Who's On Line? Gender Morphing in CyberspaceSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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As women rhetoricians enter the newest forum for discursive practices, the ever-expanding world of on-line communities and discourse, they are accompanied by shifting definitions of rhetoric and authorship. "Information age rhetoricians," Susan Romano argues, "newly theorize subjectivity as a process of morphing, or to use another metaphor, as the recombination of social identities" (1999, 250). Feminists are divided about the potential and promise of such on-line subjectivities.
Initial reports from pedagogical studies were hopeful, emphasizing the positive aspects of electronic writing for women's discursive authority. On-line writing was said to encourage quiet students to participate, to foster a greater sense of classroom community, and to encourage less leader-centered participation, all of which were seen as conducive to women's equal on-line authority and participation (Hawisher and Selfe 1993).
Such early optimism, however, has given way to more discouraging studies, such as a recent analysis of on-line discourse by Sullivan and Hawisher (1997), which suggests that women on line make fewer and shorter contributions, and that both men and women respond more frequently to men's postings, thus reinforcing women's off-line status. Similarly, analyses of on-line participation in non-educational settings such as chat groups suggest that women, even when men and women choose to mask gender through the use of pseudonyms, remain vulnerable to harassment, violence, and deception.
In this article I examine women's use of gender-masked or male pseudonyms in educational settings, specifically by students in my Spring 2000 graduate seminar on "Computers and Writing." In order to better understand the rhetorical effectiveness of women's discursive practices on line, we need to critically examine our new "morphing" subjectivities on line for their potential for both women's empowerment and disempowerment.
Temporary Identities through MOOs and MUDs
In her recent article "On Becoming a Woman: Pedagogies of the Self," Romano argues that future historians examining 21st century writing will conclude that the definition of literacy on which teaching electronic writing is predicated will have included a postmodern notion of invented, variable, flexible and fluid selves — which allow for multiple identities that can collide with and contradict one another (1999, 249). Electronic media, such as MUDs and MOOs, do offer students a bewildering array of temporary identity constructions through the use of pseudonyms, which allow students to shift identities in class, race, gender, age, and nationality, to take on living or historical or fictional identities, or to even borrow the identity of other students or the teacher. In addition, educational MOOs, such as the now well-known LinguaMOO [formerly http://lingua.utdallas.edu] (see the recently published text, MOOniversity (Haynes and Holmevik 2000)), enable and often prompt students to "set" their gender; at LinguaMOO, students are asked to choose from among masculine, feminine, neuter, spivak, and royal. (The last two options are gender-neutral personas that have special pronouns in the MOO world.) A female student entering this discursive domain could choose the masculine pseudonym of "Andrew," set her gender as neuter, and join a conversation; she could then later exit the MOO, reappearing under the gender neutral name "Pat" and resetting her gender as masculine. To describe this new malleable and multifaceted form of identity construction, rhetoricians of the technological age use the term "morphing."
Of what pedagogical value is such morphing in writing classes? From the perspective of many contemporary rhetoric and composition teachers, morphing can increase students' ability to understand subject positions and receptions by others that may normally be unfamiliar to them due to differences in class, race, age, and gender. From a literary-studies perspective, morphing can allow students to take on the identities of fictitious characters or of authors, thereby coming to a deeper understanding of assigned texts. Indeed, there are many possibilities for writing teachers to effectively link student "morphing" to a variety of curricular goals in English studies. Regardless of the specific goals, however, teachers need to not lose sight of the complicated nature of such identification practices. As Romano discusses, early research on the pedagogical value of student morphing suggested that the use of pseudonyms could serve to "'out' a formerly hidden or inhibited self through language" and that pseudonymity could enable the construction of multiple selves through language (1999, 254). Early experimenters with MOOs, such as Faigley (1992), extolled these possibilities unproblematically, seeing in students' chat transcripts evidence of increased participation and playfulness (Daedalus Interchange 1988). Later researchers of Faigley's transcripts have found evidence in the same dialogues for very different conclusions. For example, Cooper (1999) questions Faigley's self-described lack of pedagogical power and authority in virtual chat classrooms; rather than seeing these virtual spaces as liberatory spaces for student voices, as Faigley does, Cooper instead finds evidence in the students' collective wrangling with ethical issues in their chat sessions of a postmodern form of shared power that occurs in relationship with others.
