Student Empowerment and the Rhetoric of Gender and Authority in Electronic Conferencing

by Traci Gardner

Invited Paper. 10th Computers and Writing Conference. University of Missouri at Columbia: 22 May 1994.

Much work has been done on how electronic discussion empowers students, bringing the academy closer to the ideal of the liberatory classroom (e.g., Bump 1990; Faigley 1992; Flores 1990; and Selfe 1990). Women and minority students speak more often, bringing the discussion closer to equivalency by including many more voices and multiple conversations. As I worked with my own students in the networked classroom, I began to wonder how much that empowerment--the ability to speak more often or as strongly as other participants in the conversation was influenced by physical space--are there any differences between the rhetorical strategies used when your reader is sitting right beside you and those you used when that writer is somewhere on the internet? Based on an analysis of rhetorical strategies, my research focuses on comparison of mail discussions in a single networked classroom to mail discussions among several classrooms across the Internet to determine whether physical proximity to the one another affects student empowerment.

When I proposed this project, I planned to examine the electronic discussions of students in my three second-semester freshman composition classes--comparing their rhetorical strategies in Daedalus Mail in class to those used in internet discussions among the three classes in order to see whether issues of gender and authority affected studentsí empowerment.

In my examination so far, Iíve scanned all the messages in Daedalus Mail and in the e-mail discussion, and Iíve looked carefully at several threads in the discussion as well as at specific kinds of messages in these discussions. Today, Iím going to concentrate on the rhetorical strategies of a specific woman student, named marian, to illustrate some preliminary conclusions and some directions for further investigation.

In the first small sample I looked at, I found certain predictable gendered rhetorical strategies were more frequent in the interclass discussion than in the single class discussion. For example, marianís writing in-class (the first example on the handout) does not employ any tag questions, hedging qualifiers, or self-deprecating language. However in her posting to the electronic mail list (the third message on the handout), as part of a discussion of whether computers are/will be the death of culture, she continually includes phrases which express her self-doubt and effectively undermine her authority.

In the in-class Daedalus Mail commentary, the studentís language is more polished, stronger, and tighter while the electronic mail posting seems hurried, spurious and bumpy--although she would have had more time to write the interclass electronic mail than the inclass Daedalus mail, and, hence, more time for rethinking and revising the electronic mail message. Her language is much more personal in the out of class posting, relying on the first-person "I" to make her points, underscoring the fact that this commentary is simply her opinion--and not necessarily that of the masses. Most telling here is her repeated use of self-doubting phrases in electronic mail: she says, "maybe it's just me. but even if you are giving characteristics of our generation, you still aren't including many people in your generalizations," and she ends her commentary emphasizing that self-doubt, signing off with "is it just me?"

These tendencies were echoed in other messages in the two threads which I examined. Also typical in the sample were the frequency of women to write shorter messages than men in both in-class and interclass mail and the use of more personal qualification by students who did not feel themselves authorities with computers. In addition, within these two threads of mail, both men and women quoted previous commentary in a full block, responding above or below the message while only men used interspliced comment and response techniques, a pattern perhaps connected to the gendered interpretation patterns of oral conversation.

When I expanded my examination, however, and began to look at other threads and specifically at marianís messages, I discovered that the original findings were not consistent. For example, marianís message on "American Heroes revisited," the second message on the handout, was a much stronger statement than the message on "More American Culture," the third message I just considered. She does use questioning techniques in this message such as "if someone listens to mariah carey and falls in love with the next person they see is mariah carey blamed for this?" However, this rhetorical question has been preceded by a declarative sentence with parallel phrasing "if someone listens to judas priest and blows his/her head off jp shouldnít be blamed for it." marianís question is rhetorical then, phrased as it is to strengthen her point--not at all like her "is it me?" questions.

I found as I examined marianís e-mail more carefully that her rhetorical strategies fluctuated wildly. Writing about issues of gender on the net, marian was a strong writer, the only woman student who remained in the class discussion once a somewhat oppositional male became involved. marian responded to this male writer, saying, "Be real. Even if I went up to some sexist asshole and told him to keep his sexist comments to himself, that will not keep him from thinking sexist thoughts. You've got to change the minds, not the words, as the words are just representations of the thoughts and feelings. He will probably still act like a sexist, he just won't say sexist things, if he even stops saying the sexist things to begin with." Her voice is strong, and her rhetorical strategies are authoritative--more like the first inclass Daedalus Mail message than the other examples of internet discussion.

In other messages, marianís voice seemed weaker than any of the previous examples. For instance, consider the first message on page two--marian hedges and bumps through her message, stating, "ummm....this may sound harsh, but i do not intend it to be.....but correct me if iím wrong, but donít we go to class to learn, not to socialize?" She repeatedly apologizes before she can get to the point of the message, weakening her authority when she finally does get to her assertion, which she frames in interrogative form.

