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

Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden

Missouri State University


As in many process-oriented classes, our students begin the project by prewriting to figure out what they already know, but rather than mining an isolated authorial mind, we encourage them to see that what they “know” is distributed across numerous sources, each differently connected to a topic. Prewriting with this goal further encourages students to see problems as themselves distributed across communities. Using the visual metaphor of a tree to represent the complex ecosystem by which ideas grow—cast in a simple template we’ve created in Microsoft Word, with text boxes pasted on top of a background image—we encourage students to think about a topic from “roots” to “fruits.” What elements contribute to the issue, in other words, and what consequences may spring from any combination of those causal elements? Like any “clustering” method of brainstorming, this template encourages writers to explode their topic of interest in several directions, but it is specifically constructed to bring out the ecological complexities of the topic, specifically as the topic becomes interpreted as a problem.

For example, a student may be interested in teen pregnancy. Undoubtedly a social “problem” to many, this topic, like “abortion,” “the legalization of marijuana,” and “gay marriage,” may seem like one of those rather generic, non-local, typical freshman composition topics that don’t truly engage students or teachers. When asked neither to opine nor persuade nor collect statistics nor to immediately rush to solve the problem, though, but to describe its ecological makeup and situation in an interconnected world of ideas and people, the student might brainstorm various consequences of teen pregnancy, from its possible stifling of young parents’ educational opportunities, to its costs in terms of health and welfare benefits to underemployed parents, to the challenges it presents for unskilled and immature parents, to possible other social problems exacerbated thereby. On her template, the student literally draws the conclusion that teen pregnancy constitutes different problems to different people. Healthcare costs matter mainly to taxpayers, the obstacles to adult education to the individuals in question (or their hopeful parents), and sub-par parenting to child advocacy groups and teachers. If teen parents were educated, skilled, mature, and well-to-do enough to afford high-quality full-time childcare and health insurance, in a hypothetical differently ecological situation, that is, teen pregnancy might not be a social “problem” at all (as is wasn’t, for instance, in pre-modern societies).

The causes of teen pregnancy, expressed as the topic’s several “roots,” are likewise multiple and ecologically situated, and, without stretching the visual rhetoric too far, nourished by the soil in which they are planted. Teen pregnancy may be caused by irresponsible kids (nourished by contemporary parenting philosophies or other social attitudes); the aggressive marketing of sexuality in popular culture (nourished by uncritical consumption of cultural messages); a lack of education on sexual behavior (nourished by the lack of cooperation between educational, political, and religious groups); or the absences of appropriate recreational activities in the community (nourished by the lack of cultural resources or education dollars). The list could go on, of course. The brainstorming exercise ultimately illustrates that the “problem” of teen pregnancy is itself a consequence of a number of other problems, each of which affects and is affected by different people or organizations.

In a very real way, then, this prewriting initiates a sense of community by foregrounding community’s role in defining (or creating) important social issues. More to the point of building online learning communities, moreover, this exercise empowers students to join their online groups from a position of authority. Having figured out how much they already know about a few possible topics and their extensions across populations, seeing both where they fit and where they are mere degrees of separation from affected or influential groups, students enter their small group conversation with material things to offer, rather than just abstract “topic ideas” they may or may not have vetted even for the depth of their own engagement. The follow-up exercise is overtly communal: on the class discussion board, with their classmates as their primary audience, students list and evaluate the topics they’ve exploded on their trees, prioritizing them and defending the top two or three from this prioritized list. Their writing may be explorative, descriptive, or overtly persuasive in this task, as they know this conversation will give rise to eventual group topics. In prioritizing their topic choices, writers figure out where they do and don’t have a sense of ecological distribution or anything material to contribute; in introducing and defending them, they tend to richly introduce themselves to their classmates, offering relevant details from their own embodied experiences and distributed knowledge to support claims of access or expertise on various topics. The non-traditional student who wants to write about teenage pregnancy, for instance, may report knowing a pregnant teenager from her child’s high school, for instance, giving her classmates a clearer sense of who she is and showcasing the contributions she has to make as a thinker to a community of inquiry; another may self-identify as a very young mom, opening a door not only to the topic but to the material challenges that may face nontraditional students (many of whom, of course, seek online courses).

