Kairos 13.2: Praxis - Productive Mess: Reflections


Student Ownership of the Forums

Even if a full-fledged reputation system did not emerge as we expected (for reasons discussed below), we did witness several instances (several of which we sample in the results section) of student ownership of the forums. Two of the more prominent ways in which students claimed ownership of forums were exploitating of the flexibility of forum roles and composing forum posts that fell outside the forum roles and described uses of the forums themselves.

Launch posts were described as posts that advanced some claim about the readings to which subsequent posts would then respond. However, many students posed questions in the launch posts by way of beginning the conversation. That is, they augmented the launch post by blending it with the query post. This move seems partially inspired by the fact that launch posts that posed questions received, on average, more replies. Whatever the reason, changing the forum roles to suit the needs of the conversation as it developed suggests that many students felt the forum was their space. Additionally, this ownership revealed itself in the various ways students positioned their posts in relation to the other roles. For instance, query posts often responded to other query posts, and sometimes extension posts responded directly to launch posts. Students applied the roles as they saw fit rather than how we had described them.

Another ownership move we noticed was the use of the site for purposes outside those describe by the forum roles. A particular instance, previously discussed in the results section, is the poll created to gauge students' opinions about the value of free speech in the classroom. The student concludes the post saying, "I will tally the results at the end of the week and post them during the weekend. The results might help us write our letters!" The student explicitly positions the poll not just as a part of the conversation but as resource for completing an assignment outside of the forum. We were pleased to see such ownership of the forums on the part of students. We believe this testifies to the validity and value of such an effort in engaging students on their own terms and turf.

Not Reputation So Much As Attention

This ownership, however, did not necessarily translate into the development of a full-fledged reputation system in the way we anticipated. Pedagogical, along with the technological, constraints, afforded students little opportunity to develop (or for us, at least, to reliably measure) a reputation system beyond simply who got the most attention. Unlike Amazon.com, for instance, which is designed to facilitate and reward the emergence of reputation (ranks for “was the feedback helpful” and the ubiquitous star-ranking system), students using Drupal were required to develop their own system. Helpfully, the forum interface on Drupal does broadcast the number of comments a given launch post has received; however, the version available at the time statically ranked the launch post in chronological order, with the one posted first always listed first. For the most part, we feel this feature explained why some posts received more attention than others since the availability of posts often determined the shape and frequency of student responses: Students were likely to respond to those forum posts that were easiest to access. Given the volume of launch posts a week (a maximum of 20), students had very little else to go on. Drupal, as we encountered it in 2006, is not constructed to easily facilitate and reward reputation. On Amazon.com, reviews are listed in order of usefulness as judged by other users. Readers of reviews are allowed to quickly assess the quality of a review (using the age-old thumbs up/thumbs down approach), and reviewers are rewarded in how their reviews are ranked and in how they are positioned with respect to other reviewers (Amazon’s “top reviewer feature”). That is, Amazon.com allows users to establish a history and then use that history to establish a reputation. The version of Drupal we used, combined with our own admittedly novice facility with Drupal, prevented us from employing such sophisticated technological approaches to reputation.

Pedagogically, the switching of forum roles, the limited time frame of the interclass component, and the absence of incentives, all limited the development of a sophisticated and meaningful reputation system. First, switching roles didn’t allow students the opportunity to earn a reputation within a particular role. With respects to first year composition, students were able to take on different argumentative roles and develop a repertoire of rhetorical approaches, but were unable to fully develop themselves in one role—something we feel is necessary to developing a reputation. Second, we learned that reputation, particularly in the absence of the features provided by sites like Amazon, takes time to emerge. The short time frame—four weeks—combined with rotating forum roles meant that students were always entering the conversation for the first time and thus were not able to establish a deep history of posting on which their reputation would be based. The volume of posts—undifferentiated as they are on Amazon—prevented students from making selections based on reputation and instead forced them to decide based on attention only (itself most likely a function of the timing of posts). Third, we didn’t work in incentives as they exist on Amazon. Such incentives are not financial but ego-driven. Like Amazon, we wanted the incentive to come from investment in the conversation. Students would take pride in terms of how useful other students in the course found their contributions. The course did not offer visible and viable incentives, such as rankings, to students whose posts received the most attention.

Productive Mess

We have tried to stress that students' discussions were often producitve and chaotic, uncooperative yet generous, and, at times, a downright mess. These exchanges are rarely, if ever, examples of clean Socratic dialectic; they rarely conclude with any definitive sythesis (which was fine with us since this wasn't our end goal anyway). As rhetoricians and first-year composition instructors, we are fine with messy so long as it's a productive mess. These posts are initial exposure—complex, social, ethical engagements with others. Their disorder often testifies to the excess of invention. Those of us who work in institutions recognize that academic and social engagements are rarely "clean." Given the revolutionary connectivity of our digital society, the new rhetorical encounters described by Porter and others, we believe negotiating "mess" is something that students cannot live without.