Re-embodying online composition: ecologies of writing in unreal time and space

Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden

Missouri State University


Despite the rapid increase in online course availability and variety across post-secondary institutions, and amidst pressures to redesign courses so that they utilize instructional technologies and offer alternate delivery methods, some teachers remain skeptical about the value of online education. Do advances in technology afford opportunities to improve upon what we already do well in our classrooms or just comprise a juggernaut, fueled by economics and an increasingly consumerist model of higher education, that will eventually render our current pedagogical work unrecognizeable? Data acquired by the Sloan National Commission on Online Learning in 2009 suggested that faculty who worry most prioritize teaching effectiveness over the numerous administrative benefits of distance education from student convenience to university budgets. Those faculty worry—even as they themselves teach online, sometimes—that the quality of instruction may be diminished by the very transition to a virtual learning space and wonder whether our pedagogy is keeping pace with the rush to convert courses. Marc Parry (2009) reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education that 70 percent of all faculty respondents to the Sloan Commission study, and 48 percent of those who have actually taught online, “believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction” (n.p.). Nevertheless, it has become a commonplace that “online learning is not going away,” as worded by the reviewer of a 2009 convention panel by the CCCC Committee into Best Practices for Online Writing Instruction (Terry Carter, n.p.). Composition, like many fields, is thus hard pressed to adapt, to develop strategies for the new academy that endeavor to maintain—or improve upon—the work that we do.

The very fact of this journal’s existence belies the notion that composition pedagogy unequivocally resists computer-assisted instruction. On the contrary, compositionists, who have proven themselves as pedagogically creative, innovative, and reflective a group as can be found in the academy, continue to explore and experiment with instructional technology to exciting and productive, not just inevitable, ends. But composition teachers too may struggle with the conversion of successful seated-course methodologies to online formats: in 2011, the CCCC Committee for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction released an extensive "Report on the State of the Art of OWI,” which indicates that more than 75% of online and hybrid teachers, despite expecting that they would continue to teach in these environments, responded with “near-audible ambiguity” on the success of the endeavors (p. 13). Among that report’s “extremely worrisome” findings were students’ failure to cite “satisfaction with writing instruction or the improvement in their writing” among the benefits of their online class, and faculty’s belief that “students were …disadvantaged by their OWI in such areas as…improvement of critical thinking skills” (p. 11).

It may be that writing pedagogy is uniquely difficult to translate into an online course, particularly when the same economic situation that makes online learning so administratively compelling may also limit the availability of high-tech software, teacher training, and student access to a wide variety of tools. Despite exciting research involving digital classrooms, multimedia approaches, and gaming, much of which has appeared in this very journal over the past few years, some of us are finding that institution-wide belt-tightening leaves us mainly with generic course management technology that only imperfectly replicates—and certainly does little to improve upon—the best seated classroom environments for student writing instruction. Ideally, our students would think and write in environments rich with interpersonal communication, rewarding collaboration, and the formation of productive learning communities. Instead, they may do their coursework alone, situated within rudimentary text-based course management systems (CMS) designed to facilitate content delivery and assessment of information mastery, interacting with others mainly in the form of disembodied typed comments sent in the silence of email. The problem for online composition is fairly simple on its face: the best practices in one endeavor match neither the skill set ostensibly most favorable to success in the other nor the tools readily available, either within university-wide CMS platforms or other accessible, affordable, and user-friendly technology.

The goal of our endeavor as teachers of novice writers complicates the matter with yet another obstacle. Experienced writers may find even a rudimentary technological system sufficiently workable—the emailed comments of various reviewers have helped us revise this article, for instance—but first year composition students’ relative lack of experience or sophistication with rhetoric and text-based communication create a kind of Catch-22 for OWI. One best learns to write within a community of writers, but, because such a community built online is, in large part, built through writing, a weak writer, struggling to write his or her way into a high-functioning community of writers, ends up with limited access to the best ways to improve his or her writing.

