Published as: Bayne, S (2005) 'Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace' in Land, R and Bayne, S (eds) Education in Cyberspace. London: RoutledgeFalmer
© Sian Bayne, 2005
Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace
University of Edinburgh
How do students and teachers experience their identities online? How do such identities relate to those they inhabit in embodied 'real life'? This talk weaves together theories of cyberspace subjectivity with the stories of students and tutors in order to explore the themes of mutability, deceit and metamorphosis in identity construction online. In particular, it will consider the common perspective emerging from students' stories in which online modes of identity formation are viewed negatively, as a dangerous deceit or deviance from the 'natural'. These perspectives will be compared with the narratives of tutors for whom, surprisingly, the online space becomes a place in which traditional hierarchies can be re-asserted, and conventionally teacherly identities re-cast.
The myth of Arachne
Ovid tells the story of the metamorphosis of Arachne:
Arachne, the motherless daughter of a cloth dyer, was famous for her skill as a spinner, weaver and clothmaker. Her talent was so renowned that the nymphs would gather around just to watch her working. Everyone knew that she had been taught this skill by Athene, goddess of reason and law, and inventor and teacher of women's arts. Arachne, however, persisted in denying that she owed anything to Athene's teachings, and to prove it she challenged the goddess to a weaving competition. Athene, affronted, agreed, and each began her competing tapestry.
Athene wove a cloth with a central panel showing her victory over Neptune on the Acropolis of Athens, in which, by causing an olive tree to grow from the rock, she laid claim to the city. The corners of her tapestry showed scenes of mortals whose violation of the laws of the gods had caused them to be punished by metamorphosis - Haemon and Rhodope becoming mountains, the queen of the Pygmies becoming a crane, Antigone becoming a stork.
Arachne wove a tapestry showing the metamorphoses undertaken by the gods in order to have intercourse with mortal women. Jupiter is shown as the white bull carrying off Europa, as the swan pinning down Leda, as a satyr, an eagle, a shower of gold, a flame, a shepherd and a snake. Neptune is shown as a bull, a ram, a horse, a dolphin and a bird. Apollo appears as a peasant, a hawk, a lion and a shepherd. Bacchus is a bunch of grapes, and Saturn is shown as in the shape of a horse, siring the centaur Cheiron - half horse, half man.
Athene sees that Arachne's tapestry is flawless. Infuriated by her rival's success, she hits her over the head four times with her weaving shuttle. Arachne, terrified, puts a noose around her neck as if to hang herself. Athene relents and allows her to go on living, but for punishment turns her into a spider hanging from her web, destined forever to spin. (Graves, 1985, 96-98, Ovid, 1986, 134-138 (book IV, lines 1-147), Bell, 1991, 58 and 84-86)
For me, this story represents a mythical encapsulation of a paradigm shift taking place as learning moves into the digital realm. The clearest analogy - that of the mastery of the medium of the web, the woven tapestry - is only part of its richness. This is a story about the power relationship between a teacher and a student; about different, literally competing, ways of creating, or weaving, the world. It is also about mutability, deceit, mutation and metamorphosis - these are to be the central themes of this chapter.
In Athene and Arachne we see represented, respectively, the figures of teacher and student. Athene's tapestry places herself as teacher at the centre - the miracle of her own creativity is celebrated in the representation of the creation of the olive tree. This firm centre anchors the rest of the tapestry, consisting of images of mortals transmuted into animals and objects as punishment by the gods for their pride. In this vision, metamorphosis is a punishment for transgression of the laws of the gods; stability and the rule of law are its key themes, with the stable embodiment of the mortal as the natural state and mutation as a mark of deviance. Athene represents the Cartesian subject, the acting subject firmly at the centre of a world ordered by reason.
