What do I mean by a scholarly discussion?

What should the ideal class discussion look like?

I’m thinking about wonderful discussions I’ve had with groups of working academics in the past.  What made them different from the discussions my students have?  The scholars are experts in their fields, of course, but I don’t think that’s the major difference.  In fact, I can think of some great scholarly discussions which had nothing to do with the professional work of any of the participants:  a group of archaeologists talking about how to distribute water rights in the west or a mix of ancient historians, writers and physicists arguing about the origins of the Supreme Court.  What made these discussions so satisfying, I think, was how each person approached the question–habits of thought–and how consciously they participated in the discussion.  (This is very similar to the argument Sam Wineburg makes about the way historians read:  I’m simply extending it to how historians talk).

So here’s my list of what scholars do in a serious discussion that sets that experience apart from just shooting the breeze.  They:

  • Focus on articulating points of agreement and disagreement:  “I think the crux of the issue here is whether…”
  • Relate positions to each other:  they respond directly to what their colleagues have said, and they strive to make broader connections that tie the discussion together:  “I think what we’re all getting at in different ways here is…”
  • Consider evidence—both of their own points and others’;  make underlying assumptions conscious and challengeable:  “What’s the evidence for that?”  “I’m moving toward an argument about X, but I’m not sure I have the evidence to support it…”
  • Relate the discussion to things they already know, and then compare the two to see if that brings up an interesting point.  This is perhaps one of the hardest to teach, but I find myself doing it all the time.  When I, a medievalist, talk to my mother, an Assyriologist, about her work, I can hold my own because I can nearly always think of an analogous situation in the Middle Ages that then suggests a question to ask or a possible parallel to offer.  Whether the two turn out to be the same or different, I learn something about both by thinking about it.  It’s not just a mental trick:  my previous experience provides me paradigms to understand new material.  This is a secret we need to find a better way to share with students.
  • Ask open ended questions that shift the ground of inquiry.  “I’m wondering if there is any similar evidence from outside Europe.  Could this be climate-based rather than culture-specific?”
  • Behave–usually!–with civility and understand that this does not preclude intense disagreement
  • Proceed from the assumption that there is a correct answer to the question at hand and that the goal of the discussion is to move closer, at least in their own mind, to that answer.
  • And one that doesn’t always happen among scholars, either, but which I would like to encourage:  the best discussion participants adjust their own positions in response to points raised in the discussion;  this is what allows discussions to generate new knowledge and sets them on a higher plane than a simple debate.

So that’s my list.  Doubtless other points could be added, but a discussion in which all of the above occur is a good discussion.  So how do we get our students there?  I think it starts with knowing where we’re going, and communicating that to the students.    Then, I think, we need to consciously and explicitly teach these skills.  That means bringing conscious attention to the process, modelling higher level discussion skills, and breaking them down into component pieces that students can practice.  Too often, if we teach discussion as a skill at all, we expect students to practice it all at once, in its final form.  This is a bit like sending Little Leaguers out to play a game without any batting practice.  If we can keep in mind that scholarly discussion is not one skill but a nexus of skills, just as paper writing is, then we can design exercises that strengthen each of those components separately alongside the “real game.”

Next time, I’ll try to tackle the question of what teaching those pieces might look like.


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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