the knowledge that their comments are being constantly monitored or will be evaluated at some point still lurks in the minds of the students. Unlike some current theorists, though, I do not consider this to have a completely negative impact. Although I never sent any messages to the list warning the participants to "stay on track or else," the ambiance of the list nevertheless remained fairly academic in tone. For the most part, students shied away from frivolous comments and making ad hominid attacks, but instead practiced their rhetorical skills in their efforts to persuade or critique each other’s comments.


Data gathered from listserv messages as well as surveys and recorded interviews conducted with students after the course was over suggest that students with insecurities due to shyness, inexperience, non-traditional status, etc. tend to participate more often and more freely in an electronic discourse community than in a traditional classroom setting. This phenomena has been widely confirmed by both anecdotal evidence and recent computers and writing scholarship by researchers such as Hawisher and Selfe, Taylor, and McCann, and my research supports these earlier findings.

In what seems like an almost direct response to detractors who fear that education via computer-mediated communication has a dehumanizing effect on both students and instructors, one student noted on a written survey that "I think it [the virtual classroom environment] has the tendency to become more personal because people are more inclined to write things that they normally would not say" (Judith 5-6-96). Another student noted that ". . . it is more comfortable to say what is on your mind since sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me" (Heath 5-6-96). A third stated: "I felt less intimidated to talk to them [other students] and ask for advice than I would in a traditional classroom . . . I participated more, because I felt more comfortable this way. I didn't have to worry about interrupting classroom lecture time to ask for help, advice, or give my opinions." Even those who claimed in the survey that there was little difference in their degree of participation neglected to realize that they had, whether voluntarily or not, made several dozen comments each throughout the semester; in order to fulfill even the minimum course requirements, they had e-mailed at least twelve 3-4 paragraph initial messages and at least 36 responses to classmates’ messages, in addition to essay rough drafts and peer critiques, throughout the semester. Compared to a traditional course that met in a classroom twice a week for fifteen weeks, each student would have had to make approximately two comments per class period to equal the same amount of participation.

In the following section examples will be shown of listserv messages from two students, Fran and Penny, both of whom rarely spoke in the classroom, but "blossomed" in the online environment.


Fran , a "married without children" student in her mid-thirties, was enrolled in the on-campus section of English 1302, the second semester of the first-year composition and rhetoric program. A typical non-traditional student, she had attended college briefly directly after graduating high school, but left school to get married and was now returning to college after several years’ absence. Her soft-spoken nature and the age difference between her and the other on-campus students led her to keep mostly to herself during class, and she used her computer lab time wisely by spending it constructively working on the computer. When asked to compare her relationship(s) with her classmates in the virtual as opposed to the traditional "face-to-face" classroom environment, Fran responded, "[w]e discussed more than normally would have taken place [in the] regular classroom. We learned more from each other than from you. You felt as though you could say what you wished and did not have to worry about being wrong" (5-6-96).

Fran had made it clear to me at the beginning of the semester that her knowledge of literature and literary terminology was extremely limited, and that she was not at all confident in her abilities in this area. This was also evident in several of her comments to the list alluding to her perceived inadequacy, such as the following message, in which she confesses her confusion over (an admittedly difficult) reading:

. . . What I found on the address given to me was strange and difficult to ascertain. I read up untill the part about Emily Dickenson and gave it up. Is it a poem, an essay, or what? Quite possibly I should give it a second chance; indeed maybe even two more chances. Maybe my literary pursuits are'nt on the same level as yours . . . (Fri, 9 Feb 1996 12:45:13 -0600) Most of her messages, though, belied her lack of confidence, and displayed her ability to comprehend the course materials, and synthesize and analyze at a level which matched many of the students enrolled in the sophomore course: This single green light somehow was significant to him in a way we had no way of knowing untill later in the book.(at least for me) Furthermore, the phrase unquiet darkness will be retained in my mind because of its double meaning( who knows a better word?) Usually you don't think of the darkness as being un-quiet. Darkness is quiet not thought of as un-quiet. What a curious way to depect the night and the sounds that go on, at times, without us really realizng it. (Fri, 9 Feb 1996 12:01:07 -0600) Although obviously still in need of a "literary" vocabulary with which to discuss the works she is reading, Fran shows that she is capable of grappling with the text and is clearly trying to come to sense with it. She also is displaying a keen sense of audience, realizing that her classmates will be reading her comments, and thus asks "who knows a better word?" Just a few weeks later, Fran proves to be one of the most helpful students in the peer critiquing of her classmates’ essays. In the following message, she unabashedly offers some constructive criticism, wisely beginning with a couple of positive comments before moving in for the kill, a skill that, unfortunately, many an experienced English instructor has yet to master: I certainly don't want to be to negative, for I did enjoy reading your

