Computers & Texts No. 12
Table of Contents
July 1996

Using Electronic Discussion to Teach Literary Analysis

Kevin LaGrandeur
Department of English
Hofstra University

The Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment includes Interchange, a module for synchronous or 'real time' conversations. Electronic discussion is often used outside the classroom or for distance learning. This article explains how electronic conversations within classroom time can be of greater benefit than traditional oral seminars.

Over the last three years, I have been developing and teaching an experimental, computer- based section of our first year seminar on literary analysis and research-paper writing. Among other things, I have noticed that the ease with which text can be produced, saved, and shared using networked computers presents interesting possibilities for collaborative learning. The most exciting tool that I have used, in this respect, is an ENFI (Electronic Networks for Interaction) program, which allows synchronous electronic discussion. In what follows, I shall discuss why and how I used this program to teach literary analysis together with the results of using it.

The ENFI Program Used

There are numerous avenues for engaging in electronic discussion. The classroom practice I shall describe below could be done on the Internet via environments known as MOO's or MUD's, which are accessible to anyone via 'virtual classrooms' on the Internet (one I have used, because it is big, and easy to access, is the University of Texas Internet site called Diversity University). In my classes I was not involved in distance learning, and so was not seeking a surrogate for oral discussion, but a means of enhancing it. Hence, rather than using an Internet site, I used an ENFI program installed on our Local Area Network (LAN), and I brought my students to the computer lab for some of our discussions of literature.

An ENFI program is a program that, like a MOO environment, allows a number of students to have a synchronous group discussion on a computer network, and is used on a Wide Area Network (WAN) or a Local Area Network (LAN), rather than on the Internet. The distinguishing characteristic of all of the aforementioned programs is that, unlike electronic mail, they are meant to be used by people who are communicating at the same time. To avoid virtual traffic jams, the ENFI program causes the network computer to automatically put all messages into a queue, and then send them to all users in order. So, each user sees on his or her screen the messages of all others who are currently involved in the given discussion, with each message arranged (and sometimes numbered) according to when that user sent it, and automatically labelled with its sender's name. Most programs of this kind also automatically compile and save a transcript of the whole discussion, so that nothing is lost. This feature is very useful for teaching students about analysis in general, and about writing analysis, in particular.

I use an implementation of ENFI called 'Interchange', which is part of the Daedalus Interactive Writing Environment. This program includes five modules: a basic wordprocessor, a bibliography-generator, an ideas organiser, Respond (for eliciting peer feedback on written work), a mailer (for those who do not have access to the Internet), and Interchange. Interchange can be bought separately from the other modules if preferred.

[Screen Shot]

A typical Interchange session in progress. An individual composes a message in the lower windows whilst contributions from other members of the group appear in the upper window.

Computer-Mediated Discussion

Traditional oral class discussions about literature have their disadvantages: first, oral discussions do not allow for revision or a great amount of care in one's expression; second, shy students are often hesitant about speaking in class discussions; third, the teacher is the real focus of discussion-texts and students' own opinions become secondary; and last of all, students seldom make use of any good ideas that they (versus the teacher) may develop. Anything written down in note form and later used in a paper, usually refers to something said by the teacher. I suspected that using an online discussion might help offset these shortcomings of oral discussion. Discussing a text (of their own, of others, or a literary text) in a program like Interchange allows students to practice written argument. Furthermore, using ENFI allows not only for a different type of discussion among students, but also for a different type of interaction: those who are shy about speaking in public may feel better when they can write their thoughts; and the teacher may more easily put himself in the background if he wishes, allowing the students to feel more uninhibited about expressing their opinions.

Electronic Discussion and Literary Analysis

My aim was not to conduct a completely 'virtual' class, but to experiment with ways that our school's LAN might enhance a literature class. Accordingly, I begin the study of a work, such as Frankenstein, with a lecture on its historical background, the effect on its creation of the author's life experiences, and so forth. I also give students a question around which to focus their reading for the next class, and from which I build questions for subsequent class discussion of the work. We meet in the computer lab for our discussion sessions.

I start an electronic discussion of a literary work much the same way that I start a regular oral discussion: with a question meant to prod students to make a foray into a key question raised by the text. The more tightly focused these prompts are, the better the discussion tends to go. I had to realise that even though this medium is textual, the fact that it is constantly fluid and multivocal means that different students may latch onto different parts of an overly-broad question, or become reluctant to answer the question altogether. As an example, consider the following exchange at the opening of one of my first Interchange sessions (I have deleted students' surnames in the following responses, but have left them otherwise unaltered):

Msg #1 Kevin Lagrandeur:
to discuss: Are there any similarities between characters in Blade Runner and Frankenstein? If so, which ones? How are they similar? Is this significant, in your opinion? How?

Msg #2 John:

Msg #3 Patrick:
Yaaawwwwnn! One of these days I'm going to accept the fact the the human body needs a minimum amount of sleep to operate. I'm presently operating off of a small cup of cafeteria orange juice. The olny thing you could provoke me to do now is sleep.

Msg #5 John:
I feel like] a Led Zepplin song or even a recent movie Dazed and Confused. I really don't think we have read enough to answer this question

Msg #6 Alison:
I guess that there are some similarities between characters in Blade Runner and Frankestein. I'm not really sure as to what they are since I never thought about it. I guess that there is a similarity between Walter's need for a real friend and Rick's need for a real animal. They both needed something real-Walter was tired of confiding in a journal and Rick was tired of taking care of a fake animal.

