Marcy Bauman, Russell A. Hunt,
Eric Crump &Karen Schwalm
[As published in The New Writing Environment: Writers at Work in a World of Technology, ed. Thea van der Geest and Michael Sharples. 217-236. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1996.]
What are on-line conferences?
Most people are familiar with the usual on-site conference -- the airport arrivals and hotel bookings, the three-paper sessions followed by question periods, the hallway and wine-and-cheese conversations, the poster sessions and demonstrations, the plenary speakers in gigantic auditoria, the book displays. Fewer, however, have taken part in on-line conferences, where the scholarly exchange which forms the basis of the on-site conference is conducted entirely by means of written text, where the meeting site is a logical space rather than a physical one, and where participation doesn't require either travel or a designated, specific time to be set aside for the conference.
There are many ways of organizing on-line conferences. On-line conferences can and do make use of the gamut of Internet tools: electronic mail, telnet and ftp, synchronous chat, and the World Wide Web. To date, the most common way to run an on-line conference is to use electronic mail in conjunction with programs designed to distribute mail to many people at once. Thus, an on-line conference can be set up by the simple expedient of specifying a topic or purpose and creating a mail distribution list or electronic newsgroup, where whatever is posted to the list is automatically distributed to all the participants. The advantage of such a design is that it is technologically simple for participants -- conference registrants need do no more than read their email as they usually do.
For more complicated situations -- where, for instance, a number of related topics may be discussed simultaneously by different, overlapping groups -- more complicated computer software exists, or can be designed. This software usually requires participants to "go" (by means of telnet) to another computer, and log on to accounts created for the purpose. While conference software of this type keeps users' electronic mailboxes free of clutter (and thus keeps participants from being overwhelmed by mail), it also requires users to learn to navigate and manipulate a new system, and to be persistent in overcoming obstacles, often in relative isolation.
Another possible way to organize on-line conferences is to create an environment that allows participants to "talk" (i.e., type) to each other and receive immediate response. This method requires users to be logged in at the same time, usually to a MOO.
A MOO is a text-based virtual environment, which allows synchronous written conversation. Not everyone takes them seriously. The acronym stands for "MUD, Object-Oriented"; MUD, in turn, is an acronym for "Multi-User Dungeon." This name reflects the fact that such environments were originally developed as sites for computer-based role-playing games. They are, however, increasingly used for more serious pursuits -- for instance, by writing teachers, who see them as sites where written language can be employed in a new range of ways. Indeed, the name is often now given as "Multi-User Domains," to avoid the "Dungeons and Dragons" stigma.
Many characteristics of their origins, however, remain. To participate in the MOO, a user telnets to a specific Internet address and signs on as a guest (or may create an "identity" -- a character name and description.) On arrival, the user is presented with a written description of a "room," and can "move" from one room to another with the appropriate commands. In order to talk, a user begins with a quotation mark, and then types whatever she wants to say (usually in a small window or screen area set off so that minimal editing can be done). When the "enter" key is pressed, the text is immediately transmitted to everyone else signed on (and who is in the same virtual "room"), by being displayed in a larger, public window where all the conversation scrolls up the screen as people's contributions appear. Contributions are identified with a tag such as this:
Russ says, " . . . "The user herself sees the message as:
You say, " . . . "The presenters at a MOO are able to "hold the floor" (in an otherwise somewhat fragmentary space) by putting their ideas on "slides," screen-length text chunks which are clearly demarcated from the flow of normal MOO conversation by the signal given when someone is about to show a slide ("Marcy shows slide 1"), and by a line of asterisks before and after the text of the slide. After the presentation, participants can "converse" in text about the ideas they have just read.
Additionally, the World Wide Web can be used as a tool for conducting on-line conferences, either alone or in conjunction with other tools. Texts from the conference -- session abstracts, texts of papers, and other text generated as part of an on-line discussion or MOO session -- can be stored at various sites and be made available through various text retrieval programs such as ftp, gopher, or a World Wide Web browser such as Netscape.
Why run on-line conferences?
Increasingly, in recent years, on-line conferences have been set up as adjuncts to on-site ones. In most cases, the on-line conference is conceived of as a medium by which those who cannot physically attend can have immediate access to the papers delivered at the conference. In some cases electronic discussion groups are set up to allow for discussion of these papers, but the common experience is that they are little used -- that, at most, the electronic conference is seen by participants as well as organizers as a one-way medium, through which the words of the speakers at the conference can be disseminated to a larger audience than those able to afford to be there in the flesh.
There are many reasons for running on-line conferences. The immediately obvious benefits are convenience and the relatively low cost, both for participants and for organizers. On-line conferences are, in an age of increasing marginalization of education and consequent budget restrictions, becoming both more attractive and more common. Like a conference call set up on a phone network, they are very much less expensive than the usual meeting; unlike it, however, they do not always require that a specific period of time be arranged for everyone involved. They can also accommodate far more participants at any given time.
Another, and perhaps more important, advantage of on-line conferences is their greater flexibility. It is possible for people to attend an on-line conference who, for a variety of reasons, would not usually attend an on-site event -- scholars from distant countries, scholars from geographically isolated schools with little funding for travel, or scholars from outside a discipline's normal purview but who have tangential interests in the conference theme, for example. Students, as well, who rarely have funding for conference travel, can participate. Furthermore, the flexibility of the virtual site -- the ease with which new discussion topics can be proposed or new sessions can be added -- makes on-line conferences potentially extremely responsive to the interests, needs, and expertise of their participants.
Were the only function of academic conferences the dissemination of scholarly discourse, electronic conferences would not merely be reasonable alternatives, but might replace on-site conferences altogether. It is clear, however, that on-site conferences serve many other important functions, and that if the on-line participants are necessarily restricted to such a thin echo of the on-site occasion as session abstracts and the texts of presented papers, there will be little incentive to register, or to participate. And in fact, most peripheral electronic conferences have been characterized by disappointingly low levels of activity.
