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Book Chapter: The Virtual Locker Room in Classroom Electronic Chat Spaces: The Politics of Men as Other

PDF: Feminist Cyberscapes: Virtual Locker Room in Classroom Electronic Chat Spaces

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The Virtual Locker Room in Classroom Electronic Chat Spaces: The Politics of Men as Other

This research first appeared as a chapter in the following peer-reviewed book:

Boese, C. (1999). The Virtual Locker Room in Classroom Electronic Chat Spaces:
The Politics of Men as Other. In P. Takayoshi & K. Blair (Eds.), Feminist Cyberscapes: Mapping Gendered Academic Spaces. Ablex Publishers.

By Christine Boese, Ph.D.

 

With the increased use of electronic classrooms, collaborative software tools, and the Internet with its interactive forums, a great deal of scholarly speculation has turned to new social contexts this technology may create.  Many have suggested that electronic tools and forums have a democratizing influence, at least for those granted access (Bolter 1991, Flores 1990, Selfe 1990, Selfe & Selfe 1994). Some feminist theorists have recently examined this assumption in light of the ways women and men participate in news groups on the Internet, and have found subtle effects of “silencing,” a de facto kind of censorship which seems to reinforce inequalities of power and influence based on gender (Herring 1993, Herring 1992, Herring, Johnson, & Dibenedetto 1992).  While many teachers of introductory writing classes are turning to feminist pedagogies (Jarratt 1992, Hollis 1992, Eichhorn et al 1992), others are incorporating features of feminist and radical pedagogies into computer versions of writing classes (Selfe & Selfe 1994, Selfe 1990).

At issue then is whether these computer forums can serve the goals of various feminist pedagogical practices in writing classrooms.  Is this technology fair and democratizing, or is it simply a forum which reproduces the biases and inequalities of the dominant society, despite anonymity and equal access to the “conversational floor?”  And if the answer is the latter, does that mean that the technology is unsuitable for use by teachers employing feminist pedagogies?  Should feminist
teachers be using a computer tool which allows men to continue to dominate and oppress women?

To examine these questions, I brought synchronous conferences or chat rooms into my electronic classroom, incorporating the forums into prewriting activities and peer review sessions.  Due to unusual circumstances of registration in 1994, I was able to compare variables of gender in electronic chats for pedagogical purposes, with interesting results for rhetoric and composition research as well.

I held four comparative real-time electronic conferences, two simultaneously in the same class in Spring Semester 1994, and two simultaneously in the same class in Fall Semester 1994.  Each conference occurred in connection with the same assignment in an electronic classroom section of Expository Writing: Language and Culture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  Each semester the class was divided into conference groups of approximately six to seven members. One group used their real first names and one group used anonymous nicknames.

Because Rensselaer is an eighty percent male engineering school, there was only one woman regularly attending my class both in the spring and the fall semesters.  In Spring 1994, the woman participated in the Real Name Group.  In Fall 1994, the woman participated in the Nickname Group.

Each semester two distinct types of virtual cultures emerged, independent of a condition of anonymity.  One became an inflammatory, abusive, sexist, racist, and homophobic environment, the Virtual Locker Room, while the other remained serious and focused in its discussion.  Each semester the differentiating factor appeared to be the known absence or presence of a woman in the group.

Captured texts of the conferences and student journal responses afterward reveal how the Virtual Locker Room culture was created, and show how gendered communication was affected by the absence or presence of one woman, who became a “normalizing” force in the online culture.  For a feminist frame to examine these texts, I want to look at this electronic communication by men as something “Other,” putting a reverse spin on conventional assumptions of alterity.

I also want to consider whether such an exercise has any classroom value, and whether the electronic forums can be productively integrated with the ideals of feminist pedagogies.  In this class, the discussion and introspection generated from an oppressive locker room atmosphere provided a gateway to higher understanding of the politicized contexts of language and culture.  Particularly interesting was how nearly all-male classes responded to their own debate texts as course readings, analyzing the culture space they had created in ways which are consistent with the goals of most feminist pedagogies.  My research, then, validates a contradiction between the egalitarian ideals for CMC and the effects of conflict in computer-mediated spaces, and uses this contradiction directly, for feminist, consciousness-raising purposes.

Teachers as Technology Critics

In  College Composition and Communication, Cynthia and Richard Selfe call for teachers to step back from “overoptimistic ways” of embracing computer-assisted pedagogy, to the end of helping “teachers identify some of the effects of domination and colonialism associated with computer use so that they can establish a new discursive territory with which to understand the relationships between technology and education” (Selfe & Selfe 1994).  In bringing teachers into a role of technology critics, the Selfes point to a growing understanding that while teachers may have high-minded, liberal democratic goals, they may be promoting racism, sexism, and colonialism inadvertently along with the technology.  One may even speculate that there is something intrinsically imperializing about the technology (Winner 1977).  Indeed, many teachers such as Lester Faigley (1992) and others have commented on how online discourse degenerates into juvenile gibberish and obscenity in student-centered chat spaces. But I wasn’t ready to dismiss this discourse so easily.  In the interests of greater intellectual reflection and understanding of the “cultural and ideological characteristic of technology” (Selfe & Selfe, 1994a), I decided to explore the Virtual Locker Room when it appeared in my classes.

In other research, Cynthia and Richard Selfe have noted an oppressive presence of the State, or the military-industrial complex, in shaping computer culture-spaces, and have suggested that democratic social action in these virtual spaces is actually a subversive activity, one possibly best undertaken by “feminist cyborg nomadic guerrillas” (Selfe & Selfe, 1994b) to work against “the logics and practices of domination” (Haraway, 1990). But most of the rhetoric surrounding electronic discourse communities is closer to utopian optimism, looking to the advantages of information sharing, networking, egalitarian access to forums and conversations (although access to the technology itself is unfolding in ways which perpetuate an elitism of computer haves against have-nots), higher levels of literacy and semiotic thought (Bolter, 1991), the overthrow of traditional and textual authorities, and nonlinear or nonhierarchial relationships. In Bolter’s “network culture,” disintegrating hierarchies lead to “greater and greater freedom of action” in accord with “the goals of liberal democracy” (232) where “[o]ur whole society is taking on the provisional character of a hypertext: it is rewriting itself for each individual member” (233).

Meanwhile, some significant doubts have been raised by Susan Herring and her collaborators in an analysis of gendered discourse in Internet newsgroups.  These studies seem to show that gender domination and sexist bias perpetuate themselves in these supposedly egalitarian cyberspaces (Herring, Johnson, & Dibenedetto, 1992; Herring, 1992; Herring, 1993).  Although access to the “conversational floor” is open to all group members, Herring’s more detailed look at two specific discussions in two different Internet newsgroups, LINGUIST and Megabyte University,  shows that domination by male group members remains consistent.  At points in the discussion where women did assert themselves in greater numbers (often using qualifiers and hedge words), group backlash was immediate and silencing, with threats from some male members to unsubscribe from the list.

Without going into detail on Herring’s studies here, I think we can find aspects of democratizing assumptions which relate directly to the cultural climate created in the electronic chat space by my virtually all-male class. We can do this in light of the formal “rules of reason” advocated by Habermas  (qted in Ess 1996) as necessary qualifications for “a discourse to be truly democratic” (Herring, 1993). These rules cover “internal and external coercion” as a form of censorship which prevents a democratic exchange of ideas.  If computer forum members can be internally coerced by electronic social structures not to participate even when they have access, and if we can call this censorship, then these electronic forums cannot be truly democratic.  In applying this criterion, we are allowed to look past the simple matter that all members have equal opportunities to post messages to Internet newsgroups, and to begin to consider the cultural dynamics created in the virtual spaces of the group discourse.

Feminist Frame for Analysis

In order to examine the effects of gendered communication in these captured chats, I want to locate myself in the taxonomy of Spitzack and Carter’s “five conceptualizations of women that are present in communications research,” (1987).  Tracing the evolution of communication scholarship on women, Spitzack and Carter find “The Politics of Women as Other” and “Women as Communicators” as two of the five typical frames for study.

