Thursday, December 04, 2008

Class Discussion

I'm writing this post in response to this one by Sisyphus. I'm too lazy to look and see whether I've ever posted about how I do discussion in my classes, but I don't think I ever have in a substantive way. It's strange: I think that discussion leading has always felt like the most "natural" thing I do in the classroom, though I know I have developed and grown in how I do this over the years. I suppose what I'm getting at, though, is I've never really analyzed that part of my teaching much, or thought about it in concrete ways. It's never been a part of my teaching that I've agonized over. (And I have agonized over other parts: lectures, incorporating group work, grading.) So, assuming I haven't ever actually posted about this, I am inspired by Sis's post to try to do that here.

Some context first. I have always taught small classes. In grad school, I never taught a class with more than 17 students (though I did guest lecture in some larger courses as a TA); in my job my largest class caps at 24, and so with the typical 3 or 4 drops, I rarely teach a course that has more than 20 students in it. Under those conditions, I think that it makes sense that I've been a discussion-oriented teacher. To me, it feels positively weird to lecture lecture lecture with that small of an audience. That's not to say I never lecture. Obviously sometimes one must. But it's not my go-to thing in the classroom.

Sis begins her post questioning a method of discussion-leading that is all about affirmation. She describes how that approach differs from her own experiences at her grad institution and her own teaching style. So I suppose I should begin there. I suppose that to some extent every discussion of a text for me does begin with getting students to react. And I think that this in part is because that's where my thinking about a literary text begins: with my personal, uncritical, reaction. So I suppose I do honor that (god, I hate putting it that way but I'm not sure how else to say it) as a beginning, so this might mean that I do, to some extent begin discussions with questions that look for the initial reactions of my students. My thought about this is that it's a good way to get things going because there are no wrong answers. I've been known to do the whole "raise your hand if you liked the book/hated the book/thought the reading was lame" shtick at the start of a class, particularly at the start of the semester. After each group raises their hands, I'll then ask some people to explain what about the book inspired the response. Now, I don't spend a ton of time on this sort of a thing, but I do think that it works as an icebreaker. Somebody who might be reticent to offer their interpretation of a passage for fear that they are "crazy" for thinking about it as they do or that they "didn't get it" is often less reticent to describe a personal response to a text. And getting those students to say something - even if inconsequential - typically makes them more confident to say substantial things later.

Now, I don't typically lead with "I love this book! Isn't it great?" because I do think that sets up students who disagree to feel disenfranchised and closes down actual conversation. But after students offer their impressions, I don't secret mine away. My students know I love Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Auden; they know that I think Wordsworth is important even though he doesn't set my world on fire; they know that I initially adored Lawrence, later to hate him, and then to return to him, and they know I initially hated Joyce, later to love him. I think it's good for them to know that part of literary study is personal taste. It's good for them to know that my taste (which is of course influenced by the taste of those who came before me and my education and all of that) is driving what I teach them and how I teach it. If they know that, I do think it becomes possible for them to ask really deep questions about what "counts" as literature and who gets to decide what "counts." The fact is, I really believe that what draws us to reading (generally) is how it makes us feel. And I don't think it's valuable to ignore that.

BUT. In a typical class, this part of the enterprise takes up maybe 5-10% of maybe every other class period. This is not the whole of what happens in my classes. If it were, the literature classroom would be nothing more than a very expensive book club. To me, that's not literary study. It's not critical, it's not scholarly, and it's not terribly intellectually interesting. So you loved a book or a poem. Fan-freaking-tastic. But so what?

It's the "so what" that really drives the bulk of what I do in terms of leading discussion, not the reaction-based stuff that gets the ball rolling. So the bigger question is, for me, what is the point of attending class for students? And what is my role in making sure that whatever that point is happens? So first, I guess, what do I do to move from the reaction based stuff to more critical responses?

I'm very up front about the fact that while we all can have individual reactions to a text that not all reactions are created equal, that not all opinions are as good as any other, and that in order for any interpretation to have weight it needs to be rooted in the actual text - not in our personal experience that is like what we read about, not in our vague impression of a text as a whole. And so my students know - because I tell them - from the very first class, that I'll be asking them to show me in the text what made them react the way that they did. I am very directive in pushing students to back up their claims. Here's an example of a typical sort of interchange:

Student: I really liked the story we read for today.
Me: Why?
Student: Ummm... well, it had really good imagery. [They will often default to the "imagery" thing because it's a term they think will shut me up, being a technical term and all and yet totally amorphous.]
Me: Ok, what do you actually mean when you say it had good imagery?
Student: ...
Me: I know I'm pushing you. Don't worry. I'm not looking for some particular answer. Just tell me what you mean when you say that.
Student: Well, I felt like I could really see the room that they were in and the characters.
Me: Yes. So why does that matter?
Student: Um....
Me: Ok, everybody take two minutes and find a passage - like a sentence or two or a paragraph - where you feel like you really see what's going on.

