The Body Matrix: A Phenomenological Exploration of Student Bodies On-line
How do students experience their bodies in on-line collaborative learning environments? Do their perceptions of their bodies on-line shape their participation in the learning process? Can student perceptions of body inform on-line pedagogy?
I have experienced on-line learning environments both as a student and as an instructor. These experiences sparked the research question, what is the lived experience of students in on-line learning environments? Seven graduate students in a Masters Program in Teaching joined me in conversations to explore their lived-body experiences in web-based computer conferencing (WCC), an asynchronous on-line learning environment. These students used WCC over a two-year period as an enhancement to their face-to-face meetings. For this research project, each student participated in two two-hour conversations that were tape recorded and transcribed. From the research, I reflect on a pedagogy that supports and encourages student learning online.
The research method I used to explore the students’ lived experiences in WCC is hermeneutic phenomenology. It offers a method to peer into and bring forward the existential themes (i.e., lived space, lived body, lived time, and lived human relation) of an experience. Questioning draws the reader and the writer into the lived experience inviting them to examine it from various perspectives. “A good phenomenological description is collected by lived experience and recollects lived experience—is validated by lived experience and it validates lived experience” (van Manen, 1990, p. 27).
Phenomenology as a research method in education tries to “ward off any tendency toward constructing a predetermined set of procedures, techniques, and concepts that would rule-govern the research project” (van Manen, p. 29). While there is no set of fixed procedures, van Manen understands hermeneutic phenomenological research in the human sciences as an interplay of six research activities:
From the conversations and the interplay of the six research activities, the students’ experience of lived-body in a WCC began to reveal itself.
The Body Is: “Being” On-line
Merleau-Ponty places the body at the center of ontology. “I am” because I have a body. It is from the body that I perceive the world. It locates me in a place. Merleau-Ponty suggests that we
Students describe their body when on-line as sitting in front of their computer. They use the computer to reach out to the world.
Emma did not go beyond the boundaries of her body and interact with those in the WCC. The computer and the WCC were vehicles through which she communicated.
The virtual body exists, according to Merleau-Ponty (1964), in reflection and subjectivity. My sense of body is not restricted by the concrete; it is where I can imagine myself to be. The virtual body takes on a new meaning with the advent of technologies that allow us to travel beyond the physical body. While Serres (1994) suggests that we have traveled beyond the body using imagination, memory, knowledge, and religion, the computer and the Internet have made this extension of the body a growing experience. Serres suggests the Internet changes our “out-of-body” experiences. Helen described her WCC out-of-body experience as floating.
Levy describes this imaginative sense as a projection of our body image. In our world this projection is associated with the notion of telepresence where “my tangible body is both here and there” (Levy 1998, p. 39). Levy gives the example of using the telephone where the voice is separated from the tangible body and projected to another location. “The virtualization of the body is therefore not a form of disembodiment but a re-creation, a reincarnation, a multiplication, vectorization, and heterogenesis of the human” (p. 44). What relationship between here and there facilitates a sense of connection in the on-line learning process?
Connection to other in a WCC lies not on the surface of the words, but exists in re-membering the person. The more I am able to create a living body that is present and immediate, the easier it is for me to connect with the person—to have a clearer understanding of what it is you are trying to say.
How can the recognition of other be facilitated in WCC places to build connections between students?
The Sound Matrix
One of the most surprising sensual metaphors that students repeatedly use to describe their on-line experience is sound. It is surprising because WCC is a text-based environment with no sound—only silence.
Silent ground of sound
The silent ground of language can not be escaped in a WCC. When students were asked to finish the statement: “Being in WCC is like...,” two responded:
The students feel WCC is a silent place. Yet, they describe their experiences filled with the language of sound. Within a WCC, there is silence, but it is not without sound.
Part of the silence is interpreting the “unsaid”—the meaning beneath and between the words.
How do educators, help students create a sense of the unsaid in a WCC?
Inner speech as the hidden monologue of thinking-in-a-language accompanies the daily activities of humans even when they are not speaking to each other. The voices of others whom I hear immerse me in a language that has already penetrated my innermost being in that I “hear” the speech which I stand within. The other and myself are co-implicated in the presence of sounding word. (Ihde, 1976, p. 120)
When we learn to read, a connection is made between the sounds of letters and their combinations into words. Meaning is connected between the letters, words, and the sounds. The words I have heard and speak are symbolized in letters. The representation of sound by letters cannot be separated from the sounds.
The student uses the sound of the letters to create meaning and tone. Enhancing the sounds of words through creative spelling can enrich the meaning students can make in WCC. How can faculty encourage and enhance sound in on-line environments?
