A Collaborative Online Discussion: 

Anonymity and Authorial Responsibility in Computerized Classrooms


[Host:] We begin our discussion today with various individuals who have been invited to this virtual panel to express their views on the question of anonymity in a computerized classroom. Our guests include Kip Wheeler and Darren Reiley, both graduate students at the University of Oregon and teachers of Freshman composition. 

We also have joining our discussion Dr. Kali Hassensprenger, anarcha-feminist and author of the controversial new book, Outside-In Education: Thus Assessment doth make Asses of us All. Finally we are also honored to have joining us today, the distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philology and Antiquities, Dr. E. M. W. Mustcrotchette.
[Host]: Now as I understand it, there has been an ongoing debate in English 608 concerning matters of anonymity in electronic classrooms. How exactly would you describe your concerns?

[Kip]: It's primarily an issue that has arisen between Darren and myself. We both want our students to excel at writing in an on-line environment, and in many classes teachers have their students use "handles" or alternate identities in on-line discussions. As an undergraduate myself, I was a student in such a classroom at West Texas State University, using the handle "Matilda the Hun." The idea is that students who would otherwise be too shy to speak in class would feel more comfortable expressing their honest opinions in a real debate if their identity remains concealed. In my experience, both as a student and a teacher, it does seem to have that effect in the short-term, and I understand the value that might bring. Sometimes by wearing masks, we create a space where we feel more free to express ourselves.

[Mustcrochette]: Like Prince Hal and his cloak in Henry V, I assume? 


As I understand Darren's position, Darren thinks--

(mutters) That long-haired neo-hippy.

I'm sorry, what was that?

(coughs) Just clearing my throat. Do go on. 

Precisely. 

My worry is that, rather than encouraging students to speak for themselves, in the long run we may create the opposite effect. Students may become so used to expressing themselves behind a protective, electronic disguise, that they ultimately feel even more uncomfortable when it comes time to taking a public stand on issues they feel strongly about by joining group debate, or publishing writing, or participating in other forms of discourse. We need to instill in them a habit of attaching their own names to their own thinking. The best way to ensure that people are responsible and honest in their research and publication is to ensure that the writing is linked to a specific name, on whom readers and listeners can appropriately heap credit or blame. That may seem a bit Foucauldian, but it's valuable.

[Jeerer in the crowd]: 'E called him a right long-'aired 'ippy, 'e did. I 'eard it with me own two ears.

My dear sir, you must be mistaken. Do go on, Mr. Wheeler.

And if you've got something to say, Il Duce, either say it to the group or keep it zipped!

I'm sorry, I've lost my train of thought with these disruptive personas. Maybe I should let Darren speak for himself here. Darren?

[Darren]: I've got two points to make here Kip, the first of which concerns this issue of students, or writers in general, being held responsible for their work. The second deals with the notion of assessment--and perhaps Dr. Hassesnsprenger would like to respond to that herself--but since Kip and I first crossed foils with the former issue, I'll start there. Partially I agree with you, Kip, at least about the danger of students becoming reliant on electronic masks, as you put it, and then becoming increasingly reluctant to speak out in person. Because of this danger, I would never rely solely on such an approach. Using anonymous or pseudonymous standpoints from which to voice opinions is a tool for empowering students to speak when they might not otherwise, for allowing students the opportunity to try out some of their more fringe ideas without fearing the feeling like they’ll be pounced on for them. This is a case in which I think it can be productive to remove the accountability. If students have a persona through which they can try out problematic positions, the discourse community (of which the facilitator is an important part) will then offer its responses to that idea and hopefully point out the problems with it.  The student will then have been able to see the problems with the argument, without feeling shamed to have said something “stupid.” Without that shield, many student think these problematic positions but never voice them out of fear, and therefore never have the opportunity to work them out. 

