Chatting to Learn and to Teach

(rev. August 4, 2006)

Some of my written assignments are traditional written exercises in the essay format you have become familiar with from grade school. Others are in formats many of you are also familiar with since grade school, but which seem to belong outside the classroom. One of these is the on-line chat. The chat is the domain of stream-of-consciousness thinking, unargued assertions, uncapitalized words, unpunctuated sentences, and misspellings galore. It is a relativist's paradise. Can it be redeemed and put to fruitful use? Following these rules can help you discover the answer.

Prepare before you chat.

Some of your projects ask you to analyze one event or topic of your choosing — say, a current event or one of several heresies I have described in class. You should make your choice before you start the chat. It wastes your time and mine to develop a chat log where pages 1 and 2 basically come down to

B: Hi everybody!

C: Hi!

B: That's a cool screen name, C.

C: Thanks! I've been using it since junior high. Should I get a new one?

B: No, I like it.

A: So what should we write about?

B: How about this?

C: What was the assignment again?

B: We're supposed to pick a heresy and analyze it.

C: Okay.

A: How about that?

B: Okay, let's talk about that.

C: Okay.

B: Great!

A: So....

Ugh. Reading this is like listening to the cast of Friends trying to figure out where to go out for dinner on Friday night.

Another flaw in the decide-at-the-last-minute approach is that the chatters have not had time to think about that particular topic and review the readings. So the early middle of these chats tends to run something like this:

B: What was that heresy again?

C: I don't remember.

A: I think it had something to do with Jesus not being divine.

B: Oh yeah! He was like an angel or something.

C: Yeah, it was something like that.

A: Let me look it up.

C: Thanks. Do you remember which lecture it was in?

A: Yes, the one about Christological heresies.

C: Oh yeah. Duh.

A: Here it is. The lecture notes say this.

B: I remember now. Thanks!

C: So anyway....

This is not a sign of a high-level discussion. It is a sign of unprepared, unserious, disorganized thinking. You can do so much better just by preparing a little beforehand!

1. Everyone in the group should read the question before their first meeting. Read it thoroughly, several times, until everyone understands it.

2. The group should meet at least a day before the chat, even very briefly, to make sure everyone understands the question and to settle whatever questions need addressing beforehand (such as which heresy to discuss in the above example), and set a time for having the chat.

3. With that background, each group member should go back and spend at least an hour reviewing the lectures and readings for pertinent material for the chat. This will help everyone be better informed. It will also allow people to look up information rapidly during the chat.

This kind of preparation can really make a chat better, faster, and shorter. And don't we all want that?

Try to chat in the same place if possible.

Students have reported that things run much more smoothly if all the chatters are in the same physical room. That way, if someone needs to look something up, or if someone has a long answer, he or she can signal the others. (Of course, all your substantive comments have to be in writing so your chat log records your actual conversation.)

If two or more of the chatters only have access to desktop machines, then you all may want to go to a computer lab.

Allow the right amount of time.

My hope is that you will find chats at least as efficient as short papers in helping you assimilate the course material. If the whole process of researching and writing a written exercise would take you three or four hours, then the whole process of researching and writing a chat should take no longer than that. If your chats are taking hours and hours, then you are probably not preparing well enough.

Make sure you budget enough time on the day of your chat to get through the whole question without having to cut off the discussion.

E-mail only as a last resort.

Sometimes a group will not find a common time to meet and chat. You might be forced to use e-mail as a fallback technique. I will accept a lot of group e-mails, but I don't think e-mailing works as well as chatting for these assignments. Because it is "asynchronous" rather than "synchronous" conversation, group e-mail limits the amount of interactivity and thus the social character of the project. E-mail "chats" tend to look like several sets of papers cut into pieces and pasted together topically. They are better than nothing, but they aren't really what I'm looking for. They also tend to take a lot longer, because there is much more waiting involved.

Technical difficulties may also keep chats from working. You may have to fall back on e-mail in this case too, but I recommend an alternative strategy: Don't wait until the last minute so that a network outage would leave you helpless.

Use (and cite) the sources.

In assigning chats, I am asking you to adopt an intuitively casual and informal medium for a structured, formal, information-rich conversation. The conventions of chatting can easily get in your way if you aren't careful. Think of it this way: Would you interrupt a dinner conversation in the DC about some theological topic to go get a book out of your backpack, look up a reference, name the page number, and quote it at the table?

We would. But we're college faculty. We're freaks, right?

Actually, we're just doing what we've been trained to do. You see, the shape of a conversation has a lot to do with the kind of conversation it is and the people having it. My lunchtime chats with students in the DC usually end with me giving them bibliographies (often scrawled on a napkin). Why? Because that's the nature of our relationship. I don't give reading suggestions to my wife Kim or to my kids, because our relationships aren't like that. (Also they wouldn't stand for it.)

Most chats are superficial. Of course these don't involve citing source materials! Most of the non-superficial chatting that goes on just involves 'sharing' your personal existential experiences. You don't need to look those up in a book either. Nor do you structure these conversations with linear reasoning or formal agendas.

These chats must be different. They are more like business meetings than lunchtime conversations. There is an agenda to follow, information to pull together, and a list of questions to answer. That calls for learning different customs than the ones you usually use on-line. It means taking the customs you have been using to write papers and applying them to a different genre. Get used to this, because you will be using it for the rest of your life. It won't be long before it actually feels rather natural to look something up, paraphrase or quote it, and include a formal page reference in an e-mail, a chat, or even a conversation at the dinner table.