By contrast, Arachne's tapestry is centreless. No one image holds down and fills with meaning or moral the images which crowd the woven space. In this decentred world metamorphosis becomes a motif of desire, a marker of the union between the mortal and the immortal, a celebration rather than a punishment. In challenging the hierarchy of teacher and student, Arachne illustrates other, more fundamental boundary transgressions - those between the mortals and gods, and between the animal and the human. In this sense, it is a cyborg tapestry. Haraway famously constructs the cyborg as a potentially dangerous yet celebrated figure, which:
appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed. Far from signalling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling.(Haraway, 1991a, 152)
Most closely associated with another boundary transgression - that between human and machine - the cyborg, cybernetic organism, represents an Arachne-like celebration of fluidity:
a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. (Haraway, 1991a, 154)
Mingling erotically charged violations with potent new fusions, the cyborg becomes the stage on which are performed contestations about the body boundaries that have often marked class, ethnic, and cultural differences. Especially when it operates in the realm of the Imaginary rather than through actual physical operations (which act as a reality check on fantasies about cyborgism), cybernetics intimates that body boundaries are up for grabs. (Hayles, 1999, 84-5)
The two tapestries thus represent competing world views which operate within the various contexts of learning and teaching online. Athene's world of modernity - centred (either on teacher or learner), stable (as far as regards both textuality and the rules governing identity formation and body boundaries), and unambiguous as to hierarchical relations - is challenged by Arachne's vision of a decentred world of creative pleasure in boundary transgression, cyborg identities, 'potent fusions and dangerous possibilities' (Haraway, 1991a, 154) - the celebration of the fluidity of metamorphosis. The metaphor extends into the arena of learning online in that here pedagogical methods and intentions rooted in principles of textual stability and the dissemination of knowledge among stable, autonomous subjects is often at odds with a medium in which both text and subject are liable to metamorphosis, to the shape-shifting which is so much a feature of our lives in the digital realm.
If Athene represents modernity, reason and law, Arachne perhaps shows us a vision of postmodernity, of the celebration of desire. Before exploring further the possible implications of this clash for learners and teachers in cyberspace, I would like to extend my theoretical framework by spending some time considering the theme of desire, and the related issue of human subjectivity as something not given, but constructed.
Desire and the subject
If Arachne's tapestry represents a world in which 'body boundaries are up for grabs' it is also one in which shape-shifting is embraced, caught up with the impulses of desire, rather than imposed as punishment as in the world of Athene. This theme of desire recurs in discussions of the postmodern subject, constituted through discourse, unstable, fragmented and in contrast with the Enlightenment subject which is experienced as stable, interiorised and centred in consciousness.
According to Lacan, desire is central to the formation of our unconscious; it comes about as a result of loss, and therefore is not simply the desire for something external but is the desire for the completion of a lack within ourselves as subjects. The ego for Lacan is not about strength and agency, but about alienation and illusion. We seek always to complete the lack within ourselves; the ego continues to seek a unity and stability throughout life.
In taking up a position within language, that of the speaking subject or the I, we subject ourselves to the external system of language, to something outside ourselves which comes to stand in for the real, but unknowable, us. The system of language does not simply represent the world, it creates it, therefore also creating the subject who enters it. Belsey explains the loss involved:
Language erases even as it creates. The signifier replaces the object it identifies as a separate entity; the linguistic symbol supplants what it names and differentiates, relegates it to a limbo beyond language, where it becomes inaccessible, lost. (Belsey, 1994, 55)
Desire emerges from this loss, desire which cannot be articulated, 'for an imagined originary presence, a half-remembered 'oceanic' pleasure in the lost real, a completeness which is desire's final, unattainable object.' (Belsey, 1994, 5)
The relevance here to the concerns of this chapter rests not only in this vision of desire as the restless, unknowable, unnameable opposite of reason - an opposition represented in the two tapestries - but also in the critique of 'oneness' which emerges from Lacanian thought. As Sarup points out, for Lacan the principles of singleness, unity and indivisibility have become an 'ideology' attempting to 'close off the gap of human desire' (Sarup, 1992, 127). In Lacanian theory the human subject is not unified, knowing and knowable; instead it is multiple, diffuse and fragmented, a process rather than a stable entity.
The theme of the subject in process, of the possibility of transformation, of the idea that we as subjects are never complete, never 'finished', will be important in the following sections. These will discuss the transformation or metamorphosis of the subejct online, first in general terms, and then by focusing in on narratives of identity formation among online learners and teachers.
