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The "Provoker" Strikes Back: Fostering Student Community and Engagement through the "Provoker" Thread

by Aleisha Balestri

College of DuPage

Publication Details

OLOR Series: OLOR Effective Practices
 Author(s): Aleisha Balestri
 Original Publication Date: 18 JUNE, 2023


This piece was authored as part of a GSOLE Research Fellows grant which is supporting authors as they adopt, implement, and collect data on an existing teaching practice published in the Online Literacies Open Resource “Effective Practices” (OLOR EP) journal. 

The article here is an extension of and response to Scott Warnock and Lisa Schepis-Myers’ piece from May 15th, 2020: “ ‘The Provoker’ Discussion Board Threads” <https://gsole.org/olor/ep/2020.05.15>.  

Readers are invited to consult the original article for a full discussion of "The Provoker" discussion board practice, but for quick reference, the abstract to the Warnock and  Schepis-Myers article is also provided here:

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.

Professor Balestri is the first GSOLE Research Fellow to publish under the auspices of this grant.

- Jason Snart, OLOR EP founder and editor


Academic discourse is an important aspect of the writing process. Yet, it involves conversations that students must feel both engaged with and comfortable participating in, especially since these discussions may involve challenging the positions of others or even rethinking one’s own perspective. Thus, facilitating a welcoming and supportive classroom community is vital, though this can be difficult in an online setting. However, by utilizing innovative resources, such as the Online Literacies Open Resources “Effective Practice” Journal, online instructors can learn various approaches and tools to address these concerns. One such approach is detailed in Scott Warnock and Lisa Schepis-Myers’ article, “Provoker Discussion Board Threads." In the Fall of 2022, I adapted this activity for my own online classroom. These discussion boards encourage the instructor to create and present a faulty and often outrageous argument to students, asking them to work together as a team to challenge “the provoker” in an online, asynchronous debate. These debates combat student disengagement by fostering dynamic conversations and teamwork, creating a sense of community while also showing students how academic discourse can be both enlightening and fun.

Resource Contents

 1. Introduction

[1] One of the first, and perhaps biggest, hurdles that First-Year Composition instructors often face is student disengagement with the writing process. This disengagement seems to be especially present for courses centered on argumentative writing, for students seem to misinterpret the argumentative process as stifling, alienating, or even hostile. For example, when I ask my students their views on argumentation through an anonymous survey each semester, many claim that they are not comfortable with this skill. In the Fall of 2022, one student elaborated on this point: “Honestly, I do not consider debating topics in any situation worth my time because, when debating, the whole situation can heat up very quickly between friends, family, or teachers…it’s not worth fighting.”  It is important to note that this student included “teachers” within their explanation, showing that even within an academic setting, where lively discourse is highlighted as a means of growth, some students feel it is better to simply go through the motions rather than risk confrontation.

[2] Furthermore, these concerns can be amplified within an online setting where engagement may be further encumbered by the lack of weekly face-to-face interaction. Students may in turn feel like “islands” behind a screen who view one another as disembodied names rather than a collaborative classroom community. This can become detrimental to their growth as writers but can be especially problematic within argumentative writing since it is at its core an act of communal discourse. However, we as instructors can break this cycle. This can be done by employing the “OLI Principle and Tenets“ (OLI Principles Committee, 2019), and through the discovery and utilization of innovative OWC pedagogical practices.

The "Provoker" Discussion Board Threads

[3] In the Fall of 2022, I was given the opportunity to investigate some of these methods as a GSOLE Research Fellow. For this project, I was asked to implement teaching practices from an OLOR Effective Practice article of my choice. Although there were many thought-provoking pieces, the one that I kept coming back to was “‘The Provoker’ Discussion Board Threads” by Scott Warnock with Lisa Schepis-Myers (2020). In this article, the authors explain a unique strategy for fostering online engagement while also enabling academic discourse by asking students to respond, analyze, and evaluate provoking argumentative positions. This is done using “Provoker Threads.” 