[Hassensprenger]: I would take that one step further, and challenge this neo-Fascist and extremely phallo-centric ideology that wants to own everything, and that has resulted in a brand of identity politics that insists on identifying Self by distinguishing from Other. This is the basis of a patriarchal system that we're talking about here-- a system that feels that it must maintain an established hierarchy of Grader and Graded, and that is predicated on a Capitalist and elitist need to reward the "good workers" [making derisive quotes in the air with her fingers] rather than encouraging people to feel an intrinsic investment in the work they produce.

[Host]: Well then, what about student collaborative projects? I believe Darren has expressed some interest in such projects?

[Darren]: I truly believe that this whole insistence on tying an idea to a particular individual is not only conceptually problematic, in a Foucauldian sense, but completely neglects the natural checks that members of a community place upon each other. If students work collaboratively, they will, if properly encouraged, parcel out duties, hold each other to the work and hopefully maintain a dialogue that in effect keeps each individual member responsible for what he or she contributes. If one person is slacking, then the group has the option of expelling that member from the group. In fact, I would contend that collaborative work actually encourages a greater sense of responsibility rather than a lesser: I know for myself that I work harder when a group is depending upon me than if it is only myself that will be called to task. 

It is true that I may not be giving sufficient credit to the discourse community's ability to check individual members. Richard MacKinnon, who wrote about an act of virtual rape on LambdaMOO, noted that the group collectively came up with a virtual punishment for a deviant member, but questioned whether such self-policing is sufficient or "mattered" when only a persona is punished, not the person responsible.

I think Susan Romano's article dealt particularly well with this issue also.  She maintained that giving students the opportunity to challenge their notions of identity can provide a very liberating experience for students and instructors alike. But she also emphasizes the need for what she calls "rhetorical authority" which amounts to the kind of monitoring that Kip and I both appear to favor. Though her critique is more focused on the ways in which women's voices become overpowered and suppressed by male privilege even in such pseudonymous virtual settings, I think her argument fits into this context as well. But Kip, you were referring to issues of student self-assessment, right?

You're too damn soft Reiley! This fascist is only barely veiling his misogyny. The whole basis for a grading system goes right back to Adam being granted the privilege of naming everything in the world. It is a topdown system of ordering that is held in place to separate drones from soldiers, and workers from worked-for. It is obvious that the Academy's sad dependence on "evaluating" students [derisive finger-quotes] is nothing more than a vestige of this androcentric and Christyrannical mythos, and one that has become far more harmful than productive. Its most apparent result is that students are only interested in receiving good grades rather than feeling inherently driven to create good work. They're only secondarily interested in learning new skills or discovering the true process of inquiry; their primary concern is figuring out how to do as little as possible to get a B or-- even more rare-- an A. So I ask you WHY?! Why this insistence on evaluating everything. Why can't the students hold themselves responsible for what they produce, and why can't the teacher's job be to facilitate, not to assess?

This is the part of Kali's book that I agree with the most. In my experience, students have developed this Outside-In mentality towards their work. Removing the emphasis on individual performance and extrinsic rewards of that performance can only encourage students to seek a more lasting, intrinsic meaning to their work. 

But Miss Hassensprenger, why create an artificial division between facilitating learning and assessing it? Assessing learning is a means of facilitating learning, if done appropriately. And how can we be sure that the actual facilitation of learning is going on in the anonymity of the collaborative project? If one student is failing to learn and needs constructive criticism, how will the teacher identify that student and provide the feedback the pupil needs, even desires? He will be lost in the anonymity of a collaborative project.

I'm not sure all students share your ethical concern for being responsible to their peers. Even if the majority share that sense of responsibility, it only takes one bad apple who fails to contribute to a project to lessen its quality, and thus ruin or diminish the learning experience of all the other students who were relying upon him or her for a share of the work. I've never had a student suggest for himself or herself an average or below-average grade, even when the work was substandard by my judgment. When students evaluate other students on the project, nine times out of ten, they agree that so-and-so did a marvelous or a horrible job. But about one time out of ten, I would receive conflicting evaluations: one student would write "so-and-so really helped the group with x," but another student would write, "so-and-so missed all our group meetings and didn't contribute anything until the night before the project was due." Is it appropriate to trust the first student? The second student? To split the difference and mark the grade as "C"? I would fear that (in my own case) the desire to let students assess themselves and each other in an anonymous, collaborative project would be casting aside my responsibilities as a teacher by foisting them on unsuspecting freshman.

