In Invention as a Social Act, Karen Burke LeFevre claims that "[t]o enhance the possibility that invention will occur, people must be able to work, to think, to be part of a past tradition and a continuing community, and to have their works received by others so that the inventive act is completed" (75). In a traditional scholarly discourse community, the mode of transmission of ideas so that they can be "received by others" has been the scholarly journal. Over a period of several years, a literature develops around a field’s subject matter, and new scholars entering the discourse community are expected to gain a general knowledge of what has been said before so that their contributions will be informed by the prevailing views. New contributions then either build upon or refute the previous "truths" that have been accepted by consensus by that particular knowledge-making community. Lyotard refers to this as a "horizon of consensus," explaining that:

One’s competence is never an accomplished fact. It depends on whether or not the statement proposed is considered by one’s peers to be worth discussion in a sequence of argumentation and refutation. The truth of the statement and the competence of its sender are thus subject to the collective approval of a group of persons who are competent on an equal basis. (24) The process of building this knowledge base usually takes many years, though, and due to the constraints of print technology, scholarly dialogues via academic journals have often dragged out for several years.

In composition circles, the benefits of collaboration as a means to invention have long been noted, and such activities as peer critiquing of essays and group writing assignments are now common practice in the typical writing class. Elbow, Murray, Bruffee, Macrorie, and other composition theorists have written about their various efforts to introduce collaboration into the composing process, and their early research has greatly influenced the way composition is taught today. Hawisher and Selfe, Kemp, and others in the computers and writing community have appropriated many of these strategies in developing a collaborative online pedagogy. In fact, much of the communication between these "technorhetoricians" has been through electronic means, such as the MBU-L and ACW-L e-mail discussion lists and a variety of educational MOO’s. Most of the research to date, however, has focused on students in first-year composition courses, and computer-mediated collaboration in writing about literature has not received as much attention, even though it potentially provides a means to allow students to experience the kinds of interchange that characterize literary and scholarly discourse communities, such as the experiences of journal article submission and review, co-authoring, and editing.

In this section I will examine some of the new avenues of discussion that learning in an electronic environment opens, and how communicating in this environment affects the process of invention and the ease and frequency of both student-student and student-instructor collaboration. In the Survey of American Literature course in which the gatsby-l list participants were enrolled, students were able to "test" their ideas by submitting them to their peers several weeks before they even began their research papers--often these ideas were not submitted as "this is my essay topic," but as more general thoughts, questions, or comments in response to my weekly discussion prompts or to ideas brought up by their classmates on the discussion list. Although some of the same activities can take place and similar benefits can be realized in classroom-based courses in which collaboration and student interaction is a key element, writing about literature in an electronic discourse community has inherently different characteristics that can be enhanced by students’ participation, especially when the members of that community are all discussing, researching, and writing about the same work of literature and have around the clock access to the ongoing "conversation." When they see that other students have ideas similar to their own, or conversely, see that their particular idea is not only unique but respected and given credence by the other list participants, they tend to take more risks and exhibit a greater degree of confidence than if they were composing alone or with a small peer group meeting only once or twice a week.

With the advent of computer-mediated communication, however, particularly widely-distributed, easily-accessible asynchronous modes such as e-mail discussion lists, the pace of scholarly debate in many fields has accelerated at an exponential rate; this is especially the case in technology driven fields such as science, medicine, and engineering, but is also becoming increasingly prevalent in "softer" fields such as psychology, anthropology, and literary studies. Students who are introduced to this method of communication are given the opportunity to experience first-hand a "mini" scholarly discourse community, as has been discussed in Section III, which echoes the practices of global discourse communities such as those comprised of scholars specializing in a certain period, author, or genre, and to experience within a relatively short span of time the process of invention, argumentation, refutation, and a "horizon of consensus" which takes place in the construction of knowledge in scholarly discourse communities over a period of several of years.

