Feminist Theory and CMC 24-Hour Exam (II)

What is meant by a feminist rhetorical approach to computer-mediated
communication? What are some of the problems/issues to be encountered by
feminists undertaking the task of performing rhetorical analyses of CMC?
What unique insights might a feminist rhetorical stance contribute to our
understandings of technology and culture? Do you see the role of such work
as solely to offer critiques? if not, what else might such work have as its

In this essay, I will explain some of the characteristics of a feminist rhetorical approach to computer-mediated communication (CMC), some of the problems in such research, and the contributions and goals of feminist rhetoricians' CMC research. First, it is necessary to define CMC: as I'm using the term, it refers to research in technical communication, rhetoric, composition, and computers and writing. Other research has been done in linguistics and in other disciplines, but it is beyond the scope of this discussion. In my view, a feminist rhetorical approach to CMC includes attributes of feminist research in general as well as special attention paid to three areas of inquiry: the gendered epistemological and cultural traditions of computing practices, CMC's potential usefulness in feminist composition pedagogy, and the testing of feminist theories of men's and women's learning styles and communication styles. Historically, the primary problems encountered in such research are the continued assumption (and potential reification) of a man/woman, masculine/feminine gender binary (LeCourt, 1999) and what Gerrard (1999) calls "technology hope," the enthusiastic assumption that new technologies will be good for women and for feminism. I argue that, although researchers have had these problems, feminist rhetorical approaches to research in CMC have made contributions to current understandings of technology and culture by synthesizing knowledge from feminist theory, composition theory, and research in human-computer interaction; that is to say, such insights are not necessarily the exclusive province of feminist rhetorical research in CMC, but feminist rhetoricians' syntheses of other insights have extended previous work. These insights, which I would argue are closely connected with the goals of such research, include making a case for the validity of multiple teaching and learning styles rather than a right one, exposing cultural norms of authorship, and showing new ways women can participate in public discourse.

A Feminist Rhetorical Approach to CMC

A feminist rhetorical approach to CMC research encompasses several of the qualities associated with feminist research in all disciplines. It is significant to note that feminism in research is not a method, but a perspective, and feminist researchers are interested in women's experiences of and perspectives of things and phenomena (Lay, 2002). Feminist research often has an activist agenda (Lay, 2002, Naples, 2003). It is sometimes aimed at making specific, tangible changes in public policy that would benefit women, but this is not always the case; however, feminist research usually has the implicit, tacit goal of improving the world in some way for women. In feminist approaches to rhetoric and composition, research often takes up Adrienne Rich's call to "take women students seriously." Another key component of feminist research is the critique of "value-free," "objective" research, sometimes in the form of standpoint theory, which, as Naples (2003) argues, does not take accounts of women's experiences as truth claims -- a point of contention on the part of critics of feminist standpoint theory -- but instead uses women's perspectives as a "site through which to begin inquiry" of whose values are privileged in nonfeminist research. Feminist researchers consider reflexivity, the continual reexamination of their own assumptions and ethical conduct, an essential part of the research process. Relationships with participants in feminist research also make it distinct from other kinds of research; researchers strive for a nonhierarchical, collaborative relationship with participants, even soliciting feedback from participants as to which research questions are important to them (Kirsch & Ritchie, 1995, Lay, 2002). A rhetorical approach to research looks at motivated speech and writing; rhetoricians study texts in their rhetorical contexts, paying attention to writer, text, audience, and the rhetorical situation. Feminist rhetoricians look at texts in their gendered contexts. They "[examine] women's texts or the contexts that produce or silence women," and they
"may focus on gender-power relationships as they examine the contexts within which texts have been generated." (Lay, 2002, p. 170). In computer-mediated communication, the computer culture is a significant context to study, as it is replete with gendered meanings and histories.

Feminism and Computer Culture

Feminist rhetorical research in CMC provides a genealogy of how practices are rooted in gendered traditions: In this case, CMC is rooted in the exclusion of women from the sciences, math, and technological production, as well as a masculine epistemological tradition. Lay (1993) points out the "remnants of scientific positivism" in computer culture (especially in the development of the hardware and software) tendency to divide the world into dichotomies "either objective or subjective, allied with nature or culture, governed by emotions or rational thinking, these dichotomies privilege what society labels as masculinity" (p. 222). Selfe & Selfe (1996) add that computer production and networking has its origins in the military, with the motive of making military communication more efficient in times of war. Lay (2002) observes that some "research using feminist perspectives to study technical communication asks how knowledge structures themselves are gendered or limited by the patriarchal structures and contexts" (p. 174). The knowledge structures influence how knowledge about computers gets communicated, and one particular feminist rhetorical intervention into CMC is to critique the selection of interface metaphors, including the violent masculine metaphors "kill" and "abort." Gerrard (1999) also cites Selfe & Selfe's challenge to imagine a computer with the interface metaphor of "kitchen" or "work bench," each of which would gender or class the computer differently.

