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.
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?
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?
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?
6 years ago