In the “Politics of Women as Other” category, they suggest that scholars should view Women as Other openly, allowing the alterity to become a focus for analysis.  In this category scholars acknowledge their politics and seek out the richness in women’s communication styles because
Given the social polarization of males and females, identical communication behaviors are unlikely: thus, presumably universal principles that guide inquiry are not universally applicable.  The priority placed on objectivity in research practices serves the dominant culture because registers of discourse “have been encoded by  males for their own ends . . .Women shall either be excluded, or made uncomfortable, or serve those ends if, and when they do participate.” (Spitzack and Carter, 1987, qting Dale Spender)

Within this model it should be noted that while “male speech is the standard against which female or ‘other’ speech is judged,” the politics of that conception are brought into the forefront.  According to Joseph Pillota, “To recognize differences it is necessary either to assume one of the cultures as a base and interpret others in terms of it or to assume common features across various cultures on the basis of which the variations are comprehensible” (as qted in Spitzack and Carter, 1987).  The mistake would be to allow the alterity to go unacknowledged and unanalyzed, with the risk that scholarship would unwittingly help entrench the conception of Women as Other.  To guard against that risk, the political implications of the different discourse conventions must always be considered as well.

In contrast, Spitzack and Carter’s more inclusive “Women as Communicators” approach allows for insights on both men and women without turning a blind eye to the special conditions women experience, for instance as both outsiders and insiders.  The value here is that male communication does not have to define the standard against which women’s communicative actions are judged.  Moving outside the frame of alterity altogether does not mean studying communication as if women did not exist.  It does allow us to view women’s and men’s communicative actions more flexibly as both genders move inside and outside dominant discourse conventions.  As Spitzack and Carter write “Female inclusion requires not only an understanding of women within the parameters of communication studies, but includes analyses of gender as an organizing force in social interaction” (Spitzack & Carter, 1987).

The twist I’d like to put on these two categories is a simple reversal of gender in the interest of feminist politics. Since, in these captured chat texts, the single woman communicator becomes a “normalizing” force in the virtual culture, why not examine the male-only Virtual Locker Room texts as Other, as the deviation from the norm of standard rhetorical conventions? This twist may reveal for us the politics of a commonly self-censored gender and minority/ethnic prejudice. In turn, it may shed light on the majority group exercise of power behind closed doors. By adopting the inclusiveness of the “Women as Communicators” frame and placing women in the mainstream of study, perhaps we can also take a step toward examining the “Politics of Men as Other.”

Setting

I have continually played with electronic forums in an anti-authoritarian or “democratized” feminist classroom.  I also wanted to go a step further in decentering the teacher than Lester Faigley did in his “Achieved Utopia of the Networked Classroom” (1992) by leaving the teacher out of the discussion while it is taking place, even as an eavesdropper or lurker.  Other than in routine monitoring of software and hardware, I did not see the texts my classes created until they were captured into word processor files.

The context of the assignment that led to the online discussions was an attempt to persuade, to write a position paper. I had assigned formal topic proposals, due well before the assignment and brought to class on the day of the chat. The electronic chats were set up to give students feedback on various argumentative positions raised by their topics. This exercise took place near the middle of the term, and it was not our first foray into the chat space, although it was our most purposeful and most extended use, since students didn’t have to take time to learn the software. Using the chat space for a prewriting exercise, I hoped it would help students consider their classmates as an audience for their upcoming paper.  I recorded real-time electronic debates in captured transcripts, and I announced that we would be reading the transcripts in the next class period.  I had seen electronic chats become chaotic when a class had no direction, but I thought the medium held promise if I set up a loose structure and gave specific instructions.  Two groups were established, each with an assigned Guide and a Gadfly.  One group would use real first names and the other would use anonymous nicknames. Students selected their own nicknames on private screens. The Guide would host the session and keep group members informed about which topic held the floor, various threads of the debate, and technical glitches that arose. The Gadfly would marshal the opposition, ensuring that important points were not ignored or silenced. Other group members could take and change their positions as the debates evolved. As one topic became exhausted, the Guide would ask for another topic and they could begin again.

In the old way of debating, it was rude to change direction or interrupt.  Here I encouraged students to see past old models and to try to introduce several ideas or threads at once. I pointed out that everyone could talk at once, yet no one would be interrupted. In that way I did make an overt effort to give students enough background on the issues surrounding the technology so that they could observe their debate culture and the language it used even as it evolved. They were told (and it was explicitly repeated in an instruction handout) that we would capture the text and study it in a later class period. In both classes, however, students claimed to have forgotten that announcement.  I can only surmise that in the heat of debating it slipped their minds. I did use members of each group to capture the debate texts, and many heard me working out the logistics of the text capture at the end of the hour. Perhaps they used forgetfulness as an excuse for the outrageousness of their behavior.

Of course a key factor in the two groups had to be that with one woman in class all semester, one group would be all men and one group would have one woman.  Due to logistical concerns with the software linkup, I divided the groups on either side of a central aisle.  In this way, it was commonly known to the group members whether the woman was present in their group or not, as much as they may have thought to pay attention. To the class I never mentioned gender or gender issues in connection with chat discourse until after the texts had been captured for discussion in the following period. I occupied myself principally with monitoring the performance of the software and preventing crashes.

Much could be made of the biases of group leadership if this were a conventional discussion or debate.  But this should have been less of a factor given the open access to Chat Room interaction and the technical impossibility of interruption. I selected Guides and Gadflies on the basis of their apparent ease with the UNIX interface (common at an engineering school), and included a mix of good writers and average writers, races and ethnic backgrounds. I did not assign a role to the lone woman, not wishing to single her out further unless it was by her own choice.  I was more concerned that each group member had a grasp of Chat Room functionality, that each saw how to quickly send a comment, that the group knew it was not required to stick to one linear conversation thread, and that, in the ephemeral nature of electronic communication, students knew they did not have to write carefully and selectively.  Instead they could write more quickly and responsively, more in the nature of a verbal exchange than a written exchange.

The Debates

My first impulse is to tell about the Virtual Locker Rooms the way I would tell a story.  These texts, after all, do not lend themselves to extensive quoting because they are so long and unwieldy. Yet even as they are multi-threaded, nonlinear, polyvocal documents, it is very difficult to remove excerpts from their larger contexts, and purists could argue that it should not be done at all, particularly in rhetorical analysis where context is of great importance. The ideas are so interwoven and closely linked that a great deal is lost in excerpting. There is not a single excerpt with a clear beginning or end.  To many readers the chat texts are dense and hard to follow without practice. I believe these texts are a new rhetorical form and a rich lode to mine for textual analysis in future research, but somehow I must solve the problem of how to even begin writing about them.

A comparison of group participation levels, similar in style to Herring’s analysis, does make one distinction between the groups in my classes very clear. In both semesters the groups without the woman participant generated considerably more text . The groups which generated the most text in either semester (perhaps reflecting high energy and interest levels) were also the most broadly participatory, meaning all members were quite active evenly throughout the debate, and two or three members were not able to dominate the discussion.  The percentages for the most broadly participatory groups can be compared to scores for a well-balanced basketball team when all the starters and several players on the bench score in double figures, but no one player is a big star.

On the other hand, the groups with the woman participant were also dominated by several members who contributed more than 20 percent of the text each. In these chat groups, dominant speakers with the strength of their writing voices and attitudes somehow kept the others from fully participating, or at least participating at the same relative level as the more dominant members. This can also be compared to the box scores of a basketball team where one or two star players rack up 20 to 30 points alone.

Yet, if more members do participate fully, the total number of comments goes up, and the percentages become more balanced. There are no external features to control who writes and who does not. The controls are cultural, social and psychological. Interestingly, broad-based participation does not appear to be contingent on whether real names or nicknames were used. But, broad-based participation does correlate with the degeneration of conversation into the Virtual Locker Room, and it correlates with the absence of the woman. In other words, the discussions in which the woman was present generated comparatively less text and tended to be dominated by two or three members (not the woman). When the classes analyzed and discussed the captured texts of both debates in a later face-to-face session, there was widespread agreement as to which group had remained serious and which group had gotten rowdy.  For the sake of shorthand then, I will refer to the two rowdy groups, the Nickname Group Spring 1994 and the Real Name Group Fall 1994 as Virtual Locker Rooms. Indeed, the discursive similarities between the two texts were so uncanny that I asked students if they had any friends from my class the previous spring. But most members of my Fall 1994 class were first-year students, new to the institution, and they hadn’t met many others a year ahead of them.

But let me subjectively summarize what I read in these texts from having lived with them and the representations of the students I once knew in 1994.  I will also excerpt a characteristic section from each conference group so the reader can get a feel for its tone and participants.

The Spring 1994 Debates took place in a brand new electronic classroom that had just gone online at Rensselaer, and we met there every other class period.  It was quiet and carpeted, well-designed and lighted, and students sat comfortably on swivel chairs.  Even in the hushed calm, I had problems with the software, and a crash made me lose two thirds of the text for the Real Name Group (W)  Spring 1994 . Still, according to the group members, the saved comments are representative of the group, which was focused primarily on Stephen’s topic of banning smoking in public places.

