On Discussion Teaching
In This Section
by James Redfield
The fact that one adopts a topic does not mean necessarily one is for it. I actually am in favor of discussion teaching, but I am about to give only two cheers for it. I find in my own teaching that I use it less and less, which probably says negative things about me. Last week, however, one of my students said that he found the previous two classes very helpful. When he said, "You took control," I replied, "You mean I was lecturing." The student who happened to be standing next to him said, "Oh, that's what that's called." In the last month, I have been evaluating programs and observing classes at a number of different places, and I have observed that people always apologize for lecturing if that's what they have been doing. This highlights one of the major issues about discussion teaching, which is that everybody is for it, except maybe the students. I have a short list of the things that everybody knows are good, but nobody is quite clear why. Discussion teaching is on that list. If you find a sentence in Newsweek that begins, "Such and such a college is a place where professors do not lecture, but . . .," it really doesn't matter much what comes after the dots. You're sure it's superior to lecturing. But the students do complain a lot when we don't tell them what it is that we know, or when we don't tell them what they're supposed to know—two obviously different but related things. People have been making that complaint about discussion teaching ever since Socrates—about whom people regularly used to complain that he wouldn't tell you what he thought. This was his famous irony.
If you're going to have a discussion, you need to have some kind of text, so I am trying to produce a lecture here that you can discuss. I think I also ought to note that giving only two cheers for discussion is a local heresy. When I was in the College here, everything was taught by the discussion method. In fact, a band of inspectors was formed, or was proposed to be formed, to make sure that all instructors were using the discussion method. Discussion was run on a very strict set of rules, which included such things as the following: you taught the translation and not the text because the translation was what was in front of the students, so you were not permitted to tell them that the original said something quite different from that; you dealt only with the actual words which were before the entire class, and you were not allowed to bring in anything you might happen to know; you taught only what they had read and nothing else. In other words, it was a very purist school. Discussion flowed very freely in those days, I think more freely than now. But I would observe that the College of that period was partly a secondary school, probably the best secondary school ever produced in North America. Those of us who came in at fifteen or sixteen were getting our upper-level high school teaching. When I have taught upper-level high school classes, I have found it very much easier to get the kids discussing. They are less experienced, which, among other things, means they haven't had so many bad experiences, and they tend to be quite willing to tell you what is exactly on top of their minds.
There is at least one style of discussion that requires a certain willingness, shall we say, for the students to free associate. You ask a question; you get an immediate answer—the first thing that occurs to somebody. Then you can rephrase the question and get another one and so forth. There is an easy flow when the students are not censoring. Our undergraduates, however, most of whom have already graduated from highly competitive high schools, are not so malleable. They censor quite a bit. Furthermore, they are more grown up, and they are more competitive. So, in one respect, they talk too little because they won't say the first thing that comes to their minds, and, in other respects, they talk too much when they try to take over the class and run it for you. Both things can be difficult. This point alludes to my major theme in these remarks—that discussion teaching is really an authority problem. If you can't solve it, you get backed into lecturing. Since we are all against lecturing, except maybe the students, this leaves us with a sour taste.
I have thought quite a bit about why we are against lectures. I am going to read you one of my favorite statements about the experience, a poem by Henry Reed, which is frequently anthologized. It is called, "Naming of Parts," written in the mid-forties, about the Second World War:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, We shall have what to do after firing. But today, Today we have naming of parts. Japonica Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens, And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see, When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel, Which in your case you have not got. The branches Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures, Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers: They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt, And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance, Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards, For today we have naming of parts.
Among other things, this poem is about what goes on during a class. It's about lecturing as hierarchy. That is to say, the lecturer is perceived as a sign of an established, and, certainly by the poet, resisted authority. The lecturer is someone with a rank, presumably a noncommissioned officer. It is this rank which is the claim upon the pupil's attention. I think our beliefs about how much better it is to have a discussion class involves, among other things, our rooted objection to hierarchy, which is one of the good things about us. One of the great discoveries of postclassical civilization is that every soul is valuable; everyone has something to say; everyone deserves to be heard. We talk about this when we talk about learning from our students. This is one of the things we teachers say, always with a tone of self-satisfaction.
How do you learn from your students?
You don't necessarily learn from them because they say anything. One of my teachers, Henry Rago, certainly one of the most brilliant teachers I have ever observed, in my time taught by the discussion method. In fact he is the one who told me about the corps of inspectors. Later in life, Henry pretty much abandoned discussion teaching. He had extraordinary classes in which he improvised his lectures and was so interactive with the students that they felt part of the process the whole time. At the end of ninety minutes, I'd be astonished to realize that nobody had said a word except Henry. He was learning from his students what it was he could get them to understand, or what he could get away with.
From Redfield's comments after his presentation: "One of the things that makes this model work is high self-esteem; Rago believed in his capacity to get through, to be extremely charming, which he was. In the second place, he believed the most important thing for anybody was that they see the world the way he saw it. I would say that it worked for him because it was his way of packaging an extremely narcissistic personality; he turned it into a performance and made himself into a performer. So I think in that sense it is like acting, which means that it turns not on anything that you can find in the books, but in finding a style that fits your personality. It's very different for different people."