There is a level of comfort in making a concrete connection between the text and a specific person. The response represents a per [by]sona [sound] (Ihde, 1976, p. 15). Sound forms the link to how a person is recognized.
A tone creates an interpretive background from the sea of sounds. It provides a nuance that is often perceived intuitively. Within the silence of a WCC, the text creates the tone.
In WCC, faculty create discussion spaces guided by topic. The characteristics of the content and the pedagogical techniques used by the faculty provide the interpretive structure for the space. Students glean tone from the criteria modeled by faculty in each space. The tone ranges on a continuum between informal and formal. Informal discussion spaces are more conversational in tone. Students feel they have the freedom to say what they want. The tone is more personal.
Some of the students believe that since WCC is part of a course, it should be a serious academic space. Personal stories and experiences are considered too personal to be appropriate. Assignments become textual performance for faculty and fellow students by-passing one another rather than connecting within a conversation.
Tone exposes. It clears the way. How can we create a tone within a WCC discussion space that helps students to assume and understand at a deeper level the responses between one another?
I hear other through their voice—they sound through. How do students sound through to others in a textual environment?
At the simplest level, voice is embodied sound. Students hear a voice of the text’s writer. The writing is imprinted with vocal patterns when students read responses. Voice gives the student a clue to the meaning—the sound through—the text. It is a search for the “what.” Embedded in the “what” is voice. The voice is not separate from “I.” I hear the voice within myself. Is it my voice or the author’s voice? Does this “transfer” alter the voice and therefore the meaning of the text?
When there is no voice, there is no person in the words. It is as if the student is reading an object—a set of symbols. It is visual, but there is no sound. If there is no sound, is it possible to connect to the other as person?
Communication is a two-way process. Sound is both sent and received. When I send sound moves something of myself moves outward toward other—surrounding me and other in a common vibration.
To say and to speak are not identical. A man may speak, speak endlessly, and all the time say nothing. Another man may remain silent, not speak at all and yet, without speaking, say a great deal. “Say means to show, to let appear, to let be seen and heard. (Heidegger, 1971, p. 122)
Saying, for Heidegger, is both seen and heard. In a textual WCC, the visual component of saying is an important clue to how students can hear saying. Does this visual component of saying have buried within it a call to hear—to place over the words sound or create a person(a) to understand?
Students identify themselves as saying.
Saying is personal. It reveals a part of the students. It is a signal that the next statement reveals something about me, and what I think is important.
The saying of other in a WCC involves either faculty or classmates. For students, faculty saying is connected to evaluation. Their saying has more meaning—more power to hold attention—than other students’ saying. The role within a WCC is easier to recall.
When students use “say” to describe fellow students saying, the descriptions often become other and more generic (e.g., someone, somebody, others, they’re).
Why do students think of their classmates’ saying in terms of a generic collective when they describe their experiences in WCC? If saying is not attached to a specific persona, is part of the meaning of the saying lost?
Speaking is different from saying (Heidegger, 1971). I “speak” words into the world. Others hear me as I speak. Speaking brings me, the internal sense of being, into existence.
For Helen, speaking in class is the similar to speaking in WCC. The speaking seems to be related to articulation by students to the group. What is “spoken” that is the same in both class and in WCC? What is not spoken? How can faculty encourage a willingness to speak?
To tell does not invite dialogue or response. When I tell something, I am in control of what is being revealed. In WCC, what I tell creates the boundaries of how other students know me. Tell can also be used to describe interpretation or understanding.
What clues do students use to help them understand the other’s telling? How are students limited on-line “to-tell” or “can-tell”?
Yelling is a loud and threatening way to tell.
Students “yell” using text by speaking with images. Bolding, underlining, UPPER CASE LETTERS and punctuation are all ways that emphasize the words. The words re-sound through the images. They call attention to the words. The emotion seeps through the images as sound. Yelling is personal. Other students feel like they are standing outside the conversation, but yet drawn into the re-sounding yelling. Why is yelling so hard to turn off even if it is not directed at me?
Students also use “yelling” when faculty are critical. In WCC, the criticism is in-front-of the entire class.
Yelling is an interpretation. While yelling is more obvious when the text is altered to emphasize and add emotion to statements, faculty comments may be made as part of a discussion or a call to re-think and re-examine an issue. The intention is not to yell. How can faculty create a WCC environment where students do not feel threatened by the discussion? How do faculty invite students into the discussion?
When I ask, my asking is pointed toward another. It is a request for information. I am inviting you to give me what I am seeking. I am inviting a particular response.