You said something at the beginning of that last bit there that struck me, Kip: that a "bad apple" not contributing as much to the group somehow diminishes the learning experience for the rest of the group.  How?  Seems to me that such an experience enhances the learning value.  It may lessen the final product, but it's the process that's important in group activities anyway-- at least for me.  And that seems to get to the heart of the issue in general. A process-oriented pedagogy stresses the road, not the destination.  It emphasizes the importance of learning techniques, not figuring out ways to please an authority figure to get a good grade.  And since the best thing we can teach our students is how to learn and critique themselves, I find it important to encourage my students to evaluate themselves based on standards that we determine as a group.  But, (I see your brow furrowing, Kip) I realize that often we are bound to assign grades authoritatively to our students, as is the case for Composition Instructors at the U of O, when they can't seem to do it responsibly themselves, but I would argue that those cases are rare .

When I have assigned collaborative projects-- with which I've had a great deal of success, I would add-- I make my students turn in a written evaluation of both their own contributions to the projects, and of the contributions of each other member. That keeps it fair

I would like to know what your secret is, Darren. The few times I've tried collaborative projects, I've also had students turn in written evaluations of their own work and that of their partners. (I must admit I've only tried the process two or three times, then gave it up in disgust; if you've been doing it for awhile, you may have developed some helpful tricks to make it work). 

As teachers, I know we feel a certain responsibility to make sure that students receive as accurate an evaluation of their work as possible-- 

Speak for yourself Adam! You're so top-heavy I feel like I'm leaning!

I know that grading carries with it a certain ideological bias. To a degree, it is subjective in nature, I will grant you. I'm not sure that doing away with evaluating the individual and instead evaluating a collective group of students solves that problem. In my past experience, collaborative projects have always been nightmares, both for my students and for me as a grader. It's another form of anonymity because I am often unable to assess fairly who contributed what in the larger project. If an online project includes an extraordinary annotated bibliography, which student did that part? Or did each student contribute one or two articles? Who is responsible for that outstanding collection of slides during the class presentation? That person deserves special commendation. However, what about the student that failed to turn in his share of the work, or the one that ignored his section of the assignment, forcing Susie to do two parts? So much of the work in collaborative assignments takes place out of class, and I cannot observe all that goes into its construction. In our 608 readings, we have an essay written collaboratively by multiple authors under a single pen-name Myka Vielstimmig. In the concluding footnotes, it was clear that the writing group responsible often shifted in its membership from one publication to the next. To me, that creates disturbing possibilities. Suppose the early members of such a collaborative project publish fantastic materials. Later, the group's composition changes. Imagine someone under the group's pen-name then publishes a work with grotesque errors in citation, or makes a claim that turns out to be patently false, and becomes the laughingstock of the academic discourse community. Will that stigma attach itself (unfairly) to those earlier members who published under the same pen-name, but had no part in the later projects? Having your name attached to something keeps you honest. Maybe it's just Foucauldian influences at work, but if our intellectual work can be linked back to us, it may keep us honest, and give us a stake in producing the best intellectual work possible.


From these comments, it sounds like you place a great deal of importance on intellectual property. Is that true? 

Yes.

And Darren thinks it would be useful to break that paradigm?

Well, yes, actually I do, but I'm not wholly committed to the issue. As a writer and poet myself, I have a sort of egoistic desire to be congratulated for my work, to be rewarded for my ideas, as it were. But that's really not where I see the issue that Kip just mentioned: that is, the issue of assessing a collaborative project. I think he makes a good point about the members of the group known collectively as Myka Vielstimmig--that a sloppy member could discredit the name of the whole group, but again, I would stress the importance of the discourse community and the natural checks that members of a community hold each other to. As for assessing a group....

What do you make of the recent court injunction against napster, in which anonymous individuals can go online and download materials protected under copyright?

