I really enjoy teaching—it might be that I’m a little spoiled, that the students at the U of C are unusually talkative and involved, but I really enjoy fostering discussion amongst a group of young ‘uns ready to explore our work. I have a good group of students this quarter, with perhaps more than the usual number of talkative kids, but yet no one who is trying to dominate the room. Everyone is respectful, and they are starting to learn to address each other, which I think is important.
On the first day, I explained a little bit about my teaching philosophy, that I will be steering the ship, but that I won’t let the conversation always be moderated by me. I have attended (and disliked) “discussion” classes with professors who ask leading questions for which there is a right answer, which the students must find and present to the professor. The discussion ends up being a back-and-forth between usually one (maybe two) students and the professor, while other students watch from the sidelines, answer different questions later, thereby reorienting the back-and-forth with the professor to a new side of the room. I’m in charge, I keep us on task—but I want the students to talk to each other, too. And after only two discussions, they’re starting to do it! And to address each other by name!
The class I teach is one of many classes the students can take as part of their required social science curriculum, so it’s a mix of students who want to take the class and students who chose it because they ‘had’ to. The students at the U of C also have to take a set number of humanities classes, and there appears to be a disconnect between the way that the humanities classes and the social science classes are taught. I’m not sure exactly sure how to describe that disconnect, since I’ve never taught the humanities sequence, but enough students have mentioned being confused by it that I’m willing to believe it exists.
After our first discussion, on Aristotle and Rousseau, a student came up to me after class to ask whether he could expect the rest of our discussions to be like that day’s was, where we dissected the reading to follow Aristotle’s argument and compared the two authors, or whether the classes would be more like his humanities class, where the students discussed what was right. Thinking to myself, “right?!”, I said that, having not taught in the humanities, I couldn’t compare our classes but that a large amount of our time would indeed be spent dissecting arguments and understanding the authors, that we would discuss the internal coherence of the argumentation, and then compare the authors with each other in order to see the larger conversation between them. I said that our papers would be designed in part to allow students to evaluate the authors’ works (that’s as close as I could come to saying, you can write about whether they are ‘right’), but that it was impossible to fairly do such an evaluation without first understanding the author’s arguments thoroughly.
I have a system for reading, and maybe now I’m developing a system for discussion: outline argument, find and discuss the confusing parts of it, evaluate internal coherence, and then compare to previous author. Except—discussion isn’t like my personal reading, I have to keep the students interested, too. Yesterday I did that (or tried to) by jumping to an interesting example at the very end of the reading (in the Theory of Moral Sentiments) and asking the students rather baldly, “Was Caesar Borgia moral?” That meant we had to dig into Adam Smith’s definition of morality and backtrack to trace out the argument for that definition, and the bases Smith uses to judge Borgia. I don’t know if it worked or not—it’s really hard to evaluate how a conversation is going at the same time that you’re leading it, but it’s necessary—but the students kept referring back to the Borgia example, so at least it gave them something to wrestle with. Good technique to remember for next time, I think. I’ll keep thinking about whether I have a system; it would be useful, if I could keep it from getting dull and dry.