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 How We Used Transcripts

Methodical writing distracts me from the present condition of men.
But the certainty that everything has been already written nullifies or makes phantoms of us all.

"The Library of Babel," Jorge Luis Borges

I hope that the Core students do not feel this way after reading their twenty books. Every human difficulty, from personal tragedies to the most universal questions about existence, have been laid out and debated during the year, ending just in time for book buy-back. What, students ask, can they add to a conversation that is already profound, already as old as written records?

Unlike Borges' hapless librarians, the Core students have contributed something of their own to the stock of knowledge concerned with "Exploring Human Experience." For the course to live up to its name and promise, I wanted them to make use of their personal and communal explorations. Transcribing the conferences and making them available was simple. Getting students to think of each other's ideas as valid and worthwhile in papers and exams was more difficult.

Using transcripts recursively has been praised in several studies of synchronous conferencing (Kolko, 1993; Reiss, 1995; Rouzie, 1994). As Rouzie puts it, such recursive study of what was said by students "can cause students to consider their work in InterChange as real writing. But in order to effect this linkage, students must return to InterChange transcripts as texts in their own right".

My students were told that I would award extra credit to traditional essays that included valid points from the online discussions. This led to an obvious question: which points made in conference were "valid"? I proposed this test:

  •  Was the point arrived at by consensus of the group? By an individual?
  • Did the student reading it agree? Why or why not?
  • For points made by individuals, how was the isolated point worth examining? Because the individual who made it was being provocative? Supporting the point with evidence? Or just ranting? How did the others in the conference react?

This was all new territory for me. If, however, I was going to be consistent with Bruffee's (1996) depiction of shared knowledge, then points made through dialectic, not diatribe or monologue, would be more worthy of consideration. Still, students could learn from individual voices, too, so I told them to read carefully.

Approximately one paper in four used evidence gleaned from the transcripts. Chrissy Fetterer's paper, included here, was a strong example. Other students noted that the Connect transcripts were the best place to "fish for ideas" before beginning a paper. More students used transcripts for exam-study. All Core sections must include a midterm and final, something I could not control. So I told students that short-answer questions would come from points raised in the newsgroup and the in-class conferences. Occasionally I would make sure that the lab with the conferencing software was open late for a few weeks before exams; the students wanted to get into the room to study in groups and to print transcripts. Formalizing the use of transcripts, then, seems to have yielded good results for both groups of freshmen who enrolled in my Core classes.

Conclusion: Getting Past the End of the Book