As this is my fifth year teaching English composition to first-year college writers, I’ve become familiar with the resistance to classroom discussions. Until recently, I always assumed good discussions were lacking because students are, generally speaking, lacking in “critical thinking.” But last week, something happened that made me reconsider.
I began a summer unit on analyzing art – a critical thinking/writing exercise. This lesson came directly after the class read Donald Murray’s “Write before Writing” for the lesson the previous class day. In an effort to illustrate and practice what had been previously discussed in relation to the next writing challenge, I asked the class a question: What is art?
Eagerly, one student said, “Art is everything!” In return, I asked, “What do you mean by ‘everything’?”
“Art is aesthetics. Stuff that is beautiful,” said another student. I asked, “What about ‘ugly’ art? Or what about art I like, but you don’t?”
“Art has meaning,” said another. “What about this sketch of a flower,” I asked as I drew on the board. “If I draw a flower like this one, does it have to have meaning to be art,” I probed further.
After about ten minutes of this serve/return tennis match, a student, the same student who mentioned aesthetics, said freely, “I have something to say, but you are just going to tell me I’m wrong.” The statement was delivered with such disdain that I stopped. I stood there quietly not knowing how to react. I realized some students sat back in their seats, and a collective sigh hung in the air. I searched my recent memory for a moment when I had said, to any degree, that a student was “wrong.” Then I realized that not a single student had answered a question I asked. I hadn’t necessarily even allowed much time for students to respond to my questions.
In my attempt to stimulate a prewriting conversation about art, I was, from the point of view of many in the room, criticizing them. To some (maybe most), I wasn’t probing them for a deeper contribution; I wasn’t engaging their brains on a new level. I was, instead, berating them with insults. After reflecting back on the class, I can more plainly see that when I asked, “What about ugly art?” the student heard me say about her contribution, “What a stupid comment to make!” I had embarrassed her and probably others.
Later, during my office hours, when I first acknowledge my folly, I quickly revisited other memories of classes – like that time a few years ago when one student defensively asked, “Why are you asking me all of these damn questions?” I thought she was frustrated because she didn’t want to think or was too cool to engage in a college-level conversation with a professor. Now I believe that I may have been teaching students to avoid class discussions. Maybe, I have been teaching them to dread my classes altogether.
The next class day, I apologized for the eternal guessing game of “what is art.” I fell back on my foundation: to share my vulnerability and to be transparent. I told them what I was hoping to achieve by the discussion, how I thought I went wrong, and I apologized for not acknowledging their attempts to do the impossible: define art. In doing so, I salvaged some of my “street cred” – I think.
Still, I don’t have a set game plan to avoid the crisis. In other words, how do educators ask questions of today’s students without offending them? I do know that I can acknowledge students contributions to discussions by paraphrasing their statements in writing on the white board, but I’m looking for more organic suggestions. Plus, my handwriting is horrid. Or, maybe I’m not looking for more organic suggestions. Maybe I’m looking for a deconstructed look at what constitutes a positive in-class discussion, which, until last week, I thought I was really good at.