An Informal Rationale for Using Chats in the Composition Classroom

Michael Day

The text below appeared in a slightly different form on the TechRhet Internet discussion ( in answer to a question by Kathy Fitch, on September 2, 2000.

To help Kathy and others who are working hard to demonstrate the value of chats such as MOO's, MUDs, and IRC,  I would like to do some brainstorming on the relative values of using these media in writing classes.

I too have colleagues who remain unconvinced, even some who are otherwise ardent supporters of the networked writing classroom. The major reason these people give for not using chat is the fact that many classes will go way off task the first time or two they chat together. The class will joke around, say irreverent things to the teacher and each other, and even sometime get rude with each other. So let me preface what I say with some preparations and precautions I think need to take place before you can consider taking a class into a chat.

  1. Students need to observe chats, through logs or real time, before doing it, and talk about why they will be chatting and what could happen.  They also need clear instructions for logging in and interacting.  Both Traci Gardner and Tari Fanderclai, I believe, have excellent instructions of this sort online.
  2. Students need clear prompts that outline what they are to discuss, with a clear outcome like a collaborative prewriting or a list of issues that they will present to the class later.
  3. Smaller groups are often more productive and on task, less chaotic than a class of twenty-five all yammering at and showing off for each other.
  4. One chat session often isn't enough.  Classes need to experiment with the medium and play around a bit before they can buckle down and get to work.  Many teachers I know have given up when it doesn't "work" right away.  The principle of consistency in designing activities for networked classrooms (thanks to Eric Hoffman of Northern Illinois University's Networked Writing and Research Lab for this one!) would suggest that it might take a few lab sessions for a class to get used to chatting on task.
Having said this, off the top of my head, I can think of several good reasons to use sychronous CMC in writing classes, particularly during invention or brainstorming stages of idea generation and refining.
  1. People thinking together will end up spurring each other to have new ideas, or to keep building on each others' ideas, resulting in approaches that alone they might not have come up with.  We see this in class discussion sometimes, but seeing it in writing can be a heuristic aid toward pulling out more thought and exploration. Walter Ong said that writing objectifies thought and allows us to manipulate it more than the spoken word does.  Gaining distance (not much, I grant, since this is synchronous) allows internal reflection on the words and what they might mean, before one responds.  Chat is a collaborative idea generator.
  2. In a related sense, the "here and now" pull of the chat can help some stop people stop hesitating and jump into the fray.  They may be less likely to allow the critical consciousness to kick in and stop them from saying something that's only half-baked.  However, for some students, even a half-formed idea is better than no idea at all, and other students can help them tease out more of a thought by questioning and comments.  We may be more likely to see "thought coming into being" in written language in chat sessions.
  3. For those of us who teach argumentative writing, in which acknowledging contending views is important, a good chat session can help class members test out claims and theses to see the challenges and modifications others might make to their ideas.  In so doing, the class enacts the _multivox disputatem_ common in renaissance humanism (with apologies to Tom Sloan), providing a range of viewpoints and possible objections to the claim at hand.
  4. I said earlier that chat takes getting used to.  For many, it's the act of navigating that chat on screen, learning to read selectively and quickly as the screen scrolls by, and then entering the conversation without worrying about having read *everything* that's been said.  Skimming for information and knowing where and when to dive in and read carefully is a skill all of our students need to know.  After all, how did most of us survive the tons of reading we did in grad school?  Did we read every word?  In learning to navigate chat, we may be helping students develop strategies for dealing with the glut of information they find coming at them from all directions. How much you read doesn't matter so much anymore.  It's more important to figure out what to read and what to discard.
  5. No, they won't be writing in finely polished academic prose, but they will be writing.  Until the computer gurus find easier ways to enable spoken, video, VR, and telepathic CMC, we text folks are in luck.  It's an easy step to take a chat transcript to an overhead or printout to circle or copy/paste for the class good ideas or locutions, and show students ways to move these gems into their papers/projects/webs.

This is by far an incomplete list.  For more of my thinking (much of it collaborative thinking done on the MOO with my fantastic colleagues!) on this matter, please take a look at a few of the following sites:

Created by Michael Day on December 21, 2000
Last Updated November 8, 2004
Disclaimer: the views expressed here are mine, not necessarily those of my department or institution.