Implications for teacherless writing communities

According to Burke (1966), "there are two kinds of terms: terms that put things together, and terms that take things apart" (p. 49). These terms, respectively, help individuals identify with one another or disassociate from one another. I would argue that, in the case of this forum community's argument on grammar, the term 'professor' only served to take the community apart by separating it into two factions. Meanwhile, mens_rea's approach was slightly less divisive as it brought the community together in an effort to expel a single 'outsider.' Arguably, it is often harder to put things together than to take them apart; perhaps a community is no different. The failure of the metaphor suggests that this group accepts collective authority in moderating peer contributions. They could refer to a moderator for authentication, but they don't because the community itself makes rules about acceptable language.

As with any discourse community, individuals must use the appropriate social language, or speak and act the right way, in order to be recognized as a member (Gee, 2011). Had traversman approached the conversation using more eloquent language, he could have been admitted to the community. Instead, he created an opportunity for the community to negotiate text-speak use in their forums. As a result, traversman was unable to merge into the community, and the thread exists as a warning beacon to others who might egregiously misuse language. In the classroom, merging into an already established peer group is not entirely uncommon as late-registration does occur, but when a group member composes her first group contribution in the same fashion as traversman, her peers do not begin the process of scapegoating and ejection. Instead, they consult with me, their teacher, regarding what they think I should do about it.

Fighting over how to interpret and apply social rules, according to Gee, is a perfectly normal activity. All discourse communities implicitly engage in this activity, and it does not require an overseer of some kind to legitimize it. Elbow's teacherless classroom demonstrates the kind of peer-fueled writing response in action that further justifies why writing itself is so important to some communities, particularly those that rely on writing as their communication tool. It was traversman's mistake to underestimate the importance of quality writing in members' contributions, but this is Drusus's mistake, too, as he assumes the classroom metaphor will turn the grammarians away from their argument. In an actual classroom setting, students do identify and complain about grammar errors, but they are far less likely to malign a peer for the offense since that is viewed to be the teacher's role in the community. While I do not wish to have students ritualistically expelled from their group assignments, I would like to see more confidence and enthusiasm among writers as they respond to each other's work. The Computer and Video Games forum community's rhetorical approaches to grammar argument indicate that student writers not only value strong examples of writing but that they are capable of employing various rhetorical techniques to carefully codify social rules while maintaining a relatively peaceful balance amongst the community.

This study of one online community's response to errors in language could have many implications for the ways in which online student peer groups are handled. As they are both online communities that share virtual spaces, common goals, and the need to communicate knowledge, The Computer and Video Games forum community's efforts to control and restrict language reveals many insights about how a virtual community of students could, or should, be interacting in distance courses. It demonstrates the importance of community and community-constructed rules, which emphasize participant control over group discourse (as opposed to teacher control). In this way, it may be necessary for teachers of distance courses to loosely define rules for contributions in order to encourage groups to construct their own rules, which may vary from group to group.

Establishing the importance of virtual community development early in the semester is key to allowing students to begin working toward that goal with each assignment (Brown, 2001), and providing off-topic discussion threads for students may enable them to get to know one another outside of the class related discourse rather than producing the serial monologues required of reading response prompts (Garrison, 2007). Instructors, too, must learn to accept their role as a facilitator rather than a dominator in online exchanges, and begin to consider their own contributions as a model for discourse that will fade over time as the community becomes increasingly self-sufficient (Garrison, 2007). Literature on instructor facilitation of discussion board threads produced a classification system of four major responsibilities: Scene setting, participation monitoring, critical thinking facilitation, and student collaboration promotion (Waltonen-Moore, Stuart, Newton, Oswald, & Varonis, 2008). This suggests that, like any other asynchronous online community, there should be no single person responsible for enforcing rules and controlling discourse, and that the more an educator steps back from those responsibilities the more the members of the community will step up.

The study also suggests that such groups resist hierarchical distinctions within a group of equals. In other words, the failure of the 'professor' metaphor may indicate that groups prefer the equality of peer interaction rather than assigning a group leader to make their decisions for them, further confirming that distance educators need to take on the role of moderator rather than dominator. This information could be valuable to understanding how best to manage and facilitate group writing and revising at a distance using methods that encourage students to participate in writing rule-enforcement because they value quality contributions and not merely because they are assigned to do so.

More importantly, the analysis indicates that students are already participating in the kind of teacherless classroom environments that reinforce intellectual standards without a teacher. If students are already equipped to participate in such knowledge-making activities without teacher validation, then we need only cultivate the type of environment that encourages students to view teachers as collaborators rather than overseers. I hope to use this analysis of one community's methods for approaching error response and rule-construction and enforcement to develop more effective guidelines for group interaction in my distance classes.