paper and learning some interesting information. You certainly can be

commended for your excellence in writing this when most of us havn't

even started. I hope my paper comes along as well as yours. However, I

found in reading your paper it is rather disjointed and jumps around

alot. I feel you need some transitions between some paragraphs and

sentences. Have you considered that you have too much informantion?

Possibly narrowing it down some. I don't mean text wise but information

wise. I also think you might need to look at you sentence structure for

fragmented sentences. I saw a couple. Also when you quote someone you

kinda need to lead into it not just do it. Have you read the Little

Brown Handbook on how to introduce quotes and paraphraes? I know I need to reread parts of the book myself and will do so. I can tell you put

alot of work into this and with a few adjustments you can make it even

better. But hey I'm not a teacher so don't take this all so heart.

Being the first one with your paper you will likely get alot of




The gatsby-l listserv, then, proved to be a helpful tool for Fran in both her own understanding of the course readings, and in her communications with other students.


Penny, who was enrolled in the totally online version of English 1302, was also a non-traditional student. Twenty-two and also married, she had a four-year old son and worked full-time as a secretary during the day. She usually took two or three evening courses each semester, and enrolled in the English 1302 online course to save driving time and spend more time with her family. In her survey responses as well as during a taped interview I conducted after the semester was over, Penny made several comments relating to the fact that although she had originally enrolled in the course for the above-mentioned practical reasons, she discovered that she felt more comfortable, communicated better in, and actually preferred the online environment; she also expressed an interest in taking online courses in other subject areas if they were made available (the following year she enrolled in another of my online literature courses). When asked to compare her relationship with her classmates in the virtual classroom as opposed to a traditional "face-to-face" classroom environment, she responded, "[y]ou learn more about them. I hardly talk to people in my other classes."

Penny’s first few messages typically repeated what the other students had said and stated her agreement with their ideas, then provided a simplistic analysis, as in the following reply to Dana:

I also feel that Gasby is an example of the American dream. He started

out with nothing but was determined to do something with his life.

Determination sparks achievement in life. He drove himself to achieve.

He drove himself to get himself where he was. He might not have done

things right but it showed he was human and not some perfect person in

the book. He showed love for a woman. He strived on giving Daisy the

person that was ideal for her. That is why he became rich and powerful.

He did not do these things to impress her. He did these things to give

her what he felt that she needed. That "American Dream" is going for

what you believe in and that is exactly what Gatsby did in the book.

By the 4th message (below), she is still agreeing, but is now coming up with more of her own ideas, and has also changed her position about Gatsby’s version of the American Dream since her first message. Because she had been "forced" to articulate her views in writing, and had read and responded to messages by several of her classmates, Penny was quickly becoming an active participant in the knowledge-making of the gatsby-l discourse community. This message, although not necessarily controversial nor profound, sparked responses (mostly in agreement) from no less than seven of her classmates in the next two days, and set off a several-message long debate between Sir Edward and Albert: I also believe that the "American Dream" is something that has to be

earned. All of the characters lived this spoiled type of life and did

not earn anything. Gatsby earned all of his money by illegal

activities. Tom already had money, and like you said, Daisy married

into money. None of these people obtained the "American Dream". To me, the American Dream is going for a goal, and working hard to obtain that goal. It is a love and passion for something that makes you strive to

acheive what it is that you want. None of these characters found this

passion. In ways, I don't even believe that Gatsby achieved his goal.

