blackboard discussion used to avoid conflict

My friend Sarah sent me this link to Bedford St. Martin’s LORE: An E-Journal for Teachers of Writing. The article’s author starts:

Classroom discussion tends to drift off–topic no matter how much the instructor tries to control the conversation. Usually such discussions will not create divisions between instructors and students, but they can pit students against one another. Ideas will clash, and most students are not willing to back down and examine the logic of how an argument is structured, especially if, in their first–year writing course, they have not studied argument from a rhetorical perspective. Most first–year students do not have the skills that will enable them to develop or respond to polished, refined arguments. Instead, when controversial issues are addressed, discussion typically turns into a personal debate and confrontation over “this is my point, and I won’t listen to yours because you are wrong.“ An instructor must be aware that in some discussions, students will launch personal attacks on one another and attempt to denigrate opinions that differ from their own. This kind of exchange can be counterproductive, especially if the instructor hopes to help students learn how to develop formal arguments.

One way that instructors can ensure that discussion does not devolve into angry exchanges is to take advantage of the course management tool called Blackboard.

In Sarah’s email to me, she asks (and I quote here without her permission):

I understand the benefits of students *writing* thier responses down so as to avoid insulting each other with blanket statements and knee-jerk reactions, but I am also skeptical because, doesn’t this also teach them to *avoid* the productive type of conflit in the classroom? Should a better solution to the problem be for the teacher to call students on thier stereotypes rather than sweeping it into cyber space so they don’t have to face conflict directly?

I write this here because I think it’s pretty interesting. Here’s what I wrote back to Sarah:

Thanks for sending this to me. I did find it interesting, and I especially found it fascinating that the teacher seems hesitant to deal with passionate responses in class that might offend other students or him. It seems that he was afraid to say deal with conflict not just of ideas, but conflict of listening, space, and respect. Yeah, students will have strong opinions about topics like the Iraqi War and feminism, and so some students will want to say, in his words, “this is my point, and I won’t listen to yours because you are wrong.” But if that’s his sole purpose of moving the discussion to blackboard, then it seems like it’s a fear of facilitating a conversation that is bound to have ruptures (an understandable fear).

Rather than say, here’s a problem (students in conflict) and here’s a solution to bandaid it (blackboard), I’d rather say, how can be facilitate conversations in our classrooms? How can we increase respect among students? How can we hold conversations where we respect each other and respond compassionately? Using Blackboard doesn’t increase compassion, doesn’t increase listening abilities unless it is explicitly taught, just like it should be in the classroom.

This is not to say I don’t think BB or online discussions are bad – I just think they shouldn’t be bandaids for not dealing with conflict.

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One Response to blackboard discussion used to avoid conflict

  1. Sara Jameson says:

    I’m glad to see this discussion, as it relates to our topic of blogging and (versus?) discussion board on Blackboard. So far my students have been very polite online and in fact rather distant and disengaged from each other, as if they did not even want to create a community of learners and as if their conversation and cooperation were kept to the barest minimum to get their grade.

    BTW, I sent that link to Sarah and Brad as thoughts for the GTA practicum.

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