Like traditional students, those enrolled in courses utilizing computer-mediated communication conduct research in libraries and read printed copies of articles published by scholars in the field, and thus learn research techniques that will prove valuable whenever they need to consult print resources; despite Jay David Bolter’s cheerful proclamation that we are living in the "late age of print," printed books and journals will continue to be a major source of information for many years to come (2). This new breed of student, however, also has the benefit of conducting research online via ftp, gopher, and the World Wide Web, which allows access to newly-published articles, works in progress, and works that might never be printed in an academic press due to the increasingly limited funds available to print "hard copy" books and journals. Students in the virtual classroom also have the opportunity to not only "invent" ideas, but to do so in a truly collaborative setting, and to receive comparatively immediate feedback and advice from their peers and their instructor/editor. The remainder of this section will examine specific instances of invention and collaboration on the gatsby-l list, and attempt to determine characteristics of these instances that are enabled or enhanced by the discussion taking place in a virtual environment. These characteristics are:

    1. students tend to communicate with each other and with the instructor more frequently than those enrolled in a traditional "on-ground" class, enabling them to become truly active participants in a knowledge-making discourse community
    2. students tend to take more and greater risks by introducing potentially controversial, unpopular, or "off-the-wall" concepts or ideas to the rest of the class
    3. students tend to do a closer reading of the assigned texts, since they know they will have to discuss them "in front of everybody else" on the listserv
    4. some students resort to mind games and role-playing in order to spark controversy and stimulate discussion.

One of the most important characteristics of the virtual intellectual discourse community is that rather than privileging the students who can think the quickest or come up with the wittiest off-hand remarks, it champions the ideas and concepts that students generate and share after careful reading and thoughtful analysis of the assigned texts. Lefevre claims that "[i]n order to develop new ideas . . . intellectuals need two things: contact with an audience whom they can address and by whom they can be acknowledged; and regular contact with others with whom they can debate ideas and evolve common standards" (75-76). Participation in the gatsby-l listserv discussion gave students the opportunity to meet both of these objectives; again, the opportunity for increased participation is enhanced not just for those who possess superior verbal communication skills or those who are more prone to dominate the discussion due to gender or socio-economic advantages, but to all students who are enrolled in the course. As mentioned in Section III, in order to pass the course students 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 of their classmates’ essays. Initial messages ranged from a low of about 300 words to a high of almost a thousand words; follow-up messages and responses ranged from a few sentences to several paragraphs in length.


Another characteristic of the virtual classroom is the tendency of students to take greater risks when introducing new concepts or ideas to the rest of the class. The relative anonymity afforded by computer-mediated communication helps some students to overcome fears normally associated with introducing new ideas or disagreeing with their classmates’ assertions while in a "live" classroom setting. In the post-course survey, students were asked to compare their relationships with their classmates in the computer-mediated course as opposed to those they had experienced in a traditional "face-to-face" classroom environment. One student responded, "[m]aybe it was a little easier to say what you think when you are not looking them in the face. If you are afraid your answer will be wrong or sound completely off the wall it is a little easier to do via computer" (Kerry 5-8-96).

In the following message, another student confesses her initial discomfort with the collaborative aspect of the course, especially the peer critiquing of essays which was conducted via the gatsby-l e-mail list, but then explains how she came to see the value of this activity in helping her to understand more about writing:

Fellow Classmates & Professor Clark,

Since it is finals week now, I just wanted to tell all of you how much I

have enjoyed this course. When I was first told that I would have to have

my essays critiqued by other students, I almost dropped the class. I am

very glad that I resisted the urge. I have enjoyed all of your comments on

my work (the good and the not so good). Most of all, I have really grown

from just reading your own weekly essays and your thoughts on the different material that we have read over these last few months. I have taken several distance learning classes, but this is the only one where I felt

that "classroom" environment of student participation - even if it was

forced on us!

Thanks again and good luck to all of us on this last exam.

Pam (date unknown)

In the following exchanges, which occurred over a 2-day period on the discussion list, students ventured beyond the scope of my original essay prompts to discuss such controversial issues as prostitution, greed, and the role of women in a male-dominated society. Round one prompt C

Fitzgerald wrote and viewed women as a sort of street hooker, self

centered and money grabbing people.