Other such interventions into computer culture and practice include critiques of women's access to technology. Feminist rhetoricians argue that girls are not encouraged to play computer games and engage with the computer as much as boys are and that computer games are designed using the masculine values of hierarchy, structure, and competition. This early experience with computers is crucial because it establishes a pattern that will likely continue into adulthood; to wit, historically, and even now, men outnumber women in technical professions. Early feminist critiques of women's access to computers illustrate that in the workplace, women were given word processors, while men in management were given personal computers. This, feminists argued, worked to keep women in a pink-collar ghetto. One example of this is Aschauer's (1999) study of eight women technical communicators. These women had all graduated from the same Master’s degree program. Aschauer observed them for four years, both in school and as they entered the workplace. She looked for rhetorical problem-solving techniques that these women used as they used technological tools. She found that the technological tools the women used, in these cases, were not serving a gender hierarchy, but the ways the men sometimes viewed the women Aschauer observed — as “educated secretaries” — were influenced by the men’s view of the women as separate from engineering projects. That is, the women were sometimes not considered integral parts of projects because they did not know the right tools. The women, however, through rhetorical problem-solving, were able to establish themselves as important parts of their organizations.

CMC and Feminist Pedagogies

Perhaps the most-researched area of inquiry in feminist rhetorical research on CMC is its potential to facilitate feminist pedagogies. I review but a segment of the conversation in this area, but I intend for it to be a snapshot of the kinds of research feminist rhetoricians do in CMC and feminist pedagogy. Feminist teachers, discouraged by their women students' lack of confidence in their writing and reluctance to participate in class discussions, looked to CMC in the form of MOOs, MUDs, discussion boards, email, and other synchronous and asynchronous technologies as a way to get shy students, especially women, to take a more active role in discussions. Several studies center on the amount of participation by men and women in electronic environments, while others explore hypertext and the use of technology for other experimental forms of writing. For example, Rickly (1999) studied discussions in four composition classes on INTERCHANGE, a synchronous electronic discussion network. Instead of categorizing students according to their gendered bodies, however, Rickly used the Bem Sex Role Inventory to gender the students masculine or feminine. Using textual analysis, primarily word counts, Rickly found that students generally participated in electronic discussions more than traditional oral discussions, but that students who tested male in the Bem Sex Role Inventory participated more in the electronic environment than the students who tested female. Rickly argues for using the BSRI instead of testing on the basis of biological sex because “[t]he field, as a whole seems to embrace social construction; we need to look beyond standard measures of biological sex, then, to measures of socially constructed gender if we are to gain an accurate view into what occurs in the classroom” (p. 138).

Wolfe (1999) conducted a similar study on INTERCHANGE. Unlike Rickly, Wolfe only examines groups of students, not students’ interactions with each other and the instructor. Wolfe analyzed quantity (word count) and response patterns. She found that women asked more questions and tended to post more messages agreeing with other students. Women, according to Wolfe, respond more to conversational support and connection with others in the community than do men, who have more of a tolerance for adversarial interactions.

LeCourt & Barnes (1999) inquire into hypertext's potential for disrupting traditional writing and teaching of writing, with the intent of making two interventions: First, they wanted to disrupt contexts and communities (i.e. the academic institution) that enforce masculine epistemological norms; and second, they wanted to use hypertext composition as a way to deconstruct the masculine concpetion of "author" as a single, unified self. They began their research with the assumption that "academic writing [proscribes] a single voice" and "maintaining multiple subject positions" is a "key feminist act" (1999, p. 327). They add:

the text should allow the writer to recognize and work against the subject positions academic discourse inscribes and help her become more aware of her own multiplicity as well as the partiality and specificity of her subject positions. Further, the textual product should help readers acknowledge the ideological nature of the context and recognize the multiple voices as expressing a certain politics of location" (LeCourt & Barnes, 1999, p. 330)

Although Barnes approached the class as a forum in which to subvert the norms of academic discourse, she was obliged to have her students make the hypertext easier for potential readers by adding structural devices and "reinvoked academic means of achieving authority" in the process:

the almost linear organization of the opening screen, which provides an overview (essay map?) with clear labels of voices (subtitles?) and explanations of hypertext's functions (cohesive devices?), as well as the semi-hierarchical organization of the top levels (an outline?), remind us that this text does conform to many academic expectations about how coherence is achieved. (p. 331)

LeCourt and Barnes conclude that, while the process of teaching the class and striving for multivocality, partiality, and writing in multiple contexts, multivocal writing cannot occur in just one context, and the controlled context of the academic institution was not conducive to multivocal writing, as it demands coherence and a "univocal I" author.

Testing Feminist Theories of How Men and Women Learn and Communicate

Gerrard (1999) identifies another key area of feminist rhetorical research in CMC: the testing of existing feminist theories of how men and women learn and communicate. This line of inquiry provides an explanation of why much feminist rhetorical study of CMC uses the theories of Belenky et al., Chodorow, and Gilligan. Each of these theorists claims that differences in women's social development lead to marked psychological and moral differences between men and women, differences which affect women's knowledge making and communicative practices. The field of rhetoric has been heavily influenced by social construction, and it is a common consensus that knowledge is made through language in social contexts: "textual studies within technical communication illustrate rhetorical links between text and context and therefore assume the social construction of knowledge" (Lay, 2002, p. 169-170).

