Communication Through the Web

DCI 108

Winter 2021

Credits: 3

Requirements Met: DCI Minor Core

Class Meeting Metadata
Meets: MW 4:00 - 5:35pm Eastern
Classroom: Virtual (Zoom links in Canvas)
Instructor's Metadata
Instructor: Jason T. Mickel, Ph.D.
E-Mail: How to Email a Professor
Phone: (540) 458-8653
Office: Leyburn M33
Office Hours: M 1:00-2:00
T 2:30-3:30
W 11:00-12:00
Or by appointment

In-Class DiscussionsVariable points

Due throughout the first few weeks

All discussions will be held via Zoom. I will act as the host to control the administrative aspects of Zoom; however, you will be primarily responsible for noting raised hands and addressing questions. One member of your group should share their screen and be responsible for running PowerPoint, showing web examples, and performing other screen-related tasks. Otherwise, all other expectations outlined below still apply.

Assignment Overview

For the first few weeks of the course, we will be reading a number of articles and book chapters (as well as watching a few videos) that aim to help you think about how communication over the web is distinct from that over other mediums. To ensure that you get the most from these readings, you will be participating in full-class discussions of each piece, and every student will have the opportunity to lead discussion on either a set of shorter readings or for one longer reading. I will be assigning pairs of you to be co-leaders for discussion (n.b. single leaders may occur if there are an odd number of students registered in the course), and during discussion time, my participation will be at a minimum. The leader assignments will be posted in Canvas.

In summary, here is what I expect:

  • Discussion leaders should be well-prepared including bringing questions for discussion and encourage engagement from your classmates for the entire discussion period (approximately 20-25 minutes). Refer to the "How to Lead a Discussion" section below for more details.
  • I strongly encourage you to create a PowerPoint-style presentation to help guide you and the class. Make liberal use of visuals and live example websites, as well. Presentations should be emailed to me no later than an hour before your assigned discussion class meeting.
  • Leaders will be graded based on the discussion leadership rubric listed below with a total possible score of 50 points.
  • All other students should read/view every piece in detail and be prepared to discuss each one. See the "Rules for All Discussions" section below.
  • Participation for other students will receive one cumulative grade across all in-class discussion periods based on the rubric in the table below.

Rules for All Discussions

  1. At the beginning of the semester:
    1. Acquire or preview all the materials for the course. The order of topics in the syllabus may change, so texts scheduled for use later in the semester may be assigned earlier.
    2. Read the syllabus and course guidelines carefully, listen to the professor's presentation on the first day of class, and ask questions to be sure you understand the course format. You are expected to participate at some meaningful level in class discussions. If you are uneasy about this requirement and tempted to drop, please stick around for a few discussions. You will probably find them less frightening than you anticipate.
  2. Before each class:
    1. Read and study the assignment made at the end of the previous class.
    2. Take notes about what you found interesting, surprising, and particularly those ideas that relate to other things being discussed.
  3. During class:
    1. Listen to the introduction by the designated discussion leaders and consider the discussion questions and issues they raise.
    2. Discuss the issues raised, keeping to the subject of the readings, attempting — preferably in this order — to analyze, criticize, and connect:
      1. Analyze the readings to gain a deeper understanding of difficult concepts, examples, the author's position, and the author's arguments.
      2. Criticize the readings, articulating and defending personal opinions about the adequacy of the author's presentation and arguments.
      3. Connect the issues you have analyzed and criticized to material of previous assignments in order to discern broader themes, similar concepts, and comparable or contrasting opinions.
    3. As you participate, make good use of the text, at times calling attention to specific passages relevant to the issue at hand. When working with such a passage, allow time for others in the class to locate it and then read it aloud.
    4. Ignore your professor during this time. Direct your attention to other students and regard him as the recording secretary on hand to take down information for use later.
    5. Take brief notes of points and examples that deepen your understanding; opinions that differ from your own; and arguments that you find helpful, convincing, or worth trying to refute. These notes may be useful when you want to contribute to discussion, when you formulate study questions for subsequent classes, or when you work on future assignments. Do not, however, allow note-taking to cause you to lose the thread of the discussion.
  4. After class:
    1. Spend a few minutes reflecting on the preceding discussion, perhaps jotting down notes (or amplifying notes made in class) of points that increased your understanding of the readings, and that may be useful in preparing for the next discussion or writing the next paper. Especially, take note of arguments that interested or surprised you.

