Traditional notions of publication are clearly undergoing a massive change in the electronic age. New technologies, and internetworked communications in particular, have blurred the boundaries between the public and the private, the professional and the nonprofessional, the "published" and the "unpublished." Many of us, as teachers in the humanities (admittedly amidst concerns about intellectual property, shifting configurations of literacy, and our own roles in a new paradigm) have embraced the promise of at least one form of electronic publication: publishing our students. It feels a bit awkward to objectify students in that phrase; I am tempted to write instead, "publishing our students' work." But I wish to emphasize here publication-as-authorship, as a mode of composing subjects in specific ways. Indeed, publication is what Michel Foucault would call an authoring function, for it is a mechanism that shapes, constrains, allows, and excludes particular discourses; thus, publication shapes, constrains, allows, and excludes the people who own — and are owned by — those discourses (Foucault 1990).

As many of us in English studies have long recognized, discourse is epistemic: it both reflects and promotes particular ways of thinking about the world. Language "hails" users, interpolates them into specific socio-ideological subject positions. Such recognition has led to collaborative learning practices that seek to situate students in multivocal dialogues, conversations that simultaneously embody and enable differing discourses — and thus differing subject positions. Such conversations attempt to cut across social lines and academic hierarchies, revealing in the process the contingency and arbitrariness of those lines. Collaborative conversations in this vein reflect a democratic agenda characteristic of a liberal-arts education these days: namely, the goal of critiquing, questioning, or even resisting the discourses (and therefore the ideologies) of dominant cultures. In short, collaborative learning as I am here casting it seeks to resist cultural reproduction: what Pierre Bourdieu defines as the often invisible transmission and adoption of arbitrary values, styles, tastes, and discursive forms privileged by groups and/or classes in power (1977). Such resistance, arguably, is facilitated by versions of electronic publishing, specifically internetworked communications that enable students to represent themselves in public spheres alongside, within, and against competing and conflicting representations of others. Be it in the form of chatroom dialogue, listserv and discussion board posts, or personally authored Web pages, students are able to publish themselves, bypassing many of the traditional mechanisms for delimiting and determining such publication/representation.

Nevertheless, electronic communication also functions to construct students as willing subjects in service of cultural reproduction, often in ways that go unseen. Collaborative learning in the internetworked classroom can be as much a practice of reinscribing the values, styles, tastes, and discourses of dominant cultures as a practice of resisting or critiquing them. This may of course be stating the obvious; I am sure readers even cursorily familiar with electronic environments can readily imagine ways in which a class's online synchronous chat session can reproduce many of the traditional power relations and subject positions of mainstream academia, particularly when governed by specific rules of acceptable behavior and discourse explicitly prescribed by a teacher in an authoritarian fashion. What I wish to examine here, however, is what is not so obvious: I am concerned with the primarily invisible, beneath-the-surface authoring functions that are embedded in communication technologies and are enabled when we uncritically implement those technologies. I am concerned by the ways in which we construct our students' identities when we publish them — or have them publish themselves — in electronic environments that mediate as much as they facilitate.

My own political agenda at work here should be obvious. I believe the critique of dominant cultural discourses and power relations is a valuable pedagogical project. Moreover, I believe such critique needs to be integral to any teaching practices that strive toward social change or transformation of the status quo. If one goal of student collaboration and self-publication is to create an environment in which students from non-dominant cultures have a discursive forum and are able to more equally participate in (and thus affect) democratic exchanges, we need to examine the ways in which those forums and discourses may be constructing those students along dominant cultural lines.

"Many teachers using chat rooms with their students are initially amazed at the lack of control they have over the conversation"

I want, then, to accomplish two tasks in this article. First, I want to define collaborative learning as a pedagogical practice that can enable resistance to cultural reproduction through the critique of dominant cultural discourses as conventional, arbitrary, and privileged. In doing so I will draw on theories of cultural reproduction by such multidisciplinary scholars as Bakhtin, Pratt, and Foucault. I will also exemplify my vision of collaborative learning and, notably, demonstrate its potential within electronic environments, drawing on scholarship from the subdiscipline of computers and communication and from my own experiences in the internetworked classroom. My second task in this article will be to call into question that potential, again drawing on recent scholarship on computer-mediated pedagogy and examples from my own experience. For this task, I will examine closely the authoring functions embedded in certain communication technologies, functions that shape and constrain the subjects participating in their own publication. What I hope to model here is one way in which critique can function to inform pedagogical practices that seek social change rather than cultural reproduction.