Daisy was a young women who was out for sex and money. She did not care if her husband knew or not.

Mrs. Wilson's marrage was not exactly what she wanted after she

found out who her husband really was. Inher relationship with Tom she

thought that it could be the way that she has always wanted it.

Fitzgerald view of women was to use and abusse men to get the

respect that they thought thay need and deserved.


Manny’s strong assertion here that Fitzgerald held a low view of women is then challenged, ironically, by a female student. This was the same student who Anthony B. Hanes had "slammed" in Section III. She does not even go through the formalities of a salutation or even a "your message was interesting, but . . ."; instead, she begins her response with "I do not agree with you": I do not agree with you on this. I do not think that Fitzgerald portrayed Daisy, Jordon, or Myrtle as street hookers at all. The only reason Daisy did not care about Tom knowing about her and Gatsby was because he had done the same thing with Myrtle and Daisy was just trying to hurt him the way he hurt her. Myrtle only wanted money and popularity. This is the only reason she went out with Tom, although I do not believe she loved her husband either.

Karen Pittman (02-20-96)

Even though her "pop psychology" attempt at psychoanalyzing Daisy’s behavior is rather weak, Karen demonstrates a willingness to confront Mike’s position and provide her interpretation of the "feminine" point of view to the obviously unenlightened Manny.

In the following message, Charles attempts to alter the conversation’s direction away from a strictly male/female issue by putting the characters’ actions in a historical frame of reference:

I do understand what you are saying and agree. Could we take this a bit

farther, and, yes...get a little heady . . . meaning that at the time of the depression, i don't beleive that women at the time could vote, and they were generally regarded as second class citizens. If we could stick with metaphor here, this si a time of desperation when most EVERYONE was a second class citizen, vying for importance and ANY opportunity to get ahead. Even Al Capone would have been a pauper had it not been for his skill at "supplying a consumer need". If we take it farther, and I am sure that MANNY may not have meant it this way. To one degree or another, was the general reading audience apt to relate to the female charachters who did what they could to get what they wanted.....if even just to survive. I could expound some more on the concept, but I am sure you get the general idea

~Charles (02-21-96)

Although his argument is not the most well-constructed, Charles does get his point across to Karen, who responds: Charles,

I understand about the time frame we are talking about. I think that women should have been more aggressive to get what they wanted not fragile little women who hardly seem human like the women in the Great Gatsby. Maybe if Daisy or Mrytle would have stood up against their men for their rights things would have been different. However, I know that because of the times they did not know how to do this or they were to scared to do it because then they would not fit into their perfect little worlds like they always have.

Karen Pittman (02-21-96)


Collaboration in the writing classroom is nothing new; what is new with the advent of the virtual classroom is the myriad of opportunities that CMC offers to help promote collaboration. Some forms of CMC, such as MOO’s and synchronous conferences, can generate into a chaotic, off-task environment rather quickly, especially if the instructor or chat session leader does not carefully frame discussion prompts and participate in the conversations, undermining the instructor’s original intentions (although some researchers, such as Selfe, Holcomb, and Clark, see this as a possible benefit). Care must be taken by the instructor to create a computer-mediated communicating and writing environment that encourages a scholarly, academic atmosphere so that course objectives will be met.

By conducting virtually all course discussion via an e-mail listserv, which provides an asynchronous communication environment, I was able to avoid much of the off-task behavior associated with synchronous environments such as chat rooms and sychronous conferencing sessions (Holcomb 4).

In the following message, one student compliments another on a previous message she had sent about the significance of light and movement in the novel; ironically, the student being complimented is Fran, whose initial messages, as demonstrated in Section III, had been quite self-deprecating and had displayed a lack of confidence in her own abilities at analyzing literature. She also mentions that Fran’s analysis has helped her to get more out of the novel than by simply reading it on her own. In my response, which was sent to the entire list, I subtly try both to encourage their exchanges and to hint at my own teaching philosophy of privileging participation and collaboration over the traditional lecture-based pedagogical style:

In a message dated 96-02-13 19:38:11 EST, you write:

(to Fran) > I like how, thought, you take only two small

>portions of his creativeness, and expand on that. It's neat to realized

>what a significance that light and movement play, for instance, the

>darkness, the green light, and the movement of outside. Thanks for your

>input. Now maybe I can come up with a good topic.



