Social space

In many ways, of course, the structure of group relations in the course was a function of the choices we made and the constraints we worked under in the areas of physical, temporal, and virtual space. But there were further choices which shaped the relations among the people in Truth in Society.

Perhaps the primary factors were not so much choices as functions of the fact that there were about three dozen students, in contact with each other for a substantial portion of their time at university. This in itself shaped the nature of the society: of necessity, people will come to know each other better than in the usual classroom situation, whatever else might be different. Equally important was the fact that there were three collaborating teachers in the group: it was impossible for one person to become the center of the discourse or the locus of power. Negotiations were almost all public. For instance, students arguing for changes in some specific practice or assignment knew that there were at least three, and often three dozen, people who would have to be involved in any decision.

Equally important, the teachers had agreed from the outset that as far as possible we wanted to remove ourselves from the centre of the discourse and the process of decision making. Our intention was to determine, actively and consciously, the conditions under which decisions would be made, and to agree on the constraints on those decisions in advance; and, once the stage had been set, to insist that the students make, and take responsibility for, significant decisions. We also agreed that these decisions would, as far as possible, be group decisions and would have consequences for others.

This created a substantial number of occasions for oral and written communication among the students. Whereas in a "normal" class almost all written language and most oral language occurs between student and teacher, we wanted (and we think we succeeded in this) to tilt the balance dramatically, so that the overwhelming majority of acts of communication would be between students. One consequence of this was, as we expected, that there was simply more communication. We believe students wrote and spoke many times more, and in more different situations and with a greater range of purposes, than in what we might call the "default mode" course.

Another important element of the social space we designed was that social relationships were, as far as we could achieve it, task-oriented and task-determined. By setting the task as collaborative investigation and dissemination of what was learned through text, we created a situation in which groups of students were formed, re-formed and re-formed again, so that students worked together in the greatest possible variety of configurations. There were seminars, "focus groups," task forces, small ad hoc working groups, dyads and individuals doing research and writing, in an ever-shifting array, according to the task at hand. Often groups formed spontaneously and arrange their own meetings, or communicated via email.

What is particularly important here is our attempt to create social groups out of shared tasks rather than to focus on the creation of groups as an end in itself. One consequence of this, if it succeeds, is that members of a group are more likely to "take ownership" of a task, because sharing the task becomes a way of identifying oneself as a functioning, accepted member of the particular group. We were not together, we insisted, to become lifelong friends, but to learn about a particular historical episode of believing and to understand better the nature of truth and convictions about truth.

One other aspect of the social space is important to mention. Each student was required to attend a certain number of campus cultural events -- drama productions, gallery openings, readings, lectures, -- and to write about their reactions to and understanding of the event. They were responsible for making sure that at least eight other people also attended the event, and for reading -- and responding to -- what at least one of those other people wrote about it. Events had to be proposed and approved by the teachers (we were primarily interested, and we were quite explicit about this, in getting them to attend the sorts of events that they might not attend otherwise. In practice, almost anything that was a public Occasion would have been approved). This created not only another chance for students to deal with each other about choices, but also provided -- particularly after we established the network-based "Online Discussion" bulletin board as the site for the discussions of "events" -- a venue which powerfully afforded discussion of substantial issues.

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