Sunday, January 27, 2013

On Class Discussion.

The piece of writing below was originally writtenfor The Round Table, Beloit College's student-run newspaper. Now, in my real last semester here, I've already got my degree and discussion is about ten thousand more times frustrating. My writing style is a little less snarky, but, I am also a lot more jaded than I was, so it still rings relatively true. Enjoy:

   As a Creative Writing major, I am obligated to take literary analysis classes. I don’t mind the reading or the lectures, but often find myself rolling my eyes and clenching my fists constantly during class discussions. I’ve had a few bad experiences in history and political science classes with discussion, but nothing near as bad as discussions on literature.
   You will hear a comment similar to this one thousands of times in lit classes: “What we read reminds me of this other thing I read once.” Anybody who says it never has much to say after that, because it’s never a relevant sentence. It’s not helpful. It’s nothing but a way for an eager and pretentious student to let the professor know how smart they are. I would hear people make this comment and not understand how they continued to do it—I thought it was common sense that outwardly bragging about your intelligence isn’t exactly good manners.
   But even in my sixth semester at Beloit, I am haunted by bad discussions. I dread classes that are otherwise great. I walk into the classroom preemptively annoyed. Sometimes I’m scared to speak in class because I don’t want to be the person at whom everybody rolls their eyes and clenches their fists. The following list serves as my attempt to make class discussion more successful for me, but also for the rest of the campus.
   Discussion can be a really constructive way to learn, and we are lucky that we don’t have to constantly take ScanTron exams instead.  Take advantage of the type of education we practice at Beloit, and make class discussions better for everybody.
—Talk. Contribute. Say something. Silence is awkward for everybody.
—Do the reading.
—If we’re talking about something that relates to your other classes, or experiences you’ve studied with other professors, they could be interesting to bring up. You can steal points from a discussion in that class and bring them up here. Liberal Arts in Practice.
—Give exact quotes, not just general claims. Have page numbers ready if you can. Especially if you think what you’re about to say is controversial (even though it probably isn’t).
—Cite your classmates, get their names right, and build on what they’ve said instead of just repeating what they just said.
—Kiss your professor’s ass during office hours. Not class time.
—Say “I don’t know” if you’re questioned on something you’ve said and you don’t know the answer. Bullsh*tting your answer is just awkward
—Think about what you say before you say it. Please.
—Talk about your study abroad experience if its relevant, but not more than three times over the course of a semester.
—If you don’t understand something, ask questions. Asking questions is brave; if you’ve done all the work and still don’t get it, it’s not your fault. Other people are probably wondering the same thing but are too nervous to ask. There is no shame in not knowing everything.
—Reference a movie, ever. Unless the class is discussing a movie, or is discussing a book that has a movie. (Side note: I had a special request from a friend to say not to reference “Family Guy.” So don’t reference “Family Guy.” Just don’t.)
—Nod. You can nod a little bit, but nodding too much is annoying. We get it—you understand. You don’t need to show everybody you understand by aggressively nodding.
—Talk for more than about 30 seconds. After the 30 seconds are up, these two things are true: (1) nobody is listening anymore, and (2) you are repeating yourself. (This is why you need to think before speaking.)
—Say things like: “I looooooved it,” or “I hated it” and then not back it up.
—Interrupt, especially in an aggressive or attacking way.
—Use too much anecdotal evidence, especially if it’s not something you heard from a friend’s friend’s friend.
—If you need to preface your comment with a, “now, I don’t want to offend anybody,” then you shouldn’t say it.
—Tell us the obvious: that anything written in the 17th, 18th or 19th century was sexist or racist. Duh, of course it was.
—Use these words/phrases unless you are 110 percent sure you can define them: “satire,” “hetero normative,” “false dichotomy,” “ironically,” “pragmatic,” “ethnocentrisms,” “TRON,” “devil’s advocate” etc.
Call people out on their sh*t. You are the professor. You’re allowed to interrupt people and tell them they’ve talked enough. If somebody in the class has been speaking on the same subject for more than 45 seconds, and we’re all sitting around waiting for them to stop, you have the power to tell them to stop. We, as students, don’t have that power, as much as we might want it. You have a Ph.D., you can tell people with a high school degree and some college that they should shut up.
Please, tell us to shut up. And do it early in the semester so that we all know what you will and will not accept from your students. On a more positive note, when somebody makes a good comment, or  asks a good question, tell them what they said was interesting. You have a Ph.D. and we want to impress you with our ability to ask good questions. Doing things like this will make the discussion better for everybody in the long run. I can only do so much, so please help.


  1. Hi Sasha - I've been reading your blog for the past hour - found it through and started with "On Being Black In Madison." I'm from L.A., and feel Madison is deeply deprived of culture. I've discussed with a few friends that I feel something is off with the people of Madison - which I haven't been able to pinpoint. But anyways your posts are witty, englightening, and very true. And what you said above - damn I couldn't agree more. Keep it up.

    -Blake W.


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