Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Literary Discussions

(The purpose of this blog is to share interesting ideas I have found in American professional publications dealing with the teaching of English at all levels, elementary, secondary and college.)

Topic: Discussions in the College Classroom

Title: “Look Who’s Talking: Discourse Analysis, Discussion and Initiation-Response-Evaluation Patterns in the College Classroom” Maureen Neal. Teaching English in the Two-Year College (March 2008), 272-280.

Summary: College teachers’ attitudes and language prevent any true literary discussion in the college classroom.

[This article is a “keeper.” RayS.]

This college teacher believes that no real student-teacher “conversation” can occur in the college classroom because of the professors’ attitude of authority and, especially, because of their language.

Quote. Not much discussion? It’s the professor’s fault. “As a result of my study of classroom discourse, I have become aware of a speech that I believe to be especially alienating for students: the use of evaluative language, the use of the common ‘we’ when it really is students alone who are intended to do the work, the presence of exhausting monologues without interruption, the use of elongated sentences packed with qualification, intrusive phrases, and multiple negation, the use of context-dependent frames of reference without meta-discursive explanation/guidance (“Vygotskian?”), the assumptions that complex matters ‘of course’ are ‘obvious’ or clear to all, and most importantly, the largely unconscious and unquestioned sense that students will forever be ‘outsiders’ to academic culture and community.” (p. 276)

What is the usual boring college classroom [and secondary school] literary discussion technique? The author is attacking the usual classroom “discussion,” the IRE or initiation-response-evaluation pattern which begins with an instructor’s initial known-answer question, followed…by student response, which seems to require an instructor’s evaluative judgment or commentary involving interpretation of the answer or a simple, “Right.”

[Comments: The “IRE,” a boring pattern that I experienced in college and that I repeated when I taught, boring my students, until I learned something about real discussion, discussion that resulted in almost 100% students’ involvement.

What can we learn from the Great Books program about discussing literature? In Chapter 23, pp. 420 to 430, “Organizing a Discussion of Literature,” in my book, Teaching English, How To…, I described how The Great Books program trained its leaders never to ask a question unless the leader was not sure of the answer. Such an approach caused leader and students to try to arrive at tentative answers together.

While I had some questions about the approach, especially the requirement never to introduce a work of literature and only to allow leaders to ask questions, the uncertainty that had to be part of the question struck me as making a great deal of sense. Therefore, I modified the approach. We began the discussion with the students’ questions and encouraged the students’ attempts to answer. As the teacher, I stayed out of the discussion except to involve as many students as I could. Only one requirement: no one was to ridicule anyone’s comments or questions.

What is at the heart of an enthusiastic literary discussion? The technique of encouraging students to ask their real questions about what they did not understand and the students’ attempting to explore the answers. Involvement was almost 100%.

An example of how I “blew” it: But even I could not always withhold myself from taking over the discussion. One evening, I spent considerable time trying to interpret a difficult poem. Finally, I figured out my answer. We began the next day with the student-generated questions and the discussion flowed enthusiastically. But I could not help myself. I knew the answer to that one question, in my opinion the central question to the entire poem. I had figured out the answer. The minute the students knew I knew the answer, the discussion stopped cold.

Follow-up to students’ discussions: By the way, when students’ questions were pretty well finished, we would direct ourselves to the questions at the end of the chapter to see what we had left out. Then I would add any questions that had not been introduced by the students and we concluded by reading excerpts from literary criticism, yes, including the famous yellow and black books. The students enjoyed comparing their questions and answers to the “experts’.”

Begin with students' real questions about what they did not understand. The author’s description of the “IRE”—Initiation by instructor to known-answer question; response by student; and evaluation by teacher—certainly reminded me of my own experiences and my bored feelings about literary discussions. Until I had learned about the Great Books method of discussion, I always used the IRE, with little involvement, usually limited to three or four people, and usually with the “right” answer’s being mine. Doesn’t work. Little student involvement. Student-initiated questions and student-initiated answers do lead to real discussion and real student answers. Try it. RayS. ]

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