When we think of lectures, we don't tend to think of that kind of lecturer. We tend to think that there is a fourth wall separating the lecturer from everybody else. This is of course one of the things that "Naming of Parts" is about, the wall separating the lecturer from the poet, who is having a completely private erotic fantasy of his own. In other words, this mode of instruction leaves the student a certain important kind of freedom. It leaves the mind a chance to wander. In an important sense, the fourth wall of lecturing is a way of leaving the students alone, and that is one of the things that they often prefer about it. While I was at Oxford, where nobody ever discussed, the lectures were just like that. You could go, sit in the back, and take notes or write letters. You could do just about anything you wanted, and the lecturer didn't care. He came in and made sure there were two of you there; otherwise, he wasn't going to talk; then he talked. Some of them were very brilliant, some of them were very dull. Part of the whole Oxford style was that the lecturers let their students alone because there was an assumption that all real work was done during the vacations anyway. I think there is something to be said for that. We do have a tendency to believe that we ought to be engaging our students at all times; that is one of the things that discussion is about.
To understand this engagement, the contrast between organism and mechanism in the "Naming of Parts" is essential. That is, the lecturer sounds mechanistic, the way the noncom sounds because he has done it before. Probably this officer has explained the parts of the rifle hundreds of times—he's got another platoon; he's got to do it. In a sense a lecture, including this one, is always something that you've done before. Even though I never said these things before, I have these notes in front of me, which means I thought them through once before in a certain kind of order. Yet the process by which I derive these notes is quite different—organic, not mechanistic. Bits of this lecture took form in the bathtub and in the middle of the night and at various other times. The mind kind of wanders around a certain amount of wordplay. Who knows how many ideas you get from puns, from free association? That's the organic side of thought, which we don't usually present. It is the old rag-and-bone shop of the heart where all this stuff gets rolling, but we don't show that; we try to show the finished product. Part of the idea of discussion teaching is that you are going to get into that organic, inchoate, thinking process with the students and try to improve it. I have learned a lot through discussions, and it's of great value to me, but it is invasive. Like any kind of invasive therapy, so to speak, it has to be treated with a good deal of delicacy.
First dimension: questions.
Now, let me tell you something about some of the dimensions of discussions, starting with the type of questions. When I was in the College, they used to refer to one type of discussion teaching as "hole in board." You have a whole board that is full of little holes, and you keep pumping the students until you get the peg for the next hole. You put that in, and you go on to the next one. It was beautifully parodied in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The teacher was always saying, "And this is called some kind of supply—what is it? anybody? anybody?" Of course, nobody ever answers him—they're all sitting there glazed. Actually, one of the most brilliant and effective teachers I have ever seen work, Christian Mackauer, taught entirely that way. As a refugee here, he discovered that he was expected to work by the discussion method, which they do not have in the gymnasium in Germany, so his solution to this problem was to leave little gaps in his lectures and have the students fill them in for him. It was a very funny effect. I remember one time he was trying to explain something about the Reformation, using the Book of Job, and he said, "Of what does the Book of Job consist?" Some kid in the front, guessing, said, "Prophecy." "There is no prophecy in the Book of Job," said Mackauer, and I, in the back row, could not resist quoting in a carrying voice, "I know that My Redeemer liveth and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth." Without missing a beat, Mackauer said, "Of what does the Book of Job primarily consist?" He was a star, by the way, and one of the most popular teachers of his period.
I don't really mind that style when it is working. It has a kind of quiz show quality that can keep the student awake. It's like playing Trivial Pursuit. I am somewhat more hostile to it when what it really represents is a personal intellectual agenda. You're trying to get an evaluative answer, and what you do is just keep talking the students out of any other answer. You say, "What do you really think about this?" When they say something, you say, "You don't want to think that, do you?" until you finally get the one you want. This notion of discussion can be contrasted with the other end of the spectrum, where all the answers are right. Since we don't really think everything is right, we can't really tolerate that one, either. I do know a wonderful secondary school teacher who says that everything the students say is wonderful. She is well aware of the fact that it costs her something. She puts up with a lot, but she believes that this kind of unconditional positive regard produces work from her students that she wouldn't get otherwise. While this works for her, I just think most of us are not capable of doing it, and, if we were, we'd be in something more lucrative like psychotherapy. You have certain personal limits—in terms of the interaction you can really handle—on the amount of positive regard you can hand out.
This dimension of discussion leading ranges between two kinds of questions: (1) questions that are centered on the student's personal sense of the subject, such as, What do you feel about this? which tend to suggest that everything is right, as when people think King Lear is a comedy, which is wrong, and (2) questions of the What do you see right here? kind, when you point, saying, "Show me where it is," that claim an absolute objectivity. Now, this second kind of question is of course very Chicago—we're famous for it. Somebody like Wayne Booth takes the view that there is a whole level of things that should be common ground in a text. After settling on the things that everybody really ought to settle on, then you can start being as pluralistic as you like. Booth was a student of R. S. Crane, whose whole critical theory was that, if you want to understand the text, you have to look at it to see how it works. Booth told me he went to see R. S. Crane in his last illness almost every day; when he came in one morning and said, "Well, R. S., you're looking better today." Crane whispered in reply, "What's your evidence?" It was also R. S. Crane who, when somebody, I believe it was a nun, started a sentence in one of his seminars by saying, "Well, I feel . . . ," said, "Your feelings are of no interest to us." Crane really held to this notion of absolute objectivity. I think there ought to be some way in which you can work back and forth between the evidence and your own sense of it.