[4] The “Provoker Threads” are discussion board assignments, but with a twist. Instead of the common read-and-respond strategy, “Provoker Threads” allow instructors to create a contradictory persona that “challenges students with hyperbolic and oftentimes outrageous positions…” (Warnock & Schepis-Myers, 2020, par. 2). This activity not only enables students to practice important rhetorical skills such as evidence-based reasoning, but also “help[s] create community among students, who often work together to debate the Provoker” (par. 3). Students are encouraged to comment upon and/or add on to one another’s claims, uniting together as allies against the “Provoker Persona.”

[5] I was both fascinated and intrigued with this activity. It seemed like it could be an entertaining project for both the instructor and students, and I liked how these discussion threads seemed to juxtapose playfulness with academic discourse. However, I was also a bit hesitant, especially when it came to my ability to develop a persona and create arguments that students could unite against. Yet, despite my concerns, I decided to give this practice a try.

2. Methods

[6] I incorporated “The Provoker Threads” into my Fall 2022 ENGLI-1102 (Composition II) course. To better understand how students felt about the concepts of online community and argumentation, I once again began the semester with an anonymous survey. I asked students if they had ever taken an online course before, and if so, whether or not they felt connected to their peers within the course. The answers were somewhat varied, but one constant point was that the majority of students mentioned that a sense of community within an OWC is possible, but difficult and would take work. For example, responses like this were common: “I believe that since it is online it is difficult to have a sense of community, but I think that when people are going out of their way to support one another and reaching out to each other for help is when it feels more like a community with my peers.”

[7] I also asked students their thoughts on argumentation and debating. As I mentioned within the introduction, most students communicated feeling uneasy about argumentation. However, there was a common caveat. The majority of students explained that they may actually enjoy arguing as long as they were comfortable with both the person they were arguing against and the environment that the debate was taking place within. As one student explains, “It depends. [M]ost of the time on social media, I find it pointless because the other side doesn't really care. But I think it's healthy to debate on topics with people you are close with.” This point highlights how important it is for OWC instructors to facilitate multiple opportunities for class connection so that students feel both comfortable and safe when presenting, investigating, and responding to arguments.

[8] After I had a sense of how my students felt about argumentation within an OWC, I then began to consider how I could adapt the “Provoker Threads,” and one issue that came to the forefront was that my OWC was only eight weeks long. This added extra pressure. Not only did students have much less time to build a community, but I was also concerned about overwhelming them with work. To address this, I decided to make most of the discussion boards for that term “Provoker Threads,” centering them around the readings assigned for that week. I also tried to choose topics that connected to students’ lives but were not too personal.This included topics such as the value of nontraditional academic approaches, debates over the cost of higher education, and whether or not internet access should be defined as a  human right.

[9] Once I knew the topics, it was time to develop my own “Provoker Persona.” I wanted this persona to be outrageous. Yet, I also wanted to challenge students by emulating the questionable techniques that they may face on a day to day basis, but within a comfortable and safe environment.  Therefore, I decided to slightly shift from Warnock and Schepis-Myers' (2020) approach by letting the students in on the ruse. Ms. P. became my “Provoker Persona,” and students knew that she was my alternate voice. However, I also let students know that Ms. P would be presenting faulty arguments. Thus, they knew from the beginning that they should be wary of Ms. P’s claim, and confident when they noticed holes and inconsistencies.

[10] The structure of these activities was as follows: First, the Provoker would make a post, utilizing a somewhat theatrical tone. This was key because it set the tone for the overall class. Figure 1 provides an example of my first post as Ms. P.

