Flat Discussion

I recently facilitated a graduate course discussion of a collection of texts. It’s a fairly typical assignment in a graduate seminar to ask the grad students to take one week and lead at least part of the week’s discussion. I’ve led these kinds of discussions before, but I don’t particularly enjoy them.

As I was preparing for this, I kept asking what is it that we expect of/as grad students when we assemble?

Flat-discussion seems to be the prevailing mode of graduate education in rhetoric and composition. We might ask of graduate students that they read generously or critically, that they engage in more activity-based work surrounding their writing projects, or that they read/discuss in particular ways or with particular facilitations in mind (such as a read-pair-share model, or other kinds of writing-as-preparation-for-discussion models).

This may be a limitation of my own memory or experiences, but I’m unclear as to why. Is it simply comfortable? Traditional? The lingering hauntings of literature programs?

It seems strange to me for a field that has such a vested and historical interest in the class room seems so… unimaginative in the education of its future educators. Our connections to pedagogy and education are vast and run deep, our scholarship on the teaching of undergraduate students is equally vast and deep. And while, I hear rumblings of a growing interest in understanding how graduate students are educated in our field, there seems, to me, a curious lack of practice/praxis there.

I’ve used the term flat-discussion to refer to the mode of graduate education that I’ve come to be most familiar with: go read one book or five-to-six article, come sit in a circle, and let’s talk. I use the term flat here both to evoke a particular sense of dryness and lack of dynamism, but also to suggest that it assumes a particularly flat ontology of the discussion, of equal participation, that seems to fail to account for the unevenness within classroom dynamics. Perhaps this underpinned by the idea that we are all, at ‘this level’ beyond or critical of such power-dynamics in graduate classrooms, which seems to me to be a particularly white-utopian view of a classroom or of graduate education.

Put slightly differently, flat-discussion fails to account for the unevenness of emotional labor it takes for participants to engage with that discussion, particularly when we are often asking graduate students to explore questions that involve certain subjectivities, questions of justice and violence, and implications of our being and knowing that each impact us unevenly.

Our classrooms are not apolitical, which seems like an empty commonplace when we talk about the undergraduate classroom, but when we turn our tassels at commencement, we do not somehow transcend politics when we enter new classroom spaces. I have no prescriptions for this for the ‘perfect pedagogy,’ but I can at least ask what that we consider our graduate pedagogy with the same rigor that we attend to undergraduate education.

With this particular class session, we read a number of texts that dealt with intersections of technology, identity, and embodiment. I asked my peers to think of, or bring, a text (defined broadly) that they felt like mediated an identity or group of experiences they had (I used Love, Simon as an example to talk about gay-coming-of-age/coming-out experiences, the experience of being outed, but also how this was rooted in a white-gay-‘universal’-“It Gets Better Project”-model of gay narratives). When they came to the room, I’d set out a series of writing technologies:

  • Pen and paper
  • Chalk (for the chalk board)
  • A note that asked them to compose on their laptops (and to consider sound, video, picture, etc.)
  • A note that asked them to compose on their phones (and to consider sound, video, picture, etc.)
  • Play-doh
  • Legos
  • Construction paper, scissors, and clue
  • Watercolors and watercolor panting paper
  • Printer paper and paints
  • Markers and construction paper
  • Banner paper and markers

I briefly introduced the authors and texts and raised the same question I am attempting to raise here before outlining that this session would be run in a series of workshops. The first is modeled after a workshop I first did with Brianne Radke for WIDE-EMU 2016 and I’ve since adopted for a first-year writing activity. I asked them to just compose for a minute with the technology in front of them and then to use that same technology to compose something that responded to memories, affective responses, limitations or affordances that arose from their composing.

Afterwards, we talked about that experience, reflected on some of our compositions and what motivated them, and connected the exercise to some of the readings. This was the first workshop.

After, I asked them to recall the text that I asked them to think about before class and to either draw a network or write a short reflection that put the text they thought of in conversation with other texts or histories that are either tacitly or actively evoked in their original text and what futures that text makes possible for them to imagine. We did a similar follow up of talking about the experience, reflecting on our compositions, and connecting to the readings. For the last piece, I asked them to do the same activity as they did for their text for themselves as composers and instructors with a final similar wrap up. The idea was to think through our histories and how our identities are mediated in texts and through the discipline, and, in turn, to think through what futures are possible to imagine out of them.

The intent was to change to locus of discussion/emotional/subjectivity work from the center of the circle we all sit in for flat discussion to the space between the composer and their composition, in the hopes that we can connect out of that shared experience instead of discussing/critiquing texts. I don’t know that I was wholly successful in doing that, but I think it was a useful exercise to think through what graduate education is supposed to be and how we can acknowledge the unevenness involved in participation.

I was really impressed with the work that my classmates were doing. Even though while they were playing with Legos they, like my first year writing students when they say the activity “feels like Kindergarten with a purpose,” said that it just felt fun, they made really awesome connections between their lived experiences and what the technologies made them imagine and compose.

It was also a lot to try and put into one class session, and perhaps a series of activities trying to do too many things at once. I can also see how some of my colleagues might have felt that I didn’t respect the attention they’d given to each of the readings, if that was how any of them felt, since I did not linger on any one argument or textual argument—but even then, part of that was a conscious effort to encourage different relationships to the texts we read for the week and to create spaces for those relationships.

But I’m glad for the work that my colleagues did, and I think the activities did at least some of what I wanted them to. And I am glad for the chance to have thought with my colleagues around this question of what we expect of and as grad students when we are gathered. We should all be thinking about the conditions of participation, the ways in which we are precariously situating certain bodies.

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