Excerpt: Real Name Group (W) Spring 1994–Woman named sue

1.    Guide Norb:     So everybody, should we ban smoking??
2.    Guide Jeff:    I dont think so. I dont use tobacco in any form, but people should be free to do what they want with their bodies as long as it doesnt threaten someone elses rights.
3.    Guide Norb:     Does anybody see this???
4.    sue:    But smoking does…it threatens someone elses life
5.    Guide Norb:     I agree with Jeff, who are we, or the government, to prohibit people from doing as they please.
6.    Stephen:    Second hand smoke does threaten others lives
7.    Guide Jeff:    Only if they smoke right in front of someone else
8.    Guide Norb:     Smoking shouldnt be allowed in public places, such as the Union, but why not outside.
9.    Guide Jeff:    Or in your own home
10.    Stephen:    It is illegal to shoot a gun down a crowded street but one can blow smoke down the same. Is it a matter of time.
11.    sue:    I think the laws are fine the way they are. They dont prohibit people from smoking. They just limit where they can smoke.
12.    Guide Jeff:    good point
13.    Stephen:    The gun kills instantly, the smoke takes a while
14.    Guide Norb:     Smoke only kills if there is contact.
15.    Guide Norb:     If someone smokes outside the somek dissipates.
16.    Guide Jeff:    the smoke diffuses in the air, while the bullet is a projectile
17.    Stephen:    Yeah, but the point is, they both kill
18.    Guide Norb:     The smoke from one cigarette doesnt compare to they amount of pollution put  out by your car.
19.    Guide Jeff:    If smoking is banned in public places you dont have to worry.
20.    Guide Norb:     Second hand smoke is only a threat if there is someone else there to recieve it.
21.    Stephen:    True. Pollution control standards are being formed.
22.    Stephen:    Yeah, in restaurants, sporting events, walking behind someone, walking out of a         building in the entrance way
23.    Guide Norb:     Point being, the amount of smoke put out by one cigarette or a million is         inconsequential when compared to the other forms and quantiier of pollution we  produce
24.    Guide  Jeff:    The amount of smoke from all the tobacco smoked in the U.S. doesnt even         compare to the amount of smoke from burning the Amazon rainforest
25.    Guide Norb:     Smoking should not be allow at sporting events, in restuarants, or in other public         places.

As we can see, Guide Norb dominates the discussion not only with his quick, fluent writing, but also with an emphatic tone, not so much debating as making pronouncements.  He generated 37 percent of the text in his group. Other group members filled in with 23 percent, 19 percent, nine percent, and two percent.  (Also, there was some confusion in this group as to who would be the Guide and Gadfly. That is why there are two guides.) Despite its seriousness, this debate introduced two potentially ridiculous arguments, an analogy comparing second-hand smoke to shooting a bullet down a crowded street, and later another about whether tobacco companies ever mix marijuana into cigarettes.  In Virtual Locker Room groups this kind of a conversational thread could have easily instigated further silliness, but this group was so serious and Guide Norb so intent on pursuing his points that the discussion remained very linear and single-threaded.

In contrast, the Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room) began silly and intensified to rudeness. Topics officially discussed were the death penalty, euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide, and the abortion pill.  Unofficial topics included sex, the Jerky Boys, modified song lyrics, and the movie Hamlet with Mel Gibson. As a group there was much laughter and high spirits, and many commented in their journals that they felt the conversation was out of their control. By the same token, this discussion did elicit high levels of inventive verbal performance and creativity, even if the end result degenerated into what would be offensive to most general readers.  Group participation levels were well balanced, 22 percent, 19 percent, 19 percent, 17 percent, 15 percent, with one goof-off constantly changing names for about four percent each. Also notice how much shorter the lines are compared to the previous excerpt.

Excerpt: Nickname Group Spring 1994–No Woman (Virtual Locker Room)

32.    Felix the cat:    if somebody takes a life they should lose theirs as well
33.    Tula:    but at least thats one problem that could be fixed, gadfly
34.    Gadfly:    if the people are given a chance for rehap they may be useful
35.    Guide:    an eye for an eye right kitty
36.    Hamlet:     So the people who put the guy in the chair should die , and the ones who kill         them should die
37.    VanDam:    what desides who is to die and who is not
38.    Tula:    for the most part felix
39.    Tula:    hamlets an idiot
40.    Gadfly:    that would make us no better than the murderes and rapists
41.    Guide:    ya whatever hamlet
42.    Felix the cat:    how so?
43.    Hamlet:     Thank you Tula…I agree
44.    Gadfly:    killing people for killing.  Is that right?
45.    Felix the cat:    how else do we punish them
46.    Guide:    good question vandam, what do u think
47.    VanDam:    gadFly.. An eye for an eye?
48.    Tula:    eh?
49.    Felix the cat:    grrrr
50.    Gadfly:    Im glad to see someone supports my position Vandam
51.    Gadfly:    cats dont grrr they purrrr
52.    Guide:    anyway……
53.    Felix the cat:    do we punush someone by teaching them useful skills and giving them food ?
54.    Gadfly:    how bout so input from the guide
55.    Hamlet:     New Topic?
56.    Gadfly:    Useful skills that may improve the society Cat
57.    Guide:    if u fry a criminal u dont have to worry about him repeating his crime
58.    Felix the cat:    speak it girl
59.    VanDam:    …Guid: certain acts of criminal behavior should be punished by death and these         should be known by all
60.    Guide:    you go kitty

This is one of the milder exchanges for this group, with fun banter easily traced between the Guide and Felix the Cat. It is also worth noting how well this group has adapted to the medium, using conversational feedback to make up for nonverbal cues. They quickly learned to attach names to their responses, which allowed multithreaded exchanges to coexist in the same spaces.

The Fall 1994 Debates took place in a crowded older lab with uneven lighting.  Loud air conditioners hummed and buzzed the whole hour, and still the room was very hot. However, even with the older workstations, the software did not crash.  In this semester the Nickname Group (W) Fall 1994 remained very serious, covered everyone’s topics, tolerated mild multi-threadedness, and took on a volatile topic, feminism, in an evenhanded manner. Other topics covered by this group included violence in the media, gun control, role-playing games, and late night infomercials.

Nickname Group (W) Fall 1994–Woman named Clide

66.    Guide:     We should be on Media and Violence now everybody, why doesnt the big Ragu         give us some input.
67.    The Big Ragu:    It is also wrong to censor the media.  It is also a breach of the Constitution.
68.    Clide:    This sounds like the legalization of pot issue, if you make it illegal people will         get it anyway.
69.    Cable:    meida is not the root of violence.
70.    The Big Ragu:    WHAT?
71.    Gadfly:    So if guncontrol is so hard to enforce we can have total gun control
72.    Guide:     Hey Clide where are you, and what the hell are you talking about?
73.    The Big Ragu:    Cable, Great call!
74.    Kurt Cobain:    I dont think we should censor violence on TV, but I think that the networks have         some responsibility…
75.    The Big Ragu:    Who then is responsible for violence.
76.    Guide:     Gadfly, lets talk about the Media thing now.
77.    Kurt Cobain:    ….the networks have a responsibility to control what they braodcast.
78.    Clide:    Theyar only giving you what you want to see.
79.    Kurt Cobain:    I dont think that there is necessarily a correlation between violence and what is         on TV…
80.    Cable:    how come Japan has the most violent television in the world but has the least         violence on the street?
81.    Guide:     The only people responsible for violence are the people who sadly believe that         everything on T.V is true.
82.    Gadfly:    Violence should be eliminated from the media. Because the TV tells us basically         what to do
83.    bob:    They networks do a little, for example some shows have viewer discretion is         advised every time it comes back from a commercial
84.    The Big Ragu:    Is it right to show Beavis and Butthead at 8:00p.m.
85.    Clide:    In japan, what kind of violence do they show?
86.    Gadfly:    most of us believe everything we see
87.    Cable:    hvae you ever seen japanese anamation? When they brough it here, some of it         was rated NC-17.
88.    The Big Ragu:    They show graphic violence in cartoons.  You see people getting there heads         and limbs blown off.
89.    Guide:     Wow I didnt know that Cable.

The Big Ragu participated more than the Guide in this group, although with the Gadfly, the three dominated with 21 percent, 21 percent, and 17 percent, compared to 13 percent, 12 percent, 9 percent, and seven percent for the rest. The Guide’s comments reveal that he felt compelled to obey the constructed authority of the teacher in the classroom even though I was not looking over his shoulder. Although this group knew a woman was present, they did not know which nickname she was using.  In the class discussion the following period several tried to guess who she was, but the woman kept her identity to herself.