Figure 1: "Provoker Thread" Introductory Post

Introducing the Provoker

Dear English, 1102 class,

Hello! Let me begin by introducing myself. I am Ms. P and it is my job to dissuade you of some of this “new age thinking” (new age nonsense is more like it) that I have been hearing, especially when it comes to academic research projects. See, now there is a key term in that phrase isn’t there? ACADEMIC. I hear that you all are about to embark on an inquiry driven project, and that there are sooooommmmmeeee, who claim that you should write about a topic that you enjoy or that means something to you an “approach it in a critical way.” What nonsense! Popular topics like sports, media, current news, etc have no place in an academic course. There is a reason that topics like Shakespeare have been written about for so long: because they are more “valuable” than any other topic, and thus everyone else should be forced to write about it as well. I mean, this is college after all!

Furthermore, I noticed that you all are discussing research techniques this week and that you are spending some time talking about media bias. Oh please, why should this matter? If I think a source is good enough to use and says things I agree with, why should I care if it is bias, credible, or not? Considering these questions is just a waste of time.

I am sure you all would agree.

[11] Writing Ms. P’s argument was a bit strange at first, but by following Warnock and Schepis-Myers' (2020) example, I decided to let go and just have fun. I wanted to be delightfully preposterous. The students saw the professor being “playful” with this material through Ms. P, so they were more inclined to see the fun in it as well. Also, since the students had a common, intentional, and absurd antagonist, they felt comfortable working together to challenge Ms. P. (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Two Student Responses to "Provoker One"

Student Response 1

Hi Ms. P. I hope you are having a wonderful day! I respectfully have to disagree with your post. I notice that you don't believe we should partake in writing about a topic we enjoy for our inquiry driven project. You mention that there is no place for topics other than academic topics because they are more "valuable. However, everyone has a different meaning of what is deemed valuable. For some, they would prefer to write about topics that interest them because it is more valuable to them and others might prefer writing about the classic academic topics like Shakespeare, which you mention because it's valuable to them. Having said that, in the end, it is not necessarily about the specific topic but about the ability to carefully craft an intellectual argument or commentary in a meaningful way as a means for students to truly engage in discourse. This brings me to the next point. As a writer, you want to verify that the sources you use to provide information are credible and unbiased. In doing so you earn the trust of your audience and that makes you, the author, an informed writer. By using unreliable sources your work would lose credibility which is why it is vital to use scholarly and peer reviewed sources. The quality of your sources will help determine the overall quality of your paper. I hope to hear from you soon!

Student Response 2

Hello Ms. P hope your day is going well. I must say thank you so much for sharing your opinion on new age thinking and academic topics, but I must say I do not agree with your findings. You state that you find it nonsense that we should write about topics that we are interested in. Definition of nonsense is spoken or written words that have no meaning or makes no sense. I would like to ask, when you refer to academic topics such as sports, media, and current news can you explain where this is nonsense by its definition? You also state that Shakespeare is more valuable than any other topic. Valuable definition is a thing that is of great worth. Can you provide evidence that Shakespeare is more valuable than for example Covid 19 Pandemic or Inflation act? How can you differentiate who has more value or who is more valuable? I will be awaiting your response. 

[12] Once the initial post and responses were completed, the Provoker would write a rebuttal that added to the previous argument. Students would then post a final response, and the Provoker would admit defeat (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: The Provoker is Defeated

Hello 1102!

Although it pains me a bit, I must admit, you all brought up some fair points on why I should consider expanding by definition of “valuable” when it comes to research and academic topics and how I may also be falling into the trap of “confirmation bias.” Your claims about how “interest” in a topic is more likely to encourage the student to learn essential skills such as critical thinking, argumentation, and so on and keep students engaged gave me something to think about. In fact, many of you even brought up the point of relevance when it comes to research topics, and how there may be more value in understanding how to apply our findings in the “real-world” rather than “echo” the same old conversations about these more “traditional texts.” I may have to give this guy Graff a chance, especially if some of his findings are backed by the National Library of Medicine.

 -Ms. P.

