If what follows can be described as an ethnographic study, I feel I owe it to the students of ENG10205/ELC38107 to recognize them all as my co-ethnographers rather than as my subjects or my informants. The subject of our ethnography, after all, was the class itself: ourselves as a community of meaning-makers, our conversational exchange the content of the course. If, as Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater said in her book Academic Literacies, "an ethnographic account gives you then, the lived-through experience of informants' lives, by means of the ethnographer's lens" (xxi), each participant in the combined classes that Bob and I referred to affectionately as the "Inter-Course" lived through and held a lens to the unfolding experience of our dialogue. Each in his or her own way contributed profoundly to what the class meant, and to what now comes down to this singular account of what transpired during the fall semester of 1994. They were all ethnographers of the collective experience; it is only with deepest respect and gratitude that I speak for the collective.
As in any ethnographic study, indeed any study at all, the "objectivity" of the one who does the observing and reporting is defined by that person's background, experiences, desires, and beliefs. In this case, the "one who does the observing and reporting" is myself, a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a poet, a writer, a wife, a mother, a middle-aged woman, and a teacher who loves the classroom. At heart, I am what Stephen North calls a practitioner -- one of those ghettoized composition teachers whose primary mode of meaning-making and knowledge-acquisition is experientially based on intense interaction with colleagues and students, a person for whom the work of the scholar, the philosopher, or the theorist is empty unless that work finds its way into actual practice in classrooms where students and teachers reciprocally engage in authentic learning activities. Like other practitioners, I'm concerned about what works, what doesn't work, and about any changes in cultural and classroom conditions that impede effective education, specifically the learning of communication skills. Working in the trenches, as they say, pragmatism counts for more. Philosophy, science, and theory notwithstanding, what counts are methods that best help students learn to read and write, to communicate effectively and to think critically. And although North points out that "practitioners know that the best course is usually to stay with the tried and true" (37), this doesn't necessarily mean that we are always content to fall back into comfortable grooves, satisfied with an acceptable proportion of A students, B students, C students, and so on for year after year. Ideally, we're all keeping up with new research, and if we're really good practitioners, we're sharing our experiences with one another in the oral tradition of lore -- our most distinguished method for making and disseminating knowledge a conversational form itself.
Thus, as a practitioner, my life and my practice are informed by and carried forth in conversation with others: my colleagues, my teachers, my students, my family and friends. Our ghetto of choice is a noisy one, filled with voices sharing personal stories, classroom experiences, swapping recipes by the water cooler, delivering messages from the front. In short, our ghetto is a site of social-construction par excellence; and what I find so exciting is that most of us who inhabit this space are consciously aware of its social dimension. We depend upon one another for personal and professional support, we empower our collective through conversation, we get a more accurate picture of contemporary culture because we draw upon one another's observations, experiences, and narratives to enlarge our perspectives. It seems inevitable to me, considering our practice, that philosophies of social-constructionism would predominate our hermeneutic, and that being experientially oriented, we would transfer those philosophies into our classrooms. And, as I have pointed out, this has indeed been the case. An increased emphasis on collaborative writing, peer review, small group work, class discussion, and democratic practices illustrates this transfer of the practitioner's lived experiential model to the classroom.
North refers to us practitioners as a "reactive" bunch, but suggests that there's no need to put a pejorative spin on that term. I agree. Our lived experience, our philosophies, our research lead to the pedagogical reactivities as cited above. Reactive doesn't necessarily mean "passive-until-stimulated-to-action" when practice in the comfortable grooves wears out and stops working. We teachers in the trenches are an extremely active group who tend to embrace as our primary task "preparing [our] charges for some real or imagined exigencies . . . imposed from outside, beyond the bounds of [our] immediate relationship with students" (North 37). Our practice as inquiry is not inactive; it is reactive -- meaning that we renew again and again the way we look, the way we think, the way we act. Clearly, instituting a pedagogy of textual conversation is a reaction, one that reflects this teacher's desire to see the teaching of rhetoric through writing more closely parallel the use of rhetoric in real life situations -- those "exigencies imposed from outside" -- and in such a way that the social nature of meaning-making is immediately experienced and can be almost as immediately critiqued.
I wouldn't say that the old groove of teaching writing (which inevitably involves the production of the monological essay as a central focus) is wearing out, if one takes that to mean that it is beginning to fail. I would rather assert that we're simply stuck in an old groove, not moving forward in our efforts to connect what we teach with real uses of language in the world. Many of us, for example, note that our student writers seem unwilling to take controversial stands on current social issues that find their way into classroom reading and discussion. Not only do they seem to avoid the controversial, often opting for the politically correct, but they also seem to avoid taking any position firmly one way or another. Culturally imbued with skepticism about foundational truths (as are many of their teachers in the academy), students flounder in non-positions which allow them to avoid the responsibility of defending specific moral or ethical points which may apply generally to the human condition, preferring instead to foreground their indecisiveness in what paradoxically sounds like a foundational truth -- "it's just a matter of opinion." Such floundering has often been exemplified in diagnostic writing exercises I've assigned during the first few days of class. Normally, I give students a brief essay in which the writer takes a clear stand on a controversial topic; I ask students to read this essay, restate the writer's thesis, and then elaborate their own positions on the issues be they in agreement or disagreement. Most recently, I had students read a brief article in which the writer linked white male homophobia to white male sexual anxiety ("I hate homosexual men because they reflect in their lifestyles choices that I might be subject to make myself"). Interestingly, although my student readers successfully identified the writer's thesis, very few of them went on to respond directly to that thesis, choosing instead to dodge the issue in favor of a more politically correct, therefore safer, tact: "homosexuality isn't right for me, but no one should engage in gay-bashing because we should all have the right to choose our lifestyles as long as we aren't hurting anybody." It's all a matter of opinion, a basic freedom, a matter of choice -- a way to avoid having to express your own opinion. Patricia Roberts has called this non-position the "avoidance angle" and contrasts avoidance with "arguing the slogan," another, although less typical, kind of response I observed among my students' papers. Roberts offers as an example of the latter the familiar maxim "guns don't kill people; people do" (409); analogous responses among my writers were statements such as "homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God" and those of a similar fundamentalist ilk.
It seems to me that we get these kinds of responses from students because we deserve them. We have, at the very least, facilitated them. Despite our own lived experiences as practitioners and despite our familiarity with social-constructionist theory that emphasizes the importance of dialogue to meaning-making, knowledge production, and understanding, we tend to focus on rhetorical practice as dialectic. Perhaps both kinds of responses, avoidance and arguing the slogan, may very well signal the end of the dialectical insofar as dialectics can be understood as an argumentative process whose ultimate aim is "winning," one dialectical pole logically out-maneuvering the other and reaching once and for all the right answer, the right position, the universal solution. Dialectical relationships inherently imply dichotomies of logical positionings squared off in confrontational modes of exchange aimed at foreclosing further conversation. And if one were to embrace the most liberal interpretations of "logical" thus including not only empirically based, scientific reason, but also irrational forms of reason based on belief, metaphysics ("homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God"), or even mysticism, one may reasonably concur with Baudrillard who asserts that it is "the dialectic itself which has reached the moment of deadlock" ("Requiem for the Media" 182) -- the old groove is getting us nowhere.
The conversational model upon which ENG10205/ELC38107 was built, then, was meant to be reactive -- to move us forward. Because Bob and I both suspected dialectical deadlock, we sought a new way for students, and teachers, to begin once more talking to one another, to own their own opinions and positions in exchanges free from the confrontational imperative to win the argument. Our research, we hoped, would lead to the reactivity of communicative processes, a kind of ur-exchange, original because the old dichotomies of winners and losers dissolves as dialogue replaces dialectic. What we wanted to do was to replace confrontation with conversation, to replace gaining assent with understanding.
ENG102 is a introductory level course in deliberative writing at UNCG; 05 indicates the section number of that course and its meeting time on Monday and Wednesday evenings. In the fall of 1994, ENG10205 was comprised of thirteen students -- two African-Americans, one Middle-Eastern-American, and ten Caucasians -- of whom none were freshmen, most were sophomores, and two were seniors. Majors ranged from the humanities and the fine arts to business and "undecided." Only two students had prior experience with computer-mediated communication, and none were aware before the first day of class that this particular section would require them to learn and to use such skills.
ELC381 is an education course taught in the school's program of educational leadership and cultural foundations. It is the one course in this program required of all education majors and, as such, attracts students in all years of study from freshmen to a very few graduate students. The course title is "The Institution of Education" and its focus is primarily on federal and state programs of compulsory education -- their history, their ideological foundations, and their effects on individuals and society. Section 07 also met on Mondays, and Wednesdays, but in the mid-afternoon. This semester, the class was comprised of nineteen students, four of whom were African-American and the rest Caucasian. Like ENG102 students, ELC381 students had little experience with computer-mediated communication and none of them knew in advance that such would be expected of them in this section.
Our decision to link these two classes across disciplines was an exciting part of our teaching project. While electronic conferences had been often used for purposes of carrying on further discussions about intracourse materials, we wished to extend the conversation beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to include a greater variety of insight, opinion, experience, interest, and style. We wanted to, as much as possible, simulate in microcosm a larger civic arena and we wanted to see what benefits might accrue to students from enriching one another's learning environments with a focus broad enough to include the inquiries of our two disciplines at once.
While composition courses, such as English 102, are often criticized for being contentless, for being skills courses rather than content courses, classes in other disciplines, such as education, are criticized for their content insularity, their failure to take into consideration broader public concerns, cultural realities related not only to ethnic diversity but diversity of interest and scholarship, and communication skills. By connecting the two classes for interdisciplinary conversation, English 102 students benefited from having a content upon which to focus the exercise of their rhetorical skills, a content supplied not only by the traditional approach of reading essays, stories, novels, etc., but greatly enriched by sharing a textual exchange with students whose major was in the field of education itself, many of whom had already spent time teaching and experiencing those things normally encountered by composition students only as ideas. ELC381 students benefited from interacting with students whose primary focus was on rhetorical skills, students who were studying reading, writing, and critical thinking skills and who could challenge their colleagues in education to communicate clearly and without fallacy, to elaborate their claims, and to anticipate the reaction a real audience would have to what they said.