"It may take many more years of experimentation with on-line pseudonymous conversation for female participants to substantively alter the way they use language"
From my own experience, I can vouch for the difficulties in interpreting such transcripts. My experience in a classroom chat session, as the professor, as a woman, and as a relatively slow typist, is not the same experience as that of a male graduate student who feels frustrated by the clamor of on-line voices and therefore asserts his directions more thoroughly in order provide structure or order. Nor is my experience the same as that of a female graduate student who initially takes on the role of mediator and connector between participants, yet in a later chat abandons this role in order to be able to ask her own questions more pointedly, only to quit in frustration when she feels her questions are not being heard or responded to.
My students experience our chat sessions in ways that are unknowable to me, even with transcripts, unless they choose to share their perspectives with me. Even in-depth follow-up interviews may not provide a space removed enough from grade considerations and other power dynamics for my graduate students to feel comfortable fully articulating their experience. So it is with these significant caveats that I offer the excerpts from recent MOO sessions for analysis and discussion.
Gender Dynamics in Chat Sessions
The following excerpts are taken from an optional virtual chat session that took place on February 4, 2000 at LinguaMOO. There were eleven participants — six women and five men. There was one professor (me), a visiting assistant professor, and an academic professional; thus there were eight graduate students ranging from first-year M.A. students to A.B.D.s working on their dissertations. Only one of eleven participants, a female graduate student, chose an explicitly female pseudonym. Three of the remaining female participants chose gender-neutral or gender-masked pseudonyms, one chose a male pseudonym and then later morphed to a gender-neutral pseudonym, and one chose a male pseudonym throughout. Three of the male participants chose gender-neutral pseudonyms; the remaining two chose male pseudonyms. Thus all participants, regardless of gender, showed a preference for gender-neutral or male pseudonyms in an academic on-line setting.
There are numerous ways to analyze this chat session for gender dynamics, far more than I have room for here. Some possibilities include analyses of how discursive authority was constructed and whether male and female participants were equally able to access it (including whether their choices of pseudonym played a part in their constructions of authority on line), analyses of pedagogical authority and gender dynamics, and analyses of quantity and frequency of particular social speech acts on line. For this article, I have decided to concentrate on the frequency of using language to form social connections according to conformity to expectations of gender performance. Sociolinguists Foss and Cameron are two among many feminist scholars who have done extensive research showing that in off-line conversations women, because of their diminished access to power in a patriarchal society, are more likely to attempt to make social connections through language, using physical gestures such as nodding and smiling, and linguistics tags, which serve to show agreement and foster community. If the argument of information-age rhetoricians that pseudonymity provides female students with egalitarian spaces for conversation is correct, then one would expect such tags, both linguistic and physical, to be less frequent or to disappear altogether in virtual chat environments. For the purposes of this discussion, I decided to compare the female and the male participants' use of language to foster social connection and community; I wanted to see whether the use of gender-neutral, gender-masked, or male pseudonyms encouraged women to shed their off-line roles.
A portion of the 75-minute transcript, taken from page four, occurs some time after Canuck, a gender-masked male whose identity was known to everyone in the chat session, had disconnected. The conversation is about the participants' experiences teaching in computerized classrooms — in conjunction with my graduate course — for the first time. Female participants took the following pseudonyms in this excerpt: Maginsky, Becr8ive, MsBucket, and Thoreau.
Maginsky says: "Yo, Canuck — wake up!"
Becr8ive says: "good point, Basil."
MsBucket says: "I thought Canuck left."