On the other hand, the Real Name Group Fall 1994 (Virtual Locker Room) reads like urban street kids “playing the dozens,” each trying to out-insult each other. Official topics covered very energetically by this group included racial misconceptions, nuclear power, RU486 abortion pill, the death penalty for Jeffery Dahmer, and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (Gatt).  Unofficial topics included sex, masturbation, one’s parentage, and one’s masculinity. Again, notice how much shorter the lines are compared to the previous excerpt.

Real Name Group Fall 1994–No Woman (Virtual Locker Room)

50.    Guide:     we are doing the death penalty
51.    Gadfly:    Thats right and we are starting with you
52.    Eric:    This is dumb
53.    vic:    i think that all the prisoners should be made into minced meat and the turn them         to dim-sum.
54.    Lin:    I am doing the death penalty]
55.    Gadfly:    No. You are, dam it!
56.    King Cobra:    My topic for the final paper is that Cutco Cutlery is the finest set of kitchen         Cutlery in the world
57.    Hans:    I say we should put more people on death row, this way we dont have to pay         500000 $ a year for tham.
58.    King Cobra:    Do you guys know what Cutco cutlery is?
59.    Guide:     lets get back to the topic
60.    Lin:    I support people die
61.    Hans:    King Cobra what the fuck are you talking about
62.    Lin:    who is cutco cutlery
63.    vic:    Dim-sum and we can start a franchise selling human meat dim-sum
64.    King Cobra:    Its not a who you dooff.
65.    Guide:     I agree with the money figure, do you know that if Dahmer was jailed Ny he         would cost us 3,1 Million
66.    Gadfly:    Well the problem with death row is that my of the criminials go through many         appeals for a number of years before they are put to death.
67.    Lin:    that is a lot the city can give it to me and I will be rich
68.    King Cobra:    Its a brand of kitchen knives.  I has been around over fifty years.
69.    Hans:    Are you trying to say that you want to eat all the people who have been         executed.
70.    Gadfly:    Lets get down with business.
71.    vic:    I think that swiss army knives are the best cutnary in the whole wide world
72.    Eric:    I dont think we should waste money on the electric chair or lethal injection just         give them a bath with a toaster!
73.    Lin:    yeah
74.    Guide:     I dont believe in the death penalty but I also dont believe in paying tax dollars         because some criminal needs housing
75.    Lin:    lets debate
76.    Hans:    No more appeals if you are suppostu be killed than be it.
77.    Lin:    If someone kill you do you want him/her to pay
78.    Hans:    Guide you are a pussy
79.    Gadfly:    Remember the Constitution, no cruel and usual punishment.
80.    Guide:     I think if someone is to be in jail for life he should work of his stay
81.    Eric:    do your job guide
82.    Gadfly:    Hey, Hans watch you lingo man
83.    Eric:    slacker!!!
84.    Lin:    what are we debating
85.    Gadfly:    I second that.
86.    Guide:     you and me later on Hans well see who is the pussy
87.    Eric:    Your mom

While this Virtual Locker Room lacked the level of creative performance exhibited by its predecessor in the spring semester, it more than made up for it with higher levels of sheer rudeness. In another part of the text, a group member introduced nontextual, physical information about another group member, taunting, “You have a pimple on your nose,” even though the workstations blocked sightlines. The student was drawing on his real name knowledge and face-to-face memory, since he could not see his target. King Cobra unilaterally chose a nickname, even though he knew he was in the Real Name Group.  In this group, all members participated in a range from 10 to 20 percent.  Gadfly dominated somewhat at 20 percent, but six other members participated at 15 percent, 15 percent, 15, percent, 13 percent, 13 percent, and 10 percent.

Overt Gender Prejudice

In order to characterize what seems to be happening in these all-male groups and relate it to what I call the Politics of Men as Other, we need to range from the obvious to the subtle, from overt examples of gender or minority/ethnic prejudice to silencing or control and subtle effects of self-erasure, in both types of groups. When someone types “the guide is a faggot,” or “you and me later we’ll see who is the pussy” or “I did my job with your mom last night,” or  “Peace out my nubian brothers” (when all group members but one are white), I believe we are seeing overt prejudice and bias as an unthinking impulse, despite any tongue-in-cheek intent or deliberate irony. We have an unusual opportunity within these captured texts to study the rhetorical effects when this language runs largely uncensored and becomes a social norm that stands in direct contrast to more “polite” conversation.  When that happens, more subtle effects can be detected, such as when one male student called another male student a “woman” in the following extended exchange (line 266).  Notice how the discussion evolves from the introduction of “mother insults” to increasingly higher and higher stakes, until the final line, where the Guide verbally enacts sexual activity.

Real Name Group Fall 1994—No Woman (Virtual Locker Room)

238.    Hans:    Ru486 is the answer
239.    Eric:    Your mom tried it
240.    King Cobra:    the issue is freedom to choose
241.    Eric:    it failed miserably
242.    Hans:    dont talk about my mom
243.    Guide:     just look at him
244.    King Cobra:    Keep with the topic here
245.    Eric:    I do more than talk with her
246.    Hans:    guide who are you talking about
247.    Gadfly:    why not she was so good last night
248.    Guide:     you
249.    King Cobra:    new topic?
250.    Gadfly:    no you
251.    Lin:    yeah
252.    Hans:    she, are you sure it wasnt a he
253.    Gadfly:    probably
254.    Eric:    guide do your job
255.    Gadfly:    maybe both
256.    Lin:    oh
257.    King Cobra:    Cutco Cutlery
258.    Guide:     give me a new topic
259.    Lin:    ha
260.    Gadfly:    waterfight
261.    Lin:    new topic
262.    Eric:    Ill give you a topic!1
263.    Gadfly:    girls
264.    King Cobra:    Cutco Cutlery
265.    vic:    Your mum is so dumb
266.    Gadfly:    woman
267.    Hans:    lets talk about your mather
268.    King Cobra:    girls are alright too
269.    vic:    Pathenon
270.    Eric:    they have cooties
271.    vic:    Atlantis
272.    Guide:     idid  my job with your mom last night
273.    King Cobra:    stop callling names
274.    vic:    Pergamon
275.    Gadfly:    what woman are you
276.    Lin:    woman
277.    Eric:    your mom rides a vacum cleaner
278.    Hans:    you are sick, guide she is 75 years old
279.    Guide:     give me a topic
280.    vic:    Your mum is cheess
281.    Gadfly:    I am not
282.    King Cobra:    new topic
283.    King Cobra:    new topic
284.    Hans:    guide we need a topic
285.    Gadfly:    How your sex life
286.    Gadfly:    guys
287.    vic:    Lets talk about Guides mum
288.    King Cobra:    gooo
289.    Guide:     ooooooooooh but she was great the way she moved was unbelievable

Clearly a great deal of overt gender prejudice is revealed in the above exchange. Many may wonder what kind of teacher allows or even tolerates the above behavior in the classroom, even in the electronic spaces of the classroom. That thought has certainly gone through my mind. But the challenge of a writing classroom where students are encouraged to be independent thinkers, where authority is de-centered, where feminist pedagogies place greater value on consciousness raising and active questioning of all texts rather than dogmatically asserting authority, is that the teacher is literally riding a wild horse in a contact zone where she never knows what people will say or write next. One impulse says, “Oh my god, get this under control,” while the other impulse says, “All learning is discovery. Ride the wild horse.” That is why I made one of the central pedagogical tenets of the assignment the in-class reading and analysis of the printed chat texts the following class meeting. My goal was not to wag fingers, but rather, to remove the texts from their location in fast-scrolling, synchronous time in order to reflect on electronic strategies of kairos and persuasion, the prevailing ethos each group created, and some oppressive assumptions in the contrasting virtual cultures. When the class analyzed the above text as a printed class reading (an assignment written into the syllabus along with any other assigned readings), there was very little I had to do.  On their own in small groups and then back as a whole class, students effectively characterized the virtual culture that had been created and noted its hostility toward women.  They also commented on how this locker room culture, usually self-censored in the presence of “outsiders,” seemed to enjoy a perennial existence in spite of the censorship.  My students showed a common knowledge and acceptance of the politics of insiders and outsiders, and knowledge of the discourse in groups that close ranks thorough self-censorship in the presence of an outsider.  While they could identify the characteristic discourse readily, their initial attitude toward it was that the locker room culture was simply the way of the world, that it was somehow off-limits to political awareness and change.

