Who Hates Class Discussion?: Or, Have Some Guts
Here is, to some, a frightening truth: syllabus day is long gone, which means that many of us we will be obliged to spend most of our remaining class meetings in discussion.
Open class discussion, where the professor asks probing questions while pacing near the white board or sitting casually on her desk, is for many of us nothing new, just another requirement of the syllabus. And we’ve found, in previous semesters, that even if “discussion” or “participation” accounts for only 20% of our course grade, it is the thing we end up doing all the time.
And so I ask: why is discussion sometimes the thing many of us don’t want to do at all?
I will hazard a few guesses. First, it seems that some of us have noticed certain party fouls of class discussion that turn us off from participating. I will list a couple.
1) The ad hominem attack. If you have taken logic or watch Nancy Grace you know what this is. Person 1, enraged (probably irrationally) by the views of Person 2, responds to Person 2’s argument by saying something like, “Well, you’re stupid and ugly!” Closer to home, imagine the preachers who frequent the transitional link between Padnos and the Lake halls. Ostensibly they are here to talk reasonably about Christianity (or just to convert us). However, students complain that these preachers accuse them of being “sinners” or “sluts.” And then, of course, after listening to these preachers interpret the bible, some of us simply respond, “you bible-thumper!” In this case, ad hominem goes both ways.
2) The unproductive tangent. This may be the most common complaint of students reluctant to participate in class discussion. Here’s one story I recently heard: A girl slouches in her chair, frustrated, as she listens to some students “go off on Obama” in her “News and Society” class. She explains that if those students had related the president’s actions to the influence of the media, then their complaints would be relevant to the class. But they didn’t—they just thought that because the professor mentioned “politics,” they could dominate class discussion by dissing the president. Not so.
Both of these issues detract from class discussion, but commonly they’re the result of a larger problem: something that is fundamental to the very point of being at a school like Grand Valley. Here, we ought to be engaged and impassioned, to grow in thought and character; in fact, this is supposed to be why we’ve chosen to come to Grand Valley.
Then why is it that we cannot, or do not, discuss with the intensity and precision, even the spirit, of which we are expected? In short, why can’t many of us “do” class discussion? I propose one answer.
3) A lack of intellectual confidence. What do I mean by this? I’ll give you an example.
Many times we see our professors at the front of the class, speaking confidently and powerfully about a topic—one for which they received a PhD—and as a result we are reluctant to speak up. Perhaps we feel intimidated, even bullied into adopting the argument of the professor, as if he will humiliate us if we don’t. Or maybe we simply close our mouths and entrench ourselves in our own views, convinced that the professor and our peers are flat-out wrong.
Both of these methods, I say confidently, are misguided; not only that, they defeat the purpose of attending a school like Grand Valley. We are not here to “get knowledge,” or sideline ourselves during a debate, and remain unchanged. Instead, we are meant to adopt the same power and intensity of thought that are exhibited by our best teachers. How do we do this? Not by closing ourselves off, but instead by struggling desperately for the right words to express our thoughts and inclinations and, further, by learning how to enter them thoughtfully, skillfully into the discussion. And to do this we first need one thing: some guts.