Note that, although Alison finally gets around to addressing my prompt, she seems extremely hesitant, peppering her statements with 'I guess' and starting one with 'I'm not really sure'. Also, she never attempts to answer the last two questions. In fact, none of the students do. Apparently, they have enough to do finding similar characters in the two novels and pointing out how they are similar. More significantly, student responses indicate a reluctance to engage the question (excuses about fatigue notwithstanding). Compare the responses above with the ones I get when I use a more tightly focused prompt:

Msg #1 Kevin Lagrandeur:
How much are Frankenstein's creature and the androids in BladeRunner to blame for the evil that they do? What specific quotes from each story show your point of view?

Msg #2 John:
Well, I cannot provide any specific quotes because I do not have the book Blade Runner. However, one could point out that both the androids and Frankenstein['s creature] live in cruel societies that discriminate against them. However, it seems like in today's society too many people are not resposible for their actions. It is very easy to blame society or the other guy.

Msg #5 Patrick:
there's gotta be a thousand possible answers to this one! -androids and monster *are* responsible you could argue this one by pointing out that the monster and the androids are the ones that commit the crimes and therefore should be the ones held responsible for their actions. John made a good point, though, that especially today people are able to get away with heinous crimes by successfully laying guilt on another party-i.e the Menendez brothers[. . . .] Then again, you can also argue that the creator is to blame because he *made* the monster or android that committed the crime. But how far can this blame go? In the case where the creation is something like a bomb or a deadly virus, the creator should be held responsible because his creation cannot think and reason for itself. However, the monster and the androids *can* make their own decisions and should be held responsible for them.

As one may see from this second sample of our Interchange transcript, a more focused question leads to more ready engagement of it by the students, as well as more developed responses. Moreover, as this medium makes their thought processes so transparent (we can see in both samples above, for instance, the overt testing of alternate hypotheses in response to the question) it is easier here than in oral exchanges for me to see where my students might be confused about their reading, how they come to their conclusions, and how my questions affect discussions.

It is this transparency that proves most useful for teaching the process of analysis. After an online discussion session is over, I direct the class's attention to their own modes of questioning (there is seldom closure: I simply ask people to stop sending messages once most students have had a say and the conversation starts losing momentum- usually 20-30 minutes). We scroll to messages that strike them, or me, as particularly insightful, or that use an interesting line of exploratory thought. I use the texts they have produced as examples of the heuristic process, asking them how they might expand upon a point, or whether, in retrospect and with their words in front of them, they might want to revise their analyses. I also prod them to discuss how they might do so. Such a process encourages them to do more revision of their essays, because they see first-hand how rethinking one's ideas helps to refine them. I also find that, once students get used to working with the computer, they are likely to use transcripts of our electronic discussions to develop a paper-which, in turn, further encourages them to better develop their arguments.

Making use of electronic class discussion with programs such as Interchange, teaches the students, through experience, about the process of linking invention and drafting; or, to put it another way, it teaches them how to link discussion, note-making, thinking, and prewriting to the writing of a more 'formal' essay. This is more important than it may sound. New students tend to try to set down their thoughts in one draft, from beginning to end, in a process that they assume is orderly. This process is very difficult. Whilst inexperienced writers tend to assume that those proficient at writing simply transcribe to paper what they think, experienced writers know that the writing process is an invention process. Writing is messy, most often nonlinear, and requires revision-especially material written near the beginning of a draft. If the instructor encourages a student to see what she and others have written during an Interchange session as more than an isolated discussion about a text then ENFI helps provide a tangible demonstration of the writing process.


I think it would be helpful to summarise what are, in my experience, the benefits of using synchronous electronic discussion for teaching literary analysis:

  1. Increased class cohesion, and increased participation in class discussion: Shy students felt a greater freedom to contribute to class discussion, and students felt less timid about initial contact with one another.
  2. Increased opportunities to learn from each other, rather than just the teacher: Partly due to the increased student participation and cohesion, the class acted more like a community of learners than found in a traditional classroom. Moreover, electronic discussions ease the teacher away from the centre of attention and prompts greater participation in classroom exchanges.
  3. More careful, focused expression of ideas: The students and I noticed that the electronic discussions that we had were more thought-provoking. They appreciated the chance afforded by that electronic discussion to gather their thoughts and to express them more carefully.
  4. An immediate and transparent demonstration of the hermeneutic process.
  5. Students learned more readily how to build from ideas to essays: Because they tend to view writing as an isolated activity tacked onto the end of a process of learning, thinking, or planning, rather than as that process in itself, inexperienced writers seldom make effective use of class discussions in the papers they write. But, partly because they recognised that the quality of the discourse was somewhat higher than normal in electronic, written discussions, and because transcripts of such discussions were automatically compiled by the computer as a reference, students in my computer assisted sections of the English course began to see the transcripts of those discussions as a resource for building essays. Thus, they more readily saw the links that tie brainstorming, drafting, and revising together in one integrated writing process.


Further information about the Daedalus programs can be obtained from The Daedalus Group, 1106 Clayton Lane, Suite 248W, Austin, TX 78723. Tel: 800 879-2144. Email: Other programs available for synchronous electronic discussions are: Conference Writer (Macintosh), RDA/Mind Builders, 10 Boulevard Ave., Greenlawn, NY 11740 (800 654-8715); ClassWriter (Macintosh), Intellimation, Dept. 2HF, P.O. Box 1530, Santa Barbara, CA 93116 (800 346-8355, email:; Real-time Writer, Real Time Learning Systems, 2700 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20008-5330 (800 320-6117); Textra (Macintosh or IBM), W.W. Norton & Co Ltd., 37 Great Russell St. London (email:

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 12 (1996), 11. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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