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Title of case study: Responding online: a ‘starter’ activity for e-discussion boards

Name: Pam Knights, pam.knights@durham.ac.uk

University: Durham University

Key Concepts/Threshold Concepts: student voices, children’s literature. Other:critical thinking, confidence-building, alternative approaches to reading and understanding texts, VLE, e-discussion board.

Background: BA Literary Studies Modules
I have used this quick and straightforward ‘freeze-frame’ approach with all levels (from Level 1 to Masters); my contexts were in modules with a literature focus--but it is easily transferable to non-literature texts/modules/students. Students within my own groups came from a range of disciplines, encompassing both single honours English Literature students and those (e.g. Politics, Natural Science students) for whom this was their only literature module. This case study draws its examples from work on a Children’s Fiction elective module.

Aims: Outside the classroom, worthwhile discussions often feature any or all of the following: incomplete thoughts; advancing, testing, revising, and often retracting, ideas; speculating about possibilities; guessing at motives; snatching at clues; puzzling over random details; expressing doubts, questions, or anxieties (see Benton and Fox for more). Inside the Higher Education seminar, however, teachers often come up against students’ perceptions that contributions should be firmly thought-out, evidence-based statements or opinions, expressed in polished academic prose. The formal essay, in the passive voice, is one model which casts its shadow here; the ghost of the formal debate, or public-speaking performance is also sometimes a chilling presence. Such modes project the role of the speaker as a virtuoso rhetorician—an unhelpful and intimidating model for everyday practice. Further, when encountering texts, students often believe that they need to have grasped and understood the whole before they can venture a contribution. As teachers, we sometimes give mixed messages. (Where oral contributions are also assessed, such contradictions can loom even larger.) From our students’ point-of-view--what are we asking for? Lively, spontaneous, exploratory discussion? Or careful, considered, well-wrought arguments? This case-study seeks to stimulate the first, but suggests that it can often lead effectively to the second.

What I am trying to achieve
As often in a seminar, I am trying to build students’ confidence and to free up responses. In encouraging a group to interact more informally with a text as it unfolds, rather than to try ‘to master’ it as a whole, the activity presents a different model of reading and understanding—one of process, rather than product. This paradigm goes back as far as Louise Rosenblatt’s discussions of textual interaction, from the late 1930s on, and had its high point in late 1960s-early 1980s reader-oriented theories. Such theories were eclipsed by the dazzle of deconstructionism, and other ‘high-status’ intellectual manoeuvres, but their influence remains central (though often unacknowledged) in current pedagogical practice. Reading-diaries or reflective learning journals, for example, emerge from this movement. My activity seeks to avoid the sense of a chore, sometimes associated with having to write an individual journal, and to provide a forum which offers everyone instant, informal, ‘snap-shots’ of their peers’ reading experiences.

Image 1: Screenshot of branching discussion threads.


[Transcript: ‘Unputdownable! > Re: Unputdownable!> Re: Unputdownable!/Pain as ‘Gods Will’ / stress > Re: stress.’]

Approach taken to development of academic literacy

This case study relates to academic literacy in the following ways

Understand the expectations and requirements of the study of childhood (including the need to recognise and apply different perspectives)  
Recognise and articulate theoretical expectations, models and requirements and apply them to the study of childhood  
Develop skills in critical listening, reading and analysis of text and data, the development of argument and the communication of text, data and analysis in written and spoken form
 

Develop the capacity for intellectual enquiry and critical autonomy which enables students to form their own views and locate themselves within the range of perspectives and practices encountered in the study of childhood ?
 

Strategy

My strategy is very straightforward: simply to invite students online to our VLE discussion board, to give their quick responses to a text, as they go along. To reduce any sense of burden, I make the activity:

1. Voluntary. (Students can benefit from lurking, as well as posting.)
2. Manageable. (I limit the task to three main ‘dipping points’.)