Second dimension: the role of the chair.
The second dimension of a discussion is whether it runs through the chair or whether it flows freely. In the last month, I have seen a number of classes in which the students did almost all the talking. I was able to sit through a seventy-minute class in which the instructor said nothing more than, "Tomorrow we're going to read such and such." The students just opened up, having been conditioned to do that. The amount of training that goes into doing that is really quite impressive. I cannot do it at all. My so-called discussion classes are run almost entirely through the chair. When people talk to me, I throw it back; then somebody else puts in something else, and I throw it back. It's like playing tennis with a group. In this type, the authority of the chair is obvious; in the other type it's not so obvious. In fact, in the cases in which the students are doing all the talking to each other, you do have to be able to stand it that all these neat ideas that you have are not being expressed. In these discussions, the teacher is, nevertheless, very present as an audience. This is not the way the students would talk sitting around the dormitory. They understand that there are rules, and they're learning to adhere to them.
My own style, as I say, does not work with questions but responses. I do not, however, consider myself any kind of model teacher. When a class is working best, I think it is a little bit like Rago's lectures; that is to say, it gets to be a cooperative construction. People feel they are a part of a process of putting it together. It's a little like building a freestone wall. Once, when I was walking in the country in Tuscany, I met a man who was building such a wall. He told me it was a proof of God's providence. He said, "I keep working on it until I get a very funny-looking little shape like this. Then I reach around, and there is a rock that exactly fits in it." A good discussion class is like that. You get all these brand new shapes, and you put them together. You don't, however, always get God's providence.
Third dimension: direct versus cross-examination.
The last dimension of discussion leading is the difference between direct and cross-examination by the teacher. This is again always focused on the chair. Direct examination can be either the What do you see? question or the How do you feel? question, but you are really interested in the student's answer. Then there is the Socratic method, which is a process of cross-examination in which you have no interest in the actual opinions of the other person. You are simply using the questioning method as a way of enforcing your will on them, which is a general rule of cross-examination. When using cross-examination in a court of law, you should never ask a question to which you do not know the answer; you should also know what the next question is going to be.
The Socratic method is very hard to do. The only person I have ever seen use it effectively is the late Joe Schwab. He was certainly one of the spectacular teachers of my day, and he was very Socratic. Joe was the only teacher I have ever seen who made you feel that he just opened your head and made you think. In his earlier years before his psychoanalysis, no class was complete until somebody had been reduced to tears. In his later years, he only made you feel like crying. He was absolutely ferocious. When people talk about Socrates, they talk about him the same way. Socrates really makes you feel lousy. There's something fascinating about that, and Joe always drew a crowd, just like Socrates. In other words, the Socratic method is, of all styles, the most authoritative, and I would put it at the widest sort of distance from the lecturer, which, as I say, really leaves you alone. The Socratic is the most invasive style of teaching, the one that has to be handled with the most care.
I have just a few final points. First, some people seem to think that somehow discussion is a way in which people individualize themselves, and everybody gets to have their own opinion. The lecture is much better for that because, as I say, it leaves you alone. Discussion is a consensus process, and, insofar as it is working, it creates a group that tends to draw people closer and closer together and cuts off the edges on them. You are building that freestone wall together. What you're always aiming at is agreement. You have to think about that, particularly in those areas that are highly politicized or that are highly stressed for the students. The more you run your class as a discussion, the more pressure will be exerted on their personal lives to conform to the local group norms.
Second, any discussion is highly authoritarian in some way, even the ones, as I say, in which the students do all the talking. A discussion class, when it is working, is like a charismatic community. It has very much the ideology of the commune because they're always built around somebody, the leader, who is always saying in one form or another, "You can do and think anything you want, as long as it is one of the things that I think you should do and think." There is a kind of instituted liberty within rather narrow limits built around that personality. I think that is okay, too, when done well by people with a good will, but as Sam Goldwyn said, "I've been reading about this hydrogen bomb, and it's dynamite." You have to be a little careful.
Finally, the first thing I learned as a teacher was that nobody is a good teacher for everybody, which I found a very bitter lesson. Slightly later in life I learned the corollary, which I found even worse in a way—that just about everybody is a good teacher for somebody. You meet these incredible klutzes, and it turns out there is some-body out there for whom they have made all of the difference. This observation led me to conclude that teaching is not a method, it's a name for a whole group of social situations in which all kinds of things happen and about which it is not possible to say anything really very useful on a technical level.
Professor, Committee on Social Thought and Department of Classical Languages and Literature University of Chicago.