The structure of the class came as a surprise to both groups of students. While they could expect to be doing a lot of things they'd normally be doing in a more traditional class, they'd be doing these things in a decidedly different classroom -- an electronic classroom that existed not in the McIver Building (which houses the English department) or the Curry building (which houses the school of education), but in a space that is at once real as well as imaginary. Although my class met bodily on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and Bob's class met bodily on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, the primary work of the class was carried out atemporally in a metaphorical classroom constructed by keystrokes, electronic signals, and an unseen, often unfathomable, network. We were, in short, in a Burkean parlor: an imaginary room in which the life that precedes any given participant and that which endures once that participant leaves belongs solely to the conversation itself, a room in which others have gathered to discuss social issues or personal isssues of common interest. In such a room, a newcomer would enter quietly, listen for a while to get a feel for the topic of discussion, the attitudes of other particpants, the ambiance of fellowship, and then enter the dialogical arena as a full participant. During the conversation, long-time particpants would leave; new participants would arrive; although the topic of the conversation may change, it would nevertheless survive.
And from the outset, we described this place to our students in these terms, emphasizing that we had organized the course around the metaphor of conversation and that everything we would do would reflect a "pedagogy of conversation," meaning that what informed the core of our work would be the dialogic or multilogic process of social meaning-making: sharing our ideas and experiences, talking about our differences and our similarities, discussing what we'd read or what we'd talked about in class, etc., all in an effort to find a common ground from which to make mutually satisfactory decisions. We encouraged them to think of the parlor as an enjoyable place, a place where a party was going on and they'd all been invited to meet there to have fun, to talk about ideas, and to enjoy one another's company. When one arrives at a party, we explained, one finds the place noisy and full of people who've been there for a while, have loosened up, and are standing around in groups talking to one another. Normally, as a newcomer, one would circulate about the room, listen to the conversations, and then, having gotten some sense of the subject, join in. In such a parlor or party, the people may come and go, but the conversation endures. So, while Bob and I valued all the individual contributions, what really counted was the conversation itself; that was the life of the party, so to speak.
Over the course of the semester, I grew to admire deeply all our students' senses of adventure, their willingness to pioneer this new territory. Since so few of them had prior computer experience beyond word-processing, they were challenged to learn not only the normal course content, but also to learn computer skills. Understandably, many of them felt quite anxious about this challenge, but because they were willing to pursue the adventure, most of them mastered it in short order. But beyond learning the skills, which in the long run were quite basic, these students had to find time to go to computer labs on their own to do homework, to make their weekly conversational contributions, to "meet" their colleagues in the other class. To our surprise, none of our students dropped the course because of its inconvenience or its challenge (although we did hear a number of complaints and afterwards we learned that several had certainly considered it). In general, the parlor turned out to be an amiable space for us all, a space in which we gradually began to practice meta-rhetorical skills, achieved a remarkable degree of intersubjective understanding and tolerance, and engaged in authentic learning activities.
In teaching this particular Inter-Course, we had a real opportunity to explore the pedagogical usefulness of disembodied discourse. Having experienced for myself the benefits of communication untethered by the visual sense of the body, I was curious to see in what ways, if any, these benefits might accrue for students. Because our two classes would not be meeting one another face-to-face, I proposed to Bob that we take advantage of the situation and provide for all our students as much anonymity as possible by assigning them VAX usernames that marked them in no way. Normally, usernames are based on real names such that in cyberspace I am known as baldwine. Bob is known as kingbx. If nothing else, one's last name is revealed and students can connect the name to the person with little trouble. Some usernames, especially those assigned on the basis of first names (karenm, williamn, saraht, jeffreyc, etc.) also reveal gender. If one were to receive a message from karenm, one might safely assume that karenm is a female whose first name is Karen. Since I wanted to avoid marking even for gender, my idea was to keep students completely unmarked by assigning as their usernames the names of various mountain ranges worldwide. Usernames such as denali, massif, sierra, etc., would reveal nothing about the real person behind the name. We could, I argued, do at least this much to provide masking. Beyond that, whatever unmasking, role-playing, pseudonym-taking, or whatever would be a student's choice. If I began the course by marking them in anyway, I thought, I would be making choices for them that really should be theirs.
Fortunately, Bob called to my attention a possible problem of logic involved in my argument. Wasn't my act of unmarking just a different kind of marking? Was this not marking them as disembodied, anonymous, etc., constructing them in such a way so that I could observe their interaction and learn more about the effect of embodiment of discoursal relationships? Perhaps this seems like belaboring the obvious, but I'd not considered it.
Ultimately, though, Bob liked the idea, regarding it as both aesthetically and ethically pleasing. As long as we kept in mind the fact that we were still doing a mark-up job, he liked the idea of having students arrive at what he called a "menu of selves to start with, a regular gush of nymity, just to make clear that what is going on is the construction of yet another self out of available materials." In other words, it was the issue of choice he found appealing -- of not forcing students to deal with familiar selves or identities they felt were imposed upon them because they were black or white or Asian, fat or skinny, old or young, handicapped or physically whole. If we provided initial anonymity, they could choose to construct themselves in any way they pleased. Thus, my students became mountains and Bob's became rivers.
Because we wished to make conversational aspects of the Inter-Course the central focus of our approach, we placed the greatest evaluative weight in both classes on students' contributions to VAX notes, requiring as a minimum "good faith" effort from each weekly entries of not less than thirty lines. Although we continued to ask them to write individual or collaborative essays after each one of our major conversational turns (of which there were three), these papers carried only 1/3 of the evaluative weight as did their ongoing VAX conversation. Thus, dialogue was foregrounded and both the process of its production as well as its specific subject (the topic) became fair game for study.
To stimulate conversation further and to provide initial source material, Bob and I chose readings from the second edition of Jack Selzer's anthology, serendipitously entitled Conversations, which included over 140 contributors whose works ranged from fiction to advertisements, letters, poems, magazine articles to essays, government documents and reports, and cartoons. Representing a wide variety of positions on topical social issues, these selections often referred to one another, encouraging readers to regard the collected texts as a conversation in writing -- something that appealed to us a great deal. As Selzer himself noted in the Preface, "the book will encourage students to adopt a social and rhetorical model--a `conversation model'--for their own writing: Instead of seeing writing merely as private or as debate or point-counterpoint, students should sense that `people are talking about this issue--and I'd like to get in on the talk somewhere'" (viii). Precisely what we hoped to encourage in Inter-Course.
And talk they did. While each class met separately at different times throughout the semester, each focusing during that time on its more traditional topics (rhetoric in my class, the institution of education in Bob's), we drew into our classroom discussions material from VAX conversation and left each meeting with ideas to add to the conversation. With thirty-two students and two teachers each contributing at least thirty lines per week to our electronic conversation, we generated quite a noisy parlor indeed, eventually amounting to more than five hundred pages of transcript printed in eight point type -- the "phone book" as we called it.
Having laid the groundwork as much as possible in methods and materials, having written a syllabus and scheduled computer-orientation labs for students, having talked endlessly with Bob about what we proposed to do and why, the inevitable first day of class rolled around. Thus, at 6:30 p.m. on a humid Wednesday in August, my ENG102 students strolled anxiously into my classroom, took their seats, and prepared themselves for yet another opening lecture delivered by a stranger with whom they would be stuck for the next dozen or so weeks of their lives. And by the end of that dozen or so weeks, I had a pretty good idea of what North meant when he said:
In practical inquiry . . . the investigator deliberately . . . reopens her practice to both complexity and instability. Just getting the solution in place in the intended form can be troublesome. If nothing else, it will be new to the Practitioner, who will have to learn to handle it on the job. And even when the Practitioner is reasonably comfortable, there remains the considerable task of selling it to its prospective beneficiaries. . . . Surely many such solutions will evoke unexpected reactions just because they aren't business as usual (47).
Conducting an interdisciplinary, conversational class in cyberspace was far from "business as usual."
First of all, imagine the first day of class, a time filled with more than enough complexity and instability even under normal circumstances. Off students go from building to building, trying as hard as they can to be on time for classes that meet in rooms they have trouble finding. Then, once they successfully negotiate the physical challenge and the anxiety that attends it, they find themselves seated in the company of a roomful of strangers (probably all smarter and more well prepared than they are, or so they worry) waiting for the professor's arrival. "Will she be old? Will she be ugly? Will she be mean? Strict? Fair? What will she expect? Well, whatever it is, I certainly hope it's not too hard." Normal circumstances: students are already immersed in complexity and instability.
But what about this class? Well, at 42, I may be "old" to my students . . . and ugly is in the eye of the beholder. But, I'm neither strict nor mean and I'm constantly vigilant about being fair. So far, so good. What about expectations? There's the rub.
As the demographics of my class reflected, typical English 102 students have already had some college experience. Despite the fact that it's a 100-level course, English 101 is a prerequisite. Thus, they arrive on the first day with certain expectations built on experience: "we'll do a lot of writing both in class and out, we'll do a lot of reading and talking about what we've read, we'll have to have conferences with our professor, we'll have to keep a journal, we'll have to write three or four essays . . . no problems. I know this game." When I looked out a those faces, what I thought I could read on them was a sense of relief; at least in this classroom, on this day, they would find respite from complexity and instability. I was on the verge on injecting a fair amount of chaos into the situation.
I knew that the computer component of the class would come as a surprise to them. At the time, our department published no information distinguishing a computer section from a traditional, non-computer section so that the first news any of them heard about having to use technology was on the first evening of class. Nevertheless, I'd assumed that the news would be more welcome. To my surprise, several students initially balked, feeling fairly incensed to find themselves facing this obstacle with no forewarning. As I mentioned, many later told me that if they did have warning, they wouldn't have signed up. Several considered dropping. Only a couple of them had ever used computers for anything other than word-processing, and although they did suspect that they'd need to learn something about it in the future, all of them would rather have procrastinated that learning. Simply put, they felt that the technology was so complex that they couldn't spare the time or effort as full-time students, many with full-time jobs to boot, to learn. Additionally, they were dismayed at the prospect of having to go to one of many computer labs on campus to do part of the work required for class. While almost all expected to do homework, this homework had to be done in a physically specific place. VAX entry requirements, they argued, might be less of a burden were they able to do them in their dorm rooms or outside by the fishpond.
I could certainly sympathize with technophobic feelings. After all, I'd been there myself. So I tried to share my own experience with them in an effort to assure them that they, too, could learn with ease how to negotiate the electronic environment. I did, however, have considerably less sympathy for their logistical complaints. Our campus has many computer labs, consultants included, for student use. On most weekdays, these labs are virtually empty. Not even at the most popular sites (the library and the business school) have I had to wait in line for a terminal. Besides, I countered, many courses have requirements that can similarly be fulfilled only by going to specific places: library research, for example. But, then, library research was "business as usual." VAX notes was different.