Yes, Danielle, I'm glad you have gleaned something from Fran's insightful

analysis. That's why we have these discussions, so y'all can share your

wonderful ideas with each other. Sure beats sitting in a room listening to

me rattle on, eh?


These first "baby steps" in the scholarly exchange of ideas help the students bond into an intellectual discourse community, one that will not only help them meet the temporal objectives of a one-semester course, but one that will equip them with skills they will use for the rest of their professional careers, and one in which all of the members of the class, not just those who are bold enough to verbalize their thoughts in front of a live group of people, are active participants. In the computer-mediated course, these "transferable" skills include not only traditional skills such as formulating an argument in writing or deciphering a metaphor, but also include technical skills such as sending and receiving e-mail, browsing the World Wide Web, and using the internet as a research tool. The computer-mediated course thus realizes the goals of an intellectual community as set forth by Chadwick and Dorbolo, when they state that "[b]uilding an intellectual community . . . requires creating a cohesive group of student scholars who are equipped with what they need to continue their studies and intellectual conversations after they complete the course" (120).

A close reading and analysis of assigned readings

In the following message, which was sent to the amlit2-l list later in the semester, Irene compares two short stories, claiming that "[both stories] were very similar in the aspect of women feeling trapped by men," and that "[b]oth stories seemed to want the reader's sympathy for the women." She goes on to demonstrate the validity of her claims by careful summary and quotations from the text. By having the time to think about her response to my discussion prompt, and by expressing her thoughts in writing rather than in a spoken comment in the classroom, Irene is able to present a more well-thought out, carefully constructed argument than she would have otherwise been able to. She was also able to use her initial comments as the catalyst for a formal essay which was due later in the semester.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" and "My Favorite God is Janus" were very similar in the aspect of women feeling trapped by men. Both stories seemed to want the reader's sympathy for the women. In "My Favorite God is Janus," the woman felt totally dominated by her husband. She seemed to feel like she was taken for granted all of the time and was tired of just being a housewife, however, she never did much to communicate to her husband that she wanted anything different. Lack of communication

also seemed to be evident in "The Yellow Wallpaper."

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the woman seemed to use her sickness to

retreat from her husband, and life in general. She felt suppressed.

But what was she sick and tired of in the first place? Her job as a

housewife? In the story, the woman talks about her husband's sister,

and how "She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no

better profession." The woman in the story seemed to want a better

position and was angry at her husband for not letting her have one.

In both stories, the women portrayed themselves to be very weak; victims

who have no cause or control over their own lives. At least the woman

in "My Favorite God is Janus" finally made a decision to cause her own

life, and even though she did this by choosing to leave, she could just

as easily have chosen to stay and confront the situation and this would

have given her just as much power. Empowerment comes from taking

responsibility of your life and from causing your own life to be the way

you want. On the other hand, the woman in "The Yellow Wallpaper"

simply retreats within herself, doing nothing to take control of her

own life. Maybe she really is mentally ill and can't, who knows? But

she is focusing her attention on being sick, and on the wallpaper, and

when you focus a lot of attention on something, it consumes you, and

this is what happened to her. She was consumed by both.

Irene (96-02-26)

A close reading and analysis of a classmate’s comments

In the following message, Cassie uses the cut and paste features of her e-mail client to respond, point by point, to an earlier message from Sir Edward. Throughout the semester, several students used this technique to isolate and comment upon various portions of their classmates’ comments. This attribute of electronic communication is an important feature of computer-mediated communication, since it allows the writer to construct his or her argument in a way that is focused and clear, and also allows others who may not have read the original message (or may not remember it clearly) to instantly become enmeshed in the conversation.

