Reflections on My Project Blog

See the blog itself

Acting on a suggestion I believe Randy Bass made at one of the VKP summer institutes, I kept a journal along with the course.  A sort of blog.  I had no regular routine.  I just started a web page and added to it when the mood struck me, when I thought about it.  Turns out I made nearly 50 entries, which I have numbered for easy reference, over the course of a 14-week semester broken down into 7 2-week units.

The blog is not all that long and is available to read through, but here below are several subjects on which I have reflected:

Community

As I review my blog-diary of the course (I have numbered the entries for ease of reference), the big things I see are 1) my gradual realization that class community is the key to my project and 2) my periodic worriment over how to achieve it.   Concern over community, in fact, provides a kind of plot structure in the blog, rising to a climax in units 3 and 4 (just before and after the midpoint in the course) with the appearances of the longest entry in the blog and reference to a class blasting, before tailing off in units 5 and 6 with a bit of an era of good feeling.

Ironically, I begin the class billed as a community of learners worrying about immediately killing community by spending the first two full classes totally centered (entry 5), and obviously something was eating at me sub-rosa in subsequent weeks because all of a sudden I have the "reflection" in unit 3 (entry 15) that "I am perpetually disappointed at the level of community," that "creating community is a bigger challenge" than I anticipated, and wondering whether it was my fault or simply that I was fighting against "ingrained tradition" about how classrooms operated.  I am not clear and specific in the blog about exactly what student behaviors were the basis for my anxiety.  And, actually, this points to the fact that perhaps I ought to articulate for myself as well as for the students what in my vision an academic community classroom would look like -- to get a bit beyond the "I'll know it when I see it" syndrome.

One main thing is the locus of energy.  I was feeling that I was bringing the energy and passion to the classes, that if I didn't show up the classes wouldn't start.  In my ideal learning community I'd like to see the energy diffused and excitingly random in its day-to-day distribution throughout the class (not the same students "on" all the time).  I was picking up on a range of "downers" as I came into class: people sitting in the back, reading newspapers, sitting in the same seats every day, not bothering to know the name of the person next to them much less talk (sometimes the room would have a funeral home kind of leaden-ness), students who feel it fine as long as they get there within the first five minutes of class.  To be honest, though, I was certainly looking at the class through my very high expectations.  Because of the VKP element, this was a very, very special class to me, and I was charged up with high hopes of a very, very different classroom environment.  I tried to communicate that to the students, but, of course, there is no way they could match my level of commitment.  I had something unique on the line.  This was just another class to them.  I think I was a bit "hyper."

But, funny, maybe I have just described what I would take to be at least some of the outward visible signs of a class that is a community: students who not only come on time but who are not afraid to come early, who make it a point to get to know at least the name of everyone in class fast, and then who move around in order to know them all better.  Yeah, a class buzzing with energy even before it starts.  A class in which interaction is organic.  That I wasn't getting from this class.  But again, to be realistic, though I advertised this course for "serious" non-majors, I have to remember that these weren't English majors used to and even seeking discussion formats but a very varied bunch filling general education requirements or taking an interesting elective and most, no doubt, used to lecture formats and, at base, simply wanting a credential.  A tough audience but, in retrospect, perhaps the very place where this approach is most needed and has to prove itself.

In terms of what happened during class, "the rubber hit the road" in unit 2 when I first structured "reply" assignments on the discussion board and some people in groups weren't posting or were posting late.  Several students complained, expecting me to use the whip as a teacher in a conventional classroom would, but, in what I thought was an appropriate move given the kind of community I envisioned, I suggested that they approach the slackers themselves: "My idealistic notion is that only when students are willing to confront fellow students about such matters as responsibility will the culture begin to change" (entry 16).   Whew, pretty damn idealistic -- even if they had been a class of English majors.

