Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Provoker

An aspect of teaching an OWC that I really enjoy is taking on the role of what I call “The Provoker,” a contradictory anti-voice, in the class written discussions.

I’ve discussed this before, but coming off my winter online persuasive writing course, I wanted to provide more detail about a practice while pedagogically fun is I believe also a key part of my students’ writing education in my courses.

The Provoker is a rhetorically edgy, devil’s advocate-type voice in the class discussions. I post using an alias; for some years, I’ve used the alter-ego “Dr. Logoetho.” I always include a few Provoker threads in an OWC. Sometimes I, Prof. Warnock, introduce our “guest” and facilitate his posts; other times I log into the CMS using a guest access so posts don’t actually have my named attached to them. I do make it clear to students that we’re playing a rhetorical game here (only once was a student confused about this). So it’s me – but it’s not.

Dr. Logoetho takes extreme stances:

Dear students in English 102:
I’m tired of hearing everyone complain about the cost of college. Considering how much people benefit earnings-wise over the course of their lifetime based upon the degree they have earned (see, I argue that college should cost MORE money than it does now. I would ask if you agree, but how could you not?: I make a very reasonable and logical argument.
Yep, that’s what I think,
Dr. Logoetho

He writes with more than a little cheek, taunting the students: 

Dear students in Prof. Warnock’s English 102 course,
Kind of nice to see you again. I have something to say this week about Wikipedia. I think that Wikipedia is a completely useless site except as entertainment. No one should ever use it for anything of importance or for real research. Wikis are an unreliable way to build true information. I think the positives of Wikipedia are grossly exaggerated and are only promoted by people who have something to gain from Wikipedia or who don’t understand the informational value of the Web!

There. If you want to take me on, at least show a little argument savvy – Prof. Warnock gave you access to some materials this week, I think – and use some evidence.
I doubt you're up to the task,
Dr. Logoetho

With me, the official Professor, out of the picture, I find that students write with verve and passion while also composing solid, interesting arguments. They use evidence. They have to avoid logical fallacies, particularly ad hominem, when dealing with an often disrespectful interlocutor. They have to think through written, and sometimes emotional, argumentation. And they often work together, building off each other to take down Dr. Logoetho.

Especially in a persuasive writing-type class, I want students to have smart, authentic arguments, but a course can be a difficult place for that. Provoker threads allow students to write and argue without worrying about offending classmates or dealing with the authority-laden quagmire of “debating the teacher.” Term after term, I feel Provoker threads bring out some of their best writing.
It’s enjoyable for me too. I’m competitive and debate them head-on. I even get to bust on myself, old “Prof. Warnock.” Here’s Dr. Logoetho replying to their rebuttals to his Wikipedia “argument”; you can see that, throughout, I cite them directly (pseudonyms below) to show the power of their arguments:

SUBJ: Dr. Logoetho mad. Very mad
Dear students of Prof. Warnock,
You all think you’re so smart. Blair asks, “I only want to know how you can decide what source is valid compared to another source.” I’ll tell you: Peer review! Editors! Experts! Let the experts be the gatekeepers. Let’s get scholarly. Pete writes, “Who is to say that the information on this web page is not scholarly as any other?” Well, just about everyone, Pete! Read Praxis about the definition of a scholarly source. As Wendy points out (but in a nicer way than me; everyone is nicer than me), any buffoon can be a Wikipedia editor (in fact, even poor Prof. Warnock is a Wikipedia editor). Then Janet says, “Scholarly articles and sources are questioned all the time,” – name one time this happened! Let’s stop all this nonsense![...]

From the above, as you might imagine, the students usually “defeat” Dr. Logoetho by week’s end. He slinks away, and Prof. Warnock pops in and congratulates them. It’s fun. And I think it’s also good writing instruction.

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