How to Lead a Discussion

Most students have never led a discussion. It is normal to be somewhat fearful about your first try. Most of us (including professors) are afraid we'll be embarrassed by saying something wrong, being contradicted, or running out of things to say. Here are some suggestions to help you overcome your fears, prepare, get the discussion started, and sustain it. These suggestions apply specifically to the kinds of discussions I wish to have in this course, but you may find them useful any time you are faced with leading a discussion group.


To lead a discussion, you must be familiar with the assigned material. "Familiar with" is, I believe, just the right phrase. You need not have mastered the material; after all, a goal of discussion is to move everyone towards mastery, that is, to improve everyone's (even the leaders') understanding. To prepare for discussion (leadership or participation), first read and study the assignment, underlining the more important or interesting points, and making notes. Then think about and write down some of the main issues that the author raises and a few questions pertinent to the issues. Finally, write a brief (less than five-minute) opening statement about the material. Your statement should set the stage for, and end by raising, one or more of your discussion questions.

Examples of questions:

  • The author is trying to show how indirect our knowledge is. How does the author support this contention?
  • The author is explaining how technology influences our decisions. How does she do this? Explain the specific examples she uses.
  • This is an article about how users misinterpret a website's purpose. What factors contribute to its failure to communicate its message?

If you can come up with a handful of questions, you're in good shape. Remember, everyone else in the class is formulating such questions: you can take advantage of their work to make your job easier. (More on this later.)

Getting Started

Class has started and you're up today. How do you begin? Simply clear your throat and read (or better, present) your prepared notes. End by asking the first question or asking for discussion of the first issue on your list. Before you know it, the hard part — getting started — is done.

One word of caution: Start out on a positive note. Avoid beginning with an apology for being poorly prepared or for finding the reading difficult. Treat the day's topic as having real value. Openers like "I didn't get much out of this" or "I don't agree with anything the author said" will stifle, rather than promote, discussion. If you treat the readings as worthwhile, your classmates will follow your lead, join you in examining the day's assignment, and thus make your job easier.

Sustaining Discussion

Discussions, like sleepy horses, need some urging to keep them moving. A discussion leader can often keep things moving with only modest prodding, giving the class its head when things are going well. Of course, if you can contribute something useful, do so; but other kinds of comments or actions on your part can sustain the discussion just as well as an injection of insight. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Get students to talk to each other. Ask for a response to the most recent comments. (Anyone have a response to Clara's opinion?) Or ask a specific student to respond. (Clara, do you agree with Ralph?)
  2. Get students to defend or explain their opinions. (Marvin, why do you say that? What's your evidence or reasoning?)
  3. Encourage an exploration of differing points of view. When you hear conflicting views, point them out and get the holders of those views to discuss their differences. Perhaps ask a third person to sum up the two positions.
  4. Keep the class on the subject. If you are even halfway familiar with the material, you know when the discussion is no longer connected to it. Just say so. (We've gotten pretty far from the readings; let's get back on the subject.) Or simply consult your list of questions. Any sensible response to one of your questions is bound to be pertinent.
  5. Point to a particular passage in the text relevant to a comment made by one person, or to a discussion among several. This might be a passage that challenges, or sums up and confirms, the views being expressed.
  6. Don't fill every silence with your own voice. Any discussion will lapse occasionally. It is not your job as leader to avoid all silence. Some quiet periods are productive. Students who are not so quick to speak will frequently get the chance they need when others are quiet. If the silence gets too heavy, take advantage of the other students' lists of questions. (Ginny, give us one of the questions you brought to class.)

