Published: June 1, 2013

My pedagogical goal is to get students comfortable doing disagreement as a means of critical thinking and exploring an issue. Getting students to disagree does not require technology. But I do think that technology might be used to minimize some of the face threats students experience while also creating unfamiliar contexts for interaction that get students to do disagreement--sustain disagreement--without drawing on their existing social norms because technology creates a context that seems just new and different enough.

Teaching in a RAP (residential academic program), comes with multiple benefits: small classes, co-curricular programing, and engaged faculty working together in an interdisciplinary environment. Yet teaching first-year students also poses challenges that are sometimes multiplied by RAP context. In a RAP, students get to know other students living in their dorm and build community, but they also are faced with the prospect of being students in front of their peers. Classroom participation poses multiple face-threats--students may answer wrong and appear stupid, participate too much and be seen as a brown-noser, or express opinions that make them unpopular with their classmates. Since students live together, the consequences of being negatively evaluated in RAP classes extends well outside the classroom. These potential risks may be one of the causes of an on-going problem in RAP classes: students don’t want to disagree with each other. Getting students to engage in an extended conversation marked by disagreement is a significant accomplishment.

My pedagogical goal is to get students comfortable doing disagreement as a means of critical thinking and exploring an issue. I recognize that this goal works against several prevailing social norms. Students seem to presume that disagreement is negative--aggressive, antagonistic, and unkind. They don’t want to challenge each other nor do they invite challenges. And when they do challenge each other, they aren’t always able to provide reasons to support their positions or deconstruct other positions. Part of this problem is about a lack of argumentation skills. But addressing the social barriers to disagreement and building alternative norms would provide a strong basis for inquiry and, hopefully, developing stronger argumentation skills.

Getting students to disagree--and continue to engage each other in the midst of that disagreement--is about more than academic socialization. Knowing how to disagree without being aggressive, antagonistic, or unkind is an essential skill in a liberal arts classroom and in civic life. Disagreement is fundamental to knowledge production in critical inquiry and deliberative democracy alike. Functional groups must be able to consider multiple perspectives and voice disagreement without destroying group cohesion. Disagreeing without being disagreeable is an essential communication skill.

My goal is to give students a way to see disagreement as productive, generative, and essential. People can disagree about ideas and still respect each other. In fact, people can demonstrate respect by trusting each other enough to disagree, to share unpopular viewpoints, to take on various perspectives.

Getting students to disagree does not require technology. But I do think that technology might be used to minimize some of the face threats students experience while also creating unfamiliar contexts for interaction that get students to do disagreement--sustain disagreement--without drawing on their existing social norms because technology creates a context that seems just new and different enough.

My plan is to use technology to engage students in the development and presentation of their own communication dilemmas. I’ll be trialing this plan in two sections of Discourse, Culture, and Identity. One section is taught in a RAP with 10 students. The other section is a conventional offering on main campus with 29 students. Comparing how the two classes respond to the pedagogical design will give me one point of comparison.

Overall, the course includes three full class discussions about communication dilemmas (situations where fulfilling one or more desired identities would lead to different communication practices). One discussion will be a facilitated conversation through the CU Dialogues Program that brings people into the class to share experiences related to immigration, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and more. (The visitors to my classes are still being finalized). For another discussion, I will lead a face-to-face conversation about a case study that revolves around a communication dilemma. The third discussion will include the technology intervention. For all of the discussions, students will be writing reflection papers, which I can draw on to evaluate the differences between how students experience the three formats. I will also include questions on the final exam that provide students the opportunity to demonstrate what they learned through these discussions.

(My plan shifted, and I realized that I didn’t fully update this plan before implementation. Therefore I shifted to writing in past tense to reflect what I did).

I started by soliciting examples of communication dilemmas that they would like to talk about in class. These may be situations that they have encountered or general areas where they’d like to explore more (e.g. family communication). Here are several of the prompts developed through their examples:

  • Adult children telling their parents about decisions that the parents won’t approve of.

  • How do you give advice to someone that you care about that they don’t want to hear?

  • How do you refuse sexual advances from someone that you want to maintain a non-sexual relationship with?

Students were given a choice of seven different prompts and asked to sign up for a group. Students could either sign up for a topic or find group members and sign up as a unit. This work was conducted in groups of 2-5 based on the overall class size.

With these general prompts in mind, students were asked to create a rich scenario where the communicator encounters a dilemmas where two desired identities cannot be fulfilled at the same time. The scenario should be such that someone cannot simply choose one identity and completely ignore the other one without significant sacrifice.

