(the following originally appeared at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/ubb6.html but was moved here in 2011. It is part of a 2009 TESOL presentation: Uncharted but breathtaking: Chat in writing class which can be accessed here.)
There are many reasons to balk at the idea of doing computer chat, or conversational writing, as I have come to call it, in a writing class, and I plan to go through them one by one, as if I could verbalize them successfully and refute each one by one. In fact, there is much more resistance from teachers than from students, who by and large understand completely when I tell them the following: they will need these skills in the future; the world is moving toward using writing informally for a number of purposes; that conversational skills in writing therefore will be increasingly important in business and other domains; and, that as a writing teacher I am responsible for teaching these to them.
It is hard for me to discern whether their stares are disbelief, or disagreement, or both, so sometimes I ask them. It is not disagreement, at least not in such a way that I can understand it; I have said repeatedly that I am genuinely curious and would like to know how they feel about it the best they can explain.
My students generally appreciate this opportunity and use it to learn about another medium, another tool at their disposal. They do their best to complete the assignment, and let me know that it was valuable to them.
Thus it's hard for me to imagine their reasons for being hesitant. They may come from cultures where computer chat could be used by anyone for anything; little do I know what kind of reputation or stigma it had with them before they came here. To that I respond: chat is just a medium; just because it is used for bad purposes, doesn't make it bad, any more than conversation is bad because someone spoke bad words with it. A medium is just that, a tool that can be used by anyone, and will be used increasingly for increasing number of purposes. Just because you have never seen it in a classroom, doesn't mean it doesn't belong there, or shouldn't be there.
Then, the classic quizzical look. Why would you sit at this computer, they ask, and use it to talk to me, when we are in the same room, in fact, and could just speak to each other? I could just as well say, why not just write out our dialogs in listening class, to take the load off of actually interacting in the oral medium? Actually I should amend that to say, if they ever ask that, that is what I would answer. They seem to know already that I'm serious, that I believe it is an important medium by itself, and has to be mastered as it is. And, you practice writing by writing, not by talking. It is amazing, but in writing class we seem to say more in writing informally, and enjoy loosening up our words, using them formally on formal paper, using them casually in chat. It balances itself. It's not that we don't speak, or even that we don't want to. It's that written chat is a better complement to what we do the rest of the time, and opens up a dimension to us that doesn't seem to open any other way. Chat is the conversation of the writing medium, and allows you to say more that you wouldn't say in an essay; in the same way, in our usual oral mode, where I stand, they sit, they are in groups, or everyone is looking at some essay, it seems focused on the formal, a class mode that it's hard to break out of.
Fear of technology is a big one; it is shared by teachers and students alike, but it different for each. For students, it can include the fear that other students will have the advantage over them, because they did not or cannot master the technology. Sometimes for students this fear alone seems to cause them to fail the assignment, as if they are grateful to have technology to blame their failure on, and they have recognized this opportunity before. But it may be more, as if they are determined to not master a medium that could get them in trouble later, or that, at the threshold of a new experience, they simply have to stop and reflect on it. It's fast, itâ€™s quick; they can see that at a distance. They already knew that, and they were vaguely aware of some of the other cultural experiences associated with it also. I alleviate their tech fears by saying the following: lots of us were new to this at one time or another. We teach each other. I give you plenty of time to learn it; I help when you ask. Perhaps the biggest thing you'll learn as part of this experience is how to react to and handle tech problems; for example, how to get out of one browser and into another, when you have trouble copying and pasting a link into a chat window. They stare at me in disbelief. But, they learn it, do it, and the transcript shows it: they paste their links onto the chat window. In fact, if they are hesitant for any reason, I can usually only speculate on their reasons for hesitation, though I have found out, several times, that a final one may be that they believe that it might not be good for their writing (1). Chat, as they have practiced it in the past, is not good for writing as they perceive it at the moment. So I have to sell it as semi-formal chat, different from what they may have experienced in the past. And it may be, for all I know, the first time they have experienced something like this. But it certainly won't be the last.