I myself am in favor of something like the potential of Napster. Here, we have various forms of art readily available to the public in a way never possible before.

Horse piddle, I say. You must have hippie leanings also, in spite of your minimal coiffure.

Mr. Mustcrotchette--

That's Professor Mustcrotchette!

Does nobody in this room have a sense of copyright history? Shortly before the French Revolution in the late eighteenth-century, the French abolished copyright laws, if you will recall. Their ideals were the same as those discussed here--eliminating the idea of individual intellectual ownership so that the greater community could freely share these materials. It was disastrous! Artists, writers, and musicians often had to drastically cut back their production of literature and art, because it was no longer feasible for them to support themselves through the sale of such items. Imagine Voltaire, if you will, being forced literally to tend his garden in order to avoid starvation! Bootlegged copies of printed materials flooded the market. And fifteen years later, the Republic voted overwhelmingly to reinstate the copyright laws after the disastrous experiment. Those fools like you who lament the loss of Napster and bemoaning the fact the law won't let you commit acts of intellectual piracy at your whim. Taking another work and reproducing it without credit is theft, plain and simple.

--Professor Mustcrotchette, I don't think the two are comparable. Copyright laws specifically are designed to prevent individuals from selling and making financial profit by reproducing another's work without permission. Yes, Napster might potentially hurt the profits of big record-companies. But it isn't stealing from them. The people using the Napster website before the court injunction weren't taking their copies and selling them on the street for a profit, they were giving them away freely to whoever wanted a copy. Yes, that might have deleterious effects on music sales, but I'm sure giving away free food would also have deleterious effects on restaurants, and that doesn't mean the act should be outlawed.

Boy that's a great example of an upstanding model to emulate there, Robespierre, the French Revolutionaries! Ha! We all know how dedicated they were to justice and individual rights.

If Napster were selling the materials on its website without the permission of the artist or owner, I would agree that the act was piracy. But there is no law against sharing. It's sort of like one person buying a big television set, a DVD player, and Jurassic Park, then inviting eighty or so thousand friends to come over and watch it with him. As long he's not charging them any money, he isn't violating copyright in any way I can see. In the same way, Napster is like an individual purchasing a music CD, burning five-thousand copies, and then giving them away at the corner of the block to whoever wants a copy. There's no law against giving gifts freely, at your own expense. The original donors to Napster all had to legally purchase their first copy before they could alter it to MP3 format. Only then was it possible to place it on the net for others to share. I think its important that the original artist's name be attached to such duplicated files, so individuals do not try to take an Alanis Morisette CD, replace her name with another, and change the title.

Shouldn't we return to classroom discussion? To students?

But this event does relate directly to students. Academic equivalents to this newfangled Napster contraption will appear, copies of scholarly works on-line, student essays on-line.

'Ere now, we already 'ave that, don't we now? It's called the internet, and your students will be a usin' it, and are a usin' it, mark me words, lads.

 

The intelligent thing would be to steer students away from the internet, too, before the ease of accessing materials anonymously and then stamping a name falsely on the first page contributes to the increasingly philistine nature of modern culture. These problems would be greatly lessened if we stuck with time-proven, approved means of publications like books and print.

No, we shouldn't try to discourage such new technology. We should instead teach our students to make use of it responsibly. If we don't do that, there are two possible outcomes I can see on a wider social level when it comes to copyright protection. Those government agencies in charge of enforcing copyright laws will undertake a sort of prohibition-style approach. Their attempts will ultimately prove either infeasible or feasible, and either way, the result will be negative.