The mutable subject online
The internet as a realm in which the potential for metamorphosis of the self is almost limitless has been celebrated since the early days of the medium. The invisibility of the physical body and the opportunities for the linguistic construction of identity in online communication is seen by some to 'literalize Lacan's notion of the self as textual' (Monroe, 1999, 70). Turkle's well-known study of internet identities sees online self-creation and expression of multiplicity as part of the broader movement towards the postmodern, flexible self:
The Internet is another element of the computer culture that has contributed to thinking about identity as multiplicity. On it, people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves In its virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create. (Turkle, 1996, 178-180)
Within the classroom context, while giving voice to the multiplicity of the subject is rarely an explicit pedagogical aim, the anonymising and apparently equalising characteristics of computer mediated communication are often seen to offer benefits to learners beyond the pragmatic ones of freedom from some of the temporal and spatial constraints of 'traditional', on-campus education. Findings which report increased contributions in online discussion of disadvantaged, 'shy' and female students (Alexander, 1997, McConnell, 1997, Belcher, 1999, Kimbrough, 1999), the success of the online environment in increasing collaboration among students (Hiltz, 2000), and the tendency for online student groups to become less focussed on their tutors (Dubrovsky et al., 1991, Eldred and Hawisher, 1995) all imply, however obliquely, that something shifts at the level of the subject when online learning takes place.
There are grounds, however, for being circumspect about the extent to which Turkle's ideas about the self-creating, self-fashioning internet subject can be applied to the online classroom. First and most obviously, Turkle's study is for the most part of individuals involved in MOOs - real-time, wholly anonymous virtual worlds in which the game of persona creation can be played with few immediate consequences for embodied 'real life'. In the pedagogical context, this is not usually the case. As Monroe points out, 'Anonymity in a networked classroom is a short-lived possibility; before long, an online persona will be fitted with a Real Life body.' (Monroe, 1999, 76)
Secondly, the whole concept of self-fashioning and self-creating paradoxically assumes a secure, stable subject somewhere in the background who does the fashioning and creating. It is an image which would sit more neatly in Athene's tapestry, one of a secure subject acting on a world where identity creation has knowable rules, rather than a vision of the subject undergoing the possibly exciting but also deeply risky metamorphosis which takes place at the prompting of desire.
Thirdly, in celebrating the challenge to the liberal subject posed by disembodied communication, there can be a tendency to under-recognise the significance of embodiment. (Shapiro, 1994, McWilliam and Taylor, 1997, Whitley, 1997, Hayles, 1999) Even were communication to take place in a wholly anonymous, wholly online context, we cannot simply throw off the ways in which who or what we can be online is informed by our existence as subjects with bodies. Shannon Wilson sums up this point within the context of learning online:
Although bodies 'disappear' when academic work moves online, the ways gender, race, class, and academic position (to name the obvious) shape discursive exchange cannot simply be overcome or put aside. The ways we speak/write and hear/read are thoroughly shaped by our experiences as embodied subjects. (Wilson, 1999, 137)
This does not mean that we have to take an essentialist view of the body as an end point to the free play of identity formation, indeed it would make no sense to do so when the body is itself so mutable, its form so socially determined and its surface so much the locus of our demonstrations of identity. It does, however, mean that we do not start completely anew when we work online.
Despite the reservations outlined here, however, it seems reasonable to approach the issue of identity formation online with a working assumption that within cyberspace identities are more freely transformable, boundaries less firmly drawn, and possibilities for metamorphosis of the self more open. Stone, even while keeping a firm grip on the importance of incorporation, sees a propensity to metamorphosis as a particular quality of the human in cyberspace:
There is a protean quality about cybernetic interaction, a sense of physical as well as conceptual mutability that is implied in the sense of exciting, dizzying physical movement within purely conceptual space. (Stone, 1991)
My approach to exploring these themes was, through discussion with students and teachers, to generate accounts relating to multiplicity, metamorphosis and mutability of the identities of online learners and teachers. What emerged in these accounts was a series of tensions between the possibilities of multiplicity and the sense of unity of the self as the desired, normal state. Dividing the individuals I spoke to into two groups - students and tutors - reveals two quite different perspectives on the possibilities of metamorphosis of the self in cyberspace.
Out of control: tales of metamorphosis among students
A series of negative perspectives emerged among students relating to the idea that the self online might be anything other than a direct representation of the single, embodied identity presented in the face to face classroom. There was a tension in the narratives of many of the students between the idea that they might, consciously or otherwise, have presented multiple personas online, and the sense that to do so was in some way deviant. In fact, 'negative perspective' is rather too light a term for the range of antipathies and anxieties voiced in the students' accounts.