Our hopes for the on-line conference
Using text and text alone to attempt to replicate the richness of face-to-face interaction was a challenge which interested all of us primarily because we all teach and theorize about writing. Because we brought slightly different, but complementary, perspectives to the project, we found it possible to address many different aspects of the problem. Russ Hunt and Marcy Bauman got involved with the project because they see writing itself as a fundamental tool for bringing people together, for creating community, for providing a way for diverse groups of people to talk to each other. Eric Crump and Karen Schwalm were primarily interested in the ways in which new technologies make possible and support this potentially community-building writing. Our common concerns were with how writing is shaping and being shaped by new technologies; we wanted to learn more about what writing in technologically rich contexts looks like, and what such writing can do.
We started our planning with a very straightforward goal: to design an on-line conference that would be as vital and as energizing as the on-site conference. Rather than conceiving of the on-line conference as a shadow of the on-site event, we wanted to create one that would build on the on-site event while taking advantage of the unique capabilities and characteristics of cyberspace and become a compelling event in its own right -- one that would be vigorous enough to take on a life of its own, generating new discussions that would draw on-site participants into the life of the virtual world.
We wanted to show that virtual conference participation could be as interesting and stimulating as on-site participation. We wanted to see, in fact, how many of the functions of face-to-face conferences could be replicated in cyberspace -- and, therefore, necessarily, by means of text.
As Eric Crump and Karen Schwalm developed a structure for the on-line conference (with the help of interested people who presented and reacted to ideas thrown out on CWC94-L, an electronic discussion list set up to facilitate planning) a great deal of thought and discussion took place. As we puzzled out the ways in which it might work, we continually found ourselves expanding our notions of what kinds of relationships between the on-site and on-line events were possible. We wanted CWC94 to build on and extend the model created by its predecessor (itself a ground-breaking achievement in networking a conference). We wanted something more interactive than a set of conventional discussion lists running in parallel with a focal on-site event. Our experience was that participation in such lists not only tended to be desultory, but normally had no consequences whatever for the on-site conference, a situation we wanted to change. Furthermore, we did not want the structure simply to mirror the on-site event because we feared the discussions would become too diffuse and that the structure would again make the on-site event focal. We wanted to keep the attention on the issues being raised at the on-site conference, while minimizing the fact that some people were in Columbia and some people were not.
Organization of the on-line conference
In the end, the 1994 Computers and Writing Electronic Conference went on-line by means of a dedicated SUN computer running, on a UNIX operating system, the Electronic Forum (EF) conferencing software developed by Karen Schwalm and Chris Zagar for use by classes in the Maricopa Community College District in Phoenix, Arizona. This software has some characteristics that are worth explaining in detail, because the software on which an on-line conference runs to a large extent constrains and shapes how people participate and how they feel about the conference (in much the same way that the city in which it is held and the choice of convention hotels affects the on-site participants' experience.)
It might be easiest to explain what the EF is by specifying what it is not: the Electronic Forum is not analogous to an email based "discussion group,"where messages are received at the user's local account or PC as electronic mail, and responded to by sending mail to a list server which distributes the item to all subscribers. Nor did it allow users to log on to a "news reader" and read the incoming or new messages on a local mainframe (as might be familiar to users used to the reading the Usenet). It asked registrants to telnet to a specific address (as it happened, in Columbia, Missouri, but it might have been anywhere), log on to that system with a personal account set up as part of the conference registration procedure, and work with the system there -- just about as though they were in the computer lab in Arizona (their own systems became, in essence, transparent windows to the "Electronic Forum").
The environment in which registrants to the on-line conference found themselves was designed to be as "user-friendly" as possible. Choices of activities included "subscribing" to particular forums, sending and exchanging email individually to other conference participants, and subscribing to specific external newslists and email discussion groups -- ones which were deemed particularly relevant to the conference (and to which individuals might well have subscribed from their home sites). All were presented to the user as "Forums."
CWC94's EF began with twenty-one general discussion forums, tied to particular issues relevant to the on-site conference. We added sessions as we went along, as well; by the time we were finished with the conference, there were a total of 127 forums and subforums (62 of these, however, were specifically for responses to sessions, and there wasn't much activity in them). The "heart" of the on-line conference consisted of 20 discussion forums, of which only the first dozen were actually planned in advance.
The forums initially created included discussions of technical concerns (the design of computer labs and networks, for example), of professional issues (publishing, ethics, educational policy issues), of disciplinary matters (theory), pedagogy (computer-aided instruction, teachers and teaching, assignment exchanges, computer-aided instruction), and a number of more social or practical discussions, important among which was the "rogue Forum" called SCUM, on "Outlaw Bikers and Riding"). As the on-site event took place, it seemed desirable to add arenas for discussing the papers that were being presented, and so we added forums and subforums keyed to the conference days (Sat, Sun, Mon) and papers given on those days. The Electronic Forum also made available to participants a dozen external discussions on already-existing lists, such as MBU-L, WPA-L, WCenter, Techwr-L, and EduPage.
In addition to the discussion forums, the on-line conference featured several presentations that took place only on-line. These sessions, held at two different MOOs, took place primarily in the weeks prior to the on-site event, although some sessions were also added after the on-site conference. A first in on-line conferencing, they enabled people who were unable to attend the on-site event to have a real-time interaction with presenters and other conference-goers; the immediacy of MOO chat creates a feeling of being together in one space in a way that other forms of asynchronous on-line communication do not. They helped extend the sense that we were all there together, sharing a common experience -- a key element of on-site conferences -- out into cyberspace.
