Can We Be Too Student-Centered?

I read an article this week about class discussion.  The author, Chris Friend, argues that professors tend to dominate discussion, guiding it to a pre-ordained ending, which is almost identical to lecturing.  He argues that professors should let students go wherever they want with discussion.  In fact, he leads classes where he doesn’t really even talk.  He takes notes on a laptop connected to the projector in the room, putting in a question from time to time, though the students are free to ignore those.

His idea is definitely radical, and it comes at a time where I’ve been thinking about making my classes more student-centered.  Despite the fact that I love class discussion, I always feel like I do too much of the talking.  I have a feeling most of us who teach feel that way.  We spend a good deal of time trying to come up with ways to get the students to talk more, so we will talk less.  One idea I had recently is about as decentered as Friend’s approach.  I teach a Contemporary Literature course every fall.  I joke that I could create five or six different reading lists, given the diversity of contemporary fiction and the lack of a clear canon.  I thought, then, that it might be interesting to just let the students put together the reading list one semester, just to see how it goes.

I won’t do so, though, because I had another thought shortly after that.  I remembered that I know a lot (and I mean a lot) more than they do about contemporary literature (and literature, in general).  Granted, some of them have read things I haven’t, and some of them definitely know some contemporary theory better than I do; however, I still have read much more widely than they have in this area.  While they might know a few authors who might be worth studying, I know more than a hundred, easily.  In fact, I used to send them a survey to see what they had read, as I wanted to avoid duplicating majors works they had already covered.  They usually told me that the survey made them feel dumb, as they had read maybe one or two works our of thirty or forty (I explained that the point of the class was to close that gap, not to make them feel stupid).

One could argue that class discussion is different, that they don’t have to have a set body of knowledge to be able to interpret literature well and contribute to the conversation.  I would agree, but I also remember an experience from early in my college teaching career.  I was dating a young woman who lived a couple of hours away, and she came to visit one day.  Since I was teaching, she came and sat in.  We were discussing Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that day, and we had a pretty good discussion, if measured by student contributions.  I asked her later what she thought, and she agreed that discussion had gone well, but she added, “It would be better if you know what you wanted them to get out of class today, though.”

She was right.  I was content to simply go talk to the class and have a good conversation, but I had no idea what I wanted them to walk away with.  Friend would argue that I should simply lecture if I want that, but I think there’s a middle ground here that would work.  I can have clear goals for my class discussions, a short list of ideas I definitely want them to cover.  However, I can still leave room for the students to lead me in directions I had not expected, sometime even in directions I would not have found on my own.  Otherwise, we become like the stereotypical academics who talk and talk and talk and never really get anywhere.

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