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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 31-48

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"This Page Is under Construction":
Reading Women Shaping On-line Identities

Dànielle N. DeVoss and Cynthia L. Selfe


Increasing numbers of English studies teachers, recognizing the importance of on-line literacy practices, incorporate assignments into their classes that require students to design and publish home pages on the World Wide Web. In addition, increasing numbers of students design such pages on their own to showcase their interests, indicate their electronic literacy skills to prospective employers, and create on-line spaces for themselves.

Our understandings of identity, subjectivity, agency, and literacy are reshaped in virtual realms, where the task of composing evolves. As a profession, however, we have paid little attention to the ways that individuals establish their identities on-line on and through home pages. We know little, for example, about the rhetorical processes and the reading and writing practices that students employ to establish their identities as they design such pages. We know little about the processes that various audiences use in reading, making sense of, and responding to home pages. We also know little about the complex connections among on-line identity, agency, and literacy in these texts, or in other technological and virtual contexts. Nor have teachers of English studies thought much about why the project of on-line identity formation has assumed such importance in the literacy practices of students. We must begin to develop critical, rigorous pedagogical approaches to the complexities of shifting sites of composition. [End Page 31]

The goal of this article is to add information to our understanding of these matters, particularly as they relate to college-age women who have designed and published personal home pages. 1 We look at the Web sites of ten predominantly upper-level undergraduate women in a scientific and technical communication program at Michigan Technological University. These sites cover components, compositions, and entire pages required for different courses in this major; the sites' surrounding contexts have been created not for class work, however, but for other reasons and to represent other interests. What motivates these women in their on-line identity projects is part of the web of complexity encompassing our reading of such work. We focus on this group as a subculture, in part, because it is unusual: four years ago only 25 percent of Web authors were women. We explore their work also because of our interest in women's issues.

In looking at their Web pages, we concentrate on what these students show us about women as agents and authors of their own identities. We also trace their efforts as they rewrite--in practical, fragmentary ways and at micropolitical levels--the cultural narratives of the public-private divide, the unified subject, and the male domination of cyberspace. Doing so helps us, as composition instructors, to focus on better understanding the complicated work and representations women compose on-line and the articulations of this work in our classrooms.

What Do We Know?

Our work exists at the intersection of social theory, technology studies, and feminist studies. Each of these areas has contributed an important thread of the scholarship that we have woven into our analyses of the Web sites explored below.

Social theory, for instance, provides the concepts of agency and identity. Like Anthony Giddens (1979), we assume that all humans have a penetrating understanding of the social systems in which they exist. This understanding, Giddens argues, is related directly to the strategies humans use on a "routine and regular" basis (91) to transform such systems and to the ways they reproduce them, even as they are shaped by them in a "duality of structuring" (69). Strategic action, Giddens points out, is never simple. Because most humans live in collectives and interact in complex social systems, their actions, however conscious and directed, are always accompanied by "unintended consequences," the inevitable "conditions of action" (59). In this article the term agency refers to the "continuous flow of conduct" that constitutes [End Page 32] humans' interaction with the world and their ongoing efforts...


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