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Dead Raccoons and Other Taboo Online Classroom Discussion Topics

written by: James Ballou•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 3/13/2011

Managing class discussions is an important and useful policy for instructors to use, especially in an online forum. Without such guidelines, it is likely that discussion threads will go into topics that are unrelated to the course content.

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    What's All This Then?

    Reading through the posts in one of my classes, I noticed the phrase "dead raccoon covered in blood." Since my students were supposed to be discussing various style elements and documentation requirements, I was confused about how the aforementioned deceased animal came to be the central discussion point. It came as little surprise that the issue was not related to the topic at hand but instead was a tangent that dealt with methods for dealing with vermin that had taken up residence in one student’s garage. It was clear that I had failed to established specific parameters for the discussion threads.

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    Setting Discussion Parameters

    It is essential to establish discussion parameters for classes if for no other reason than to carefully manage the finite amount of time that is available in class as compared to the voluminous subject matter. This concept should undoubtedly be applied to govern the behavior of instructors as well as students. Such parameters are fairly easy to establish but must be part of the syllabus or an equally important document that students are required to read and abide by.

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    What Are Appopriate Parameters?

    Determining which subjects are acceptable and which subjects are prohibited is a relatively simple process. All discussions related to the subjects being taught in the class are acceptable, and all other topics should be avoided. Simple. It is also of value to make certain specific subjects clearly prohibited because of their inevitable deleterious effect on the class. Subjects such as sex, religion, politics, and dead raccoons instantly spring to mind. (Unless, of course, the class focuses on these subjects.)

    The guidelines play an invaluable role in the classroom because of the incendiary nature of some topics. Without these limitations, certain instructors or students can exploit the environment for their own ends as they seek to gain acolytes of their personal ideology. When this happens, the course becomes little more than indoctrination for a specific set of values and beliefs rather than an academic environment essential for the growth and development of the students.

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    Policy Violations

    Even when discussion parameters have been established, there remains the possibility that comments will be made that are outside of acceptable subject choices. When this happens, the instructor should respond clearly and quickly. The instructor should provide a public response that is not harsh but is designed to pull the class member(s) out of that discussion thread and gets them to re-engage in another area. It is also important to communicate privately with the instigating student to remind him/her of the classroom discussion requirements.

    It is important to address the issue right away. As with any rule that is broken in the class, an instructor's silence can be construed as tacit approval. Therefore, it is important to send a consistent message to the class to help students understand that the rules are established for a purpose and that they will be enforced.

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    Putting It All Together

    The idea of setting discussion parameters may seem like a hindrance to the free exchange that should be part of the classroom. However, there is limited time to cover the necessary material, and students deserve to have the class time focused on the subject matter at hand. If reasonable exceptions are made to allow discussion of related topics that help to engender understanding, the policy will prove effective. Instructors that enforce the policy will find that a single intervention is enough to prevent future infractions and, when done correctly, helps students identify the instructor's commitment to quality discussions.