If he really wanted Daisy, he should have tried to win her in his own

way, not with material things.

(Sun, 18 Feb 1996 15:24:02 -0600)

By the time Penny wrote the following message, three weeks after her first message to gatsby-l, she had no qualms about speaking her mind. Perhaps emboldened by the positive reactions to some of her previous comments, Penny uses all caps (usually meant to denote shouting in computer-mediated communication) to deliver this definitive pronouncement: FRAN,



(Date: Sat, 24 Feb 1996 12:09:49 -0600)

For both Penny and Fran, the gatsby-l e-mail list proved to be a "safe" place where they could sort out and articulate their thoughts, explore new ideas and "test" them out on their classmates, and receive recognition and confirmation that their ideas had validity. They each applied for, and gained admittance to, the academic discourse community of gatsby-l, and went on to participate as active contributors to that knowledge-making community.


Broadened horizons

In a traditional classroom setting, the instructor or perhaps a teaching assistant is typically the only person who ever reads a student’s writing; this is especially true of literature survey courses. Learning in a networked environment, however, affords students the opportunity to access virtually everything that is written by every other student, since all course-related discourse is stored electronically on the server that houses the e-mail list (the implications of this access will be discussed in Section VI). Another important benefit of using a wide area network such as the internet to facilitate course discussion is the participation of non-enrolled list members. Although, as evidenced by recent debate on the ACW-L discussion list, not all virtual instructors welcome or sometimes even permit these "list crashers," my research suggests that in many cases non-enrolled participants can be an invaluable addition to the course. These members, who discover the list in "lists of lists" or are made aware of it by contact with the instructor or students in the course, can add tremendously to the scope of the discussion. Non-enrolled participants can also give students a broader sense of audience, enabling them to move beyond the local discourse community of their classmates and the instructor.

The following message, from Johannes Dommnich,a non-enrolled participant who joined the list briefly for the first few weeks of the course, was in response to a discussion which had been going on regarding capitalism and the American dream and how they were portrayed by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. In his response, Dommnich was able to draw on first-hand knowledge that helped to shed a broader light on the capitalism vs. socialism debate which had evolved on the list, something that I as a U.S.-born citizen could never have been able to do:

To everyone reflecting on the American Dream:

One point I'm missing is to criticize the American Dream itself and not

just how it is portrayed in Fitzgerald's novel. What influence does it

have on the society in large? What effect does this extreme individualism have on the way we perceive everyday-life, our future, others

(ellbow-thinking, social-darwinism may be?). I think I can speak of 'We'

although I'm German, since the goals the A.D. stands for (happy family,

happy social life, material wealth) are to a certain degree

transculturally valid ( at least for the industrialized countries). I

think it is necessary to consider the context of society, the

individual-society interaction and whether egoism or solidarity do for

a more human society.

What I like about the novel is that it shows how little money

does for healthy human interactions, for a healthy self-development.

However, to have or have not a certain amount of financial resources is

vitally important to enable this development. Thus, I find it also

important to consider what effect this polarization rich/poor has on the

people who form the antipole of those who have money to burn.


(Fri, 2 Feb 1996 11:55:16 +0100)

In his message, Johannes brings up some points that, while not directly related to literature, are indeed valid and help to broaden the discussion and help students see that the study of literature is not limited to a new critical-type study of the text, but does indeed connect with the "real" world. In fact, his comments helped to underscore some of the emphasis I was trying to place on the social and economic implications of the novel. He also introduced some new terminology to the discussion with terms such as "social darwinism" and "egoism," which were then picked up and utilized by some of the enrolled students in later discussions, such as in this message from Sir Edward:
  Johannes...Are you saying that one must evaluate how individuals in

a given society relate to the society at large before what one

determines is valid for behavior is an acceptable value judgement?