Dear Sir Edward--

Nick was able to realize that the lifestyles of the people who lived in the

East/West egg society were wrong, which is why he moved back to the Midwest at the end of the novel.

If it were any other character in the book, s/he would have wanted to stay

in the wealthy society.

> But, what is developed with Nck's character is

> his recognition that he is not the "honest and straightforward person"

> that earlier in the novel he had considered himself saying: "Everyone

> suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is

> mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known." Jordan

> was hurt, though not admitting it, loosing Nick, and had said to him that

> she had thought it his "secret pride," the honesty part. Nick confesses

> that he is not honest and not honorable and not sure of what really he

> ought to do or be, only he "thought it over again quickly and got up to

> say goodbye." He didn't want to address and possibly change what he was, so he just quickly phased it all out and just let the broken pieces lie.

I think you are completely off the mark with this.

Jordan said: "...I thought you were rather an honest,

straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride."

"I'm thirty," (Nick) said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself

and call it honor."

She didn't answere. Angry, and half in love with her, and

tremendously sorry, I turned away. (p.179) (my pages may be

different than yours)

The last chapter of the book shows how much the character of Nick has

developed. He has become a responsible person (he takes care of Gatsby's

funeral), and for the first time he is being honest with himself, and honest

about his relationship with Jordan. He was in love with her (although maybe he didn't know what love was, or at least not until the end), that is why he felt "tremendously sorry." He realized they couldn't remain together, because now their morals clash.

(Nick said about Tom) "I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw

that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy-- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other peole clean up the mess they had made..." (p.180-181)

Nick was completely disgusted with their lifestyles!!!!

And now his eyes are opened...

talk to you later,

Cassie (02-26-96)

MIND GAMES Another distinguishing characteristic of virtual discourse communities seems to be the tendency for some students to play "mind games" with their classmates. One student, while responding to the end of the semester survey, admitted her enjoyment at such activities: I didn’t reply to most of the messages but I read every one. I find it more educational and a lot more entertaining to see others opinions than to express my own. I do admit that sometimes I sent out a controversial message just to see what kind of reaction it would get (I’m a psych major). (JW Smith, 5-8-96) JW’s "virtual mind games" seem to be common practice in other virtual classrooms as well. Katherine M. Fischer, in her article "Pig Tales: Literature Inside the Pen of Electronic Writing," explains how a student in her class justifies a character’s rape of another character by claiming that "[h]is actions were being determined by the drugs, they were not his own," and that "it’s unfair to say he is a jerk for actions he is not directly responsible for" (210). This comment provoked a rash of angry responses from several of his classmates, especially the female students. A few weeks later, though, the same student sent the following message to the discussion list: This is my formal apology to all of you for something I did. My comments about the narrator from Greasy Lake were not true. I do not think he was justified in what he did. But I wanted to see what would happen if I through a wrench into the works of our discussion. (211) Although students in a traditional classroom can of course play "devil’s advocate" in an attempt to stir up controversy or stimulate a conversation, certain aspects of a live conversation, such as body language, tone of voice, and the usual ethos of the speaker can belie any efforts to deceive the rest of the group. Some of the very characteristics of computer-mediated communication that many humanists complain about, though, such as the inability to see facial expressions or hear inflections, make virtual discourse communities a perfect place for "playing," through the use of written language, with others.


Collaboration and invention, then, can be enhanced by allowing students to participate in the relatively safe "space" of a virtual discussion area. In comparison with a traditional classroom setting, students communicate with each other and with the instructor more frequently; they often take more and greater risks by introducing potentially controversial or unpopular ideas to the rest of the class; they tend to do a closer reading of the assigned texts and of their classmates’ responses; and occasionally even resort to mind games and role-playing in order to spark controversy and stimulate discussion.

Section V will explore the effects of the virtual classroom on the writing process, with special attention to peer critiquing and revision. The steps in the writing of a formal essay by two students, Irene and Sir Edward, along with e-mail sent to and from me and their classmates during the revision process, will be analyzed.

Section V