Our hopes for the on-site event: Converting talk to text
In addition to creating an on-line discussion, we knew that we had to find ways to transfer the texts and discourse from the on-site event back onto the on-line discussion if we were to succeed at fusing the two events. The transformation of the on-site conference resulted from a relatively late (perhaps ridiculously late) decision on our parts. At the last possible minute -- two days before the on-site event was to begin -- we decided to try to feed the discourse from the on-site sessions back into the on-line conference so that the large number of people who were only participating on-line (25% of all conference registrants) could get a sense of what was really going on in Columbia over those few days, and so that they could become participants in the discourse of the on-site event, even though they were not physically in attendance in Columbia. Both the face-to-face discourse of the on-site event and the electronic discourse of the on-line conference, we knew, were conversations which operated in terms of what Bakhtin, in The Problem of Speech Genres, calls addressivity: "After the utterance of the person to whom I am responding (I agree, I object, I execute, I take under advisement, and so forth) is already at hand, his response is still forthcoming. When constructing my utterance, I try actively to determine this response. Moreover, I try to act in accordance with the response I anticipate, so this anticipated response, in turn, exerts an active influence on my utterance (I parry objections that I foresee, I make all kinds of provisos, and so forth.)" We wanted to create a situation where the on-line participants would feel compelled to take the utterances of the on-site registrants into account as they composed posts on-line, and we wanted those on-site to take the on-line discourse into account as they presented at or responded to on-site sessions. We wanted to create one big conversation, carried on in two venues.
Organizing the on-site event: Talk and text
In order to create an entree for the on-line participants into the on-site conference's discourse, we knew that we would have to change the nature of the on-site event: we would have to make the on-site people aware of and responsible to the on-line-only participants, and we would have to make the conference talk -- and by this we mean not simply the more formal talk of the presentations, which by and large was codified into session abstracts or full texts of papers and already available via the Electronic Forum -- but the response-talk, the talk of the people in the audience after the sessions were over, after the questions had been asked and answered -- available to the on-line participants to hear (read) and to respond to. Thus, we had to find ways to capture that talk and to convert it to text.
To accomplish that goal, we adopted two strategies. First, we encouraged on-site attenders to log on to the EF immediately after a session in order to convey their immediate reactions to the session they just attended. Our major attempt to make a place for virtual participants in the on-site world, however, came by means of "inkshedding," a practice developed by Russ Hunt and Jim Reither at St. Thomas University.
The process of inkshedding a conference is deceptively simple. What happens is this: immediately after a formal paper presentation, the members of the audience, as well as the presenters, write for ten or fifteen minutes, giving their immediate reactions to, or reflections on, what they have just heard. Inksheds are written with the understanding that they will be read and responded to by other participants. After everyone has finished writing, people exchange papers and read a half a dozen or so of each others'. They read to find the passages that seem the most interesting, the most striking, the most in line (or out of line) with the reader's own thoughts -- in other words, the parts that the reader would most like to bring to the attention of the whole group.
The readers then mark those parts, either by underlining or by drawing a line in the margin next to them. The texts are then collected, the most-marked passages are transcribed, and the transcripts are photocopied and distributed to conference-goers as soon as possible -- later that same day or on the morning of the next one. Thus, the audience's reactions to the presentations are available as text very shortly after the presentation; those reactions then become part of the ongoing written record of the conference, and they form a backdrop for the ensuing presentations.
Russ Hunt's decade of experience organizing and participating in the Inkshed conferences (which are held annually in Canada) told us that inkshedding creates addressivity in two important ways. First, it alters the nature of the question-and-answer period which follows a session. In traditional conferences, the character of the question-and-answer period is typically fixed (and often dominated) by the first questions that are asked, and by the time constraints which often make them the only questions asked. In contrast, inkshedding is a way to capture everyone's immediate, tentative reactions to the presentation; the process of writing, reading, and marking means that when the discussion actually starts, both the people asking questions and the people answering them are aware of (because they have read) a number of different perspectives on the issues at hand. Thus, points which might not otherwise have been raised get a hearing, but even if everyone's views do not get stated explicitly, they get taken into account in the way that Bakhtin says they will: the people who speak shape their utterances in response to the written Inksheds as well as to the spoken questions and answers. Thus, inkshedding allows many more voices to be heard, and many more reactions and reflections to get on the floor than is possible in a typical question-and-answer session.
Second, inkshedding changes the dynamics between the presenters and the audience at a session. At conventional academic conferences, the flow of information is fairly consistently in one direction, from speakers to hearers. Inkshedding offers an alternative model. Because the audience's response to a session is preserved in writing -- and can be reread and hence reconsidered at a later time -- it assumes a more prominent place in the conference proceedings than post-session talk over coffee or dinner can achieve. The Inksheds, in effect, become presentations themselves, equally as important to the life of the conference as the presentations which prompt them. This pattern of presentation-response-presentation (which takes into account both prior presentations and inksheds) makes a conference start to feel like a vast, extended exploration, always changing, always tentative, a place where people are presenting and exploring ideas-under-construction rather than a place where people come to be enlightened by the polished, perfect truth.
This sort of conference atmosphere mirrors our understanding of many of the ways in which knowledge is created and disseminated in cyberspace. On a discussion list, for example, ideas are often developed incrementally over several posts (or conversational turns) by several speakers. At a MOO, because of the fast pace of the conversation and the fact that discussion strands blur on the screen, ideas fly around practically disengaged from the people who utter them. Using inkshedding to create a similar atmosphere at the on-site CWC94 conference would, we hoped, further blur the differences between the on-line and on-site events and erase geographical boundaries. In a nutshell: computers enable us to challenge the information-delivery model that prevails at most academic conferences. Inkshedding enables us to challenge that model as well. Computers and inkshedding together, we hoped, would enable us to challenge time and space, too.
In order to mount those challenges, we decided that Marcy Bauman would lead inkshedding at the plenary sessions in Columbia, and see that the inksheds so generated got transcribed and sent back to Russ Hunt, who, at home in New Brunswick, would redistribute them via email to on-line-only participants. We also made pens and paper available for all other sessions so that the session chairs at concurrent sessions could lead inkshedding after the paper presentations if they so desired. A group of volunteers transcribed the marked passages, which were then uploaded onto the Electronic Forum. The inksheds from the plenary sessions were also printed, photocopied, and distributed to on-site participants the next day.