That is, whether a society needs a predominance of rugged "I'm

only interested in me" egoists or a full lot of sheep baying

"only let us speak with one voice, to destroy the evil powers" is

rather determined first by evaluating where in the progression

of societal evolution that society may be--as if nature has a master

plan. I rather suggest to you that here in America the dream has

been, from its beginning and still unto today, the same solidarity

that you know of in Europe over recent decades. And I further

suggest to you that at the very heart of that solidarity is the

very essence of egoism. The American dream in not about wealth.

Wealth happens to be a byproduct of the status of good management.

The American dream is what its forefathers envisioned--a society

where principles rule and not brute force, where brute force is

ensuring principles rather than private lust.

The principles, Sir Johannes, are the unalienable rights of the

individual--true egoism.

Sir Edward

(Thu, 8 Feb 1996 06:10:47 PST)

Although not every student responded to Johannes’ message, and most of the responses were not as detailed as Sir Edwards’, most students at least read it, and the resulting discussions added a dimension to the course which I would not have been able to produce artificially. As mentioned previously, I could have commented upon the same issues as Johannes (and in fact I did on occasion) but the discussions would have been purely academic. Since Johannes had "been there and done that," however, his comments carried much more credibility and authenticity. In a traditional classroom, the same effect could have been achieved by inviting Johannes to come in as a guest speaker, but that would have involved the expenditure of much time, effort, and also financial resources since he would have required travel expenses to come to our small community college in Texas.

By allowing the participation of non-enrolled participants such as Johannes, students are given the opportunity to broaden their view of the course readings beyond simply the subject matter, which in this case is literature and literary analysis. In his monograph, Dialogue, Dialectic, and Conversation: A Social Perspective on the Function of Writing, Gregory Clark notes that "the topics of learning and discourse in the academy have narrowed to the disciplinary and, thus, the professional" and that because of this trend "the rhetoric of public discourse has been replaced by a rhetoric of personal competence that enables our students only to advance their careers" (64). Although one might argue that one of the core beliefs at the heart of any literature course curriculum is the desire to instill in students an understanding of human nature that is non-disciplinary specific, it is often difficult for instructors who have limited life experience outside academia to successfully accomplish this goal. The participation of non-enrolled list members in the course discussions allows students to enhance this interdisciplinary experience in a practical way.

A mentor appears

Another important contribution by a non-enrolled participant was that of Bonita Berg-Reece, a graduate student in English at the University of South Florida. By her active participation in the discussions, she greatly enhanced the quality of the course by using her background in literature to help bring up issues and clarify points for the students. Later in the semester, she also gave valuable critiques to students who submitted rough drafts of their research papers to the list; some of her critiques will be discussed in Section V. In her first message she sets an "on task" tone by not only introducing herself, but also by contributing some material she has learned about The Great Gatsby in her graduate seminars:

GREETINGS! I'm new to the list, a grad student at University of S Florida

and I'm currently doing some research on Gatsby/Lawrence. It seems I've

caught up with all of you at just the right time. I scanned some of your

essays on the internet earlier tonight--I didn't find any discussion prompts


I'm approaching Gatsby in terms of the mythic American dream as presented by David Noble in his 1968 book, *The Eternal Adam and the New World Garden.* Noble's theory relates to various authors from Cooper to Bellow who have explored the mythic belief of America as the eternal garden/land of eternal possibility and her citizens as Adamic heroes who can fulfill every dream and attain the previously unattainable. I highly recommend this book--it's very readable and provides tremendous insights into many authors.

The basic consensus of most modern authors (which would of course include Lawrence) is that the dream itself is a flawed vision dual to the dual belief of the dream itself. It contains a mixture of idealism and belief in the pastoral aspects of the frontier with a heavy materialism and emphasison capitalism. Frequently, human kind attempts to fulfill the dream and attain the unattainable, and in doing so humanity becomes corrupted or even grotesque. If any of you have read any of Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson you can probably relate to this theory. It is a book of short stories which form a loosely structured novel.