Then comes a significant blow-out (entry 22).  I sound so pompous.  I have a "stark" vision that the long ago beginning of the course is the most important part for my project, that community "has little if anything to do with the 'new' technology.  It has all to do with the way students expect the classroom environment to be," and that it's that student expectation that has to be addressed and transformed: "I am feeling more needs to be done back at the beginning to make the words about community mean something – to translate those words into action – to make the students feel the reality of those words."  Now, at this remove, I still appreciate that more should be done at the beginning, but, more realistically, I realize that the transformation will only take place over a longer haul and perhaps more patience on my part is needed.  But, in any event, I obviously felt the need for the kind of action I eschewed a short time before (entry 16).  I literally dropped 4 students for attendance policy violations (which I thought were reasonably liberal: 6 class absences or 6 missed/late posts), to much weeping and gnashing of teeth, and warned 4 more, as well as implementing and imagining surface kinds of changes to foster community.  But my big epiphany seems to have been "the idea that the discussion board won’t create community as much as a community will find strength thru the db."

Then another significant blow-out, the class before mid-semester break devoted to "sermonizing about community" (entry 25).  More like reading the riot act.  I remember being hot, hyper.  "I was pretty brutal."  And singing a familar song: "I keep thinking that this project ought to be first about ways to create community before one can think about the effectiveness of the discussion board." The truth is, though, I guess, that both are needed: more emphasis on creating community in order to give meaning to the discussion board and use of the discussion board to nourish, sustain, and re-create community.

The following entries in unit 4 show me thinking about ("ruminating") surface kinds of things I could do to improve community (entry 26, entry 27), but, most importantly, I admit to finding "myself angry at students" (entry 28).  And I have what I think is an interesting revelation:

"Slowing down and making everything visible – their stuff as well as mine – has brought me face to face with some deep feelings about what the classroom should be like.  And I am bringing to the surface all the warts.  I’m consciously facing more than I guess I usually do.  I have very high hopes and expectations for what a class should be like that are embodied in the community idea.  And the slightest failing seems to hit me hard.  Too hard for a veteran like me."
I am heavily personally invested in the idea of classroom as learning community with the discussion board as its visible heart.  Perhaps too heavily invested for my own good.  I feel like I'm on a mission to save the world -- or this small piece of it.  I feel more committed to student improvement than in the past situations in which the essence of my courses were my expert talk returned to me in quizzes, exams, and essays.  Now the focus is deeper -- on their minds, their thinking.  And since these can be tangled webs and swamps, the attempt can seem frustrating and fatiguing in a way I have not experienced before -- especially if they seem unconcerned.

As the course headed to the finish line, however, things picked up.  I felt engagement from everybody in an in-class exercise (entry 35), successfully got volunteers for another exercise after playing on "community" (entry 36), noticed an increasing liveliness on the Talk Radio discussion board (entry 40, entry 41), and remarked that now -- 2/3's through the course -- people seemed to know each other's names (entry 40)!  "Are they finally starting to feel like a community?" I asked -- with hope.

Conscious v. Spontaneous

I made a big change in my thinking about whether discussion board writing should be conscious or spontaneous (entry 31).  Before this course, before this project, I used to champion spontaneity completely.  Now I am a consciousness-man.  The point of asynchronous discussion is to have time to think, exactly what you don't have much of in face-to-face discussion.  As a result of this project I changed my "Guidelines" document in this regard, where "I suggest that posts should be spontaneous, brainstormy, and so forth" (entry 37).  I don't want students laboring over exact word choice or being especially finicky about grammar.  Writing on the discussion board is not like writing essays in that respect.  But I do want them to think carefully about strategies and options and content.

 "To try to resolve [this tension between the conscious and the spontaneous], I guess I have in mind the encouragement to think ahead about a response but then when it is in mind to simply let loose and write merrily away.  Not labor over every word, or do drafts, and that sort of stuff."  (entry 31)

"Maybe what has to happen is that they be conscious of strategies in an early phase, that they practice certain modes in an early phase, till the use of these strategies and modes becomes internalized and unconscious/spontaneous.  So, in sports, you learn certain moves and you practice them, but in the game you do them instinctively."  (entry 37)

In regard to the latter quote, I thank my colleague Stephen Tompkins for the useful notion of "rhetorical muscle memory"!

