Leading Generative Discussions
Most of the suggestions for discussion strategies offered in the Teaching Discussion Sections part of the Teaching Guide can be used directly or adapted for use in reading and composition courses. We strongly encourage you to explore that section.
Here we highlight a few ideas for discussions that GSIs have developed specifically for difficulties in teaching R&C. Each GSI received a Teaching Excellence Award; the award essays are posted and accessible through the Award-Winning GSI Teaching Ideas and the links below. (Once you are on that page, you can click the “reading and composition” tag on the right to see all articles and essays on that topic.) Some of the ideas are pre-planned, semester-long teaching strategies; are interventions in an already running class.
It’s good to read through examples such as these from time to time and choose something to implement in your class. Students usually slump toward the sixth week of the term and could use a change of pace. If you teach on a Monday morning, plan activities such as group work often to wake students up and keep the class time useful for them.
Gina Zupsich, French
Gina taught an R&C course that worked with gender theory. Most of her students resisted reading theory both because the reading was daunting and because they didn’t see the theory as relevant anymore — they assumed that the problems it addressed were all in the past. Gina designed a step-by-step, in-class activity to help students connect theory with their own time. Gina first led students to list gendered traits and actions (which are masculine, which feminine?) in two music videos they watched together. The next step was for the class to work with two pages of a theoretical text and translate the crux into their own idiom: “Gender is an unstable identity, constructed and reconstructed in history to appear natural.” Gina then had the class compile their individual lists of gendered behaviors into a single T-chart on the board and discuss how students knew these elements were masculine or feminine. At this point the students held their own cultural knowledge and the theoretical concept on gender in mind. Their next task was a synthesizing activity: to view the videos again, locating moments in which the female performers’ gender crossings were resolved back into a stable, “natural” binary. With mounting enthusiasm students analyzed these moments and demonstrated that, in fact, the theory remained relevant in their own cultural milieu.
James Ramey, Comparative Literature
James was concerned to structure his R&C course as a social (as well as intellectual) opportunity for his students. James had his students set up semester-long reading groups, each group responsible to take on one of the major authors on the syllabus. These became known as the Shelley Group, the Camus group, and so on. They were assigned to meet for an hour outside class in an atmosphere traditionally conducive to literary discussion — a café or dormitory lounge — with members taking turns recording the minutes. These they sent to James, who posted them to the class’s course website, and there students could read and respond to each other’s literary conversations. Each group researched and gave a creative presentation on its chosen author the first day the class began working with that author. Students came to class with strong opinions about the texts and ready for lively debate; at the end of a class period people sometimes vow to carry the discussion further on line later in the evening. Though this system asked them for more off-campus work than most R&C courses, the students gave positive evaluations of it. Moreover, the system of framing literary discussion as a pleasurable social activity generated many long-term friendships among the students.
Benjamin Yost, Rhetoric
In the Socratic method of teaching, the teacher teaches through a series of questions to the desired conclusion. Benjamin’s experience using this model highlights a problem with it: students may resist the process and want the instructor to stop using them and simply tell them what the point is. Although Benjamin prepared discussion questions carefully in advance of each session in order to bring students into a live process of inquiry and interpretation, students reported in evaluations their impression that discussions often wandered. They also suggested that Benjamin make the class even more GSI-centric by taking control of discussion and telling them the “right” interpretation of a text. Obviously this is not what an R&C course is for.
Benjamin’s Teaching Excellence Award essay describes three major changes he made to his style of Socratic teaching. First, he stopped the discussion a few minutes before the end of the period to pull together the lines of inquiry in the discussion, addressing students’ misperception of wandering. Second, he found ways to show the value of students’ contributions by connecting them to create a framework of discussion. Finally, he capitalized on moments of disagreement or uncertainty in discussions by slowing the pace to validate differences and have students explore the assumptions made in advancing different points of view.
Selby Schwartz, Comparative Literature
This essay could be subtitled Performance as Interpretation. Class discussions are sometimes derailed because students resist the text at hand. Give them something imaginative to do with it, however, and they flourish. Selby found her students struggling with character motivations and plot turns in Shakespeare’s Tempest; they seemed on the verge of dismissing the play, mocking it and “dispelling its magic for themselves.” The title of Selby’s TEA essay (“Is Ariel the Same as the Little Mermaid?”) was one student’s ironic jab at the play. Rather than abandoning them to their facile dismissal, Selby divided them into groups and gave them an interesting, multimodal task to do together. To each group she gave a few oddments as props; she sent them out of the classroom for twenty minutes to prepare to stage one episode in the play; then they put on their performance in class. The activity produced intense student participation, of course, but it also motivated some amazing student papers: “The stagings sparked interest in Caliban’s use of language, in critiques of Prospero as an intellectual, ineffective ruler, in Ariel and Miranda’s filial relationships to Prospero, and in the overlap between comedy and monstrosity.”