Heretical Thoughts on Pedagogy

I’ll admit that I don’t have firm opinions about pedagogy yet, and I certainly haven’t staked out a firm position in the lecture vs. discussion wars. From my own experience, I’ve had enough bad experiences in discussion-based classes that I am suspicious of those who would have discussion be the exclusive mode of teaching, but I’ve also seen lecture courses go badly — perhaps less so, but that may be because those who choose lecturing as their primary method are likely to be those who feel very comfortable with it, given that it’s seen as optional. For my own purposes, I like the idea of giving lecture courses because it opens up the possibility of using my lecture notes as work toward future writing projects, but then I also want to gauge the extent to which my students are able to follow what I’m saying, which requires some minimum of interactivity.

I will say that a lively discussion of a book by a small, engaged group is an ideal to be aspired to. Yet it seems to me that such discussions are pretty rare, even among professional academics (note how often people will express surprise that a conference session had good discussion). Such skills need to be cultivated, and of course you can only learn by doing. Yet there are also some base-level confidence issues that need to be addressed as well, and unless we want to cultivate students who believe that their every utterance is intrinsically worthwhile due to their precious snowflake-hood, it would probably be good to get them to a point where their confidence is earned, where it’s based in actual knowledge. We also need to get them to a point where they are good readers. That means being actual baseline good readers who are able to identify key themes, sympathetically state the author’s argument in their own words, talk about what each section of the book is supposed to be contributing, etc., etc. — that kind of stuff is the necessary foundation for the much-vaunted (and rightly vaunted! it’s a desirable goal!) “critical reading” stage.

I don’t think it’s at all clear that students typically come to college with those skills. Some will, but I think it’s much safer to assume that your students need help. I think that the assumption of baseline reading skills is doing a lot of work in the thinking of people who want more or less exclusively discussion-based classes — lectures, they suppose, are just trying to transmit information, which the books can do by themselves; then we can use the class time to practice our critical reading with each other. In such a mindset, the consistent report among students that they want more lecture (the popularity of great lecturers, etc.) indicates that they just don’t want to work hard during class. But I’m more inclined to trust students’ self-reports, including the reports of my own students so far.

We all want to be cultivating this high level of learning — critical thinking skills, etc. — and I think that’s absolutely the goal of education. The problem is how we get there. I think that lectures can play a big role in getting them to that next level if they’re used not primarily to transmit information, but to guide students in their reading and in certain modes of thinking. So if we want students to be good readers, maybe we say ahead of time what students should be looking for in their readings and give them an outline of the basic argument ahead of time (this was a definite request from both my classes). This will give them more confidence going in and give them a way of seeing what it looks like for themes to emerge or arguments to be strung together, etc. After a few classes worth of that kind of directed reading, perhaps they’ll be ready to begin drawing out themes and arguments themselves. Again, these skills are not something we should be taking for granted! And it’s not at all clear to me that imposing a straight discussion model on kids who are bewildered and disoriented about the readings is going to do much good for them (this coming from someone who experimented with a more “inductive” approach to reading assignments for much of the quarter — I know whereof I speak).

We do want them to discuss, but it seems to me that they first need to be comfortable talking amongst themselves about the subject matter — and the best way to cultivate that comfort may well be for them to study in groups in an old-fashioned lecture-heavy course. The process of coming up with easy ways to remember things is a way of putting things into their own words and getting at the concepts, something they’re much more likely to do if they’re studying with others rather than trying to memorize things alone in their room. Not having the pressure of having to “perform” in front of the professor might be helpful there. So even the much-derided process of studying for a “regurgitation”-style test has its role — and it also meets the students at the level of learning they are likely bringing with them from high school.

Overall, I think that the traditional models of education have an essential role, as long as they’re used in a conscious way. They have the possibility of covering up the flaws of lazy or unengaged educators in some cases, but then so does the discussion model — showing up with the book in hand and asking “so what’d you think?” arguably takes even less work than delivering a decades-old lecture. The goals of critical thinking, etc., are the only possible goals of a liberal arts education, and I support them without reservation. Yet you can’t jump straight to them, and I think that a lot of the ways people talk about pedagogy assume that you can — and just to summarize, I think that what enables them to do that is to assume that the books can handle the data-transmission just fine. We need to take seriously the fact that on many important levels, freshmen (and not just freshmen) don’t know how to read. It’s a fixable problem, but it’s a real one.

26 thoughts on “Heretical Thoughts on Pedagogy

  1. One way to help students arrive at class ready to talk is to make sure they have something to say. So at the start of each week, every student needs to post a question based on the readings: Do the reading, think, then ask a question the reading brought up for you. Be ready to talk about your question when you get to class, and you are not allowed to repeat someone else’s question. Questions asking for clarification of the readings won’t get as much credit as questions that go beyond the reading — “How come?” “What if..?” “Why is this different from what I’ve learned elsewhere?” sorts of things. Students must post _before_ they come to class.