I do still value spontaneity, though, and I offer the "Talk Radio" discussion space as free space and encourage the students to let loose there in a way that also fosters community.

Intellectual v. Practical

The course had 7 2-week units.  I spent one week on a literary text, and the second week -- what I called the "meta" week -- I used their work on the discussion board and their survey responses as texts, focusing on how to work well in that space.  As early as unit 2 (entry 8), I wrote that "I felt odd spending a week on this meta level.  But I have made a commitment to cutting time out of the normal coverage of content to spend on what I think is important for their learning."

Later a student made what I took to be a piercing comment about this decision of mine (entry 17):

"A student made an interesting point in 'Talk Radio' that Lehigh was too oriented to the 'practical' and that he took this course to escape that.  He was kind of bitchy, and I took it that he was saying that he hadn’t really escaped the practical here.  Made me realize that my pitch toward improving discussion skills has been aimed (or at least it sounds that way to them) to the 'practical' – to business, to career, to getting ahead."
Here, I take it, is the legitimate danger to watch out for.  That the course will be using great American literary works as a tool to teach the skill of discussion instead of using discussion as a tool to interpret great American literary works.  Now, I recognize the danger, though I honestly don't think it valid for this course.  I can understand the comment, though, since the VKP project caused me to foreground discussion so much that I'll bet it sounded as if mastering that skill was the primary goal of the course.

I think this 2-part split was serviceable for the purposes of gathering info for the project, but I was not especially happy with it and have not used it since.  The optimal situation will be when using the discussion board heavily as a central part of the course is transparent, when it is simply accepted as the way things are done.

Presence v. Absence

This course marked a big change in my own involvement with the discussion board.  Previously, I was very visible on the board for reasons I outlined (entry 19), but in this course (and since then) I tend toward a low profile.  I have moved to the goal of trying to teach the principles of discussion board writing but leaving the space mostly to students.  Instead of appearing on the board in a teacherly way, I used the separate meta-week here and, since then in other courses, periodic reviews of class discussion board work as my main interventions.  I have moved toward the goal of student independence on the discussion board but with my oversight and training.  For instance, I will take a class or part of a class, or, if i'm online, do a recording, in which I will group some posts and discuss strengths and weaknesses -- a modeling exercise I call "game films."

This change has not been without cost.  I really enjoy the discussion board.  I really enjoy the splash of ideas.  I get a charge out of the "new message" message.  I was a rabid poster.  I saw the discussion board as a leveling space.  I like being one of the guys.  But at the present time my thinking is that my time is better spent in the long run as teacher rather than participator.

Teaching v. Learning

I can't resist one more reflection.   On teaching v. learning.  This has been one of the "in" subjects the last few years.  Lots of pious pronouncements that we should be more interested in student learning than our teaching.  I don't think I ever really understood the distinction till seriously into this project.  Teaching is fun.  I get to talk about the stuff I love.  And basically walk away.  But the deeper you get involved in student learning, the tougher it is.  Real work.  Pick and shovel work.  There is no glamour in discussion board work, not even the satisfaction of saying, as one can sometimes say about student essays, that the award-winning “best post of the year” was done in my class!  No, there is only hard, time-consuming, often boring, and, at reward time, invisible work of tangling and untangling the half-formed ideas of novice learners.  But I think discussion boards are the most undervalued of the new technologies.  On the discussion board I'm working with naked embryonic thinking all the time.  And whining about my "sacrifice" finally surfaced (entry 34): "I feel more than ever the burden of making sure everybody gets to a high level.  The more I see in detail what they are writing and thinking about, the more I feel responsible for their learning."

And then there's the practical stuff

And then there's me at the end of the course thinking of exercises and assignments I could implement or experiment with in the future: entries 43-46.

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@2006 Ed Gallagher, Professor of English, Lehigh Lab Fellow. Lehigh University.
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