The Dialogic Blackboard      

In the previous section, we examined some of the ways that Blackboard disciplines student experience, but at its best, such discipline challenges students to refine their written voices. After all, as its metaphoric name suggests, Blackboard opens a space for a community dialogue in which students must frequently consider self-presentation in light of shifting audience, surely one of our primary objectives as teachers of writing. Students can have asynchronous discussions or real-time virtual chats, exchange files, send mail, share common documents, or visit external sites of joint interest. Thus despite the architecture of authority that structures Blackboard, students are constantly faced with various environments of interchange.

Perhaps no theorist has better articulated the complications of dialogue than Mikhail Bakhtin, who repeatedly insists that dialogue is not just interaction between two contained individuals or points of view. Rather, it is a model for the world as people live in it. This model is necessarily rich, messily complex, and ongoing, for that is how we experience life. Attention to how Blackboard allows for dialogue can show the space’s possibilities for student writing as process rather than as containment. The question then is how effectively Blackboard aids in this process. If Bakhtin is correct that any dialogue is an active boundary between two people and that meaning is constantly contested and evolving, then to what extent does Blackboard encourage students to see their own writing as inevitably dialogic rather than as a static, embodied object that needs perfecting precisely so that it can be left behind?

 Bakhtin insists that all speakers speak with an awareness of audience. Accordingly, all utterances have at least two “voices”: that of the speaker, and that of the implied or understood listener. According to Bakhtin (1981), an awareness of community always influences the content and the form of any act of language. “The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction” (p. 280).

In Blackboard, the form that this “future answer-word” will take is to some extent determined by the spatial structure. Students can identify their implied listeners with relative precision, for as they write variously to the entire class, a small group, the professor alone, the solitary self, and (through e-mail) a single person or selected ones in the community, they develop consistent expectations about the form of response they will subsequently receive.[i] Because Blackboard sets up a rather full spectrum, ranging from the personal notepad and the virtual chat space to the public forum and the essay submitted for grading, students who become sensitive to the gradations will learn to alter their writing accordingly. In almost all of Blackboard’s spaces, our primary existence is in our written language. Our task as writing instructors is to make our students sensitive to this idea, and to make their writing reflect it. If they want to inflect that language with their personality, with a tone of disgust, with a regional emphasis, they must do so in words—even in a more casual setting like a virtual chat or an open discussion. In this virtual space, then, we begin to embody Bakhtin’s (1984) insistence that “To be means to communicate” (p. 287).Tip #9

As complex dialogic subjects, however, students do not exist as monads or as clearly bounded interiorities. Rather, they speak from the position of several communities to which they belong, as well as from the specificity of a historical and cultural moment. For Cooper (1999), this kind of subject is more likely to find a voice in on-line discussion than in older media that developed alongside a more traditional understanding of the self: “in electronic conversations, the individual thinker moves in the opposite direction, into the multiplicity and diversity of the social world, and in social interaction tries out many roles and positions.” (p. 143). In practice, however, Blackboard insists on a certain representation of the authoring voice as originating from a single, contained individual, even if that individual can be temporarily named “anonymous.” Thus while asserting the community of the class itself, Blackboard threatens to make invisible a student’s culture or other communities.[ii] Tip #8  Meanwhile the student acts as a solitary, formalized author throughout the space, and the kind of containment that preoccupied Foucault seems very much in evidence. For instance, though it is possible to reset nicknames, in practice few students actually go through the trouble, so that student work is automatically signed with full first and last names, regardless of what any of the students are named in their actual lives. Tip #1 More importantly, the complex identities that Bakhtin describes are systematically hidden, flattened, or squeezed into pre-existing forms and boxes. Because our students are complex, emerging, and connected to various communities, they push against the system’s insistence that each user must speak with a single designated voice.

Blackboard’s notion of authorship may moreover be in tension with how our students experience textuality, or even with how we want them to work on a given text in a writing classroom. Cooper (1999) suggests that a general shift towards a more postmodern understanding encouraged computer use for teaching composition: “With knowledge seen as rhetorical, or socially constructed, the collaborative aspects of writing became fore-grounded, and any technology that enabled more effective collaborative practices in writing became attractive” (143). Here again, however, Blackboard’s spaces resists the practices we might expect to find there. Blackboard gives us group spaces, but even if students use those spaces to collaborate, any final product will be posted under the aegis of a single student. Virtual classroom conversations, normally common spaces for collaborative writing, are conducted with fixed name tags that come from the overall system. Bakhtin believed that “whatever serves to ‘fuse’ serves to impoverish because it destroys outsideness and otherness” (Morson & Emerson, 1990, p. 183), so he would likely have applauded this refusal to let any individual identity merge entirely into a group identity. But because we writing instructors inhabit a different ideological context than Bakhtin, we might try to allow students to attempt a shared voice. Tip #13   At the very least, when we use Blackboard we should recognize that a specific notion of the author is at work in this electronic space, one that restricts the increasingly common practice of joint authorship.

