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How the Conferences Worked
"our last connect!! :(
thanx guys it was a blast"
I never thought that students would be sad to end a semester, let alone two semesters', worth of work. Students assured me that they were glad to be done with the heavy reading load in Core, but a majority came forward to tell me that the weekly conferences provided them with something novel, something that made them more likely to attend class on Wednesday than on other days.

Synchronous conferencing appealed to me as a way to expand discussion about texts and ideas. Hawisher's (1992) assumptions about the egalitarian nature of these exchanges, ideas shared by Faigley (1992) and others, enticed me. I had also encountered the reservations raised by Moran (1991), Regan (1993), Romano (1993), Rouzie (1994), and others, and I too grew suspect of what Romano calls an "egalitarianism narrative" for synchronous conferences. To avoid some of the problems that haunted their classes, I planned to keep groups small, avoid anonymous or pseudonymous conferences, and moderate discussions by posing an initial question and a few follow-ups. Rouzie suspects that, in the second of two sections of a Holocaust Literature course taught with Daedalus Interchange, the lack of initial questions contributed to "a marked proclivity toward 'wilding' in InterChange, a virus that seemed to infect most of the students at some time during the term."

To ward off a few problems beforehand, I discussed netiquette in class, provided models of good and bad conferences, and included conferencing in an overall "participation grade" for the course. This final point did not appear to stunt participation, since students realized that one or two bad days in a semester would not ruin their grades.

When Chris Trible began helping me look at how the students' communicated on-line, he immediately asked why I used conferences and what value they had when compared to traditional discussions. I admitted that my work proceeded from a set of implicit assumptions gleaned from the scholars noted earlier, with the work of Faigley, Selfe, Kemp, Batson, and Hawisher in the lead. I assumed that the conferences would be more egalitarian for all participants (except, perhaps, very poor typists). The conferences would not be as susceptible to overt censure by Big Brother, although the flaming incident disproved that notion in an earlier class, where conferences were used more as thought-exercises for writers. In Core, I decided to adopt a rigorous, even conservative, approach for the conferences and follow-up activities:

  • A weekly conference for at least seven of the ten texts read each semester
  • No pseudonymous or anonymous posts
  • An initial "ice breaker" question from the teacher, chosen to focus the students' discussion on the text
  • Questions that often continued discussions begun during the previous class or even over the weekend in asynchronous newsgroup responses
  • Readily available transcripts, in print or on the class Web page
  • Exam and essay questions based upon issues raised, but not resolved, in conferences
  • A participation grade that included work done in conferences.

The version of Connect we used did not allow users to adopt pseudonyms or make anonymous posts unless the instructor set up the conference that way. So for all conferences, I took an approach readers may find controversial: except for the infrequent role-playing exercises, no participant would use pseudonyms or remain anonymous. In the classes that I taught before Core, I found, like Rouzie (1994) in his Holocaust Literature class, that pseudonyms could encourage the sort of "wilding" that I sought to avoid in discussions of literature. Pseudonyms can function well in a group that has worked together for some time, as with a poetry workshop taught by Michael Keller, a poet at Virginia Commonwealth and a team leader in the Epiphany Project, whose students only began to use pseudonyms with Daedalus Interchange after ten weeks together (Keller, 1995).

Rouzie's and Keller's specific uses of conferencing appear quite different from classrooms like DiMatteo's, whose students questioned "Which language can be called noise? The off-task language of everyday life. . .or the on-task language of analysis, the 'dead air' language of school" (DiMatteo, 1991, p.16). I suspect that the "dead air of school" DiMatteo's students disdained came not from the texts read or the ideas within them, but from the professorial voices heard from the podium during their educations, voices that could not be questioned until they first experienced conferencing in DiMatteo's classroom. In my classroom, through the polyvocal space of the synchronous conference, I hoped to set up an alternative to the lecture hall and the rants of the USENET newsgroups. We have enough diatribe and ill-considered "discussion" about crucial issues outside the academy; I resisted allowing the rhetorical space of the conference descend to the level of talk-radio. Even with the most draconian penalties, of course, flaming will sometimes occur. It can become an occasion for discussion in class.

My approach also varies from Faigley's (1992), whose students used pseudonymous conferences to discuss personally sensitive issues of sexual harassment. In such cases, pseudonyms can work well; they enable students to discuss painful matters in their own lives. Core focuses, however, on critical analysis of texts and ideas. This type of analysis, while not passionless, valorizes logos, not pathos. And as students became known as talented thinkers and polite conversationalists in conference, ethos came into play as well. Each year, a few students were the ones that everyone wanted to be in their groups; as was true in other studies of synchronous conferences, these students were not necessarily the ones best able to hold the floor in oral discussions.

Students' words and identities counted for something in each conference. For one thing, the conferences, newsgroup posts, and write-to-learn activities took the place of one formal essay each semester (Core faculty are required to give two examinations and assign three essays). While the conferences "counted" in the larger course grade, I did not want to assign individual grades to each conference transcript, as a colleague new to conferencing had once done. That practice would only stifle the free flow of ideas and encourage students to perform for the teacher. Instead, I chose to make "nothing special" of electronic conferencing, both the in-class synchronous work and the out-of-class newsgroup.

In order to avoid pointless flaming or even sabotage of the exercises, from day one it was clear to students that diatribes and off-topic banter were not appropriate in a civil classroom, on-line or in-person. Play during the conferences was not discouraged--even in the second half of the first semester, when the students read the sexually explicit passages in Marjorie Shostak's Nisa, some bawdy jokes by both male and female students circulated in the conferences without shutting down discussion or offending anyone. During our second-semester reading of the Symposium, the class went a step further in this direction, as we used role-playing to enhance discussion. By that point the students knew each other well, and they ribbed the student chosen to portray one of the speakers of a particular dialogue. I played a contentious, though sober, Alcibiades who visited all of the discussion groups, ready to crack open their arguments like statues of Silenus, rough on the outside but full of treasure. As the students began to get familiar with each other, this type of appropriate humor and levity enhanced their work; the students participated in a symposium rather than simply discussing Plato. I was also surprised how the discussion of homosexual love could be handled, in a mature way, on-line. In other classes, I heard that silence or ranting at Plato often typified the responses given to the Symposium. In this conference and others, we mixed rhetorical play and probed the logic underlying a text or idea; something that defied the binary opposition between philosophical and rhetorical traditions in the West (Lanham, 1993).

There was little dead air in the conferences we held in Core, and not much flaming or lack of spontaneity. Neither my students nor I hid behind anonymous or pseudonymous voices; one's words should count for something when discussing aspects of human experience. While Core is not the preparation of "a standing-reserve for a consumer society," an issue that DiMatteo (1991) asked his students to consider for all of college education (p. 16), or a vehicle for students to discover "their authentic selves through writing" (Faigley, 1992, p.191), Core is intended, in part, to prepare students to analyze their own ideas and those of others.

What Students Discussed

How We Used Transcripts