Mandatory participation policy op-ed rings true

Brian Kevin Beck, Emeritus Associate Professor

You editorialized well on “mandatory class participation.” It made me (retired teacher) recall and think.

First, “anxiety” about speaking up.  (1) Are we over-worrying about sensitive “teacup” students being disturbed?  (Like “trigger-warnings,” etc.) (2) More relevantly, if anxious now, why not work on it now, before later and too late and it becomes a real problem
in your career?

And you mentioned those “hot topics.”  They can be cooled-off using “civil discourse.” Thus, don’t argue, but explore.  Listen and respond to the other person.  Seek not victory but validity. Also real-world useful.

True, getting discussion going can be like pulling hen’s teeth, or getting blood out of an onion.  Sluggish speaking might have two main causes.  The first is medical, the “TNM” syndrome (or, “Terminal Non-Motivation.”)  For this paralysis, no vaccination or cure.  (“ The teacher opens the door, the student walks through.”
Or doesn’t.)

Second is anthropological “culture shock.”  Traditional Schooling was like Focus Narrowly.  “Avoid mistakes, get it correct, or get laughed at if you are wrong.”  Whereas Real Life seems opposite: Open Up. Remember, “The harder the task and the higher the criteria, the more one will make mistakes, even fail initially.” Trial-&-error is messy
but productive.

Students see that, but to reinforce, I showed the class some dirty laundry of mine.  A piece of bad writing—bloated indeed.  And then showed how a keen-eyed editor shrank the blubber to be crisp-and-compact.  I had been embarrassed, but then grateful.  For, constructive negative criticism is (for serious workers), golden grist for the mill.  (Incidentally, those able to take criticism, seem more able generally.)

Instructors often say, “There is no stupid question” in class.  (True—except maybe “Are we at Oshkosh yet?”)  But I also said, “There is “no dumb or irrelevant comment.”  Because even a truly off-the-mark response usually brings to light valid stuff
to pursue.

Especially productive was “Round Robin.” That’s a go-round where each class member in turn shares their responses on a complex course issue.  Varied but valuable responses can emerge via “One subject, plural lenses upon it” and “many minds see more.” True, it’s semi-enforced participation—but I assigned the topic in advance and so, anxiety lessened.

So, group discussion can enhance learning.  (Assuming the goal is not to just Know the Material, but how to think it through.) General thinking skills can emerge. Besides Civil Discourse and Lens-Work: “To miss nothing vital, grasp the “Big Picture.”   And “What are the other sides to this?” And “what about Cause-&-Effect here?” And “What are the hidden assumptions here?”  And “Does bias appear?”  (These might seed the soil of General
Education courses.)

For too long in my career, I privileged the traditional lecture.  Later I saw discussion’s value, and tried to ease students in via the above tactics. Partly mandatory, partly on the wing.  For, participation is too pedagogically powerful to miss.

— Brian Kevin Beck, Emeritus Associate Professor