Electronic obstacles notwithstanding, students seemed receptive to the idea of sharing conversation with another class, particularly since we would be talking about the same topics and doing the same readings. This particular relationship, despite the VAX requirement that enabled it, was not an additional burden in terms of effort. Since we'd be studying education in our composition class, they understood that they might actually gain a lot by sharing ideas with students for whom education was a specialty. They also liked the idea that they, too, would be considered "experts" in their field by the other class, education students who were also being expected to write and to write well. So instead of merely taking another class in composition, my students, too, found themselves elevated to the level of specialists, people who had something to offer to others. In this way, the mountains as well as the rivers were made to feel stronger senses of camaraderie; in many ways, each class became a team of teachers.
To summarize, the traditional composition course was destabilized by our having introduced into it the anonymous electronic conversation carried on between two classes connected across disciplinary boundaries via a single VAX conference. Summarizing the effects of this destabilization, however, is considerably more complex. There is no single evaluative site from which to assess the impact of this approach on the learning process, the acquisition of rhetorical skills, the mastery of content, or the liberalizing of thought. Indeed, from the first lines of text entered into the conversation to the final course evaluation, this class can best be described as a meta-class, a class about our class, reflexive more than reflective, embracing the idea of looking as an ongoing process of action as well as reaction. In light of human complexity, as well as system complexity, evaluative sites were multiple and the views from each of those sites were equally diverse.
Through the VAX conference, which we also entitled "Conversations," students exchanged ideas prompted by the reading of shared texts and related topical class discussions ranging from issues of authority to multiculturalism to the study of popular culture in the classroom, all addressing to some degree moral and ethical concerns experienced profoundly, yet differently, by individual students. As we anticipated, most entered the conversation tentatively after reading an initial dialogue between Bob and me. Early entries tended to rely on references to reading materials we'd assigned as well as narratives of personal experiences, many of which sounded stilted -- somewhat formal in tone, disconnected, and directed to an audience only in an academic sense. Paralleling the VAX research observations of Brewer and Davis, we also noted that the most frequent pattern for response was the "claim-warrant" pattern ("Blurring the Frames," 9) in which students made brief assertions and supported these assertions with a sentence or two of support based on observation, experience, or a kind of logical assumption based on stereotypical ideologies. Tocantins illustrates this pattern in her response:
2 SEP 1994
I do not believe that all should have the authority to evaluate [claim]. Evaluation is something that must be done in an objective fashion. Everyone does not have the ability to be objective [warrant]. There are people in this world whose main goal is to get ahead and they will do anything to get to the top. Therefore, if you give them the power to evaluate themselves they are not likely to be objective.
But this initial style and pattern changed in relatively short order. Contributions became more personal, more responsive, as well as responsible, and more imbued with authentic voice. Although the conversation was happening in text, the text had a real audience whose immediacy was felt by all participants. As students began to feel a deeper sense of personal involvement in the ideas they were exchanging with actual peers, they started attending more closely to constructing sound, source-based arguments, and exercising meta-rhetorical skills.
In addition to developing such skills through exchange, learning in general was often enhanced as it became a more authentic activity in which students felt personally engaged and invested. Levels of independent study increased as more of them used the library, read additional texts, and brought new sources to bear on the discussion. Motivation for such activity was often internal, i.e., not prompted by course assignments but by their own desires to engage more deeply in class conversation; learning became a personal rather than in institutional imperative.
On a human level, students who participated in this experimental Inter-Course enjoyed the rare opportunity honestly to express their ideas in a real, yet disembodied, forum. Those who normally felt marginalized in classroom discussions spoke out, aired their views no matter how unpopular or politically incorrect. In the long run, this free speaking-out led to a deeper understanding between people of conflicting views -- not so much that positions were changed, but that a greater variety of positions were understood and tolerated, as if opposing parties walked to their borders and shook hands with one another.
If this were an ideal situation, my co-ethnographers would all be here to speak for themselves or to annotate the transcript of our entire textual conversation. Since process and immediacy played a major role in what happened, seeing it again, as it happened, would do more in regards to offering explanation, making generalizations, and so forth than anything I can do by way of summary. But, the class transcript is a ponderous tome, and my co-ethnographers are not here. Therefore, in what follows, I will attempt to discuss in greater depth the most significant differences I saw between this class and traditional classes.
Since I had a responsibility to my students to teach rhetoric and Bob had a responsibility to teach the institution of education, we found some initial common ground for beginning our conversation around the issue of authority. What is authority (a question of definition), who has authority (an observation), who should have authority (a question of ethics), and how can I get authority (a question about action). We proposed that we ask each of these questions as they relate to classroom practices. And to make the assignment meaningful to them, to make it a genuine experience, we asked that they decide who would exercise evaluative authority in our classes. While Bob and I had written the syllabus and had decided, non-negotiably, what evaluative weight certain assignments would carry, we wanted them to decide by consensus who would do the grading, so to speak. We told them that we were open to any option, meaning that they could decide that students only would do the grading, that teachers only would do the grading, or that we could share this responsibility. Whatever decision they made, we assured them, we would abide by. This, too, not being "business as usual" opened the classroom to greater complexity and instability, challenging us all to be a real audience engaging in a real process that would have implications beyond just an "academic" exercise. To succeed in the month we allotted them, they would have to use skills of sharing narratives, arguing definitions, arguing ethics, and negotiating differences.
In our separate 'bodily" classes, we talked about definitions of authority. We had students write about and share their own personal definitions and we also sent them to the library for some research in the OED. In other words, we launched off into new territory from the site of the familiar, giving us some good material with which to begin the shared, textual conversation.
Bob and I made opening entries into the VAX conversation:
29 AUG 1994
My initial response to the question "who should have authority to evaluate" was to be boggled! I mean the question of authority is big enough, but when you add evaluation to it, it becomes almost unmanageable!
My next response to the question though, a short response, was to think that everyone has authority to evaluate and (if democracy is the best form of social arrangement), everyone "should" have the authority to evaluate.
29 AUG 1994
My initial response to the question of evaluative authority is exactly the same as was yours -- but for different reasons. For me, the sense of being "mind boggled" comes from breaking with tradition. Let's face it, I've been part of a school environment for a lot of years, and evaluative authority *always* belonged solely to the teacher. This question makes me rethink all my past experience and the reason why I never questioned that experience as the way it *should* be.
But, you say that everyone *does* have authority. Well, yes, in a way that's true. Unfortunately, not everyone has the *power* to exercise authority. We run into problems of definition.
29 AUG 1994
. . . It is true that the power to exercise authority differentiates one person from the next, but there seem to me to be many instances as well when a person either does not realize their evaluative power or chooses not to exercise it. Students actually have quite a bit of power but rarely exercise it for example. When they do it is often in a negative way -- i.e., disrupting the smooth flow of teacher authority -- such that they don't end up realizing that they are in fact exercising power.
29 AUG 1994
When students exercise "evaluative authority" by disrupting class or when they fill out a course evaluation at the end of the year, they are in effect evaluating the class, the course content, and/or the teacher's performance. Unfortunately, in my experience, those evaluations carry little weight -- we tell students they have authority to evaluate, but then their evaluations have no authority!
I'm interested in a couple of things: one is in having students assume responsibility for *self* evaluation, and the other is in giving power to their authority. What they say and do will have real consequences.
29 AUG 1994
I disagree that these student exercises of power are ineffective. One of the standard resistance techniques is "work slowdown;" the much commented on slippage of academic standards throughout the educational system is a testament to the hard work which students have done in the art of work slowdown technique. I would also want to say that end-of-course evaluations do have some weight for instructors; they may not cost us our jobs, or get us jobs, but having come through the system as we have we are very concerned about evaluation of any kind, at least I am, so at the very least they have a strong effect on me.
I completely agree with you though on the issue of making the power which students already exercise -- albeit negatively -- explicit; since this power is real, we might as well acknowledge it as such and see how we can all work together with it. My image is that the cultural field is *flooded* with power and authority (again democracy did this flooding), so we might as well get into swimming and boating.
29 AUG 1994
In recognizing the fact that we *all* have authority, in deciding to own up to it (teachers and students alike), I think we should open this discussion to our classes and allow them to decide the question of evaluative authority. First of all, who *should* have this "power" to exercise evaluative authority, and then, who *will* have it. How will they put this into practice?
In order to reflect what we believe to be a general social reality, we chose to open the conversation amiably, but not in complete agreement with one another on all issues. We hoped that by doing so from the outset, that by offering this as a model of sorts, they would see that it's okay to have a unique opinion and to feel comfortable about expressing that opinion. After all, if the teachers don't completely agree, they shouldn't "have to" either. We also demonstrated in this initial dialogue that this issue had several layers of complexity itself -- there were many angles that needed to be talked about.
Massif, a student in ENG102, was the first to join the conversation. Using the conventions of the letter, he began with "Dear Beth," thereby speaking directly to his teacher and excluding Bob. His response, reflecting the claim-warrant pattern, was brief and direct; he supported his position based on tradition:
29 AUG 1994
I believe that the teacher should have the evaluative authority in the classroom; maybe this is because of my 15 year career in the public school system where all work was evaluated by the teacher.
Capitan, another ENG102 student, also followed the letter convention, but this time included both Bob and myself. In his response, he puts his own spin on the differences between authority and power:
29 AUG 1994
Bob and Beth,
I agree with what you are saying. But I feel that authority is with the teacher but the student has the power. The student is in control of his or her destiny -- the "grade." The student chooses whether or not to do the required work.
A number of similar initial responses followed, most of the same brief nature addressed to either Bob or myself, or to both of us, and offering similarly brief statements of position followed by one or two sentences of support based on general personal experience. Even in these early exchanges, a tangent developed in which students talked more about classroom authority in general (the teacher as "boss" who tells students what to do and when to do it) than about evaluative authority. Notions of shared authority took on a meaning of shared classroom floor-time, discussion vs lecture classes.
Everest, in his first entry, the thirteenth in the full-class conversation, takes note of the tangent:
29 AUG 1994
I thought this was about *evaluative* authority. . . .
If you are not concerned with the evaluations of those with "evaluative" authority, then they have no authority over you. The context we are working in is one of a university community in which we are paying to be evaluated The society we live in lends credence to the academic community's capacity to evaluate. We are members of that society and for whatever our reasons we value that socially sanctioned evaluation [emphasis mine].
Here, Everest calls attention to the tangential drift of the conversation in an attempt to redirect everyone's attention to the task at hand: deciding who in our two classes will be doing the evaluative work. Following his attempt to refocus, he elaborates his position by first recontextualizing the conversation (we're in a university community) and then asserting his belief that we are paying to be evaluated; education is a consumer product and evaluation is part and parcel of that product. The missing "therefore" is thus that teachers will have evaluative authority in this class as well.
