I predictably say to both students and colleagues that the teaching of analytic writing in college should be preceded (and accompanied) by the teaching of persuasion as an art and a way of life. Waiting until you’re in the thick of writing to talk about what makes a good argument, or how an argument flows convincingly from one point to the next, is too late.
There is a whole understory of small skills that are part of being a good college student that are even less often the explicit focus of instruction. I’ve talked about the skimming of reading assignments and searching skills before. Here’s another in the same vein: looking for something that is worth discussing in a reading assignment.
Some reading in college is strictly informational, material you’ve got to know for the test. Some reading is both informational and designed to be a platform for exploration in some kind of discussion format.
Discussion varies. In very small, discussion-intensive classes, the range of things a student has to be prepared to discuss about the material can be extensive. At that point, the student’s general quality of mind and overall knowledge have to play a role. A long, discussion-intensive class is like an improv stage performance. There’s only so much you can prepare in advance that’s specific to that particular performance.
A larger class with a discussion component might require a narrower preparation for discussion or participation. Many of my thematic classes in recent years have been large for Swarthmore (30-35 students), so I can’t do some of the more decentered, exploratory discussion that I like. (Though no matter what the format, I hate a discussion class where there is no concrete “take-away” at the end of the meeting, where it’s been just like an encounter session with a lot of aimless gabbing.) I have to do more of what I term “call-and-response” discussion. A student who wants to be prepared for that only needs a good general sense of the reading and one or two choice samples of “discussable” issues.
Sometimes those issues are bleedingly obvious. When I go into a class session where I’ve thrown a huge pile of red meat on the table in the form of readings, and nothing happens in the discussion, I pretty much come to the conclusion that either the students didn’t do the readings or that they did them poorly. Some classes are an exclusive diet of such readings. If you’re in a class on bioethics, for example, you’re probably going to be reading things that you could talk about even without having done the reading. (Not that you should.) I often structure my classes so that these kinds of readings come later in the semester, partly because I want us to come at them with some sort of knowledge rather than to talk about them the way some pundit might rave and rant.
Some subject matter doesn’t give you that kind of opportunity much. My current Environmental History of Africa course doesn’t offer that sort of material much until we get to current policies and political struggles later in the semester. So a student looking for discussion in that kind of material has to circle around and look for opportunity. When the challenge is harder, here’s some basic strategies that I use myself when I’m thinking about things to talk about.
I’ll refer some to two fairly technical articles that I assigned in my Environmental History course today on the history of iron smelting and usage in Africa, partly because these were among the most difficult to discuss readings that I’ve assigned in many years. Not because they’re hard to read, but because there just doesn’t seem to be much to talk about in them. I had to circle around them quite a lot the last week thinking of things to say about them beyond, “Now you know something about iron production”. But in the end I came up with a few things that (I hope) were a bit more interesting than that. Sometimes preparing for discussion is like working on a puzzle, for both students and faculty.
1) Questions about factual material that is implicit but not explained in the material, even seemingly naive questions. A lot of Swarthmore students seem reluctant to ask questions of this kind, but they’re often the very best to ask for everyone’s sake. The answers benefit the whole class as well as the asker, and more importantly, they may often open the window to more profound or complex issues. Yes, there’s the danger that the professor (or other students) are going to tell the asker that this question is answered elsewhere in the reading. This is one reason to ask these questions in a humble fashion. Yes, there’s the danger that the professor is going to say, “You mean you seriously don’t know where Germany is?” or some such. But you know, it may turn out that most students don’t know that, and so the student who asks is a hero who is taking a bullet for the whole team. You may also ask about something the professor doesn’t know about, which is fine.
So in my history of iron readings, I was thinking about things like, “How do you actually smelt iron?”, “Why do you need an apparatus to smelt it?” and “Where and how do you find iron?” as I was preparing, things I don’t know off the top of my head. Those would have been welcome questions (as it is, I went ahead and answered them for the whole class before anyone asked).
2) Questions or comment about evidence and methodology used in a reading. Maybe there are disciplines where these are not welcome questions, but in a history class, they’re almost always germane. To formulate those questions while reading, the student has to look at footnotes, at the methodology described in the text, at the ways the material makes use of evidence, and then come up with a comment or question that responds to that aspect of the reading.
3) Relation of material to previously assigned material. This is a good way to look smart and to look like you’re paying attention: seeing a connection between readings or materials assigned. You don’t want the connection to appear overly arbitrary: I remember a class on cultural history I taught many many years ago where the student got very excited about the way that the color red was talked about in a wide range of scholarly materials, when that was barely important to most of them. With today’s iron assignment, I picked out the argument of one scholar about the relationship between woodcutting for charcoal preparation and “derived savannah” in West Africa and talked about it in connection with an earlier reading that criticized the entire idea of “derived savannah”.
4) Direct response to analytic or argumentative content in a reading. When you find an argumentative or analytic statement in a reading, it’s like the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. Treasure it. Even a small claim might be the acorn that grows into a mighty oak of talk. Try to figure out in particular what some other scholar might say against that claim. Sometimes scholars are good enough to tell you who or what they’re arguing against, other times you’ve got to infer it. Sketching out a field of scholarly or intellectual debate within a reading is a crucial part of preparing for discussion. Here the questions, “Why? So what? What’s at stake?” are essential. In talking about the history of iron production, I reviewed the long-standing debate about whether there was a separate invention of iron smelting in African history with just those questions in mind. The readings didn’t provide a full picture of that debate, but there was enough to at least open up the issue.
5) High-level synthesis of reading in relation to the themes of the course. This is hard to do early in the semester, easier to do later in the semester. It takes some skill to fit a specific reading into a general interpretation. Some of the students who try to do this kind of synthesis are often the people who didn’t do the reading, where it’s a substitute for engagement. But if you can do it well, it’s a memorable kind of contribution to a class. A professor will long remember and cherish a student who can situate a reading in relation to the course as a whole, particularly if the student’s synthesis captures something unique that hadn’t even occurred to the professor. (That’s happened to me a number of times at Swarthmore, where students have seen themes running through the readings that I didn’t consciously notice myself.) So for the iron readings, I tried to continue our review of the question between environmental preconditions and social forms and practices in Africa, and particularly to look at the spiritual, political and cultural forms that accompany ironworking in African history.
6) The one cool thing that caught your eye, for personal reasons. Especially if there’s a lull in the discussion, it can often be really useful to simply say, “I thought this idea/image/claim was fascinating” and to try to explain a bit of why you found it so. You don’t want to force this–someone claiming to be fascinated who isn’t really feeling that way is very obvious. You can be self-indulgent, too. At least in my classes, I don’t want that to lead into a ten-minute soliloquy about how the image of an iron forge shaped like a woman was interesting because it reminds you a time your grandmother made cookies for you in a clay oven, etcetera–but honest, simple interest in a particular phrase, idea, or point is a great contribution to a class discussion.