Action:
I set up three headings for each forum, varying the details of the instructions according to the specific text. I keep instructions short, simple and jargon-free. [See sample screen-shot and transcript, Image 2.] Broadly, the first invites comments after the first few pages (or even, in a short piece, after the first paragraphs); the second at a mid-point through the text; and the third immediately after reading. The aim is to ‘capture’ first impressions, tentative predictions, questions, and hypotheses. These are the kind of observations which tend to recede from the mind after a first reading, or which students might feel are too trivial to voice in a formal seminar. It is often these fleeting responses which, once aired on the board, lead to the most interesting discussions in the group, or, later, to individual explorations in assignments.


Image 2: Screen-shot. Sample detail of forum.

[Transcript:
1. ‘Fleshmarket – Nicola Morgan-Starting off: Go in here near the beginning. What’s grabbing you? Questions/first responses’;
2. ‘Fleshmarket-Developments: Twists/surprises/further musings…?’;
3. ‘Fleshmarket – Afterwards: Now you’ve finished the book … Satisfied? Loose ends? Resolutions? What’s it left you thinking .. feeling…? What sticks in the mind?’
4. ‘Lucas – Kevin Brooks – Starting off: The opening pages . . . in directly? or slow build-up? What’s making you want to read on? Why?
5. ‘Lucas – Developments: Turning out as predicted? New twists and turns? Where is this narrative going?’]

Examples-in the context of thinking about young people’s books

My samples here come from a forum linked to our discussions about the short-list for a book award [described in related case-studies]. In some other contexts, the online postings have mainly fed back into our seminar debates. Here, they served primarily as a ‘half-way’ house in our preparations for going into a school, to discuss books with younger readers.

The board gave the students a chance to respond to the texts at their own level, and to find out what others were thinking in advance. Discussions continued informally in the students’ group, as well as within seminars; and continued later, in the talks generated by the actual response of the school pupils. Although the leading instructions here focus on the literary narrative, concentrating like this helped prepare the ground for the more wide-ranging debates in the school-based events.


Image 3: Sample screen-shot from discussion board.

[Transcript: ‘Subject: Chapter 3 – themes emerging. Although class is a clear theme and issue at this point of the text, I’m also interested whether loss of faith in God will become more significant. It is interesting to see the way in which such weighty issues are being discussed in a children’s book.’]

Themes emerging
As even a few such ‘snap-shots’ make evident, in capturing their own responses, students found themselves raising questions about childhood, hypothesising about younger readers’ responses, and framing queries about representation.

A teacher can take up points generated by students, and use quotations from the board to offer starting-points for more systematic exploration—of the issues and of students’ own responses and assumptions:

For example:

1. Perspectives on childhood/adulthood:

‘the “enjoy your childhood while it lasts” thing is a very adult perspective’

‘how grateful I am not to be a teenager any more!’

‘Anthony’s youth makes him less creepy than a 50-year old stalker I guess.’

‘I was uncomfortable with the way the father was set up as a completely evil figure. I guess I was expecting him to give in sobbing at the end or something! Does any one else feel that, or am I just an old romantic?’

‘I like Caitlin, very much. I can identify totally with her (so far), because she is exactly how I was at 14/15.’

‘Found the narrator quite an interesting character, as [X] said, different to all “typical” teenagers.’

‘I thought that the author depicted the confusion of thoughts and emotions that a teenager goes through incredibly well.’

‘Subject: Scary grown-up stuff.’

‘“I’m not a child anymore.” Couldn’t have said it any better.’

2. Younger readers’ perspectives

‘I really don’t know why they bother teaching ‘Lord of the Flies’ to GCSE classes when there are novels like this in print.’

‘I’d be really interested to know what the Year 9 pupils think of it as I couldn’t help thinking that for all its references to alchohol, drugs and sex, Lucas was slightly unrealistic and I don’t know whether this a bad thing or not. The other question it raised for me was whether it realistically would interest teenage boys.’

‘I’m a bit scared of discussing this one with the [name of school and class]!’

‘I think it is the sort of book parents should read and discuss with their children, older ones obviously, to gain a real understanding of the feelings involved on both sides.’

‘I felt almost traumatised by the intensity of the description of pain and wondered whether this would have the same effect on younger readers. I was literally squirming in my seat.’

‘It’s interesting to see how such weighty issues [class, loss of faith] are being discussed in a children’s book.’