One of the early stories, entitled "The Grotesques" exemplifies Gatsby in many ways. As he embraces his vision of love with Daisy, he forsakes his reality and corrupts his own life. He is an outsider, looking on as parties and life is passing him by. His obsession to obtain his dream precludes his life. As he stands on the dock in the early part of the novel and stretches hisarms out to Daisy across the water, he reaches toward what he cannot buy, cannot obtain, cannot realize. For me, the ramifications of this are especially relevant as I think about him reaching across the natural setting which so many early modern protagonists attempt to return to in order to find peace and fulfillment.

I have a class on Monday evenings so I won't be able to participate in the MOO session--if they are transcriped or printed somewhere on the internet, please let me know. I look forward to hearing from all of you in the future.


(Sat, 2 Mar 1996 17:31:54 -0500)

In the following message Bonita "applauds" students for their "insights," but then goes on to raise some thought-provoking questions, modeling the discourse of the literary community by citing specific instances in the novel, and even referencing page numbers. Literary conventions thus begin to weave their way into the everyday conversation between the students, giving them further insight into and experience using the conventions practiced by literary critics. >In a message dated 96-02-20 08:24:37 EST, you write:


>>Nick sees a renewed beauty in the American dream. He leaves with

>>a sense of pride in the common middle-class thread running through its

>>canvas and finds quiet joy in the thought of painting his dream with a

>>moralistic sense of decency.


Mike/Mary et all,

Although I also applaud your insights, I have a question. What about Nick's comment to Gatsby on my p.162 when he says, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together" (Chapter VIII, nine pages into the chapter). I think Nick is looking deeper than class structure as he examines the various characters. He sees Gatsby (whose business dealings are portrayed as more than shady) as more honourable than others. What do you think he's basing his statement on here?

It seems to me it might be on Gatsby's ability to transcend all codes of

morality as he seeks his personal interpretation of the American dream,

albeit a perverted interpretation from our points of view. Comments?


(Sat, 2 Mar 1996 06:07:16 -0500)

In the following message, Bonita not only gives encouragement, but offers to search for relevant information and provide it to the student (which she indeed followed up on a few days later): >In a message dated 96-02-17 13:42:04 EST, you write:

>> The fact that Nick knew who hit Mrs. Wilson and never said anything >>to anyone was inexcusable. We will never know what he was thinking >>and why he made the decision to keep quiet. Maybe in his silence we >>were allowed a glimpse into Nick's soul. Maybe he was not the lone >>"good guy" in a corrupt environment, but himself no better than the >>others.



Much recent scholarship has focused on the reliability of Nick as an

impartial narrator. I think you have hit upon an issue which other critics

are looking at quite closely. I will forward some of these critical

ideas--they're at my office at present, early next week. I hope they are of

interest to you.


(Sat, 2 Mar 1996 06:15:22 -0500)

Bonita’s participation, although unsolicited and unplanned (by me, anyway), helped to add a more "literary" tone to the discussions, provided students with insight and resources that would otherwise have been unavailable, and helped to provide a broader perspective on the novel than if students were to have relied on my input alone. The added insights provided by Bonita, Johannes, and other non-enrolled participants added a new dimension to the course and created an open-ended learning environment that differs in many respects from the environment of a traditional classroom-based course. The benefits were not all one-sided, either, as Bonita used her experiences to form her own listserv and offer a course via the internet the following year, and I received several messages from other non-enrolled participants thanking me for allowing them to take part in the discussions.


The virtual classroom, then, if constructed using a collaborative, social-constructionist-based pedagogy, can provide students with a variety of ways to enhance their educational experience. Through the use of computer-mediated communication such as the gatsby-l listserv, students can experience first-hand the exchange of ideas that takes place in an academic discourse community; they can test out ideas and concepts in a relatively safe environment, and they can benefit from the participation of "outsiders" who can contribute invaluable knowledge and advice that the students would not otherwise receive.

In the following two sections, the effects of computer-mediated communication on the writing process will be explored. Section IV will focus on collaboration as a means to invention in electronic writing spaces. Section V will examine the effects of the virtual environment on peer critiquing and revision.

Section IV