Enduring the assault of shallow student discussions

At some point in the endless process of revising my online discussion guidelines, I’ve had to concede that I am particularly fetishy about this activity. I once thought that my reverence/obsessiveness was merely pedagogical, but it turns out that I’m a little weird all around when it comes to discussion. This quality might be endearingly quirky if it didn’t frequently make both me and some of my general education students miserable.

I typically blame my nuttiness about discussion on my PhD in philosophy, since the sprawling edifice of Western philosophy is largely built upon dialogue. And it’s true enough. Thanks to Socrates, passionate human exchange has long animated philosophy, transforming a mere collection of dusty notions into a pulsing organism. For philosophers, then, discussion is not a merely casual vehicle for bandying about thoughts or sharing feelings, but a fulcrum for authentic intellectual growth and movement. It is regarded as the very basis of the meaningful, examined life.

And, for better and worse, it is this ethos that has informed how I facilitate and assess student discussions. It has always felt urgent to me that they approximate a dialogue that at least dimly reflects the dignity of passionate, rational human creatures engaged in genuine meaning-making. In other words, the stakes of some of my discussions tend to be a little high. And while some undergrad students thrive in this milieu — seasoned online students routinely single out my discussion forums for praise — others peel away, intimidated or, perhaps, simply flummoxed. And, increasingly, I acknowledge that it isn’t just that they don’t feel confident enough in their content knowledge, but that they don’t feel capable or willing to have a focused, attentive, genuinely dialectic interchange as such.

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Because I’ve had the good fortune of working with a talented online course designer and some helpful departmental colleagues — thanks especially to Amber and Katrina — I’ve had company in my wrestling match with the discussion component. Although I’ve felt impatient with students at times, I’ve also remained curious about my own frustration. This has motivated me to experiment with discussion strategies that might better reflect the fact that some students have no aptitude for, experience with, or interest in what I think of and treasure as genuine discussion. Typically, I still explicitly teach basic discussion skills and values, but in some units of my general education classes, I abandon the discussion ship altogether and offer a less fraught, more affable exercise.

This may sound like nothing more than a condescending, cranky reflex on my part, as if I’m merely gathering up my precious pearls from the muddy pig sty and going home. And, yes, I have, in some circumstances, sort of given up. But I see this partly as a reasonable compromise born of my own self-reflective maturity: I’ve finally begun to truly accept that my mania to intellectually connect deeply and reciprocally with others reflects a particular aptitude that most people, including most general education students, don’t have. While I can model this way of engaging and offer the opportunity to dabble — some will fall in love with it! — it is foolish to expect that most will come around to it with any real enthusiasm or commitment.

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When I need to reinforce this lesson in humility, I eavesdrop: at coffee shops, in classroom hallways, waiting rooms, parties, anyplace really. Then I am reminded that people generally thrive on lighthearted ping pong exchanges, with no apparent craving for line drives to deep center field. Fortunately, I am socially evolved enough to appreciate that discussion, even pedagogically significant discussion, serves lots of meaningful functions and need not always revolve around DEEP QUESTIONS. I am, then, learning to let go of my very focused notion of discussion and create a greater variety of intellectually stimulating discussion-like experiences with which more undergraduate students can gain traction. And, happily, I can now do this with less self-flagellation and resentment toward them.

I remember the first time someone told me that my sense of humor was “very particular.” Until then it had not really occurred to me that there was anything remarkable about my expressive or cognitive style. The comment jarred me into recognizing my own basic oddness — there is a reason I was attracted to philosophy in the first place! So, though I still aim to encourage and train students in/through discussion, I do well to remember that my own penchant for it runs inexplicably deep. In fact, I was attracted to philosophy and higher education largely because I was already so hungry for deep discussion. In this academic world, with its broad smattering of students, faculty and staff — a motley mish-mash of motives, resources and inclinations — it is the fire-eyed gadflies who are the outliers. If we wish to teach well, then this is the distance we must reach across, and we must do so with grace, respect, and reasonably good humor.

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