Presentation Abstract

Going to Hell in Hyperspace: Nastiness in the Networked Classroom

Every teacher can recount at least a few examples of rude or obnoxious student behavior. But for the teacher venturing out into the wilds of the computer classroom, his or her worst nightmare may come alive: students who otherwise would conduct themselves in a reasonably polite manner suddenly may degenerate--or so it seems--into biting, sarcastic creatures hardly resembling the inhabitants of our non-connected classrooms. Advocates of computer assisted learning sometimes offer comfort by claiming that this experience can be liberating for teacher and student alike since our new classrooms can provide truly safe spaces for students to express what otherwise would be forbidden views. Our students have not transformed into slavering, arrogant backbiters, but instead are able to work through positions in much the same way that we as teachers do. Indeed, one of the oft-cited selling points of using computer chat functions, for example, is giving voice to those who would otherwise be silent. Just because we may not always like how students express themselves is no reason to back off this invaluable pedagogical advance. Yet many critics at large have noted the general coarsening of public discourse, a coarsening that is reflected quite well by the Internet, as any casual information surfer will find. From chat rooms to MOOS to listservs, conversations may degenerate into snide comments, if not downright name-calling. Not all is gloomy, however. There are cases where participants are able to maintain a balance between passion and respect, between disagreement and disregard. Teachers usually hope to maintain the same balance in their classroom discussions. There are reasons why computer interchanges especially can degenerate to nastiness, reasons grounded in the very nature of face-to-face communication. Linguists have for many years studied the ways in which different cultures negotiate the concept of "face," that complex of attitudes that allows us to preserve our dignity as well as the dignity of those we interact with. Although the particular rules are quite specific to particular cultures, we do know that face-to-face interaction allows conversationalists to judge the effects of their statements, which is crucial to molding the next step in their linguistic dance. Unfortunately, the character of electronic chats--quite popular among computer classroom enthusiasts--cuts out such interaction. Messages pile up more quickly that participants can digest, responses are sent before all of the questions are received. In addition, though we have developed a rudimentary visual vocabulary of "emoticons" in order to add emotion layering to a text message, these still are too crude to replace the more complex visual aspects of face-to-face encounters. There are solutions, however. The first involves actively slowing down students' replies, albeit in a carefully controlled manner. The second involves concentrating on the rhetoric of every message we send, however taxing this may seem at first. Yet not doing so means that students often are forced to lose face in distance learning.

Author: Jeff Karon

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