    For grading, you just count up how many good, original questions each student contributes, and make that 20% of their grade for the semester. [Tell them up front, of course!]

    Then when you put them into small discussion groups, each person should have something different to bring to the conversation, and when you have them as a whole class, you can pick on students and ask what their questions were, etc.

  2. So students should get a lower grade if they come to your particular course with less of an ability to engage intelligently with texts? That comment seems to me to duplicate exactly the attitude that I’m trying to get past — namely, that the reading takes care of itself.

  3. This is a very thought-provoking post, Adam. I’ve had some scattered thoughts in my head about this, and your post has served as a way for me to draw some of them together. Here’s my best attempt at that, speaking autobiographically.

    When I came into college as a freshman, I had very little critical reading skills. I actually had two freshman years, one spent studying computer programming at a community college and the other spent learning how bored I get with computer science at my current, four-year school (I’m a fourth year senior here now, fifth in total). My introduction to liberal arts was via an exceptionally gifted history lecturer. By chance I was put into a Western Civ class with this professor, and dissected and wandered through history with a fluidity that I had not been exposed to before. My method of taking notes in that class was basically to write down as much of what he said exactly as he said it. His tests were extremely open ended essay questions, so it wasn’t exactly regurgitation per se. My introduction to philosophy was a similar type of course, and both classes confronted me with ways to knowledge that I had never experienced before.

    However, neither class featured that much reading, so I didn’t develop the critical reading skills you seem to be aiming at here. My first experience of that was actually in a literature class with my advisor, and it was the summer after this year (my sophomore year) that I really began reading in earnest (and reading somewhat well).

    But I think what has been most helpful in my development as a reader was my time spent abroad last fall, when I was exposed to the famous Oxford tutorial system. When I first arrived, I was too intimidated to even speak up during the pre-term seminar session with other philosophy students. But, after following the reading list of my one tutor especially, and talking one on one each week really helped me to build confidence and to be able to better articulate what I was saying. Living in a house with other scholarly minded young people was also a great help, and the conversations I had a few times a week at the local pubs with a friend I met in the program remain some of my cherished memories.

    I hope everyone will forgive the reminiscing, but I’ve had various experiences in my evolution as a reader. My return to the American-style system has been interesting, although I have also found it exhausting. My opinion now is that we have too scattered of a system – I’m taking 18 credits right now, and I find it impossible to engage on a more substantial level with all of my courses. I realize that this is largely because of the more focused nature of the program I attended at Oxford, but I think five or six different classes is a few too many. Perhaps (hopefully!) this is a sign that I’m ready for grad school.

    This is longer than I intended, and I’m not sure what concrete suggestions I am making. I was looking at the course bulletin of a school I am targeting for grad school, and in their (Loyola Marymount’s) undergraduate program, they have what’s called a “protoseminar” for first or second year philosophy students. I quite like the idea of a pretty structured program, especially in philosophy. Maybe this is because my education has been a little bit ad hoc, and so even though I’ve cobbled together some critical reading skills, I’m nowhere near as grounded in the history of philosophy as I’d like to be.

  4. I’ve done something similar to what rethoryke suggests, but I make it clear to the students that I won’t be grading them on whether or not their questions are particularly clever or not – if they ask a question or raise a point that shows any kind of engagement with the text, they get the credit for that question. My hope is that simply trying to come up with responses to the text is useful practice, and also that those students who are less sure about how to read critically will be able to learn from those students who are more skilled in that respect.

  5. The idea of getting people to read others responses is a brilliant idea.

    1. It shows that there own questions aren’t entirely stupid and pointless. And that the rest of the class share them.
    2. Critical readers improve non-critical, non-critical readers might understand better than some of the obvious question are in fact the more probing – ie they get down to “brass tacks” rather than implicitly accepting the authority of the text.
    3. Overall it contributes to group cohesion and the ability of people to feel sufficiently comfortable to speak freely, knowing that many people are on the same page. Moreover, on an individual basis it makes people feel better.

  6. It also fosters the idea that ‘no questions are stupid’.

    Maybe you could anonymise people’s responses and draw them from a hat and discuss them, or something like this.

  7. APS,

    No, no questions are stupid, in my opinion, if you are trying to teach someone something.


    Good question. What I, in my very limited experience, tend to do is try and make their not so good question, via a questioning of it and its premises, into a better question. Obviously sometimes this is easier to do than other times and risks transmorphing their question into a standard question about X text that we can then debate – eg “Is Marx really fair that religion is always to do with suffering?”. You can say stuff like “well, what do you mean by that?” or “can you think how your question relates to this other question I’ve just come up with” ie putting their critique in dialogue with something else. Or alternatively, in a potentially dangerous tactic (because it might make them feel like you are slapping them down) “how do you think Marx would respond to your position?” Hopefully in future the student will then skip over the preliminary and get to this in their own head but thinking “what rebuttal would an adversary make to this comment?” or “what would X – the author – reply?”.

