Monday, June 8, 2009

Richardson's Rules of Order, Part V: Tips for Discussion Sections

In this installment of
Richardson's Rules of Order Heather Cox Richardson describes the purpose of discussion sections and offers advice on public speaking and how to have a successful discussion.

Tips for Discussion Sections
Heather Cox Richardson

Discussions sections (in my courses, at any rate), are designed primarily to do two things. First, they give students an opportunity to explore in-depth material that pertains to the class, but which we don’t have the time to cover in lecture. Second, they give students a forum in which they can practice speaking and arguing in public.

My discussion sections are usually designed around a problem raised by the course material. This problem is identified in the “discussion question” part of the syllabus, listed for each week, near the readings. To prepare for discussion, do the readings and think about the question. How would you answer it? Why? What do the readings (or films) have to do with the question? What other ideas or issues have the readings raised? You should have a clear idea of what you are going to argue in class before you get there. If you are required to write your answer, remember to do so and to bring your response to class.

In discussion sections students can learn to present ideas and argue through problems. This is a critical skill that you really must have as you go out into the world. There is not a single profession you can choose in which this skill is not important. Almost no one is comfortable speaking in class at first, so don’t think you’re alone in being nervous about it. But wouldn’t you rather develop the ability to speak in public in a setting where your performance earns only about 1/12 of 20% of your grade in one of the many courses you’ll take in your college career, rather than at your first job, where your performance in meetings might well determine your employment status? There are tricks to making speaking in class easier (below).

History discussion sections are not supposed to mimic lectures, with a teaching assistant reiterating what the professor has said in lecture. The purpose of a history section is not to clarify the lectures (as is often the purpose of sections in science courses). History discussion sections have a different format, and a different goal. If you’re confused about lecture material, of course you should ask the T.A. if s/he can help, but don’t be surprised if s/he refuses to spend class time going over what has already been covered. S/he has a different agenda, set by the professor, and cannot spend large amounts of time going back over lecture material. If you’re confused and can’t find your way clear using the textbook or reviewing your notes, then visit your T.A. during his/her office hours.

Tips to Make Speaking in Class Easier:

Act. Of course you’re uncomfortable putting your ideas out there. Everyone is (including me!). But imagine how you would act if you weren’t nervous. Then do the act. Gradually speaking your ideas out loud becomes easier and more natural.

Learn the names of your classmates. Your college years are the time for you to meet new people and, yes, make contacts for the future. Can you imagine working with a colleague for three months without learning his or her name? Of course not. So why pretend that your classmates are so interchangeable that you don’t need to bother recognizing them as individuals? You may well end up meeting someone whose interests coincide with yours, or by whom you are impressed enough that when you need a graphic designer for your new start-up company, you know whom to call. At the very least, you won’t have to deal with the ridiculousness of referring to your classmates by pronouns after spending three months in their company.

Discuss things. Sections are not supposed to be a time to chat with the teacher. Discussions mean that you should talk to your classmates, while the T.A. acts primarily as a facilitator. This is not unlike a discussion of the last Red Sox game around the lunch table. You may not have something wildly original to say; actually, you agree with what the gentleman sitting two seats away just said. If that were the case, you wouldn’t sit there woodenly, watching other people talk. You would nod, or interject “I agree with Mike on that. The Red Sox should never have traded Clemens,” or in some other way indicate your interest in the conversation. If you’re not a fan, and the Red Sox discussion is losing you, you wouldn’t sit at the table silently. You would say: “Wait a minute. I’m lost. Who’s Clemens, and why is he so important?” Or you would even say: “I can’t get into the Red Sox. Baseball leaves me cold. European football is a far more important sport nowadays, since it’s followed by the entire world.” And if someone at the table wasn’t involved, you would ask him or her what s/he thought. Often, that would turn out to be the person with a slightly different perspective that s/he thought didn’t really fit the conversation and so was quiet, but when asked, made a point that got you to rethink the whole issue. This is exactly what should happen in classes, although the material should, obviously, be related to the week’s class material.

Now, how can you participate if you’re really lost? Ask questions about what people say: “Carole, could you say a little bit more about that? I really don’t understand how this material shows that Andrew Jackson was operating for the good of the majority.” And in the rare instance where you’re caught out having not done the week’s reading? Pass the ball to someone else. “I’m not sure what I think about this issue yet. I’m interested in the approach Maya is taking, though, and I wonder what Oleg would say about it.”

Speak up in the first two weeks of class, even if it’s just to say, “I agree.” No one has any expectations about your behavior in the beginning of the semester and, even if you’ve never made a peep in a class before, no one will know that. You can start speaking up and people will just assume you’re comfortable speaking in class. If you wait much beyond the third week, though, it will get harder to speak with each passing class.

Remember, too, that you have a responsibility to your classmates in discussion sections. Because of the nature of sections, you need to pull your weight to enable them to learn. We’ve all been in discussion sections which are deadly because only two students have done the work and the rest sit like statues. That’s not fair to anyone, and there’s no way a teacher can save such a class, since it won’t work without the students doing their share. Your responsibility includes making a section work well. If someone is floundering, help. If someone never speaks up, include him or her in the discussion. If you find yourself talking too much, work to throw the conversation to someone else by asking what a classmate thinks. While there is an ultimate payback for this behavior in your better understanding of class material, there is also a more immediate one. Did you save a classmate who was lost? Next time you falter, s/he’ll help you. But if you don’t….

And yes, all these skills translate directly into the skill set you need for your career—any career.

Rules for Discussions:

No fist fights. (I had to put that in… and yes, I had one in a class, once, but not over the class material).

Comments of any sort that make your classmates or T.A. uncomfortable are never appropriate. This includes political statements, incidentally. You are always welcome to talk and even argue about politics in my classes, but you must be respectful of all opinions that are not hate speech. No attacks on fellow classmates; no blanket name calling, as in: “All ------s are idiots! They all think that….” No referring to a group with which a classmate identifies by a derogatory name: “babykillers,” “fascists,” or “treehuggers.” All statements need to be backed up with verifiable facts, not just talking points from a political party.

If you want to make general comments linking the week’s material to a different issue, fine, but you cannot try to turn the week’s discussion into a detailed fight over another issue unless the entire class has access to the same materials to which you’re referring and unless the entire class wants to have that particular discussion. If an issue needs clarification and a resort to outside materials, it needs to be deferred to the following week, when everyone has looked at the relevant materials.

Actual explanations of outside issues and how those issues might relate to the week’s material are always welcome.

What you wear can make your teachers and classmates uncomfortable. If you want to wear something that makes a statement because you want to take a stand, that’s fine. But don’t carelessly put on a shirt that makes a sexual statement or show up in clothes that would be inappropriate to wear to your job because you’re not thinking. How you dress does affect the way you’re regarded. It’s hard to take seriously a student who shows up in a shirt that celebrates drinking or drug use, and it’s downright offensive to have to deal in a professional setting with someone wearing a shirt that makes overt sexual comments (women are just as guilty of this as men are, by the way). Someone once told me that the more powerful you are, the less flesh you show. Think about it. When was the last time you saw Dick Cheney in ratty shorts and a “The Liver is Evil; it Must be Punished” t-shirt?

See previous posts for more Richardson's Rules of Order.

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