Sierra responds directly to Everest's refocusing and offers an assent:
29 AUG 1994
We as students gave you as teachers the evaluative authority when we mailed in our applications. Then and there I, we all, accepted whatever was said about our person starting with the question of qualification. . . . This silly power game sucks; I want to learn, not battle about who gets to boss who around.
But much to Everest's dismay, our academic conversational "assignment" was already becoming a real conversation rather than an academic assignment, meaning that the issues most important to all participants in general were beginning to emerge and take on a life of their own. Thus, in the ensuing exchanges, most students ignored Everest's attempt to refocus and followed the earlier drift in two distinct directions: the issue of classroom authority in general, and the issue of students being able to evaluate teachers. In addition to following the drift, more students, as they saw what they and others said, began to take note of the process, to see and to think about the ways that knowledge and meaning actually evolve in interaction with others. Denali says:
29 AUG 1994
[In an earlier post], I stated that the teacher has the authority in the classroom and that the only authority the students have is what the teacher gives them. But I have changed a little. To me authority is who or what has control. After thinking about it, the main objective of the teacher is to help the student learn. But if the student neglects the help, they are taking control. They have the authority to listen or not to listen. Thinking about it a little more, asking questions is another way of expressing authority but in a positive way. The teacher gives the authority away to the student. I have to think on the subject a little more [emphasis mine].
Clearly, this student has been influenced by the interactive exchange. Having initially responded in one way, he changes "a little," and through the course of this one entry we can see, and he can see, that forming an opinion is a process, one that involves thinking, thinking a little more, then being quiet and listening, and thinking some more.
Looping back to Sierra's comments, Madeira takes issue with the idea of this "academic exercise" being a "silly power game." Signing herself "your challenger," she asks:
31 AUG 1994
I pose this question to you . . . do you a have replacement for the "silly power game" before us; perhaps you like "rote memorization" for your teaching method, (frankly I'm back in school now because I learned nothing from this method), or maybe you're such a unique person you have some marvelous answer for us . . . please share, I would like to know. I'm interested in your response and hope you will take on this challenge. I look forward to debating you.
Although expressing willingness to see things in new ways, to practice some kind of different approach in the classroom, Madeira still reflects in her response a dependence on dialectical tools, the uses of language as challenge and debate. The motivation behind her language, however, may reflect conversational goals -- to keep the conversation going. Despite her somewhat sarcastic tone, she ends her turn at the floor by expressing an interest in what Sierra may have to say and directly inviting her to respond. So, while Madeira may want to win the issue, she also wants to establish a relationship with her interlocutors, to keep the talk going.
Now, while yet only twenty or so entries into the conversation, all participants are starting to sound more relaxed and are attending more closely to what's being said by other students than what was said by their teachers. Bob and I in very short order lose control of the floor, the specific focus of the conversation, and traditional authority. The exchange has become a textual conversation. Almost all entries now reflect interactivity, one student citing what another has said, reacting to what was said, and directing comments in such a way as to elicit further response. Additionally, responses become more analytic and narratives become more elaborate as students draw in greater detail on personal experience to illustrate points they try to make in general. Many share stories about former K-12 school experiences, especially experiences with dictatorial teachers. Some compare and contrast classes they'd taken in college, one where the teacher conducted a traditional "banking"-style class to one in which the teacher attempted a more democratic approach. Still, the major focus of the conversation seemed to lie with sharing the classroom floor and the evaluation of good teacher/bad teacher.
In our own physical classrooms, in addition to reading articles and talking about the issues raised therein, both Bob and I were covering some rhetorical territory. Both of us discussed at length the importance of definition to argument, reading several essays from Selzer's book that modeled argument by definition. We also talked about a number of logical fallacies that tend to crop up and talked about why fallacies make for weak arguments subject to attack. To my delight, our classroom activity began finding its way into the VAX conversation practice in many cases. Responding to an earlier post in which one participant claimed that students have little choice in class other than to "listen and agree" with whatever teachers say, Paraguay says:
31 AUG 1994
I may be a little hasty in labeling your argument as a False Dilemma, but something caught my eye as being too simplistic. . . .
He also identifies a fallacy in another post (cited earlier) in which Everest asserts that university students are all paying to be evaluated:
I may be . . . wrong . . . but my observations lead me to believe that there are as many reasons for paying to go to college as there are university students.
Several days later, Paraguay returns with the following:
2 SEP 1994
I realized after I left here the last time that all I did was criticize other entries without adding any opinions of my own.
During the lag time between the last entry and this, he realized that it's not sufficient just to criticize what others say without taking the responsibility to get into the game himself. Therefore, he follows this statement by sharing a personal narrative which illustrates how over the years his needs for personal evaluation have changed such that he now cares less about the evaluations of others and tends to look more inside himself for "support, criticism, and strength." Following his narrative, he generalizes:
. . . I feel as a child grows he develops slowly the ability to rely on his inner strength just as he has to in order to stand and walk. In the early years as he relies on expert assistance to do so many things so he must also rely on these experts for his own personal evaluation. . . .
Then, suddenly realizing that he has a real audience, he reacts to the immediacy of their presence, adding:
Forgive me for my constant references to "he." He is shorter than she, or he/she, and "it" just doesn't feel right.
In a relatively short time, then, Paraguay begins to think about his colleagues' comments, not just on a superficial level but also on the level of their rhetorical structure, and having done so he also turns a critical eye on his own responses. His comments on his comments, his style, his own rhetorical choices, demonstrate that he is beginning to think about his thinking almost at the same time as his thinking is unfolding, while he is in the process of talking rather than after a certain amount of "lag time" as when one looks critically at a draft of an essay or a homework assignment, etc. This rhetorical self- awareness, prompted by the fact that the conversational audience is quite real and quite responsive, unfolds in process. Because Paraguay knows that there are real people to whom he "speaks," and he wants to keep the conversation going rather than risk foreclosing it, he apologizes for using gendered language choices which may be offensive to someone, explaining the reason he chose to use "he" is not because he's sexist, but because it's more efficient and because saying "he" just plain sounds better than saying "it."
Within a week's time, the class had generally settled in to the conversation about evaluative authority, putting a significant emphasis on issues of trust. Could a student be trusted to fairly evaluate/grade himself? Would he not tend to give himself a much better grade than he deserved just so that he could maintain a high GPA and thus have a better chance of getting into graduate school or getting a good job? Could a student be trusted to fairly grade his peers? Would he not tend to be too harsh if he didn't like someone. Would he not tend to give better grades to his friends? Does he know enough about the subject to be able to grade in the first place? Massif, who came out early in the exchange in favor of teachers maintaining evaluative control (based on precedent), now tries to deal with this latest complication to the issue:
2 SEP 1994
. . . I believe evaluative authority in the classroom belongs to the teacher. I believe thusly for two reasons: 1) the teacher has been educated, supposedly, in the subject matter, and 2) possibly unlike her pupils she may not be vindictive in grading. . . . It is my personal opinion that students do not have the social skills or the cognitive ability of complete and sure unbiasness to be in charge of deciding one's academic progress, at least in the terms of grades. . . . Surely someone out there in cyberspace has realized that I have made an over-generalization [in saying] that all students would not be fair. I must correct myself by saying the vast majority would tend to be preferential . . . [emphasis mine].
Clearly, Massif's entry demonstrates a level of immediate attention to rhetoric that we value. He may make a mistake, over-generalizing, while making his point, but because he can see it (literally) he can see it (figuratively) and respond to it as it unfolds. The reason Massif is able to write on this cognitive level is threefold. First, we talked about logical fallacies in class. Had we not done so, he would not have had basic background information enough to be able to name to the rhetorical fallacy. Second, Massif and his colleagues are engaged in a genuine conversation, meaning that he has a real rather than a theoretical audience; he cares about what he's trying to say and he wants to be taken seriously by a group of people who are both genuinely listening and who will undoubtedly respond. Paralleling Madeira's rhetorical appeal to her audience, Massif here makes an ethical appeal that he hopes will demonstrate that he is both reasonable and that he respects the intellectual capacity of those to whom he addresses his remarks. Third, Massif can more effectively and immediately exercise meta-rhetoric because this conversation is carried on in text -- he can see what he says. Note that Massif did not go back to edit his over-generalization. In text, the original "free write" stood as is even though in VAX notes he very well could have erased the generalization and rewritten it in a more sound form. Because the exchange is perceived not as writing but as talking, the text words become as "unerasable" to conversants as do words spoken in real oral exchanges. Thus, one of the things that Massif reveals to his audience is his humanness, his inclination to err; but, although he makes human errors, he takes responsibility for the error, addresses it, and goes on.
One student in Bob's class, Irtysh, was very much in support of traditional applications of authority and evaluation:
11 SEP 1994
I feel that in today's world evaluative authority is a necessity. Today's youth are nearly out of control and need someone to offer them guidance and control. Unfortunately, they are incapable of being self-sufficient to the point [that they let] fun and laziness take control over priorities. . . .
Again, Massif reacts:
15 SEP 1994
[I believed] that as a child I was in complete control of what I learned and did not learn. . . . I also believe for you to over-generalize and state that children today are nearly out of control is one of the most fallacious arguments (sorry, fallacy ad hominem, I believe) [emphasis mine]. . . .
Not only is Massif sensitive here to the rhetorical choices his colleague makes, he is, once more, sensitive to his own choices. Although he isn't really guilty of making an ad hominem argument, he feels strongly that his remarks might be construed as a personal attack and thus apologetically calls attention to his own rhetoric.
These instances of rhetorical and meta-rhetorical awareness were not limited to the VAX exchange. In addition to textual talk, oral in-class talk along these lines increased as well. On numerous occasions, students would show up for class armed with printouts of the week's conversation or notes they'd taken about it while in the computer lab. Sharing and talking in class was then centered not only on what was said, but on how it was said. One particular exchange noted by students in my class involved a tangential conversation between several students in Bob's class who as a group lamented the demise of prayer in public schools. Kolyma asserted:
9 SEP 1994
. . . since prayer was taken out of school, look at how violent and corrupted the schools have become . . . coincidence or not? Everybody go hmmmmm . . .
To which Parana added:
9 SEP 1994
I agree with Kolyma in 2.70 [the number of Kolyma's VAX entry] that since prayer was taken out of school, the kids have become more violent and the whole system has been going downhill.
Students in my class, while not on the same side of the issue in regards to prayer in public schools, noted that Kolyma's comment was an implied fallacy -- specifically, one of false cause -- and that Parana's response was a direct fallacy -- again, false cause. While they were willing to entertain the possibility that the demise of school prayer mitigated the effect, they felt that the problem of violence in schools probably had more complex dimensions. In short, they felt that the issue deserved a much more thorough treatment.