[13] However, I did make some slight changes to the original “Provoker” activity. For example, I encouraged students to use the strategies discussed in our writing lessons, specifically the “Yes/No/Ok, But: Three Ways to Respond” chapter from They Say, I Say written by Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst (2021). In this chapter, the authors unpack three strategies that students can utilize when interacting and responding to research. These include “disagree—and explain why,” a common strategy for “Provoker Thread” posts, but the chapter also elaborates on how to “agree—but with a difference” and “agree and disagree simultaneously” (Graff et al., 2021, pp. 57-67).  I found it essential to underscore these strategies to help ensure that students considered their own, authentic response to the information being presented. Although the Provoker is meant to be contradictory, I did not want students to simply disagree because they felt it was an assignment requirement.

3. Results

[14] Implementing  “Provoker Threads” into my class led to some very intriguing results. For instance, in the second Provoker thread, Ms. P claimed that college should not have to lower costs and loans should not be forgiven because college is in fact a choice (see Figure 4).

    Figure 4: The Provoker Strikes Back

    Hello again 1102! After taking a week off to gather my thoughts, I am now back to talk with you all again and offer a new challenge, if you feel ready to meet it!

    First, let me provide some context. As I was scrolling through the news a few weeks ago, I noticed an intriguing headline from the New York Times: “President Biden’s move means the student loan balances of millions of people could fall by as much as $20,000” (Leiber and Bernard).  

    Look, we all know that school is expensive, and I agree that the debt can feel overwhelming. However, many of these arguments are missing an essential point: college is a choice and not a requirement. When you take on student debt, you should understand the risks that comes with it. It is similar to any type of loan, and it is our duty to repay the money that is lent to us.

    Having a college degree also increases your economic earning potential. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, those who graduated college earned about $17,500 more than their peers and were much less likely to be unemployed and living in poverty (see graph and article). This data alone proves that college is not only worth it, but that the “burden” of student loan debt is far less than what Lehman argues.

    Finally, it does not seem fair that those who made a choice as adults should get their loans forgiven while those who took out loans for houses are not given the same opportunity. Also, what about those who have already paid their loans back or paid for college out of pocket?

    I am curious what your thoughts are on this topic?

    [15] Because this was the second “Provoker Thread,” I wanted to make it a bit more challenging by utilizing less outrageous language (although I tried to keep Ms. P’s initial sass), and using more questionable evidence and overgeneralizations. However, I may have been spending too much time as Ms. P because I soon fell into some common argumentative traps. I made the incorrect assumption that students would automatically agree that student loans should be forgiven. Yet, that was not the case. In fact, many students were more on the fence about forgiving student loans. I found these results illuminating, for it reminded me that any of us can, even accidentally, prioritize our own biases and assume that everyone will or should agree with our points of view. In this moment, I learned from the students because, despite not fully disagreeing with Ms. P, they still demonstrated nuance by highlighting some issues within her overall claim. This can be seen in Figure 5 below where the student respectfully, but directly, underscored the flaws in Ms. P’s reasoning by emphasizing how the concept of “choice” is not so easily defined.

    Figure 5: Return of the Students

    While I actually agree with some of what you are presenting here, I have to raise a counter argument on some points.  My first point being, I don't know that college education is necessarily the "choice" that you say it is that leads people to enter into massive debt with eyes wide open.  Let me explain.  As Lehman notes in his article "The student loan trap: when debt delays life," "in 1962, just 19 percent had been to college; today, 61 percent have (569)."  I do not believe that in the last sixty years that triple the amount of kids just decided to make a different choice.  The workplace situation has changed during that time period in that if you do not have a college education, there are certain jobs that you just flat out will not be considered for.  So at that point kids truly are faced with a choice, take on a lower paying, or more labor intensive job, or go to college and assume a debt that has skyrocketed over time.  Which leads me to my second point.  When kids do make the choice to attend college and are saddled with sometimes six figures in debt, their struggle and sacrifice is just beginning.  Much of their choices and decisions are solely based on carrying that student loan debt.  Things that used to be normal for older generations like having kids, buying a house, buying a car, are weighed against the debt they carry.  As Lehman asserts, "Deviations from life course constrain young Americans in their ability to give back to their communities, to raise families, to buy homes, to teach responsible membership in society-in short, to be a citizen (575)."  People should not be forced into delaying families into their thirties and forties only because they cannot get their heads above water.  If we allow this to go on without acting, then we should not act surprised when our communities feel the effects in the future.  I say all of this as someone who paid off a good chunk of student debt myself and still believe that something needs to be done to correct the course we are on. 

