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When Conferences Went Wrong
"Sure. You go on believing that. And I'll laugh when
that comment gets posted on the web."

Some of the readers who have strayed to this part of the hypertext may get as tired as I do of wonder-stories from the online classroom. Granted, I can assume things that many readers cannot, since I teach a talented, if sometimes complacent, group of upper-middle-class suburban students at an affluent private university. Few of my students are confronted with a need to hold down jobs, find child care, or pay bills. They come to class alert and polite, except during fraternity rush. These are just the types of students who most need to question their deeply held beliefs; they will graduate into a world more diverse, and divisive, than that on campus and fraternity row.

That said, synchronous conferences could go as far astray as any in Susan Romano's classroom, where Anglo and Latino students squared off over issues of ethnicity and nationalism, or Albert Rouzie's, where anti-Semitism crept into conferences about Holocaust literature. After a few incidents of flaming occurred, I decided to adopt a policy that prevails in the often murky, sometimes frightening world of the unmoderated .alt newsgroups in USENET: tell participants that I would post everything from the transcripts of conferences, short of direct attacks, on the Web. Students agreed to this at the beginning of the semester. In a major break from the USENET tradition, however, I prohibited the use of pseudonyms or anonymous postings.

My first experience with synchronous conferencing was in a freshman composition class, which I taught in my first flush of enthusiasm for real-time chat software. The students used conferences to try out ideas for papers, comment on others' drafts, and critique readings. Most of the conversation was rather disengaged, though polite, about the subject at hand. In critiquing readings, readings not done by most of the class, problems recurred. Consider this exchange and my ham-handed "moderation," from a conference about readings on congestion, pollution, and automobiles. The students, who used their real names in the original conferences, are identified by pseudonyms and a few remarks are omitted for the sake of brevity:

Jim: [long, supported post with details from readings]

Ed: I think you type too much, Jim.

Bob: I think you should limit your amount of thought and shorten it so that it fits on the screen all at once.

Mike: I like Jim's book.

Jim: [begins to address a point, then] Leave me alone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Instructor: [replies to Jim's original point, having not yet seen the attack or reply]

Jim: Hey look guys, we're up on the screen [in front of class] and the teacher is watching, so watch it with the cut downs. Thank you. Jim.

[A few on-task messages follow]

Ed: I think cars should be cut from society

Beth: There is not much we can do about all the crowding, unfortunately. More and more people keep buying cars and the highways keep getting full [so] people will have to gain more patience and be willing to wait when traffic gets backed up.

Bob: I think you've lost your mind.

Instructor: Take it easy folks. BIG BROTHER is watching, as Jim Notes. Type as much or as little as you want--but answer the questions you all pose here.

Class PhotoIt did not matter whether Bob was attacking Ed or whether he was critiquing Beth's engagement with the subject. The overall effect was a "dumbing down" of class discussion that haunted the class for the entire semester and which left me with a bad taste for conferencing software. Leaving this event on the screen in front of the class was accidental, and it served an unintended purpose of intimidating the class. I had begun with the best intentions of being the "guide on the side" who would moderate, but never dictate, students' work. Suddenly I was calling myself Big Brother. Conversation got on-task for a time, but it never showed deep engagement with the texts. Although I did discuss the problem of flaming in the next class, flaming continued to bedevil us sporadically, usually in the form of other students trying to silence others who prepared for class.

In the two years teaching Core, on the other hand, I found that flaming was very rare and limited to one attacker; never did a virtual ring of bullies form around the students who had prepared for class. I'm tempted to say that my initial questions, and more subtle way of addressing flames, solved the problem. Certainly, my shuffling the membership of editing and discussion groups helped. But the students, too, worked together to reduce the amount of diatribe in conferences, as in this discussion, which occurred while I was answering questions from another group:

Amy: I think that religion and belief are the two themes that we seen most in the first two chapters

Mel: Considering the second chapter is entitled "Pontious Pilate" [sic] I think that it would be an accurate guess Amy.

Amy: Thank you Mel for the sarcasm, but that was one of the questions the teacher asked...I thought that maybe we should discuss the question since we only have 10 minutes left. I usually don't try to be a master of the obvious.

Nick: Does anybody agree that the "Stranger" is the devil or am I on my own?

Amy: I agree with you Nick

Angela: I agree that the stranger is the devil.

Mel: Chill. Anyway what do think is the symbolism of the hiccups in the first chapter?

This "flame" seems pretty lukewarm when compared to the put-down I cited earlier or the tirades that occurred in Romano's and Regan's classrooms. But "Mel," who almost never did his readings before class, had an agenda that he pursued all semester in traditional and electronic discussions. In this conference he doesn't find an audience, so he moves back to an on-task question about an event in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Eventually, no group (whose membership changed constantly) wanted Mel, and they rolled their eyes when his name appeared on their screens. I would like to say that Mel began to do his readings and joined the community, but he did not. Still, he asked questions about the books that he had not read, and thus he gained some material to use on exams and in papers. As in on-line communities in the academic world, those who regularly submit invective eventually get ignored. Mel had to join the community or get ignored.

In the second year of Core conferences, a few mild incidents of flaming occurred. In one instance, a male student asked a female student, who was a friend outside of class, whether she meant "douche" when she had typed "touche'." Her reply shut down the event, instantly: "Sure. You go on believing that. And I'll laugh when that comment gets posted on the web."

So I posted it, verbatim, and reminded the writer of the verbal agreement we had made at the start of the year: all of his words counted, even the ones that he would prefer to retract.

Making the online conferences public should not embarrass students into good behavior. I do, however, like to stand Stephen North's adage about Writing Centers on its head: in my classes, synchronous conferences become an extension, not an alternative to the classroom. I do not encourage, or tolerate, cursing or sexually harassing remarks in face-to-face discussions. Even so, when flaming bursts out it can provide fertile ground for a discussion of the rhetorical moves allowed if a conference is to remain civil. Public postings of the conference transcripts to the Web also educates students about audience--some moves in the conversations that might be inoffensive to the local audience might not be appropriate for the larger, secondary audience visiting the class Web pages.

While this Web text was begin drafted, one of my classes logged on, as guests, at a local MOO I administer with another faculty member. Instead of discussing the assigned questions, the students "acted out," making many sexually suggestive comments and engaging in some disturbingly violent virtual behavior. This occurred despite a preliminary discussion of acceptable behavior online. My co-administrator "toaded" on of the students, and after the MOO session we discussed what happened and why I and the other "wizard" at the MOO were unhappy. Since all of the students were logged on as guests in the MOO, I did not know, or ask, who had committed the offensive behavior. After a lively face-to-face discussion in class, one in which the students eagerly participated, the toaded student and several others apologized, sending private e-mails to me and the other MOO administrator. One sent an apology to the entire class, and discussion, face-to-face and online, remained polite and productive for the rest of the semester. We all learned something about civil discourse and the role of audience through the hard lesson of flaming.

How the Conferences Worked