Similar talks about talking were a regular occurrence in both my class and in Bob's throughout the semester. As in the VAX textual conversation, the talk was not limited to critiquing what others had said but also included self-critique, drawing attention to things like the use of false or weak analogies, slippery slope arguments, instances of poisoning the well, etc.
In general, my observations point to a level of rhetorical awareness not heretofore seen, at least by me, in traditional classroom experience. The electronic environment, creating the illusion of conversation that could be seen, effectively facilitated the conflation of what James Britton has referred to as the participant and spectator roles in language usage. On the one hand, students used language in the participant mode in order to get things done as Britton suggests when he says that "the need to act and decide characterizes the participant role -- to act and decide in response to the social demands of human co-existence" (105). They were, after all, charged with the responsibility of making a decision about who would hold the evaluative authority in our two classes. In dispatching this responsibility as participants, they had numerous occasions to relate past experiences in ways that mimic spectator roles of relating and interpreting. I say "mimic" here because, as Britton notes, a speaker relating events remains in the participant role "in the event she must describe because its consequences in action and decision have not yet been consummated" (104). Thus, when Paraguay relates his experiences in a pass/fail grading situation, he is not merely telling an interesting story for the enjoyment of others; he is doing so in order to influence the decision-making process. When Japura tells about fellow students he has known who would do anything to get ahead, he's doing more than sharing an anecdote; he's using an example drawn from personal observation to illustrate what might happen in this class if students decided to evaluate themselves. These narratives, which seem like spectator uses of language, are offered in a participant mode, as part of the decision-making process.
However, because students could see what they were saying at the same time as they were actually saying it, they could in effect be spectators of their own participation. In other words, on a higher critical level, they could interpret their own language uses and rhetorical strategies since their conversation unfolded in text on a screen and became, immediately, not only a speaking act but also a language object. So, for example, at the same time that Massif is a participant in the decision-making process, he is also a spectator of his participation and thus offers coterminously an interpretation of his participant-role rhetorical choices.
The remarkable thing about making conversation visible in this class was that it led to a genuine evolutionary process in learning about language use. The participant became a spectator of her participation and, in turn, a participant in her spectating. Calling attention to one's interpretation of rhetorical strategies entailed a further participation, an attempt to build or repair ethos with a real audience. It is at this point, on the meta-rhetorical level, that our students began to genuinely learn about themselves and others as lanuaged beings. What choices did I make? Why did I make them? What was good or bad about those choices? How do those choices effect what others think of me? Do I like what they think, or do I need to make different choices? By participating in this interactive educative experience, each one of us learned a great deal about the complexities of even a straight-forward sounding issue and we learned what it meant to deal with those complexities in responsible ways by listening to others and by voicing our own opinions in ways that could be heard by others. We learned that negotiation and consensus are not easy processes, but that they are rewarding and that they secure us places within the community of speakers with whom we share interests, hardships, or even assigned tasks.
Students in ENG10205 and ELC38107 did reach consensus in the long run. After much talk, many proposals, many hours of corporate consideration, they decided on the traditional tack: Bob and I were to remain in complete evaluative control of our classes. But, more important that the outcome was the whole process insofar as it revealed to each of us the things we value, the things we fear, and the ways we communicate those values and fears to others.
Liberalization: Increased Inter-subjective Understanding and Tolerance
In addition to their consensual assignment regarding who would have evaluative authority in our classes, students were also directed to use VAX notes conversation as a means to carry on further class discussion of issues related to multiculturalism and anti- foundationalism in education. This assignment was specifically intended to give students a forum for talk and for sharing rather than for decision-making. In other words, they didn't have to decide if multiculturalism was a good idea or a bad idea or if curricula should or should not reflect foundational truths; they had to read about these issues, talk about their reactions to the issues, and share their feelings. This kind of textual talk put them more firmly in the role of spectators regarding their language use although clearly from time to time their rhetorical intentions involved strong elements of persuasion as they attempted to get their colleagues to accept their interpretations of experience as either right or wrong.
As we anticipated, most of our students didn't really have a firm grasp on the abstract meaning of multiculturalism, but clearly they'd all observed or experienced the influence of the multicultural movement in their school lives whether it be the proliferation of ethno-centric organizations on campus, the fairly ubiquitous focus on race and gender in humanities' classes, the opening of the literary canon to works by women and people of color, the widespread press coverage of political-correctness, the celebration of black history month or women's history month in public schools, or the effect of affirmative action programs. Armed with personal experience and ideologies formed through the local influence of family, friends, neighborhoods, and religious and ethnic groups, they had a strong narrative basis for rich conversation which included conflict, affirmation, anger, and compassion.
Their first assigned conversational task in this unit was to share with one another their personal experiences of ethnicity. Up until this time, they'd existed for one another pretty much as genderless and colorless others who shared the common bond of the class, the learning task, and learning experiences. Only two students -- Bhutan and Everest -- had chosen to disclose their identities to this point in time, so what we asked them to do was in large part to unmask themselves publicly. In addition to the unmasking, though, the assignment required them all to think of themselves as ethnic beings, a new way of thinking for many white students who were accustomed to thinking of ethnicity as an experience only of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, or Native Americans. For most white students, the vividness of ethnic experience increased with the vividness of skin color such that having white skin meant having little or no ethnic heritage as Rainier illustrates in the following response:
10 OCT 1994
Being a white, southern, small town female doesn't involve much ethnic background . . .
or, as Ganges said:
7 OCT 1994 What is the ethnic history of GANGES? Well, being white and of the American society, I would suppose that it would be fairly generic. . . .
What we wanted to do was to have all of them get into the mode of thinking of themselves as individuals with ethnic backgrounds no matter their skin color, to realize that whether or not they belonged to a demographic majority, the experience of ethnicity is a basically human experience, thus something that they all share in one way or another on a human level.
Although many of the early responses written by white students reflected this "my ethic background is no ethnic background" stance, most contradicted their own claims as they offered further elaboration. Thus Ganges, for example, offers a more focused view of his experience when he continues:
I am of the "majority" race. More than that I have blond hair and blue eyes, a typical North American trait. I as a white grew up in a neighborhood of mostly white neighbors and school peers. I am from the country and lived on a farm. I usually played with my cousins, of which there were many. As a result, I did not need to go to surrounding neighborhoods to make friends. If I had, however, they would all have been white as well.
Interestingly enough, although the majority of our students appeared white, and the majority also identified with white culture, the majority could also claim ancestry from diverse backgrounds. Manaslu's response was typical:
10 OCT 1994
I feel almost like I don't have a culture. I'm a white-American. Big whoop. I have a lot of nationalities in my background. However, I don't think it would be possible for me to connect with them. . . . I know for a fact that I have Eastern-band Cherokee in me, but we can't seem to find its beginnings. My mom's great-great grandfather has the last name of Black and I believe that at one time this was Black Bear. . . . My ancestors probably changed it to plain old Black when trying to pass for white.
And Tahoma provides a further illustration:
4 OCT 1994
In a search for my heritage I found strong European backgrounds on my fathers side of the family. Dutch, Welch, Scottish, Swedish, Irish, etc. Not a shock, huh. On my mother's side I ran into a brick wall. There were a few stray British but there was, basically, no record of the majority of my family. I went to my grandmother to get the so-called lead. She sent me in the Native American direction. I was shocked! I am a blondie with blue eyes and no signs of American Indian blood. I looked anyway. Guess what, I am a descendant of the last chief of the Comanches. I am related to Quanah Parker!
All told, very few of the students we would consider "white" based only on appearance were "white" by purely ancestral heritage. Similar experiences of genetic diversity were also noted among many of our black students as Orizabo's and Euphrates's entries illustrate respectively:
9 OCT 1994
My family history is really strange. Strange because it's so mixed. . . . My mother's side of the family was and almost still is purely of African descent, even though there is a little European but no one will admit to that. . . . My Dad's family, however, is really fun to dig through. . . . My dad's paternal family . . . were all mixed even though the birth certificates say Black. There were mostly Eastern Band Cherokee, Black, and Scot- Irish/Welsh (or at any rate of Celtic descent). My great-grandmother apparently owned some land in North Carolina and in those days, the land would be taken or you could be killed if you were Indian, so she "became" black. . . .
5 OCT 1994
. . . initially my ancestors came from the continent of Africa, and were brought over here as slaves, and then there was some race mixing so to speak and I guess the only thing I can really tell you is that I am African- American, for those that want to be "politically correct," and Black for those who don't. I have some Indian from both sides of my family, Cherokee from my mothers' side, and Lumbee from my fathers' side. This really doesn't mean much except that I am a minority. . . .
But despite the fact that these students could recount genetic diversity, most of them identified with specific ethnic groups that mirrored the ethnic group with which they appeared to belong based on skin color and physical features. Everest, in my class, and Madeira, in Bob's class, were clearly exceptions. Products of mixed marriages, neither of these students identified securely with any one ethnic group. Everest tells us:
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. My Dad's from upper Egypt -- he's a naturalized US citizen. My Mom's EuroAmerican from Chicago. . . . I spent 6 years in Cincinnati, 8 years in Kuwait, 2 years in Egypt, 2 years in Spain, and 6+ years in Greensboro. So what is ethnicity? . . . I just don't know about this ethnicity thing. Besides, if ethnicity is "the condition of belonging to a particular ethnic group," I just don't see which particular "group" that is, aside from humanity.
Madeira's experience reflected a similar attitude of confusion:
I am proud to say that I am a total American. My ethnicity has been a constant source of pain, frustration, and near fatality during my life. Not being able to put me into ONE category has cost me dearly.
As these early entries in the multicultural assignment illustrate, a great deal of what was said about ethnic experience was related in terms of "who my ancestors were and where they came from." This strategy seemed to reflect a kind of honest "owning" of personal heritage whether as a source of pride, frustration, or simple recognition. But the strictly formal genealogies yielded quickly to anecdotal stories about individual or family ethnic experiences that got more to the heart of defining who our students were or felt themselves to be. Massif, an African-American student, shares this poignant story of individual history:
. . . I grew up in a town about twice as big as UNCG. We as a community joined together often to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I felt as if I was just a regular member of my surroundings; I felt as if [the whites in my community] had no need to shun me and I had no reason to dislike them. I soon found that this was not the case. When I was around 5 or 6 years old my mother and a friend of the family decided that it was time that their children became social beings, they decided we should join the cub scouts. They called around town trying to find out where and when the scouts met. They soon learned that the scouts met in a white neighborhood, in a white church, with a white scout master. No problem. My mother and more of her friends packed us all in a car, about six of us, and headed for the church. When we arrived to the meeting all went well. We were readily accepted and on the surface made to feel at home. We left after the meeting was over and went home [and] anxiously awaited the next meeting. Before the next meeting there was a phone call from the scout master. He said the meeting had been canceled. Sure, we didn't mind. The next week, the meeting was held as scheduled and we attended. The scout master upon our arrival told us that we would no longer be meeting with this troop. We were asked to form a new troop on the south side of town, our home, the black neighborhood, the polar opposite of the white neighborhood. Our parents did not cause a fuss; they simply took their black babies home and I will continue.
