Summer 2005 - Volume 8 Number 3
Confessions of a Selfish Teacher
This article deals with the experience of a faculty member who is seeking to create a teaching environment that stimulates her intellectual development as well as that of her students. Writing from classroom experience, the author reflects on her attempts to accomplish this through courses focussed on reading, discussion, and the development of critical thinking skills, what she learned about the nature of intellectual exchange in the classroom and what she can do to facilitate it.
I don't like teaching. I know that many of my colleagues do; they say so. Actually, they don't usually say that they like teaching. They usually say they love it, their expression of this deeply felt emotional response to the activity laced, more often than not, with surprise that I don't feel the same way. In contrast, their response to teaching has always perplexed me. I am one of what I now suspect to be a correspondingly large group of professors who have found teaching stressful -among other things, a source of anxiety generated by fear of being inadequate, a charlatan. Don't misunderstand me: I care about teaching, and like most of us, I devote considerable time and attention not only to the content and structure of my courses, but also to the ways in which I teach, and why. This is one reason my courses in recent years have increasingly revolved around reading, discussion, and critique. My teaching practice has been taking shape around my desire to actively engage students in self-directed learning and in the development of their critical thinking skills. And I can say that to a great extent, this shift in my practice was motivated by my desire to implement teaching strategies that I felt would more directly benefit the students teaching that would facilitate a more meaningful learning experience. But that wasn't the only reason. To be honest, the change was motivated at least as much, if not more, by self-interest by my desire to respond to what had become over the years my growing dissatisfaction with teaching as performance.Abandoning Teaching as Performance
I have come to detest lectures and lecture-based courses, even those in which I enlist students to engage in the performance by giving class presentations. Like many new teachers, when I began teaching, I taught the way I had been taught, working primarily through lectures and sometimes directed discussion to convey information, to survey central interpretations and key debates in the field, and to communicate something of my enthusiasm for research. However, after a few years, I became tired of listening to myself talk. And I am not sure if lecturing itself had become more difficult, or if I simply became less interested in repeatedly summoning the performative energy I required to lecture. That energy may have made lectures more effective for students, but for me, it was invigorating only for the duration of the class. Otherwise, I found the demands of lecturing incompatible with research and writing, which, like most of us, I was also trying to advance during the teaching year. I found it difficult to move easily between the public forum of lecturing, with its emphasis on performance, and the comparatively private, contemplative realm of research. Lecturing seemed very one-sided -an activity devoted almost solely to the intellectual stimulation of my audience- and, after a number of years, I started to wonder, "What's in this for me?"
What was missing, I began to realize, was social space for intellectual exchange - exchange that included me as well as the students. This became increasingly apparent to me when I engaged in that well-worn (and sometimes disheartening) practice of asking questions in lectures as a way of eliciting student participation. I suspect the experience is familiar to most of us: I ask a question, and the response is slow to come -or, if it does come quickly, it comes as though by rote. It is not that students don't have the answer, or that they are uninterested in discussion. I think it is the opposite; we simply have an understanding. We all know that I already know the answer to the question I have asked. I am not really asking for an answer; I am asking one or more of them to perform the answer, the appearance of this interaction between me and them -between professor and student- becoming part of the larger performance of the lecture. In this sense, however, it is an empty exchange. This realization led me to the first of the many "principles" that I now try to keep in mind when I enter the classroom.Don't ask the question if you already know the answer.
When I adopted this first principle as a way of stimulating exchange -of generating responses to which I could then respond in a more immediate, engaged fashion- I had to think about questions I could ask to which I didn't already know the answer. (Of course, they also had to be questions that would elicit responses relevant to what we were dealing with in class.) In the end, I could only come up with one. Although I did come up with variations, at bottom, it was always the same question: "What do you think?"
I am sure many of us have discovered the power of this question; I know that I was struck by student response. It was immediate, energizing, and actually changed the whole tone of my classes, even those within which I continued to lecture. We started to discuss. There was always a range of responses, ideas, and interpretations, all of which I found as engaging and intellectually satisfying as the students seemed to. And I have learned that the question works effectively at all levels, from introductory courses through to senior-undergraduate and graduate seminars. Not surprisingly, as I have suggested above, this question works best -it is most useful in teaching- if it is contextualized.