Results: The on-line conference
After all this, in the end we found participation in the on-line conference to be disappointingly low. Participants spent a total of 921 hours in the conference during the 43 days that it was up and running. There were a total of 259 on-line participants, which means that if everyone had participated equally, each on-line participant would have spent an average of just over half an hour a week at the EF. This seems remarkably low to us, given that the registrants were all people who expressed interest in computers and writing -- and had paid money to attend the on-line conference.
Moreover, half of this time (461 hours) was spent in discussion areas which participants could have accessed outside the EF: 19% (178 hours) in Telnet, MediaMoo, and Hypertext Hotel; 11% (100 hours) in Mail; 10% (89 hours) in Gopher; 7% (67 hours) in 12 different lists, 2% (16 hours) in WWW. Only 1% (10 hours) of the time that participants spent on-line was spent in the Session response forums and subforums -- areas which were unavailable outside the EF. What seems clear from this data is that while participants may have been introduced to interesting on-line discussions via the EF, they did not find that the forums directly related to the conference contained compelling discussions that they could not get elsewhere.
Another significant piece of data is that the bulk of the on-line conference activity (56%) took place before the conference actually began, whereas only 29% of the activity took place after it was over. The on-line conference seems to have functioned to whet people's appetite for the on-site event, but despite the fact that membership in the on-line conference increased dramatically during the three days when people gathered in Missouri (going from somewhere around 150 to 259), interest waned as soon as the on-site event was over. (This seems inconsistent with the often-observed phenomenon that existing lists see increases in traffic after many of their members have attended on-site conferences together.)
Results: The on-site conference
Inkshedding the conference was a mixed experience. On the one hand, the on-line participants were extremely grateful for the glimpses into the workings of the conference that the uploaded inksheds provided, and they wanted even more contact. As one participant said:
Got your forwards from the inkshedding. Interesting, frustrating, paradoxical. The paradox -- of course I feel alienated from it. Something is clearly going on, and I can't quite tell what it is. Often, the messages seem to presuppose that we have heard the same presentation as the writer . . . But without the technology there would be nothing to feel separate from. That's the paradox.And, too, among the on-site participants who recognized that inkshedding really does have the potential to transform conferences into more genuinely collaborative exploration of ideas, and who value that transformation, the inkshedding was very popular. In fact, the following year inkshedding was not included as part of the on-site conference, and it was missed, as this reaction from an on-line-only participant attests:
Hi all -- I was on site in MO last year and thought the inksheds were marvellous to create--I'm home due to unexpected surgery this year and wonder if anyone has organized inksheds to send out to this year's virtual gang? HOPE SO!On the other hand, some on-site conference-goers apparently resented the inkshedding component of the conference. For a variety of reasons, some people seemed disturbed by being asked to write in lieu of having the expected question-and-answer period after the sessions. Some people missed the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers and thus get further elaboration and clarification of the ideas they presented. Others seemed to dislike the actual writing itself, preferring to talk instead. Some people were unsettled at the idea of being asked to share what they had written, even though they were under no obligation to sign their text; in the words of one participant, "The problem with inkshedding is the social nature of the writing."
The social nature of inkshedding bothered some presenters as well. Some of the speakers seemed discomfited at the notion that their words could be challenged in the ways that inkshedding allows. In a typical question-and-answer session, objections to a presenter's arguments are usually raised by only one or two persons; inksheds, however, allow everyone in the room to take issue with an idea if they so choose -- and to do so without the inhibition of face-to face talk in public. To be sure, opposition is not the dominant mode in inksheds -- members of the audience also choose to extend or elaborate on the speaker's words, detail related ideas or experiences, and agree vociferously as well -- but somehow inkshedding breaks down the barriers of polite silence that the stand-and-deliver model of conferences erects. The notion that a speaker may be confronted with what the audience really thinks can be profoundly disquieting -- and, of course, that very two-way flow of information and ideas is exactly what inkshedding (like electronic networks) facilitates.
Discussion: Reflecting on our practice
The primary effect of our collider experiment was to force us to reexamine our previously-held assumptions and beliefs about conferences as a whole -- why they exist, what professional and personal functions they serve, what conference participation entails, and what role writing can play at a conference. Furthermore, this re-vision took us to a point where we found ourselves reconsidering the role of text -- and the kinds of texts which play those roles -- in creating and maintaining our professional associations -- both at conferences and in academia at large.
Our insights came about, in large part, because we were surprised at how little written participation occurred in both the on-line and on-site conferences. The evidence suggests to us that this gathering of writing teachers did not want to write in the contexts we provided -- either on-line before, after, or during the conference, or on-site during the inkshedding. Our efforts at merging the on-line and on-site conferences presupposed that the fusion would have to occur in writing; there was no way to take the conference events on-line except by means of written text. We assumed that the participants in the Missouri conference would write eagerly and often, both on-and off-line, in part because that's what we ourselves would have done (and did do.) Such was not the case.
We concluded that people did not want to write because writing seemed out of place in Columbia. We suspect that there are two reasons for this: first, writing does not play the kind of role in conference participation that we had thought; and second, the kind of writing that we were asking of participants was significantly different from the kinds of writing our profession normally expects and rewards.
The Role of Writing at Conferences
When we embarked on this experiment, it seemed to us that written texts were a central feature of conferences. Conferences are, it seemed obvious, suffused with text. The call for proposals is issued via writing; presenters initially respond with an abstract and then with a finished paper, which is usually read aloud; promotion and tenure credit for conference participation often hinges on candidates' inclusion of presented conference papers in their dossiers, and so forth. It therefore seemed a simple matter to us to extend the use of writing at the conference site itself, as well as on-line. Beyond that, since this particular conference was a gathering of people who teach writing using computers, we assumed that participants would be particularly interested in the interaction of on-site and on-line writing technologies, and that if the writing _per se_ was not a motivator, the computer technology would be. And finally, we expected that, since so many professional relationships are created and conducted by those kinds of writing, the move to using more writing in a conference would be an easy one.