Teachers have far more resistance to chat; their reasons are far more ingrained and deep-seated. They need to feel control over the medium they are teaching in; they cannot teach when they themselves are lost and feeling their way, unable to respond fast enough. To me, this is a valid reason; I'm a teacher and have experienced this feeling, yet I overcame it, learned chat, and now use it with every class that I can. I feel the same way about weblogs, and have been getting people to use weblogs, with the same kind of resistance, for years. Actually, I think people felt the same way about the telephone, and about basic video capability, when we first got them. I don't mean to undermine or belittle the power of new media. People instinctively know when they are the first ones to use a new medium, and when it will then change and make them look silly for being unable, at first, to accept or master it. You can tell your grandchildren: I lived in a time before we really used this; we didn't really know how. Why tell them, though? That'll just make you look old.
Let's deal with more practical reasons. Teachers are short of time. We don't want to include something unless there's a reason or a clear benefit; we don't want to invest the time unless we're sure it will work out. How's this for a reason: we can't separate a language from the environment it's going to be used in. We can't call ourselves communicative if we teach English but separate it from the medium our students will need it in. We can't call ourselves writing teachers, and then use speaking for every bit of important information that we deliver; and, at the same time, ignore conversational writing, which is one of the most important forms of writing our students will encounter.
One interesting argument, pointed out first by students, by the way, is that using abbreviated words like "u" and "r" is actually bad for new writers; if they do that too much, they will forget how to spell "you" and "are". This is an interesting argument, and it speaks partly to the well-recognized addictive power of the social media, and the ability to go online and have company at basically any moment. My first comment is that, to be sure, I have no idea how much time our students might be chatting already, and they could be using any languages, or any combination of them, for all I know (see Kinds of chat). So in that sense the power of time spent chatting could influence their language learning negatively, and they would surely know more about that than I would.
But consider the argument in terms of time spent speaking informally, vs. time spent giving oral presentations or writing formally. Do you feel that, by saying "of(t)en" instead of "often" you might forget how to spell the word? Or, that by using "gonna" you will forget that it is "going to?" In fact you might, and I have certainly seen students overgeneralize the use of "gonna." But I don't think it is reason enough to not teach informal writing. To me, it is an argument to teach "gonna" right the first time: show the boundaries of its use, discuss the difference between informal and formal, etc.
1. This came home to me one time when I asked them to write an argument essay about whether a teacher should use chat with students. Much to my stunned disbelief, ten out of thirteen argued no. See Leverett, 2008a, below.
Barker, T. (2009, March 13). Texting surges as tool for more than just the young. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/sciencemedicine/story/ ECD541041F7853698625756E0012DB17?OpenDocument. Accessed 3-09.
Fischman, J. (2008, Oct. 13). Dear Professor, Students want to chat with you. Chronicle.com, Wired Campus. http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/3384/dear-professor-students- want-to-chat-with-you. Accessed 10-08.
Leverett, T. (2008a, Sept.) Chat assignment: most students blast chat (6-2008). where u at w/chat weblog. http://whereuatwchat.blogspot.com/2008/09/chat-assignment-most-students-blast.html.
___ (2008b, April). brb: Using chat in an esl/efl writing class. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City. http://www.siu.edu/~cesl/teachers/pd/tw6.html.
___ (2008c, April). Digital fluency as goal and objective. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City. http://www.siu.edu/~cesl/teachers/pd/tw4.html.
___ (2007a, Mar.). Fluency first: Fluency as a construct. From Student weblogging for fluency, skills and integration, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA. http://www.siu.edu/~cesl/teachers/pd/wf3.html
___ (2007b, May). Dialects in a changing language. Global Study Magazine 4, 3. London. pp. 56-57. Available online at: http://globalstudymagazine.com/site/articles/359.
Marcus, M. (2009, Jan. 5). Social networks are intrusive. Martinsville (IN) Reporter-Times. http://www.reporter-times.com/stories/2009/01/05/opinion.qp-1241117.sto. Accessed 1-09.
Links and resources
Online chat resources for teachers