Of course, it is easiest to contextualize the question in courses that are based on, or include, weekly readings. These can be used as a point of departure for a discussion that begins simply by asking students what they think about what they have read. I have also found that, if this is not enough to stimulate comment, I can supplement the question with a brief explanation of why I chose the reading or readings for that week -how I think the reading ties into what we are doing in the class or course, or, if there is more than one reading, why I think they work well together as a group. If, when I selected the readings for the course, I was uncertain about a piece -whether the students would find it useful or appropriate, or whether it would work effectively with other readings - I tell the students this as well. And then I ask them again what they think.
But I have to be careful not to say too much about why I have included the readings or why I am ambivalent about some of them. If I am not careful, I can easily close down the discussion and turn it into a lecture based on my evaluation of the readings and what I see as their relationships to one another. If I am brief, I find students immediately respond to my comments, explaining why they think the readings work well together or not, and from there a discussion begins. And each time, the discussion that follows demonstrates why it is important that I keep my initial comments brief; the students have very different ideas of why the readings work well together or not, where a weakness they assume has caused my ambivalence is balanced by a strength they assume I have missed or underrated. By the time they realize that their assessments of the readings (and why I have chosen them) are different from one another, they are already engaged in dialogue, fleshing out the similarities in their viewpoints, comparing their differences and supporting their interpretations.
One of the courses I base on weekly readings provides a good case in point; it begins with a particularly provocative combination of essays, including one about which I was ambivalent when I first put together the introductory set of readings for the course. I felt that the essay in question, by a well-known feminist art historian, would be effective in the course, which is devoted to tourist art. Not only does it deal with the topic of women and travel -and in a way that I thought students at that level would find accessible- but it is also the only essay of this type I have found that deals explicitly with travel and, by extension, "the traveler" as gendered concepts. In making the point that, in thought and writing about travel, the universal traveler is understood to be male, it also complements another essay in the set by a prominent anthropologist which, among other things, interrogates travel and the traveler as racialized concepts (without recognizing, however, that these concepts are also gendered).
At the same time, I was hesitant to include the essay; one point in the argument appeared to be methodologically weak. In itself, I would not regard this as grounds for excluding a reading. The identification of a potential weakness by students can be both a good exercise in critical thinking and empowering for a constituency that is rarely placed in the position to make such an observation. Rather, I was concerned that what would normally be identified as a point of discussion would provide an excuse instead for students uncomfortable with the author's feminist approach to simply dismiss the essay completely, refusing to weigh its contribution to debates established by reading it in conjunction with the other essays that week. It is not as though the potential for this kind of reaction did not exist in connection with other readings elsewhere in the course. In this instance, however, the reading was the basis for the first discussion in the course and I was concerned about the effects of potentially divisive discussion before participants had established themselves as part of a group. My uncertainty in this case was well-founded; in the two years I have included this reading in the course the responses to it have been mixed and emotionally charged. And yet, I also think that my decision to include it was right; when I have stated that, in selecting the readings, I was ambivalent as to whether I should include the piece, this information in itself has proved effective in stimulating discussion and provoking thought, inevitably redirecting conversation to consideration of the essay's relevance in relation to the other readings for the week, and whether, to their minds, I was right to include it.
In large lecture courses, contextualizing the question is more difficult, and in my case, that became another reason I started to abandon lecturing. However, when I began to experiment with the use of the question in a large class, I was still lecturing each week in an introductory course dealing with the history of Canadian art. In this situation, I used to establish a "quick context" for discussion at the beginning of class by introducing a contemporary issue or controversy gleaned from the popular press, the discipline's revisionist literature -the world at large. It could relate to the topic of the lecture, one of the themes of the course or the field of Canadian art in general. So, for example, when we were dealing with seventeenth-century settler art, which included representations of indigenous peoples, I used an overhead of a newspaper article devoted to a then current controversy surrounding a late-nineteenth century public sculpture in Ottawa that was regarded by many at the end of the twentieth century as offensive in its representation of Aboriginal peoples. The issue, which was complex and controversial, boiled down in the public realm to whether or not the sculpture should be removed from public view.