Of her experiences with trying to get in touch with her Native-American ancestry, Manaslu shares this story:
I joined the Native American Club on campus last year and it really opened my eyes to the prejudices. We openly talk about our heritage and most of us are really accepting of each other. But, I have blonde hair and blue eyes. Therefore, I do not look the part. At a Pow Wow that I attended, I noticed that some of the Natives, particularly ones that were in charge, scrutinized every move and word that people that didn't look the part made. True, some people claim to be native and aren't, but there are those of us who are and [can] prove it. Sometimes, I've wished that I could dye my hair dark brown, but of course that would be ridiculous.
The examples I cite are characteristic of class entries for most students. The pattern of genealogical "reporting" followed by personal narrative set the stage for students to get to know one another on a more intimate level than they had during the decision-making assignment, allowing them an opportunity to enter into the spectator role at whatever level they felt comfortable with. What Bob and I noticed was that the level of comfort was remarkably high in terms of self-disclosure and talking about feelings. Neither one of us had observed these levels of trust and openness to such a degree in traditional classes to this point. Because students had become familiar with the electronic medium in the preceding weeks, they had established a genuine rapport with one another and their writing reflected an earnestness of communicative purpose often absent in monological text-writing where there is no real immediate audience. The "safety" of distance, however, reduced the intimidation that comes with normal face-to-face class discussions, perhaps accounting for the kind and number of remarkable disclosures we noted.
But a mere sharing of personal stories is not enough in and of itself to regard the experience as liberalizing. And mere sharing is hardly the extent of interaction on this assignment. The process of feedback, affirmations as well as dissent, began almost immediately as students read one another's stories and were led to comment on them, interpret them, and share further stories of their own in a process that led naturally to abstracting from the store of particulars some notion of common experience, common problems, and shared questions. You may already anticipate my reporting to you, for example, their tangential forays into exploring what it means to be an "American" rather than a member of an American ethnic group. I do, in fact, have to report this predictable foray. It was, however, a brief milestone in the conversation that turned the whole group onto a new path that included a good deal more text generated in the name of questioning, trying out possible answers, and further questioning. Typical openers into dealing with the larger questions are reflected here in posts written by Massif and Madeira, respectively:
13 OCT 1994
. . . I have a question: What is the purpose of identifying with a certain group or race of people? What are the benefits of knowing what your roots are. . . . what does it mean to comment on our ethnicity?
13 OCT 1994
Even if we all had to identify our origins . . . what good DOES it do. . . . I feel that if a Purple person is born in this country, they are AMERICAN . . . NATIVE AMERICAN . . . not better, worse, or anything . . . just AMERICAN! If we all had the same traditions, I think we would all get along better with each other, because we would all know what to do to belong.
The spirit of the questions raised ranged from a questioning of the assignment itself -- why are we being asked to share our ethnic experiences; where are we supposed to go with this assignment -- to a more general level of inquiry -- what public purpose does ethnic identity serve. It is precisely in the gap between these two orientations of spirit that both learning and liberalization occurred. Students working on this particular assignment started where all students must start -- responding to a teacher's prompt -- but the interpretation of the assignment was intentionally left open-ended such that through their continued conversational interaction students were obliged to identify for themselves a "purpose" and to try out possible "answers." Each "answer" they found problematic on some level, opening the conversation to further questions, complexity, and levels of uncertainty. The back-and-forth movement of the interactivity from individual to group and group to individual, from assertion to query to revised assertion or further query created a conversational reality in which the process of relationship itself was brought to the fore in such a way that what students learned through practice was how to be with one another as a social group. Shotter refers to this as a special "third kind of knowledge," neither "knowing that" (theoretical knowledge or "banked" knowledge) nor "knowing how" (as in knowing a craft or a skill), but a knowledge-in- practice held in common with others in the communicative group (19).
In the case of our students, our communicative group, individual members had unique ethnic backgrounds, experiencing themselves as black, white, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, Christian, Jew, and/or atheist, etc. But, in our class, they held in common their membership both in the human family and the "local family" of our classroom. To the local family, then, they had to bring their unique experiences, share them, listen to those of others, and figure out how to take in all that "information" in order to learn how to be with one another. Being with one another meant, in this case, having to come to terms with the limits of personal ideology in the face of the lived experiences of others, not in order to dismiss one's heritage or upbringing but to see more clearly what created that upbringing, to see how one came to be a unique person in such a way that the process of becoming itself is foregrounded, opening up the possibility of choice (or ideological revision). Stretching to answer the more general question about the assignment's purpose, Japura says
14 OCT 1994
I have been wondering about and asking why knowing our roots or lineage is important. Maybe it gives a person a sense of knowing where they come from. Maybe it is like a base or foundation from which one knows he started. . . . Maybe it is similar to what we learned in Intro Psych: a child who has a good sense of self and confidence can go into the world and explore, learn, and live . . . .
Sharing stories and personal ethnic experiences in conversation, as "spectators," gave each student an opportunity to first examine her own "sense of self," her own "foundation" from which she came to the conversation. And as each student read the experiences that were shared, responding to similarities as well as differences, she was opened up beyond the boundaries of her unique self into the world of others in which she was an equal participant, moving back and forth naturally between the role of spectator and participant -- participating in the seeing and seeing the participation.
In one exchange, Japura sparked a heated debate over offensive words which quickly evolved into a debate about taking offense to words in general. Referring to his Native American ancestry as "Injun," he opened the door to criticism for lack of sensitivity. Even though he had used the term to refer to his own ethnic background rather than to cast dispersions on others, some of his Native American colleagues did not appreciate what they felt to be an ethnic slur. Other colleagues with similar backgrounds, however, came to Japura's defense, pointing out that what was important was the spirit with which he used the term -- many saw his comment as an attempt to be laid-back and conversational, a comment not meant as a slur but as an indication that he felt comfortable enough with the group to not be guarded about word choices. Manaslu, for example, felt that the attention given to words led to a silencing effect:
21 OCT 1994
. . . I can't even express my views without someone jumping all over my case about not being sensitive or being too sensitive.
while Mackenzie felt that word choice, as level of diction, was an important consideration in light of who we were as a group:
. . . we need to maintain a certain "political correctness" among ourselves. I'm sure none of us want to get into a race war over our ethnic differences. . . . We don't need to use words like [Injun]. Terms like Native American and African American are much more suited to a discussion by college students.
Following a lively exchange of views, Japura himself attempts to conciliate by making connections between opposing camps:
I believe part of the issue in discussing multiculturalism and pluralism . . . is that we cannot talk about too many things without offending someone.
Clearly, he has identified that part of what comes about through talk is learning the consequences of talk. Madeira echoes this same observation, generalizing now to how the experiences and observations made in this conversation may be applied in the future lives of those pursuing careers in education:
. . . What are we going to teach these precious little minds we will be molding in their formative years . . . that INJUN is a bad word, how to be politically correct . . . or that listening, communicating, and ACCEPTING are the keys to the universe? and what about that . . . ARE THEY?
Thus, in this one example of conversational exchange, students themselves, through their interaction, were able to move with ease from specific instances to generalization, making a more comprehensive or over-arching umbrella of meaning under which connections between threads of discourse could be gathered, named, and filed for future use. No one ultimately won the argument -- at least not the originary argument arising from the use of the word "Injun." No one position ultimately won out in regards to whether or not using the word "Injun" was good or bad or whether it would be allowed or disallowed in continuing conversation. What happened instead was that a greater lesson was generalized from the exchange between contending sides. Japura did not have to see the error of his ways, nor did he have to apologize nor promise never to say "Injun" again. Neither did Mackenzie have to yield to arguments advanced against "political correctness" or linguistic self-consciousness in a community of friendly peers, scholars though they be. What arose instead from the free rhetorical exchange of conversation was a common sense.
To many of us, the ideas of liberalization and common sense are contradictory, especially if common sense is erroneously held to be, as Shotter says, "either a harmonious repository of more or less shared, non controversial, but outdated (merely propositional) beliefs; or something that is useless and confused . . . [in other words] what one person knows (and feels) is taken to be, more or less, the same as another" (173). After all, a homogenous sensus communis that assumes harmony hardly keeps with our ideals of liberal attitudes as those which are generously disposed to individual freedom, open-mindedness, and tolerance -- to those attitudes not slavishly bound by conventional ideas or values. But, as Shotter advises, closer examinations of the matter make it clear that
. . . common sense is far from unitary (and far from lacking in passion too). In fact, as we have seen, in the tradition of rhetoric it was thought to be a source of the `seeds' from which arguments strong enough to move people in some way could be developed. But these `seeds' or `commonplaces' are such that, by their very nature, it is perfectly possible for every logos -- that is every persuasive formulation -- to be confronted by and anti-logos . . . formed from the same commonplace. . . . In other words, the contrary nature of common sense is such that while certain matters are taken for granted in the community, and an appeal to them will close off arguments . . . others, which are just as much a real part of people's common sense as the first, will unavoidably open them up again (173-74).
Thus, while the proverbial "last word" may have seemed, by logic, to go to Madeira who raised discourse to a level of generalization ("accepting") under which opposing threads could co-exist, the exchange was re-opened by a fellow student who, moving from general to specific, wanted to make a distinction between "accepting" and "tolerating." For this last student, accepting difference, accepting other cultures and ethnic traditions, was not common sense. For her, there was a great difference between tolerance and acceptance, arguing more closely to the denotative meaning of "liberal" that having to accept something, rather than respectfully tolerate it, involved a compromising of one's personal liberties and the liberties of others as well.