Collaborative Learning as Resisting Cultural Reproduction

Taking the space to define collaborative learning as a practice of resisting cultural reproduction is worth doing here, for many scholars, particularly in the field of English studies, have come to see collaborative learning as a practice of assimilation. Indeed, collaborative-learning pioneer Kenneth Bruffee has been criticized for constructing a model of education that asks students to join the dominant culture rather than challenge or question it. See, for example, the critiques by Greg Myers (1986), John Trimbur (1989), Patricia Bizzell (1993), Xin Lu Gale (1996), and me (1999). In spite of such criticism, some valuable core tenets of Bruffee's work inform my own understanding of collaborative pedagogies. First and foremost, Bruffee wants to redefine traditional understandings of knowledge and authority in the classroom: he wants to subvert the hierarchies among teachers and students, and he wants to grant students access to the social construction of knowledge. Bruffee argues that this can be done through active problem-solving practices that facilitate student-generated knowledge. Such practices situate students in groups rather than rows, and they situate the instructor at the side of the room rather than at a podium Thus, Bruffee's work addresses what Bourdieu would see as one mode of cultural reproduction in education: the physical (and simultaneously ideological) space of the classroom in which authority and power are inscribed and maintained. In his emphasis on student-generated knowledge, Bruffee also works to construct collaboration as a practice that can demystify the knowledge that is often seen as objective rather than subjective, factual and static rather than socially constructed. Collaboration does not allow knowledge to be wielded in the service of power and domination; it is instead a form of what Bourdieu would call cultural capital.

The problem with Bruffee's model is that it is built upon consensus-making practices in both knowledge and discourse. Bruffee describes the goal of student collaboration as reacculturation, a process in which students are brought from disparate (and often marginalized) communities into traditional learning communities of "like-minded peers" marked and shaped by shared academic and disciplinary features, including discourse. Despite Bruffee's desire to empower students and subvert traditional hierarchies of knowledge and authority, his emphasis on reacculturation turns collaboration into a pedagogy of homogeneous conformity to the status quo. Bruffee addresses these critiques in the second edition of his book Collaborative Learning. He is steadfast in his resolution that "teaching the conflicts" is not productive in academia these days; he argues that consensus is a more ethical and useful goal, given the current omnipresence of social agonism, the kind of social conflict exemplified at Columbine High School that, in Bruffee's terms, "leaps graphically off the evening news" (1999, 255-7). Among his critics is rhetoric scholar Patricia Bizzell, who struggled for much of her career with the power and privilege embodied in and enabled by academic discourse. In her early work, Bizzell saw academic discourse as a means of empowerment; by training students in the language of the academy, English teachers would supposedly empower their students to think critically about discourse and the ways in which it forms them. What Bizzell eventually has come to see, however, is her own short-sighted privileging of academic discourse as "naturally" suited to such ways of thinking and learning. As Bourdieu and Passeron note in Reproduction: In Education, Society, and Culture (1977), a group's selection of appropriate or "worthy" discursive styles is arbitrary, for such selection "cannot be deduced from any universal principle, whether physical, biological or spiritual, not being linked by any sort of internal relation to 'the nature of things' or any 'human nature'" (8). In short, Bizzell eventually recognized her own interpolation by and tacit acceptance of academic discourse. By promoting a similar tacit acceptance among her students — certainly a practice of Bruffeean consensus-building both about language and through language — Bizzell was at one time contributing to cultural reproduction in seemingly collaborative forums.