Lay (1996) identifies several differences between men and women's learning styles : She critiques top-down programming for its hierarchical masculine thought style and points to Turkle and Papert's study of computer programmers, noting that most computer learners classified as "bricoleurs" are women. Bricoleurs "tend to anthropomorphize the computer and seek transparency, closeness, and visual manipulation when learning and using the computer" (p. 68-69). Instead of top-down programming in which the programmers dutifully write modules of code conforming to the designer's plan, bricoleurs prefer moving the modules around and rearranging them until the program is completed. She also cites studies that claim that men are more interested in the computer itself, whereas women are more interested in the computer as tool or means to completing a task. She recommends that computer documentation textbooks include diverse learning styles, including those of women. While the theories of Belenky et al., Chodorow, and Gilligan have been criticized as essentialist, Lay (1996) argues that feminist rhetoricians should recognize the value of studies such as those done by Belenky et al., Gilligan, and Chodorow because they are valid for many men and many women.

Problems Encountered

LeCourt (1999) observes that much feminist rhetorical research in CMC relies on essentialist or constructivist models of gender, both of which reify a masculine/feminine, man/woman gender binary. This, she argues, doesn't tell us much about power in electronic discourse. She also critiques a tendency to assume that women's access to technology will automatically lead to egalitarian online discourse. She writes,

there is little guarantee that speaking the feminine will necessarily lead to a change in power relationships. It seems just as likely that 'feminine' modes of expression and ways of knowing would be discounted as less powerful online, much as they are in other public realms. Similarly, the discourse forms might themselves 'mark' the gender even of anonymous participants, again creating the grounds for gendered hierarchies to re-emerge. In short, focusing on a knowable feminine writing and epistemology preserves gendered definitions created by the patriarchy. As such, feminine forms open themselves up to continuing marginalization as the lesser term of the male/female binary. (1999, p. 156)

I agree with LeCourt but acknowledge that it is difficult, when doing feminist research using gender as a category of analysis, not to think of two genders. This will continue to be a problem in feminist rhetorical CMC research, but I will bear it in mind as I do my research.

Takayoshi (2000) points out the common use of positive and negative classroom narratives as a “primary research methodology” in feminist computers and composition scholarship (p. 127). She encourages scholars to use various methods and to do more studies of only women users, as opposed to men's and women's interaction online. Narratives, when they are used, should be “a heuristic for further investigation” (p. 132). She recommends more critical feminist research practices; for example, examining the power relationship between researcher and researched and what women and teachers can do to be agents of change.

Insights and Goals of Feminist Rhetorical Research in CMC

As I have said, I believe the goals of feminist research in CMC are closely tied to the insights that have come from such studies, and I will conclude by pointing to some of these insights and goals. The primary insight provided by feminist studies of CMC, according to Gerrard, is "an ability to recognize a multiplicity of learning styles and ways of interacting and to reconsider their usefulness" (p. 392). In other words, one of the contributions of this research is to expose cultural genealogies that inform teaching and learning styles and to show that multiple feminist pedagogies are preferable to one way of teaching and learning. Gerrard writes that feminist studies have the "potential to extend the discussion of ways of seeing beyond gender to ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic groups, with the goal of challenging the idea that a single way of thinking is superior to all others" (p. 392). A goal that extends from this insight, then, would be that disrupting cultural norms surrounding computer technology and encouraging women toward gaming, sciences, math, and technology by being more inclusive in teaching styles would result in women's entering these fields in greater numbers and influencing knowledge production in those fields.

Another insight gained from feminist rhetorical interventions into CMC is the awareness of new conceptions of authorship and cultural production (LeCourt & Barnes, 1999, Lunsford, 1999, Comstock, 2001). As I previously stated, LeCourt & Barnes persuasively argue that the traditional notion of the author as an authoritative, unified self is problematic for feminists, who consider such a view of the self uncritical and antiquated. Electronic networks offer new opportunities for collaborative authorship and "critical pastiche," or the use of other texts and images in countercultural production (Comstock, 2001, p. 388). Comstock (2001) and Lunsford (1999) caution that web texts are susceptible to corporate appropriation, but that women (and men) can use web technologies to critique mass culture and write in multiple contexts, outside the potentially oppressive settings of home, school, and work. The goal I see as being connected to this kind of writing is, as Comstock says, the provision of new ways for women to speak and form communities (forums). Such networking affords an understanding of young women as rhetoricians in the public sphere, as producers of culture (Comstock, 2001, p. 384). Through zine writing -- and writing in other genres, including, I would argue, weblogs -- grrrls and women can form "subaltern counterpublics." In doing so, they get out of, and they train for participation in wider publics (Comstock, 2001). The utmost goal of feminist rhetorical studies of CMC, then, is to ensure that women have the power to speak how they like and as much as they like, in private and in public.


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