Ann Berthoff makes a distinction between the often conflated concepts of generalization and abstraction. Generalization, it seems, is a criticism that many of us writing teachers level against our students whose papers lack specificity, detail, and example, papers that rely for their meaning on things like Roberts's "arguing the slogan" or Shotter's "outdated (merely propositional) beliefs." What we really should level as a criticism, Berthoff suggests, is that our students are being too abstract. Abstraction, she says, is natural and normal; it's the way we make sense of the world through our dreams and perceptions and imaginations. Generalization, on the other hand, is what students need to learn to do; it's what the whole educative process is all about:
We do not have to teach abstraction. What we do have to do is to show students how to reclaim their imaginations so that "the prime agent of all human perception" can be for them a living model of what they do when they write. What we must learn to do, if we are to move from the pedagogy of exhortation to a pedagogy of knowing, is to show students how to use what they already do so cleverly in order to learn how to generalize -- how to move from abstraction in the non discursive mode to discursive abstraction, to generalization (Berthoff, The Sense of Learning 20).
The remarkable thing about a pedagogy of textual conversation, however, is that students are much more likely to arrive at this knowing on their own, through practice, than they are if we merely try to "show" them. While we often strive in our conscious ideals away from exhortations, the monological essay is often just another form of exhortation. It is, at the very least, a "form" in which our students are asked to demonstrate their proficiencies in rhetorical exchanges that are merely metaphorical. "Showing" is another kind of exhortation -- certainly qualitatively different from "knowing" arrived at through the kinds of personal discovery that genuine conversation-in-writing facilitates. Abstraction, it seems, is a personal affair, the way our individual minds normally operate. Often, our students enter our classrooms trapped in abstraction; the "slogan," which sounds simple, specific, and uncomplicated, is an effective mental wall that isolates the individual in her own ideological world where answers are cut-and-dried. Inside this isolated, abstract world, the individual is bound to conventional ideas, values, and beliefs -- at least to those that are the "conventions" of her originary social group. It does little good, in terms of "liberalization" to simply replace, by one exhortation or another, her originary conventions with conventions we find more politically or ideologically acceptable (or even those we find distasteful). It does, however, do a great deal of good to provide opportunities for open discourse in a manner in which a number of conventions are made visible and reactions to them are made equally visible in a back and forth exchange through which generalizations emerge as naturally for the social group as abstractions emerge for the individual. The generalization, then, is subject to revision, reconsideration, debate -- in short, to common sense.
Authentic Learning Activity
In many ways, this course was all about the exploration of a central abstraction -- authentikos, or that which is primary, original, first-hand. From the first assignment which involved talking about and deciding issues of authority (what is it, who has it, who should have it, etc.) to the on-going reflexivity of all the conversational exchanges, our activity as a class involved a level of genuine participation whose meaningful-ness lay in the investment of personal energy by all participants in the communicative act as social phenomenon. What this involved more than anything was immersing our students, and ourselves as teachers, in a rather unstructured, chaotic conversation-in-text from which each of us necessarily had to create meaning or, I should say, come to know our knowing and how we know.
Our approach informed by theorists such as Berthoff, Freire, and Dewey, Bob and I attempted to provide an optimal learning experience not by depositing into our students a preformed knowledge, but rather by proposing some general ideas or questions in hopes that our students, through conversational interaction and negotiation, would add detail, specificity, and meaning. What we assumed was that students learn from any assignment in proportion to the energy they put into claiming the educational experience. To a great extent, Bob and I provided our students with "threadbare" assignments and abstract ideas with which they had to come to terms as a group through conversation. Through dialogue only, and the authentic activity that arose from dialogue, a unique understanding of such ideas was constructed. It was very important, we felt, that our students involve themselves in this process of "fleshing out" rather than rely on us as teachers, as repositories of knowledge. Without their direct involvement there would indeed be no experience at all, at least if experience is understood as an active process.
What is the difference between activity and "authentic" activity? Again, that familiar prefix -- auth -- presents itself for consideration just as it did when our students were asked to decide issues of evaluative authority. "Auth" as in authority. "Auth" as in author. "Auth" as in authentic. The Greek root means original, primary, first hand; the authent is one who does things himself. Therefore, an authentic learning activity would be one that proceeds from the learner, from intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. It would be an activity not just undertaken as a requirement, acquiesced to as something that must be accepted to get through the course, but an activity informed by effort, intellectual spirit, and genuine participation. Authentic learning is what all good teachers strive for as an ideal, unfortunately an ideal too difficult to achieve on a broad scale given the real constraints of time and energy involved in traditional instruction. Our students are with us only a semester, maybe two. Our classes are too large; our energies too divided. The pressures of making grades, of performing for evaluation, of dealing with teacher-as-audience as well as teacher-as-grader weigh heavily on students requiring the more successful of them to pretend or to imagine that simply completing the details of assignments constitutes authentic learning. While they may be making plenty of effort, intellectual spirit may be totally absent and genuine levels of participation very low.
A striking difference between the traditional classroom and our electronically interactive classroom, however, was the degree to which students engaging in textual conversation genuinely participated in their own learning and did so with what we would characterize as real intellectual spirit. Just as they became naturally more aware of their rhetorical choices because they had a real audience, a responsive audience, and were engaged with that audience in an interactive enterprise, they also felt more compelled to enlarge the dimensions of their participation by making connections between issues being discussed in VAX conversation and issues being discussed in their other classes, by appealing to other textual authorities, by informing themselves about current affairs, historical events, or classical knowledge.
This enlarging of conversational dimensions began quite early in the exchange. As could be expected, there was a good deal of interaction on topics of shared readings (those readings from Conversations that were assigned to students in both classes), but it went far beyond that. Significant references to unassigned readings entered the discussions in the form of sharing comments connecting the general topic of our class discussion with readings done by individual students for other classes that semester or in preceding semesters. Most often, students offered references to readings unassigned for our class for the purpose of further elaboration of a point or to offer authoritative support for the position a particular student was asserting. During our discussion about evaluation authority, for example, Everest asserted that there is a direct relationship between the process of assessment and feedback and the outcome in levels of mastery for students and offered this quote from Peter Senge as support:
20 OCT 1994
. . . "An example [of Pygmalion effects] occurs in schools, where a teacher's opinion of a student influences the behavior of the student. Jane is shy and does particularly poorly in her first semester at a new school (because her parents were fighting constantly). This leads her teacher to form an opinion that she is unmotivated. Next semester, the teachers pays less attention to Jane and she does poorly again, withdrawing further. Over time, Jane gets caught in a ever-worsening spiral of withdrawal, poor performance, `labeling' by her teachers, inattention, and further withdrawing. Thus students are unintentionally `tracked' into high self- image of their abilities, where they get personal attention, or a low self- image, where their poor class work is reinforced in an ever-worsening spiral."
_The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization_ by Peter M. Senge. Pgs 80-81.
We get a clear picture of how and why Everest offers this reference to Senge after another student expresses interest and asks whether or not Everest had ever written an essay on this topic:
22 Oct 1994
. . . I only recently picked it [Senge's book] up. I'm reading it for an independent study in which I'm doing research to phrase a question about the evolvability of systems (such as education). I've mostly been focusing on the old (1945-65) Cybernetics field. Recently, I've added the emerging field of complexity and Senge's works on learning organizations to my reading list.
This example is typical of offerings made by other students throughout the semester's conversational exchange and represents the kind of social knowledge sharing and the evolution of community knowledge bases made possible by dialogical/multilogical exchange.
One of the most striking examples of authentic learning activity involved sharing between a group of seven students whose conversation evolved around a mutual interest in the influence of media on children in school. Klamath, a student in Bob's ELC class brought to the conversation the summary of an unassigned article she'd recently read:
19 November 1994
[The article I read] specifically addresses: 1) the consequences of the media socialization of children on politics, i.e. the future of liberal- democratic "Lockean" politics; 2) Rousseau's framework for understanding the issue, which calls for "enclosure" -- meaning children's advertising and commercial television should be curtailed; 3) the role of the advertisers (industry), critics of children's advertising, and the government; 4) how heavy t.v. watchers become the products of a Hobbesian market society (citizens whose values are ill-suited for our liberal-democratic order, let alone for the more participatory kind of democracy some of us would like to see; 5) the nature of the harmful effects of children's commercial t.v.; 6) violence in children's television; 7) opponents' views of the proposal to eliminate children's television advertising; 8) the critic's unwillingness to put the power of censorship in the hands of the government because that would involve violating the free- speech principle of the First Amendment. . . .There is much information here that I cannot mention here and that only a thorough reading of this essay will elucidate. . . . In fact, the essay is saying that our country is based on the principals of Locke, or liberal democratic politics. The results of the media socialization of children don't bode well for the future of liberal democratic politics or for the various "participatory" alternatives to liberal democracy.
Klamath goes on in her enthusiasm to give a number of direct quotes from the essay she'd read, often encouraging her friends to read this essay as well. She ends her entry by apologizing for its length and then by asserting her desire that this particular group work together on an end-of-semester group project that would involve further exploring the general issue of advertising using a similar focus. Most of all, Klamath wanted to "address the need for `enclosure' (eliminating children's commercial t.v.) in our society in order to prevent children from continuing to be victims of a Hobbesian market society, which creates citizens who are not ready to participate in the type of political society we live in."
I must admit when I first read Klamath's entry, I myself was stunned by it's mention of Lockean and Hobbesian theory. I regarded it as one of those "over-zealous" entries by a student working far beyond the capabilities or interests of her peers and I assumed that Klamath would receive little if anything in terms of response -- silence being a rather strong conversational strategy to express a community's regard for the inappropriateness of dialogical turn. But, I assumed wrong. Two days after Klamath's entry, Paraguay offers this:
21 November 1994
. . . I would like a better explanation of what the hell Hobbes is proposing. In class last Wednesday I was given these short explanations [by Vilyuy]:
Hobbes: The consumer has a choice. I gather from this that the consumer can be educated if such enlightening material is presented.
Locke: The consumer is being taken advantage of. The consumer is a wet slab of clay on which society leaves an impression.
It is the Hobbes definition which is completely different than that which is presented in your article. Someone please clarify if I am to make any sense of this paper.
Paraguay goes on to offer his position based on personal experience. As a "service brat," he says that he grew up as a television addict. Having been deprived of television during the years his family was overseas, he and his brother did little else than watch it all day long once they returned to the states. "To this day I am a victim," he says. "As much as I hate and I do hate the machine I can not approve of its censure only because I would hate to make it into a saintly martyr."
So, to my surprise, Klamath did get a response and it was not a response that said "hey, you're over my head." Apparently, since Paraguay shared Klamath's interests, there was a real attempt on his part to understand the point she had tried to make in her article summary. I did note that Paraguay mentioned an "explanation" that he'd been given in class, so I began to think that Bob was introducing material on Locke and Hobbes in the ELC class. To my surprise, when I asked him about it, he said "no;" as a matter of fact, he was wondering if I had introduced similar material in my class. Obviously, then, these students had introduced Locke and Hobbes into their conversation quite independently of what their teachers were talking about or assigning in class -- an indication that some authentic learning activity was going on.