As they read others’ priority lists on the discussion forum, students see sites of overlap between what they know and believe and what their classmates’ care about, as well as seeing the breadth of the class’s knowledge and the numerous sources from which each individual member draws. This discussion forum conversation thus tacitly demonstrates the concept of distributed knowledge. From seeing themselves as isolated learners, even as they charted the distribution of knowledge of a topic abstractly on their prewriting trees, they join groups based on one another’s posts, necessarily situating their knowledge and opinions in the multivalent web of ideas collectively compiled by their classmates.

Teachers have the opportunity here to point out connections with follow-up posts, serving as what George Collison et al (2000) call “generative guides,” helping students come up with a variety of possibilities from which to ultimately form the shared basis of their group research project (p. 106). Often, group formation requires a slightly broader or slightly narrower view of the topic than students themselves have tentatively decided upon. If only one student cited an interest in teen pregnancy as a topic, for instance, but several students have concerns that relate to a larger question about the health and welfare of American teens (common enough among both traditional and nontraditional college students), a single group topic could be broadly construed, eventually subdividing into public school sex education policies, area resources for emotional wellness, and campus efforts to minimize risky student behaviors. After reviewing students’ trees and discussion board conversations, an instructor can suggest that students start by talking about possible challenges in the life of the American teenager. In other words, beyond the practical reasons for asking students to share broad topics, such an approach can also reveal how topics themselves might connect to one another in a web-like way, with common causes or outcomes, prospective audiences, or similar solutions.

From the whole-class discussion board conversation, we assign students to groups, considering their topic rankings and allowing them to privately email requests for specific group membership or topic. The first small-group exercise then asks students to informally begin their shared exploration into the topic, inquiring widely—on the internet and in their lived worlds—and posting their findings to a group discussion forum conversation not limited by scholarly reputability. This initial collection of data can include personal experiences, anecdotes or information from any other source—blogs, advertisements, websites, stories told by family and friends. Such a conversation expands upon, reinforces, and publicizes the students’ original topic trees, documenting various populations, opinions, angles—“roots” and “fruits”—relevant to the topic and its definition as a problem. Inevitably, this also becomes an exercise wherein students begin to know one another—and themselves—ecologically. The personal contributions they share are frequently embodied and necessarily distributed and, as they incorporate one another’s contributions and their informal research findings into “what they know,” their individual ecological situatedness begins to coordinate with other ecological meaning-making systems.

Steeped in a multitude of opinions on or approaches to an increasingly complex topic, student groups then produce their first formal composition: a collaboratively-authored questionnaire designed to elicit information from an interested population. The data collected will eventually help students more locally situate, more fully understand, and more concretely address the problems they’ve chosen to write about; like other prewriting tasks, the questionnaire assignment fundamentally attempts to broaden the distribution of students’ knowledge of a topic. Having recognized that topics become “problems” by virtue of how they are spread across populations, and recognizing that even with the contributions of their group members, they can only cover so much of that territory, student questionnaires on the one hand simply ask others for yet more experiences, opinions, and ideas to consider. In an exaggerated (and unlikely) example, the student writing about teen pregnancy might learn from fifty people surveyed that she’s in a small minority of people who see teen pregnancy as problematic, or she might learn that several people approach the issue in a way she had not yet considered. If her survey population does not support her initial assumptions, she needs to rethink those initial assumptions amidst the broader ecology drawn by the survey population.

