What is class time for? Part I

Barbara Ganley posts a few ideas in response to a question she says she gets regularly: if your students are spending time discussing outside of class (through blogs, discussion boards, or otherwise), then what goes on during class time when discussion would otherwise take place? I am interested in the question of “what is class time for,” not because I have or am planning to take discussion out of the class meeting and put it into blogs or discussion boards instead, but simply as a general question: what is the best use of class time for the sake of promoting learning (especially in philosophy courses)?

I am likely not alone in that most of what I experienced in courses in Philosophy (and many other disciplines) as a student (and later, as a TA) was class time taken up by two activities: lecture and (if we were lucky) discussion. Each of these varies in nature, but I think can still be categorized under the same general rubric.

For example, “lecture” can include, among other things:

* the instructor explicating assigned readings, films, artworks, experiences, etc.
* the instructor discussing new applications of what has been read, experienced
* the instructor discussing how what has been read, experienced, etc. can be used to solve particular problems
* the instructor giving a “reading” or “interpretation” of assigned readings, experiences, etc.
* the instructor explaining results of his/her own research
* a guest lecturer doing one or more of the above
* student presentations doing one or more of the above

In-class “discussion” can include, among other things:

* the instructor asking students questions and eliciting responses
* the students asking the instructor questions
* both of the above can be focused on getting something “right,” or on criticizing, coming up with new interpretations, applications, etc.
* the students discussing the assigned readings, etc., amongst themselves
* the students working together on an assignment

In my experience taking and acting as a TA for philosophy courses, class time mostly consisted of the instructor explicating the readings (which were often complicated), giving an interpretation and criticism of the arguments therein, and discussing how these arguments can be applied to new contexts. If there was discussion, it consisted largely of students asking questions of the instructor for clarification purposes, sometimes for criticism. Small-group discussion amongst students took place at designated times, called “discussion sections” (once per week, guided by a TA).

I have kept this basic format in my own teaching, partly out of habit and partly because it is what I know best. But a reflective teaching practice requires thought about what these uses of class time do, what one’s objectives are for the course, and whether these strategies or something else would be more conducive to fulfilling those objectives. I am just in the early stages of reflecting on these issues, so I expect that this theme of the use of class time will become something of a series in this blog, as I think further and experiment.

Some preliminary thoughts on various uses of class time and what they might do, corresponding to learning objectives.

Clearly, a variety of uses is often going to be best, if for no other reason than that students (and instructors) get tired of the same thing day in and day out. Which combination one uses depends on one’s objectives.

1. Lectures explicating assigned readings
Can be very helpful when philosophical texts contain complex arguments that can be easily misunderstood if not thought through carefully. Important if one wants to ensure that the class is working from the same starting point when criticizing or applying arguments. Can help struggling students avoid giving up when they can’t understand something easily on their own.
Can promote the sense that students don’t need to read the assigned texts because they will get the overview in class. One can address this with quizzes or some other carrot or stick for encouraging reading, but such strategies can seem like “busywork” imposed from the outside resembling grade school or high school. (It would of course be ideal if students would read the assigned texts because they are interested…which is another topic entirely.)

2. Lectures criticizing/giving new applications for assigned readings.
Complementary to #1 in that critiques and applications can be a helpful way to engage in explication. A good way to “model” philosophical thinking and argumentation, showing how to approach a text critically and with an eye to its potential import for new contexts and problems.
Without also doing some explication, there is a danger of losing students if one jumps right into criticism or application, if those students don’t grasp the basics in the first place.

** General reflections on both 1 and 2 **

Structuring class time and coursework around readings by other philosophers gives a certain picture of philosophical work: that it involves reading and criticizing works by a certain group of people from certain parts of the world called “philosophers” (those who are part of the “canon” or have been published in select journals). It gives the sense that one is only doing philosophical work when one reads and comments on the arguments of these people.

This may in some sense be an accurate picture of the field–much of what those of us who call ourselves philosophers do is to comment on the work of others. And it is true that in order to do philosophy well at any sort of high level one must be familiar with much of the work that has gone before–understanding the terms, methods, and ways the problems and responses are structured often depends significantly on familiarity with the “classic texts” that set out the terms of the debate. Plus, such familiarity helps one recognize which paths in addressing problems have been tried and proved unsuccessful, in order to avoid committing the same mistakes over and over again. (Still, there is something to be said for revisiting such “mistakes,” because perhaps there is promise there that has been overlooked!)

But most of our students will not end up being professional philosophers; and for them, I think it’s important to impart the value of philosophical thinking as it applies to their own lives and the work they end up doing in the future. How can we connect the practice of reading and commenting on the arguments of others remote in time and place from our students with the practice of thinking philosophically about their own lives and work?

One strategy could be for the instructor to try to give and/or solicit from students ideas on how the arguments and issues being discussed impinge on wider practices that students may be involved in. But might we not also include in some way a discussion or assignment where students come up with problems they are interested in and discuss how to approach them philosophically, instead of only doing philosophy by looking at the problems in the “classic texts” and how those philosophers answered them?

This is all only a beginning…much more to come in future entries!