The immersion method

The established orthodoxy holds that the ideal classroom experience is a discussion-centered format with a small class size. This approach is supposed to facilitate “active learning” on the part of students, which is the only way to actually change their deeper thought patterns. Among its other benefits, this model also helps them to become better readers, as the kind of critical engagement we’re looking for is practiced in the classroom, with on-the-spot feedback and guidance from the professor.

Many educators have concluded, based on their experience, that this model simply isn’t realistic. Students aren’t engaged enough to make it work, and they feel ripped off at having to listen to each other when there’s an expert standing right there — thus teaching evaluations tend to reward more authoritarian, lecture-centric approaches. My first couple years of teaching inclined me in that direction as well.

Since arriving at Shimer College, I’ve changed my mind. The reason the ideal model doesn’t seem to work is that no one is actually doing it. They give lip-service to it, but at best it’s a half-assed supplement to more traditional models. What Shimer does is essentially to throw the students into the deep end of the pool — all their classes, no matter what the subject, are small, discussion-centric classes. They have to figure out how to be productive members of such a learning community, if only because half of their grade comes from class participation.

It can be pretty rough in the first-year courses, especially toward the beginning — though the difference between the first and second semester is already remarkable. It’s also the case that not everyone “makes it.” But for those who stick with it, the progress is often amazing. By their third year, students are collaboratively figuring out how to work through texts that I never would have thought they could even find a way into — for instance, some of my best discussions last semester were over Teresa of Avila, which is impressive in a room full of mostly secular students.

The key to the model, it seems to me, is that it is simultaneously text-centered. Shimer is probably one of the most liberal Great Books schools out there, with a much greater emphasis on contemporary texts — for instance, the capstone Humanities course includes more Irigaray than you could possibly imagine — and a greater emphasis on differentiating between disciplines than St. John’s, which is often regarded as the archetypal Great Books school. So we’re not making big ontological claims about the Western Tradition, etc. (not to say that St. John’s is either, but early advocates of the Great Books curriculum certainly were). What the Great Books framing allows us to do is to get past the “why are we reading this” syndrome: students may not “like” Plato, but few are going to be so arrogant as to claim that Plato isn’t worthy of attention. Even if they don’t connect with a text personally, it’s generally going to be the kind of thing that one really “should” read.

More important is what the textual focus does to the classroom: it provides a shared point of reference and a standard of relevance. The things that people hate about discussion sessions is basically the bullshitting, the free-associative nonsense spouted by people concerned primarily with getting their “participation points.” The textual focus gets us away from the students’ own arbitrary opinions and puts us on the track of something that we have in common: a desire to figure out what the hell is going on in this text. Over time, students understand that this is their chance to figure that out, and they begin to hold each other accountable for things like textual support.

Shimer’s approach isn’t perfect, of course, and it probably wouldn’t work for everyone — there is a certain degree of attrition among first-year students that testifies to that. It also helps that the student body is somewhat self-selecting, as a good majority of the students are those who explicitly found more traditional methods unsatisfying. In any case, they know what they’re getting into, and they’re actively choosing it over other alternatives. I wouldn’t dare try to make the case that every school in the world should adopt the Shimer method.

What I think Shimer does show, however, is that if you’re going to implement the ideal model, you have to really do it. The style of learning presupposed by that model is like a foreign language to most students, and you can’t learn a foreign language in a couple half-hour sessions per week — you have to do full immersion.

10 thoughts on “The immersion method

  1. I would say that you are right-on. The reason why discussion classes rarely work at the undergraduate level has more to do with the student’s habits and expectations than academic ability. Change the former and one will likely greatly improve the latter.

  2. Yet again, complaints about students’ inability to discuss productively fit within my pet peeve: teachers complaining about things that can be fixed via… teaching. It’s like saying, “It’s no good to try giving kids swimming lessons — they just don’t know how to swim!”

  3. How do you assess participation? I assume there must be a pretty established criterion at Shimer if participation is regularly fifty percent of the grade. I ask because I’m planning my first syllabus for an intro philosophy course next semester, roughly a third the grade of which is supposed to be based on participation, and I’m struggling to find a method for assessment that isn’t simply punitive (“you may only have one unexcused absence, after which absences will affect your grade,” etc.).

  4. I keep notes over the nature and quality of each student’s participation in a Word document. Last semester I did it for every day, but that seemed excessive, so now I do a quick review at the end of each week. Some colleagues of mine are developing a more formal assessment tool, but I find that just keeping track and not counting on remembering at the end of the semester is just fine.

  5. Robert, you could consider indexing participation to attendance; e.g., if you attend three quarters of the classes, then the maximum participation marks you can receive is 75% Hypothetically, this encourages attendance without making attendance part of participation. Obviously, formal methods of evaluating participation are prone to failure. The mere fact of talking in class–even if you raise your hand–isn’t participation. One good comment or question every few classes is infinitely more valuable than saying all shit all the time… And using participation marks almost entirely subjectively isn’t necessarily bad– sometimes a good student hands in a shit assigent and it seems fair to boost participation to compensate for loss of other marks.

  6. @Craig: I’m planning something like that — using attendance as a limiting measurement, so full attendance doesn’t ensure full credit, but multiple unexcused absences have a negative affect. The way you describe it is helpful, however, and I think I might use that language on my syllabus. By the way, I hadn’t thought of the value of subjective participation marks in cases like the one you mention. I’ll have to think about that.

    @Adam: Thanks for explaining. I guess I’m unduly hung up on quantification. I’ve been devising increasingly byzantine systems to render precise what I mean by participation, but it seems reasonable simply to keep a regularly updated log as you do.

  7. I know it’s customary to use participation points as a kind of “slush fund” to manipulate final grades, but I think that waters down the point of actually grading based on participation. I do agree with Craig wholeheartedly that more is not always better and can even be worse — quality has to count, too, as does the ability to make remarks that wind up generating further reflection (as opposed to isolated comments). I think it’d be possible to come up with some kind of numeric assessment tool that would capture all those facets, and as I say, some of my colleagues are working on just such a project.

    One possibility that occurs to me: don’t measure quantity directly, but measure their deviation from what a proportional contribution would be (i.e., talking for 1/[total number of students] of the class session). That would capture the effects of overdoing it.

  8. I went to Shimer (1956-60)
    entered after my sophomore year of high school
    still not a day goes by that I don;t think about and thank
    Shimer for the incredibly wondrous education I received there
    graduate school was a breeze after my training in the use of the Mind there

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