The student who is asking is not only requesting information, she is admitting by her asking that she does not know. She is vulnerable when she asks. The occurrence of “ask” as a word to describe experience in WCC occurred only a few times in my conversations with students. What type of environment supports and encourages students to ask?
Talking is speech between myself and other. I talk then you talk and together we are talking. When students describe their experience in WCC using “talk,” they use it in combination with prepositions (i.e., about, to, on, and at) or directional terms (e.g., down and up). To talk captures a sense of connection or destination—a direction. Students use talk most often in combination with about (e.g., epistemology, classroom, books, etc.). When I talk-to, I direct my speech in the direction of another person. Even when I talk-to myself, it is as if I am addressing “myself” as another. Students in WCC imagine they talk-to others in a WCC.
Students perceive faculty above (and often behind them). On a couple of occasions, they felt the faculty “talked-down” to them. When someone talks-down to me, there is con-descen(d)sion on the part of the speaker.
How can faculty involve students in a conversation about their work that is not perceived as talking-down to them?
On the other side of sound sent is sound received. We hear not only with our ears, but with the body. We are not only immersed in a sea of sound, but it is almost impossible to escape it. How does this sense of “immersion” in sound shape students experiences in WCC? If a student is deaf, would the experience be different?
When the students use “hear” to describe their experiences they most often use it with “voice.”
Why do some students hear voices in WCC responses and others do not? If I imagine your voice from your text, do I know you or do I hear a version of my own voice? Students want to hear what the person is saying. The students are seeking to understand.
To hear what someone is saying is not to hear the words, but to understand them—to hear the resonance of the person(a). For Heidegger, “Hearing and understanding have attached themselves beforehand to what is spoken about as such” (Heidegger, 1953/1996, p. 157). I want to tell you I have heard you embedded in the words.
When I listen within the field of sound I specifically attend to a particular sound. I have a desire to hear, to lend my attention “to.” Listening-to connects me ontologically to myself and an other. In a WCC, to listen-to the other, one listens to the text written by the other.
Sally’s listening-to seeks more in the text than the surface. She tries to listen-to the person in the words. She waits and lets the words sink in before responding. It is almost as if the waiting is a re-tuning to the resonance of the other.
Students also chose not listen-to.
To choose not to listen-to is easier in a textual environment where contact with the other can be avoided by scrolling past a comment rather than physically pushing past the other. Betty objectifies the emotion in the words to an “it” that can be easily by-passed in favor of another comment. If challenges can be easily avoided in WCC, how can faculty challenge their students to openly listen-to (Levin, 1989)? The students rarely used “listening” to describe their experiences. How can on-line learning environments be deepened and enriched to encourage a sense of listening-to?
The Visual Matrix
Online everything becomes image viewed through the frame of a computer screen. In a WCC, students search for images or a mental picture of the students they interact with on-line.
Students also use images to clarify meaning. Creative spelling and visual “emoticons” [e.g., :-), :-P, ;-), etc.) are methods used to represent facial expression or tone of voice.
Appearance, a surface level of image, is visual and often implies unreality. I can be fooled by appearance, deceived visually. What I see is only partial, a semblance. In a WCC, how close is my imagined sense of other students? What is it that I miss when I imagine you? One of the clues that I use to picture other students is their name. I use the name particularly to form their gender in my mind. I remember contacting a classmate from a WCC class we attended together to arrange an interview about our online class experience. My first contact was via e-mail. I told the student how delighted I was to have a male in my study (most of the students were females). The student replied that she would be delighted to participate. Her appearance for me had been totally different from who she really was. If I can mistake something as basic as gender, what else am I missing? If details can be missed, there may be things that can be deliberatey hidden. What I look like on the surface is not who I am in the conversation. Yet, how separate is our identity from how we understand others view us?
If you can not know what I am wearing, how would you know if I am a different race or ethnic group from you?
Students describe their experience of visually taking in information using three visual terms—see, look, and watch. Each suggests a different level of focus and attention. To see is not only a way to receive information through my eyes, it also implies the sense-making process that occurs after the reception of the information—I understand.
To see is also to encounter and to meet. There is a recognition of the other. Students know another exists in a WCC through the responses the other posts. I see names and I read responses. I assume that there is a student who has written the response. I see the person as a text object. Person in this sense is abstract and disconnected. Students also see other when they connect their experiences with the other. Other when “seen” is more personable and less objectified. In some cases, students were able to imagine another student’s face.
To not be seen is to be in-visible. I am there, but not seen. In a WCC, to post a response is to be there; but if there is no response to a posting, the student is not seen. If I don’t see your words in a WCC, are you invisible? If I enter the WCC space, read all the messages, but do not post, I am invisible to others. If I am only an observer, am I part of the on-line course?