In the course of discussion it became increasingly apparent that, as far as historians might be concerned, one question was whether it was better to leave the statue on public display and risk reproducing the now questionable values it advanced, or whether removing the work, or the Aboriginal figure at its base, would be "whitewashing" history and denying the historical reality of Native North Americans in Canada. The discussion generated comments about the ethics, and the legality, of altering a work of art; the role of the state or its citizenry in educating the public or policing thought (depending on the position one might take); the important, yet often overlooked, function of historical art in the contemporary world, and the ways in which the issues arising in connection with this work could easily be applied to many of the publicly-displayed seventeenth century pieces being discussed in class. The precise conclusions or even the general range of issues is, however, beside the point. The point here is that, in this case, the issue was drawn from the students' immediate environment, a context over which they felt ownership and, when resituated in the classroom, within which they were apparently comfortable discussing ideas, concepts, and understandings dealt with in the course. All in response to the question, "what do you think?". This was what I discovered as I tried to incorporate this question increasingly into my teaching, and this brought me to the next in my series of realizations.Something to think about.
When you ask people what they think, you are asking them what they think about something. In a classroom, this "something" usually relates to the topic of the course -the body of knowledge within which you and the students are working. At a more basic level, however, I realized that I could not ask for students' active engagement in the course, if I had already rendered the content of the course passive. While it could be argued that there is no such thing as passive, or closed, course content -that at some level all course material is open to analysis and critique- I would argue that if it is not apparent to the students that the course content is active, then effectively it is passive.
By passive, or closed, course content, I mean content that is effectively closed to critical analysis by most students at the level at which you are teaching. I think it is it is possible to convincingly assert, for example, that most students in introductory surveys in the humanities find it difficult to perceive the existence of subject positions and interpretations in the seamless historical narratives and the seemingly value-neutral textbooks that normally accompany such introductory courses. In contrast, what I call active content is material in relation to which students can take critical positions, which is usually material that appears to them to be argumentative or provocative.
There are probably many ways of activating the content of a course so that students can engage in it more critically. I have tried to do this in various ways, experimenting in courses at different levels in the undergraduate and graduate programs in which I teach. My use in an introductory lecture course of controversial topics drawn from the popular press was one of these experiments. However, the greatest changes in my teaching have actually been made from the top down; that is, I initiated the most extensive revisions in upper-level courses, and have since been reconfiguring my courses at the introductory levels to follow suit.
There are reasons for this. First, it seemed to me that, at the upper levels of the undergraduate program within which I work, the course structures that facilitate this type of teaching are already in place, and so this was the easiest point to introduce it. I am referring specifically to the seminar and the lecture-seminar formats that distinguish classes at these levels. Conventionally, seminars place greater emphasis than survey courses on student participation, whether in the form of group discussions or individual presentations. Courses such as these also tend to be smaller and thus lend themselves better to experimentation than do the larger lecture or survey courses characteristic of the introductory and intermediate levels of most undergraduate programs. Courses at the lower levels, at least in the program in which I work, are also intended to introduce students to the state of the discipline and to train them in its normative strategies -those taken-as-given ideas that determine the way we construct the history of art, but which are usually treated uncritically until students reach the upper levels of the program. Until I grasped these differences between seminars and lectures, and was willing to activate course content at the introductory levels -to address, and even to challenge, the discipline's normative strategies as normative strategies- I told myself it was simply the size of the class that stood in the way of my desire to change my teaching methods.
