Conversation about the meaning of Conversation
Morgan Gresham's and Mike Jackman's Interactive Review of

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by Beth Baldwin

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"But this [book] is not meant only to argue this issue in a classical or academically authorized sense, i.e., as a monological exercise of logic and reason with its inevitable linear development and closure. It is meant also to enact a conversational model. Thus it is a hybrid form of writing, a fugue-like composition which, like its musical counterpart is a polyphonic (multi-vocal) composition based upon several related, but different themes enunciated by several voices or parts in turn, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and which gradually builds up into a complex form having distinct divisions or stages marked at the end by an open-ended climax rather than a conclusion. In other words, the work as a whole is in great part the subject of itself." -- From Beth's abstract

Mike:Having been a music composition major, I love to comment on musical terms. The metaphor of polyphonic orchestration harks to Bakhtin's conceptualization of heteroglossia. What to make of "fugue?" The fugue mataphor brings in the complications I'd like to raise - that conversation is a genre. One could consider a fugue "monologic" in the sense that it is orchestrated by one composer. Also, a fugue is highly structured. The principle voice (melody) repeats exactly at a certain interval. So to me, a fantasy or tocotta would be the baroque metaphor of choice. I realize this isn't about conversation theory, but I'm always searching for a good music metaphor to use.
MIKE:My position is that all conversation, perhaps especially written conversation, is contrived and stylized, and I would prefer one that conforms to some winnowing down to bring out essentials. Of course, to do this is to disagree with Beth Baldwin's point that conversation is the essential and that writing is an artifact of conversation, and that conversation should be the foreground, not the background, of pedagogy. But conversation with whom, how much conversation, what type/genre of conversation, with what context? Is there acceptable or appropriate and unacceptable or inappropriate conversation? What is good and bad conversation? And now we are down to the same issues as for writing. The same questions of genre, style, goodness, intelligence, ethics, etc.

As Beth writes in Chapter II:

"But when conversants make a contribution to the discoursal exchange, they do so fully expecting a response whether that response be agreement, sympathy, challenge, criticism, or objection."

MIKE:We've seen some believe this is equally true for essays and other written discourse.

MORGAN:It [Beth's document] should teach us how to read it. And it's not doing that. This is not really conversation - it's written conversation. When I have a conversation. I don't speak in complete sentences. [See HTML Style section.]

MORGAN:It's great we have a work about conversation that is a conversation that values conversation in ways the academy usually doesn't.

MIKE:And it's on hypertext.

MORGAN:Morgan likes the idea of conversation for its own sake as presented here; it's what she uses as a guiding principle in her listserv. As Beth puts it, "Indeed, the goal of conversation is conversation".

MIKE:Is it FOCUSED conversation? Should it be?

MORGAN:I get lost in the conversation.

MIKE:Monologues are not ossified - they are conversations with an audience who may not respond to the speaker, but they still respond.

MORGAN:It's also a conversation with the self.

MIKE:Good point!

MIKE:I think the point about social construction is that everything is social - monologues, hermits, as well as groups talking on a network. It's just a different social relationship but it's still social because language is social and as Vygotsky says, inner thought comes from social outer conversation.

MORGAN:I think conversation is the central metaphor of the academy - we lose sight of it quite a bit. "One still has to read, write, follow assignments, listen to lectures, etc., yet the conversation, if it is allowed to become a central focus, makes the reading, etc., become more necessary because the experiences one brings from the reading or from the lesson back to the talk serves a real communicative purpose" And I think reading, writing, following assignments are part of the conversation.

We're having difficulty seeing only the conversation in short electronic bursts as authentic conversation. Again, from Bakhtin's Speech Genres:

"The work, like the rejoinder in dialogue, is oriented toward the response of the other (others), toward his active responsive understanding, which can assume various forms: educational influence on the readers, persuasion of them, critical responses, influence on followers and successors, and so on. It can determine others' responsive positions under the complex conditions of speech communication in a particular cultural sphere. The work is a link in the chain of speech communion."
Neat, how much this sounds like the "Burkean Parlor." So to us, it seems that writing is also a conversation. Although, it's always good to reiterate our differences - Morgan sees conversation (in the sense of social conversation on a network) as more central than Mike does, who sees it as more of a heuristic.

