Finding Things to Talk About: A Discussion Activity

 

problematizing

I tried a new class exercise this week. One of my courses (with about thirty seats) is particularly heavy on weekly discussions of readings that the students do outside of class. (Each set of readings comprises both primary and secondary sources related to a particular group of people or geographic area in North America.) When last I taught the course, I had very chatty students, many of whom were already friends, and I got complacent about priming them for conversation. This time, I need to be more deliberate about eliciting discussion. I came up with a simple exercise that I thought might help.

In form, it’s just a think-pair-share (or really a pair-think-share) activity. I opened class by asking my students to pair up to answer four questions about the primary and secondary sources they’d read:

  1. What expectation did these readings confirm?
  2. What information was new?
  3. What was surprising or questionable?
  4. What’s something controversial it could mean?

I explained that the goal was to find things to grab ahold of in the readings—places to start talking. Often, I confided, I myself will read something about a new topic and have trouble finding something to say about it; the smooth page, though full of words and ideas, just doesn’t seem to have many cracks or rough spots to provide a handhold for me as I try to explore. What we have to do is “problematize” what we read: to turn it into a problem to solve, a question to answer, or a debate to settle. It’s OK if this process is a little artificial; often it leads us to real insights.

Somewhat to my surprise, my students took to this exercise easily and, I thought, eagerlytheir paired conversations were pretty animated. When they finished talking in pairs and I asked for volunteers to share some of their results, question by question, they didn’t exactly talk over each other, but they talked. In fact, their answers, which ranged widely, were an excellent basis for the content-focused discussion/lecture mix I wanted later in the class period.

This one experience doesn’t provide much data for appraising the activity’s usefulness or adaptability, of course. But I’ll be using this exercise again.

My Favorite First-Day Activity

classroom

I came up with a version of the following activity for a tiny U.S. history class about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve revised it and used it successfully in both world and U.S. history survey courses, for classes ranging in size up to thirty-five students. It’s become my go-to exercise for illustrating what history is and why it matters.

I make minor adjustments to fit the course and the students, but here’s how it usually goes. I call it “The History of Your Lifetime,” for obvious reasons. It happens on either the first or the second day of a survey course.

Step 1

First I ask students to form groups of three or four (just based on where they’re sitting) and take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves and get to know each other a little. This obviously has the benefit of encouraging a little first-day conversation and promoting neighborly interaction.

Step 2

Then I direct the students each to take out a piece of paper—any paper will do, just something to scribble onand individually write out a list of seven things he or she would include in a history of the United States (or the world, as appropriate) during his or her lifetime.

The things on the list can be events, people, inventions, trends, ideas, whatever. (They don’t have to be things the student remembers personally, as long as the student was alive for them.) I encourage my students to be creative with their answers–but to remember that the goal is to list things that might help our descendants understand what the world was like.

Step 3

Now I have the students compare lists within their small groups. I direct them to decide as a group what seven things to include on a combined group list. I ask them to talk together about their criteria and reasoning in order to come to agreement before writing down their group’s answers.

By now, the room is usually buzzing fairly loudly. Undergraduates often like comparing notes on how they remember their childhoods, and the exercise typically leads them into general conversation once they’re done with their lists. Even fairly shy students often respond enthusiastically. Especially in a larger class, I often have to interrupt the proceedings for the sake of time.

Step 4

Now I stand in front of the class at the blackboard and call for volunteers to name some of the things they put on their group lists. As they do, I write their answers on the board. I keep calling for nominations until the board is mostly full; if necessary, I prompt the students to contribute things they don’t see on the board yet, or things that might seem offbeat, or things they weren’t sure about including, or things that didn’t make the cut for a group list.

The September 11 attacks are always among the first things students mention. (If you call for a show of hands to see who had September 11 on the list, virtually everyone will put a hand upan instructive fact.) This has held true even for students who increasingly have no clear personal memory of that day. (Remember, traditional college freshmen in 2018 are likely to have been infants at the time.) So I ask my students why there’s so much agreement on this point. Why do we all agree that September 11 is crucial for our descendants to know about? They usually furnish excellent answers to this question.

Then I continue asking questions about how they arrived at their lists and about what they see on the board for the class as a whole:

  • “What did you decide to leave out of your group lists? Can you explain a criterion you used in order to reach your decision?” (Often students will realize that they tried to focus on things that seemed to have a big impact in the worldi.e., things that caused other things, including other things on the board, to happen. Sometimes I draw lines between them to indicate this.)
  • “Where are you getting your memory of these things? If you don’t remember them all personally, where did you learn about them?”
  • “Look at the board as a whole. If we wrote a detailed history of our lifetimes based on this list, using it for a rough outline, would our audience get an accurate impression of the world we lived in? Why or why not? What’s missing? What’s distorted?”
  • “What kind of a story would we be telling about our lifetimes?” (Answer to this question often include “It’s depressing” or “It’s full of conflict.” In world history courses, students often realize that their answers are very U.S.-centric.)
  • “Is this how you remember your own lifetime? Is this the world you lived in, or is this a misleading picture?” (Answers will vary, but they’re often pretty emphatic in one way or another.)
  • “What is missing from this story we’re outlining? What things should we add in order to give future generations a more accurate picture of the world we lived in?”

Finally, I try to wrap up the exercise with something like the following observation: “To complete this exercise, you all had to make judgments about significance. You were deciding what, or how much, these things meant in some bigger scheme of things. You didn’t just write lists of facts. You were thinking about how to tell a story that would be about somethinga story with a point.

“Well, that’s what historians do when they write about the more distant past. They are figuring out how to use pieces of informationabout all kinds of thingsto tell a true story, usually about things they don’t remember personally. It’s basically the same process.”

Then, if I think of it, I try to ask one more question: “Do you think your lists would look any different if you made them again twenty years from now?” That lets me talk about how our perspectives about what matters can change over time, even when the facts don’t change.

In the years since I started using this exercise, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it really fail.