Tackling Tough Topics

The director of our Center for Teaching Excellence recently wrote a blog post about creating safe spaces.  While she definitely didn’t raise such a concern, it’s easy for me to see how someone could take her post and then decide it’s simply easier to shy away from subjects that could lead to conflict.  There’s also the ever-popular complaint that we shouldn’t have to be “politically correct” (which, for the record, has to be one of the dumbest phrases, linguistically-speaking, ever created).

Thus, the trick is how to talk about challenging issues honestly while creating safe spaces.  Here are a few ideas/approaches that work well for me (there’s also an essay on embracing tension in the August/September issue of The Teaching Professor that’s worth reading).

First, just talking about such issues helps tremendously.  When I talk to students who fall into at least one minority category, their main complaint is that they feel invisible, that no one is talking about issues that matter to them.  Whenever controversial subjects have come up in my classes or on our campus, most students respond simply by saying “I’m just glad we’re talking about this.”  As long as we avoid the issues or avoid talking about them in the complexity we deserve, we continue to propagate this invisibility our students feel. Continue reading


How to Have Better Discussions

If you’re looking for someone to help you improve class discussions, you should read Jay Howard.  Here’s a blog post at Faculty Focus, but, if you like it, get his book, appropriately called Discussion in the College Classroom.  It’s well worth your time.

New Ideas for a New Year

As I almost always do, I’m going to try a few new ideas this semester and see how they work.  They mainly center around hearing more student voices, especially in my literature classes, where students have still been able to hide.

First, in my U.S. Literature survey, I’m going to have students do a bit of the teaching.  I’ve been wanting to add this component to classes for some time, but I’ve struggled to do so because of the size of the classes.  I have 17 for the spring (as of now), so having each student teach would take way too much time.  Instead, I’m going to have them teach in groups of 2 or 3.  Given that they’ll be leading the class for 20-30 minutes, each student should still do a good deal of teaching.

I’m going to let the groups choose a story or poem to teach, and they’re going to be in charge of the class for that time period.  Since it’s not an education class, I’m not grading them on their pedagogy; instead, I’ll focus much more on their preparation.  I want to see what kind of research they’ve done, so they go beyond just reading the story and asking some questions.  I will have a number of education majors in the class, though, so it will also give them good experience.

In my core literature class, I’m going to do more small group discussions that lead into the larger group discussion.  I haven’t ever felt the need to do that in this class, as I always have classes that contribute.  However, as I’ve paid more attention, I realize that there are students who go the entire semester without contributing anything to the discussion.  I want to make sure that doesn’t happen this semester.  I want to hear every student’s voice, so I’m going to make sure that happens.

I’m not doing anything dramatic in my composition course.  I’ve rearranged the structure of the class to have one day per week focused on our theme (identity) and one day focused on writing itself instead of the combination of the two I tried last semester.  If I have the time and motivation, I’m thinking of making short videos focused on grammar and writing for them to watch, but I’m not sure if that will happen or not.  I don’t know that the students will use them, and they’ll be a bit of a time investment.  Of course, once I do them for the first time, they’ll be good for years, so I might see if I can at least do a few to see how they go.

I’ll comment on how some of these ideas are going throughout the year, I’m sure.  I’m looking forward to hearing what students have to say this semester.  They always surprise me with some great comments, so finding ways for them to talk more should only make that happen more often.

Too Much Discussion? Part Two

Last week, I wrote about a class where I have one student who tends to dominate the discussion, leading other students to largely check out (or, worse, roll their eyes whenever they (the student who talks a good deal) starts to say anything).  I talked about using a technique of dividing the students into rows first and calling on each row, then, this past week, dividing them into groups.  This week, I’d like to talk about how last week’s classes went, both positively and negatively. Continue reading

Too Much Discussion?

It’s not often I complain about having too much discussion in class, but I have one class this semester where I have that student.  Anyone who has taught knows about that student, in relation to discussion.  They (I’ll use plural to protect anonymity) feel like they have to contribute to every single conversation that goes on.  Even when I’m simply talking about an idea or even a technique to do something, they feel the need to chime in with their thoughts on the matter.  On the rare occasions when they’re not sharing thoughts with the entire class, they’re usually sharing them with whomever is around them.

I haven’t handled the situation as well as I could have.  I’ve waited too long to do anything about the situation, which means fewer and fewer students have been contributing to the discussion, letting them do all of the work.  Such an approach isn’t healthy for the class, and I know it.  I also know how challenging of a situation this one is.  I don’t want to squelch anyone who’s contributing to the class, but I also don’t want one person to dominate.  This week, I knew things needed to change. Continue reading

An Alternative to Cold Calling

In Jay Howard’s new book, Discussion in the College Classroom (a book that is well worth your time if you care about the amount and quality of discussion in your classroom), he lays out the research showing that cold calling on students is one of the best ways to get past their “civil attention.”  It’s clear that, once one establishes cold calling as part of the norm of your classroom, using that technique can increase the quality of discussion in your class.

However, most of us are loathe to use cold calling, partly because we don’t like the perception it creates in students that we are out to get them, partly because we don’t believe it will actually lead to a substantive answer, and partly because we believe it will negatively affect our course evaluations (if we’re honest).  For those of us who are introverts who went through our college courses often not talking, we also don’t want to inflict such expectations on students who are much like we were.

There is a middle path here, though, that I’ve found works quite well:  online forum posts to help guide discussion.  In my upper-division courses, students are required to post a response to their reading by the morning of the class where we’ll be discussing that reading.  Such an approach has a few advantages, all of which help with class discussion. Continue reading

Pick a Card

I’m using a technique this semester to divide my first-year writing students into groups, which I do almost every class.  I’ve found they’re not very good at have all-class discussions without my giving them time to talk about ideas ahead of time.  This approach is not a new one; I heard about it at a conference almost a decade ago, in fact.  Someone wrote about it online this week, though I don’t even remember where.

Here’s how it works.  Using a basic deck of cards, pull out whatever you won’t need based on the number of students you have.  I have 30 students in one card, so I use ace through seven, then two eights.  Each student takes a card.  I began by simply dividing them into groups of four, having them match up with people with the same number card, threes with threes, etc.  I would often put the eights into the sixes and sevens, so no group was under four or over five.

There are several benefits of this approach. Continue reading