MIKE:Somewhere in here we're going to have to take issue with this definition of conversation - what kind of conversation are we talking about?

MORGAN:That's a good point.

MIKE:If we end up thinking Beth's conversation is "nice" and "composed," we can contrast it with Bruffee's article that complicates collaboration-["Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind"] but maybe it's not , i.e. Beth writes "there were times in class when students weren't allowing other students to hide, weren't allowing students to disavow their own rhetoric."

MORGAN:In the Bruffee article, writing is at once a removal from the conversation and a step back to the conversation.

MIKE:So is Beth imagining a nice, middle class, white conversation? - we can contrast with Trimbur and others who complicated the first wave of collaborationists by pointing out this was not all that was or should be going on.

MIKE:I don't know how seriously to take these statements - is it just a conversation? Where is this as an academic text?

MORGAN:If the conversation is the thing - then it has to be taken seriously.

Conversation and Gender >From Chapter II:

"The voice, seemingly separated from it's physical source, travels through virtual space unencumbered by the psychological weight of body image for either writer or reader as an androgynous, ageless, colorless, sizeless equal."

Mike:That's a beautiful quote. I disagree, though, and so does Morgan, if I remember right. What gets constructed in the mind is a picture - probably white, but who's to say? Because words don't seem embodied, doesn't mean they don't get constructed that way in the minds of readers.

MORGAN:Also, the topic of homosexuality came up as something the class needed to resolve. Is there a pattern to these conversations? Because the same thing happened to me. "Type Normal Like the Rest of Us: . . . " by Alison Regan is an article that talks about homophobia. If we just removed cues to sex, race and gender in an online discussion what we end up doing is having students "pass" for straight, white, middle class male in electronic space where gender ethnicity issues are not addressed. I wonder if there's something with the pattern. Why that seems to be?

MIKE:I wonder also - in my class discussions not on the computer - students will skirt the edges of these issues, never claim gender or race is an issue unless it is directly addressed by me. Of course, the students can't hide their gender or race (if black or hispanic) as easily, but still there's the tendency for whites to shy away from directly confronting these issues honestly.
>From the Same Chapter:

"In electronic exchange, the teacher is visually no different than her students; all are text on the screen, judged and responded to according to what they say rather than who they are -- the teacher is just one more interactive participant in the conversation."

Mike:Interesting! Of course, it assumes there are no tonal, vocabulary, formal or other markers that separate the teacher from the student. And if this is so, then is this no longer conversation? Also, in Beth's class, Beth and Bob used their names, while the students were anonymous. So it was clear who the teachers were all along. See Chapter 5

MORGAN:Is a two way conversation a conversation in Beth's terms?

MIKE:I dunno.

MORGAN:Rhetnet subscribers can link to rhetnet archives about "School is a Game" [A conversation online about the issue of whether students can be authentic in the classroom]. It think it's unavoidable that students will figure out what the game is and then play it."

MIKE:Finally, she uses a name - Beth is bold and blue - in this chapter - why, I wonder, did they not use names more often?

MORGAN:All of this comes back to what your goal is as an instructor - did they articulate in the beginning what their goal is?

MORGAN:Morgan asserts she begins to think she has a very different view of technology than green person.

MIKE:Beth writes: "I do agree, however, that things are pretty much still organized around the monological model. The ultimate display of proficiency is the monological text. This will, I believe, change. I think people like you and me are taking some responsibility for that change every time we write dialogically or invite our students to write dialogically." I want to get this monologic/dialogic thing thought about, as I don't think a student text is monological. In fact, I seems to recall an article about a Bakhtinian approach to composition that tried to analyze the heteroglossia in a student's paper.

MORGAN:So by writing a dialogic review, we are taking part in this change from the monologic model to the dialogic model?

MORGAN:How much of this is the actual transcript conversation? How did this happen do we know that?

Beth writes in chapter II: "It just so happens that this communication we are studying takes place in writing, but I will insist that writing exists as an artifact of the conversation" In "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind'" Kenneth Bruffee says that "Writing is a technologically displaced form of conversation."

To see more of the Bruffee quote, click here:

MIKE:What about the role of non-response? Of silence and silencing, in conversation? What about agression and passivity?

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