For several more days, the conversation continued to be primarily between Klamath and Paraguay, both reaching for some kind of understanding about Lockean and Hobbesian ideas. At one point, the process of the unfolding activity was made visible when Paraguay offered this:
28 November 1994
. . . thanks for paralleling my confusion on Hobbes. I love the terms "Hobbesian." Sounds like some sort of puffed up toy-dog like Pomeranian. I am here in the library but I doubt I will have time to look up Hobbes' definition of man. . . .
Now, we actually see students going to the library, thinking about a little investigating. They have a mutual problem -- Locke and Hobbes sound interesting; it might be something they'd like to explore for a collaborative end-of-semester project; but they don't really understand Locke and Hobbes. And it's this imperative, not one imposed by teachers, that drives them to further research.
The following day, more students began to participate in the conversation that had heretofore been a dialogue between Klamath and Paraguay. Obviously, there's still a good deal of uncertainty going on, but interests have been piqued:
29 November 1994
. . . you're confusing me. Locke's theory of impressionable children goes hand in hand with Hobbes' view of conditioning. I do not believe it is possible to condition someone who is not impressionable. That's the point . . . don't you see!!! Hobbes would urge our society today to educate our young children because they are so impressionable. . . .
I think these thinkers have a lot in common. They're just on different levels. Locke = impressionable; he states that there is an issue to be aware of! Hobbes = education against the inevitable "conditioning" of the media! Let's talk some more!! I really need to get the literature from you. . . .
Not only is there now another voice in the conversation, but the voice of someone else who is more than willing to work with her peers towards understanding complex issues. Vilyuy's use of numerous exclamation points throughout her response and her passionate plea to continue the conversation along with sharing literature illustrates a self-motivated desire to clarify issues and to learn. For the teachers' part in this scenario -- what we'd supplied was a very general topic (advertising and it's relationship to education) and what we referred to in the "Prelude" as response-ability. Because of the electronic medium through which textual conversation could flourish, students were able to respond to one another, and because they were able to respond, they did respond and their collaborative learning activity became a truly authentic activity.
The day following Vilyuy's entry, Paraguay returned to the conversation having read the article in question as well as "a few abstracts on Hobbes' and Locke's philosophies." In his rather lengthy entry, Paraguay offers a historical and biographical overview of Hobbes including his membership in the royalist party, the relationship of Hobbes' philosophies to the middle class, and a synopsis of Hobbes' Leviathan. He includes a number of quotes of Hobbes and a summary of the philosopher's ideas written in his (Paraguay's) own words. Near the end of his 75 line entry, realizing that he's run out of time for writing anything else, he says "stay tuned for the continuing saga of Locke and Hobbes." His concluding remarks indicate that there is more to come.
By this time a number of other students entered the conversation as well. Like their colleagues before them, most expressed confusion and a desire for further clarification. By December 3, however, the group felt sufficiently competent with the material, and with their understanding of how the material could relate to their interests and their end-of-semester project to "publish" their thesis. As Klamath writes:
3 December 1994
. . . our group thesis is: Because "enclosure" from commercial television seems a practical impossibility, although it is the desired solution, we must content ourselves with trying to educate children to become critical consumers of television so as to counteract some of advertising's negative effects and avoid their exploitation. We are going to address the media socialization of children, including the theories of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau concerning this matter.
For the next week leading up to exam day (the day when students presented their collaborative projects), the group continued to exchange ideas involving personal experience (their television viewing habits), personal observation, and personal as well as collaborative research vis-ˆ-vis Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and contemporary articles on commercial television and the use of commercial programming in education via sources such as Channel One. Ultimately, this exuberant activity culminated in a group presentation in which individual members took turns at explaining Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau and in relating their ideas to the issue of educating children. It was obvious throughout this process that these students were engaged in this process not because they were directed to do so by their teachers, but because it was a matter of mutual interest. All-in-all, they went further with their research efforts and their efforts as a group to mutually inform one another than they ordinarily would have had the imperative for learning been externally applied rather than one that arose in them as a social group with a mutual interest. Bob and I, as a matter of fact, stayed out of the process entirely; we watched as our students carried forth their learning activity quite independent of either of us. And, in the end, when these students gave their presentation, they fully stepped into the role of "teachers" themselves -- a group with an interest that they genuinely wished to communicate to their peers, not a group of students who stood before teachers who were merely there to grade their efforts.
Of course, this group's experience was not the only example of authentic learning I could offer. Numerous other groups of students engaged each other with similar levels of enthusiasm and generosity, although on issues of less complexity. And, contrary to claims that electronic communication drives people into social isolation, a number of other groups actually met one another face-to-face outside of class in order to pursue mutual interests. One group whose members found a shared interest in music met often to review tapes and work collaboratively in the library on research regarding the educative value of music. Their work led to a "performance" presentation involving every member of the class in song as well as dance. In another "group," two students, often at odds with one another in conversation, met outside of class to talk over issues surrounding gender stereotyping. Through their VAX exchanges as well as their face-to- face exchanges, these two were able to broaden each other's perspectives on gender issues, and broadening of such dimension that it lead to each student showing up in the other's class to act as what Massif referred to as a "visual aid" -- really, as an additional voice to add to an end-of-semester presentation.
As a matter of fact, near the end of the semester, students in ELC regularly appeared in my ENG class and vice-versa -- in other words, students were attending extra classes, not because they were required to do so, but because they were genuinely interested and were authentically engaged in the process of learning. This, in addition to what we observed in terms of self-motivated and independent, collaborative research, is indeed noteworthy. While I did have an attendance policy in my ENG class, and Bob had one also in his ELC class, there was no policy whatsoever regarding attendance in each other's classes. As much as we had done in the teacher role was to extend to our students an open invitation to attend the other's class. Maybe it was less an effort for my students to show up for an afternoon in Bob's class; maybe being on campus already made things easier. But, since my class met at night, I feel that ELC students had to make a truly significant effort born of interest and enthusiasm to take time from work, to return to campus, or to merely extend in time their already busy days. Clearly, that any of these students put forth this kind of effort demonstrates a personal commitment to learning and to the sense of social unity born from the conversational relationship.
Chaos, Conversation, and Coherence
Earlier in this chapter I talked about a few ways in which Bob and I introduced new levels of complexity into our classes and how these new complexities destabilized the class, threw our students off-balance in regards to disrupting expectations they held based on prior classroom experience. To review, I focused primarily on the destabilizing effects of the electronic component of the class as well as the fact that this was an interdisciplinary endeavor and that my students and Bob's students, although "sharing" a class, never met face to face. But even more destabilizing an experience was the focus we maintained on textual conversation as the centerpiece of the course: none of our students had ever had an educational experience before this where talk and talking about talk seemed to be "what the class was about." Entering into a conversational arena necessarily meant entering into what Shotter referred to as a "hurly burley" situation, a chaotic situation where teachers were far less in control than normally they are in school. In addition, we gave our students much more abstract, loosley structured tasks from which the students' emergence from chaos to coherence grew out of the process of multilogical exchange independent of teacher approval, authorization, or ideological direction. Obviously, many of our students felt uncomfortable in this new environment. In this class more than any other, they were truly immersed in chaos.
As chaos science has shown us, the world and the universe are filled with unpredictability, randomness, incoherence. Therefore, a chaotic classroom may be said only to mirror the natural order of things, and those of us who have devoted our energies to teaching writing have more than likely been taught, and in turn have taught that chaos is to be valued because from it arises order, form, and control -- from incoherence rises meaning. In other words, we have begun to value chaos because in its "hurley burley" are the infinite materials from which we are able to construct knowledge and meaning.
Yet despite the way we claim to value chaos, we seldom really allow our students to be immersed in it. We control -- our curriculum, our assignments, our assessments, even the direction students are allowed to take as they work themselves out of the little bit of controlled chaos that we ourselves have introduced for the purpose of teaching. This is understandable. It is a frightening thing to open one's classroom practice to a genuine chaotic experience. The fear of the class spinning out of control is too great. If things get out of control, what can there be of substance or coherence to the educative experience we ask. Therefore, we let our students read things that we assign; we let them freewrite (because freewriting is an excursion into personal chaos); we encourage them to discuss assigned readings with one another in class (while we stand as judges to the correctness of their interpretations, the meanings they might make); we let them pretend that they are moving naturally from chaos to understanding though all the while we are there like immovable rocks in a flowing stream, ever gently diverting thought into channels of meaning that we approve.
But, I believe that our fears are unfounded for the most part. We don't have to worry about things spinning out of control or becoming incoherent rather than coherent because we don't take into account that human nature naturally seeks coherence. As Deepak Chopra has observed, "chaos may provide compelling science, but it is no way to live. The lack of meaning hurts too much" (13). The fact that chaos is painful to humans is exactly what makes conversational pedagogies work so well, independently of us teachers/controllers, as a means to a meaning-ful experience. It would be good for a moment to belabor the obvious and admit that we and our students are all human beings, and as such naturally seek ways to interact with others in order to make meaning, to gather what we can from chaos in order to create ways of living together that are comfortable, coherent shelters from the randomness and disorderliness of nature.
I believe that this is exactly what my experiences with conversational pedagogies have shown: people who are allowed to genuinely interact with one another and who are given response-ability will be responsible persons simply because it is in their nature to do so. The development and exercise of meta-rhetorical skills, the liberalization of ideas, the exercise of authentic participation, despite the fact that I found it necessary for clarity's sake to talk about them as separate entities, are all inter-related activities that arose from conversational exchange without my direction simply because that's the way that languaged social interactivity works. As James Britton has noted, language is a tool that helps us turn confusion into order by "enabling us to construct for ourselves an increasingly faithful, objective and coherent picture of the world" through a lifelong exchange with others in our worlds such that "the way I feel" increasingly becomes similar to "the way people feel" (105-06). When given response-ability, our students have demonstrated that they will put this wonderful tool to work because they are compelled to do so as part of their nature, their desire to be social and interactive and sheltered from the chaos that naturally threatens to impinge up us all. The lack of meaning at the extreme of the "hurley burley" cannot withstand the creative energies of a social discourse community simply because the lack of meaning is indeed painful and people generally do whatever is necessary in order to avoid painful situations. In this case, they will work together to make meaning. For better or for worse, they create together the world they inhabit. Immersing students in a converational environment will not lead to a completely out-of-control or incoherent experience, but to a meaning-ful experience born of their own desire and efforts in the direction of learning and growing both individually and as responsible members of a community.