Becoming a Better Socrates

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Benjamin Yost, Rhetoric

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005

Rhetoric 1A and 1B are meant to develop students’ critical thinking skills. Teaching the content of a syllabus is less important than teaching students how to ask insightful questions of a text, construct an interpretation of it, and argue persuasively for that interpretation. For this reason, I teach the courses in a quasi-Socratic fashion, guiding discussion through prepared questions rather than lecturing on content. This has the important benefit of demonstrating concretely what students should do when carrying out their own interpretive projects. It also gives them practice in argument, as it encourages them to defend their answers with textual evidence, and to respond constructively to other students’ interpretations. I have found that the Socratic method has the additional advantages of facilitating participation as well as a sense of responsibility for learning.

But it also has its drawbacks. Although I explain why I use the Socratic method two or three times during the semester, many students are unfamiliar with it, and some are uncomfortable with it. I first diagnosed the problem on my teaching evaluations, where students would sometimes say that discussions were “confusing,” or went off on “tangents.” This initially puzzled me. I always prepare a set of topics to cover in class, and am usually successful at centering the conversation on these topics. Then, with the help of evaluations tailored especially to understand this issue, I discovered that the same students tended to ask that I “take more control” of discussion and tell everyone what the texts “really meant.” I realized that students felt that they weren’t learning what they were supposed to be learning. And while the accompanying frustrations were not only unfortunate in themselves, they also kept students from learning the practices of argument that are the real focus of the class.

To realize the potential of the Socratic method, I developed strategies to overcome these problems. None of them eliminate what makes the method valuable, and I’ve never had to resort to lecturing. First, on the advice of my pedagogy instructor, I changed the way I conclude class. I now stop a few minutes before the end of the period, and restate the most important issues of the day. I write these on the board, mentioning which students brought them up. Although these points often entail tensions within a text, they are presented in an outline form that can be easily digested and written down, which encourages a sense of orientation and accomplishment. Second, I use more metadiscourse. When a student makes a comment that introduces one of the main topics of the day, I note this explicitly (and with some inflectional intensity): “Renee’s comment brings us to the second important point about Plato’s dialogue….” To emphasize the importance of Renee’s contribution, I locate it within the text’s overall argument or within the set of concepts — outlined on the board at the beginning of each class — that I wanted to bring up that day. This endorsement signals that Renee’s thoughts should be heeded, boosting students’ confidence in the value of democratic discussion. Finally, I developed a “hermeneutic” of class discussion. Grappling with divergent understandings of a text is a highlight of the class, but for many students is also fraught with uncertainty and confusion. So I have learned to be especially attentive to these moments of disagreement. When they occur, I slow down the discussion, and remind students that different interpretations are not signs of hopeless undecidability, but reveal that arguments work only on the basis of particular assumptions. While these changes are simple, they have been effective: comments about lack of control, tangents, and feelings of uncertainty have largely disappeared from my evaluations. Indeed, on this semester’s mid-term evaluations, I had a number of students say that they really liked the Socratic method, and that it was highlight of the class!