Suppose it turns out to be infeasible to completely stop Napster-like groups on-line, but only to nab an occasional offender. What would the result look like? The federales run a few stings to nab the Napsters, but each time they knock down a website of that sort, a Gnutella or Nutunes will pop up to take its place. We'll end up with sporadically enforced crackdowns that will result in occasional arrests, but not prevent the trend. Recording and publishing industries will sue whoever they think they can get money from, and the equivalent of virtual speak-easies will pop up on the net where people using aliases will swap the material as they will. If the music/writing/art swapping movement is forced underground, the odds increase that these sites, forced to swap files at some risk to themselves, will begin to charge users to download such stuff. The price would be less than what record-companies are charging now, of course, but I suspect the flowering of illegal copies will supersede the sharing model. The days of free-exchange, of sharing files, may be over. If users can't legally share your music files on-line in an open manner, we create a profitable niche for music bootleggers to secretly undercut prices. I think human generosity will end at the point people run the risk of fines or prison. The second possibility is even worse, I think. There may be a way to effectively and completely monitor the web for illegal copies that requires very little manpower. That is digital watermarking, a practice some museums and graphic designers are already experimenting with in their online materials. Copyright holders might mark all their files with code that functions like a combination of metatags and cookies. Every month or two, they send out the equivalent of a spider or a 'bot to search the web for copies of that file--perhaps an image of Mickey Mouse, perhaps the Nike swoosh, or an MP3 File of AC/DC's latest song, or a Stephen King novel. Each image or file contains within its coding a hidden virtual watermark. The spider or 'bot then check to see if the copy was legally obtained. If not, the program notes the computer and its unique numeric address. Checking that against registration, the legal copyright owners might then be able to send a bill to that computer's owner, or call the police, or whatnot. That's too Orwellian for my taste, too 1984-ish. But the potential is there. It is being developed. The only way to prevent commercial interests from researching and creating such products is for the internet community to police itself.

Those writers, artists, scholars, who put a lot of work into a project--in some cases years or even decades--deserve recognition (and yes, maybe even payment) for that work. If we don't instill in our students a strong sense of intellectual property, and a sense of ethics concerning such matters, they will probably continue the cycle of copyright breach. In turn, that will encourage writers, artists, and publishers to use such Draconian, Orewellian measures to monitor computer-users.

Exactly the stance I would expect from a white male doctoral candidate (you can hide behind your green font all you want, but I can see your real color!) Intellectual property rights are there to protect the elite physical property holders, and no one else. Vandana Shiva once told me a story of a graduate student in Chemistry who worked for years with a professor to develop a technique for genetically coding a seed so that it wouldn't reproduce. A procedure invented, by the way, so that farmers would have to buy the seeds every year and become increasingly reliant upon the company that "owns" the seed. Anyway, if the seed itself were not sinister enough, the professor insisted on being the primary name under which they published their work-- for better credibility, he claimed. Then, when the graduate student-- who had collaborated on inventing the procedure, mind you-- tried to use the procedure for his own individual work, the professor had him arrested for copyright infringement. There's your recognition, for you. Such laws protect the rich and the privileged; they do not ensure recognition for work. Ask Nicola Tesla about that one.

I really would like to turn this discussion back to the classroom. What dangers or benefits do you see in the adoption of multiple or imaginary personas?

One tendency is that the discussion might tend to wander. Each persona "wants" to say something, and that something may or may not be on the topic at hand.

I see.

There is a cure for that though. Bart Beaudin, a Professor of Adult Education at Colorado State University, has proposed a list of techniques to prevent the discussion from wandering. It's not an insurmountable problem.

Again, there's also that hurly-burly about a virtual rape in LambdaMOO a few years back. One danger is that personas will get out of control, engage in antisocial or disruptive activities within an electronic environment. Richard MacKinnon at the University of Texas at Austin "witnessed" the verbal assault. He noted in his article on the event that "a persona lacks accountability for its actions" when "utility to the user or a 'stake' is absent" ("Virtually Unaccountable").

Even here at this university, two years ago on an e-mail list, we had such an incident that even made the pages of The Emerald. In that case, it wasn't even a matter of being completely anonymous so much as being in a faceless environment that encouraged a student to make remarks that would never have been tolerated in my classroom.