My own point of analysis centers around the seemingly innocuous (in comparison to everything else) use of the word “woman.”  The word appears three times above, serving as a haunting kind of punctuation in the context of the rest of the discourse about women, mothers and sex.  Most of the time in this group, women are on the outside, spoken of derisively, “done to,” until Gadfly utters that line (266).  Woman as Other then comes into the group as one of their own, into the group which has no woman, and in spite of all of the other rude talk in this exchange, the lowercase word “woman” is the most supreme insult offered, and so it is picked up and echoed into the virtual culture.

Eric introduces women into this particular excerpt in line 239, but in the overall debate context, “mother insults” have been present since line 87, and the theme is mentioned in 13 different entries in this group.  In the above excerpt, Eric implies that Hans’s mother tried to abort him. Hans snaps back and shows sensitivity to the topic, which instigates Eric’s further taunting that he has had sex with Hans’s mother. King Cobra shows discomfort with this thread and tries to rein in the group, but he is ignored.  Gadfly picks up the theme and claims that he had sex with Hans’s mother just the night before (line 247).

Again, seemingly bristling with sensitivity, Hans lashes back with a suggestion that Gadfly had not been with his mother, but with another man (line 252).  Rather unimaginatively, vic chimes in with a mundane insult about Hans’s mother’s intelligence.  But Gadfly has been the most greatly diminished as an accused homosexual. In retaliation, he writes one word, “woman,” seemingly to no one, yet ultimately directed at Hans (line 266). With that word he tries to “one-up” the homosexual insinuation.  In the world of Western prejudice against things connected with women, a gay man may be considered by some as stereotypically effeminate, but he is still a man.

Still trying to get the topic off his own mother, Hans tries to get the mob to take on Gadfly’s mother.  King Cobra wants to make sure no one thinks HE is effeminate, the woman, the image of the Other who has entered the chat room with Gadfly’s line.  King Cobra types, “girls are alright too” (line 268). Always the bold ringleader, Eric shows he has no fear of the homophobic insults and declares that  girls “have cooties” (line 270), an elementary school defense against the “enemy sex.”  The Guide now wants his turn in this virtual gang bang of Hans’s mother.  Meanwhile, “woman” is further invoked into the room by Gadfly and Lin (lines 275 and 276).  But the Guide has been sparring with Hans since line 86, with “You and me later and we’ll see who is a pussy,” calling him out after class.  In the above excerpt it is the Guide, an African-American-Latino body builder, who types the penultimate insult, pushing invisible boundaries of social norms within the Virtual Locker Room to the typographic imitation of sexual performance with “ooooooooooh but she was great the way she moved was unbelievable.”

Silencing and Self-Erasure

These are the strong forces within the virtual culture.  Now let’s turn to some of the more subtle effects of silencing, verbal control, and self erasure which only show up within the dynamic context of the synchronous threads as they scroll up the screen.  By far the most difficult question to ask has to be “How does this internal or external coercion (Habermas’s censorship) occur in this environment and exert force, both for men and women, if it does?”  For in this environment, if someone tries to exert control over a person or group, anyone can disregard the “herding of the stray” and flaunt rebellion to the entire group. (One such rebel in each separate Virtual Locker Room group independently discovered that hitting the return key over and over forced everyone to look at rows of his blank lines, immediately breaking up all conversation threads.)  In a text-based synchronous culture, the group can only enforce social norms through verbal control or indifference.  We have already looked at instances of verbal abuse.  Now let’s consider indifference.

I have written of the broad-based participation in the Virtual Locker Rooms.  Yet many of the controlling effects also occur on different levels in the serious discussions as well, where two or three group members were more effectively able to dominate and possibly silence other members, and in a non-abusive fashion.  For instance, it appears that the Real Name Group (W) Spring 1994’s way of dealing with multiple threads when they were introduced (usually by already marginalized group members) was to choose not to respond, to ignore the tangential thread, as when Amet was the only person to bring up the addiction angle in line 37 in the debate over smoking ordinances:

Real Name Group (W) Spring 1994 (woman named sue)

25.    Guide Norb:    Smoking should not be allow at sporting events, in restaurants, or in other public         places.
26.    sue:    The smoke from the rainforest has nothing to do with lung cancer.
27.    Guide Jeff:    There should be specified smoking areas
28.    Stephen:    True, but we have to start somewhere.  Another point, what about all the money          it costs tax payers for health care?
29.    sue:    It might deplete our ozone, but that seems like a completely differentissue in         itself.
30.    David:    What is wrong with smoking at sporting event if its in the open air
31.    Guide Norb:    I concede on the cost issue. THe government should not cover healthcare costs         that result from smoking
32.    Stephen:    People who dont want to breath it have to
33.    Guide Norb:    I still smell the smoke of those around me in the open air
34.    Guide Jeff:    Put yourself in someone elses shoes. What if you enjoyed smoking. How would         you feel if it was banned?
35.    Guide Norb:     Consideration for others should override someones selfishness to smoke in         public
36.    Stephen:     So we have the streets full of people coughing, with black lung.  With no health         care
37.    Amet:     People who enjoy smoking are really addicted.  Its not a question of enjoyment          its just another drug
38.    Guide Norb:     Once again, the responsibility lies with the user.
39.    Guide Jeff:     Im not talking about smoking in public.  I think that should be regulated.  What         Im arguing is smoking in the privacy of your own home or car.
40.    Guide Norb:    As a smoker you are making the conscious decision to harm your health.
41.    Guide Jeff:    That is your body, not the federal governments
42.    Stephen:    On the drug issue, I used to smoke. I have even tasted reefer in cigarettes. What         does the manufacturers add to tobacco?
43.    Guide Norb:     I have no problem with smoking in private. just dont burden me with your         health care costs

Several marginalized group members  (see the lower percentages of participation, Appendix A) did comment on the effect of being ignored in their journal entries, often while praising the seriousness of their group’s debate over the antics they saw upon reading the transcripts of the other group.  Amet, an Indian student who struggled at times with American idiom, wrote in his journal:

My group had two guys that really  took off with the topic leaving everybody behind.  They  were both well-informed and serious about the debate. …Consequently, I put in my two cents and had it ignored for the most part.  The combination of our names being presented and moreover the fact that the “chat”  was being taken over by two well informed individuals, enabled our debate on smoking to be intellectual, serious, non-circumlocution, wealthier, and mundane.

Meanwhile, the dominant members of the Real Name Group (W) Spring 1994  made no mention in their journal entries about the lack of participation by their own members.  Most interestingly, no member of this group ever referred to another member by name in the debate texts.  But all participants in the Real Name Group (W) Spring 1994 had a great deal to say in their journal entries about the frivolousness of the Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room), most of it disapproving.  Stephen’s entry captures the representative tone.

…I feel that 2/3 of the debates were nothing but a bunch of babble from sexually  repressed immature adolescents.  I was in the group that debated the topics of financial aid reform and banning tobacco.  Our debate were 99% serious with 1% consisting of political jokes during the lulls in the debate.  Our peers however were 1% serious and 99% jokes.

Interestingly, the one woman in that class, sue, although easily as disapproving of the Nickname Group Spring 1994, expressed a regret in her journal that she wasn’t allowed to switch groups in mid-class. I can’t tell if she meant that she wanted to be raunchy along with that group, if she wanted to go undercover with a male-sounding nickname, or if she wanted to confront the sexist language the group was using.  An outside reader of the transcript immediately noted that sue’s use of lowercase letters for her name and Amet’s denial of his own silencing at the hands of classmates both constitute subtle effects of self erasure.  This was a group so dominated by Guide Norb, Guide Jeff, and Stephen that sue only logged nine percent of the posts, and Amet barely two percent.

Members of the Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room) even seemed to admire the other group’s debate, as one remarked in his journal:

The second debate was very different.  It was a real conversation that could easily have taken place on the floor of the House of Representatives.  It was simply one good point after another.  There was some real discussion going on.    Gadfly, Nickname Group Spring 1994

We can also consider the ways in which silencing, or attempted silencing, played a role in this Virtual Locker Room group.  One group member, Tula, appeared to violate the bantering tone debating the death penalty with an argumentative point  (line 64) that was longer and perhaps more suited for the ethos of the Real Name Group (W) Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room).