There is potential, though, in the very parallels between the multiple goals of the online composition class. By focusing on the common beliefs undergirding our efforts to facilitate a social construction of knowledge, to demonstrate the interconnected multivalence of communication situations, and to deliberately build learning communities in a disembodied space, we may reconceptualize elements of the course so as to productively pursue all of these goals simultaneously. In this paper, we posit one way of “making do,” not by greatly enhancing the technology of the online class but by designing an online assignment sequence that deliberately builds community as it reinforces the fundamental principles of the composition class. Modeling its own philosophical foundations, the assignment sequence is both ecologically interdependent and connected to the varied ecologies of writers, audiences, and ideas.

To home page

To the roots of the problem

An ecological model of writing

Community Building

We believe that community building ought to be one of the goals of online composition pedagogy—a goal which, according to Palloff and Pratt (2007), referencing Søren Nipper (1989), “almost supersedes the content-oriented goals of the course” (p. 14). In an ecological writing classroom, community can become not a supplemental but a content-oriented goal of the course. Designing activities deliberately around an ecological model of writing, we are able to simultaneously teach writing and build community by illustrating that writing and learning are inherently interconnected and social activities. As they complete an ecological assignment sequence, students begin to understand “community” as an entity that makes necessary contributions to knowledge and communication, even while they join in a small community mutually engaged in a project of creating knowledge and communicating meaningfully about it.

Our basic premise is that communities function ecologically: interconnected and collaborative, they are shaped by myriad factors besides the public utterances of the participants. Each participant is also an ever-evolving product of numerous contributing forces, conscious and chosen or invisible and involuntary. Furthermore, using the ecological composition work of Cooper (1986) and Syverson (1999) as a theoretical starting point, we conceive of academic composition as likewise ecological. Our students’ writing arises from a complexly integrated web of factors involving everything from classes previously taken to time management to available computer technology to academic disciplinary paradigms as they understand (or misunderstand) them. Cooper (1986) described the writing process as a complexly interconnected one involving many factors beyond the familiar pedagogical oversimplification of “author” and “audience,” an ecology made of “constantly changing…dynamic interlocking systems which structure the social activity of writing” (p. 368). In a detailed application to her composition class, Syverson interpreted these factors to include classroom dynamics, writing implements (from pen to computer), assignment design, and process, from brainstorming to graded product. In Ken Gillam’s 2008 application of Syverson’s concepts, he argued that the conventions of particular academic disciplines and of academia in general, course grading rubrics and notions of standardization, and published professional discourse are all elements of the complex ecology in which composition students think, compose, and develop knowledge (p. 49-52).

Most contemporary composition classes, whether the teacher uses the language of ecology or not, incorporate multiple ecological aspects of the writing process. As Cooper explained in 1986, even group work and discussion may reinforce an ecological notion of knowing, learning, and writing (p. 366). Online technologies, however, invite us to unwittingly emphasize enaction over all else, since writing a paper and submitting it electronically for peer review or evaluation are behaviors made simpler through technology, and the acts of writing critical comments, highlighting patterns of error, and referring to information sources that address them seem at least no more difficult in an electronic environment. Furthermore, instructional technology arguably encourages us to see, and present, knowledge formation as a linear—and highly regulated—process. Collecting research can be swift, easy, and public—informational websites are easy to link, or cut and paste, or post into even the most basic CMS—while prewriting, unless typed out with a word processing program, can easily become invisible. Discussion, outside of real time, changes from a rapidly accumulating and productively mutating give-and-take to a few solo-authored lines, posted in a temporal vacuum, answered if at all with another short post in a matter of days, not moments, regardless of whether the question has been answered or changed in the interval. Seated writing classes that are productively cognizant of writing as ecological, environments that build communities as sites of ecological inquiry and integration—these successful courses demonstrate behaviors much harder to effect and assess in an online class.

Syverson (1999) described communication, like any complex organic process, as characterized by four principles: distribution, emergence, embodiment, and enaction.


