Derek’s work focuses on psychoanalysis with expertise in the area of critical psychology and psychosocial studies. Arvin is an Instructional Consultant for Teaching Assistants at the Center for Teaching Excellence.
In response to Arvin’s generous characterization of the ‘rhizomatic’ nature of my approach to graduate teaching and in relation to his two direct questions, I (Derek Hook) would like to offer a few brief thoughts.
- I am worried that I won’t have enough time to cover all the material! Is facilitating a discussion an efficient use of my lecture time?
Perhaps not always, but we could reverse the question: surely NOT facilitating a discussion in class is often a bad use of teaching time. This is often the case when the material is overly theoretical, when it contains much that is paradoxical or counter-intuitive, or simply when students (and professors!) are not sure they properly understand the texts in question. Discussions, particularly when paired with the tactic of asking students to frame the inquiry, can be a good way of ensuring that students read in the first place. Through student participation, systematic errors or questionable assumptions can be revealed, then engaged and worked with.
It is a good idea to work with ‘questions from the floor’ and use them to direct students to crucial facets of the text. ‘Preparing to be spontaneous’ is a nice oxymoronic way of framing this approach to teaching: I come prepared (perhaps with some possible talking-points, crucial debates, points of uncertainty, critical challenges, etc.), but keep these in the background until needed, precisely as a way of drawing out crucial facets from what emerges in more general discussion. I also make sure that students have access to scaffolding materials covering the main material (i.e. handouts with summaries of key arguments; schematic, diagrammatic depictions of the material; accessible secondary readings, etc.), which they have in front of them when one decides to risk a slightly more open-ended discussion. This is also the learning environment where I believe teachers learn the most; they are ‘unscripted times’ when teacher and student alike approach a set of ideas from a different set of problems or conceptual concerns.
Constantly asking for examples from students puts them to work on thinking how their lives are – in a manner of speaking – also a topic of learning.
Sometimes the best and most effective practical everyday examples of the ideas in question come from class discussions. I am always on the lookout for fresh examples of key ideas, because they are often what students remember best about a given theoretical notion. Constantly asking for examples from students puts them to work on thinking how their lives are – in a manner of speaking – also a topic of learning. It also means that the learning continues beyond the parameters of the classroom, to the movie theatre, the realm of earlier personal memories, to the realms of fiction and popular culture. Soliciting examples is a great way of prompting discussion and also, importantly, of isolating instructive counter-examples (i.e. pointing to why certain apparent ‘examples’ DON’T work).
- I am concerned that if I lead discussions on difficult topics then students might get offended or offend one another. What can I do to create a conversation that does not shut people down?
in teaching, the basic unit of information should not (at graduate level, anyways) be a fact, an isolated assertion, but rather a tension, a dynamic, a contradiction, a pair of terms, a debate
Perhaps the obvious point is to concede that discussions can be a risk in certain student groups – especially when lengthy and gratuitous tangents seem a strong possibility – and yet they bring the dimension of ‘liveness’ to the classroom, and with it, a sense of the unpredictable and spontaneous. A great deal of emphasis should be placed first though on facilitating trust in a given student group, and avoiding the snooty or judgmental intellectual atmosphere and enabling an atmosphere where everyone can – and should – contribute.
One suggestion here is that in teaching, the basic unit of information should not (at graduate level, anyways) be a fact, an isolated assertion, but rather a tension, a dynamic, a contradiction, a pair of terms, a debate. This may not always be possible, but, this idea can at least frame discussions, so that views and counter-views are taught together in a way that prioritizes the spirit of intellectual debate, of hearing out, of considering unintended consequences, of Devil’s Advocate kinds of arguments. This type of framing also sometimes adds momentum to developing discussions.
It is often a very good move to acknowledge areas of uncertainty, indicating from time to time that one does not completely understand something. It lets students know that they too should be allowed to ‘think out loud’, to extrapolate, guess, take a stab at what some or other evasive or difficult conceptual formulation might mean. If one can communicate a collaborative ethos or approach to working through materials, this often helps a great deal also. Signaling that we are explorers – and indeed, a team of explorers – of a given theory goes someway to dissipating counter-productive rivalries within a group of learners.