Southtown says: "MsBucket: They'd probably be more prepared for it, if they have forewarning, maybe less resistant."
The housekeeper arrives to cart Canuck off to bed.
Basil says: "I mean that my students have inadequate backgrounds to be in college, and USC will lower the standards to meet them. State schools are pretty cheap. Really (most spend multiples on their car what they spend on tuition) But they are unprepared for what they are getting into."
Thoreau says: "Canuck CHANGED"
MsBucket says: "yes, ST, you know, there was a little blurb on the VIP when students registered."
Southtown says: "Based on the housekeeper bit, Canuck has."
Fried eggs says: "MsBucket makes a good point, but she also reveals the extent to which we have normalized computer use — there is no question there about whether or not we SHOULD."
Bobby says: "Yet expectations can have positive and negative effects. Computer anxiety instead of text anxiety."
Maginsky says: "Didn't know that MSB."
In this short sample, out of six posts by female participants, all six work to foster community. The female participants, regardless of the gender of their pseudonyms, explicitly work to make sure that all participants are included. There is a fair amount of discussion among the female participants (Maginsky, MsBucket, and Thoreau) about Canuck's disappearance, and they are willing to forego focusing on the topic of discussion in order to determine his whereabouts. Meanwhile the men for the most part (Basil, Bobby, and Fried eggs) ignore Canuck's absence and instead choose to carry on with issues more obviously pertinent to the content of our graduate seminar. Of the six female posts to this chat, three use explicit tags such as "good point, Basil" or "yes, ST" to encourage other students about the value of their responses. Only one of the male participants, Southtown, works to acknowledge other participants in this excerpt. I have found this sample to be representative of the rest of the transcript, in which female participants more often express concerns about other student's on-line participation and include more linguistic tags to acknowledge their contributions.
Thus from this chat session, which included numerous exchanges similar to the one above, I recognize that taking on gender-neutral or male pseudonyms in virtual chatrooms does not necessarily mean that women will use language differently than they do when their female identities are not hidden. However, the fact that the female participants in this chat session did not substantively change their speech patterns from what is typical of women's off-line discourse does not mean that virtual spaces are oppressive to women or that there is no potential for such spaces to become the egalitarian fora that scholars like Hawisher and Selfe (1993) have hoped for. That these women spoke on line very similarly to the way women often interact off-line can be seen as a testament to how powerful off-line expectations of conformity to gendered roles are. In other words, on-line women may not look like women but nevertheless act like women. It may take many more years of experimentation with on-line pseudonymous conversation for female participants to substantively alter the way they use language. Or it may be that the sexism that exists off-line will always be able to invade cyberspace, despite women's attempts to mask or morph their gendered identities. As we continue to critically examine our new "morphing" subjectivities on line for their potential for both women's empowerment and disempowerment, we will learn just how complex a goal it is for feminists to make virtual space a safe space for women.
Indeed on-line conformity to traditional gendered uses of language indicates, if nothing else, that the use of gender-neutral or gender-masked pseudonyms by women is influenced by prevailing notions of gender roles in ways that prevent women from experiencing the full freedoms such technological capacities might initially suggest. Those prevailing notions and that influence can in fact go even further than limiting "full freedom": although I never encountered misogynist, racist, or homophobic discourse in the on-line chatrooms in my graduate seminar, instances of such language use have been documented in recent scholarship (Boese 1999); instances were also reported to me by some of my graduate students who experimented with the use of pseudonyms in on-line chats in their first-year composition courses.