I haven't noticed that sort of disruption so much in the classes I have taught myself, but I did notice that as an undergraduate student at another university.  In a course on creative writing, the teacher had us post short stories on the Daedalus Exchange, and then in real-time swap feedback with each other. Both the author and the evaluators used pseudonyms. At least one individual used this virtual space as an arena for obnoxious and disruptive behavior. He (or maybe she, but I suspect a he) went by the handle "Connie Lingus" in some sessions, or "Phil Lasheo" in others. The teacher deliberately set up the system preferences in the beginning of the term so that not even the instructor would ever know who was using which nickname. (The only comment the instructor made to the disruptive student was, "Phil, your nickname sucks.") The teacher's philosophy was that the students would police themselves. To a certain extent, we did. We cajoled and insulted Connie/Phil mercilessly whenever he stepped out of line, until eventually the user stopped using those two monikers and appeared with a different handle on the Daedalus Exchange.

I wonder, however, if you actually did gain something productive from that experience. The class as a whole learned how to shut down a disruptive influence by their collective will, independently from an official authority figure's intervention. Surely that sort of lesson is worthwhile in and of itself?

Perhaps so. I hadn't really thought of it that way.

However, it took about half the semester for this to occur, and recidivism exploded in the last week of class. We all felt it was really the teacher's job to step in and shut down that sort of disruption, not our job. Over the course of the semester, we must have wasted hours in dealing with Connie/Phil.

This is an example of why I think its important for the facilitator to play an active part in these virtual discussion groups. If it had been me running the MOO, I would probably have tried to determine earlier if Phil's participation was offensive to the group, and then intervened if that were the case.  Exactly the same as if it were any listserv dialogue.  Besides, I think another important element to Freshman Writing courses is encouraging students to find authority in arguments and reasoning, not in some meaningless hierarchy of age or privilege conferred by the Institution.  Something I think few graduate student/teachers really consider. 

Rubbish. Absolute rubbish. It would have been much faster if the teacher could identify which student was being disruptive and stopped him during the first session. We have authority figures for a reason. Sometimes it is more ethical to silence one student's voice so that others may speak. I'm certain that members of this younger generation of teachers are all too lily-livered to admit the unpleasant fact, but truth is truth. Teachers have the responsibility to give students a timely and efficient education. In this example, out of misplaced desire to decentralize the classroom, the teacher ended up wasting several hours of how many students' time? Twenty? Thirty? All to avoid stepping on one miscreant's ego? All to give this philistine the freedom to be insulting and disruptive? Authority simply won't work unless everyone knows who the authority-figure is.

Who is the authority-figure in a virtual environment, then? (If we need such a thing.)

Out of all the speakers here, I think my rank and distinguished publications speak for themselves, as well as my honors from Wittenberg University. The authority-figure certainly isn't you, Mr. Wheeler. Or Mr. Reiley for that matter. The way you are dithering here assures me of that, quite clearly. 

But in a virtual environment, I don't think it's that clear. For instance, perhaps Darren has logged on as "Kip" and is using my name. Or maybe I am using his. Or maybe we are alternating every other message between names. There is no necessary correlation between the name that appears in the discussion list and the writer. In a virtual environment, identities can be always appropriated by others. I could log-on with the handle of "Anne Laskaya," head of the Composition Program, or as John Gage, head of the English Department. It might instill a reticence in the other writers on the discussion list to see a pronouncement from some writer labeled "jgage." In effect, it would be too easy to steal auctoritas from another scholar, or set up straw-men to be knocked down.

[jgage]: He's absolutely right, but it is still an unethical misappropriation of identity. And the students involved in an on-line debate might choose to play it safe, on the off-chance that the person pretending to be me really is me. How can we form a discourse community, or trace a logical argument to a conclusion unless we have a clear sense of who is in that discourse community?

 

Yes, How do rhetoricians adapt for an audience when we are uncertain to whom speak? How do we arrive at shared assumptions with individuals who don't really exist? How do we produce a real debate when individuals can shift personas, pretend they hold view they don't, or refuse to take responsibility for something a persona says?

 

But aren't you doing so now? Aren't we producing a debate, even if the audience, and the other writers aren't sure who is really writing what? I've also noted that we have far more speakers here than we have writers, at least according to my roll-sheet. Some of the people speaking here must have adapted personas.

