Virtual space

To what we believe is an unprecedented extent (not only at St. Thomas, but perhaps anywhere), we planned to use the computer networks as a medium of communication and a venue for work. From the very beginning the course was to be writing-based as far as possible, and as the students' -- and our own -- facility with the computer network increased, that writing was increasingly done on, and exchanged by means of, the computer network. By the middle of the second term we had assembled, and everyone was regularly using, a suite of computer programs, and much of the work of the course was occurring in the computer labs. The programs we were using were far from ideal, but "our kludge," as we came to call it, served our purposes. Here's what it included:

  1. personal email -- one-to-one; among individual students, student-teacher, teacher-teacher (Pegasus Mail).

  2. more general email -- one-to-many; teacher or student to whole class via distribution list on PMail or list server (we set up a list using MAISER, which is part of the Pegasus Mail program, and operates as a list server); teacher or student to subgroup (for instance, smaller working groups). We used lists for communicating among the three teachers, to enable student working groups to communicate with each other (for instance, members of the group working on the Salman Rushdie affair could send mail to all members of that group by using the address, and on one occasion to other students hundreds of miles away (a list at addressed both members of the Rushdie group and Muslim students taking a writing class in Michigan).

  3. discussion group -- one-to-many; postings -- archived, stranded, and re-readable. We used a program called BrainStorm, which runs on the NOVELL network. We hope it will be possible to replace it with a more flexible and user-friendly arrangement, one which might foster extended discussions more effectively by allowing users to see where their message fits in an ongoing conversation. Even though it was not perfect, however, BrainStorm supported many extended and engaging discussions, perhaps most notably those connected with the "Occasions" requirement of the course (explained below).

  4. common read/write directory -- we established a common directory on the network only accessible to members of Truth in Society. Any file saved in that directory (or subdirectories of it) can be edited by anyone else in the class, using the system's word processing software, WordPerfect. This is very different from either e-mail or a bulletin board, in that all the text in a given file remains immediately available and can be edited. You can only add to a bulletin board, and only at the end: the common directory, on the other hand, allows a different kind of organization of material (for instance, one can set up subdirectories with different kinds of files in them), and invites every reader to look at the whole accumulating text from beginning to end. In contrast, typically a bulletin board presents text only from the earliest unread text and continuing chronologically to the latest. To re-read depends on making a special effort, and paging back through unread texts. This creates a very different kind of writing situation.

  5. common read-only directory -- we also established a directory to which students had read-only access. In it, notices, class handouts, and other material which needn't (shouldn't) be edited could be read using WordPerfect.

  6. common faculty directory -- we further set up a directory which only the three teachers had access to, and which we used for jointly editing class handouts, storing spreadsheet data, etc.

The computer network was central to the creation of the text-based society in the class, and to the range of genres of writing the students (and we) engaged in. It played as large a role in shaping and facilitating the relations among the students and faculty, and in enabling the kinds of work that were done, as did the time and space structures we established.

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