What makes a successful discussion?

In light of a meeting I am having tomorrow with the faculty member who observed my class this semester, I have been giving some thought to the problem of deciding whether a class discussion has been successful. I’m beginning to think our measurement of success is almost completely dependent on the subject matter and goals of the course.

When I was taking composition pedagogy back at Case Western Reserve, I read plenty of material arguing that the only good class discussions are ones in which the students themselves are creating questions, addressing one another, feeling free to analyze relevant personal experience, and so forth. That is, in the ideal composition classroom, students are creating the content, leading discussion on the content, and responding to one another’s comments. The instructor should, after modelling this behavior, barely be in the room at all. In order to create this kind of environment, there has to be almost constant sharing of their written content, an appropriate model and direction for the conversation, and trusting relationships between class members, usually created in group work. If the class gets off-topic, then and only then is it up to the instructor to figure out how to reinterpret the ongoing conversation in a way that will result in learning.

And when I teach composition, I shoot for this model. They do lots of peer review and are responsible for leading most of their own discussions of the reading. I try to assign readings that are immediately translatable by them into useful writing skills, like essays from Dave Eggers’s Best American Nonrequired Reading series. They’re current, they cover a wide variety of subject matter, they clearly demonstrate various rhetorical and creative strategies, and they require very little prodding by me to get students to relate to them and respond to them as models of writing. Also, in the composition classroom, emerging with a clear understanding of all the readings is not as important as being able to use the readings as a model for written work.

But when I started teaching Intro to Lit, I realized the difference in the content of the class made a huge difference in how I conducted class discussion. I tried putting them in groups to discuss the readings, but I noticed as I walked around that, since discussion wasn’t about their own content, only a few students in the class were participating in the group conversations. And though I tried to insert a few comments and questions here and there, the readings were simply too difficult for them to lead the conversation on their own. I found their personal anecdotes in relations to texts to be mostly irrelevant, and I saw some eyes going dull with frustration when a student held onto the conch too long. The more I taught Intro to Lit, the more I found myself removing those opportunities for the class to guide itself. I went from a model in which five groups each chose one of five books to discuss and research to a model in which everyone read Les Liaisons dangereuses and I led the discussion. Everyone seemed happier, even if it wasn’t following the more desirable model of a “successful conversation.”

In my current British Literature survey, I have finally become a tyrant. We still sit in a circle, and I give them seven minutes at the beginning of each class to answer a few written questions and get their heads in gear for the day’s discussion, but now most of the class is me reading passages, asking questions, calling on everyone who raises a hand, responding to their comments, providing a little historical/biographical background, suggesting connections with other authors we’ve read, trying to repeat as boldly as possible anything fruitful that comes up, returning to comments made during previous weeks, and even giving a little personal content of my own. My students seem to really love the class, and they have developed into quite sophisticated readers and thinkers about literary history, but I can’t help but feel something has been lost.

My observer told me he was extremely impressed by the sophistication and excitement expressed by my students, and that he liked how they came up with difficult connections between authors and eras on their own, but he challenged me to think of ways to move away from the question-answer-evaluation model of class discussion. I’m worried about the groupwork thing, partially because I hated groupwork in lit classes myself, and partially because some of my students are really hostile to one another. They’re juniors and seniors, mostly, and they’ve been around each other for years. At this point, I feel more like letting them express their competitiveness through class discussion than like watching them eyeball each other in repressed-hostile groupwork.

There’s also the possibility of making them do presentations. I’ve said this before, here, but I really hate undergraduate presentations. They take up valuable classtime, they’re never very good even when they’re done well, and no one gets the information they need when they need it. Hence the wiki.

Especially when teaching historical literature to undergrads, it seems like the elusive instructor-free model is almost impossible to achieve in class discussions. If I leave them to their own conversational devices, we’ll never get around to talking about aesthetic differences between Augustan and Romantic poetry; we’ll be too busy talking about which literary characters our ex-boyfriends remind us of.

One thing that has decentered the class a bit is that a few of my students are already experts of a sort on different topics their research has led them to. One woman has taken several classes on the Romantics, and she’s been able to ask the class quite complex questions for discussion. Another woman who has been researching the racialized discourse of pre-Dracula vampirism has been able to bring up her research to the class. A few paid really close attention in their Milton class and are able to suggest interesting connections there. The problem is that not many of my other students have done historical thinking of this kind before and are still in “I liked it; it reminded me of me” territory.

I’d love to know what kinds of discussion methods you use. How do you lead (or not lead) the discussion? How do you bring out certain kinds of analytical responses? What preparation do the students have, beyond reading the primary material? How do you deal with off-topic (or even wildly inappropriate) responses? Do you find, as I do, that the more the class is about reading and understanding a particular historical literature, the less ready you are to drop the reins?

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