Kairos 13.2: Praxis - Productive Mess: Nathaniel A. Rivers, Marc C. Santos, and Ryan P. Weber


Bildung a Forum

This webtext describes a pilot course that united four first-year composition courses around shared readings and online discussion addressing the physical and virtual university. The goal of the pilot was to foster previously impossible student interactions by exploring how discrete discussion roles shaped interaction and reputations among students. Students from four classes spent a month on a Drupal forum where the members of each class participated in the weekly rotation of a specific discussion role (launch, query, extension, and connection) in order to develop and diversify the conversation. Students assigned launch roles were responsible for initiating conversation through posts that focused attention on particularly fruitful aspects of the readings. These launches were followed by query posts, which provided questions and qualifications on the original posts; extension posts, which atttempted to broaden a discussion; and connection posts, which worked to "connect" a thread to a discussion inside or outside of our classes. Through these roles, students challenged and expanded one another’s ideas by asking for clarification or qualification.

Students discussed many complex and pressing issues facing the contemporary university, including the decline of traditional liberal arts, the role of values in education, and the place of free speech within the academy. Our hope was to introduce them to a 2000-year-old running conversation on the purposes of higher education to place their experiences as first-year college students in a historical context.

Drupal facilitated student interaction in a digital medium different from either face-to-face or written conversations. We see this arrangement as a model for introducing argument to students, immersing them into the interminable nature of academic exchange. Forums weren’t as much about students reaching the “right” conclusion as they were on inciting invention and dialogue: Students were learning to put their "or" in. While students gained valuable experience interacting in a dynamic environment, we feel that to really tap into the power of forums would require a dedicated 16-week commitment.

This project was exciting to us from a variety of pedagogical perspectives. Technologically, it performed a greater task than simply transporting classroom discussion online. Students were now engaged with peers outside the physical classroom, a process that opened up the possibility for new relationships. The forum environment also demonstrated the convergence between networked spaces and complexity theory and the emergence of reputation systems in an online environment. As instructors we grew to realize how much our own theoretical dispositions informed how we approached both our curriculum and our pedagogy. This discussion lays out the theoretical support for the project, the content of the course, the technical logistics, and some concluding thoughts and reflections.

Ultimately, we wanted to provide a structured environment that facilitated independent student investigation and exchange. We hope that this research testifies to the fact that forums are not naturally pedagogically sound; rather, fostering meaningful digital encounters requires careful and thoughtful pedaogical planning. While we feel like our approach provided a successful first-year writing experience, we also recognize that there is more we could have done to maximize the revolutionary aspects of a networked writing envrionment.