At the same time, writing a questionnaire also requires students to think carefully about how their language and assumptions will be negotiated and interpreted by a specific audience, so that the questionnaire design itself models the principles of emergence and enaction. This exercise affords a teacher an opportunity to discuss style and rhetoric at the level of the sentence, providing both a kind of fine-motor exercise in writing and a kind of micro-lesson in the way that emergent knowledge is brought forth into enacted statements and question structures. If writers’ language does not clearly coordinate with their auditors’ understanding, or if their emergent knowledge is insufficient to elicit the purposeful engagement of a specific audience, they won’t get the results they seek. A group might be researching students’ social behaviors, for instance, in pursuit of information about fitness, alcohol, drugs, and campus life, and draft a multiple-choice question like this, intended for a broad swath of the campus population: “What do you do on weekends? a) work, b) party, c) go home, or d) participate in a student organization.” The most obviously socially-determined aspect of the question, and thus the most likely to create error, might be the word “party,” a word which signifies alcohol or drug use for some populations, with or without an actual “party,” but might for others suggest a more formal gathering, with or without alcohol or drugs. Furthermore, we can point out the multivalence, on college campuses especially, of words like “work” and “home,” which will mean differently to nontraditional students who no longer consider their parents’ residence “home,” to those who have one or more off-campus jobs, and to those who consider school “work” their highest weekend priority. Thus a conversation as apparently basic as, “Are you going to party tonight?/No, I’ve got to go home,” can be seen as intrinsically social and thus prone to errors in translation.

We find our hand gets a little heavier during the process of questionnaire formation, as we temporarily shift from designer and guide to what Scott Warnock (2009) calls the “instructor or project leader” (p. 3). Because this process is new to most students, we have some specific instructional content to share: the benefits of open-ended over multiple choice questions, for instance; how demographic information might be necessary or interesting; or ways that syntax might lead or bias respondents. When technology is available, this may be done by video lecture or narrated PowerPoint; otherwise, a detailed handout and follow-up reinforcing activity like a discussion or low-value quiz can adequately convey the basic information. A questionnaire template with some suggested question types (and a visual walking-through of the template using a word-processing program’s “comment” feature or a simple font change), gives students some guidance as they begin. Then, weighing in as students draft questions in their group discussion forums, we can model verbal precision on a case-by-case basis and help students avoid pitfalls. Our students also submit their final questionnaire for an okay (or final recommendations) before distributing it to their prospective respondents. Time permitting, one may also have student groups themselves trade, attempting to answer one another’s questionnaires and reporting on any problems that might have arisen.

A follow-up lecture on basic data collation, also presented via narrated Powerpoint or Adobe Presenter, can introduce simple elements of visual rhetoric like charts and graphs and get students comfortable with the idea of generating a few questionnaire-based claims for their final paper. An added bonus at this stage is the way that the data collation process demonstrates first-hand the rather slippery nature of statistical evidence. The size and demographic details of their subject pool; any potentially biased, confusing, or misleading vocabulary in their questions; the failure to link two sets of answers so that they accurately posit relation or causality—any of these things can dramatically skew results.

The penultimate prewriting task, before students begin drafting their final essays, is to assemble a collaborative annotated bibliography of scholarly or other reputable sources; Palloff and Pratt (2007) have argued, “this type of search and the reporting back to the group on the results can be an effective assignment leading to the expected learning outcomes of the course” (p. 120), as student collaborators in effective learning groups must “work together to generate deeper levels of understanding and critical evaluation of the material under study” (p. 120). In short annotations posted to the group discussion forum, students point out to their fellow group members what aspects of an article might be helpful as they all draft, ideally situating the information in the context of conversations they’ve had throughout the project, and briefly explain how they determined that the source was credible. They are encouraged to reply to one another’s postings, to praise or critique or even offer thanks. Even in a task where the shared rewards seem so obvious as a collaborative bibliography, still the solitary author paradigm occasionally creeps in, as students may seem inclined (or trained) to see their high-quality research contributions with what we call an “Easter-egg” mentality, as if finding a good source means it’s yours to keep, and to share sources is to give someone undeserved help or to diminish one’s own success in researching. By now, though, so much of the work has been shared that most students are enthusiastic about sharing scholarly sources, and such sharing not only provides the whole group with needed materials but definitely further develops the sense of community.

In ecological terms, students’ finding professional and published materials not only widens the distribution of the group’s collective knowledge but collaboratively constructs a concrete model of emergent knowledge—those “larger meaning making structures,” lent authority by academic scholarship or professional media, in which they will be asked to participate in their final papers (Gillam, 2008, p. 52). In this step, they accumulate numerous clear models of what passes for legitimate discourse on the subject in academic and professional settings.

To background section

To the writing

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.