And then after everybody's found a passage, I'll ask for someone to volunteer their passage, and we'll talk about how "seeing" what's going on in it is important to understanding the story as a whole. It might be stylistically important, it might be important to the plot, whatever, but that's how I get us to the "let's do a close reading of a passage." I don't just say, "give me a close reading of a passage" but rather I connect it to the personal reaction. Also, and this is key, while the one student is in the hot seat for a short interchange, I then open it up to everybody. The student's reaction leads the discussion - not my agenda. But I don't keep the one student in the hot seat forever, and I'm sure to praise the student for bringing up that facet of the text. Lather, rinse, repeat. And you can do the same thing with a student who hated the reading for the day. It works fine either way.

I'm explicit about how what we do in class - discussing specific passages, connecting specific moments in a text to a broader context - connects to what they do when they read, what I expect of them on writing assignments, and what they do on tests. I always knew that this sort of connecting stuff was important, but I've only just gotten the hang of the whole being explicit about it to them - in class, on assignment sheets, on review sheets. Showing them how the different work that they do all is part of a whole really makes them much more likely to participate in class discussion, because they see a direct link between working hard in the classroom and doing well on other things.

A lot of what my role is in fostering discussion is in tying things together and showing how different comments respond to one another. I never enter the classroom with a list of questions, or a list of topics that I'm going to get them to discuss. Rather, they drive the discussion, and my job is to show them how their disparate responses speak to one another. And by modeling that using the "Let me pause for a second to bring together the past three comments" technique, I find that they start responding to one another and tying things together without my prompting, which usually starts happening after a few weeks. (Though this is kind of disingenuous - it's not that I have no agenda at all, it's just that the agenda is sort of determined when I design the syllabus. So I know when I teach Wordsworth that I'm going to talk about "emotion recollected in tranquility" and nature in the Romantic period, etc. because that's what the text demands. But I don't walk in with specific things that I plan to interrogate them about for each reading assignment.)

I incorporate different kinds of discussion. Sometimes I'll have them discuss in small groups first, and then we all come back together to see what the individual groups did. Sometimes we'll discuss as a whole class. Sometimes I'll have a small group be "on" for discussion in front of the whole class. Changing it up like this really helps when discussion in one form or another is lagging.

I make it clear that I'm in control of the discussion. If a student is rambling on, goes off topic, whatever, I nip it in the bud. This is also something I've had to practice, because it's not a typical way that one interacts with people in conversation. That said, nothing stalls a good discussion like a student who goes off on tangents. Another way to demonstrate control is that if they all clam up and don't respond, I am totally unafraid of the well-placed lengthy silence. At a certain point, they need to know that critical engagement isn't just desired, it's an expectation. My classroom is not a dog and pony show. They've got to do their part, or we'll sit. (I'm not a fan of calling on people randomly. I want volunteers, even if I've got to coerce people into volunteering.)

So yeah, I think that's kind of it. But at the end of Sis's post, she asks a range of really great questions, and while I've answered many of them with this post, I want to end by answering these two questions directly: "What are we supposed to be doing when we "analyze" or "critique" a text? And what place does affirmation as critique --- or pleasure, more simply even --- have in our discussions?"