What we did not realize was how strongly the texts which normally accompany a conference can be seen to differ markedly in purpose from the texts we were asking people to create. It was in large measure the resistance to writing in Columbia that foregrounded for us two interrelated realizations: that the social functions of academic conferences are of paramount importance to many participants -- too important to be superseded by other activities -- and that the writing which typically accompanies conference attendance and participation is normally not seen as serving those social functions, but rather, as furthering the conference's intellectual functions.
As professionals, we are not used to thinking of the social functions of a conference as being important professionally, or to considering them to be serious motivating factors for attendance. The exigencies of conference attendance -- most notably, the need to get institutional funding for attendance -- means that traditionally the intellectual aspects of conferences are foregrounded, with the social aspects defined as peripheral at best. As one administrator with whom we spoke wryly observed, no administrator is going to spend money so that faculty members can go to conferences to party.
Our experience in Columbia, however, dramatized for us that there is a complicated relationship between the social and intellectual functions of a conference, a relationship more complex than the two poles "social" and "intellectual" allow. We suspect that each facilitates the other, and that both are necessary in order for satisfying professional relationships and professional development to come about at conferences. Conferences allow us to see and interact with our colleagues in multiple contexts; after the day's sessions, we meet people for dinner, we widen our circle of acquaintance, we chat about some matters unrelated to our work, and other matters which directly relate. The talk about families or hobbies interspersed with the talk about the latest book in our field gives us many ways to know one another. The small bits of talk -- the chance meetings in the hallway, the chat during the session breaks, taken incrementally over several conferences, over several years -- make the glue which binds us together professionally, and which make working relationships possible and productive.
The commonly-held view of the purposes of our professional writing, however, is that it conflicts with the conference's social motives. Writing, we realized, is for many of us a behind-the-scenes, solitary act by which a presenter -- the nominal expert on the topic at hand -- holds the floor, delivers a lecture: in other words, creates a monologue. Presenters usually write their papers in advance of the conference, and the papers are then read to an audience who have limited opportunity to react to what they have heard. The writing in this model is a sort of writing-for-speech; it is intended to polish and organize ideas so that the presenter does not ramble or lose track of what she wanted to say. The model of writing embodied in this situation is that the written text has as little addressivity as possible -- ideas thus presented are fixed and complete, rather than open and inviting of response and rejoinder.
Thus, once an academic conference begins, writing is apparently seen as an anti-social activity, one that has no place at an event which emphasizes face-to-face interaction. We remember one exchange on an electronic discussion list, for example, when someone asked whether there would be email access at an upcoming conference. In response, someone else pointed out that the purpose of conferences was to interact with other people; to which the first person replied, "When I use email, I do interact with other people." It seemed that the clear implication in this exchange was that, in the view of at least some people, those who chose to write and read when they could be talking and listening were somehow socially deficient, and that writing is inherently asocial.
The writing we tried to facilitate in Columbia, however, seems to us to be profoundly social, a fact we all took for granted. Partly because we misjudged the role of texts in conferences, and partly because we underestimated the power of social motives in conference attendance, we were unable to replicate the interplay between a conference's intellectual and social functions (or to facilitate a new one) in cyberspace. While it is relatively easy to reproduce on-line the information-delivery aspects of on-site conferences, it is far more difficult to foster the social interactions which are so integral to on-site events. It seems startlingly clear that our ability to do so depends on our ability to dramatize for and with both on-site and on-line participants the dialogic nature of writing.
Furthermore, we think this dialogic model of writing is the dominant model in cyberspace, where text is almost always dynamic: ideas are in flux, partial, half-baked -- and texts are not only always open to response, they're almost always responded to.
The Role of Writing in Academia
Additionally, we suspect that the ways in which we have all traditionally encountered writing in academia -- as a means of demonstrating knowledge or ability, or of demonstrating the opposite and being publicly humiliated, but almost never (if ever) as a means of opening a dialogue with others -- also has a bearing on how people thought about the writing we asked of them at CWC94. One of our most unsettling observations concerned the way registrants reacted to what seemed to us to be the most school-like writing task. After one of the plenary sessions, participants were asked by the speakers at that session, all of whom were authorities in the field of computers and composition, to produce texts which would be read and perhaps used by them in their research.
People wrote significantly more, and wrote more attentively, in this situation than they did when asked to inkshed, to produce texts which would be shared among participants but which were not guaranteed to come to the attention of anyone in particular. It may be that in the first situation, people perceived the writing as somehow more important because it would potentially meet a need for the people requesting the writing -- and, thus, they wrote because they could perceive a reader at the other end of the process.
It is, of course, true that most people are not used to situations in which public academic writing has an immediate and interested, a dialogic, reader. The academic reader we're accustomed to is more likely to be judgmental and evaluative -- the teacher-as-examiner, the editor-as-gatekeeper, the colleague as competitor, the promotion and tenure committee as arbiters of our future. So, in this conference setting, because participants seemed more comfortable when asked to regard writing as analogous to those other situations -- as an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge -- than when they were asked to write in order to share their reactions with other registrants. We conclude that many people did not understand what we were asking them to do, or perhaps didn't see the point of it. Because they were attending an academic conference, people expected the writing they did there to be an academic exercise, to mimic the writing that typifies our profession.
In any case, it remains true that the writing which characterizes our profession is changing, thanks to the advent of computer networking technology. The challenge we see is to find ways to use the more immediately dialogic nature of computer-mediated text to transform people's notions of writing with pen and paper in academic settings, to expand the academic repertoire to include dialogic writing, no matter what the technology used to produce it. We want to use the power of dialogic writing, combining the spontaneous and productive addressivity of talk with the thoughtful and reflective revisability of text, to deepen and intensify the experience of both the on-line and the on-site conferences.