For this reason, I began to make the most significant changes in my teaching at the senior levels. I worked my way down through the program so that now my courses at all levels revolve around reading and discussion, their success dependent upon two things. The first is a tightly organized syllabus that guides participants in the course with little, if any, apparent professorial control. The second is an environment in which students feel they are engaged in conversation with their peers, expending energy in intellectual exchange rather than in pursuit of a predetermined answer they think I have. As a result of this, a large part of my activity as a teacher now lies in restraining, if not subverting, my professorial voice. In class, this means controlling my participation in discussion in favour of the student's, and in softening the authority of my comments so as to stimulate exchange rather than end it. In relinquishing my control of classroom discussion, I find that conversation develops more organically, often moving in directions generated by the students' interests, and by their engagement with the range of ideas and issues dealt with in course material.
As long as the discussion is focused on the primary, secondary, or even tertiary arguments advanced in the readings, it is not very difficult for me to surrender control. Like the students, I see these arguments contributing to larger debates in the body of literature with which we are working, and with which everyone's familiarity and facility grows as the course progresses. I find it more difficult to refrain from interfering in discussion when a student advances what seems to me to be a misunderstanding of a reading. On such occasions, I try to wait, in the hope that someone other than me addresses it. Although I sometimes have to wait longer than I might like, respecting the pace and developing point of a conversation until it provides what appears to be a "natural" opportunity for someone to query the interpretation, I am seldom disappointed. When I am, I try to accept this and let the conversation continue, feeling it is more important to build on the strengths of the discussion than to focus on its weaknesses and, in doing so, destroy it.
But even on these occasions, the exchange is focused on the readings. What I find perhaps most difficult to resist suppressing with an indication of professorial disapproval, whether verbal or not, are the seemingly tangential contributions and ensuing conversations consisting of anecdotes and the recounting of personal experiences suggested by the readings. And yet, by refraining from directing the conversation, I have come to understand their real importance in the learning process. In lower-level classes, particularly, where students are less experienced with the expression of ideas in abstract or conceptual terms, examples and descriptions serve as another form of explanation -concrete, rather than abstract. One student saw it as a way of "contextualizing" the material, which she described as sometimes "abstract and out of reach. It made things a lot more clear to me," she wrote, "when we started to discuss issues in relation to my own experiences."
In a course I teach on museum representation, for example, animated exchange was sparked last year by a set of readings dealing with heritage sites that employ historical actors or "hosts" to interpret the past for visitors. In response to one author's discussion of employee resistance to the nature of the relationship this establishes with audiences, students who had worked at such sites told, conspiratorially, of instances in which, in the heat of the day and under pressure to be pleasant to what they thought were demanding tourists, they had deliberately given wrong directions or had simply made up "historical" answers to questions they couldn't answer, or they felt were silly or relentlessly repetitive. They weren't caught, they revealed, and so were able to savor their moment of dissent, just as the author had explained they might.
At that moment, just as I expected to return to what I thought was discussion more clearly focused on the readings, another student picked up on this chain of examples, telling instead of a friend who had been employed to dress up as Daisy Duck at Disneyland, where actors of this sort are prohibited from speaking or otherwise betraying their character's "reality." One day, she recounted, her friend finally lost patience with a group of young children clamoring for her attention and yelled, "SHUT UP!" She lost her job, the teller recounted, potently illustrating the potential consequences of open resistance, which was something the students had all expressed, but had not clearly recognized, at least not until they were discussing the reading in class. Ironically, the student added, when her friend vented her frustration, she was met with applause and squeals of pleasure from the cluster of children around her. They were so delighted to hear Daisy speak! At that moment, I realized that, had I acted on my growing impatience -my sense that discussion was wandering and that I was responsible for its direction- I would have closed down a conversation that actually illuminated the readings for that week in a way I could not. Even today, I am not convinced that I am always, or even usually, successful in not talking "too much" or with too much authority. At this point, I know only that my effort is part of an ongoing process of weakening the constraints conventionally placed on discussion by professorial authority.Making "one size fits all" a custom fit.
To facilitate this process of relinquishing control, I have also found that the course syllabus has to be tightly organized and perhaps more explanatory than in other types of courses, so that, once it has begun, the course appears to function largely independent of professorial control. To put it another way, the syllabus should make the course as transparent as possible at the outset, including not only the readings, but also descriptions of the assignments, tips for reading and writing critically, and, when necessary, explanations as to why material has been included, what it is intended to provide students, and how they might consider using it. In my courses, the syllabus also lays out each week's readings, which are grouped and titled in such a way as to suggest the reason I grouped them as I did.