That concerns me too

Look here, Hosty, don't try to play like you're not a fictional character, we all know the greenguy is controlling what you say. But we all know that Derrida has shown exhaustively that all identities are socially constructed fictions anyway, so let's address the real issue of students adapting to an audience. It's not the upper echelons of the rhetorical elite we're here to discuss, now is it?

 

'Ere now. Mebee credit's not the point at all, 'ere. Mebee a valid argument's a good argument no matter whare it 'riginally popped out, what? Why does anybody need credit for it at all, now? That's argumentum ad 'ominem, it is.

My dear sir, you must be a half-wit. Go and mate with the village idiot, and perhaps your children can achieve full status as complete morons. What would be the point in creating such fictions? If a fictional character makes a subtle or powerful argument, and everyone loves it, how will the real author ever get credit for it? When the publication is complete, who obtains the recognition, the line on the c.v., so to speak?

But remember Rob Howard's discussion of the Storm Front website. Recall the exercise in which he showed his class an argumentative essay from this Neo-Nazi website without revealing the source? The essay argued in favor of the formation of white student groups in high schools. The students in Rob's class all agreed with the argument, and then were horrified when Rob showed them the source. Here's a case where the origin of an idea is important, both for understanding an underlying ideological purpose in proposing the argument, and for recognizing the potential for rhetorical damage if a writer were to treat this material with the same amount of credibility we might give a different source. Suppose a student were to repeat that argument while being ignorant of the source. However, some members of his reading audience recognizes its origin. The audience might then equate the student with the Storm Front racial supremacist movement. It's not safe to disregard the source of an idea. That's an important point for students to understand, so they can avoid being manipulated by sources with commercial or political biases.

True, but that student would also be held accountable for those ideas by his or her discourse community after the fact, and the repercussions for recapitulating Storm Front's arguments would very likely teach him or her to look more carefully next time. And that's exactly the point! This entire discussion has been based (I think) on an assumption that the writing class, or the collaborative or anonymous experiment, is a self-contained entity. And we’ve been trying to ferret out all of the political and ideological ramifications within that entity itself--which is important I grant you. But a writing class goes far beyond the ten weeks in which it exists in time, and the most important element to such a class is not the final grade or even the concrete product students turn in at the end, but the rhetorical and critical skill they carry away with them. In the case of the Stormfront essay, Rob’s students learned an invaluable lesson: NOT that intellectual property is important to hold the author responsible, or even that we have to know precisely the origin of an argument (although I would never say that's not important). The lesson is that we must learn to examine the rhetoric of a piece closely, in order to explore all of the implications of an argument in terms of what is being implied and the assumptions upon which it rests. We won’t always be certain of the origin of an argument, or even who crafted it--that is the reality of the internet. But that doesn't mean we should outlaw it, or shrink from creating anonymous for a in which students have to deal with these ramifications. On the contrary, the gradual disappearance of the author is not simply an ideological stance that I’m espousing--it is an inevitable result of the internet--

--and of the increasing power of a Police State--

...and it is therefore imperative that we teach our students to look at a text with these critical skills intact.

[HECKLER] But, Joor just dodgink the issue again, YesNo? Le students need to see le Ouebsite to understand the racisme, eh?

Exactly. In a truly anonymous on-line environment, in which the argument or final-product appears unattached to any organization or name, the students in Rob's class would never be able to make the connection Rob revealed by placing the argument back in authorial context. Without seeing Storm-Front website, the reader would never know she was perpetuating and supporting the arguments of a Neo-Nazi group. The only reason the students would learn the lesson about knowing the source you quote is because Rob took the time to pull away the veil of anonymity and show them the organization responsible behind the essay. The students may be a bit more suspicious about quoting a source without analyzing it first, (which is definitely a good thing), but the reason they are now more suspicious is they have learned the link between argument and author.

Bah, joor just all agreeing with each other now. Pooey!