In response to critiques of cultural reproduction in collaboration, John Trimbur has sought to redefine consensus in the collaborative-learning classroom as a rhetoric of dissensus — an agreement to disagree, given differing social positionalities and relations (1989). Trimbur labels such a view of consensus as dialogic, drawing on cultural critic and discourse scholar Mikhail Bakhtin. For Bakhtin, dialogism is a condition of being, an existence that involves three distinct and interrelated elements: the "I," the "other," and the relationship between them. Bakhtin favors such existence when it is marked by a "surplus of seeing," a condition in which individuals see themselves and others not as simple objects but as subjects always already defined through their discursive relations with one another (Holquist 1981, 33-9). Bakhtin's surplus of seeing is fostered in dialogue that is multivocal and intertextual — what he terms heteroglossia. As it is summarized by Trimbur, heteroglossia is a fluid plurality of competing, conflicting voices whose simultaneous coexistence serves to expose the constructedness of discourse and of the social relations maintained through discourse. Within such a state, the contingent nature of knowledge and power can be revealed and critiqued. Charles Bazerman (1994), a scholar of scientific discourse, has made similar claims, drawing on Bakhtin's exploration of carnival. According to Bakhtin, carnival functions to lay bare the artificiality and arbitrariness of social relations through the disorderly juxtaposition of differing subject positions. Such visions of social interaction are also shared by anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt (1991); her conception of the "contact zone" involves simultaneous conflict and dialogue across social boundaries. Pratt's work is explicitly dedicated to empowering marginalized groups and resisting dominant hegemonies.

Without belaboring the long list of scholar-teachers doing similar work in this area, I shall let the sources I have mentioned stand as background for my conception of collaborative learning. When I use the term collaboration, I envision the sort of heteroglossic environment I have been sketching above — one that sees students not just working together to solve and explore problems, but doing so within conditions that encourage dialogic interactions in a Bakhtinian sense. Such interactions can be considered democratic in that they enable a multiplicity of voices, promote more-equal access to the conversation, and create conditions for social agency. Importantly, by "social agency" I mean more than just the explication or critique of dominant cultural discourses. Such critical work can and should be a baseline, inevitable result of heteroglossic collaboration, but it should also inform and serve larger agendas — such as service-learning projects, for just one example — that might be described as "practical political action." Ellen Cushman (1996) has argued that service-learning projects are a means toward helping students become "agents of social change" by situating them as active participants in service organizations. Nonetheless, given what we have learned from cultural critics such as Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci about ideology and hegemony, students need also to understand the ways in which dominant cultural power relations are maintained through discourse; without such understanding, whatever practical political action students are engaged in may ultimately be undermined by their ideological consent to the status quo in academe. Resisting or critiquing a dominant discourse as culturally arbitrary, then, is not an end in and of itself; nor is collaboration. They are instead means toward more effective and more legitimate democratic pedagogies. Collaboration as I am defining it might best be considered "critical collaboration" for the ways in which it facilitates a necessary demystification of the relationship between discourse and power.

Electronic communication technologies have earned considerable praise for their seeming potential to facilitate such critical collaborative practices. For example, MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) and MOOs (Multiuser Object Oriented) (MU*s) have been honored for enabling heteroglossia: they encourage normally silent or marginalized students to publish — and thus voice — their perspectives, often alongside and against perspectives representative of the dominant culture. Further, like blind-review processes, MU*s can mask gender and race during electronic conversations, thereby allegedly preventing biased receptions of marginalized voices. The heteroglossic potential of MU*s is extended even further when we consider the way in which the publishing medium shapes the message; scholars have commented on the fractured, fragmentary text that comprises MU* publications, as well as the increased access they offer to traditionally privileged domains of discourse. For example, as Doug Hesse notes about a politically charged e-mail thread on a national electronic discussion group. "The issues under discussion [are] scrutinized from several perspectives, and new contingencies continually [destabilize] hegemonic positions" (1999, 46; see also Sharon Cogdill 1996). The result, then, is public discourse that potentially represents a kind of contact zone in action, where competing voices find equal publication in an explicitly intertextual environment that militates against the dominance of privileged positionalities.

"Exclusionary functions are embedded in the very design of the Internet and the software and hardware that grant (and control) our access"

