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“The Provoker” Discussion Board Threads

by Scott Warnock with Lisa Schepis-Myers

Publication Details

 OLOR Series: OLOR Effective Practices
 Author(s): Scott Warnock with Lisa Schepis-Myers
 Original Publication Date:  15 May 2020



The Provoker is a contradictory voice on the course discussions who challenges students with hyperbolic and oftentimes outrageous positions. Teachers who use discussion boards as dialogue platforms in their courses as regular practice can add a Provoker thread. The goal is to help students develop arguments using evidence, logic, and rhetorical skill—instead of succumbing to hostile discourse; indeed, a key strategy of Provoker threads is to help students practice civilized, respectful digital discourse. 

Resource Contents

1. Overview

In onsite classrooms, Scott does not consider himself much of an actor, so adopting teacherly “roles” in face-to-face instruction has never been a central aspect of his teaching. But in an online writing course (OWC), he has found he can easily take on a different writing persona through course written message boards, what he calls Provoker threads.

The Provoker is a contradictory voice on the course discussions who challenges students with hyperbolic and oftentimes outrageous positions. Teachers who use discussion boards as dialogue platforms in their courses as regular practice can add a Provoker thread. Teachers can easily set up these threads as part of their course message boards. Several times a term, Scott composes a discussion board prompt using a pseudonym (we will use a favorite, Dr. Ethopatho, in this article) that takes extreme and often playfully antagonistic positions on various topics. He has primarily used this teaching approach in first-year argument-/persuasion-centered OWCs.

The goal is to help students develop arguments using evidence, logic, and rhetorical skill—instead of succumbing to hostile discourse; indeed, a key strategy of Provoker threads is to help students practice civilized, respectful digital discourse. Dr. Ethopatho is often rude, but students must not fall for his provocations. Provoker threads also help create community among students, who often work together to debate the Provoker. Such community building can be particularly worthwhile in an OWC, where otherwise students can feel isolated and disconnected from instructor and classmates.

Scott has found this practice to be pedagogically fun for him. Below, Lisa, a student from a recent OWC Scott taught, describes her experience and confirms that interacting with the Provoker is not only enjoyable—“a welcomed break from the usual agenda”—but also contributes to students’ writing education.

Using Provoker threads during a course allows a teacher to:

  1. Engage students in controversial debates without the pressure of "arguing" with the professor.
  2. Help them write in ways that maintain control of tone and voice.
  3. Encourage evidence-based argument, as they must use evidence to find the (often gaping) holes in the Provoker's claims.
  4. Create writing environments that lead to collaborative writing community and play in the course. ​​​

2. A “Chance for Our Own Voice to Shine Through”

Provoker threads are the most popular threads in Scott’s courses. At the end of each term in his OWCs, Scott asks his students--in a discussion thread--to recognize their “favorite” posts, posters, and/or threads. In his latest course, all students who chose to identify a favorite thread (as opposed to a particular poster or post) identified one of the Provoker threads. In the course before that, 12 of the 14 students who named a favorite cited either threads or individual posts from Provoker conversations. Comments like these are typical: “... I think [the Provoker] threads were some of the most fun and insightful. The style of the discussion allowed for us students to really state our own opinions, and, since it was fairly informal, also left room for banter and a bigger chance for our own voice to shine through”; “I thought it was a really refreshing way to keep us engaged in the class discussions in a creative way. I also genuinely enjoyed reading [the Provoker’s] post, as they pretty much guaranteed me to chuckle once or twice.”

Lisa's course was a first-year, second-term, course. After the course was completed, she noted, “In retrospect, the discussion topics were my favorite because they were thought provoking and inspired a natural response in the guise of a scholarly argument. Love him or hate him, the good doctor’s guest appearances often received the most attention because they hit a nerve with students and encouraged us to challenge his unusual and sometimes outlandish claims through research and opinion.”

The sense of collaboration is useful to focus on for a moment. In a brief review of the literature about participation and community, Stefan Hrastinski said “the concepts of sense of community, learning communities and knowledge-building communities are closely related with learning as participation” (80). Education researchers Kathleen Poll, Jeanne Widen, and Sherri Weller found, “Online students need to feel that they are part of a specific community, their contributions to the course are acknowledged and incorporated, and their participation and insights are valued” (59). Similar to the dynamic in onsite instruction, Poll, Widen, and Weller say that in online learning “much of student success depends on setting the tone for a course and creating the type of open learning environment that allows and encourages a level of respect and trust, invites differing perspectives, spurs inquiry, and fosters engaging and challenging dialogue” (60). Students can tip-toe around “trust” and “differing perspectives” all term, often because the sense of fun or play is more difficult to establish in online learning. The Provoker provides a way to address that.

