What is class time for? Part II

After a long hiatus for the summer, I am finally getting back to posting on this blog–I was working on research as well as moving to a new apartment, and so my thoughts on teaching were not as prolific as usual during the past six weeks or so.

I am posting one idea I put in place in one of my courses for how to make class time more than lecture with some discussion within the big class group thrown in. I had considered student presentations, but given that my Social and Political Philosophy class has 60 students this term, and given that the term is only 13 weeks long, it’s hard to fit in 60 presentations. Another option that I’ve used in the past is group presentations, where groups of two-three students work together to present something to the rest of the class. In the past I’ve been able to do that because I’ve had break-out discussion sections in addition to the lecture, and the presentations could happen in separate discussion groups. That worked well because then several presentations could happen at the same time. But it requires the discussion-group setup, which my course this term doesn’t have.

I considered breaking the class into two groups for the last four weeks of the term, having the T.A. lead one group and me the other. For those days, there would be lecture for 30-45 minutes, then the groups would break out and have presentations the rest of the time (a 75-minute class). But I couldn’t get an extra room near the original one, and I didn’t have enough T.A. hours to have the T.A. run these. Logistical difficulties led to another idea.

This term I decided to try the following. The class is broken up into 8 groups of 7 (there are about 55-56 students out of 60 after the first week). Once a week for 7 weeks, one student per group writes a two-page summary of part of the assigned text, along with a question/comment/criticism for group discussion. For the first 15 minutes of class once a week, we start by meeting in the 8 groups and one student per group leads the group in a discussion of the text. These 8 groups all meet in the same room as our big class, and the discussions are all going on at the same time. This means I can’t give any marks for the presentation–I can’t hear them all–only the written portion. The students sign up for the weeks/texts they want to present on (one student per group per week, so they have to negotiate who gets to do Plato, Marx, Hobbes, etc.).

I also ask them to send to me, via email, a shortened version of their question/comment on the text, no later than noon on the day before class when they’ll be presenting. This way I can incorporate some of the questions/comments/criticisms into the lecture–there will be 8 sets of comments for each presentation day, and each student will only get to hear those of the person in their group. So I can share some of the other ones with the rest of the class during the lecture.

We start our first presentations in two days. So far the only difficulties have been in explaining the system (sounds complicated at first, but it’s really not that bad), and getting students to sign up for the first one.

I’m hoping to accomplish the following objectives with this assignment:

1. Be able to incorporate more of students’ thoughts into how I structure the lecture before I get there
2. Get more comments from students who might otherwise be silent in class
3. Start the class meeting with discussion to set more of a participatory tone for the class meeting–maybe will increase participation later in the class?
4. Encourage students to see themselves and each other as good resources for philosophical questions/insights
5. Demonstrate the values of small-group philosophical discussion, what it does differently and better than instructor lecturing (which, of course, has its own benefits and its own place).