Problems With Forum Roles
One of the questions posed by this syllabus approach concerned how students would approach conversation partners unknown to them from the physical classroom. The results from the forum reveal that students often did have engaging discussions based on each other's ideas but frequently lacked ways to reference the online identities of other students. Every student on Drupal is identified by a self–appointed username, and this user name, displayed on every forum post, seems like the obvious choice for referencing other writers.
However, students made use of the usernames very infrequently. Only one connection post referred to every previous poster by username, and the majority of threads included no references to usernames. Not surprisingly, ssarcine's username [SS] was referenced most often, further supporting our conclusion that this student best developed a reputation on the forums. Another option for personalizing responses was to click on the username, which reveals the student's full name and custom profile (viewable in Drupal only to registered members of the site), which may include a photo or other personal information (few users included photos). However, over four weeks, only two posts evidenced a student clicking another's username and addressing them by full name.
In lieu of username or full name, the most common strategy for referring to other students was to write some version of "I agree with you," such as "I think that you are right about the fact that school is to easy," "Firstly, I agree with a lot of the stuff that you said, but some of it I found confusing," or the summative "One of you said this [...] another one of you said this [...]." Similarly, students would either reference one another by post type ("I agree with the query post") or by idea ("I agree that students should take a variety of classes.") The prevalence of this second person pronoun and references to ideas suggested that students saw other members of the forum as largely anonymous participants. It also indicated that students were not accustomed to responding directly to the ideas of others and that they had difficulty sustaining a long running conversation which renders "I agree with you" statements confusing once there are many "yous" to disagree with.
While the students often treated one another as largely anonymous, the discourse on the forums was overwhelmingly civil. Certainly this was due to the forums being a school space for discussing complicated issues, but students who did address each other's idea explicitly usually provided a generous reading, finding something to agree with even when they disagreed.
Only a few posts showed students having overt difficulty with the anonymity of other students. The most blatant was an extension post titled "um, yea im not so sure I agree with you, person," where the impersonal label makes direct reference to the inaccessible and anonymous nature of the conversation partner. The post content further struggles with this anonymity, especially in the conclusion, which cannot comprehend the other student's opinion: "I do not understand how you seem to think that these to do not coincide with each other on a day to day basis. Morals are always present, just not always used. I believe that that is a more correct way of stating the usage of utility and culture. Chew on that for a bit and let me know what you think." The final line, which contains a somewhat hostile invitation for response, but an invitation nonetheless, shows the student working through the challenges of digital conversation.
Another back and forth exchange showed students engaging in hostile negotiations about their roles on the forum. After one student posted a response to Stanley Aronowitz's The Knowledge Factory, a second student posted an extension with an unclear addressee:
Extension: To: Aronowitz
So what if universities and their educators aren't doing a good enough job to make every student enlightened before receiving their diploma according to you. Your expectations are irrational and dysfunctional.
After reading this response, the first poster took issue with this perceived misrepresentation of the launch post:
You obviously read my post before responding to it. The other guy.... that person needs to read my post before responding to it. I wasn't at all making the claims he said I was in my original post. My original post was basically saying we're better than other countries because most of us go to college. Again, thank you for realizing that.
The second person retorted that their post was aimed directly at Aronowitz, not the first poster. Interestingly, the second poster referenced the forum roles as a defense of his writing:
READ THE TITLE
My role is to provide an extension to the forum topic and if you notice I was writing my extension directed towards Aronowitz himself, not torwards anything you had to say. I could have addressed what you wrote but i didn't. Again, know what the purpose of all the roles are.
The first poster returned one last time, both in an attempt to clear up a confusing audience and to challenge the interpretation of the forum roles:
Just to clear things up...
So when you said "...according to you." And "Your expectations are irrational and dysfunctional. " You were talking directly to Mr. Aronowitz himself?
Oh and I know what the purposes of the roles are, I even have the little sheet.
This back and forth, the most hostile that emerged on the forums, became aggressive partially because of the second poster's belligerent tone but mostly due to a confusion about the audience being addressed on the forums and the purposes of the roles. Here, students are struggling to form a dialogue both with an unknown student present online and an absent print author. Though these students do not resolve the issue here, they are clearly working through the various types of presence and absence created by web and print mediums.