‘it didn’t seem to patronise the reader’

‘I can see why one girl in my group at [name of school] loved this book--it’s got all the ingredients a teenager could want, from unrequited desire to adventure and mystery.’

‘I think because it was a children’s book I was looking for a definite resolution [. . . ]’

3. Cultural perspectives

‘I realise however that this book particularly spoke to me, being a second-generation asian in Britain, and therefore it probably won’t seem nearly as powerful to the kids who won’t be able to relate to it.’

‘I especially enjoyed the book as I live in Edinburgh, which really adds to the atmosphere. [. . . ] I remember, for one, learning about Edinburgh’s rather unpleasant past at school, and really finding it interesting and somewhat ‘cool’. It opened my interest to the past and how things were.’

4. Perspectives on reading, narrative and subjective response

‘The first few pages I was finding nauseatingly romantic, but it’s amazing how quickly the drama builds up [ . . . ]’

‘I have found it a really interesting opening, gripping but somehow so in a gentle way. Roll on the next hundred pages!’

‘I’m having a very odd, very mixed reaction to this book. [. . . ] I’m feeling a little mixed up. I’m angry with the stupid people Caitlin knows, upset because I want to protect Lucas, and generally very confused and emotional.’

‘The narrative is electric, it makes me want to cancel all my other commitments and lock myself in my room.’

‘Can’t seem to make up my mind about Lucas himself, it seems that Cait is keeping him at a distance from the reader.’

‘I actually found it pretty difficult to read, simply for the rawness of the beginning, it sounds weird, and this may be to do with the fact that i don’t like blood etc., but i almost felt a little faint… or ill...i can’t put my finger on it when i read about the operation. I suppose, though, this is the intended effect, and so it is highly successful.’

‘I’ve just started Chapter 5, and think that the endurance shown by the children, and their ability to survive, keeps this from being a completely upsetting book. However, I’m sure things aren’t going to stay positive for long . . .’

‘Having spent the last couple of hours powering through this book, I was left with a sense of questions unanswered.’

‘In some ways I agree with the fact that I felt “cheated” at the end of the novel’

‘I was very surprised by the ending of [X] – really did not see his death coming.’

‘I really enjoyed the goryness throughout, and the violently provocative language!’

‘It wasn’t fairytales and romance, it was cold, cruel, and dark.’

‘On a pretty unrelated note – did anyone find the mob scene reminiscent of the one in To Kill a Mockingbird?’ [led to later assigment by this student – on intertextuality].


Sample screen-shots
These screen-shots [followed by transcripts], are intended simply to give more flavour of the board, presenting some of the remarks in context:

Image 4. Screen-shot of forum.

[Transcript: ‘Oh my God. / Have just finished reading the fight scene in the lane and had to get on here before this feeling goes away. To quote the cover of the book, “It gets to you” and it’s really getting to me! / The narrative is electric, it makes me want to cancel my other commitments and lock myself in my room. Leading up to Cait’s encounter with Jamie and Lee the narrative is loaded with foreboding, sinister even. Brooks used the landscape particularly here to reflect Cait’s feelings which links her again with her environment and separates her from Jamie and the other who seem like imposters. They are reliant on artificial stimulation – fast cars, alchohol, cigarettes – whereas Cait’s strongest emotions are provoked in conjunction with the landscape. / I’ve said this before but I really don’t know why they bother teaching ‘Lord of the Flies’ to GCSE classes when there are novels like this in print. I’m surprised by its brutal honesty,references to sex and willingness to deal with issues such as drug addiction and alchoholism but I think this is what makes it such a great novel. It’s relevant to young people and it gives us all something to relate to. / Phew! I need a lie down now.’]


Image 5: Screen shot of forum. [Transcript: ‘In some ways I agree with the fact that I felt “cheated” at the end of the novel in the way that Robbie seems to forget all his anger and it seems like his anger was simply a cause of his immaturity, something he grew out of pretty quickly.
However, I do think the ending works: Robbie becomes a doctor because of what happened to his mother- he translates his anger into something more positive and in doing so grows up more – he understands that anger cant help anyone and that we must try to use it for good however cliched that may sound. He has had to act as an adult for so long and grow up quickly in having to care for Essy, but this [hasn’t] been an easy journey for him (what with drinking etc) but I think his decision to become a doctor marks the end of this journey and the beginning of his adult life: we cannot run around trying to “get someone back” for [something] they have done forever.’]