I'll begin with the second part first. I think that pleasure - or displeasure - has to be central to our discussions because pleasure - and displeasure - are central to any inquiry into aesthetics, into art. That is how we first come to books, through pleasure or through displeasure. The reason that I like reading (generally) is because it is a pleasurable activity. Sometimes that pleasure is intellectual, sometimes emotional, sometimes something else that I can't quite label. But that's why I ended up studying literature. Not because it's important or something, but because it makes me feel a certain way. The point of analysis or critique or study of literature, for me, is about deepening pleasure, enhancing it, about moving beyond initial, visceral reactions into a sophisticated reckoning with that text that we at first loved, or hated, or found boring. When I "do" literary criticism, it allows me to get inside of a text and to know it, if only partially or if only temporarily. Analysis and critique is about asking deeper questions, thinking in a sustained and careful way, about our reactions. It's about moving from reaction - which is immediate - to response - which is considered. So for me, the two - critique and pleasure - are intertwined. As a critic, I have learned to love texts that I initially despised. As a critic, I have learned to understand why I loved other texts immediately. As a critic, I have had the pleasure of finding evidence for why other texts just leave me cold. If I stopped with "oh, I just like reading and I don't believe in criticizing, or it ruins it for me to criticize," I feel like I wouldn't be able to have the ideas that I have or to ask the questions that literature allows me to ask. (Actually, I realize now that this post's conclusion is also responding to a conversation that I had recently with a student who said pretty much exactly that - that she doesn't "believe" in being critical.) But at the same time, if I threw pleasure out of the mix, I might be able to have great ideas and to ask interesting questions, but what would be the point? Without pleasure - or excitement, or those "aha!" moments when you're just blown away by a passage for no discernible reason - why read literature, let alone study it? Why not do anything else in the whole world?


Rose said...

Love this post! You make me want to think more about how to articulate how I teach through discussion. (That sounds convoluted, I realize.) I teach one big lecture course, but all my other courses I determinedly teach through discussion, even though most of my professional colleagues (I'm a historian) teach largely through lecture or a mixture of lecture/discussion. It can be tricky, but it puts more onus on the students to generate the intellectual content of the course (which I initially set up, through the syllabus and readings), and it forces us all to engage with each other in a way that a lecture never could accomplish.

Anonymous said...

I need to work on this. I'm used to relying on students who already know how to play the game. My current crop, oy. I need better skillz.

meanwhile, this is a total tangent but I haaaaate wordsworth. Hate hate hate. I majored in english and I had to do this directed reading in romantic poetry when I was a senior and, obviously, read wordsworth and I could not talk about anything but how much I hated him, which is to say my part in the discussion was never any more sophisticated that OMG I HATE THIS POEM IT SUCKS. No, I never got beyond that, despite my professor's best efforts at motivating me. Total mental shutdown brought on by sheer hatred.

then, toward the end of the course, the prof actually suggested I write my paper on the prelude and I was all like OMG NO I HATE WORDSWORTH DON'T EVER SAY HIS NAME TO ME AGAIN GIVE ME COLERIDGE OR SHELLEY OR GIVE ME DEATH.

Anyway, I'm sure this was very annoying. I'm sure it was even more annoying given that the professor in question wrote his dissertation on wordsworth. didn't know that at the time. :)

Dr. Crazy said...

See, but what I'd say is that it's really screwed up to push a student to write on something that they hate, even if you love it. LOTS of my students hate the stuff that I'm really into, and you know, I think that can be a valid response, actually. It all goes back to the taste thing. I'll say this: as an undergrad I DESPISED Wordsworth, and only now, years later in having to return to him to teach him, do I appreciate what he's about. I kind of think that he's one of those writers that I couldn't get until I'd gotten older. So now, I see where some of what Wordsworth does is really gorgeous, and I see why he matters in a larger context of how poetry becomes "modern." That said, "appreciating" Wordsworth isn't the same thing as actually liking him.

All of this is a long way of saying that one can't force students to engage with every single thing, and one has to pick one's battles. I figure if I can get them to engage with maybe 85% of the material on a syllabus in a way that goes beyond visceral reactions, then I'm totally golden.

Anonymous said...

oh, I agree. his desire to have me write about seems totally misguided. the part where he was trying to get me to understand the significance of wordsworth in his context probably wasn't although at some point, are going to have to give up on it for now. I refused to care. someone make the daffodils stop and pass me a vampire.

Sarah said...

I just wanted to say that I really like your blog. I've never posted before. This post really kicked me in the butt to commend you for your thoughtful analysis of your teaching practices. You make me want to be a better professor :)

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

As a teacher still struggling to perfect her ability to lead discussion, I found this post helpful. I tend to think that it will be easier when I'm involved in a full blown discussion of literature, and not just navigating through the material in a composition class*. Are there some dicsussions you find easier than others, content-wise?

*For the record, sometimes we talk about literature, but with the mandated set of skills the students have to acquire, I don't have as much time to "dilly-dally" in poetry, etc. It's more rhetorical analyses of gender ads for

Dr. Crazy said...