I also spend a lot of time at the beginning of the course verbally illuminating the syllabus, reiterating, elaborating, and explaining it so as to make my authorship and its interpretative dimensions apparent. In doing so, I am attempting to establish its place in the course as a working document. For example, I tell students that I suspect some readings will generate more discussion than others, that some of them will find certain selections and combinations of material exciting and provocative, while others find them disappointing and boring (even though I did not), and, more to the point, that their responses to the readings and groupings will constitute an important point of discussion throughout the course. This undermines the still pervasive idea of the course syllabus as an authorless document referencing a comprehensive body of information and its interpretive frameworks -a "one size fits all" guide to the defining knowledge of a discipline, field, or topic that stands independent of those who are using it.
I have also found that in order for the readings to stimulate critical thinking, they have to be stimulating, provocative, or reflective, or introduce class participants to perspectives, arguments, or concepts that defamiliarize their current understandings. The growing body of revisionist literature that has almost come to characterize disciplines in the humanities and social sciences is a good source for such material. For example, art history students, most of whom enter university with the popular notion that works of art define themselves as such, are clearly surprised by the argument that objects, including works of art, do not have inherent meanings or value -that both are assigned to objects and serve to reproduce social relations. I have not, at least to my knowledge, encountered a student who was not convinced by the argument; on the contrary, a surprising number have openly expressed their belief that this one realization opened them to the possibility of others. I know this because I often ask students in take home examinations what reading or readings in the course had the greatest impact on their thinking, asking them, further, to explain their choice with reference to other readings in the course. There are a number of reasons why I do this, not least of which is to have students reflect on the development of their own critical thinking skills.
I also explain at the outset of the course that I find readings that generate feelings of dissonance are particularly useful in developing critical skills. They challenge not only the reader's personal convictions and sense of well-being, but also in doing so, the person's abilities to come to terms with the material through synthesis, analysis, interpretation and evaluation -the very set of skills we refer to when we use the term critical thinking. However, it is important to remember, I tell students, that the accessibility of the material to critique depends on the developmental level of the reader's critical thinking skills, and that I think they will find that these develop as the course progresses. In my experience, this takes place as students establish greater command of the body of literature within which they are working -its general content, central debates, key publications, and recurring themes, the disciplinary or topical vocabulary employed within it, as well as the methodologies and standards of evidence characteristic of the particular discipline or field from which the material is drawn.
This means that I sometimes include the work of authors who, to my mind, have simplified issues, sacrificed precision of expression for the sake of impact and provocation, or, say, abandoned the apparent disinterestedness of conventional intellectual discourse for clarity of voice and subject position. The point is to include material in which the existence of the author's critical position is apparent to students. The degree to which that position is presented in a nuanced fashion is less important at the outset. As students' critical thinking skills develop, the material to which they are exposed can be made increasingly challenging, so that, by the end of their post-secondary education, they are able to critically assess, not only relatively sophisticated argumentational writing, but also the seemingly objective, informational textbook prose we still routinely provide in introductory courses with the naive expectation that, as students mature, they will "naturally" subject it to critique.
To make the readings central to the course and, I explain to students, to justify the attention they will be giving them, I use the readings not only to facilitate class discussion, but also as the basis for weekly writing assignments. I call these assignments "responses." Each response is a short (perhaps 400-word) discussion of the week's readings as a group -or, to be more precise, of any 6 weeks of the term's material. (I leave the choice of weeks up to the student.) Each participant is asked to respond to the readings, writing informally, and to submit her response before the class in which the readings are discussed. This is a reflexive exercise in which the student is implicitly asked to assess what she has learned from the readings or their combination, and to examine her personal beliefs and experiences through the lens they offer. In the syllabus, I explain this to students, both to give them some direction and to make it clear that I do not have a predetermined idea of what their response should be, but that I want only evidence of their engagement with the literature. Reflecting on the writing assignments at the end of a course I teach on tourist art, one student put it this way:
You allowed us a lot more freedom than we usually have to write about what we are interested in and explore the articles that we really connect with whether we strongly agreed or disagreed with the m. Giving us this power helped to make these assignment more meaningful. They weren't "cookie cutter". I felt more connected with the assignments and put more effort into writing them because I knew that my ideas had to stand on their own. You hadn't provided me with a thesis or an assignment that I knew you already knew the answer to. I also knew that you weren't going to be reading fifty papers identical to mine.