To direct one’s eyes is to purposely “look at” or toward something. To look at separates me by distance and orientation from what I am looking at. What I look at is an object. If I am “separated from,” can I have a “relationship with” what I look at? What do students in a WCC look at?
When I “look for” something, I direct my gaze to look specifically for—searching. To “look for” assumes a specific need to look at something.
For Helen, the faculty compared the student response with a set of preconceived notions to see if they matched. There is a static expectation that guides “looking for.” Does the pedagogy used within a WCC influence whether students need to look for information contained within responses? Just as a student is not seen in a WCC, they also can be overlooked.
To be overlooked has the similar result that I am unnoticed, but it also leaves the sense that there is more purpose and direction in being overlooked. How can faculty create an environment on-line where students are not overlooked?
To watch is a mental activity that is specifically focused by an expectation. There is a purpose behind watching. It is deliberate. In a WCC, who watches?
Computers can also keep a record of student comings and goings. These calculators watch for faculty and are vigilant in their counting.
It is interesting that while the computer watched, the watching was always for the faculty. They used tools to watch. How does using the computer to watch change watching?
To watch implies a closer discrimination of viewing. It is a mental activity. Embedded in discrimination is an act of judgement. The faculty-student relationship, by nature of grading, sets up a power dynamic that involves judgement. In WCC, students sense this judgement, but they describe it in terms of being watched.
Where do faculty watch-from? To watch-from suggests not only a distance but is located in a place. When students were asked where the watcher is located in a WCC, they all described a watcher who looked over their shoulder from behind. What is it like in a WCC to have someone behind you? If you are not physically in a WCC, what does it mean for another to be behind?
To write is to make words or thoughts visual objects inscribed in symbols—concrete permanent. When I write, I “see” my words on a computer screen. I see the words, but I am not writing on a surface. Yet I am not on or in the computer. The words inside are an odd mix of floating words in my mind and outside expression concrete and permanent.
In a WCC, the only way students are present to others is through their written words. They are embodied in their words. If a student does not post, it is as if they do not exist to other there on-line. Yet, they know themselves to exist here in their bodies. Their existence on-line is not only connected to writing in terms of its absence or presence, but it calls into question the permanency of student existence. If I erase my writing, is my existence erased?
While writing represented the existence of students, what was written was also objectified into text—an “it.”
“It” suggests an object rather than a who. The writer is not identified as the words. Writing is a representational process of ideas separate from the person. The words are images-symbols-abstracted from the person who has generated them.
Students struggle within a WCC to represent themselves to the faculty and other students. Writing is the means through which they communicate to other. Writing is a process where the students devise ways to communicate with others.
Essential to “being-in” a WCC is reading. When I read, I see into the words to find meaning. It is a process of discrimination. The words are intimately connected to the sound of the words. When I pause and reflect on my own reading, there is always an inner voice connected to the words (Ihde, 1976). Students mixed reading with listening and hearing as part of their description of their experience.
My inner voice changes to accommodate my imaginative sense of the author’s voice. I am able to bring authors closer and make them part of myself to clarify the meaning behind the writing.
Students created strategies for reading other student responses on the screen. The screen makes it difficult to read large amounts of text on-line.
How can faculty assist students in processing large amounts of information on-line?
Touch is a constant field even though we are seldom explicitly aware of it. For students in WCC, their physical sense of touch is tied to actions with their bodies.
While touch draws me into the physical body, can touch be experienced outside the body limits of skin? Levy (1998) suggests that on-line I am both here and there. A part of me extended beyond physical boundaries into the on-line environment.
Students extend their description of touch as physical into metaphoric descriptions of their experiences in WCC.
The base or foundation of support between me and other depends on shared experiences and stories. Friendship has a base of memories supporting it. When I touch-base with another, I try to connect with the other. With my friends, it is more to re-connect with their lives. How do students in a WCC build a “base” to touch one another—to re-connect?
How does one in-person touch a conversation? How do I write and leave my person for you to touch—to connect with? When I connect with other students in class, it is through stories. We make sense of the class materials by connecting them to what we already know.
When I am in-touch, a part of my body touches. To touch-in evokes an image of reaching inside to touch—touch something deeper. To touch-with, I deliberately extend my touch. To be in-touch-with is to deliberately extend my touch into—searching deeper. To be in-touch-with a concept is to reach into it for a deeper meaning. What would it mean to be in-touch-with others on-line?