Sarah, Thanks for stopping by! And thanks for the lovely compliment. I'm just happy that anybody finds anything I say here worth reading :)

Beeyotch, I know what you mean about comp, though I'll say I think that all of my years teaching comp were where I really honed my discussion-leading skills. As a person who's not "into" comp, and given the typical lack of incoming interest for most comp students I found that if I could find a technique that "worked" in comp that it would work everyplace else, too. But so, are some discussions easier content-wise? Yes. But what I've realized is that I have a much easier time getting discussion going on material that I'm *not* deeply invested in/deeply familiar with. I'm much more willing to let the discussion go wherever it needs to go, and I'm much more willing to be open to lots of different interpretations. When I'm teaching something that I'm too personally invested in, that actually gets in the way of strong discussion, unless I'm really conscious about stopping myself from letting it get in the way.

I found that something that really helped with comp discussions, by the by, was teaching stuff that engaged me, rather than just worrying about what would engage them. One of the best texts for discussion I ever used in comp is Paulo Freire's banking concept of education. Sure, we talked about comp things: word choice, making an argument even when one is comparing two things, structure, evidence, etc. But because I was invested in teaching a text that would make them question their own ownership over their educations, that made it much more interesting for me, which made me more invested in teaching the comp stuff, which (I'll admit) is *so* not my first love.

Shane in Utah said...

Great post, as was Sisyphus's post that inspired it. Generally my pedagogical philosophy seems pretty close to yours, Crazy. But I did disagree with one parenthetical remark: "I'm not a fan of calling on people randomly. I want volunteers, even if I've got to coerce people into volunteering." There are some students who will simply never, ever volunteer, even though they have good things to say. So I will occasionally call on them, but only after they've just done a brainstorming exercise or a group exercise and have notes in front of them, or have written a response paper at home in response to a particular question. Then I can say, "Katie, tell me what your group said about question 1" or "were you able to find a passage that can help us to answer the prompt?" Once they've responded to a couple of non-threatening questions like these, even the shyest student will sometimes start to volunteer comments of his/her own. You just have to convince them that nothing bad will happen if they share their thoughts with the class...

Dr. Crazy said...

Shane, thanks for leaving that comment! See, what I'd say is that what you describe isn't "randomly" calling on people. They've done some sort of processing prior to the question, and they'll have an answer ready. That I'll do. What I don't like is to call on somebody out of the blue when the whole class has clammed up to a question. That's what I think of as "random" calling on people, not what you describe. My point is that I don't like putting somebody who's shy, or who's unprepared, on the chopping block, partly to save them embarrassment, and partly because nothing stalls discussion like an unprepared student making a BS comment, which I feel like is really the only option if they get called on out of the blue.

Sisyphus said...

Yay! Thanks for the lovely response!

I love the idea of making clear that our reactions to authors, and the authors we like, can change over time (hell, I think just introducing the concept of "rereading" or returning to a text years later would be a shocker for many of my students).

I also like this "I know I'm pushing you etc etc" statement; it seems it would really help to be more transparent about why we (teachers) ask questions the way they do, and also, hopefully, less scary and intimidating. I've never made those types of comments in class; I wonder if I could start throwing them in.

And cutting off random digressions is my big weakness, as I am a very digressive person myself and find just about everything interesting.

PS I think we should discuss it off-list but considering your book topic how do you deal with a student suddenly dropping in a random, graphic TMI? Especially if it's _not_ off topic? I should get prepared for this more in the future.

Dr. Crazy said...

I'll be happy to talk about this more via email or phone, but briefly, I haven't had a random, graphic TMI in YEARS (knock wood) in part because I typically explain that I don't want those on the very first day of class in any class where that might be a go-to thing. Typically, I say something like, "Now, in this class, we're going to be dealing with some provocative material. But this is a literature class, and what we're interested in is examining literary representations. You certainly don't want to know about my private business, and lord knows I don't want to know about yours. I grade you, people! Do you really want me thinking about you naked? I didn't think so. So remember that we are approaching this sensitive material as critics. Talk to your friends about your personal life experiences that relate, but don't embarrass yourself, your classmates, and me by telling us."

A statement like that pretty much does the trick. Also, because I typically begin with pretty dry theoretical stuff (or lit that is very Serious) by the time we get to the racy bits, they've gotten used to the level of discourse that I'm looking for.