Image 6. Screen shot of forum.

[Transcript: ‘Firstly, I just want to say that I was in tears by the end… when I realised what Lucas was going to do, that was it. [/big wimp]. I agree with what you said about the definite resolution. I felt kind of disappointed at first, but the more I think about it, the more it fits with the character of Lucas. And… I can’t really explain it, it just seems to fit – Cait does have a kind of bluntness to her, [not saying that’s a bad thing, just that it’s there], and the bleakness in the ending seemed to kind of fit that. It wasn’t fairytles and romance, it was cold and cruel and dark.
“I’m not a child anymore.” Couldn’t have said it any better.
On a pretty unrelated note – did anyone find the mob scene reminiscent of the one in To Kill a Mockingbird? Actually, the same burning sense of injustice I felt reading Lucas was the same one that sticking up during Mockingbird… oh, I think too much.’]

Evaluation
• Lecturer’s view of the activity

I have found great benefits in using this technique--for example:

1. As an alternative space, the discussion board allows both interchanges between students, but also the kind of musings associated with blogs.

2. The activity takes the pressure off individuals, and, as discussion builds up, gives a group an ever-changing ‘mind-map’ of each other’s perspectives.

3. Contributions often, in turn, enable me to see interests/problems of individuals (and/or of the group) that might have remained invisible in more formal settings.

4. The task offers a different register for students. In addressing their peers, they lose self-consciousness about ‘academic literacy’; but paradoxically, the kind of details they notice, and feelings they describe, often provide firm starting-points from which to develop academic analysis.

5. The activity licenses detail. These sharply specific observations are much more vivid (and hold more potential for development) than the bland abstractions that some students might have come to believe are the proper discourse of the academic seminar.

6. The activity also has great potential for further research into learning: in some cases, it is possible to track an idea through from its first glimmer on the board, to its polished re-emergence, developed in the instigator’s final assignment.


• Students’ views of the activity

Students valued both the spontaneity of the board, and the opportunities it gave to go back and look again. I was especially pleased to find the idea of ‘capturing’ fleeting responses had been important in their experience. The small ideas that can get ‘lost’ are often those which are most interesting when scrutinised and investigated later. A number of student summative assignments gave evidence that the ‘first impressions’ had stayed in the mind, and become the nucleus of an academic paper.

Some comments:

[From MEDAL interviews:]
• ‘at the discussion boards it means that you can go to something, kind of like you forget what you’ve discussed in the seminar and it will all be there and then somebody will say something that really makes you think even if you don’t agree with it, it’ll still stimulate.’

• ‘we weren’t reading the books at the same time always [. . . .] so we agreed something and as we would go along I’d you know be on page 20 and say ‘oh that’s quite interesting’ and go around to my computer to put in the message and if someone else was reading it they might, you know, they say ‘oh yeah, I agree or I don’t agree with that at all, rubbish’.’

• ‘ . . . straightaway you can put it down. I remember reading ..... which one was it I read, one of those ..... Lucas ..... yeah, I think it was Lucas actually, when I got the end of Lucas and ..... I don’t know if you’ve read it but has quite a big impact when you do read it and ..... I just remember getting to the end of this book and it was the first one I’d read as well which made a different and thinking ‘oh … much … gosh’ and just ..... I had to tell someone about it at that moment because if I had waited an hour it would have been gone.’

• ‘[Interviewer] But you weren’t just writing reviews then. You were using it to ..... [not to write] reviews as such?

[Student] No, we weren’t ..... we weren’t really writing, we were sort of ..... it was in all fragments whenever you had an idea ..... you know, because I find a lot of the time really in [reading you] come up with things and get to the end and I think ‘oh what’s that’ you know but it was nice to be able to put [immediate] ..

[Interviewer] Right, right.

[Student] You know that kind of first impressions and I think they're quite important.’

‘[Student] . . . with Fleshmarket, after the first page nearly everybody posted something because it’s such an amazing first page that had to be commented on [. . . .]
Very, very vivid gruesome ..... gives you nightmares.