In "A Virtual Locker Room in Classroom Chat Spaces: The Politics of Men as 'Other'," Boese (1999) discusses her pedagogical response to on-line interchanges that are degrading to women, specifically those posted pseudonymously by men in an all-male environment, a virtual arena Boese terms a "virtual locker room." She asks: "Why would I want to have students participate in an activity that generates oppressive, hegemonic, sexist, racist, and homophobic atmospheres? How could this possibly align with my goals for feminist and critical pedagogies?" (220) Boese then answers by describing the pedagogical benefits of bringing transcripts of the on-line discussions for the students to discuss and analyze. She concludes that:
seemingly oppressive electronic forums can have an important consciousness-raising function in a writing classroom, illustrating the subtle effects of sexist, racist, and homophobic language more dramatically than position papers on pronoun usage and social oppression alone. [C]lasswork analyzing how communication in these spaces can silence and empower different groups and individuals will become a valuable step in changing the existing cultures that are reflected in the electronic forums (221).
Similarly, I found that simply discussing discoveries of gendered-language use in our chat sessions with my graduate students changed their awareness levels and future practices. For example, when I shared my analyses of the above excerpt with my graduate students, an in-class face-to-face discussion ensued about the rhetorical choices of each participant, the influencing factors in these decisions, and the possibilities for creating guidelines or rules for ethical discursive action on line.
Playing With Genders
In a chat session following our in-class analyses of gender dynamics in our MOO sessions, a male student chose a female-gendered pseudonym — "Daisy" — for the first time. The following chat session took place on March 20, 2000. There were eight participants including five graduate students (two female and three male), one female professor, one male visiting assistant professor, and a guest participant — James Porter, a male professor from Case Western Research university whose book, Rhetorical Ethics and Internetworked Writing (1998), my students had read for my course. In the excerpts below we can see that this male student not only took on a female pseudonym but also chose to perform the traditional role of a female as he perceived it, adding linguistic tags, empathizing comments, and making free use of the emote functions.
Daisy00 says, "Hi everyone"
Daisy00 says, "hi jimp" jimp says, "I mean people like Jesse Lemisch and Mike Godwin, chief counsel for EFF."
Canuck says, "That begs a lot of definitions — like "free" and "constrained""
Daisy00 says, "I tend to lean in that direction, too, Jimp"
Daisy00 says, "Hank, how did the posting violate the student code?"
McDougall says, "Hank—Do you now feel that some of your actions were unethical? By what standards? Do you draw from Dr. Porter's book to reassess your actions? How?"
jimp says, "there's a difference between 'open listserv' and 'class list for pedagogical purposes,' I would say."
jimp says, "do we have to be collegial and respectful of each other? Jesse Lemisch, for one, thinks collegiality is a bad idea."
froggy says, "but it was worse to hear one student as "What does this have to do with us? Why look at it, we can't DO anything about it."
Canuck says, ""What's collegiality?""
Daisy00 says, "And, jimp, that situation occurs in the "old" classroom, as well."
jimp says, "daisy: sure, but in the old classroom, the teacher has nearly absolute power, legally that is."
Daisy00 says, "True"
I asked this student about his choices to use a female pseudonym and his accompanying language practices in a follow-up class discussion. He explained his intent to add more variety to the expression of voices and his desire to break down some of the differences in language use along gendered lines. Interestingly this student, perhaps unwittingly, perpetuated traditional conformity to gendered roles in language use by performing as a woman in conventionally feminine ways. In the above excerpts he performs the traditional role of a woman in off-line conversation: he greets the group, welcomes newcomers, and acknowledges contributions. In short his responses work to include and to create connections, thus performing the social role typically perceived as women's work in conversation.
The conversation takes an unexpected twist, however, when another male participant responds to this male student's female pseudonym as if the presence he encountered on-line were indeed female. Note the following excerpt:
jimp says, "on electronic class list, the border between 'classroom' and 'public space' can be trickier ... as Hank's scenario points up."
Southtown says, "What's wrong with having them respect each other? You can't get anything done if everyone thinks everyone else is an idiot and not worth listening to."
elvis says, "good time for release forms in the classroom. "
Daisy00 says, "but the possibility of offending and being offended is there."
Daisy00 says, "I've wondered about that sometimes, elvis. Not release forms, but warnings to students."
elvis says, "if we don't teach them what to expect in the real world who will. Thanks Daisy, nice shorts."