Recommendations: facilitating dialogic written language, on-line and on-site
For us, a fundamental lesson from Columbia is that people will not put forth the effort and imagination to learn and use a new system -- whether that system be an on-line conference or a different way of organizing and thinking about an on-site one -- unless they have compelling reasons to do so. By "compelling," we mean that the reasons need not only to exist, but to be experienced as motivating changes in behaviour. In order to do this they must be profoundly social.
The biggest problem with the on-line conference in Columbia was that we overestimated the extent to which people unaccustomed to this medium would see and be motivated by its potential for mediating personal relationships and creating community. We thought that people would reach out for those relationships and that community as easily as they would go for a drink with others at an on-site conference. We learned, in a number of seemingly disparate circumstances, that people needed much more help than we provided in seeing the reasons for participating in an on-line conference, and in surmounting the technical difficulties that may have hindered their participation.
Similarly, the biggest problem with the on-site conference, as we have stated, arose from the fact that we overestimated the extent to which people's prior expectations about scholarly written language would influence their reactions to the writing we asked them to do in Columbia.
Thus, our discussion of what we would do differently inevitably hinges on delineating what we might have done to make it clearer to participants that there were people on the other side of their computer screens just as there were people in the conference rooms and the hallways of the conference venue: people to help them, people to learn from and teach, people to get to know. The meshings of on-line and on-site conferences we envision for the future, in fact, dramatize to participants (whether on-line, on-site, or both) the dialogic potential of written language. In addition to helping people learn the ins and outs of an on-line conference, we see the two conferences as also helping people to learn how and why one might use writing in the ways we wanted to engineer in Columbia.
We present our recommendations in a somewhat -- but not entirely -- chronological order. We begin with activities which need to take place prior to the on-site and on-line conferences, continue with activities which need to take place during the on-site conference (both on-line or on-site), and conclude with the consideration of the larger scale planning necessary to effect the sort of on-line and on-site collision that we envision, and that we had hoped to engineer. Some of our recommendations arise as a result of strategies that we tried in Columbia; others are strategies we would like to have tried.
Prior to the on-line conference
1. Think about ways to organize the on-line conference to facilitate enactment and dramatization of its dialogic potential.It is centrally important, throughout the duration of the on-line conference, that people have continuing experience of authentic dialogic exchange, so that they can have not just the conscious belief, but repeated experiential engagement with the fact, that text can mediate dialogue as powerfully as talk.
The ways to create spaces for dialogue will vary with the kinds of software and the systems used to implement the on-line conference. On the Electronic Forum, people were able to choose to log in to certain discussion areas; on a listserv list, different discussions might take place over a period of a few days (an arrangement that Karen Schwalm used to good effect for the 1995 Computers and Writing On-line Conference.) It is clear to us, however, that the discussions on the EF were too widely dispersed; that is, there were too many different and disconnected forums set up. We have not yet found an optimal number of discussions; we suspect that the appropriate number might vary from conference to conference, and that attention needs to be paid to the ebb and flow of traffic on the on-line conference so that mid-course adjustments can be made (more discussions added, some discussions closed down) if necessary.
An important problem here is that, given the passive nature of the forums (once messages are posted, they're just there; the user has to log on to the system, join the forum, and actually go look to see if there are new messages in it), a forum which doesn't have a new posting pretty frequently suffers a quick attrition. The more quiet forums there are, the more attrition, and the more users narrow their own focus down to one or two. Or, in many cases, none: a user who logs on three mornings in a row to find nothing new in the forums she's joined probably won't log on the fourth morning at all.
2. Provide people with hard copy handouts explaining how the on-line conference will operate, how the conference software (if there is special software) works, instructions about how to use MOOs or FTP or other Internet features.In retrospect, it seems to us that we greatly underestimated the kind of help people would need in managing the EF. We expected that once people got information via e-mail about how to log on to the EF, they would be fairly persistent in exploring the on-line environment. But such was not the case; many people became frustrated when they encountered a problem, and never tried logging on again. In many cases, people were not familiar enough with their own mail systems to be able to print a hard copy of the instructions, so they could not simultaneously read the instructions and use the EF.
A related problem arose with the on-line-only attenders, and we did not become aware of this until we started trying to inkshed the on-site event. Russ Hunt, who did not attend the on-site conference, functioned as a liaison between the on-line participants and the on-site event. The day before the on-site event was to begin, he sent a note to the on-line-only participants, detailing how the inkshedding would work on-site, and explaining that he would send the inksheds back to the on-line-only participants. He was nearly deluged with mail from on-line-only attenders who, despite having been sent instructions for logging on to the EF, were confused about the nature of the on-line conference and had expected to receive mailings to their personal email addresses.
For these reasons, we would make sure that people had paper copies of the instructions rather than only making them available on-line. After making them available we would follow up with an e-mail message to recipients asking them if they had been successful at logging on to the on-line conference.
3. Before the on-line conference, make available a list of e-mail addresses of people who will answer questions.If we were to organize a similar event in the future, we would provide all conference registrants with the names and email addresses of specific people to whom they could direct questions, and who would be available to guide them through the steps involved with connecting to the conference software and participating in on-line discussions and MOO sessions.
The need for people to have their questions answered by another human being was dramatized for us during the on-site event itself. About 100 people logged in to the EF prior to the on-site conference. Once the on-site event began, it became apparent to us that many on-site registrants had not yet logged on, so we offered ad-hoc training sessions and MOO sessions to help them become more comfortable with the EF. First-time logins jumped from 100 to over 250 during the three days that the on-site conference took place. Clearly, people liked having someone available to answer their questions and to ease the transition from face-to-face, and thus obviously dialogic, communication, to the on-line conference.
Like the other strategies which might improve participation in the on-line conference, on-line contact with people who could help answer questions would enact the principle that electronic written text can be immediately and actively dialogic.
