Why the classroom metaphor fails to describe the learning community
The 'professor' metaphor came close to success when members began to internalize the new hierarchical order of a classroom. However, most members remained diligent in their efforts to restrain text-speak in their community, and a new definitive rule is eventually constructed; meanwhile, traversman is symbolically cast out of the group (he never returns, though he is not banned from the forums). Where mens_rea's rhetorical scene succeeds, Drusus's fails. Essentially, Drusus chose the wrong metaphor for his audience, and neglected the importance of rule-making and enforcement within online communities, particularly those comprised of gamers.
Ultimately, the classroom metaphor is not strong enough to re-frame this scene. Booth (1979) compiled five criteria of a good metaphor: 1) it lends energy to the inactive, 2) it is concise, 3) it is appropriate for the rhetorical task, 4) it is accommodated to the audience, and 5) it builds the speaker's ethos (54-55). Drusus's metaphor does provide a tangible figure, a professor, to define the type of error response that takes place in the conversation. It is also concise. Yet I would argue that this metaphor does not fulfill the requirements outlined in criteria three through five. First, the rhetorical task taking place in the gamer forum is intended to be the social construction of rules related to language use. This necessitates debate, which does take place, but this debate is among equals in the community. The 'professor' title suits no one in this instance because no single member has the power to make these decisions alone. The only authority one may be perceived to have could be represented in his number of posts and duration of community membership-not his expertise in a subject area. Second, the 'professor' metaphor exploits the audience's perception of school as something negative. While some gamers share unenthusiastic opinions of the schooling that cuts into their game time, it would be presumptuous to say all gamers devalue education. In fact, this gamer community seems to feel quite the opposite. They appear genuinely interested in discussing the importance of proper English and what role it plays in their community. They ask leading questions that provoke in-depth conversation and ask that others provide ample reasoning to support claims. The suggestion that such expectations are only befitting of a classroom undermines the intelligence of this audience. Finally, Drusus damages his own credibility with this metaphor as he assigns himself the role of student when referring to others as professors. He becomes little more than a malcontent whining about the rules.
Distance classrooms are more apt to form pseudocommunities than teacherless learning communities like the one examined here. A teacherless classroom, according to Elbow (1973), is comprised of a diverse group of people committed to writing frequently and providing honest, direct feedback to peer writing. Elbow insists that there is no wrong kind of feedback on writing, not even the "nutty parts" (p. 95). Such communities take writing and argument very seriously, and members have no reservations about providing criticism to others. There is no fear of hurting someone's feelings, nor is there any sense of inadequacy in one's own ability to communicate about the topic that brings them together. Elbow adds that differences in opinion are a valuable part of a teacherless classroom, and many traditional classrooms suffer from a "poverty of disagreement" (p. 111) that results in poor peer feedback to writing. Similarly, the interaction that takes place in gaming forums values honest feedback that isn't sugar-coated, but is constructive to debate and utilized by the receiver to maintain his position within the community. There is no place for a professor in this kind of setting because all members share the same role and equally value writing and writing feedback. Similarly, peer response groups in online courses must learn to identify themselves as communities that value and participate in writing. Too often, these groups defer to their instructor to authenticate their judgments about each other's writing because they have yet to view the group (and themselves) as a self-sufficient community with valuable opinions about writing. In almost every respect, these groups fit the description of Elbow's teacherless classroom as well as the online video game forum community does. The only difference appears to be the level of commitment to rule-enforcement, since the student groups still rely on the teacher for this contribution.
Established online forum communities mirror Elbow's teacherless classroom in many other ways as members voluntarily provide instruction and feedback to one another; according to Herz (2002), "if a gamer doesn't understand something, a continuously updated, distributed knowledge base maintained by a sprawling community of players is available from which to learn" (p. 173). He goes on to say that hybridized traditional classrooms increasingly use discussion threads, file sharing, and email; however, these activities are not being used to emphasize socially contextualized learning. In other words, the teacher's presence still suggests a classroom hierarchy where participants look to that person, or name on the screen, for assurance that their contributions are adequate. The teacher chooses the topic and flow of discussion; she is the presenter and the students are the participants. In a teacherless classroom, like a forum community, all members are simultaneously presenters and participants, equally responsible for following the rules as they are for creating and enforcing them.