  8. Well, sure, we say “there are no stupid questions” so that people who think their questions are stupid will ask them. I often find people think their questions are stupid when they are not. That said, there are still stupid questions that can derail the entire class discussion, and those can come from the teachers just as well as they can come from the students. Squashing them isn’t always done tactfully, but can sometimes be helpful especially when the student is obviously just hearing about the material for the first time (i.e. hasn’t read the assigned reading). I try to turn these stupid questions into an opportunity for the other students who did the work to shut them up, but in my experience so few students have done the reading they don’t know either. Oh friends – to have students who were expected to read!

  9. I haven’t ever asked the students to look at other students’ responses, but I do bring at least some of them up in class, basically for the reasons Alex mentions. I hope that hearing good questions, and the resulting discussion in class, will give students a model of good ways of reading. But I think your idea in the post, of using a lecture to explicitly put forward examples of the kind of reading practice students should be engaging in, is a very good one, better than hoping they’ll pick it up by osmosis (either from other students, or from the texts themselves).

  10. APS,

    Agree with you there – bringing in someone else to answer the question is a good move. Sometimes a stupid question means a ridiculous tangent which has no relevance at all to anything discussed. Perhaps squashing is the only good tactic here, but it sometimes difficult to know if suddenly a stupid question might return to the ballpark of interesting discussion. Easiest way to squash is to write it down on the board, then never ever come back to the point!

  11. But doesn’t it feel like the osmosis technique should work? Like in my classical Christian thought class — I thought they would start to notice emerging patterns just kind of inductively, which would then come out and be ratified in class, but for the most part, they were too overwhelmed with the texts to even begin doing that kind of work on their own.

    I did berate my students somewhat about how they need to “step it up” in terms of their reading (not save it for the last minute, give it time to sink in, etc.) so that the discussion would be able to be at a higher level — but then the next class when I asked them how they thought things were going, they definitely pointed out things that I could do as well to help them achieve that.

    Another benefit that occurs to me of using lectures to guide their reading — it would get around the “in one ear out the other” problem associated with lecture/regurgitation classes because they’d be putting the concepts of the lecture to work immediately in the reading process.

  12. Adam,

    Did you come up with these patterns when you yourself addressed these texts, or texts like them, for the first time? Or would you personally have required the few sessions of hand holding lectures before hand? I think drawing on one’s own experiences is a good source for recognising what good pedagogy looks like.

    Also the texts are a factor here. While everyone breezed through Marx and Nietzsche and to an extent Kierkegaard on my philosophy of religion course, they really didn’t get Hegel at all so I had to abandon this to actively teach it (using APS’s brilliant Hegel pedagogy method no less!)

  13. I personally used a more inductive approach when I was reading through the literature, but I already knew the standard narrative. And I should say that half or more of the course was lecture, because I preferred not to waste any reading slots on secondary texts and thought I could just give them the historical framework myself. I explicitly told them at the beginning of the class, in fact, that I was trying, as much as possible in the space of a quarter, to duplicate my own experience of learning this stuff.

  14. With alot of the material I teach (Plato to Hobbes, Luther to Weber) I find that sometimes just reading it aloud in a dramatic way is the only way to get students to actually comprehend what the words mean. They know how to read, but they are not really hearing a voice speaking to them or trying to persuade them of something.

  15. I frequently read passages aloud. I’m not sure how well that goes over, often they just stare at me. The execution of Damiens passage in Discipline and Punish is the only one that really provokes a response, usually of horror. This rarely leads them to consider how a world could be organized such that an execution of this sort would make sense. Sometimes they respond well to the really weird stuff that exists in the history of thinking about sovereignty and royal power, such as the sacred touch, wax effigies, and the two bodies. Sometimes the passage from Nietzsche on birds of prey and lambs gets them talking, but not always. Getting them to read the text not just once, but twice or three times prior to coming to class is nearly impossible. But then, I think I have the weakest cohort of students I’ve ever had this year and maybe I’m projecting my experiences from this semester into the past. I don’t remember feeling dumb and my lectures futile in previous years.

  16. What kind of writing assignments are you giving them? My adviser has boosted my reading skills by X-ing out whole paragraphs and pages in my paper drafts, and circling a sentence or two with the note, “More about this, please” in the margin.

    I imagine that good writing skills are in as short supply as good reading skills, especially among undergraduates, and separating the two may be something of a chicken and egg problem. But I wonder if focused, short writing assignments might boost the quality of the discussion. What do you think?

  17. Something that always comes up in these discussions is whether or not a particular form makes class in some way unnecessary. You mentioned how the discussion-prone crowd might say straight book learning can be gained on one’s own.

    Having gone through a discussion-heavy undergraduate education, I’d say the same thing about these discussion-oriented classes. If I want to hear what my peers have to say, and bounce ideas off of them, I can do that at lunch, or in a dorm room, or anywhere. The one thing that’s hard to reproduce outside of the University is scholarly teaching. Why muddy this with what some other student just like me happens to think or feel?

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