    [16] This type of response became the norm for the “Provoker Threads.” Students interacted with the material by taking in the content of Ms. P’s points, addressing holes in her reasoning, and defending their own claims by unpacking supporting evidence. They even added to the conversation by utilizing their own outside research. The tone and intricacy of these posts also proved that students were engaged with the material and felt comfortable entering these conversations while sharing their own informed perspectives.

    [17] By the end of the term, it seemed that my use of the “Provoker Threads” was an overall success. This can be shown in a few ways. First, as I noted above, the responses within these threads were thoughtful, utilized evidence-based reasoning, and showed an understanding of the nuances within argumentative discourse. I also want to highlight that the completion rate for these threads was 90%. This is outstanding and much higher than my previous discussion board assignments. Finally, the students spoke very highly of the “Provoker Threads.” For example, I asked students to complete another anonymous survey at the end of the semester. Some of the questions I asked were whether or not students felt more comfortable with argumentation and for their overall thoughts on the “Provoker Threads.” The responses were overwhelmingly positive. One student shared how the threads directly helped their own argumentative skills, claiming that “It was fun to try to find the small holes in Ms. P's arguments. I believe they were helpful towards our debate skills, particularly as the rebuttals came out and we had to rework our arguments.” Another student highlighted their enjoyment of the threads: “ I thought they were fun…it was an interesting take reminiscent of some random argumentative 62 year old woman on a political Facebook thread.” Students also claimed that these threads helped them feel more engaged and part of a community: “This was by far the most fun part of class. Honestly, I was at work when I got the notification about this assignment, and I was super excited to go home and start working on it. I think this is what made the whole class come together.”

    4. Conclusion

    [18] Utilizing the “Provoker Thread” activity proved to be an enlightening experience that I believe has helped me grow as both an online and in-person instructor. Students felt connected to both the content of the course and to one another, and I found myself more connected as well. This activity also pushed me to rethink and revise my approach to OWCs. I have always found it a bit difficult to display the energy I evoke within my in-person classes into an OWC. However, the “Provoker Threads” encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone by not only trying something new, but by also becoming someone new, experimenting and learning from this new persona along with my students. As noted above, both my students and I loved it.

    [19] In fact, this activity was so successful that I am now considering how it can be implemented within an in-person class as well. Students today have had to deal with unprecedented challenges, and it is understandable why they may come into a classroom, whether in-person or online, with reluctance. Yet, activities like the “Provoker Thread” remind us that learning can be both challenging and fun, and it ultimately leads to individual growth through discovery. The “Provoker Threads” underscore an interesting opportunity here. As online instructors, we are  constantly striving to create and share approaches that best benefit our students within a digital environment, an environment that is constantly changing and evolving. We have created effective practices such as the OLI Principles and Tenets (OLI Principles Committee, 2019) to help continue this work. Yet, the digital world is not the only one that continues to evolve, and as we continue to explore the relationship between online and in-person pedagogy, perhaps we may consider how best “online” practices could become, more simply, best practices.

    5. References

    Graff, G., et. al. (2021). They say, I say: The moves that matter in academic writing with readings (5th edition). Norton.  

    OLI Principles Committee. (2019, June 13). OLI principles and tenets. Global Society of Online Literacy Educatorshttps://gsole.org/oliresources/oliprinciples

    Warnock, S., and Shepis-Myers, L. (2020, May 15). ‘The provoker’ discussion board threads.” OLOR Effective Practices, GSOLE, gsole.org/olor/ep/2020.05.15  

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