Throughout the paper, I have posed pedagogical questions that are raised when considering the lived-body experience of students in an on-line learning environment. Each question is a doorway into an aspect of on-line teaching. While there are a variety of possible pedagogical solutions in this reflection, I would like to consider a narrative strategy that can build community and interaction on-line.
We make meaning as a community (Kincheloe & Pinar, 1991). Meaning-making is not the consumption of information, but taking the information and making it our own. We make meaning in conjunction with¾it is not a solitary process (Weick, 1979, Berger & Luckman, 1966). It is through the sharing of stories that we learn not only about one another, but also about how to be. It is the reflective process of the story that brings about transformation at the deepest levels. Story is rooted in a shared place. Can story telling create shared place in on-line environments? Will stories gather students in a bodily sense to a place?
The challenge for both faculty and students is to build a learning place filled with energy and body senses in an on-line course. Each story begins in a place—a classroom, a kitchen, a meadow full of flowers. The community hears the story and responds in a sensuous engagement with the details in the story. A narrative process is used by Peter Reason (1989) in his classes. Narrative builds a place where the community sensuously understands itself. The community feels and knows itself in a public and existential way.
In WCC, the navigational constructs form a space. There are pictures pointing where to go and how to enter text. However, these constructs do not address the existential dimensions of body and place. It is the language of the narrative that offers a medium to build a sense of communal place, a place to come and be. Without place, a place to sensuously reflect as body, the students will not enter into the class. They may type in an answer from the comfort of their home, but they are only represented by an answer to a question. The narrative can be used to build a place for shared community in cyber-space.
As I began to reflect on the connection between body, place, and narrative in the process of social meaning making, I created a narrative technique that I use in a WCC. It is designed to draw-in my students to fashion a place to gather and share stories. First, I ask my students to tell a story rich in details about a personal experience that relates to the content of my course. In small groups of two or three, they select the differences and similarities in their stories. They post their lists to the class discussion space in the WCC. The class then creates a list of themes that capture similarities and differences for the entire class. These themes are used to describe the qualities of the experience, and together the class forms a class theory of the experience. The class theory is then compared to theories found in research literature that relates to the experience described in their stories.
This technique accomplishes several things for my students. It empowers them to not only reflect on their own experiences but also on the experiences of others to theorize and make meaning. It validates their own experiences as they connect them with others—both their peers as well as research. The personal narrative gives the students a glimpse into the other individuals in the class. It is not a list of what students do, but a description of their perceptions of a common experience. They not only have individual voices, but these voices combine to form a multidimensional whole.
The lived-body offers both a glimpse into the basic ontological ground of student experiences in an on-line learning environment and raises important pedagogical questions directed at on-line learning. The body becomes located in both here, physically seated at the computer, and there, virtually traveling and connected within a WCC. The basic question, “Where am I?,” can not longer be answered simply. On-line pedagogy seeks to connect students not only with the content, but also to others in meaningful interaction on-line. A strong sense of being-in an on-line place becomes essential as a ground to this connection.
The sensual language used by these students to describe their lived-body experience provides clues to how students engage with the material and other students. The use of a rich language of sound suggests students are intuitively processing much of their interaction on-line as conversation rather than text. If one considers how students build interaction within a traditional classroom, through discussion and personal storytelling, it begins to make sense. This informal discourse transmits a person(a)--a deeper sense of the person enabling connection and community to form. When sound is replaced by text, the pedagogical focus is formal. Students use textual performance to impress faculty and fellow students alike. The discussion tends not to connect with the voice of others in a discussion, but stands solitary in the comments. The result is often a surface rather than in depth processing of the material.
Visual language is also common in student descriptions. They see and are seen by others through a computer screen. WCC is the place where these students feel publicly exposed, published in front of the class, and permanently available for all to see. The risk for students to respond feels greater than the temporary field of words within a traditional classroom. Creating a safe environment that encourages students to respond is a challenge for faculty. When students feel they are not seen or overlooked when their response goes unnoticed it can be extremely discouraging. Faculty are faced with the challenge of creating pedagogical techniques that are inclusive of all.
Finally, the language of touch highlights the here and there body sense for these students on-line. Not only does touch describe their physical presence in front of their computers, it also is used to describe a closer connection with others and the course materials. Pedagogical techniques that take advantage of students’ extended sense of touch into a virtual place can enrich the students sense of connection with the course.
The narrative, with its rich sensual images, can be used as a pedagogical strategy to give students a vehicle to extend themselves into—to be in—an on-line place. It provides a way to put themselves into the experience of others and connect with them on a personal level. It is from a rich narrative base of lived experience that students can connect with one another and make sense of the material.