Such collaborative potential is also prominent in software developed specifically for the computer-mediated classroom. In English studies, for instance, a host of course-management applications are being created and used for collaborative-writing classes. Daedalus, Connect.Net, and Commonspace are three such applications that bring together a number of functions that enable collaboration and self-publication, including e-mail and message-board functions, synchronous chatting, discussion boards, and e-conferencing. In addition, students using these programs also have easy access to one another's in-process drafts, a form of document sharing that facilitates the social construction — and deconstruction — of knowledge. On the appearance of such potential, and on the basis of utility, writing teachers are rapidly implementing these programs across the country. On their surface, the programs often do promote collaboration and self-publication in the promising ways described above. But beneath their surface, at levels too rarely scrutinized, they can undermine and even directly counter such promotion, constraining students' self-representations, determining who is allowed to voice their perspectives (or not), and reaffirming traditional social hierarchies. We need to look beyond the obvious and the apparent, beyond direct utilitarian functions to social and political functions that reside in interfaces, operating procedures, and other facets of electronic communication too often considered peripheral to our intellectual and pedagogical work. We need to critique technology in ways that are parallel to collaborative critiques of dominant discourses: by explicating indirect and routinely unseen ways in which power relations are maintained and political subjects are composed, we as teachers can begin to revise our classroom practices (and our uses of technology) to promote more legitimate democratic pedagogies.

New Technologies as Facilitators of Cultural Reproduction

Access is too often considered a peripheral matter in computer-mediated pedagogy. Charles Moran and Lester Faigley have both said as recently as 1999, that despite exponential increases in Internet access and computer equipment in higher education, a great many students are still restricted, even excluded, from equal participation in online learning environments. Beneath the appearance of the "easy access" to social dialogue and collaboration referenced above — beneath seeming access to publications of various perspectives — is a function of economic stratification that determines who gets to participate and, in turn, whose perspectives get voiced. Thus, when we talk in our classrooms and with our colleagues about internetworked collaborations with students across social boundaries, we need to be careful about claims of heterogeneity and contact-zone dialogics. Conversations that supposedly bring diverse voices into public spheres may not so much be examples of heteroglossia as examples of differences within shared socio-economic positions. By the time we are collaborating with each other and with our students in cyberspace, we have already eliminated from the conversation entire groups of people.

Even if economic stratification were not a problem, exclusionary functions are embedded in the very design of the Internet and the software and hardware that grant (and control) our access. As Philip Burns notes, there are "certain nondemocratic tendencies of the Internet itself" (1999 131). Drawing on recent scholarship, Burns articulates the extent to which online collaborations are determined by technological conditions:

[M]ost Internet browser and search engine interfaces are oriented toward information-retrieval rather than discussion (Selfe and Selfe 487); they encourage self-selected topics, resulting in "an intricate organizational structure of information routing, storage and retrieval that ultimately confines information to narrowly specific categories and subcategories" (Knapp 191-92); and virtual forums themselves tend to isolate discussions, fragmenting the public sphere into relatively homogeneous sites of narrowly focused discourse (Healy 62) (Burns 1999, 131).

Similarly, James Porter has criticized Howard Rheingold, well known for his vision of the Internet as a diverse community of electronic citizens. Porter writes that Rheingold's actual virtual community

is white and upper middle class, with the leisure time to surf the net. It is mostly male, mostly baby boomers and their offspring, mainly centered in the cultural space between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. They are technologically sophisticated yuppies [. . .]. They are, in Rheingold's own words, the "granola-eating utopians" (48). They are — not Rheingold's own words — the people who are most like Rheingold (Porter 1999, 232).

Thus, what Burns describes and Rheingold demonstrates is unfortunately what critics of Bruffee describe when they suggest that his brand of collaboration-through-consensus is a form of assimilation-through-conformity. Only in this case, the consensus is a function not just of teaching but also of technology, residing beneath a surface of what sometimes appears to be endless access to diversity and public representation.

In the previous section I referred to the "heteroglossic" potential of MU*s, suggesting that they can create an anarchic environment where normalized discursive conventions are continually destabilized, along with the power relations sustained by them. Synchronous chat sessions — an ephemeral version of electronic publication — often do appear, at least on the surface, to live up to such potential. Many teachers using chat rooms with their students are initially amazed at the lack of control they have over the conversation; the instructor's voice and authority appear to be reduced amidst a mass of scrolling student input. This happens to an even greater extent if the teacher and students are all using pseudonyms — a practice that indeed promises to remove many of the normalized markers of social positioning. It is thus not surprising to find an increasing number of software applications developed explicitly for collaborative classrooms to include chatroom options: those already mentioned — Daedalus, Commonspace, and Connect.Net for English studies — all include chat forums. So do a growing number of more general educational-software programs not specifically designed for writing instruction: WebCT and Blackboard are two such examples. The latter, Blackboard, is being used at my own institution by numerous English instructors, partly because the university has a site license for it and partly because it is easy to use; teachers with little or no technological knowledge can host an entire course online with just a Web browser. They need no skills in HTML coding for building Web pages, nor do they need to understand how to build MU*s; everything is constructed via templates for them.