Enaction may be the most universal in composition courses, if, as Syverson (1999) lamented, the most “impoverished” in our theoretical understanding (p. 17). Based on “the principle that knowledge is the result of an ongoing interpretation that emerges through activities and experience situated in specific environments” (p. 13), enaction describes the ways in which knowledge is “brought forth” from the complexity of a writer’s learning processes and the world in which (and from which) the writer learns. Syverson claims that writers “do not report on a pregiven world… [but] bring forth a textual world as we are writing it” (p. 16). An enacted product arises as “emergent text begins to organize itself into a body” (Syverson, 1999, p. 17), a means of organizing and interpreting information so as to create knowledge from the particular characteristics of a particular moment. In an academic setting, enaction may most obviously present as the end product—an essay, a research paper—required as a formal presentation of the knowledge which has resulted from a student’s classroom- or project-based learning. Of all the artifacts of the composition class, final products may most overtly engage ecologically, and the ecological significance of “enacted” utterances is arguably even greater in terms of classroom management than writing process. Final products, in ecological terms, reflect not only what has gone into them (from within the writer) but a more or less successful cohesion with or adherence to an exterior knowledge-making environment, be it generally academic, disciplinary, or professional. A grading professor ultimately assesses the enacted product not in terms of how far its author’s ecological base has had to grow—the proverbial A for effort—but how well that ecology is able to adapt to the one to which the course aspires.

As a description of the writer’s final presentation of his or her emergent knowledge, enaction is perhaps less affected by the transition of a course to an online format than the other of Syverson’s descriptive categories; final papers, after all, can be written, submitted, shared, and evaluated using even the most Luddite technology. The categories of ecological composition that go into the knowledge that thusly emerges, however, can be compromised, complicated, or ignored completely in the online setting.


To Syverson (1999), “embodiment” deals with the elemental physicality of writing: “Writers, readers, and texts have physical bodies and not only the content but the process of their interaction is dependent on, and reflective of, physical experience,” she explains (p. 12). In a small-group seated environment, the concept of embodiment may call our attention to the construction and situation of knowledge even before actual keystrokes or pencil marks begin, in the placement of chairs, the volume of the discussion, the size of the classroom, the freedom to move around, or the dynamics of talking as a group. In terms of community formation, as we have said, we might further imagine any of a hundred physical cues that convey elements of personality or personal experience: clothing, eye contact, tones of voice, gestures, proximity to others, body language. Certainly, embodiment is implicated in students’ knowledge formation throughout their existence, not just in our class: their commute, their dorm life, their food plan—and, perhaps especially in the online environment, their families and extracurricular employment—all contribute to what, and how, student writers know.

As embodiment is the very thing that seems to be missing in online learning environments, we must first recognize that this aspect of their writerly ecology is not in fact absent: students are not actually disembodied just because we may never see them—but their embodied selves have become separable from the processes of learning and writing, disembodying our learning spaces if not our learners, and discouraging us all from seeing knowledge production as having a material, bodily component. Indeed, online students often have specific physical factors that formatively influence their course experience: a work schedule may affect the times of day at which they may participate and the level of fatigue they feel at those times; the physical setting—at home, maybe, or work—may be relaxed, uninterrupted, distracting, or noisy; students’ age and experiences may shape the identity or persona they (deliberately or unwittingly) share with their peers. Even more fundamentally, as Syverson (1999) explains, they still base their knowledge and opinions on their lived experiences and are still physically present in the world. What has changed is simply our access to and perhaps subsequent consciousness of that embodied world and the natural ease with which it may convert into an educationally purposeful community.


