The Metaphor

In addition to a mantra, I felt I needed a metaphor for the relatively new practice of discussion board writing

  • because our culture almost exclusively values, practices, and rewards closure and competition and winning, precisely what should be suspended in discussion,
  • and because I needed familiar and useful terminology for teaching its parts.

I wanted to dramatize the nature of discussion in a way that would make students acutely conscious of an activity that few have practiced much in any depth and which even those few probably consider spontaneous.

In short, I wanted students to have an image of what they should be doing on the discussion board.  I wanted them to be able to answer the question "what is writing on the discussion board like?" with a fairly easy-to-understand metaphor appropriate to the way I envision it.

I have floated three such metaphors, settling on the third for now, but describe them all here to encourage further thinking along this line.

Try it yourself.  Fill in the blank: "Writing on the discussion board is like ____________."


"The art of lovers is to prolong the pleasure," says the Kama Sutra, which I transmuted into the mantra of "the art of writing on the discussion board is prolonging the conversation."  But could love-making be the metaphor as well?

I asked students to think, at least for its dramatic shock value, of discussion board activity as in some sense their ideal love-making -- not hooking up or scoring -- that is, love-making with their true love, the person they can't live without, the person with whom they want time to stop, the person with whom they try to prolong the pleasure in a relationship characterized by equality, in which each partner has an active concern for the other's excitement and satisfaction.

This metaphor gets attention, and, in fact, we had a lot of fun with it, but there is a stark truth there.  I want students to love discussion.  I want students to love being on the discussion board.  I want students to cultivate the pleasure of sustained intellectual conversation with other members of the community.

But it's clear that one can't make this "the" metaphor.


"Pepper" is a baseball warm-up exercise in which the batter hits brisk ground balls and line drives to fielders at close range, say 20 feet, and the fielders throw the ball back so the batter can hit it again in a fast-moving cycle of hit, field, throw, hit, field, throw.   Batter and fielder work together preparing the fielder for the game.

When my sons were Little League age, we used to play pepper for hours in our backyard.  My job was to give them a rapid-fire variety of balls to catch -- up, down, right, left, right at them, grounders, pops, line drives.  Their job was to field the ball and throw it back quickly and accurately enough so I could hit it.  We made more of a game of it by counting the successful chances, seeing how far they could go without an error in fielding or throwing.  The backyard would ring with the chant of "one, two, three . . . seventeen, eighteen . . .  ninety-nine, one hundred . . . ."  They found pepper inexhaustibly pleasureable and to this day remark on how much it improved their skills at the same time.

Pepper is a good metaphor in many ways for discussion board activity, except that the value is only for one of the participants, the fielder, and except that, frankly, women students couldn't really seem to identify with it as most of the men students could.  Most women did not have an image of "pepper."

Strike two.


Currently I'm experimenting with the analogy of a non-competitive game of racquetball (tennis works too) in which the object is not to win but to keep the ball in play, "stretching" each player in the process through a variety of shots.

It works this way.  My racquetball partner and I found it was both more exercise and more fun to try to keep the ball in play rather than to beat each other and end the game.  We move up to the server's box, say 15-18 feet from the front wall, and hit the ball back and forth with the object of working together to keep the ball in motion as long as we can.  We don't usually keep score, or if we do, it's the number of successful hits just like the pepper game.  The nature of the game changes from competition to cooperation, the people engaged are partners not opponents.

For instance, the purpose of the serve is to get the sequence started by enabling your partner to return it rather than to end the sequence by making it impossible to return.  But the idea in this non-competitive (the fact that our language does not have a "positive" word that fits precisely here is revealing) game is not at all to make all shots easy to hit, nor, since we live in a fallen world where our racquetball skills leave a lot to be desired, is it even possible.  The idea is to create interesting, exciting interchanges for each other.

This metaphor enables me to ask students to envision a sequence of discussion board posts as "serving, "returning" a serve, "fielding" a return - and to be conscious of the appropriate strategies for each shot – and to envision the goal of posting as a more-or-less-long "volley" involving multiple interchanges.

In fact, this metaphor enables me to adopt a vocabulary to designate each post in a sequence for specific reference for teaching, conferencing, and grading purposes:

  1. the serve
  2. the return
  3. fielding the return
  4. volley 1
  5. volley 2
  6. etc.
Thus, for instance, I am able to lecture to a class on the strategies of serving, or to show a student how a pattern of poor returns was impairing successful conversation in his group, or to ask a group to brainstorm how to keep conversation from going dry at the distant volley 2 stage.

I have had reasonable success with this metaphor.  Even students who don't play racquetball (or tennis) seem to have an image of what it is, and they fairly readily pick up the vocabulary -- talking themselves about how they "served" or how they "fielded" somebody's "return."  I actually hope to have a video clip of my partner and I playing this non-competitive racquetball game (we have started to call it "discussion ball") to show in class to give even more of a feel for one way of thinking about what discussion board activity should be like.

But when does the "game" end, the students ask -- not with a victory and a loss, but when time runs out ("aww, the pair with the 3 o'clock court time are here"), when duty calls ("I gotta go to class"),  when the body gives out ("my ankle's killin' me"), or when the "climax" occurs ("wow, we can't do it any better than that today!"). 

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