To ENFI and Beyond . . .

by Carol Robinson (

In the very early 1990s, Gallaudet University‘s Trent Batson and others in the Department of English were exploring — what appeared to me to be —   ways of total immersion into written/read English for deaf students.  I remember this mostly because I was there, even had the opportunity to explore Batson’s ENFI (Electronic Networks for Interaction) Lab.  It was not the first ENFI Lab that I had seen. (I had worked with a less sophisticated one at the University of Georgia.)  However, it it was the most advanced (at the time), and quite inspiring to see.  The room was structured to facilitate a circle of desktop personal computers with a large screen at one end of the room and a projector installed in the ceiling.  All of the computers were connected to the projector.  On the day that I was observing, students were busily typing their thoughts, which were all channeled to the projector for all to see. The intent of the ENFI Lab was to address what Trent Batson and Michael Day identified to be seven issues:
1.    how to demonstrate good writing
2.    how to create “realistic writing tasks”
3.    how to help the writer establish a sense of audience and context
4.    how to encourage students to practice writing
5.    how to create and best exploit collaborative writing
6.    how to address “the time lag between class discussion and student writing”
7.    how to increase class participation.
Batson and Day acknowledged that these were not the only seven issues that needed to be addressed (“too many others” to address, perhaps in their article), but they also acknowledged that these seven challenges in teaching composition seemed to be well addressed by the structure of the ENFI Lab.   What excited me most in reading this work was this argument, which was rather advanced for 1995.  They criticized traditional faculty who teach writing in more traditional ways, observing that they

. . . have faith that what they do in their traditional class somehow leads the students toward learning or improvement, so, regardless of whether they have evidence or not, the practices they’ve used in their traditional classrooms (like oral discussion and grading papers) seem sacrosanct . But, holding on to the traditional makes it hard to see the opportunities in an ENFI environment, or in other CMC environments. The fluidity of roles or personae in ENFI, along with the simulations that fluidity enables, is one of the great strengths of ENFI.

I did not have faith in the traditional composition classroom (and still do not).  What struck me, most, about the ENFI Lab that I observed at Gallaudet was the near-total immersion into written English.
Students were not permitted to talk (in this case, use sign language), and for those several students in this particular class whose native language was anything but spoken English*, this was truly an alienating experience, much like visiting a foreign country and attempting to communicate, brokenly.  Having just gone through a total immersion language learning program myself (to learn American Sign Language), I was (and still am) a strong advocate for this type of language learning.  If only we could think of written/read English as something different from spoken/heard English. (Perhaps we could think of it as even a different language, though some lingering narrow-minded linguists seem to be still grappling with the idea that anything not spoken/heard might possibly be a “natural” language.) Thinking of written/read English in this way allows us to work toward the conclusion that total immersion might help those who are foreign to written/read English (who are illiterate), or at least who are not “native” to this form of communication.

So, I was surprised by the conclusion of  an article he published in Computers and Composition:

The creation of a writing persona, based on the sense of one’s audience, is a complex cognitive and imaginative task. If in fact the ENFI setting allows a writing teacher to more easily model this task and students to experiment with it, then this is a valuable ability of ENFI. Our Consortium evaluation points the way to further research, I believe. The research should focus on whether ENFI allows students to develop a broader array of writing styles and whether those styles are carried over to contexts outside of the writing class.

He seemed to be more concerned with more advanced levels of writing and the creation of writing personae — with style rather than levels of literacy!  I was puzzled by this.  However, as I look back at my memories of students in the ENFI Lab (eventually I tried it with my own students, too), I realized that he had a point: regardless of the level of communication skills, the literacy even, one’s personae very much plays a part in the ways that such skills are developed.  It becomes a struggle between who/what the student writer wants to be and who/what the writing instructor wants the student to become.  Providing a sample of ENFI Lab experiences in communication, Marshall Kremers identified one such experience as student mutiny: “Not only did these students seize control of the LAN, they ignored my attempts to bring them back into line, even to the point of defiance (‘Don’t you have anything to say about all these trashy things being said?’). When their exchanges finally descended into pornography, all I could do was switch off their screens.”
In the (happy) end, however, he developed a technique of role-playing assignments to provide a stronger structure. Now, over twenty years later,  in an age of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), the use of online text-based forums seems to both provide even better opportunities than the ENFI Lab for total immersion learning of read/written English, but is equally challenged by the struggles of developing writer personae that existed back then.  What comes around, goes around.
As we explore the technological possibilities, we are led to recognize for the first time some of our own inclinations and preferences.  Consequently, as we try to use technologies to advance these new understandings of our own tendencies, we return to the beginning and continue the cycle–each time learning more about the technology and ourselves. (Batson and Bass 42)
Like I said, what comes around, goes around.  But I do not think that this is an anti-progressive movement, not a complete circular pattern of historical development in teaching composition with technology.  Rather, it is more like the loopy cycle of the moon: each loop moves the moon further around the earth, but ultimately it is still stuck revolving around the earth.  In other words, if the instructor is the moon, circling and moving forward, that instructor is still stuck in a revolution (the scientific term, not the sociological term) around the student (the earth).  I fear that, with the improvement of technology, opportunities for the improvement of student writing has not come to pass.
Time will tell, and I very much want to believe that my fears are truly fears (irrational) and not reasonable concerns.

*At the time that I was at Gallaudet University, which was promoting itself as “The world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf,” there were students attending from many different parts of the world, and not only was their learned written/spoken language not English, but thier sign language was also not what is native to this area, not American Sign Language. (There are well over 100 different sign languages in the world.) However, more important to this current discussion, even the American deaf students tended to struggle with English as a near-foreign (if not totally foreign) language because of the lack of auditory access to it.  For them, ASL (or SEE, or even PSE) — any sign language — was the first and truly native (natural to their communication needs) language.

Works Cited

  • Batson, Trent. “ENFI Research.” Computers and Composition.  10.3 (Aug), 1993: 93-101.
  • Batson, Trent and Randy Bass.  “Primacy of Process: Teaching and Learning in the Computer Age.”  Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning.  28.2, 1996: 42-47.
  • Batson, Trent and Michael Day. “The Network-Based Writing Classroom: The ENFI Idea.” Collins, Marie and Zane Berge, eds.  Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Writing Classroom; Volume Two: Higher Education.  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, Press, 1995: 25-46.  Re-printed with perimission:
  • Kremers, Marshal.  “Adams Sherman Hill Meets ENFI: An Inquiry and a Retrospective.“  Computers and Controversy.  Computers and Composition.  5.3 (1988): 69-77.