Contributor: Joan Latchaw
School Affiliation: University of Nebraska at Omaha
Instructors who make use of digital spaces as part of writing-intensive classes often list journaling, discussion forums, and peer review as the most common digital technologies, which may be considered either supplemental or integral to the intellectual work of the course. This narrative, however, addresses the use of discussion forums for a specific kind of actvitity: the resolution of face-to-face classroom contexts, using the the digital discussion forum’s affordances for extended explanation and clarification. The narrative details two recent incidents of face-to-face classroom conflicts followed by productive Blackboard discussion forums, which indicate that digital communications can ease, if not resolve, serious breaches in group cohesion. I address the most recent disturbance.
This semester, my sophomore level Theories of Writing for English Majors class studied American English during the linguistics unit. The reading, based on contact languages, elicited conversation about dialects, code switching, and bilingualism. A heated argument in the face-to-face classroom began when the class began discussing Ebonics. One student, that I’ll name Bryon, claimed that people who spoke Ebonics were ignorant. This statement caused a flurry of emotionally-laden counter arguments, one of which culminated in another student accusing Bryon of sounding like a racist. Others chimed their assent, Bryon rebutted that students didn’t understand the word “ignorant,” and others joined the fray until I tabled the topic, saying that we should avoid making assumptions about people without adequate research. Later that day, I heard through the grapevine that students were replaying this incident in other classes. A few students told me (through email or in person) they were distressed at the attacks on Bryon’s character and felt he was unduly stigmatized.
Recalling the Difficult Dialogues Project sponsored by the Ford Foundation), in which groups convene to discuss controversial topics, I decided to apply a similar technique to ease classroom tensions. The concept behind Difficult Dialogues, unlike argument, is to generate understanding among various factions by facilitating respectful, engaged, individually-focused discussion. Some projects, focusing on abortion, cloning, or stem cell research, are geared more toward community deliberations, while others, such as classroom behavior and diversity issues target the university environment. So, in the spirit of reestablishing group cohesion and easing individual angst, from all corners, I assigned a Blackboard Discussion Forum with the following instructions articulated online:
- I believe in a pedagogy that supports what Nel Noddings calls an “ethic of caring” in order to build and maintain a learning community, which supports academic and personal transformation. In the kind of classroom community I strive for, dialogue becomes the cornerstone for learning processes, which sometimes involve disagreements and discord. Noddings calls for an active engagement of others that is personal, situation-specific, and dialogic, pairing the “cared-for” and the “one-caring” in a mutually supportive relationship. The idea here is that everyone is part of the community and must work together for everyone’s personal growth. No one is isolated.
- In that spirit, I am requiring everyone to participate in an Ethics of Caring Forum on the Blackboard Discussion Board. In your post, you should explain how you personally felt about the class discussion on Ebonics and discuss what life events, beliefs, or values you think led to your response. (These might include events and beliefs from childhood.)
- The Rules: You may not speak for any individual or group, inside or outside the class, and must limit yourself to your own experience. The idea is to create understanding and an “ethics of caring” for all in a respectful environment. You must post at least once and read everyone else’s posts. If you respond to others, you may ask a question out of curiosity, such as a request for more information or further exploration. You may not challenge anyone or debate a point. I will set up the anonymous feature on Blackboard so you can post anonymously if you choose to do so. I will give 2% of the participation grade for the class to this DB.
Many of the students did follow the rules, posting entries that included memories of racial jokes in school, accusations of being a slave-owner, and details about grandfather, a man who was not ignorant, despite an 8th grade education. Others couldn’t seem to help themselves, such as Mary, who felt compelled to prove her point of view by defining a number of terms, such as “ignorant,” “intelligence,” and “uneducated” and then doing some web research for my benefit. Her motivation—to understand the sides of the argument and to educate me—were arguably well-intentioned and respectfully articulated, but outside the parameters of the assignment. Bryon’s numerous posts were often contentious and argumentative. However, it was clear that he also wanted to be understood and respected. The point I am making is that dialogue, as opposed to argument, is a much more foreign concept in our educational system and the larger society. (NOTE: see appendix for complete text of Mary's and Bryon's Blackboard entries).
In general, most students who responded to the Discussion Board Forum(about 15 out of 20) were respectful, thoughtful, and engaged. Many responded numerous times, although only one was required. I learned much about my students’ lives, their backgrounds, their values, and their beliefs, as I’m sure others did. Classes following the forum seemed free of tension and productive. In a debriefing, I asked the class how I might have prevented the in-class discussion from getting out of hand and they provided useful advice, such as allowing the dissenting student more of a voice, and challenging accusatory comments. However, it’s difficult to manage such outbursts on the spot. On those unfortunate occasions, I think digital communications can repair a compromised learning environment. Although I was satisfied with the outcome, after reviewing the posts, I saw huge gaps in Bryon’s arguments that were clearly revealed online. Another potential use for the discussion forum then, in addition to a space for directed conflict resolution, can be a location where dialogue can transition into a discussion of the difference between opinion and informed opinion. In retrospect, I regret the loss of this opportunity because Bryon had to drop the class for financial reasons. Pedagogical decision-making is a daunting task, but I believe the Difficult Dialogues method is one worth exploring in service of classroom ethics.