3. Engagement and Student Success

There is a growing literature about how engagement on asynchronous forums can influence student performance, engagement, and success in online courses. The material above is drawn from the article “Six Instructional Best Practices for Online Engagement and Retention” by Kathleen Poll, Jeanne Widen, and Sherri Weller, which appeared in Journal of Online Doctoral Education (1.1: 56-72, 2014) and from “A theory of online learning as online participation” by Stefan Hrastinski, which appeared in Computers & Education (52.1 78-82, 2019). Both articles strongly connect the experience of online learning with participation.

Scott has written about Provoker threads previously on his long-running blog Online Writing Teacher, especially here: “Message board thread prompts (part I).” Monday, May 31, 2010. http://onlinewritingteacher.blogspot.com/2010_05_01_archive.html. This article is an elaboration of the ideas from that post and others.

He also wrote about the general value of the low-stakes writing environment of discussions in “The Low-Stakes, Risk-Friendly Message Board Text,” which appeared in Teaching with Student Texts: Essays Toward an Informed Practice, edited by Joseph Harris, John Miles, & Charles Paine (Utah State University Press, 2010, pages 96-107). Much like the Provoker threads, he describes how message boards can naturally allow for an open, low-stakes, and thus risk-friendly writing environment. One of the sources he attributes in his thinking in this way about such informal is Joseph Ugoretz’s “‘Two Roads Diverged in a Wood’: Productive Digression in Asynchronous Discussion” (Innovate, 1.3, 2005), which focuses the value of asynchronous forums in developing helping writers take productive writing risks.

The moderating approaches Scott mentions below that can help teachers use Provoker threads are described in George Collison, Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind, and Robert Tinker’s excellent Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators (Madison: Atwood, 2000).

4. Devil’s Advocate

The Provoker is a rhetorically edgy, devil’s advocate-type voice in class discussions. The teacher posts using an alias, although the teacher should introduce the “guest,” at least initially, and facilitate the Provoker’s posts. Scott has occasionally logged into the CMS using guest access so the posts do not have his name attached to them; in those cases, he does make it clear to students that this guest is also him (only once was a student confused about this, not realizing that the Provoker guest was actually the professor). So the Provoker is the professor—but also not, as shown in Praxis Snapshot 1.

Praxis Snapshot 1. The Provoker as Devil's Advocate

The Provoker takes extreme stances about topics likely to ignite debate:

Dear students in English 102:

I’m tired of hearing everyone complain about the cost of college. Considering how much people benefit earnings-wise over the course of their lifetime based upon the degree they have earned (see http://www.acinet.org/acinet/finaidadvisor/earnings.asp?nodeid=21), I argue that college should cost MORE money than it does now. I would ask if you agree, but how could you not?: I make a very reasonable and logical argument.

Yep, that’s what I think,

Dr. Ethopatho

He writes with cheek and sass, taunting the students:

Dear students in Prof. Warnock’s English 102 course,

Kind of nice to see you again. I have something to say this week about Wikipedia. I think that Wikipedia is a completely useless site except as entertainment. No one should ever use it for anything of importance or for real research. Wikis are an unreliable way to build true information. I think the positives of Wikipedia are grossly exaggerated and are only promoted by people who have something to gain from Wikipedia or who don’t understand the informational value of the Web!

There. If you want to take me on, at least show a little argument savvy – Prof. Warnock gave you access to some materials this week, I think – and use some evidence.

I doubt you're up to the task,

Dr. Ethopatho

With the “official” (i.e., grade-distributing) Professor, in the background, Scott has found that students write with verve and passion while also composing solid, interesting arguments. They are rhetorically creative. They use evidence. They avoid logical fallacies, particularly ad hominem, when dealing with an often disrespectful interlocutor. They have to think through written, and sometimes emotional, argumentation. And they often work together, building off each other to take down Dr. Ethopatho.

Here is an example of the smart, playful way that Lisa responded to another student on one of these threads. In the second of the three Dr. Ethopatho conversations that term, another student opened by admitting to not participating in the first one because she thought “arguments that start with extreme or radical statements serve one purpose, which is to be inflammatory… I find those types of arguments to be a supreme waste of time…” However, the student then said she realized that with the Provoker threads that is “seriously the whole point of the thread”! The student then described her views on the value of college. Lisa was able to build on that, as demonstrated in Praxis Snapshot 2 below.

Praxis Snapshot 2. Reflecting on The Provoker with Students

This is an interesting post. Lisa initially lasers in on the topic, describing her own hopes in terms of what educational advancement will yield for her in consideration of costs (remember, Dr. Ethopatho thinks college should cost more). Then she has a delightful digression in which she tries to think through just who this “Dr. Ethopatho” is--or represents!

RE: Take on Dr. Ethopatho on value of college

Hi __, your opening sentence is honest and to the point, I respect your feelings towards Dr. Ethopatho. Like some of your former peers, I went to a two-year vocational college after high school, and the loans from that program are greater than $25,000. I don’t know if that is a steal or not, but I need a bachelor’s degree in order to pay for the first one, and hopefully have some money left to live on. I am scared that my earning potential, even with the four-year degree will resemble my current salary now and this will all have been for nothing.