"When we ask how we might use technology in the collaborative classroom, we need to also ask how it might use us"

The problem, however, is what is constructed for them. In the case of the chat feature on Blackboard, a number of authorial functions are built in that serve to directly counter the supposed anarchy inherent in virtual synchronous discussions. In an early version of Blackboard (2.0), both the teacher and the students connected to the chat room by using a pseudonym, and all had equal access to a few basic features such as sending and receiving private messages and being able to log the entire transcript of the session to analyze later. (While Blackboard 2.0 did not have a built-in "logging" feature, users could nonetheless "copy and paste" the entire transcript into a word-processing program.) A more recent version of Blackboard (3.0) has eliminated the pseudonym option. Teachers and students in this version are clearly represented as themselves in chat. Moreover, the teacher's chat room now looks substantially different than the students'. It features a control panel (an appropriate term), upon which are buttons that enable the teacher to restrict "floor access" to particular speakers, to eject unruly participants altogether, and to grant or deny requests for various interactions. Regardless of what the teacher wants to do in this environment, he or she is authored to be an authoritarian. The contact zone that might have been is now an even more restrictive environment than a traditional classroom. At least in a face-to-face environment an unruly student can disrupt the process by butting into the conversation, by demonstrating frustration, or by signaling to others his or her silenced position. In the chat space on Blackboard, an unruly or resistant student can be simply ejected — an interaction seen only by that student and the teacher — while the conversation continues essentially uninterrupted. The exercise of authority is concealed. Moreover, the encouragement of such authority is similarly subtle: a point-and-click option on an orderly control panel is painless, simple, clean. An instructor who might feel the discomfort of being challenged in a face-to-face situation no longer needs to. A primary tenet of collaborative learning, then — the reduction of the student-teacher hierarchy — is countered in the very design of Blackboard, which composes both teachers and students along traditionally sanctioned social lines.

Foucault considers technology to be a determinant of power, rather than a tool of power. John Fiske says that Foucault describes a "bottom-up" process of power (1992, 161), in which social relations are constructed out of the multitude of "micro-technologies" that "produce, organize, and control social differences" (161). For Foucault, a work station in a factory controls an individual's body and behaviors much as discourse control's an individual's position and behaviors. Moreover, technologies like work stations in factories (or workstations on desks) are indiscriminate: they affect even those with the greatest social power. Similarly the networked environment in education is a technology of power, a means of inscribing behaviors and ordering social relations, usually in accordance with dominant cultural values. Indeed, the power of this environment is greater because it is concealed behind technology and education, and thus is an enormously potent force for cultural reproduction.

Such authoring functions are not restricted to Blackboard. Norton's Connect.Net, for example, promises collaboration by allowing students to publish documents online, where they can be read and responded to by other students and the teacher — collaborative transactions across somewhat differing subject positions and definite hierarchical lines. The teacher is able to download such documents into a word-processing program, respond to them directly in their margins and/or text, and then return them to their authors. This process is "facilitated" by "grading remark buttons" — small icons that can be inserted into the student's document that, when clicked on, reveal teacherly feedback. According to the online brochure for Connect.Net, these stock buttons "contain your most common annotations." How the makers of Connect.Net know what my most common annotations are is beyond me. Of course they do not, really. Rather, what they know are typical responses that supposedly cut across a multiplicity of genres, rhetorical situations, and writing styles. The grading remark buttons, not surprisingly, are either reductive, strictly grammatical, or both. A few examples: "Good"; "Revise indicated text"; "Expand indicated text"; "Delete indicated text"; "Sentence boundary problem"; and "Mechanical error." In fact, such prescribed remarks do not effectively cut across a multiplicity of genres, rhetorical situations, and styles; instead they deny that multiplicity and enforce artificial homogeneity. Whether "indicated text" should be expanded, deleted, revised, or left alone depends upon the subject, the reader, and — notably — the positionality embodied and revealed in the writer's stance and discursive form; there is no room to embed such contingency in the prescribed markers.