Then students had to use technology to visually represent the scenario, including the two desired identities, at least three discourse practices associated with each identity, and some representation of the context for the scenario. I briefly described how students could use Popplet or Prezi to visualize their scenarios.

Finally the group had to brainstorm three different options for managing this dilemma. The strategies should respect both identities and include discussion of specific goals and discourse practices.

My primary objective is to have students engage in sustained disagreement with each other while also developing phronesis, practical wisdom about how to manage communication dilemmas. I am comparing the discussions around their technology-enhanced scenarios with full-class discussions on a case study and the CU dialogues program.

I have two primary ways of assessing the success of my intervention: classroom interaction and reflection papers. For the classroom interaction, I will attend to disagreement exchanges where people continue to go back and forth on the same basic idea, each time deepening their comments in response to each other. In my RAP class in particular, these exchanges have been almost entirely absent from the previous class discussions. During the class study discussion, I was involved in every exchange that involved sustained disagreement. Otherwise, students often voice a dissenting opinion and then move on to a new idea. Beyond interaction sequences marked by sustained disagreement, I’m also interested in evidence of consideration of other perspectives. More than agreement, I’m interested in moments of perspective taking (I think that you would want to do this because..), paraphrasing (e.g. so I hear what you are saying), and intertextuality that demonstrates linking between comments.

After the class discussion, students write 1-2 page reflection papers where they detail what they are taking away from the discussion and then work through how they would manage a particular dilemma. The pedagogical purpose of this paper is to have them articulate goals and explain how particular discourse practices would help them achieve these goals. Since I believe that sustained disagreement can help foster critical thinking, I will be tracking whether reflection papers include stronger articulation of why particular goals are important and how they can be sustained. In particular, I will look to whether people assert strategies that have been challenged in class and whether their written answers demonstrate any engagement with the challenges voiced in class.

I used technology to support classroom discussions of communication dilemmas within two of my sections of Discourse, Culture, and Identity. I gave students a class period to develop scenarios in groups and create a visual representation of the dilemma. Then the next class period the groups briefly presented the scenario using the visual, and then the rest of the class discussed how they would manage the dilemma.

By the end of the class period, most of the groups had started developing their visual representation (all groups ended up using Prezi). But most did not finish during class. In the RAP where students live together, most students got together in person to finish up their presentations. But in my other section, multiple groups worked on their visuals virtually, not meeting again in class. Yet all of the students were able to present different aspects of their scenario and seemed to have a comprehensive understanding of the different pieces, which suggested more than just one person doing the work and submitting it for the group.

Overall, this exercise worked really well for the RAP section and alright for the department section. This is perhaps not surprising since the pedagogical objectives were driven by problems I encountered in the RAP. In previous class discussions, the RAP students really struggled with disagreeing with each other. They were quick to accept that single answers were sufficient. They rarely challenged each other. On the other hand, my department class often engaged in disagreement, particularly in the case study discussion. So I designed this activity to address a problem that impacted one class more than the other.

In the RAP class, the discussion included notably more exchanges of disagreement. This was one of the only times in class when I did not need to prompt disagreement. Instead, people could articulate limitations of particular strategies or explain why people might react in unexpected ways. After the first scenario, I could see that several of the students were noticing that their classmates were getting really “into” the discussion. I reinforced that this was exactly the type of interaction I was looking for, and I hoped that this would continue with the subsequent examples. My notes are imperfect, but I tailed 12 disagreement exchanges during the 50 minute discussion compared to previous classes where the only disagreement exchanges had involved me as a participant. In this respect, the activity was a huge success.

In this case, technology was not the unique cause for success. I think that having students develop their own scenarios based on prompts that can from them lead to more relatable and approachable dilemmas, particularly for first year students. But the technology did push students to fully complete and represent several steps that they often skipped when discussing communication dilemmas.

First, communication dilemmas center around two identities that an individual wants to maintain. These identities were clearly depicted in many of the student Prezis.

Diagram showing the opposing forces of honesty and kindness Clip art scale with "strong leader" on one side and "team player" on the other. Second, students were instructed to identify specific discourse practices that would be part of each identity. This is where prezi’s ability to zoom in and out allowed students to embed details within the presentation that could be revealed or not.

For visual learners, prezi’s also provided a different way to organize and structure their ideas. Several of the groups relied heavily on text. I could imagine that they could have done this same assignment as a written piece. But several of the groups clearly structured their ideas around a narrative presentation that came from visual cues. For example, the image of the flower below was actually explained as a metaphor for the dilemma itself since the friends had common roots but were branching out as they got older and had to decide how they wanted to relate with each other.