Just as crucial to the current project are Syverson’s categories of distribution and emergence. The first of these describes the complex ways in which “processes—including cognitive processes—are … both divided and shared among agents and structures in the environment” (1999, p. 7); knowledge is “always embedded in specific social, cultural, and physical-material situations, which determine not only how cognitive processes unfold but also the meanings they have for participants” (p. 9). Gillam (2008) expands Syverson’s list of ecological factors to identify the multiple and communal sources of students’ knowledge about particular topics, not limited to classroom reading and research but including also peer group interaction wherein individually-held ideas are extended, shared, explained, or defended (p. 43). One can easily imagine that a student’s knowledge is already distributed widely among formal learning sources alone—from sources of religious instruction, to previous educational institutions, to university classes across the curriculum. In a collaborative class, the various ecologies that contribute to students’ knowledge are acknowledged, shared, built, and used to form communities of inquiry.

Ironically, distribution is what many online learners (and internet users in general) already intuitively understand, given the nature of knowledge on the web: an online learner is likely to work (and play) with numerous windows open, consuming and coordinating limitless data on a daily basis and effortlessly envisioning information as something multidimensional and infinitely interconnected, thanks to the brave new textual world of hyperlinks, built-in glossaries, and programs that collect related or “similar-interest” sites or texts based on click patterns. Composition instructors are notorious for underutilizing (even disciplining!) this interconnected aspect of our students’ daily learning by insisting that most of what they learn “won’t count” in terms of our class, since it comes from, say, Wikipedia instead of library-based sources, or a message board instead of a peer-reviewed journal. Instructional technology like that packaged in Blackboard doesn’t offer much reinforcement of a web-like learning model, instead recreating by its relative linearity, textuality, and exclusivity a “banking model” of content delivery where the absent/empty student collects information from the teacher and/or from authoritative research sources, only after which they can be seen as knowing anything. One can imagine how understanding knowledge as broadly distributed could empower student writers embarking on a research project. Instead of empty minds waiting to be filled by the words of scholars, they are thinkers already who have a variety of knowledge(s) on any of a number of subjects, if those types and sources of knowledge vary in terms of bias, interest, accuracy, depth, or appeal to specialized audiences. Learning not that they know nothing but that what they know is situated—negotiated, even—between a variety of distributed sources, students begin to understand that their knowledge might alter its situation if they distribute their learning across a wider spectrum. One might even hopefully speculate that student writers come to see the potential for their lived knowledge to be altered in accordance with their developing academic knowledge.

Furthermore, distribution is a key element in collaboration. Any time students discuss elements of their distributed knowledge with one another, they are redistributing, creating a web of shared knowledge among group participants and solidifying the cohesion (and purposefulness) of the group. Working with others, besides getting along, dividing up tasks, and communicating about meeting times or assignment specifications, comes to mean integrating others’ knowledge worlds with one’s own, even as all those worlds are expanding by the demands of the assignment sequence. This paradigm gives collaboration much greater intellectual significance than is perhaps common—students in view of the distributed (and distributable) nature of their knowledge establish a kind of think-tank, rather than populate a team of task-doers.

Of course students must learn to evaluate their sources of distributed information, particularly as they figure out which sources will be most effective for which rhetorical situations; at its most fundamental, all learning may be an ongoing process of acknowledging, evaluating, and integrating the various environments across which one’s knowledge is distributed so that one can adapt to more sophisticated ecological systems.


Emergence, says Syverson (1999), is in some sense the product of this integration, referring to the “self-organization arising globally in networks of simple components connected to each other and operating locally… tendencies toward self-organization, order, and structure that emerge from simple components” (p. 11). Syverson (1999) describes emergence as comprising two behaviors, adaptation and coordination. Gillam (2008), quoting Syverson, explains emergence in composition classes as “the ways that writers experience …the larger meaning-making structures in which they participate [including] small work groups in and outside of class, interactions with the teacher, and so on” (p. 52). Writers become conscious of both their internal sources of writing and knowledge-formation—prior experiences, text books, traditional belief systems—and external structures that make meaning and determine quality—the standards that inform academic discourse, the teacher’s expectations, the structured task at hand, the opinions of their peer group members. Emergence describes the process by which knowledge arises from the coordination of these structures (Gillam, 2008, p. 52). As students write, that is, they are not simply expressing their ideas in language, they are negotiating those ideas through a number of discourses, some of which they are just beginning to learn.