What about the possibilities of play? It strikes me that creating anonymity via personas has a particular appeal in the imaginative aspect of writing. It creates a space for role-playing even as its members enjoin in intellectual debate.

(snorts) Like children? We seek to produce intellectually mature adults here, not pander to the adolescent impulse.

I found the Vielstimmig essay to be loads of fun, and I imagine the authors enjoyed crafting it, and yet, they are all mature adults, and what's more, they used the playfulness to achieve a particularly rhetorical, pseudo-hypertextual, effect.

Rubbish! Horse Hockey!

You're skating on thin ice with me, there, CrustMotchette!

For me, the aspect of play is the one advantage of anonymity that gives me no moral qualms. As a contributor to this collaborative on-line project, it has been tremendous fun to explore an argument by taking on various personas. I'd consider anonymity in the early stages of an on-line, classroom discussion. Maybe during the first day of debate. But after students have had their fun and games, and tried out various writing styles and authorial voices, I would want the debate eventually to move back into discourse where everyone knows who is speaking. The only disturbing part is that the personas do take on a life of their own, after a while.

I feel the same way.

Wait a minute--you are the persona, aren't you? And I'm the author?

Poppycock. I'm as real as you are. Only Ms. Hassensprenger is an artificial construct, as is easily discernible by her ridiculous name. I created her as a composite of the Indian Death Goddess (Kali) and--

Nobody can say I didn't warn him. Disparage the Goddess at your own peril, Musketcrotch, your days of flaccid patriarchal privilege are over! [Grips the podium and shatters it over Mustcrotchette's back]

Note how the Kestrel always shrieks just before it dives for the kill....

You want a piece of me too Frenchie LaRouche? I'll be there as soon as I'm done with Crusty! [Takes Mustcrotchette in a headlock]

I say! Stop that!

Who's responsible for making them stop?

I... I'm not sure.

[sound of sirens and jackboots on pavement]

[voice via bullhorn]: "This riot will desist immediately. This is the Reality Police, Verisimilitude Squad. You are under arrest for disorderly conduct in an academic environment."

Show some id first. Who are you?

"Lieutenant Tiller. Verisimilitude Squad. You're under arrest also, Hessensprenger, for assaulting an eminent scholar. Come quietly or there will be . . . trouble."

[blubbering]: Officer, it wasn't my fault at all. It was her! She's a madwoman. She doesn't even wear makeup! She--

Tell it to the judge, Mr. Fancy-Tweed-Suit-With-Arm-Patches.

[sweetly] He prefers Doctor Fancy-Tweed-Suit, actually. I'm sure all of the students who had to drop out of school because of your elitist standards will enjoy seeing you in the joint, you pompous...[BEEP!]

And so concludes our virtual conference. I wish there were time to field questions from the audience, but I'd be afraid who would appear even if we did. Please join us here next month when Doctors Brazen Brackenblood and Stacey Synecdoche will take on poet/activist Briathar Kinesi in a real-time animated presentation entitled "Sufferin' Semaphore: The Net, The Blob, and the Emptied Signifier" Thank you... I think
 
 

[exit all]


Works Cited:

Beaudin, Bart P. Keeping Online Asynchronous Discussions on Topic

http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/citesite.html.

Hunter, Christopher. "Copyright and Culture."

http://www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/chunter/copyright_and_culture.html#history

MacKinnon, Richard. "A Rape in Cyberspace or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit,

Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society." 

Electronic document available from julian@panix.com

Reiley, Darren. "Jailor Beware." http://gladstone.uoregon.edu/~dreiley/jailor.html.

Romano, Susan. "On Becoming a Woman: Pedagogies of the Self"

Passions, Pedagogies and 21st Century Technologies.

Logan, Utah: Utah State U P, 1999. 249-267.

Storm Front. "Storm Front Website." http://www.stormfront.org/

Vielstimmig, Myka " Petals on a Wet Black Bough: Texuality, Collaboration,

and the New Essay." Passions, Pedagogies and 21st Century Technologies.

Logan, Utah: Utah State U P, 1999. 89-114. 

 

 

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