A unifying theme in all of these accounts is the fear of loss of control through the modes in which identities are expressed online, a fear which, as I will show in the next section, is directly at odds with the experience of the online teachers I spoke to. Within this theme, particular aversions emerged which I have grouped under three headings: danger, personality split, and deceit and perversion.
In some accounts, what theorists might call an expression of multiplicity seemed, to the student, to be more like an act of self-betrayal.
if you do do it, and try and create a picture of yourself then you begin to believe it yourself probably. I didn't do any of that! [laughs] but there is a danger if you do that. You can develop this persona for yourself and get a bit carried away with it, and then it blends, because you've done it when you describe yourself and then it makes you change what you say, you get further and further and further away from the truth. So there is a danger I think, that you develop a picture of yourself and if you carry it to extremes you can't ever retract from it. I can see that there's a big danger there with online learning, you get yourself into a vicious spiral.
The fear of loss of control is expressed here in a series of spatial metaphors, almost as though the true self, grounded in reality, is potentially distanced ('further and further') by the constructed persona. This movement is cast as dangerous in the sense that the persona can gain a separateness which makes a re-establishment of unity ultimately impossible. The constructed persona is seen almost as gaining an autonomous power over the true self ('it makes you change what you say'). This is seen as purely negative, an 'extreme', 'vicious' movement away from 'the truth'. There is no joy here in the free-play of identity, rather a feeling of threat, of danger to the self.
I'm not, I couldn't do it! I don't know cos I feel like I'm not being honest, or I don't feel comfortable in doing it or something, or I feel like I'm going in a dangerous path.
Why is it dangerous?
Maybe dangerous because you may start thinking that 'Whoa that might be true!', that would be, then you start believing it, when it's not really, so it's not even useful for yourself I think, you know. It's just that I think that [pause] it's like you know being an actor, sometimes it may be dangerous if you get, I'm not an actor or anything but you know, I think I could get too much into a character which is not yourself, and you kind of lose the division between the character and yourself. That is dangerous, because you may lose your balance, you know, in yourself.
Again, there is danger in the threat to the 'real' self by the online, constructed self, as though the real self is something fragile, protected by a boundary which is too easily transgressed, too vulnerable to a loss of 'division'. In constructing an online persona we again risk a dangerous loss of control. In Paulina's account, maintaining a coherent self is a balancing act; perhaps the possibility of the online persona makes the highwire a little less taught ('you may lose your balance, you know, in yourself') - there's a possibility that, without the safety net of our commitment to a truthful, unitary identity, we might fall permanently into another (untrue) version of ourselves. Identity formation online becomes a performance here, with the risk of the role taking control of the player, of the actor becoming the acted upon.
In Charlie's account, loss of control takes the form almost of a Jekyll and Hyde type metamorphosis online.
Sometimes in a tutorial you think 'O I don't think that should be said' cos you're like, like you'll get shot down, whereas [online] you just type it in anyway, and press the button, 'cos it's not like you're actually saying it at all, so it's not you, it's like you're just a name, people won't attach it to, like, who you are. You can kinda say what you want and by the time you've hit send it's there, you can't take it back. I mean I've written things I've regretted before and and [the tutor's] said y'know 'Careful now!' and I've thought 'I wish I hadn't said that now'! [laughs]
I don't know why I did it. I think people do generally just say things that they wouldn't normally say, they behave differently, even have opinions they wouldn't have in reality kind of thing.
I mean it's not something I consciously do, like I'm 'Yes! I can be a totally different person and you'll never know', it's not something you'd consciously do but maybe it's something which after I've written something I'd think 'O, would I actually say that in a tutorial', and more often than not the answer would be no.
There is a tension here between Charlie's construction of himself as a careful, thoughtful student in the face to face classroom, and his expression of an online subjectivity which seems almost wholly adrift from his other, bodily present self ('it's not like you're actually saying it at all, so it's not you'). Again, the online self is described almost as having a kind of autonomy, making comments, expressing opinions and exhibiting behaviours which are at odds with the identity Charlie expresses in reflection on them. Charlie's narrating voice is interspersed by opposing voices - the warning voice of his tutor ("Careful now!"), the Jekyll voice of 'normal' Charlie ("O, I don't think that should be said", "I wish I hadn't said that now", "O, would I actually say that in a tutorial") and the out-of-control, Hyde version of himself which is described as emerging online whether he will or no ("Yes! I can be a totally different person and you'll never know!").