Prior to the on-site conference
1. Make use of synchronous chat environments to help people become acquainted prior to the on-site event.We would schedule more getting-to-know-you activities at a MOO prior to the beginning of the on-line conference. MOOing takes some time to learn, and people need to gain practice with it in situations that minimize frustration. Scheduling social events on a MOO would not only allow people to try out the environment at a time when their inexperience would not cause them to miss something important, it would further demonstrate that written language can foster connections between people. Additionally, because MOO spaces tend to be playful, MOO sessions can replicate some of the phatic talk that goes on at the on-site event, and serve some of its functions.
2. Make the on-line discussion as easily and immediately available as possible.If there were a specific site to which people needed to telnet in order to participate in the on-line conference (as was the case in Columbia), we would circulate to everyone via email some of the initial on-line discussion, so that everyone who registered for the conference (whether on-site, on-line, or both) would have a sense of the developing talk and of the dialogic potential it carries.
3. Post session abstracts on-line (perhaps at a Gopher or Web site) and find ways to facilitate talk about them.There are many ways to organize discussions of particular papers or sessions. Paper presenters might be asked to post an abstract or small excerpt to a list, where others could take up the ideas and extend them. A MOO session might be held where the presenters could be available to answer questions and participate in dialogue about their ideas. If the presenters' texts are available via the World Wide Web, people might be able to respond to the ideas by attaching their own responses to the end of the presenters' texts. One of the most intriguing possibilities that such discussions could afford, in our view, is that people who participate on-line may actually have a say in the creation of the presenters' ideas; the text as it is delivered at the on-site conference could become a compilation of the presenters' ideas and initial responses to it: it could become a dramatized dialogue.
During the On-Site Event -- What Happens On-Site and On-Line
1. Provide enough information to the on-line participants about what's happening on-site so that they can contextualize the on-site "talk" that they receive.The more information that the on-line and on-site participants share, the better for the dialogue. Our experience with inkshedding in Columbia taught us that although the glimpses into the conference sessions provided by people's reactions to those sessions were helpful, on-line participants also needed more sheer information about what happened and what got said. One way to provide that information might be to have people designated to take notes during a session and post those notes on-line after the session is over; if the notes are written on a computer, uploading them will take very little time.
In Columbia, we think it would have helped had we been able to find better ways of feeding the inksheds and discussions back into the on-line conference, where it could continue. While on-line participants welcomed the glimpse of the on-site event afforded them by the inksheds, they also expressed frustration because the comments seemed so decontextualized: inkshedding, by its nature, assumes that the audience for the writing, reading, and marking has all been physically present at the event being written and read about. Thus, we learned that it is important to supplement the session abstracts and texts of papers with some simple reporting of events: the text of a paper is not the paper as delivered; and, furthermore, some sessions will not be conducted via papers read aloud.
2. Post information about both the on-site and on-line conferences frequently and prominently during the duration of both.In general, it would be useful to have every on-site and on-line registrant on an e-mail list which supplied regular information and bulletins, about upcoming on-line events and discussions (a strategy which was very successful during the 1995 Computers and Writing Conference.) Bulletins might also be printed and posted around the conference site to remind on-site registrants of the presence of the on-line discussions, and to update people about the directions those discussions are taking. This regular bulletin would act primarily as an active and continuing invitation to log on to the on-line conference.
3. Find ways to get the on-line and on-site written "talk" back to on-site participants, so that they can experience the written language as dialogic.In Columbia, it is clear that we did not succeed in getting the on-line and on-site discourse back into the hands of the on-site participants (and only by failing did we come to see how important a failure it was). The failure was not in finding a way to transcribe and reproduce the marked inksheds, which indeed posed some challenges, but which we were able to meet them fairly easily. We asked for volunteers to transcribe the inksheds, and quickly had more offers of help than we needed (especially after Eric Crump announced that transcribers would be given a shot of his single-malt scotch.)
But because we had not planned on the cost of making copies of the printed inksheds, we were not able to provide everyone at the conference with hard copies of them. On the one hand, we hoped that the scarcity of hard copies would entice people to read the EF (where the inksheds were posted), but on the other hand, complicating people's access to them may have dampened their enthusiasm for writing them, and -- because, again, the experience of dialogue they enact was not available -- weakened everyone's understanding of their potential to create a social venue for the discussion of important ideas.
4. Take advantage of the synchronous communication capabilities of the Internet.Synchronous talk offers many opportunities for dramatizing the dialogic potential of writing and for fusing the on-site and on-line worlds. It might be productive to set up a virtual space dedicated to discussing the conference as it proceeds, and facilitating ways for on-site attenders to log on immediately after a session ended to talk to people on-line.
It is also possible to set up on-site sessions where people are logged into a MOO along with on-line-only participants. Such sessions might be organized so that everyone discusses common issues or texts; or people who are unable to attend the on-site conference might be asked to present via the MOO.
It might also be possible to hold on-line MOO sessions during the conference, which could then become the basis for further discussion and elaboration at an on-site conference session.
5. Find ways to integrate writing into the sessions, so that it doesn't take time away from hallway chat.We know that one critical issue with asking people to write is to allow time for that writing. When sufficient time is planned into the conference schedule for it, inkshedding quickly and easily becomes an integral part of a conference schedule. The easy availability of technology is also an important issue. If computers were available, perhaps around the periphery of a session room, people might be more likely to log on than they would if they needed to go elsewhere to get on-line.
While Planning the On-Site Conference
1. Plan the on-site event with the integration of on-line and on-site conferences in mind.[a] Plan Enough Time: Meshing the on-line and on-site conferences can only be done effectively if there is enough time and space in the on-site schedule to allow for the writing that will take the on-site discourse on-line and vice versa. We know, for example, that if inkshedding is to be effective, each session needs to be planned to allow a good twenty minutes after the papers for writing, reading, and marking. And the reading and marking have to be given the time necessary, so that dialogic turns can occur, and can be experienced (ideally, more than once). Similarly, if there are to be special sessions devoted to discussing issues raised on-line, they need to be planned into the conference schedule at regular intervals.