Considering an entire thread of discussion, which marian started and effectively finished, I found that her rhetorical strategies shifted as she moved through the thread, gradually strengthening slightly. This thread concerns messages which marian first labeled "paranoid of technology." The thread is shown in full (with marianís mail and the responses she received) in the final eight messages in the handout. Iíll consider only marianís responses, but I've included the responses she received to set the rhetorical context. In the message where she introduces the topic, marian relies on weaker rhetorical strategies, questioning and qualifying in the first line: "donít you think that there is a point in which technology is detrimental? donít get me wrong though, i do think that some advancements are good, but look at what is happening here." She ends the message again undercutting her efforts with "i guess iíve said too much..."

As you move through marianís messages however, she relies more and more on declarative rather than interrogative structures. On page three of the handout, the middle message, she begins with a much stronger statement of her ideas: "when i wrote about being paranoid of technology i meant the effects technology has made on ourselves and the environment." and a little further down, she states, "it seems that many people have forgotten that we need each other and our environment to survive. as so many people are out there for the quickest dollar and they donít care what the consequences will be, all they want is power and money." Her writing is not without weak strategies, as shown in boldface, she says things like "maybe iíve watched a couple too many movies and read too many books, but with the way things are going now, i really donít have much faith in the future." In the final message in the thread, the last message on the last page of the handout, marian makes her final statement on the topic, defending her point of view. She uses all capital letters and while she does include an "IíM SORRY," her language is declarative, specific, and strong -- expressing her anger over being misinterpreted.

Overall, a more complete investigation will be necessary to determine whether these tendencies were representative or localized to the discussion and the students considered. As directions for further research and work to empower our students, there are four important issues.

First, analysis needs to look beyond basic oppositional factors about the writer. Looking only at male/female, minority/majority, or authority/novice ignores that these factors interrelate in a multi-faceted person who cannot be treated on the basis of a single marker, but that these traits shift, blend, and overlap.

Second, we need to consider how these markers change depending upon the rhetorical situation in which the writer is placed. But we must also consider the whole rhetorical situation in which the writer is placed: separating audience or writing from the equation removes the context that produced the writing. Simply counting the number of words each person writes or the number of questions each person asks is not an adequate way to identify whether particular members of the community are more empowered in electronic communications. In marianís case, ultimately, I think the differences in her rhetorical strategies depend more on rhetorical situation than upon gender and authority. Her voice is strong when she discusses gender issues with a male taking an opposing stance, but it is incredibly weak when she points out to her audience of peers the unpopular assertion that college is not for socializing. In a different rhetorical situation, marian's voice and rhetorical structures would no doubt shift further.

Third, we need some realistic sense about our role in the classroom as we look at the networkís ability to empower students. With all our praise for the empowering abilities of the networked classroom, we overlook the fact that in this new, digital arena students do not necessarily have the rhetorical skills needed to participate in an equal and democratic way. The rhetorical structures of gender and authority affect discourse in the digital environment just as they do anywhere else. While students in the networked classroom might have a more equal chance to enter and participate in a conversation, the networked classroom cannot guarantee them that their voices will be heard, welcomed, or responded to--factors such as subject matter, context, rhetorical structuring, and the timing of the commentary affect the networked classroom just as much as they do any other classroom. Just plopping students in a networked class or onto the internet is NOT empowering or democratic! We need to remember that specific pedagogical practices which help students strengthen their voices must be developed more fully and to be considered in our creation and teaching in networked spaces.

Finally, we tend to look on the networked classroom as a panacea--a place where everyone can participate fairly and equally. Even with strong rhetorical practices, that is just not the case as a recent episode with a student has reminded me. She wrote me the following in an e-mail:

 I chose not to write or let's say participate in this part of the class curriculum because I feel uncomfortable about people reading what I write. I don't have a problem with talking in front of a large crowd of people, but I really dislike having people reading what I write except my teachers. I know it will effect my grade but it is a risk I had to take because I haven't gotten over my fear.

 It's true that not every student feels comfortable participating in discussion in the traditional classroom, and it is also probably true that more students feel comfortable participating in the networked classroom. However, itís not true that every student will be immediately empowered and able to participate in the electronic class. Even if we engage students in pedagogically-sound practices which enable them to overcome the rhetorical silencing of their work, even if every student with a stroke of a few keys can enter a conversation, every student will not (simply because of the space and the pedagogy) be able to enter the discussion. We need to remember that not every student will benefit or enjoy this democratic space we open up and we need to find ways to help these students become comfortable with this new medium.

In short, the shift from oral classroom discourse to digital classroom discourse necessitates shifts in the pedagogical assumptions and practices which we bring to the classroom. Just having a networked classroom DOES NOT mean that student will become empowered and liberated. The networked classroom must be part of a teaching curriculum which focuses on informed rhetoric and pedagogy to insure our practices are actually leading toward the goal of student empowerment.


Works Cited


Bump, Jerome. "Radical Changes in Class Discussion Using Networked Computers." Computers and the Humanities 24(1990):49-65.

Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1992.

Flores, Mary J. "Computer Conferencing: Composing a Feminist Community of Writers." Computers and Community: Teaching Composition in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Carolyn Handa. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. 106-117.

Selfe, Cynthia L. "Technology in the English Classroom: Computers through the Lens of Feminist Theory." Computers and Community: Teaching Composition in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Carolyn Handa. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. 118-139.


Copyright © 1994 Traci Gardner. All Rights Reserved. Quote this document only by permission of the author.