Joining the Conversation

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One of the most difficult arenas for students to join is the classroom conversation.  Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen cautions us that the college classroom often teaches students to argue for the sake of argument, as if competition without context is the goal. 

Instead, our goal in class discussions should be synthesis. We should take the threads of evidence and opinion from the texts we read or view and weave them together with our individual observations and opinions, each of us in the class contributing something to the collective work.  To do this, we will need to take two steps: critical reading before the class and disciplined critique during the class. (I am indebted to Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's book "They Say/I Say:" The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Norton 2010) for much of the structure and inspiration for this page.)

Critical Reading

While it is often helpful to keep a Reading Journal as you read assignments for class, if you choose not to do so, you should still keep these strategies in mind:

  1. Take accurate summary notes, keeping in mind your purpose for reading.  In addition to quantitative details (plot, characters, etc.), your annotations in the text and your side notes should reflect questions raised by the text, new ideas you see, and your reactions.

  2. Try to figure out what the author's views are on the subjects you are preparing to discuss.  This can sometimes be tricky: in a work of fiction, the author's view is often ambiguous or unstated.  Sometimes the author is more interested in asking questions than offering solutions.  If this seems to be the case, frame your notes as a debate among characters.  What are the characters' views on the ideas in the text?  Do the characters' successes or failures in the plot give their positions more weight or gain your sympathy? (For example, what if you find yourself agreeing with the "bad guy?")

  3. In a work of fiction, how much of the text is expository?  That is, is the story meant to inform us about a topic or persuade us to take a position on an issue, even as it tries to entertain?  How do the emotional effects of the text (humor, horror, et al.) change your perspective on the issues?

  4. If the purpose is unstated or ambiguous, how much of the "position" the text seems to take is the author's intention and how much may be a byproduct of the time period in which it was produced, the circumstances of its production, the medium it appears in, or other factors outside the author's control?  Can different audiences interpret the text's positions in different ways, regardless of what the author might have intended?

Class Discussion

Participating in a freewheeling, open-ended class discussion can seem like the deathmatch mode of your favorite first-person shooter: nobody knows what the teams are, where the objective is hidden, and whether the guy around the next corner is friend or foe.  A good classroom discussion is not random or spontaneous.  While I try to guide the direction of the conversation from time to time with Socratic questions, I also leave plenty of classroom time for you to raise questions and make observations that came up during your initial reading.  So it does help to keep the following strategies in mind:

  1. Try to frame your comments with respect to a topic or idea already under discussion.  In other words, take what has already been said and build on it.  For example, "I agree with what you just said about the character's motives, but I think that what she said page 243 suggests she's still not sure if she really believes that yet."  Or, "You two seem to disagree about X, but you are really saying the same thing from two different perspectives."  Agree or disagree, but be sure to back up what you say and add to the discussion already under way.

  2. If you want to change the direction of the conversation, make sure you indicate explicitly that you are doing so and address why.  For example, "I think that character's actions are pretty awful, but isn't the real point here whether or not he had a choice and what that says about free will in this book?"  This way, your comments will provide a logical segue to the topic you want to discuss.  Don't worry that we will lose the thread of a conversation: great class discussions can often juggle multiple topics and find ways to bring them together.

  3. Be explicit in your reasons and evidence.  In writing, you are the center of attention and can command enough focus from your reader to develop an idea without repeating your main point.  The reader can always scan back in the text if he or she gets lost.  In conversation, make sure to offer "metacommentary."  That is, make sure to highlight what your main point is and point out your evidence clearly.  Try to stay focused on one main point; other points you want to make you can introduce into the conversation at a later point.  For example, "In other words, I think that . . ."  Or, "What I meant to say was . . ."