Over on the Blogora Jim Aune recently asked about the best combination of lecture and discussion for a graduate course. I’ve recently been thinking about this. On the teaching evaluations for the grad class I taught this past fall, I received the following written comments, which might seem contradictory: “More lecturing, but that may just be a personal preference,” and “The class became a community because of the discussion format. I don’t think that this would happen so readily if the class was lecture driven.” Gulp. How do I reconcile those? Personally, I’m inclined to err on the side of favoring the second comment.
But in an effort to balance, I’ve decided to do some short lectures in this semester’s grad class, as a way of kick-starting discussions, and as a way of dealing hopefully more efficiently with covering some intellectual ground that maybe needs to be covered but that isn’t as rich as other turf for our discussions.
I also was recently speaking with a friend still in grad school who pointed out that grad students are often disappointed when a grad class is purely discussion based, because they want to hear more of the professor’s opinions, since they are, after all, the local experts. Of course, most professors are pedagogically invested in discussion as a matter of principle. (I think we think it’s more egalitarian and democratic, but discussion *can* be just as tyrannical as the most pedantic lecture if not run well.) So, like just about everything in rhetoric, it’s a tough balance to figure out the proper proportions for lecture and discussion in a grad class. I think inevitably the best balance will be a ping pong game, a constant flux of lecture and discussion that responds to the class, the texts, the energy levels. I’ve seen people lecture, seemingly off the cuff, as a means of stepping in and saving a flagging class session. That’s impressive to watch.
I think Jim brings up a related but separate issue in asking about how to handle the quiet but on-the-ball graduate students. My philosophy here is different for undergrad and grad students. At both levels of course, there are individuals who learn by listening, and are very actively engaged with the discussion even if they aren’t speaking. At the undergrad level, I used to force people to speak. But I have since stopped and decided that that’s cruel with active listeners who maybe are listening, and are not comfortable speaking (I waver here though–isn’t it my responsibility to make them comfortable to speak? And if the undergrad is just tuned out–that’s on them. If all of them are tuned out–that’s on me.). But, with grad students, who are being acculturated into the profession, I think there’s no room for consistent silence. I expect grad students to speak, and I make that clear to them. They have to get over any discomfort, because one day they’ll be at the front of the classroom.
And just for kicks, here’s a photo of the most amazing homemade beer pong table I’ve ever seen (even if it is Texas Tech):