Nor is there room for questioning. The teacher's authority is reinforced simply through the imperative form of the remarks. There is a distinct absence of buttons that might invite dialogue. A button could read, for example, "Your style here is distinctly different from the norm; is this intentional?" or "Why this word choice?" or even "I'd like to know more about this." But they do not. Thus, the teacher's expectations, the reasoning behind comments, and even the questions that might deconstruct his or her own authority or invoke the context surrounding publication remain unstated. In turn, the student's positionality remains unaddressed. The interface in Connect.Net, then, facilitates what Trimbur has called "a rhetoric of deproduction," a form of writing — in this case written response — that serves to erase any sign that the discourse was produced by a human being (1989, 79). To be fair, Connect.Net does offer blank grading-remark buttons that can be individually created, as well as a button that will allow the teacher to insert fully formed contextualized remarks. But it is difficult to ignore the authoring function at work here. As one enthusiastic user of Connect.Net has written, "Online grading is much more efficient for both instructor and student. I can save time by clicking on the handbook or "Sentence boundary problem' icon instead of typing 'This is a fragment'" (Ellison 2000). Expediency is indeed seductive, but it comes with a price — in this case the loss of dialogic collaboration between teachers and students and a form of publication shaped by homogenizing functions.

Other homogenizing tendencies of Blackboard and Connect.Net are even less obvious (and thus, perhaps, more dangerous). For example, beyond the functionality of Blackboard is the way in which it is represented. Blackboard clearly invokes the metaphor of the classroom — or more specifically of the front of the classroom. Traditionally the blackboard is the teacher's space, where his or her knowledge and discourse are displayed for the students to internalize, a relationship embodied and transmitted simply in the software's name. And like most software applications today, Blackboard and Connect.Net are accessed by a user's going to his or her computer's desktop and opening folders. Metaphors of a universalized corporate world — a significant and undeniable embodiment of America's dominant culture — abound in new technologies. When we ask our students (and ourselves) to unwittingly and unreflexively subscribe to those metaphors, we are continuing to reproduce the dominant culture, despite intentions otherwise. These observations may seem a stretch to some, but as Bourdieu would note, such taken-for-granted metaphors exemplify at least one way in which a group's or class's culture is defined: through regular selection and exclusion that treats as worthy certain routinely inculcated meanings, and as unworthy all else.


I do not wish to imply here that teachers have lost all agency, that they are at the mercy of new technologies' designs and operating procedures. It is true that technology can engender an unseen shift in agency, a subtle but sure transition of power away from the user and onto the technology itself. But it is also true that teachers can turn an authoring function into an empowering learning experience. Teachers in traditional classrooms have worked to enable critiques of dominant cultural discourses through configurations of collaboration; I believe that we are similarly able to embed within our teaching practices reflexive critiques of the technologies we are using. We can, with our students, interrogate the medium as well as the message; but we can do so only if we ourselves have some inclination that normalized, routine applications of technology are not apolitical or neutral, that they are instead inevitable technologies of power in a Foucauldian sense and technologies of cultural reproduction in a Bourdieuian sense. Before we rush headlong, then, into an embrace with new technologies for their seeming ability to broaden the public domain, to facilitate the publication of marginalized discourses and in turn the deconstruction of dominant cultural discourses, we need to do a critical double-take. We need to look beyond the immediate utility of electronic communication technologies and examine the ways in which they shape and constrain our selves, our representations of our subject positions, our acquiescence or resistance to the status quo. In short, when we ask how we might use technology in the collaborative classroom, we need to also ask how it might use us.

Darin Payne is a doctoral candidate in the Rhetoric,Composition, and the Teaching of English program at the University of Arizona. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina, where he serves as a consultant to the English Department in computer-mediated pedagogy; in that capacity, he is also founder and co-director of USC's Program for Incorporating New Technologies in English (PINTE). His primary interests include collaborative learning, new technologies, and cultural reproduction. He has published in a variety of regional and national journals, including JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory and Rhetoric Review. He is founder and editor of The Contact Zone, a Webzine that he founded and edits. The contributors are the students in his Advanced Composition course. He is defending his dissertation this fall. His Web page is at His e-mail address is [Editor's note: Some of these links were updated April 2002.]

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Darin Payne may be reached by e-mail at