Deceit and perversion
In Claudia's account, the expression of an online persona is associated with deceit.
Do you think, when you're talking in your online classroom, d'you think that you're the same you that you are when you're talking face to face?
Well, I think so but, that's a difficult question. I don't know if you can ever tell when you're being really yourself or when you're kind of lying a bit. Or it's not only lying, I mean I pretty much always try, I always try to be like myself. I'm the kind of person that believes I want to be myself all the time, or at least know what I'm doing, you know. But I think sometimes maybe the message comes across differently, you know I'm trying to say something and then the other person understands something else or thinks I'm a different person or something.
The extract first constructs only two ways of being online - 'being really yourself' or 'lying a bit' - as though in articulating an identity Claudia as an individual might have access to a simple choice between truth and deceit. This response to the question is then qualified to acknowledge that the issue might not be so clear cut. Being herself might be more a case of 'at least knowing what I'm doing', of being able to maintain conscious awareness of how or who she is. Moving even further away from her original conceptualisation, Claudia's account ends with the suggestion that, ultimately, her online identity is something which is not unilaterally formed, it's constructed socially, multilaterally, alongside those with whom she is communicating, to whom she is likely to appear as 'a different person'. Her account concludes with the idea that the construction of her online identity is not simply a matter of choice between truth to herself and a decision to deceive, it is something which lies outside her individual control.
A similar sense of the social formation of identity comes through in Richard's narrative, though here the sense of deceit is far more strongly formed and the online persona - in this case quite consciously constructed - is described as deviant to the extent of perversion.
I didn't switch gender, but I made myself about 20 odd years younger, and I was surprised by the ease with which you could kind of get away with that. It was also slightly disturbing as well, y'know well it felt very manipulative. I mean I remember there was, there was a Canadian girl started talking to me, and by that time I'd kind of toyed with this identity and it'd become, it very rapidly got established and other people started talking to me in that identity, and I just felt very uneasy about maintaining that identity cos I just felt it was very deceptive and it felt manipulative and I thought, 'I just want to get out of this'. But what I did learn from it is how how easy it would be to construct and get away with those identities, well get away with it, live within them if you like. In that case it felt uneasy kind of morally.
In what respect?
I dunno, it just felt a bit pervy I suppose.
What comes through most strongly from the accounts summarised here is that there is a tension in students' narratives between the ideal of an embodied, authentic, anchoring self, the self that goes along to tutorial classes on a tuesday afternoon, and the possibility of other, deviant, less authentic selves which emerge online and which threaten the anchoring subject with the possibility of their autonomy. The possibility of the cyberspace classroom as a space where resistance and play can take place in the form of experimentation and protean interaction does not appear. Instead, in these accounts, it is a place where identity formation is fraught with anxiety.
Clearly it is not just online that we are troubled by the contradictions of multiple identities - this is a condition of our subjectivity. As Stuart Hall comments:
Within us are contradictory identities, pulling in different directions, so that our identifications are continually being shifted about. If we feel that we have a unified identity from birth to death, it is only because we construct a comforting story or 'narrative of the self' about ourselves. (Hall, 1992, 170)
However it does seem as though, for these students, the medium disrupts the ease with which their narratives of the self are maintained. When shifted online, the 'comforting story' seems to gain a disquieting edge. To return to Lacan, we might see the feeling of unease which students experience when considering the possibility of their own multiplicity in terms of the ego's search for unity, the 'illusory ideal of completeness' (Sarup, 1992, 66).
To bring to bear the over-arching metaphor I am using in this paper - the two tapestries - it seems that when working online these students are caught between the two worlds of Athene and Arachne. On the one hand, they are engaged in a medium which seems to offer looser boundaries, more space in which alternative subject positions might be articulated, somewhere where 'the restless movement of desire' perhaps has a freer rein. On the other hand, they are immersed in Athene's Cartesian world in which 'normal' is the centred, observing self and metamorphosis is a mark of deviance. In Arachne's world, 'desire, which is absolute, knows no law' (Lacan, 1977, 311). In Athene's, mutability is the punishment meted out to the lawless.
Constructing 'the teacher': tutors' narratives
Perhaps not surprisingly, tutors' narratives described a more 'knowing' perspective on online identity than the students' tended to, one which was more focused on the conscious control of their online persona.
So what's this persona like then, that you think you projected?
