February 1999 // Case Studies
Whose Line is it Anyway?
The Instructor's Role in Course Listservs
by Russell Hunt and Robert Lewis
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Russell Hunt and Robert Lewis "Whose Line is it Anyway?
The Instructor's Role in Course Listservs" The Technology Source, February 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The course listserv has been touted as an effective way to actively engage students in learning. But as any teacher knows, there are many variants of active learning. Not all lead to deep, authentic engagement with the ideas under study. So too with course listservs. As many teachers have discovered, listservs can afford a variety of responses, including surface thinking, the expression of unreflective personal reactions, and the formulation of a dutiful, examination-style exposition.

On the other hand, listservs can draw students into a critical examination of their own thinking and into an appreciation of the unsettling and unresolved issues in the discipline. The role the instructor adopts for participation in the discussion is a critical factor in attaining such objectives.

There is not, as yet, much to guide teachers in the use of course listservs other than their own experience with lists of a professional nature. While the purposes of the course listserv are similar to those of the professional one, the context and relationships are different enough to place students in something of a double bind. In establishing listservs for students, a teacher may be signaling a change in the relationship between students and mentors; a teacher may desire to establish a forum in which she/he participates as a member rather than as an authority figure, or a forum in which she/he is only an invisible organizer. But if the new norms expected by teachers are not explicitly stated, the authority and reward power of the mentor may effectively quash the desired collegial relationship between teachers and students.

Typically, students will infer the nature of this relationship based on several variables, including their previous experience with listservs, the manner in which participation is connected to course credit (and grades), and the frequency and perceived purpose of teacher participation. Clearly, a single instructor cannot adopt with students the same voice or discourse strategies they use with peers; equally clearly, the voice and discourse strategies that an instructor uses in a face-to-face classroom situation cannot transfer to the listserv context.

Our own experiences in structuring listservs have ranged from one-on-one interaction to collaborative construction of academic resources. Based on these experiences, we describe four roles—of editor, prompter, game show host, and producer—instructors might adopt on a listserv in order to prompt more deeply engaged participation.

The Editor

In this role, the instructor invites reflections on class activities or experiences related to class and mediates the "publication" of those written reflections. The instructor uses student writing to deepen or extend thinking by underlining student comments or by making explicit some of the theories implicit in student responses. The students control the agenda of the listserv, while the instructor sets the agenda of the class.

For example, "editing" is exemplified in a module entitled "Language and Culture" that invited students to explore their thoughts and experiences by reflecting on their language experiences for the week, which included an assigned contact with a person from a differing culture in addition to the course content. Students sent their reflections in the form of an e-mail message to the teacher, who read them and moved them to a folder. The entire week's writing was then stripped of all extraneous material (except the writer's name, which was retained), printed in a uniform format, and distributed. The teacher did not enter the conversation, but focused attention on student comments that extended the course objectives. By selecting valuable comments from each writer and highlighting them (boxing, shading, underlining), the teacher reinforced selected ideas and directed attention to important concepts. With all the week's messages circulated together, students (and the teacher) get an overview of what the group as a whole is exploring and accomplishing.

This admittedly manipulative approach is actually quite well-received by students because they have early and constant feedback concerning their progress. Further, the pooled and hard-copy record of each week is available to all class members, even when a computer is not handy.

The Prompter

The role of prompter is a more active one. Given the possible constraints to student participation generated by the perceived power of the instructor, he or she should explore the possibility of shifting the prompter role to someone else.

For example, in a one credit hour course entitled "On Becoming a Teacher," students integrated material from disparate sources into a personal view of themselves as teachers—built, that is, a "pedagogic self." As members of a small, collegially organized teacher education program, the participants knew each other and their teachers well. For three years the department chair served as the moderator for the course listserv, expecting it to function similar to professional listservs. Instead, student participation was inhibited by the heavy influence of the chair despite his attempts to take a responding rather than an initiating role. In 1998, a former student who was teaching at a nearby university was employed to serve as moderator. The department chair remained on the list as a "lurker," receiving all messages but participating rarely and only as a fellow "becoming-teacher."