Naturally, when you draw on a source, you need to cite it. Other materials here and here on my website offer more information on how to cite sources properly.

Pick a leader.

Group activities work best when someone acts as a leader. I want every member in your group to take a turn leading a chat. Please indicate in your log who is leading.

The leader is responsible for shepherding the whole group through each part of the question, making sure it is answered, fostering (but not imposing) clarity, and getting the conversation going again when it bogs down so that the project is done in a reasonable time.

The nature of these assignments is not such that the leader will necessarily be able to achieve consensus on an answer. That is fine. Chats are conversations, not resolutions. Nevertheless, if consensus emerges, a good leader can sense it and help the group see it.

The leader can also be responsible for saving and printing out the chat log and handing it in on the due date.

Use the assignment as your agenda.

Consider the assignment (what some of you call 'the prompt', though those are not the same thing) a working agenda for your chat. Either move your chat topics sequentially through the elements of the assignment, or if your leader thinks some other sequence will work better, put together an agenda that will address all the elements of the assignment and work through that. Get right to each point. When you've worked together to formulate a whole answer to that point, the leader can move the group to the next one.

Get good at following and leading this way, and someday your 'professional' skills will stun those around you.

Begin with an (exceedingly brief) introduction.

The leader can start off the chat by introducing the specific topic for your chat. This will help everyone go in the right direction, stay focused, and avoid tangents. It will also help me as the reader. With our length constraints you should keep it to two or three sentences maximum.

Have a real conversation.

A chat like this is not supposed to be forced. It is supposed to be a conversation freely structured by the issues and informed by the sources.

Don't just take turns typing out something you have already prepared without listening and responding to one another.

Don't just 'contribute' points so that I will notice that you did the reading or had a clever insight without really offering them to one another.

Don't be afraid to ask genuine questions that the others in your group can genuinely answer.

Have a conversation. Be a group, a team, a fellowship. Learn from one another. Teach one another. Correct each other without apologizing and without embarrassing. Spur each other on to better and deeper thinking. Enjoy the give and take. Help put something together no one of you alone could have achieved.

Write well.

Style is where the conventions of on-line chatting are really working against us. I want to see the same good writing in chats that I want to see in your other formal written assignments. That means that everyone writes with

correct spelling and capitalization,
proper commas,
proper apostrophes,
complete, straightforward sentences (no sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and so on),
noun/pronoun/verb agreement, and
consistent verb tenses.

If this slows down your typing, so be it. Get used to writing properly when you type and soon you will be typing more properly and more quickly.

Use on-line writing conventions appropriately.

If your responses are longer than your chat program's maximum line length, then I suggest you do what good writers on-line often do: end incomplete thoughts with ellipses so the others in your group know you aren't finished yet. For instance, this is one paragraph spread over four entries:

A: Newbigin's argument in chapter 1 helps answer your question....

A: He says that modernity has arisen out of the Christian way, challenged it, and begun to eclipse it so successfully that today it supplies the 'plausibility structures' even of Christians (8-9)....

A: While it claims to offer freedom of conscience, in fact it coerces the acceptance of the things it calls 'facts' (through mandatory education, for instance) ...

A: and discourages universal claims about the things it calls 'values' or 'opinions' (by condemning as 'oppressive' or 'judgmental' the commending of one's values to others) (14-16).

Just as you are free to use spoken rather than standard written English at the dinner table, you are free to use Internet conventions such as emoticons ;) and jargon (ROTFL) in these chats. However, you need to use your judgment so these add to rather than take away from the quality of your reasoning and your conversation. I would be delighted to see your group achieve a genuine fusion of on-line style, intellectual rigor, and academic responsibility ... like a group of professors having a natural (well, natural to us) lunchtime conversation.

Clean up, but don't cover up.

It is okay to edit your chat logs lightly to remove

resolutions of technical problems, and
utter tangents.

For instance, I don't need you to include fascinating material like this:

(B has left the room.)

A: Where did B go?

C: B? Are you there?

(B has entered the room.)

B: Hey. Sorry, my computer dropped the connection.

Or this:

C: Guys, I have a section meeting in 3 minutes.

B: Okay, let's break until 10:00.

C: Thanks!

A: You're welcome! See you then!

B: Bye everybody!

C: Bye!

(B has left the room.)

(C has left the room.)

(A has left the room.)

(C has entered the room.)

C: I'm back from my meeting ... hello?

It is courtesy, not academic dishonesty, to leave all that out.

Go ahead and leave in automatic timestamps. Editing each line to remove them is time-consuming and doesn't really make reading the log any easier. I actually find them helpful as a reader to gauge the flow of the conversation.

On the other hand, it would be deceptive to go back and change answers, remove embarrassing mistakes, insert later observations, and the like so that the log no longer documents the actual conversation that took place. Since these are chat logs, what you turn in has to represent what actually took place. If it does not, then the submission is academically dishonest and is subject to the penalties I specify elsewhere for academic dishonesty.

Print out your saved log and hand one in for the whole group.

I will keep the copy you submit in my office, go through it with you during in-class appointments, and award a grade (in your presence if possible) either to the whole group if the quality seems consistent across the group, or individual grades to each participant if the quality varies.