[Interviewer] So what the nature of the comments that you wanted to post then about that? Was it on children’s behalf?

[Student] Right, we had to kind of ..... no I think it was nice just to have from our own perspectives. They were just comments as they came into your head. You know, and that’s quite nice that because you come up with ..... okay, you come up with different things. You come out with more considered things when you’ve had time and you’ve [mulled] over it and you’ve thought ..... mm. But sometimes it’s not as interesting .....[. . . .] It’s just like literally the thing that struck you when you're reading them and it didn’t have to be anything particularly deep or meaningful, just how you felt ..... like oh that bit gave me nightmares.

[Interviewer] Yes [. . . ]

[Student] Yeah, it was very ..... it helped us compare the books because you'd forget exactly how you felt but you could go back and read your comments and remember and in some of my comments I was comparing them and I said ‘oh this bit is better than that and that point is better ..... ‘ so comparing them as I went on.

[From written module feedback:]

• the online discussions - an invaluable tool - I like many others,
ran to the discussion board to see what others had written following the
complexion of a text. It was more interesting to discuss the texts as and
when you had finished them rather than a couple of weeks later.

• Discussing the NEBA books online was useful as it allowed and actually
encouraged myself and others to record our thoughts on the book as we were in the process of reading it. This meant that any ideas, however trivial or insignicant they seemed at the time, could be easily recorded and discussed at any time which was of particular use when considering character or plot development as it could be traced and analysed over the course of the book. Furthermore, it allowed for greater reflection as the opinions or analysis of others in the group would elucidate details that I may not have considered.

• Reading these opinions online whilst still in the process of reading the book meant that I was often made aware of additional details and would then take them into consideration when I went back to reading the text in question. This in turn then enriched group discussions in seminars and at the school as we were aware of a variety of opinions and differing perspectives from which we could further develop our analysis.


My advice to others who might think of using this approach

• A response exercise works best where there is an element of surprise or suspense in the text. As well as fiction, you could, for example, use it to gather reactions to the unfolding argurment of a controversial article.

• Keep the exercise quick, informal and simple, or else it can become yet another burden (for you as well as for the students).

• Make sure that you emphasise the values of lurking as well as of posting. Not everyone has instant access to the internet, and so cannot ‘post’ immediately. In my introduction, I also suggest that some students might prefer an ‘observer’ role – looking at the board less frequently, but perhaps adding a comment on ‘trends’.

• Other versions could include a physical board (if, for example, you have dedicated teaching-space), with post-its; or (in a higher tech version), group texting (though this transfers the costs to the student).

References

There is a vast literature about both ‘reader-response’ theory and its applied pedagogical approaches, for active learning; and many activities long familiar to classroom teachers (in the secondary sector, especially) are now being enthusiastically revived. The following, founding studies, continue to strike me as particularly helpful:

Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration (Washington, 1938), rpt. London: Heinemann, 1970; and The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. [Two inspirational classics by a pioneer teacher and critic.]

Michael Benton and Geoff Fox, Teaching Literature: Nine to Fourteen, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985. Translates 1970s-80s reader-response theories into stimulating ideas for classroom-based approaches. The title is misleading. Lots here for Eighteen to Eighty as well.

For discussion of this kind of activity in an American Literature tutorial context, see:
Pamela Knights, ‘Freeze-frame Exercise: Examples of tutorial group 'reading-responses' to The Sound and the Fury, in Knights, P., Report on the duologue project, English Subject Centre: 2004 <http://www.english.heacademy.ac.uk/duologue/uses/sndandfpg.htm>


Feedback:

I would welcome feedback from other lecturers who have used, or would like to use, a similar approach. Examples of brief instructions and/or texts which have generated lively shifts and turns of response would be particularly interesting; as would examples of ‘discussion board’ details, which have then formed the germ of a student essay.

Knights, P. ‘Responding Online: a ‘starter’ activity for e-discussion boards’ in the MEDAL Casebook, MEDAL Consortium (2006).
http://medal.unn.ac.uk/casestudies/responding_online.htm

I've tried this out and would like to offer feedback.

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