Remember, as discussion leader you do not have to be the brains of the whole outfit. You are not expected to know it all; the class is full of students who have read the same assignment that you read. Your job is to give them a chance to talk about it and thus give others the benefits of their thinking. On the other hand, if any one student begins to do all the talking, gently correct this problem by bringing other students into the discussion. You are there to steer, to keep the horse reasonably near the center of the path, by pulling a rein when needed, by loosening the reins when it keeps to the trail, by reining it in when it threatens to gallop away to greener subjects. If students are talking to each other about the reading material, things are going well; relax, listen, and contribute when you can.

The Goals of Discussion

Discussion should lead to two results. First, I want analysis and clarification of the material. What is the author saying? What is the author's intended meaning of key words in the text? What is fact and what is the author's opinion? With what evidence does the author support opinions? What do you see as the theme of this story, poem, or play? What elements contribute to this theme?

Second, I want response to, and criticism of, the author's work. What do you think of the author's opinion? Is the evidence or reasoning convincing? What other opinions are possible? Compare your opinion with that of the author. How does this article make you feel? Why? What connections (harmonies or conflicts) do you find between this author's ideas and those of other thinkers we have studied?

It is best to attack these two tasks — analysis and criticism — in the order described; after all, we must understand possible readings of the work before we can properly respond or criticize. As discussion leader, you will find that students want to express opinions before doing anything else. Keep pulling the class toward clarification of the readings. The more you accomplish here, the more meaningful and pertinent the criticisms and other responses will be. To reiterate, the discussion will swing naturally toward opinion, just as the horse turns naturally toward home. Keep pulling toward clarification (What does the author mean by...?, What is a possible reading of...?) and you will achieve good balance between analysis and criticism.

Finally, I want you to enjoy the discussions. Keep this in mind whenever differences of opinion arise. It's okay to defend your beliefs, but it is also okay to be wrong, to concede a point, or to change your mind. A mind that never changes is about as useful as a window stuck in one position. The main object of argument is not to win, but to know the pleasure of real thinking and learning.

Portions adapted from A User's Manual for Student-Led Discussion
© 2021, Gale Rhodes, adapted by permission.

Grading Specifications

Discussion Leadership Rubric
Poor Fair Good Excellent
(20 points possible)
Shows significant gaps and/or inaccuracies in understanding the assigned readings; unprepared. (10 pts) Demonstrates general understanding of the readings; may show evidence of some gaps in comprehension/preparation. (15 pts) Displays understanding of the readings; may miss some nuances of meaning. (17 pts) Understands the readings thoroughly; facilitator shows a depth of insight and careful preparation. (20 pts)
Facilitates Discussion
(20 points possible)
Ineffectively engages students. Discussion falls flat due to presenter difficulties. Engagement of classmates was weak. (10 pts) Has some difficulty leading the discussion (e.g., no elaboration or minimal opportunity for discussion; allows discussion to remain off-topic) but shows some skill as facilitator. (15 pts) Leads discussion well. May need more follow-up questions, to engage students more, or to engage more students, or to keep discussion on-track. (17 pts) Effectively engages students in discussion of topic. Listens well and responds appropriately. Uses follow-up questions to expand the discussion. Encourages all students to participate. (20 pts)
Quality of Questions
(10 points possible)
Questions need more work; topic covered inadequately. (5 pts) Some good questions, but may need more in-depth questions and/or an increase in the number of questions to effectively cover the topic. (7.5 pts) Good choice of questions. Key points are highlighted; topic is covered well. (8.5 pts) Insightful, appropriate, and in-depth questions which lead to a thorough and useful discussion of the topic. (10 pts)
Discussion Participation Rubric
Unengaged (0 points) Poor (35 points) Fair (40 points) Good (45 points) Excellent (50 points)
Level of Participation Does not participate in any conversation; is clearly not attentive to what is being discussed Responds to general surveys of the class; gives brief, simple answers; may show some interest through side conversations Responds once or twice with some insight; makes multiple simple responses throughout various discussions Responds occasionally with insight that is thoughtful and demonstrates engagement with the material and the greater discussion Responds consistently with insight that advances the conversation and leads to alternative threads of discussion; continually demonstrates connection with other course readings and materials