In making my expectations of the course materials transparent, my hope is that students' begin to see the syllabus for what it is: a text I have authored. Having freed it from its conventional role as an authoritative, seemingly authorless document, I want students to feel free in turn to respond to what they now see as my selection of readings, to evaluate the relationship of the readings to one another that I suggested when I originally grouped them together each week, and to develop discussion in relation to earlier readings in the course when they see connections that hold particular interest for them. In response to what she saw as the emphasis I placed on the course syllabus as a working document, one student wrote that, as a result, "it was easier to question the readings and think about them critically, knowing that we were exploring a topic rather than reading one definitive text."
This type of engagement with course material also becomes a way of helping students hone, not only their critical writing skills, but also their thinking prior to class discussion, where their ideas are reactivated, developed, reshaped or rethought as part of an ongoing critical process. In fact, students have commented that they have actually noticed this relationship between the responses as private coming-to-terms with the readings and class discussions as public exchange in which they developed their thinking further simply by participating in conversation -by trying to articulate their thoughts in response to others. "The responses," as one student explains it,
helped me to lay out my opinions and then discussion provided another opportunity for me to critically examine what I thought. The responses were extremely helpful in terms of working out my thoughts on an article and then being able to relate those ideas to the other articles and previous arguments. Then being able to go into class and discuss what I came up with and compare my ideas to everyone else's again helped me to understand even more. Often a discussion would lead in a million different directions that I had never even considered. I would leave class with my head spinning and reevaluate my ideas once again.
For many students, this is a new experience, and I have found that I have to be sensitive to the expectations they have when they enter the course. "Coming out of a second-year, introductory, very set-in-stone lecture-based class," one student wrote at the end of a course, "it was harder at first to comprehend that the course was self-driven and based on whatever we put into it -that you weren't going to talk and give us the answers. I think I understood this after about the third class, and then it started to make more sense and become a much more relaxed class." It was this understanding that brought me to the next in the series realizations I try to keep in mind when I enter the classroom.Getting to know you.
Productive critical discussion in courses such as these takes some time to develop, and I find each year that I must work hard not to interfere unduly in this process -not to use my professorial authority to force conversation and thereby (I've come to learn) thwart it. So, despite my best efforts to establish an environment conducive to discussion, I have come to accept the reality that it takes time for everyone in the class to feel comfortable speaking -to establish a relationship to one another as a group that enables people to venture ideas and opinions, to express confusion or admit enthusiasm in ways they know will be accepted by the others. However, this does not mean that in the end everyone in the class will speak equally; rather, it means that there will be a group dynamic that most, if not all, class participants find comfortable. At this stage, we have gained a sense of what I call one another's "participatory personalities." As a group we know, for example, that, just because some of us speak less often than others, this does not mean that we are not all actively engaged in the discussion. And this idea is something that I find I have to spell out explicitly at the beginning of the course, so that this process is also transparent and that we all know not only that we are engaging in this process, but also that we have a responsibility as a group to advance it. I have come to understand that if I believe this -that it is the group's responsibility to cultivate discussion, not mine- then I am much more comfortable with the idea of sitting in silence until someone (other than me) attempts to initiate discussion and get a response (from someone other than me).