[b] Budget Enough Money: If texts from the on-line conference (or on-site conference, in the case of inksheds) are going to be made available in hard copy, the cost of photocopying them -- as well as the labour needed to type, print, and reproduce them -- needs to be planned into the conference budget. The distribution of texts also needs to be considered: Where will registrants pick them up? How often will they be made available? How will these texts be transferred on-line?
[c] Arrange Enough Computer Access: If participants are going to generate texts on-site, computers and modems need to be made available. If there are going to be people who will summarize or annotate sessions as the sessions are in progress, computers need to be available in every room where sessions will be held, or the distribution of laptops needs to be coordinated. If MOO sessions will take place on-site, the host computer system needs to be running a "MOO client," a program which running on the local computer or system and which provides the screen division that allows editing. Without such a client, MOOing is little more than an exercise in frustration.
Additionally, the hosting site needs to arrange for guest accounts on the host computer system so that registrants with their own computers and modems can telnet from their hotel rooms to their home systems. Such an arrangement not only enables people to get back on-line in order to contribute to the on-line conference, it also sends the message that not all of everyone's time at the conference need be spent in face to face interaction; it recognizes the legitimacy of reading and writing in a primarily oral environment, and hence the dialogic power of written text as well as of speech.
2. Let people know as early as possible that the on-site conference will have a different, dialogic character to it.Presenters need to know early on that their texts for this conference will be treated somewhat differently than they would be at a traditional academic conference. When the call for papers is issued, it ought to include a section telling people that conference abstracts will be available on-line, and that completed papers (if there are papers) will also be made available.
If inkshedding is to be a component of the conference, presenters also need to know this in advance, and the call for papers or the program invitation needs to include a description of inkshedding. Session chairs need to be instructed in how to conduct the inkshedding, and they need actively to promote it, since it runs counter so many people's expectations about what it means to be an audience at a conference. Everyone needs to be aware at the outset that the time frame given for presentations includes twenty minutes for inkshedding, and the need for papers to be planned to fit within the time frame needs to be stressed.
In general, then, we learned that it's important to find ways to facilitate social interaction on-line, and, equally, to find ways to make writing fulfil social functions on-site. Clearly, people are not going to write while they attend a conference unless they experience the sorts of personal and social -- that is, professional -- rewards for doing so that they expect from physical participation in an on-site occasion.
What we did with CWC94 seems primitive to us now. From this vantage point, well after the conference and after we have made other attempts at integrating on-line and on-site conferences, we feel prepared to launch much more sophisticated collider experiments. Thus, we think that although what we did in Columbia did not, by and large, meet our expectations or hopes, it was an experiment well worth conducting. We hope others can build on our successes and failures, as we ourselves have begun to do. The insights we gleaned in Columbia will not let us rest; they seem equally as pertinent to the classroom and to other venues on our own campuses as to academic conferences.
Finding new ways to mesh on-site and on-line conferences seems particularly important to us for a number of reasons. The most important reason may be that cyberspace is the shape of our future. More and more academics are moving more and more of their work on-line: collaboration on-line with far-flung colleagues is becoming commonplace, as our own stories attest; the four of us met via discussion lists long before we met face-to-face. Our collaboration on this paper was conducted entirely virtually; we shared drafts, responses, and ideas solely by means of electronic mail. We have never even all been in the same (non-virtual) room at the same time.
Additionally, we and many others worked together at organizing the on-line CWC94 conference via email and MOOs -- conference proposals, for example, were uploaded in Missouri and sent to a colleague in Indiana, who took charge of setting the program. Perhaps most impressive, the software used to run the Electronic Forum was uploaded to and installed on the machine in Missouri by Karen Schwalm and Chris Zagar, who never left their campus in Arizona. (They repeated this feat for the European Computers and Writing Conference in October of 1994, installing software in Utrecht from their homes in Arizona.)
So it is not too surprising that we see great potential in electronic conferencing. We see on-line conferences as ways to erase geographic and time constraints because we ourselves have felt those constraints loosen as we have moved into cyberspace. We think that the lure of cyberspace is so strong that we foresee a day in which all academic conferences have an on-line component, one which enrolls far more registrants than the on-site events themselves. Especially as travel budgets shrink and money becom es scarce, and our ability to participate at on-site events becomes limited, on-line components to conferences will become increasingly more important. We have only begun to imagine what new forms those conferences may take.
This motive is what prompted us to try to create an on-line component for CWC94 in the first place. But it is no longer the only, or the strongest, motive. We believe that when this collision is successfully engineered that it will turn out not to be merely the collision of two billiard balls, but what John Dewey called a transaction: a unique event mutually transforming both entities. The dialogic situation of the on-site conference, with its sense of "occasion," of a unique opportunity for pr ofessional, intellectual, and personal exchange and growth, will infect the otherwise abstract and seemingly impersonal world of electronically mediated written discourse. And, reciprocally, the text-based and profoundly dialogic character of computer-mediated discourse will lend the face-to-face meetings the unmatched power of dialogic writing to embody ideas and hold them up for scrutiny, to allow people the opportunity to offer each other in dialogue the more deeply considered, extended, revisable, and c ontemplatable utterances of written text.
Ultimately, we are unconvinced that on-line conferences will ever really replace on-site events. Ours is an era when administrators face shrinking resources, both to sponsor on-site events on their own campuses and to fund travel to conferences elsewhere, and when computer networks are making communication across institutional, national and geographic borders ever more easily available to scholars and researchers. The question of what function on-site events do serve, however, is becoming more difficult to answer. Why travel thousands of miles to sit in a classroom and listen to someone read a paper you might well have received through electronic mail?
The answer is no less obvious than it has ever been: the power of immediate, unpredictable, authentic dialogue to generate new ideas, to create discourse communities which become the basis for new explorations and powerful collaborations, is well known. To bring the known potential of the on-site conference into collision with the newly developing power of on-line dialogic language may well be to create a new world.