Monday, January 21, 2008

Conundrums and Cautions; Composition and Computers

Reading Lester Faigley’s transcripts of in-class discussions conducted online using InterChange made me think about online experiences of my own. The first is really an aggregate of online courses I completed as an undergraduate (two-thirds of my B.S Liberal Studies courses took place off campus and online, with a handful of weekend and correspondence courses in the mix). Online discussion took place asynchronously on Blackboard Discussion Boards. Teacher participation varied. At least one teacher monitored conversations and policed student interactions. At the other extreme, a teacher absented him/herself to the point that almost all students gave up on required discussions (tied to grades) by the fourth of an eleven week course. This meant that a student who wanted to complete the assignment—respond to at least one other student each week—could not complete the task. The second experience was a group project in Second Life (just two of us, Sarah and me) designed as a derive. We traveled together, communicated through written dialogue from different geographical locations (in both real and virtual worlds), and applied theories of space and place in order to gain an understanding of our virtual environment. This was a student-centered, student-driven research project, one that I hope will help me develop other such effective technological explorations.

These experiences involved discussion and students. What do my experiences say to me about teaching with computer technology in light of today’s readings?

Much of the online discussion during my undergraduate days followed the “traditional notions of education that permeate our culture at its most basic level: teachers talk, students listen; teachers’ contributions are privileged; students respond in predictable, teacher-pleasing ways” that Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe mention in The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class (35). Open-ended questions allowed students to make connections between readings, but often, especially in my scrupulously patrolled anthropology class, the questions were designed to elicit right answers, in the instructor’s view. Most of us accepted the scholarly authority of this anthropologist; however, one man refused to acknowledge any possibility that humans evolved. He began to attack other students’ viewpoints, then he attacked them as people. After a mild warning to the entire class failed to stop his forcefulness, the instructor publicly reprimanded him. I don’t know whether behind-the-scenes dialogue took place.

I’ve always wondered what would have happened if the students in the class had been left to rebut, rebuke, or shun the guy in a student-centered action. In this class, “[t]he use of computers…seemed to come between [the teacher] and students, pre-empting valuable exchanges among members of the class….The use of technology in [this class], far from creating a new forum for learning, simply magnified the power differential between students and the instructor” (Hawisher and Selfe 40, 41). This was a micromanaged class in many ways, down to the prescribed vocabulary, format, deadlines, and paper topics. Not that this was bad for some, in that we did learn. As Marilyn M. Cooper writes in Postmodern Pedagogy in Electronic Conversations, “…I do not mean that teachers should tolerate inappropriate behavior in electronic or any other class conversations, but rather that teachers need to find new ways to deal with it” (160). But the technology component, the necessary medium for communication, made high demands on student receptivity to new ideas from the moment the syllabus became available, and those new ideas made strong challenges to conservative religious and political beliefs. To some extent, the software set up a panopticon with the teacher in the middle looking out at the cells (discussion threads) occupied by each student. Some students, including the man who lashed out, felt Othered. Maybe a less traditional banking approach to teaching would empower such students to voice close-held beliefs and at the same time open their minds to critically thinking about oppositional ideas. As Cooper argues, “This is not to say that teachers should not offer their own perspective or other perspectives that are not known to students, but rather that these perspectives must be clearly connected with the students’ experiences and must be offered as perspectives, not as the official or correct view” (159). To me it seems that online educators, especially, must consider Cooper’s statement. Without the face-to-face interaction of a traditional classroom, the teacher-student relationship relies entirely on the quixotic written dialogue or multi-logue.


1. I was surprised that I bristled when I read this from Hawisher/Selfe:

"Writing instructors can use networks and electronic bulletin boards as disciplinary mechanisms for observing studetns' intellectual contributions to written discussions. The institutional requirement of student evaluation contributes to this practice as instructors seek ways 'to give students credit' for conference participation....We know after all that electronic conferences are, in some ways, spaces open to public scrutiny, places where individuals with the power of control over technology can observe conversations and participants without being seen and without contributing" (42-43).

How do we, as teachers, determine when a listserv, discussion board, chat room, blog, social networking group, or any other assigned and evaluated online posting (either for a grade or for completion) crosses the line from pedagogically sound to disciplinary and inappropriate? Hawisher and Selfe write that "[w]e can, if we work at it, become learners within a community of other learners, our students" (44). This is all well and good, but how do we do it?

2. Cooper quotes Spooner saying that "in the postmodern age, the reader, not the writer, is the real tyrant: multi-tasking, channel-surfing, capricious and fickle, free to interpret, misread, manipulate, and (horrors) apply. We're all guilty; we start at the end, in the middle, we don't finish, we joyously juxtapose bits of what we read with other readings, other experiences. But the point is that this is our most natural process" (141).

Spooner describes a graduate student pretty well, perhaps scholars as a whole. I suppose this is a rhetorical question, but is it any wonder that the pedagogical underpinnings of teaching with computers should be so under-theorized, at least in the early days of its classroom application (the late 1980s and early 1990s)?

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