By William Repetto
[FERPA Disclaimer: both students and TAs are quoted in this article. All personally identifying information has been removed. Regardless, though, the studens and TAs quotes here gave me written consent to use their words. The symbol […] has been added to show when bits of non-meaning-altering conversation have been cut out and YT refers to me, yours truly.]
In the first post for this column, I doted all over the chat function on Zoom. I did so because I see it as a secondary locus of teaching and learning in the digital space. Students use it to candidly express themselves. TAs use it to share links pertaining to the information presented in the classroom. It has its drawbacks—some students get distracted; some TAs (including me) can be the reason why; sometimes the chat discussion takes a different course from the verbal conversation. Despite these minor drawbacks, however, I find that the chat function does much more good than harm. In this post, I will explicate a set of the interactions my fellow TAs and our class had on Zoom’s chat box to show how I think it supports—rather than stunts—student learning.
The context: the TAs had just wrapped up an exercise in breakout rooms in which we discussed the potential obstacles that students might encounter in research. Among the solutions to such obstacles, someone mentioned how tough it might become to integrate two ostensibly different topics. Our fearless professor, Dr. C., discussed at length the mental exercises one may have to use to find the common ground between two topics. Then she warned that it might be folly to try to combine two topics that are not only ostensibly different but that are actually totally incompatible, like “anime and dogs.” Well, the chat erupted to a cacophony of corrections:
TA #1 : Anime puppies. ❤
Student #1: Nintendogs
YT: Ein in Cowboy Bebop!!
TA #1: ^ you just opened a locked box in my mind
TA #1: ❤ Ein ❤
Student #1: scholarly article about why corgis are so good
Student #1: amazing dissertation
This interaction has hearts (<3) and markers of a new language (^), and so some educators might scoff at the idea of my considering it serious pedagogical discourse. I will argue that it is anyway. The prompting of tying anime and puppies together by TA #1 allowed Student #1 to point to a particular place where one can also see the overlap. I added the example about Ein from Cowboy Bebop–a corgi in that anime series. Student #1 then dreams big about the confluence of ideas, e.g., a scholarly article or a dissertation.
We often “sell” composition courses as places of self-exploration, where one can discover their passions in reading and writing. The chat function here fulfilled that promise, and, more importantly—whether or not dogs and anime interest the other members of the class—the Zoom chat function is accessible to everyone present, so everyone enrolled can see how TAs might assist in igniting, merging, and managing interests that a student wants to follow. In fact, the conversation didn’t stop there:
Student #1 : fandom would be so interesting to do research on but there are also millions of them
TA #2 : ^^^^^ true. I’ve done fandom research before, let me know if you’d like some guidance.
Student #1: there was a UD engl110 that was centered around fan studies actually
Again, the interaction has informal markers (^^^^), but a look at the content of the conversation shows that the chat function sped up the pace of discovery for Student #1. Student #1 figured out a way to step out of the frivolousness of the previous conversation and focus energies on an important, contemporary, academic conversation about fandoms. TA #2 steps in to offer assistance and demonstrate ethos. Instead of having to wait until office hours to hear that TA #2 has experience with fandoms and discover what kind of resources TA #2 would suggest, Student #1 is informed right then and there during class time.
Finally, and curiously, the student becomes a spokesperson at the end of the interaction; Student #1 gives a plug for the entire department by advertising other offerings. Ideally, none of the students enrolled will need to take another section of ENGL110, but Student #1 announces here the other types of experts available for assistance on the department’s faculty. I am not arguing that all students immediately took note of this and will reach out for fandom assistance. I am saying, however, that the chat offered those paying attention another perspective and another tool for approaching topic selection.
The chat is not entirely devoid of flaws; take a look at this interaction:
Student #2 : is anyone else confused on this ^
TA #1: Confused on what, Student # 2?
Student #2: Fan studies and Nintendogs
For Student #2, the conversation surrounding fandoms, fan studies, and Nintendogs did not generate new ideas or new passions. Instead, the chat probably functioned as a distracting meta-discourse on Dr. C’s lecture. It should be noted, however, that I’ve removed the time stamps from the conversations. TA #1’s response came only nine seconds after Student #2 asked for clarification. This kind of efficacy likely cannot be matched in a traditional, face-to-face classroom or lecture hall. It’d be twice as distracting to whisper/speak to a TA right in the middle of a lecture (or, doubly so to ask a TA what that TA is whispering about to another student!).
I’m hopeful that a movement pushes to implement something like Zoom chat into the traditional classroom when we return to our respective campuses. I could envision an anonymous feed integrated onto projection screens for students to externalize their thoughts as a lesson progresses. This would maybe give voice to students who feel uncomfortable speaking up or who would feel “stupid” asking a basic question. As with all technologies, we’d need to smooth out the kinks—e.g., how to filter out unwanted or inappropriate content. In any event, it’s an interesting experiment in thought: how could we splice the benefits of the Zoom room back into our traditional classrooms?
William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.
Another interesting post! I used to ask a couple of students to live tweet our E110 classes. (Each meeting a different 2 or 3 would take turns at doing it.) It was fun, and provided a nice record of how the class was being understood by students. It occurs to me in reading your piece that you could do a similar thing with the chat function in Zoom.