Of course, I have looked for ways to speed the process without appearing to be doing so. I began with the most obvious means, directing my efforts toward introducing informality to the classroom, or even of changing the classroom if it was not conducive to relaxed conversation. I now routinely meet groups, for instance, in rooms that offer more comfortable chairs and less structured seating arrangements than those offered in our assigned classroom. Students have generally found rooms with armchairs and couches more conducive to conversation, as is the opportunity to bring refreshments, and even lunch, into class. I have also found that I have to be flexible about class time and contact hours, especially in the early weeks of the course. I tell students repeatedly at the outset that the length of the discussion each week may vary, that it is important to allow discussion to develop organically, and that I will not force, or even pressure, students to fill the class time. The difficulty with this is not saying it, but actually being prepared to follow through -to resist the temptation to fill the space yourself when it seems as though the conversation is drawing to an end. Eventually, as students get to know one another better and are more comfortable speaking to each other in a group, class discussion does take up the allotted time -and in some classes routinely goes beyond it- but this does take time, and I have to resist my desire to enforce conventions for their own sake.On being incoherent
In fostering critical discussion, I have also found myself stressing the importance of being incoherent. To my mind, incoherence forms an integral part of critical exchange, and if we suppress it, we hinder the development of thought that takes place in course of conversation. It is such an accepted part of intellectual exchange that I think we fail to notice it and to recognize its importance, which is why it has to be explicitly drawn to the attention of students; we have been conditioned by the formal social environment of the conventional classroom to fear incoherence and appearing as a result inarticulate or, worse, foolish. Yet, most people who engage in intellectual discourse, whether in or out of the classroom, have also experienced incoherence as a catalyst in active communication. And such experiences are often memorable: you begin to develop a line of thought verbally in response to someone else or some aspect of the conversation that, at that particular moment, pushes your thinking, but as you continue, you begin to realize, even as you are speaking, that you can't fully realize the thought -that you have pushed the point too far. Sometimes, someone else picks up your incoherent thought and develops it to completion, or takes it somewhere else entirely while still developing it, expanding the topic in ways you could not have foreseen. You might even respond to this in turn. It may help you to more fully articulate the idea you were struggling with. Or it may result in the development of a new direction in your, or someone else's, thinking that is striking in its unfamiliarity -in its existence as an immediate product of intellectual exchange.
It is in moments such as these that the fundamental role of discussion in the learning process becomes apparent. I would even argue that, in moments such as these, when clumsy, partial, fragmented exchange leads to new understandings, the process is perhaps at its most intense, succeeding in the production of knowledge despite immanent breakdown of the system through which it operates. Sometimes, of course, a line of thought that fails either to coalesce or communicate becomes a moment of incoherence that just lies there sucking up silence. But these moments are important, too, and I try to draw students' attention to those times in class when I have just been incoherent (which I assume are quite obvious in any case) to make it clear that this is a legitimate part of verbal exchange. They are simply moments of incoherence we have to be willing to accommodate as part of the process -some would say the enjoyment- of critical thinking through discussion. When I became aware of the importance of maintaining this immediacy in conversation, I began to realize that this was the secret to successful classroom discussion.Taking things at face value.
As teachers, we know that discussion is an integral part of critical analysis and is recognized as foundational to scholarly work. The communication of ideas within one's community (whether that community consists of one's classmates, one's colleague's, or one's neighbours) is as important as reading and private thought. For this reason, I have come to see classroom discussion as an exercise in critical exchange that exists alongside, but which is quite different from, the exercises in critical reading and writing students have done in preparation for class. This means that I have to make an effort in class discussions to take things at face value -to respond to the immediate situation, so as to ensure the immediacy of the exchange. I have found, for example, that it is detrimental to discussion to read the students' responses to the week's readings before I enter the classroom. If I read what they think, I find that it mediates my response to their comments in class -that I respond, not to what they have actually said, but to what I think they mean based on what they have written prior to class. This often leaves other class members out of the conversation, which has become an exchange based on the student's and my shared knowledge of what the student has written.