Nickname Group Spring 1994–No Woman (Virtual Locker Room)

56.    Gadfly:    Useful skills that may improve the society Cat
57.    Guide:    if u fry a criminal u dont have to worry about him repeating his crime
58.    Felix the cat:    speak it girl
59.    VanDam:    …Guid: certain acts of criminal behavior should be punished by death and these         should be known by all
60.    Guide:    you go kitty
61.    Gadfly:    Maybe so, but have you ever asked for a second chance Guide?
62.    Felix the cat:    good point vandam
63.    Guide:    sure gadfly, meanwhile he escapes rapes your mom and kills your dad
64.    Tula:    i went to the middle east one year…to UAE (United Arab Emirates)…They have no crime, no homelessness, no poverty…because they are so strict with capital punishment
65.    Gadfly:    What would be those certian crimes Vandam?
66.    Felix the cat:    this topic blows goats
67.    Guide:    I rest my case then Tula
68.    Hamlet:     I agree
69.    Gadfly:    But is it good to live in fear of strict capitol punishment?
70.    Guide:    yes
71.    Felix the cat:    how about them Mets
72.    VanDam:    …Gadfly: This is to be desided by the court
73.    Guide:    wer not talking about little league
74.    Gadfly:    The courts waste so much money with appeals for the death penalty
75.    Hamlet:     Oh sure…let other people decide for us vandam
76.    Tula:    their rules are like…if someone steals something, they chop off their hands…a         murder—off goes the head!….i dont want to know what they do for rape!
77.    Felix the cat:    yeah but more money is wasted suppoting these people
78.    VanDam:    …Hamlet: Those other people are us, “SOCIETY”
79.    Hamlet:     The courts are not us…we dont even decide who the courts are vandam
80.    Hamlet:     excuse me the courts are not us vandam
81.    VanDam:    Hanlet:  DO YOU VOTE?

We should note here that within this comment about the United Arab Emirates, Tula possibly also revealed to group members that his nickname was the identity of the single non-white member of the group, from the Middle East.  Tula’s point and more wordy writing style were not taken up, but two exchanges later Felix the cat interjected “this topic blows goats” and his next entry was “How bout them Mets.”  Felix the cat was just as unsuccessful in his attempt to pull the group off topic, so he had to rejoin the death penalty exchange. Tula, an older and more assertive member of the class, was not one to be marginalized or silenced easily.  Until the above segment of the debate, he was behind the other group members in a running tally of comments made. He remained relatively quiet until the Guide’s machine crashed and a new topic was introduced, and then he asserted himself, becoming the most dominant member of the group, accounting for 22 percent of the comments by the end.  In his journal entry he was glowing about his experience in virtual culture.

The Chat Box was cool although it didn’t seem like we were getting much accomplished.  It was cool to learn to use this new tool.  I think it could be used in a very effective manner.  It was like experiencing a whole new culture.

On the issue of silencing, the Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room) members also tended to assert themselves in tantrum fashion if no one responded to their threads.

Nickname Group Spring 1994 –No Woman (Virtual Locker Room)

202.    Guide                             :nobody answered my
question!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
203.    Tula:    what ?
204.    Guide                             :$?
205.    Hamlet:     Do we really need buissinessmen anyway?
206.    Felix the cat:    do I look like a dictionary guide
207.    Tula:    buttloads of moola

The Guide in this group commented in his journal entry about being ignored, and about his (mock) frustration with unruly group members.

…One thing that definitely made the debate difficult was that there was so many people and it was impossible for everyone to respond to everyone else.  A few times when I said something to someone it went totally unnoticed, even though I used the person’s name to get their attention.  I’m not sure why people did not take the debate serious.  In the beginning, I tried to have a serious debate, and it went well for a while, but then people started to get silly.  Reading over the transcript I found the point where the debate went downhill to be exactly where my session crashed.  After I came back it was too late; they were lost forever.  I just went along with the goofiness after that because there was not much I could do about it.

But in thinking about the issue of silencing and internal censorship in the context of this group, we have to consider the cultural space this group created without the presence or input of women in particular. Tula also contributed many of the overtly sexist comments. A debate culture was being created which had high levels of participation, openness, and abusive and outrageous language, often directed toward belittling women or other minority groups.  The following exchange is a good example of its attitude toward women.

Nickname Group Spring 1994–No Woman

215.    Hamlet:     Kill Guide
216.    Felix the cat:    $22.95 per hour
217.    Tula:    20,000,000 bucks/per death
218.    Guide                             :kill ophelia!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
219.    Tula:    do her first
220.    Guide                             :me first
221.    Hamlet:     Ouch!
222.    Gadfly:    I love they way we stick to the topic
223.    Guide                             :she was hot!! in that movie with Mel Gibson!!!!!!
224.    Tula:    hell yeah
225.    Felix the cat:    what topic?
226.    Gadfly:    but she died (suicide)
227.    Hamlet:     What was the topic anyway?
228.    Tula:    what a waste
229.    Gadfly:    fuck her

Hypothetically we have to ask, what would have happened to a woman in this virtual space?  Would her presence have modified the discourse?  Would she have been swept along into the discourse of the group?  sue commented aptly on this in her journal after reading the transcript of the Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room).

As I read through the repartee of the latter group, I found myself making comments in the margins like “confusing,” “obscene,” and “candor superseding morality.”  I believe that in  their aliases the members of the second group found the voices of the idiot in every one of us.  He very much exists, just more curtailed in some people than in others.  The entire exercise reminded me of The Lord of the Flies, and how quickly, when left to his own devices, man can forget all his prior teachings and regress.

Note that her unconsciously ironic use of the “universal” man , as in “…the idiot in every one of us.  He very much exists.”  and “…when left to his own devices, man can forget all his prior teachings and regress.”  In many ways sue allows us to view Men as Other, even as she subsumes her own identity into the “us” of “all of us.”

To conclude that women would be silenced in such a boys’ locker room virtual culture, or that they would be forced to write like the boys while wearing a sickly smile at some of the jokes, is basically impossible since there were no women in the Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room).  But if a woman had been in that group, the attitudes of these men might not have been as candidly revealed.  I did, however, attempt to reverse the conditions the following fall and put a woman into the Nickname Group.  What I found is that it appears to be impossible to put a woman into the Virtual Locker Room, because if a woman is known to be present, the Virtual Locker Room disappears.

Homophobia also became an integral element to the abuse in the Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room).  In the class discussion on the transcripts of the Spring 1994 Debates, a student who admitted to being Felix the cat protested that he was not being homophobic when he called the Guide a faggot (line 150).  “I have two good friends who are gay and I’m really cool with it.  I just wrote that because we were ranking on each other.”  I asked him, if he was so cool about gay issues, why the term faggot was still considered a “rank,” a bad thing to call someone. This student continued to protest that he was not homophobic, as did other class members.

I don’t want to tell any student what or how to think.  I did not have a stake in convincing that student that he was homophobic in order to call the exchange a success. He is still thinking about it, and he can work it out on his own.  He responded to that class in his journal entry, rigidly holding on to his original idea, unaware of the irony of what he was writing.

I think that we read into the debate way too much.  We shouldn’t make judgments of people for what they wrote.  If we do this, people will be afraid to say what they mean in fear of being made [fun] of.  It’s not correct or fair to call a person homophobic just because they call a person a faggot.  It’s just joking around and it should be taken that way and none other.  You can’t characterize a person about what they write.  We should not create an opinion about a person just from what they write.  Felix the cat, Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room)

I enjoy this journal entry most of all.  This student claims we read too much into the transcripts of the debates, and it is a charge worth thinking about, given the speed of the interactions as they scroll up the screen.  His motive for writing above is defensive.  He did not have to own up to his nickname, but he did it anyway, because he felt that we were wrongly characterizing “the guide is a fagot” (line 150) as homophobic discourse.  He says it was just a joke.  But between the lines of his journal entry are the seeds of its own undoing.  In claiming that “We shouldn’t make judgments of people for what they wrote,” he remains oblivious to the fact that calling someone a faggot is making a judgment of another person, a much more harsh judgment than suggesting that a certain discourse reflects homophobic attitudes.  This student is defensive over being called homophobic, yet claims that he should be able to call anyone a faggot and that person should not be defensive, rather, he should take it as a joke.  Felix the cat’s position on this matter seems to reflect his majority group/insider status in the Virtual Locker Room.  According to the apparent rules of this group, certain name-calling is understood to be a joke, and other name-calling is not.  The way to tell the difference is whether the names, in this case “faggot” or “woman” are seen as representing members of the group.  They are not, thus the name-calling is OK and an acceptable joke.