O I don't know. I think reasonably kind of [pause] yeah reasonably kind of formal teacher trying to kind of initiate dialogue, trying to kind of be supportive, trying to challenge them, [pause] trying to kind of point them in certain directions. Trying to kind of share experiences, but experiences related to the subject. [pause] Yeah very much as the kind of [gestures] 'tutor'.
In his account of the identity he constructed online, Tom takes almost a textbook list of the characteristics of a 'good teacher' - stimulating, supportive, challenging, guiding, informed - and describes himself as, quite consciously, stepping into them. The image is almost of the formal teacherly identity being strapped on like a suit of armour and, in fact, the metaphor of teaching as a conflict does come up later in Tom's narrative.
Would you say you felt more comfortable teaching online than teaching face to face?
Comfortable. [pause] Comfortable in the sense that I felt more in control, or I feel more in control of my contributions. You know, you can think, there's a bit more space to think. I mean the classroom situation can be quite intense, it can be quite, you know, you're up there in the centre of things, and they immediately assume that you have more knowledge than they do in a particular area, which is probably not necessarily the case. You're very much up there and yeah that can be quite stressful, it's the stressful part of teaching. And if you're not feeling too great or there are other things on your mind, so that you know, to give a really good teaching performance is I think an art in itself. And I think in the online situation, I think there's a bit more control, a bit more space.
So when you say you feel like you're in the centre in a face to face classroom, is that
Well you are! You are! It's like, us against them! [laughs]
Is that different online though, are you not in the centre online?
[pause] Yeah, but I've got more control, I've got more control with what I say.
The key word for Tom here, used repeatedly, is 'control'. Where the student narratives stressed a feeling of lack of control over an almost threateningly autonomous online self, the virtual learning environment provides for Tom the space and time to construct an identity which can provide a more effective, more thoughtful, more controlled 'teaching performance'. While the teacherly identity Tom described himself as stepping into (stimulating, supportive, guiding and so on) tends towards the student-centred model, the teacherly persona he describes acts very much as the centre of the classroom (the knowledgeable expert, 'up there in the centre of things'), both in its physical and virtual manifestations. In the 'us against them' conflict, Tom stands at the centre of the demanding, expectant mob of students. In the online classroom he is much less vulnerable, more in control, having had time to don his teacherly armour before entering the fray.
Delia's account describes a similar, 'teacherly' construction of herself:
I think I'm more confident about being stern online than I am in face to face environments. I think I can sometimes project a much more confidently authoritarian self, or authoritative self as well, if I feel that students are missing the point, or that they are mis-reading what's being said. Then I think I do tend to be a little bit more forceful in the way in which I say, 'Yes but you should be talking about this' or, ' Yes, I realise that but I do know' sort of tone. 'You should listen to me a bit more carefully', that kind of thing.
For Delia the online classroom provides a space in which she can take up the subject position of the teacher as authority figure (both 'authoritative' and 'authoritarian'). In this extract her narrative voice is permeated by her 'teacherly' voices prescribing students' activities ("You should be talking about this") and asserting her own position as authority figure ("I do know"; "You should listen to me").
Delia's account seems to hint that the authority wielded by her online self is an improvement on her face to face teaching self, which is less confidently demanding of respect. Interestingly, her students' perceptions are almost completely opposite to her own:
I don't think you have respect for tutors on line, as you would in the tutorial groups.
Y'know, they're just other students, that are contributing. You don't really pay attention to what they say.
Face to face I think there's more respect given to her because she's there, you know? She's a lecturer and we do respect her. [Online] it's like it's a different person almost, because it's just a woman checking our comments and what we say.
It could be that Delia's voicing of herself as 'more confidently authoritarian' online is a response to the 'equalization phenomenon' experienced widely in computer mediated communication [Eldred, 1995 #249; Dubrovsky, 1991 #230] and referred to by her students. It is possible that the flattening of the teacher/student hierarchy which is taking place online causes Delia, in this account, to take up a more authoritative, 'teacherly' subject position in an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to reinstate a hierarchy which the medium tends to undermine.
