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Now an example of a 4-step interaction in which we can see the two students talking meaningfully to each other all the way, moving the discussion forward.

Step 1 -- The Serve

Student J: Crackers or Shackles: which is nobler?   In reading the opening half of the novel I found myself drawn to Linda's grandmother.  When dealing with such bleak subject matter we look to some ray of light or mountain of hope to pull us from the depressing depths of reality.  At first glance, I saw the grandmother as this guiding light.  She appears to be such a strong woman as she sticks to her morals and works herself to the bone for the good of her children and grandchildren.  I felt that this is a woman who could stand tall in the face of slavery.  But really, when it comes down to it, she is still only a slave.  However hard she tries to buy the freedom of her children she is constantly stuck with failure.  When we place the grandmother in contrast with her son Benjamin I no longer know whom is meant to be the stronger.  Benjamin, lying in jail, is not afraid to challenge the authority of God while his mother remains submissive to his will.  It is Benjamin who says, "No, I did not think of God. When a man is hunted like a wild beast he forgets there is a God, a heaven," (36).  In some ways I agree with him, how could he look to a God who allowed him to be placed in this position in the first place.  This section shows Benjamin as the stronger of the two as he is even willing to challenge God in his fight for freedom.  Are we meant to see Benjamin as being strong for his defiant nature?  Or is the grandmother a more powerful for fighting a silent battle, never compromising her values?  Anything else to add?  Love to hear feedback.

My reflection on J's serve:

J serves with the eye of analysis.  Let's look at the characterization of Linda's grandmother and uncle in relation to who represents the best reaction to the reality of slavery, he says.  J's serve -- as most of his work throughout the course -- is economically and skillfully done.  He crisply delineates each character in a few sentences.  Then, at the end, he poses the clear questions he wants his group to address, questions that he gives some poignancy to because they relate to his own problem of interpretation.  In a sense his strategy is to ask his group for help answering a personal question, but one that obviously relates to a core dimension of the book and of slavery itself and probably implicitly arises for any sensitive reader.  I'd say that this is a model serve.

Step 2 -- The Return

Student O:  The grandmother is definitely an interesting figure in the novel.  To me, she seems like a slave who gains her freedom but is never truly free due to the struggles of her children and grandchildren.  Her morality is her source of strength, and she tries to instill that into her children, but I think that also goes to show what the author seems to be saying with the idea that keeping morality as a slave is a losing battle.  As you brought up, I think we are supposed to see Benjamin's strength in his defiant nature.  These two characters really contrast one another in showing two distinct ways in which the oppression of slavery could be dealt with.  The grandmother seems to be of the opinion that it's God's will and what happens must have a reason, but Benjamin, as you say, "challenges God in his fight for freedom," and he takes specific action toward that freedom.  So, I guess what I'm saying is that I don't see one character as stronger than the other, but rather I see them as contrasting the ways in which slaves could deal with slavery.  Benjamin's struggle against slavery is more of a physical one while the grandmother's is more spiritual and mental.  Then maybe we could also bring Linda into this and say that her struggle is a combination of the mental and the physical.

My reflection on O's return:

O's return is as taut and skillful as J's.  Her return begins as and stays largely agreement.  She repeats J's ideas, enhancing the characterization of the mother a bit with her own words.  Her specific contribution to the developing conversation is to answer J's question by seeing the attitudes of the two characters as contrasting not competing and especially by providing useful, shorthand labels for those attitudes to facilitate discussion.  That said, however, the real spur to further discussion is her climactic leap to the way Linda combines both attitudes.  All of a sudden J's opening issue, interesting as it is, but focused in secondary characters, is transferred to the main character.  In effect, O condenses J's ideas for better mobility and invites him to apply them in a more meaningful context.  That's a nice move on O's part.  There is something specific for J to do at the next step.

Step 3 -- Fielding the Return

Student J:  I really enjoy your idea of Linda encompassing a "combination of the mental and the physical" aspects of how one can react to slavery.  Mentally she tries to maintain her purity and uphold the teachings of her grandmother.  Physically, this is kinda obvious but, she runs away.  I think if I were put in this situation I would react more like Benjamin.  I doubt the mental/spiritual side would even enter my train of thought.  My feeling is that living as a slave isnt living at all.  So, I would rather die fighting for my freedom than live in shackles.  How could I look to a greater power if 1) That power allowed me to suffer these injustices and 2) this is the religion we would have learned from our captors.  How do you think you would have reacted in this situation?  I know this is a tough question but maybe you could liken yourself to one of the characters.  Give it a shot.

My reflection on J's fielding:

J accepts O's invitation and fills in just enough details about Linda's situation to show that what O suggested is true.  But then J does what I did not expect.  I thought the natural thing to do would be to go on to explore what it means for Linda, for the story, for our reactions and interpretations that Linda has this dual struggle with her servitude.  But, no, J, suddenly (for me anyway) takes an internalizing turn, identifying with the Benjamin/physical track.  Now I can see from his serve that that's where J was leaning, and I wonder if his aim is to get O to rethink the contrasting view she promoted in her return and not only accept the competitive one but one side -- his side -- in the competition.  For look at what he does at the end.  He challenges O to internalize.  What better way to make her make a value judgment?  Now that's pretty sharp!  And once again we see one poster giving the other a specific task to do in the following post.  That's worthy to note as a general strategy to keep the conversation going.  Well done interaction through these first three steps.

Step 4 -- The Volley

Student O:  That is a tough question to answer and a hard situation to put myself in, but I think I would have to say that I would probably react more like Linda did...meaning with a combination of the mental/spiritual and physical reaction.  Maybe it's just a male/female difference in how people react to situations, though.  It seems to me like men are more likely to try to solve problems physically while females would mentally try to solve problems first.  That's probably a big generalization though, so I'm sure people could argue with that.  It would be interesting to see whether most guys feel like they would react like Benjamin and most girls like Linda.

My reflection on O's volley:

Ha!  O took the challenge.  I was a bit hesitant about whether she would.  I wouldn't say she was a timid student, but she was quite reserved in class, and something in the formal, objective way she wrote suggested to me that internalizing was not her preferred mode.  But she goes right at it, and then makes a surprising move of her own by turning J's whole question into the gender sphere. This move really struck J.  In his survey comments he remarks that O "brought the discussion out of the context of the novel and used it as a tool for discussing the differences of men and women.  When I read the novel I had no idea that an argument like that could be generated from the text."  One gets the sense that these two students were thoroughly engaged with each other's posts through all four steps, that thinking did progress over the course of the four steps, and that, in fact, the conversation could easily and beneficially gone on.  Nice work here.