But am I reading too much into these debate texts?  For me, the most enlightening aspect of all of the prejudice and bias found in the two Virtual Locker Rooms is its rootedness not purely in sexism, but in the homophobia that underlies the sexism.  To look at the insults and idle comments, “woman,” “speak it girl,” “the guide is a fagot,” “he’s a pufta,” “a flying faggot,” “ok there sweet tits,” “kill ophelia!” “do her first,” “me first,” “fuck her,” “Guide you are a pussy,” “you and me later on well see who is the pussy,” “if you don’t want to be raped dont do the crime [referring to male rape in prison],” “I did my job with your mom last night,” “she, are you sure it wasn’t a he,” “guide is a weiner,” “suck my dick,” and  “you homo” as an extended list, the connection becomes clear.  Suzanne Pharr, in Homophobia: a Weapon of Sexism, suggests that homophobia gives sexism much of its power because it links sexism with heterosexism.  She writes,

Heterosexism creates the climate for homophobia with its assumption that the world is and must be heterosexual and its display of power and privilege is the norm.  Heterosexism is the systemic display of homophobia in the institutions of society.  …It is not by chance that when children approach puberty and increased sexual awareness they begin to taunt each other by calling these names: “queer,” “faggot,” “pervert.”  It is at puberty that the full force of society’s pressure to conform to heterosexuality and prepare for marriage is brought to bear.  Children know what we have taught them, and we have given clear messages that those who deviate from standard expectations are to be made to get back in line.  (Pharr 16-17)

To examine sexism and gender bias without making the link between sexism and homophobia is to miss half of the story, a story about misogyny so complete that even when no woman is present, her aura cast upon men in a closed group makes sexuality between men as constant a tension as sexuality between men and women.  This is the political impact of a societal imbalance of power: an enforcement of the value of all things male while devaluing all things female, yet at the same time desiring them, obsessing upon them.  I would venture that this is an attribute of groups that understand themselves to be something “Other,” outside the norm of society, able only to define themselves in terms of that mainstream society.  This is how I move to my understanding of the Virtual Locker Room as closed group communication by Men as Other.  From this understanding, we can look both inside and outside of these groups and perhaps see the effects of the Politics of Men as Other.

Which leaves me to consider the Nickname Group (W) Fall 1994, as anti-climactic as it is.  Three group members were able to dominate the rest somewhat (20 percent vs. 7-12 percent).  One group member, Cable, was a racial minority and an experienced MOO-er whose debate topic was Role-Playing Games, yet he participated the least of anyone in the group.  In analyzing the transcript of this group, which held in many ways a model debate, the most notable feature is the heavy enforcement hand of the Guide, who took his role seriously and played it with the fairness of a good teacher, a benevolent despot.  When I selected him for the role, I had no inkling he would do that, as this student was quiet in class.  Even at the beginning of the debate, when some group members initiated silliness, testing the water, he didn’t take the bait and go along, as the following exchange shows:

Nickname Group (W) Fall 1994  (woman present–Clide)

1.    Guide:     Hello everyone
2.    bob:    Hey everybody.
3.    Cable:    present and accounted for…
4.    Guide:     Tell me some topics please
5.    The Big Ragu:    Hey, hows everyone doing?  My topic deals with censorship in the media with regards to violence.
6.    bob:    I have not yet figured out a topic.  Im open for any ideas.
7.    Guide:     Wheres everybody else
8.    Kurt Cobain:    My brain hurts…
9.    Guide:     sorry about that Kurt
10.    The Big Ragu:    Lets get this thing underway Guide.
11.    Guide:     I can only do what she tells me
12.    The Big Ragu:    No, you dont.
13.    Guide:     Yes I do

I should note that the “she” is the teacher, me, and the Guide’s sense of my directing him was his own construction.  My only direction toward the Guides of both groups concerned pace, and getting to everyone’s topics at approximately 15 minute intervals so no one would be left out.  I should also add that a friend was sitting in on the class to learn the software, and he participated in this group as Kurt Cobain.  He was sitting in the back of the room and no one knew he had slipped in, or which nickname was his.  People always drifted in and out of the back of the lab, trying to use an open machine if the teacher would let them.

The woman in this group on her own selected a man’s nickname, Clide, and kept her identity to herself.  The group knew she was one of them because she sat on the same side of the aisle, but they didn’t know which pseudonym.  Even in the following class session, the face-to-face discussion of the printed transcripts, she slyly kept her identity secret and the class argued over which nickname she had, opening a discussion on assumed characteristics of gendered communication.  Half of the class thought she was Kurt Cobain.  Several others guessed correctly.

A test of this group’s even-handedness can be seen in its discussion of a volatile and attitude-revealing subject, feminism, a thread that ran for quite a while because it was the topic of two different group members (taking opposite positions).  The following two excerpts show this group in action early in the thread, and near its end.  At no time did the discussion degenerate into ad hominem attacks or highly charged emotional statements.  Most interesting is how near the end the group explored writing issues around sexist language, all of its own instigation.  Perhaps these classes don’t need teachers after all.

Nickname Group (W) Fall 1994–(woman named Clide)

148.    The Big Ragu:    Feminism, we could do without the radicals.
149.    bob:    What is Feminism???
150.    Kurt Cobain:    …I personally think that RPGs are sort of silly, why not experience the real         world and all it has to offer?
151.    Gadfly:    kurt every things harmless to you next to a gun (If you had one…)
152.    Guide:     Im against Feminism for the most part.  Your right Ragu, the radicals are the         worst.
153.    Clide:    Where do you draw the line between being over sensitive to feminist issues and         bening ignorant?
154.    Cable:    Some time you just want to get away when the real world brings you down.
155.    The Big Ragu:    The problem that I have encountered is that they ask for equal rights so they get         equal rights,but when it comes to being a
156.    Guide:     Good question Clide, I really dont know the answer?
157.    Kurt Cobain:    Ragu, finish your thought
158.    The Big Ragu:    gentleman and paying for the bill or opening a door, if we dont then we are a pig         and rude and inconsiderate.
159.    Clide:    A feminist is someone who believes in equal rights for men and women.
160.    The Big Ragu:    It is a double standard that us men cannot win.
161.    Gadfly:    It should be equal rights all the way?
162.    Guide:     Is that true Clide.  I wasnt aware of it.
163.    Clide:    Thats the basic definition
164.    Kurt Cobain:    Of course it should be equal rights all the way
165.    The Big Ragu:    It should be but it is not.
166.    bob:    Im for feminism but it shouldnt be called that.
(167-192 cut for space)
192.    Gadfly:    I do not like to say “he or she” every time in my papers
193.    Kurt Cobain:    GAdfly, stick to writing “she” then.
194.    Clide:    No one does. Can you think of a gender neutral word?
195.    The Big Ragu:    “it”
196.    Gadfly:    thats what I thought but are we being politically correct?
197.    Guide:     Clide we dont have one.
198.    Clide:    That sounds primitive.
199.    Kurt Cobain:    how bout “they”? All it takes is a little thinking and reiwriting.
200.    The Big Ragu:    but it is gender neutral and that is all the criteria that was asked for.
201.    Guide:     They is plural and doenst refer to one thing.
202.    Gadfly:    I have to go out of my way though
203.    bob:    yeah, but they has he in it isnt that wrong.
204.    Gadfly:    good guide
205.    Clide:    Youd have to create a new word.

The Big Ragu and the Guide open the discussion of feminism by stating that they were against “the radicals” (lines 148 and 152)  While this potentially could become an attack on feminists, bob asks what feminism is, leading a number of group members to help him work out a definition.  Clide (the woman in the group) raises the issue of drawing a line between oversensitivity and ignorance.  The Big Ragu shows some sensitivity to what he perceives as a double standard about equal rights and gentlemanly conduct.  Kurt Cobain (the outsider) allies with Clide and uses an emphatic tone, “Of course it should be equal rights all the way” (line 164).  By line 166, bob understood feminism well enough to have developed an opinion on it.

In the second part of the excerpt on feminism, the discussion had evolved to writing class papers.  Gadfly objects to political correctness and says that he does not like writing “he or she in his papers.”  “It” and “they” are offered as alternatives. The discussion does not accept simple answers or simple contentiousness. Instead, we get a feeling that the group is wrestling with pros and cons of different alternatives.  Later they talk about possible new words and the awkward feeling of “one.”  As the teacher I should add that I had mentioned the chapter in our writing handbook on gender fair language when I handed out the syllabus on the first day of class.  At the time of these debates, a full-fledged class discussion of the topic had not yet taken place (I usually wait until I comment on sexist language on a paper and students bring it up when I am handing papers back).

What happened to keep this debate on track?  Was it the strong hand of the Guide, the presence of the woman, or the dynamic of the entire group?  Most certainly, anonymity was not a factor.  And, despite my having varied the conditions over two semesters, I still cannot rule out utter chance and circumstance, or teacher influence.  More research will have to be done in this area, and throughout 1995-96 I have continued my work along these lines.  I also look to others to conduct further studies under different conditions and variables.  But my first priority remains the quality of my classroom discussions and the pedagogical value of the whole exercise, both before and after electronic chat experiences.  I must put the needs of my students first and continue to strive for enlightening, interactive, and positive experiences in the classroom, both electronic and otherwise.

