Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thoughts on Discussions

Having recently reread Stringfellow Barr's “Notes on Dialogue,” I've been thinking about discussions; not conversations between two or three people, but organized, ten to twenty person discussions about a shared question or reading. In my first few weeks at Stanford I'm finding that most students are unused to having this kind of discussion, and while that is hardly surprising, it is somewhat unsettling in classes that are, after all, discussion classes. In some cases, it is the how of the discussion that seems off: the professor doesn't run the discussion in the way that Barr – or any tutor – would tend to. More often, however, I'm sensing that the why is the deeper issue, and that the breaches of method have to do with the reasoning behind holding a discussion in the first place.

At St. John's, discussions are run by the tutors, but in a very hands off way. Usually, a tutor's opening question provides the framework for the beginning of a conversation, and for the first segment of the conversation the tutor removes himself completely. Only when things get off track, or when a particularly insightful comment needs to be highlighted or pursued does the tutor jump in. Of course, some tutors are "in" more often, and lead the conversation more directly than others, but the overall model is similar: the students drive the conversation, while the tutors alert them to oncoming obstacles (for good or ill).

At Stanford, the approach to discussion differs, because most professors tend to speak between each student comment. Questions – the motive force behind every intellectual conversation – are addressed first by the professor, and then by other students. This disrupts the flow of the conversation, and establishes a more authoritarian atmosphere. Without making a value judgment, the difference in method changes the tone of the class, and the emphasis on discussion, as such. Even the title, professor, has a suggestive difference compared to the title of Tutor: professors do not lead their students along, they profess, they teach, they explain.

The fundamental difference, then, in the how of the conversation at Stanford – and at most other institutions, I would venture – is the level of involvement by the authority in the conversation. The corollary to that difference is, of course, that the more involved the authority is, the less involved the students are, and students who might speak once in two hours in a St. John's discussion are reduced to not speaking at all in a Stanford discussion. This difference alone, however, is not the only difference between the methodologies of St. John's and Stanford discussion classrooms.

Another difference, which is related to the first, is the connectedness of the conversation. While it would be silly to say that St. John's conversations always follow a natural progression, and that each comment builds upon the one previous to it, there is at least a general effort on behalf of the participants to try to be constructive. As a result, St. John's discussions have a tendency to reach conclusions – or at least questions – that no one could have anticipated prior to the conversation. Because each comment is an unrehearsed reaction to the previous, there is a tendency towards unaccustomed and unanticipated ideas, which then require further unaccustomed and unanticipated thinking once they have been voiced. In the end, the conversation sometimes reaches a point that challenges the thinking of everyone involved – including the tutors.

While this outcome is not impossible at Stanford, it seems to me that the direction of the conversation is essentially determined ahead of time by the professor, and that the end point of the conversation, while perhaps eye-opening to the students, is almost never eye-opening to the professor. Indeed, the spontaneous and unusual questions some students might ask are rarely pursued, because they do not fit into the lesson for the day. Here another difference in vocabulary arises: a discussion which is a “lesson” is fundamentally different from one which is not.

There are many other differences, of course, but the essential ones should be clear, and we certainly have enough to address the root cause. At St. John's, the purpose of the discussion is to work collaboratively on deepening our mutual ability to have a conversation, and to understand the fundamental issues of philosophy and literature (and math and so on). The text itself is secondary, not because it is unimportant, but because a conversation that does not understand the keys to the text may still be a good conversation. Our concerns, at St. John's, are more meta-cognitive and broader.

At Stanford, on the other hand, the purpose of a discussion class is to allow students the opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of a work or concept with the aid of an expert. That is, while there is room for student participation – in fact, there is a need for it – the purpose is less meta-cognitive, and more driven by the text (or lesson, or research) itself. We are meant to figure out what the author is saying, and why he is saying it, and if we are wrong (according to who, the Johnny might ask), the professor is there to correct us. Moreover, when we are on the right track, he will let us know, and when we are wrong, he will let us know as well. Our ideas are not at the forefront, because we are more concerned with making sure we understand the ideas of others.
That's not to say that student ideas are unimportant, by any means, but they don't hold the primacy they do in a St. John's seminar.

While those two models may seem strikingly different, they are not, entirely. Just as St. John's is not unconcerned with the meaning of the work, Stanford is not unconcerned with the thought process that goes into understanding a work and talking about it. Both institutions hope to engender outside discussion (though probably not with the same level of success), and both hope, ultimately, to give their students the tools they need to succeed intellectually, academically, philosophically, and professionally. The way that they choose to accomplish that mission is different, but the mission is similar.

It bears a final mention that, while I would not try to value either methodology over the other in abstract terms, my first few weeks at Stanford reminds me that, in the context of modern society, St. John's provides a far more valuable service. Speaking economically, there is an abundant supply of Stanford-like discussions - though not every school is at the level of Stanford - while St. John's is one of the few places to engage in the other model. Of course, we might also say that the demand for Stanford's style of discussion is much higher, since people tend to see it as more practical, and because it fits more naturally into the “tell me what I need to know” model of learning that many successful people adopt. I would hasten to add that Stanford doesn't endorse that perspective, per se, and the essence of its educational mission is probably closer to that of St. John's than most people - myself included - realize (as is evidenced by the professors I've met who know about my undergraduate institution, almost all of whom say "I wish I could go to St. John's"). The bigger question - why the more common model of 'discussion' exists and is so prevalent - is a broader social issue. We'll have to save that for later.

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