Canuck says, "one of the differences between old and online classes, though, is that (supposedly) discourse is less "authored" by the teacher's authoritarian presence in electronic mdia. That strikes me as a nice centrifugal force (in Bakhtinian terms). But of course, it then begs a centripetal reaction, which seems to be the ethical standard—a la release forms, warnings, etc. "
froggy says, "yes ST, I agree, but I am still thinking that some exposure to offense can be beneficial..."
jimp says, "like the psych TA at Michigan a few years back, who taught that men were smarter than women ... he ran afoul of the university speech code, but was vindicated."
As a participant in this on-line exchange, I did not notice or acknowledge this instance of sexism when it occurred. The conversation had been almost exclusively focused on ethical standards for on-line discussion in electronic writing classrooms, with no joking, asides, or meandering off the topic. I did notice Daisy "blushing" and had initially interpreted it as a response to jimp's preceding comments about a Michigan TA who argued that men are smarter than women. It was not until I read the printed transcript that I noticed Elvis's comments amidst all the intellectual discussion: "Thanks Daisy, nice shorts." Although I never asked the student to explain the comment, I am left guessing that it was an allusion to the revealing shorts worn by Catherine Bach's character "Daisy Duke" on the late-70's television series, "The Dukes of Hazard." Bach was, without question, a sex symbol of the time, appearing as a pin-up girl in countless wall posters. Thus sexuality is introduced into our chat session, acknowledged by Daisy, but not discussed by other members. However, once attention has been given to Daisy as a gendered female presence on-line, other participants respond to "her" in a similar manner:
Hank says, "in order to act, one must first read, daisy?"
froggy says, "Daisy, do you take a Rorty stance?"
elvis says, "Southtown: i was not talking about the student, but rather, us. I think that we are so unsure what to do."
froggy says, "the committed ironist? (from Ch. 7)"
Daisy00 says, "That would be nice, hank. But I don't think so."
Southtown says, "sorry."
Canuck says, "Can we have a collaborative ethic? One that involves students as stakeholders, so that they're writing the conduct that they're beholden to?"
jimp says, "my problem, maybe every academic's problem, is the move from critical reflection to ACTION. We tend to admire the former and distrust the latter."
Hank grins at Daisy.
Emoting functions, such as nodding, smiling and blushing were used very rarely by male participants, so Hank's choice to "grin" at Daisy in this instance is unusual. Additionally, one wonders if "Hank," a male student off-line, would have chosen to grin at a participant using a male pseudonym. Thus in the one instance among three chat sessions that a student chose a female pseudonym, there occurred also the only instance of a participant responding in a clearly sexualizing manner to another participant and thereby perhaps encouraging other participants to do so as well.
Although I will continue to teach while making use of the new technologies available to me, I do so with an increasing awareness of how problematic electronic spaces can be as tools for feminist approaches to writing pedagogy. It is clear to me that the ability to mask one's off-line gendered identity and to "morph" among various gender instructions does not necessarily empower women or create safer spaces for them. Rather, these on-line experiments present a bewildering array of possibilities to learn more about how the power of sexism, racism, and homophobia persist despite even our most conscious attempts to eradicate them. For these reasons, I will continue to implement and research the pedagogical use of pseudonymous electronic conversation, hoping that the new electronic fora can continue to teach me and my students about centuries-old beliefs and worldviews that continue to shape women's discursive authority, both off and on line.
Daphne Desser earned a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in 1999. She is now an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, where she recently taught a graduate seminar on "Computers and Writing" (English 890); the course investigated the pedagogical possibilities, theoretical implications, and administrative issues associated with electronic writing. She co-directs the university's Program for Incorporating New Technologies in English (PINTE), educating teaching assistants and faculty members in ways to effectively integrate computers in their English curricula. She may be reached at email@example.com.
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Link from this article
LinguaMOO [formerly http://lingua.utdallas.edu]