The charts record the number of remarks about texts read both years during the first semesters in Core. Texts read one year but not another are not included. Only "hellos," "goodbyes," and one-word answers are excluded from the counts below. None of the 36 students in the two sections had prior experience with academic conferencing, although some of them were seasoned Internet users who may have visited MOOs or chat-rooms previously. Every conference began with an "ice breaker" question in which I gave participants a starting point for their discussions of the text at hand.
In measuring the interactions, Chris and I qualified the posts in these categories:
Changes Between Years 1 & 2
The biggest change between the two years came from my knowledge of conferencing; in many cases, I reworded questions, limited the scope of conferences, or changed the sections of texts under discussion. Even a casual glance reveals that in the second year, when I revised questions in light of my experiences the year before, students talked more among themselves than in direct reply to points I made. A technical limitation helped me stay out of the conversation: in the second year; many of the lab computers began to reach the end of their operational lives. On most days, a student used the teacher's station for discussion when yet another aging PC gave up the ghost.
Some of the differences between the two years came from the chemistry of a particular class or group. Starting with identical questions each year, students discussing Mahfouz's text took different approaches. The second year, the book stimulated much conversation between students, whereas during the first year the book generated replies directly to the teacher. Conversely, students the second year did not get overly involved in the frank discussions of sexuality in Marjorie Shostak's Nisa. In the first year, this was perhaps the most raucous conversation held, even though participants mostly stuck to the text itself (provocative enough without any digressions or sexual jokes).
Students here all have strong reactions to the most challenging text in Core, Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals. "Dread," "despise," and "demonize" come to mind. I was most curious to see how students would react to it on-line. The first year, Nietzsche generated more conversation in response to the teacher's initial questions (81 posts) than between peers (65 posts). One group split evenly its conversation with me and each other, but their conference "too often became a debate about the merits of Nietzsche himself" (Trible). This was understandable, given the provocation and complexity of Nietzsche's ideas. But Nietzsche's text also generated more remarks than did any other book the first year, a sign of that the author goaded his readers, just as he set out to do. Sequence helped; reading Nietzsche's attack of the "slave morality" of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, especially after the students had read about Islamic Law in the Qur'an, made them ready to argue. Finally, some students were able to get past their distaste for Nietzsche; as one student quipped, "Obviously the guy is a little off his rocker, but his view is very interesting if you can put behind the vile nature of his words, and just read his opinion."
The following year, one of the computers broke down just as we began class. I ceded the teacher's machine to a student and wished the class well as it dove into cyberspace. Thus the students couldn't turn to me for answers to confusing points about Nietzsche's text, as they had repeatedly done the year before. Instead of being handicapped by the lack of a teacher and resorting to rage at Nietzsche or their peers, the students were able to maintain a sophisticated level of discussion while talking about potentially offensive ideas. I was relieved, of course, that Nietzsche had not been the first writer encountered in Core!
Overall, the students composed fewer messages than their peers had done the year before, but as the excerpt below shows, the discussion of Nietzsche was not inane:
The last point Lindsay raises is important; it returns to Nietzsche, bypassing what could become a debate about how draconian the law should be. Marley and Scott rejoined the conversation soon after this, and an in-depth discussion of Nietzsche's ideas continued without the teacher. I could ask no more were the students working in a study group outside of class. Perhaps even Birkerts would recognize "deep reading" here. The students knew that I rewarded close attention to individual passages and constructing a reading of a text using direct evidence, but this transcript and others demonstrates that we did not engage in a mere scavenger hunt for appropriate quotations.
When Conferences Digress: Asking Careful Questions
Digressions from the questions asked by the teacher were not necessarily bad, although they counted as off-task "chat" in these results. In the second-year transcripts about Freud's ideas, for instance, two of three discussion groups veered off-task when confronted with these questions:
My assignment probably asks too much; it might have ended with the second question. I intended to elicit responses that dove deeper into Civilization and its Discontents. Instead, two groups focused on the last two questions, basing their answers upon their own morals and opinions. One group's discussion veered off into the meaning of "love thy neighbor" in modern life, and Freud disappeared thereafter. Another group settled into chatting about a similar topic, and from that point the students considered sexuality and aggression in Marjorie Shostak's Nisa, read the week before, and George Orwell's 1984, not read in the course:
I'm not so sure that I agreed with Matt, although his comment did get the group back to looking at specific passages and ideas in Freud's text, as I had originally intended. Moreover, the discussion also allowed the participants to draw parallels to another course text, an explicit goal in my section of Core. The composition of the group, not the questions asked by me, permitted this. Still, the wording of an initial question became vital when I lacked a computer of my own, as often happened during the second year. More commonly, the wording of the first question mattered when the classes divided into so many small discussion groups that I could not visit each group frequently enough to ask follow-up questions.
Did the conferences reinvigorate the study of printed works, just as the technology behind it is changing the production and consumption of printed texts? Looking at the raw data from the conferences only supported the idea that the teacher said no more or less than he had said in traditional discussions without conferencing. The measurements of how students talked was beneficial; unlike the freshman writing course that served as a pilot project for weekly conferences, a glance at the charts reveals that in the two years for the Core class students engaged in little off-topic chat and almost no "flaming." The data collected yield no clear-cut reason for this change. Still, the more businesslike attitude by students may have come partly from the instructor's increased experience with conferencing software and partly from the demanding syllabus, improved initial questions by the instructor, challenging analytical writing assignments, and regular, lengthy, reading assignments in the already rigorous Core class. Moreover, conferences were an expected part of students' participation in class, and the material from the conferences provided sources for exam and essay questions.
Student evaluations, even from those who commented on the difficulty of the class, indicated enjoyment of the conferencing exercises. The intellectual level of the discussions increased when I limited my actions to posting initial questions, setting standards in advance for the discussions, but otherwise joining conferences only to clarify points or ask additional questions. These findings suggest that instead of overturning the linear process of reading, as Birkerts fears, careful use of synchronous conferences actually stimulated students' desire to read difficult texts, argue about them, and ultimately craft persuasive arguments about them.