After having completed one-third of the semester teaching two freshman seminars, I have concluded that generating an effective class discussion is the greatest challenge that I face as an instructor. Conversely, I very much enjoy courses with a lecture format on which I have had great success in the past. I will always defend this tried-and-true pedagogical method. The freshman seminar, however, presents a new realm of difficulty. I would very much appreciate any feedback.
I expect all of my students to have read closely all of the material, and come to class prepared and equipped to discuss the major problems and themes in an organized manner. This, however, rarely happens. Students, as we are all painfully aware, choose to read in the most cursory of ways, marred by the distractions of college life and social media. You, as the reader, are probably now thinking that I have a "get off my lawn" complex. Your evaluation is absolutely correct. Whereas I treat my students with immense respect, I also place high standards on their conduct and preparation, expecting an intellectual preparation for, and engagement in, each class period.
More times than not, however, I find that class discussions wane, grinding to a halt once it is clear that students have not read closely. This creates an air awkwardness in which I am limited in what I can ask because I know that they have not prepared to have an adequate conversation. My approach is simple. I have read the material long in advance and bring to class questions and themes that I consider crucially important, looking forward to hearing students' reactions to the same substantive themes.
For example, in my seminar on American gun culture, I begin most class periods with the following question: "what can we take from [author's name] account to help inform our perspectives on the present?" The purpose of this question is clear: I want students to see how history and the modern-day are intimately linked, the former an important determinant of the latter. Yet the ensuing conversation almost always remains on the surface. This past week's readings dealt with the crumbling of American republicanism and the rise of American democracy during the early nineteenth century. Many of my questions centered on how these concepts related not only to the evolution of national gun culture, but also, more broadly, what this theme--the transition from republicanism to democracy--tells us about the American character, both in the past and especially in the present. Indeed, I am always trying to get students to relate themes from historical texts to modern-day conditions and problems.
The readings offered clear definitions and explanations for all of these terms; the discussion should not have been influenced by a lack of understanding. Instead, a lack of engaged reading and an absence of adequate preparation have made some of our seminar meetings sputter when they should have thrived.
So my questions are: what are the keys to having effective class discussions? How do we keep the students focused on the major themes and implications of the readings? How do we encourage students to read and prepare actively?