Similarly, it is perhaps inevitable that Blackboard ultimately closes down open-ended dialogue. For Bakhtin (1986), a person “emerges along with the world and he reflects the historical emergence of the world itself” (p. 23). Since the world is not finished, neither is identity, and neither is the dialogue through which identity emerges. When we take these rather abstract ideas to the concrete space of Blackboard, some practical issues of closure quickly appear. Within the electronic class space in a given semester, as we have already suggested, the emerging identity of a student writer is directed, contained, and monitored. As for dialogue, Discussion Forums left open for an entire course are technically available for ongoing exchange, but they usually remain unvisited after the assignment that generated them is over. As other forums move to the top of the list, earlier ones disappear from the screen while students drift away from a topic and turn their attention to more pressing concerns. In our institution at least, student access to Blackboard classes is also erased a few weeks after the course has ended, unless the instructor makes a special request. In that sense the dialogue has a very definite closure, though a more positive way to view it might be as an extended moment, an effort to capture and engage the flow of an academic discourse. Tip #11

            But at the same time, there are features of Blackboard that lend themselves more comprehensively to Bakhtin’s description of dialogue, particularly when they are manipulated by savvy students. Within the discussion forum and virtual classroom, for instance, the active boundary between two writers is much more directly represented than it is in the Digital Dropbox or Gradebook. In a sense, these interactions are presented evenly and without any hierarchy other than the way postings occur in time. In our classes, the most common dialoguing space is certainly the Discussion Forum, which keeps visual track of an ongoing conversation with a predictable kind of inverse stacking, one which we encounter in countless discussion forums elsewhere on the web.


            Though seasoned users of the web may by now take this kind of visual space for granted, it carries several implications for questions of authorship and dialogue. For instance, a student who starts a new thread has a visually “privileged” subject-line, clearly located further to the left on the screen. Once the conversation has started, however, that privilege disappears for the initial author, who then simply contributes to the dialogue just like everyone else. Contributors are located down the page as they add to the discussion in time, and are located over to the right as they designate their comments as a response to someone else’s. The lazy contributor may well simply hit the “reply” button after reading the last posting in a series. When this happens, the new comment is automatically filed under the last one, and the subject line is carried over. Students who are paying more attention, or who have something more pointed to say, are likely to change the subject line or insert themselves at an earlier point in the forum, if that place is more germane to their own contributions. Tip #2

The discussion forum space can therefore foster different kinds of dialogue between a community of speakers, and the visual layout of the space in a given class can at least start to suggest what kind of discussion they are having. If everyone is required to make some kind of initial posting, for instance an introduction or a personal response to a reading, then the forum will have a new thread for each member of the class, all left-justified and arranged only in order of posting. Although issues of contained identity still obtain, once the class starts to interact, respond, and possibly argue, Blackboard can show us Bakhtin’s active boundaries at work. With a group of students conversant with web forum technology, creative and attentive use of threads and subject lines is one clear marker of an engaged discussion.

An even more immediate dialoguing space is of course the virtual classroom, which comes closer to approximating casual speech between students. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Blackboard, we can visualize Bakhtin’s (1984) argument that any dialogue (including thought itself) is an active boundary between two people:  “everything internal gravitates not toward itself but is turned to the outside and dialogized, every internal experience ends up on the boundary, encounters another, and in this tension-filled encounter lies its entire essence” (p. 287).  Synchronous classroom conversation, perhaps more than any other single writing technology, has been the subject of wide discussion among composition scholars (see Cooper, 1999; Day & Batson, 1995; Goldfarb, 1998). In the best of circumstances we can see such spaces, as Cooper (1999) does,  “as forums in which students learn how to be open to unassimilated otherness, learn how to take responsibility for others, and learn how paratactic juxtaposition of ideas and perspectives can lead to a better understanding of issues and problems that confront them" (p. 157). In our own recent experience, new services like cell phone text messaging and AOL’s Instant Messenger make it more likely that the Virtual Classroom will be the place in Blackboard where students feel most comfortable as writers. In many real time writing spaces, they feel free to stop worrying about conventions of spelling and grammar. Instead, written language enacts an attempt to animate the boundary between people, to encounter others, without the drag of a static text that must be shaped and corrected. 

Yet insofar as that mode of discourse is resituated within a classroom, where an instructor is reading over their shoulder, the animated boundary is not without complications. Blackboard, like other course management systems, enables such communication at the same time that it limits it: at every level of the system (from the main course page to group folders), only the instructor can start a virtual chat, and the chats can always be archived and examined as concrete pieces of writing at a later date. So the organization of this space makes it harder for students to ignore that each utterance has two audiences: the conversation partners to whom it is addressed, and the instructor who controls the space in which it occurs. It is worth noting that if we do locate Bakhtin’s active boundary in this kind of dialogue, we are indeed witnessing a modern kind of collaborative writing in this space. But because of the architecture of the system, the instructor and even Blackboard itself are always present as voices in the collaboration. Tip #13

 While Blackboard’s various types of containment can be problematic, perhaps Bakhtin’s dialogic model ultimately gives us a different way to understand the direction this space gives our students. On the one hand, the system’s architecture reflects not merely technological needs but also specific cultural understandings of authorship, community, ownership, evaluation. On the other hand, there is no reason that those understandings cannot become in themselves objects of inquiry. Blackboard is itself a “speaker” in the classroom conversation, and any encounter with this space is therefore itself a kind of dialogue. To the extent that Blackboard is a significant element in students’ larger educational experience, it provides a potentially representative site where students can examine the larger dialogue that continues even after they log off.

[i] To say that students can become aware of implied listeners is not to say, of course, that the actual listeners will always correspond. At our college, we know of one colleague who lurks in the course sites of other faculty who have not password-protected their courses. Undoubtedly, students aren’t aware that he might be looking at their work, and most likely, neither are instructors. 

[ii] When a student logs onto the system, Blackboard will provide a list of the other classes to which he or she belongs, but entering one class means leaving even these other classes behind in terms of the visual space.