Neither Delia's nor Tom's accounts suggest the anxiety expressed in students' narratives of the online persona getting out of control, threatening the 'real' self with its autonomy. On the contrary, in the tutors' accounts the online classroom provides a space in which a controlled and controlling teacherly identity can be constructed. Mark's narrative tells a similar story, though there is here more unease about the way in which he constructed an authoritarian identity online:
Well certain emails like I remember looking at them and thinking 'Good God, I sound like a boring, stuffy old prig, "Now classroom, please behave! Pay attention! Stop doing this"'. There's some of that, sometimes you know there were emails I sent out which, having thought about them, I was trying to present this, 'I am the teacher and you must listen to this because there are important issues here', which were very different from the way I would've presented if I was in class. So yeah there were two, there were different faces that were being presented.
This account is reminiscent of Charlie's 'Jekyll and Hyde' narrative - Mark's 'reflecting' voice looks back in dismay at the identity given voice online, that of the 'boring, stuffy old prig' issuing prescriptive instruction to his online class in a way which is at odds with the approach taken by his face to face teacherly self.
Despite this, what emerges most strongly from these accounts is the sense of tutors using the online space to construct themselves as authority figures, and of this construction being far less problematic, far less a cause of anxiety than the descriptions in identity narratives provided by students. There may be a certain amount of disquietude, but there is no sense of guilt, danger, or deceit in these tales of metamorphosis.
Online environments may create a space where the narratives of the self maintained face to face are more readily disrupted, but there is nothing deterministic about this. If the students' accounts revealed an edgy anxiety about their subjective multiplicity online which is at odds with tutors' more controlled construction of teacherly selves, it could be for a variety of pragmatic reasons: longer experience of online learning environments and the modes of selfhood involved in them among tutors; more familiarity with theories of multiple identity formation online among tutors; a less guarded approach in interview among students which increased the extent to which they were willing to give accounts of more anxiety-making identity issues.
I think, however, that above all these identity issues are an important strand in a tapestry which spreads further, one which incorporates all the contradictions and difficulties involved in the shift into the digital realm. Within the learning context, the metaphors we use (virtual classrooms, virtual campuses, desktops, tutorial rooms), and the practices we engage with (online seminars, lecture note delivery, online group work) are to a large extent carried over from practices developed in very different, face to face learning situations. In looking to the internet as a new, faster way of delivering old, familiar goods we perhaps create tensions like the ones described in this paper. Poster refers to this as the 'culture of instrumentality', and what he says about the state and the economy could apply equally to education online:
In their approach to the Internet, the state and the economy frame it as something that is useful to them, something that may improve their pre-existing practices, make things go faster or more smoothly. Or not. (Poster, 2001a, 2)
The problem with such an approach is that:
As long as we remain within an instrumental framework we cannot question it, define its limits, or look to new media in relation to how it might generate new cultures. In this way, the culture of instrumentality obstructs research on the Internet, research that might open up the question of culture. (Poster, 2001a, 3)
The nature of the new learning cultures that might be fostered online is still, like Haraway's body boundaries, 'up for grabs'. However, if we see an instrumental culture operating in the delivery of online learning, it is perhaps less surprising that the online space becomes for teachers, however unwittingly, a place in which old hierarchies can be re-asserted and traditional, 'teacherly', authoritarian identities re-cast. The tensions described here perhaps result from new, online learning cultures emerging from within existing, hierarchical pedagogical frameworks, from the contest between the stable, ordered world of Athene and the decentred, cyborg world of Arachne.
My intention is not, in concluding, to tie the loose ends of the myth up with those of the narrative tensions generated by my interviews to create a tidy parcel. The tensions in the students' and teachers' narratives are, I think, reflected in rather than resolved by the metaphorical framework I have used. However I would like to return to the end of the story of Arachne, to consider its conclusion.
It appears at the end of this story that Athene, while losing the battle, wins the war. Arachne's tapestry is more finely crafted, but Athene's world view wins the day as Arachne herself suffers metamorphosis as punishment by being turned into a spider. However the ending, for me, is not quite so clear cut. What is apparently Arachne's punishment could also be seen as her reward in that by subjecting her to metamorphosis the goddess gives the mortal woman the gift of true mastery of her medium - the web, which now becomes her home. The spider is the weaver par excellence, and perhaps it is within these terms that we should consider our own inhabitation of the web, the digital realm. In our potential for mutability online perhaps lies the key to our comfort with, if not mastery of, the medium. Arachne's ending involves the embrace of shape-shifting, the taking up of a cyborg state. It gives for me, a new resonance to Haraway's famous assertion of her preferred way of being - 'I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess'. (Haraway, 1991a, 181)
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