The change in leadership—and in the perceived position of the leader—revitalized the list. The outside moderator, unknown to all but the chair, was able to offer prompts to the members without some of the baggage that had accompanied similar offerings from the chair. Because the moderator had been a student in the program, he was familiar with most of what the members were experiencing. The participants found the entire experience very satisfying and facilitative of learning; indeed, some of them participated in a presentation of the model at a conference of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Craft et al., 1998).

In settings where list participants are in close personal contact, an outside agent directing and facilitating a listserv discussion can be energizing; it can also minimize the constraints generated by the perceived power of the teacher's voice.

The Game Show Host

The ideal relationship between class listserv members is one in which members act like a skilled group of comics who are creating an impromptu skit. Each plays off the others, and each submits individual ideas that contribute to the group building of cohesive structure. In this role, the instructor is analogous to a game show host who sets the parameters, enjoys the interplay, intervenes to redirect action, and cheerleads responses to exemplary actions.

For example, in an eighteenth century literature class, the instructor asked everyone to post an "assignment"—question, provocation, or challenge—in regard to a text the individual had read. Members of the class could then choose a number of such provocations to which they would respond. The instructor was one among other respondents, because none of the assignments were "his"; he later shaped the production of a printed booklet based on edited and shaped versions of the conversations. Because the student writers knew that the conversations had the potential to be retained, edited, and "published" (a circumstance, of course, unilaterally created by the instructor), their participation was significantly deepened and intensified, particularly as they became accustomed to the process. In this case, the most visible role of the teacher is as the host, the animator of the whole situation, and his role as "publisher" is salient only later in the process.

The three listserv approaches described above share a characteristic that is important in the development of meaningful dialogue: the instructor's voice is constrained by explicitly defined roles. In three different ways, the instructor directs and promotes deeper engagement with ideas, while encouraging unlimited student participation.

The Producer

A final role must still be considered—one invisible in the discourse yet present, even if by default, in all listservs. The instructor is always the producer, whether he or she takes a starring role, waits in the wings, or even sits in the audience. Even if entirely invisible in the discourse, the instructor shapes the situation by creating the physical context and the social constraints under which the participants operate.

Moreover, the instructor as "producer" chooses the listserv software and its configuration. The nature of the conversation on an electronically-mediated forum is shaped in important ways by the software presentation. For example, if an instructor configures the list so that responses must be manually addressed and so that responses go only to the individual student who posts, then it is much less likely that discussions will involve everyone. More likely, they will devolve into separate individual conversations and lapse entirely. (For a more extended treatment of these issues, see Hunt, 1998.)

Equally important, and almost equally ignored, is whether the software is set to include the message to which one is responding (or in some way give the writer easy access to the text, and to a way of including it in the message being composed). Including the text has the effect of making it more likely that a topic will continue, and deepen, from one posting to the next.

Other Considerations in Using Listservs

Selecting different kinds of software to conduct such discussions can have a powerful influence on the likelihood, for example, that participants have immediate access to all the relevant previous postings, rather than having to invoke an archive or locate saved messages. Web-based discussion software like HyperNews and Ceilidh can facilitate coherence by making it far easier to "remember" what has already been said, making associative wandering and superficial repetition of ideas less likely.


As any editor, prompter, host, or producer knows, the secret of effective dialogue construction is to give the characters some freedom and responsibility: not to dominate them, but to make sure that the plot includes them all and proceeds from them all. Teachers know this, too. In the improvisational theater of the classroom, when such freedom and responsibility is achieved, of course, anything can happen. In our experience, such freedom and responsibility can promote authentic engagement.


Craft, K., Lewis, R., Craigs, G. L., Mitchell, L., Nickerson, A-M, Price, H., Spurles, A. & Woodworth, D. (1998, April). The listserv as integrative vehicle, Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Annual Meeting, Sackville, New Brunswick. Retrieved January 30, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.mta.ca/stlhe98/sessions/sess-2.html

Hunt, R. A. (1998). Electronic discussions in learning and teaching: Why they don't work, and how they might. Connexions: Newsletter of the International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives 10 (2) 1-7. Retrieved January 30, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.west.asu.edu/iseta/connexions/cover102.html

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