With that said, I think Dr. Ethopatho is a code name, like “Sasha Fierce,” is to Beyoncé. I know I sound crazy, but if you break down the last name using medical terminology it translates to alcohol disease (ETHO- alcohol and PATHO is disease). I did a quick search in McClure’s “Googlepedia” and could not find him/her. Oh well, maybe I have been watching too many conspiracy theories on You Tube, regardless, I appreciate these threads because they allow us to veer off the beaten path while strengthening our research and writing skills.


Especially in a persuasive writing-type class, Scott wants students to have smart, authentic arguments, but a course can be a difficult place for that, regardless of modality. Provoker threads allow students to write and argue without worrying about offending classmates or dealing with the authority-laden quagmire of “debating the teacher.” Term after term, Scott feels Provoker threads bring out some of their best writing.

In fact, teachers often lament that students have wooden presences on discussion boards, but Lisa’s post is an example of how students not only engage in the “official” task of debating Dr. Ethopatho but also use the opportunity to write some creative, if “conspiratorial” (!), thoughts. Lisa said, “The objective of the Provoker is to spark a rhetorical debate. Dr. Ethopatho’s guest appearance allows students to blow off steam while practicing argumentative writing. Some students find these posts to be a welcomed distraction from the usual writing assignments.”

5. Active Teacher Engagement is Key

Scott finds the process enjoyable, too. He is competitive and debates students head-on in ways that would be difficult with him as the professor. In order to make these threads work most effectively, Scott feels the teacher should be actively engaging in the thread during the week. His approach is to create a mid-week synopsis post, in which he (following Collision et al.), provides a synthesis of the students’ posts and arguments. Depending on the message board system, he often simply posts that synthesis post from his own alias, incorporating Dr. Ethopatho’s response into that post--as illustrated in Praxis Snapshot 3 below.

Praxis Snapshot 3. The Provoker Provoked--Importance of Teacher Engagement

Here is Dr. Ethopatho replying to their rebuttals to his Wikipedia “argument”; you can see that, throughout, he cites them directly (pseudonyms below) to show a reflection of their arguments:

SUBJ: Dr. Ethopatho mad. Very mad

Dear students of Prof. Warnock,

You all think you’re so smart. Blair asks, “I only want to know how you can decide what source is valid compared to another source.” I’ll tell you: Peer review! Editors! Experts! Let the experts be the gatekeepers. Let’s get scholarly. Pete writes, “Who is to say that the information on this web page is not scholarly as any other?” Well, just about everyone, Pete! Read Praxis about the definition of a scholarly source. As Wendy points out (but in a nicer way than me; everyone is nicer than me), any buffoon can be a Wikipedia editor (in fact, even poor Prof. Warnock is a Wikipedia editor). Then Janet says, “Scholarly articles and sources are questioned all the time,” – name one time this happened! Let’s stop all this nonsense![...]

As he writes, Scott even uses Dr. Ethopatho to poke fun at himself: “poor Prof. Warnock.” From the above, as you might imagine, the students usually “defeat” Dr. Ethopatho by week’s end. He slinks away into the rhetorical ether, and the “real” Prof. Warnock pops in and congratulates them. The experience involves a good amount of compositional play for the students, and Scott has seen that this provides the students with a method of helping student enjoy their classroom writing, a pedagogical approach that is not only good writing instruction but good overall online pedagogy.

6. Any Asynchronous Writing Environment

A great thing about Provoker posts is that they can be used in any asynchronous writing environment, even email or listservs. The technology involved, message boards, is part of all course management systems. So, as noted above, the Provoker technique is a high impact practice but one that does not likely require technology (or instructor design) beyond what most online writing instructors are already doing.

We want to reinforce that this is an easy teaching strategy to implement. Also, Scott has a few recommendations for using these posts:

  • Use a Provoker thread every few weeks in your online course. Depending on your pedagogy, you can require a post on the Provoker thread that week or not.
  • It’s okay if a particular group of students takes on the Provoker, but if for some reason that becomes an issue, instructors can require all students to post on a Provoker thread that week. Scott didn’t want to have this mandate and always uses Provoker threads as optional for students--this is never a problem because, again, they are the most popular threads in his course.
  • Provoker threads are probably best not to use in Week 1. It’s better if students develop a sense of the instructor’s (and other students’) real voice. Lisa supports this in saying that these threads would not work well in Week 1 due to the nature and tone of the posts.
  • Be mindful of how Provoker threads work with multilingual students. These students might not understand the “game” or might even, for cultural-educational reasons, feel uncomfortable challenging a “Dr.”
  • Teachers may really enjoy being provocative, sarcastic, and perhaps even playfully rude, but teachers don’t want to overplay their hands.

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