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When Good Discussions Go Bad

The main reason I don’t lecture is cowardice, plain and simple. I have never felt brilliant or knowledgeable or charismatic enough to carry a course on my own. Thankfully, though, I teach in a small department in a small institution where I have the luxury of small classes, so my weakness is not as much of a Kate-pic-1-250liability here as it might be in a larger program. I trust, though, that every weakness can also be a strength. The upside of my reticence is that I can happily relinquish control over the classroom without undue anxiety about how things might turn out (in contrast to my doctoral advisor, who used to say provocatively to a lecture hall full of eager divinity students on the first day of class, “You don’t have minds worth making up”).

But I confess, the results of not lecturing can sometimes be disastrous. As everyone reading this knows, there are people who don’t read. There are people who read but don’t talk. There are people who don’t read but will gladly take up an entire class period with their deep thoughts if no one else steps in to fill up the gaps. There are even men who don’t enjoy women professors and vice versa. [http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/10/opinion/one-classroom-two-genders.html?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130910] Such factors often lead to awkward class periods or entire awkward semesters which, at their worst, can feel a bit like being on a blind date with 25 surly, sleepy strangers with whom I have Blanchard_blog2sm-240nothing in common.

In such cases, I’m sorry to say, I do sometimes find myself “lecturing”… not necessarily about the day’s reading, which would be bad enough, but about why they should read, talk, and stay awake in class – in short, why they should care. It’s not pretty. My worst moment, at least the worst one I’m willing to confess here, was probably when I told a class that they were boring and then left early. Had I simply planned a good lecture that day, their status as bores would have been, if not irrelevant, at least less deadly.

On better days, I am comfortable “sanctioning the silence” [http://chronicle.com/article/Sanctioning-Silence-in-the/141369/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en] and letting them squirm a bit. Another favorite go-to is to give them a question to write about for a few minutes, and then make them share their thoughts. Sometimes I make them stand up and stretch, maybe walk across the room to talk to someone they don’t know about a given topic as if they were at a cocktail party. And on a few occasions I have asked them, point blank, what’s up. “What’s wrong with you guys today?” (“We’re tired!”) “Why aren’t you engaged in this conversation?” (“The book is hard!”) In every case I am improvising, based on what little I know of the complicated human beings in front of me.

In other words, there is no easy fix for when discussions flop. Sometimes discussions or entire courses are just bad; the chemistry is off, maybe, or it’s at 8:30 a.m., and there’s just no obvious way to undo the badness. When that happens, I continue to go into class prepared, with as much energy as I can muster. Then I remind myself that it’s their class, not mine, so it’s up to them to make it good.

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Kate Blanchard

About Kate Blanchard

Kate Blanchard, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Alma College Kate is currently on sabbatical near Atlanta doing a collaborative project with Dr. Kevin O'Brien (a friend from her pre-tenure workshop) about Christian ethics and free market environmentalism. When not on sabbatical, she makes her home in Alma, Michigan, with her husband, Rev. Chris Moody, and their son, Gus, a dinosaur and train connoisseur. She has taught at Alma College since graduating from Duke in 2006. She is the author of The Protestant Ethic or the Spirit of Capitalism: Christians, Freedom, and Free Markets (Cascade, 2010) and co-editor of "Lady Parts: Biblical Women and 'The Vagina Monologues,'" which includes six pieces authored by her students. She mouths off now and then at the Huffington Post, and very occasionally tweets at @blanchard_kate.

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Comments

  1. Great piece! My most successful semester as a discussion leader was the semester that my son was born. I was still a TA back then, leading discussion sections for a large lecture course. With a new baby, I didn’t have time to prepare in-depth discussion plans–there were times, in fact, I barely managed to do the readings myself. I’d walk into class with literally no plan except to ask them what questions they had. My students responded by…asking questions. Lots of them. Enough that we were able to build complex, engaging discussions out of them. The experience taught me not to be afraid to put the onus on my students to generate discussion–in fact, those discussions are often the best because they are directly responsive to students’ interests.

  2. That’s great, Chris. Sounds as if your students were willing to put in the time to read and think before class AND in class.

  3. What kinds of experiences have others had in your classrooms? Got any tricks for getting conversations started?

  4. I like your idea of having students write things down and then share. Something I’ve done for a little bit of variety is create what I call “The Random Name Generator” (RNG) It’s a just a PowerPoint with one student’s name written on each slide (so in a class of 20 there would be 20 slides). The PPT is set to cycle through the students names, with .1 seconds per student name so it goes through quickly (and repeats itself). I’ll show them the “RNG” and then ask a question and give them some time to write. They are pretty motivated, knowing that the RNG will call on them. I also joke around with them a bit, telling them that “The RNG can sense fear, so if you’re worried, it will probably call on you!” I only use it 1-2 times per semester but it’s a fun way to do some different and help people get involved.

  5. I love that idea! (Of course, I’d have to figure out how to make a slide show that works without me hitting the “down” button.) But I think a little humor can go a long way to disarming the atmosphere of the room.

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