I realized this abruptly at one point when I found myself explaining to one student what another was trying to say based on what I assumed she "actually" thought. In doing so, I thwarted the student's opportunity to articulate her own ideas, to communicate them and to experience that moment of communication as an affirmation of her contribution to a collective "thinking through" of the material they had all read. I realized that I had assumed that I knew what she was trying to say before she had said it -that what she thought prior to class discussion was what she was thinking at that moment in response to what others in the class were saying. I was denying the possibility that what she thought at that moment was conditioned by the context, mediated and tempered by the thoughts others had offered to her for comparison with her own and in relation to which she was now seeing them. In short, I had made the conversation we are having secondary to what should have been the preliminary reading and writing, effectively truncating the full development of the students' critical thinking skills at a preliminary stage in the process.Why "getting the point" misses the point.
In a similar vein, I have come to accept that the course of a discussion cannot be predetermined, regardless of how reassuring I would find it on some level to have a simple recitation of the thesis of each article and an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each argument. Class discussions often follow the students' interests, which, as the course develops, can be quite different for different students. In other words, discussion can become increasingly discursive as students pick up on recurring themes, framing debates, key concepts, or peripheral issues that they find particularly interesting, and through which they may even begin to reconceptualize the whole body of literature I have so carefully conceptualized and organized for the course another way. Realization that their perspectives, interpretations, and evaluations can differ often sparks a corresponding moment of individuation that students seem to find both surprising and delightful. As one student put it, "This helped me to feel that we were all engaging equally in the discussion, exploring the topic together." And students often say, both in and outside of class, that they didn't realize what other people in the class thought about an issue, or that something could be understood so differently than the way in which they understood it. In reality, I think, they had not really thought about what their classmates might think; they had learned to care only what the professor thought. They found it surprising how differently each of them put together ideas and the different uses each of them made of these ideas. Of course, this is one result of productive intellectual discourse. It is something we encourage students to cultivate in reading, writing and discussion, which means that sometimes "getting the point" of the article isn't the point. As part of a creative and critical process, discussion has to be able to develop organically, using each reading as a point of departure for a larger, free-wheeling exchange that builds on an increasing body of literature and the range of ideas, issues, debates and experiences it opens for consideration.
I have learned as well that this discussion may extend outside of the classroom. Students in courses such as these will routinely refer in class to exchanges they have already had about the readings, either with classmates before we meet or with friends or family over the telephone. This year, for instance, two students in different classes referred to phone conversations in which they discussed the readings with friends who were not members of either class, and one student to a discussion with other class members over the weekend. Although, on one level, it can be somewhat frustrating to feel that students might be expending intellectual energy one wishes they would play out in class, I have also realized that the development of their critical thinking skills doesn't have to take place in front of me (or in the classroom) to take place. On another level, and perhaps more importantly, references in the classroom to extended discussions outside of it establish for all of us the broader contexts within which we exercise our critical skills on a daily basis.
That's why "getting the point" of an article often misses the point. If I feel that the thesis of an article should be voiced in discussion, and has not been, then I voice it, not as the key argument that, once voiced by the professor, ends the conversation, but rather in the form of a contribution to the discussion. It is a simple thing, and not a significant point perhaps on which to conclude, but it does serve to recall my earlier efforts to discover "what's in this for me." Ultimately, the opportunity to participate in intellectual exchange is what's in it for me, and that I can go to class each week and expect to get something out of it is evidence in itself that my teaching practice has shifted over the years. I've also learned that there is something in it for the students as well. As one of them put it recently,
I recall occasions when you thanked the class for contributing to the discussion and admitted that you had never considered a certain perspective on the readings. I remember feeling impressed that a professor would admit to having learned something from the students. This emphasized in my mind the collective responsibility in classroom discussions. The burden is on all participants to teach and enrich each other, not only on the professor. Hearing you say 'I learned something' made me feel important and encouraged me to look for more ideas to share.
Comments such as this have also made me realize something else -that, ultimately, the most important thing to keep in mind when I enter the classroom is that teaching is learning.
Lynda Jessup is with the Department of Art/Educational Development Faculty Associate at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. She can be reached at LLJ1@post.queensu.ca or 613-533-6000 x77343 and FAX 613-533-6891.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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