Conclusion

That said, I have to add that I look forward to using these electronic spaces in my classrooms again and again, with debates or any other topics I might think up.  I will of course continue to experiment with structures and group leadership in order to tilt the experience in a more positive direction for all students while at the same time relinquishing teacherly control and authority to my students as active learners, increasing the amount of interactive, dialogic experiences and helping them to think and analyze for themselves, without looking to an authority.   But still, I must ask the following pointed questions: “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?”

However, just think of how often this locker room discourse is self-censored and thus hidden from the eyes of the people whom it would offend. Would you rather know about it or not know about it? How about your students? Would you rather protect them from it, as sheltered children unaware of the gut-level feelings of their hegemonic oppressors, or would you rather use the site of your classroom to open the door for rare dialogue and interaction with these commonly hidden and unexamined attitudes?  I know my answer.

I find the electronic chat rooms to be an intriguing educational tool for feminist pedagogies, and one that my activist heart will not let me flinch from. The class discussion of the printed chat texts was the most essential and valuable part of the experience. My students had created collaborative, dialogic texts in a somewhat nonlinear form, and we were able to turn around and have an active discussion of the language and cultures created in the virtual space of those texts. Their words, their peculiar polyvocal compositions, became the highlight of the class reading list, bringing in alternative and often unprivileged texts for examination. This gave us a valuable gateway to higher understanding of the politicized contexts of language and culture. For instance, consider an assigned class bulletin board posting one week after the Fall 1994 Debates. It is from the Guide of the Real Name Group Fall 1994 (Virtual Locker Room), the student who described having sex with Hans’s mother:

Doing the chat box was pretty fun, I mean we were supposed to be doing work but it seemed  like other things wee on our minds.  I now wish that you never printed out the results of the chat box.  It is pretty evident that I have a very dirty mouth.  I guess you learn something about yourself in those kind of situations.

One of the things I learned was that a society can be formed by something so basic as a different name or the lack of one. There was an obvious tone difference in the writing of the real name group and the writing of the nick name group.  The group with the real names seemed to be more violent and aggressive (raw even ) with their speech but the writing of the nick was easy flowing and easy to comprehend. Though these differences were obvious it doesn’t make one lesser than the other. Guide, Real Name Group Fall 1994 (Virtual Locker Room).

In light of this and other similar responses, I would have to conclude 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.  And if we assume that these forums are a simple reflection of our existing cultures, rather than some democratizing, egalitarian ideal space, then class work analyzing how communication in these spaces can silence and empower different groups and individuals will become a valuable step in changing the existing cultures which are reflected in the electronic forums.

We can also see at times greater participation and interaction in a Chat Room debate than we might see in a face-to-face classroom discussion, particularly since there is no turn-taking and people need not queue waiting to talk or deciding that what they have to say is not worth the wait.  This brings a richness to class discussions due to the volume of ideas able to be introduced in a multi-threaded discourse, a subject that in itself is worthy of more research.  But we should not pretend that this effect is automatically a good thing, especially not for all students.  Several students in my class commented in their journals that these debates were also biased toward fast typists and people with good vision, and that is indeed the case.

Yet after looking at these texts, we still have to ask:  Isn’t all this obvious?  What is the big deal about the common phenomenon of adolescent banter getting out of hand?

The contrast between mainstream discourse and male-gendered discourse that emerges online can reveal for us another aspect of gendered communication in a forum where traditional nonverbal cues can be removed, and where egalitarian access and the inability to interrupt have been widely noted. These conditions eliminate often-cited variables affecting gendered communication and unfold before us a curiously distilled view of dominance and silencing. We can see how the gendered tone is set in the creation of on-line cultures, perhaps leading us to a better understanding of similar face-to-face cultures.

But more importantly, if we shift around to view these online male-gendered discourse conventions as deviations from the mainstream, as something Other, these texts have a great deal to reveal about attitudes toward women and minorities that only show up when the door seems to be closed, when the group is insular.  In an age when prejudice and overt discriminatory practices have gone underground, these texts serve as important proof to counter those who claim that the war is over, that the battle already has been won.  Without the evidence of these texts, how many of my students would have sat in a class discussion and vigorously asserted that sexism and racism were things of the past, that women and minority groups needed to “get over it?”  How many of them insisted that anyway?

But beyond the immediate classroom contact zone, these texts allow us as scholars to examine the dynamics of communication in exclusive domains, both with and without the presence of an outsider, a woman who represents and brings with her mainstream values and discursive styles. To spin Spitzack and Carter’s categories, “The Politics of Women as Other” and “Women as Communicators,” into “The Politics of Men as Other,” brings a hidden aspect of gendered communication into the open. From my analysis of the above chat texts, we can see that at times some men do view their position as one of Other, set off from the mainstream. This position of alterity can easily be characterized as resentful, hostile, and oppressive to women. If, according to Spitzack and Carter, “male speech is the standard against which female or ‘other’ speech is judged,” exactly what is this locker room speech, mainstream or Other?  If it is mainstream, why is it usually so carefully hidden?

Spitzack and Carter’s  “Women as Communicators” approach lets us consider political implications for men and women as both outsiders and insiders. In the Virtual Locker Room, women are outsiders, yet Virtual Locker Room discourse is outside the mainstream, affected by the controlling factor of even one woman (dare we refer to this male self-censorship as Habermas’s “internal and external coercion?).  So if male communication is not the standard against which men’s and women’s communicative actions are judged, what is the “organizing force in social interaction?” What are the political implications of these two different positions, mainstream and Other, once we construct them to operate more flexibly, less dualistically, to allow us to consider deviant, commonly self-censored, marginal discourse from men, the very group holding the greater political power?

For instance, an all-male locker room culture may be old news, yet from the point of view of women communicators, it is a cultural attitude and space from which they are excluded, along with other traditional bastions of male privilege, the men’s clubs, the good ol’ boys golfing circles.  While few women may want to be included or exposed to locker room discourse, a greater issue is at stake.  Getting in to the Men’s Club, the golfing circle, etc. may make no difference.  As we see in the Virtual Locker Room, it is possible that the discourse conventions which define this exclusively male terrain may cease to manifest themselves given the presence of even a single woman.

As many writers have already noted, power, favors, and connections are often commodities in these exclusively male groups, despite attention to other topics such as basketball or golf.  Cultural precedents may be established that in effect circle the wagons of the group, defining itself as Other, to effectively exclude even when it is forced to or seeking to include by law or social mandate.  Allowing women into men’s clubs may make no difference if the cultural boundaries demand self-censorship in the presence of an outsider.

Perhaps this kind of research could be done with conventional face-to-face methods (or unethical hidden tape recorders). The fact that this locker room discourse broke into the open in the medium of cyberspace should be sobering for those who make claims for greater egalitarian forums, for higher levels of democracy in this so-called “achieved utopia” of virtual reality.  Rather than theorizing impossibly ideal democratic features for cyberspace classrooms, communities, and cultures, we might  be better off trying to democratize our existing face-to-face cultures as they move into cyberspace, because more than anything, cyberspace culture seems to simply mirror and perhaps distort whatever we bring in to it.

Appendix

Key: Gender/Minority/Ethnic Identity (self-described)
W=Woman
AA=African American
A=Southeast Asian born
MEA=Middle East Arabia born
MEI=Middle East Israeli born
L=Central American/Cuban born
I=India born

(all percentages have been rounded to whole numbers)

Real Name Group (W) Spring 1994 :  43 Comments Total

(computer crash destroyed some text)

Guide Norb        37 percent.
Stephen (Gadfly)         23 percent
Guide Jeff         19 percent.
sue (W)              9 percent
David              2 percent
Amet (I)              2 percent.

Nickname Group Spring 1994 (Virtual Locker Room): 322 Comments Total

Tula (MEA)        22 percent
Felix the cat         19 percent.
Gadfly             19 percent
Guide (machine crash)         17 percent
Hamlet             15 percent.
Van Dam (changed names)     2 percent
The Beaver/Phoque/others          2 percent

Nickname Group (W) Fall 1994 :  244 Comments Total

The Big Ragu            21 percent
Guide                21 percent
Gadfly (MEI)            17 percent
Kurt Cobain            13 percent
Clide (W)            12 percent
bob                    9 percent
Cable (AA)              7 percent

Real Name Group Fall 1994 (Virtual Locker Room):  467 Comments Total

Gadfly (L)            20 percent
Guide (AA-L)            15 percent
Hans                15 percent
King Cobra (A)            15 percent
Eric                13 percent
Lin (A)                13 percent
vic (A)                10 percent


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