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Hard Books, Deep Reading, and Synchronous Conferences in the Humanities "Pickle Factory"
Joe Essid, University of Richmond

In the Fall of 1995, with other volunteers from many academic departments, I began teaching our university's required two-semester freshman "Core" class, known as "Exploring Human Experience." Core, with a common syllabus of twenty primary works of literature and philosophy, is about more than reading for its own sake; indeed, it aims to engage students in a dialectic about ideas with their instructor and each other. That type of class seems tailor-made for the discourse encouraged by synchronous conferences. For the next two years, my Core students used conferencing software each week; my sections of Core were the first humanities classes, other than composition courses, taught in a computer lab.

A few colleagues in humanities departments have developed Web-based syllabi or used asynchronous conferences and e-mail, but in general they regarded my use of the lab with a sort of resistant curiosity. I was asked several times, from colleagues whose work and insights I greatly respect, how networked computing would contribute to two of the aims of Core: critical reading and forceful, analytic writing. The questions put to me were not hostile; I hoped to respond with a study of how my students used the "group discussion" feature of the Connect software to discuss texts in Core and to write about them. After establishing a few guidelines, based upon my previous work with such software in composition classes, the Core students began meeting each Wednesday for a fifty-minute conference.

I next began compiling and studying the transcripts of the weekly synchronous conferences. Facing a growing pile of transcripts, I worked with Chris Trible, a graduate student in our Master's program, to devise categories for the types of remarks made by Core students. In the end, we had four categories of remarks: flaming, off-task chat, on-task remarks made to peers, on-task remarks answering my initial or later questions. In our tallies of student work online, we counted all remarks, except greetings, goodbyes, and yes/no replies.

Meanwhile, something happened that broadened the study from a justification aimed at my own colleagues to a rebuttal of those who utterly reject the value of technology within the humanities. A friend at a nearby university, a tenured professor of English, began to teach her literature classes in the computer lab. One day she was confronted by an angry colleague. "You have abandoned the book," he fumed.

I pondered this accusation for a long time. It is too facile to dismiss it as the cry of the curmudgeon. Humanities departments have been slow to embrace technology for many reasons, but here I sensed a deep-seated fear behind the statement, the tendency by traditional literary scholars to " 'circle the wagons' against this new threat" (Howard 1997, p. 8). Many readers, compositionists or technologists long marginalized within their departments, may become a little gleeful at this prospect. Certainly, after traditionalists within English Studies were to die (or retire) defending the literary Alamo, composition would continue in its current "service" position, perhaps moving to the center of a profession based upon rhetoric and communication following the model of Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum (ECAC).

For many compositionists, however, any diminution in the study of the humanities reduces their own influence and funding on campus. At our university, for instance, the work and finances of our WAC program and our Writing Center are tied to the success of the College of Arts and Sciences. If English Studies declines as a field, what of textually focused departments such as philosophy, history, and classics? Can the study of the humanities survive in the age of electronic text, delivered in a broadbanded stream of Barthian lexia over the Internet?

Pessimists such as Sven Birkerts would say "no;" indeed, Birkerts (1994) ends his Gutenberg Elegies with a call to "refuse it." Birkerts is not alone, but he is a fine prose stylist in a cottage industry sprung up to attack the use of networked computers in education. Such polemics against technology have rich, inviting targets: some administrators, instructional designers, and early adopters among faculty who embrace the glibly millennial, and suspect, slogans of software and publishing companies with the latest "electronic classroom solution."

To wildly embrace such "solutions" or to "refuse it" out of hand seem equally wrong-headed. The former course may lead us to place technology ahead of pedagogy, while the latter course may lead us, as Richard Lanham (1993) states forcefully, to extinction:

We conceive the humanities as a pickle factory preserving human values too tender and inert for the outside world. The world goes its way but supports us, museumlike, to show what, had it been composed of people like us, it might have become. . . .The harsh world wants to imagine a finer world and we pretend to dwell in it. But our students and the society from which they come will not permit this illusion to continue unchanged; nor will a technology that has volatilized print; nor will our own thinking, our "theory," about what we are and do (p. 25).

Lanham makes it plain that for English Studies to survive as a vital field, it has be about more than just reading books; otherwise, like Steinway, "we may find ourselves making the pianos while someone else makes the music" (p. 26). Since Core is a text-heavy course that uses reading for other ends, I asked myself if the synchronous conferences might not improve skills larger in scope, and better linked to our university's strategic plan, than "just" reading: the abilities to discern, discuss, and write about complex ideas more carefully. Moreover, I wondered if critical reading and thinking could become so ingrained that students would talk about course material after class, use it seamlessly in papers, and talk more to each other than to me about ideas.

Those looking for a complete empirical study to answer these questions may be disappointed. My bean-counting of student comments was never intended as a formal statistical analysis of the data. I did meet a few of Hawisher's (1989) recommendations for a more longitudinal approach to such research; I studied students for more than a semester, and I was able to collect data during two different years of synchronous conferences. A major technical problem, involving Word Macro viruses that spread quickly on our campus network, kept me from collecting papers electronically the second year. Fortunately, the viruses did not affect the conferencing module of our software, and students reverted to submitting essays on paper. No matter how I collected and assessed the data, I knew that statistical precision would not sway my local audience: resistant colleagues. Instead, I hoped that any changes in students' work might inspire other teachers to experiment with technology while refuting charges of my apostasy toward "the book."

As readers explore this Web text, they will notice its "plain-vanilla" background and linear structure. Like the books read in Core, except for Nietzsche's work and the Tao Te Ching, this text follows a more linear notion of organization than do most Web texts, even my own Web-based syllabi. Readers can either follow a default link at the bottom of the page or surf around with the table of contents. Elsewhere, a few intertextual links provide more depth for a particular point or examples from students' conference transcripts, short responses, and papers. All students' names are used with their permission, except in the flaming section, where I employ pseudonyms to avoid embarrassing former students who will read this hypertext.

With few exceptions, the Web text lacks graphics. It would be interesting to include provocative multimedia fireworks like those of Mark Amerika's GRAMMATRON and the other wonders of the Alt-X Web site, but I steered clear of the temptation. My choices about navigation and graphics were deliberate, even "downright un-hip," as one C&C reviewer noted. To begin a much-needed rebuttal of Birkerts, I wanted not to push the envelope of postmodern hypertextuality, but to meet Birkerts on his own terms, as a fellow bibliophile, linear reader, and (dirty secret) Modernist who had a funky encounter with Surrealism a long time ago.

Hard Books, Deep Reading