Symbolic Systems 201 - ICT, Society, and Democracy (Davies, Autumn 2015-2016)

How to Contribute to In-class Discussions: An Introduction to the Seminar Format in Symsys 201

[Updated September 24, 2015]

This course is an advanced discussion-based seminar.

The seminar format is an alternative to lectures. In a seminar, everyone learns from the process of discussion. But the discussion itself has a persistent focus. This distinguishes discussion from conversation. In a conversation, each person's utterance is a response to the previous utterance(s), and the topic may drift very far and unpredictably from its initial topic. A discussion, on the other hand, takes place around a topic to which it normatively returns if it ever strays off-topic (which often does happen). Thus, it is important to be familiar with the topic being discussed in a seminar class session. This generally requires doing assigned readings, for example, ahead of time. But that is not enough for the best discussions. Good discussions require that participants have thought critically about the readings, and about how discussion might illuminate them. The online comments that are required to be posted before class are a way of ensuring that everyone is prepared. Good discussion also requires that participants share an understanding of how the discussion should take place.

Although students at Stanford generally get experience with discussion seminars early on those experiences may not prepare one adequately for a more advanced seminar. In an advanced seminar, discussion should relate the direct focus of discussion (e.g. an article) to ideas that students have studied prior to the seminar. Advanced seminars in Symbolic Systems, in particular, build on material in core courses and are meant to give students an opportunity to think about and apply that material to new questions. These questions are often quite challenging to think about, and require thought and preparation ahead of time. They are not generally amenable to quickly-thought-of opinions.

The guidelines below are meant for this class in particular, and might differ from those that would pertain in other courses or discussions. They are meant to help us all achieve common understanding of what is expected and what we are trying to accomplish through class discussions. Learning how to contribute to seminar discussions is a skill that will serve you well in many future activities, including higher coursework.

1. The primary focus of a discussion is readings assigned for that session.

This is a very important point. Much learning at Stanford happens through informal conversation, e.g in dorms, at dinner, etc. But a class session in this seminar is not an informal conversation. The discussion in a seminar has a specific focus: the reading assignments.

2. If you have not done the assignment that is being discussed, you should not expect to be able to actively contribute to the discussion.

This should follow from the fact that discussion is focused on assigned readings, but it may not be obvious when contributions drift to other topics or do not refer to the assignments directly. Just remember that this is a discussion, not a conversation. If we go off on a tangent, we should return to the topic at hand - the assignment that is the target of the discussion. If you have not done the assignment, it is possible that you may be able to make a contribution that will help the class understand something, but such situations are unusual because they depend on you knowing something that no one who has done the assignment would know or think of. Ask yourself whether this is likely to be the case before saying something when you have not done the readings.

3. Treat everyone with respect, and assume that everyone has something to contribute.

This is crucial. Ad hominem remarks about other participants or other forms of uncivil discourse have no place in a classroom discussion. This is usually not a problem in Stanford classrooms, but needs to be stated. Respect goes beyond that, however, and also includes an openness to what others have to say, and a willingness to admit one's own limitations. It also entails leaving room in the conversation for others to contribute. Lastly it means treating yourself with respect, and recognizing that you have something to contribute as well, assuming you have prepared for the discussion.

4. Bring hard copies and/or electronic versions of the readings assigned for a given session on your laptop with you to the discussion.

It is difficult to participate in a reading-focused discussion unless you have the readings in front of you to refer to during the discussion. If the reading is from a book, bring the book. If readings are either handed out or made available electronically, make sure to download and/or print them and bring them to class, or you will not get nearly as much out of the discussion as you could otherwise.

5. Discussions tend to work best when they help everyone understand and think critically about the assigned readings/films.

The discussion is a group process of coming to understand the assignment. Although you will be given a score on your participation at the end of the quarter, it is not based primarily on the brilliance of your utterances in class, but rather on whether you help the discussion achieve its goals. Here is a hypothetical example of discussion that advances understanding and critical thinking (based on Plato's dialogue, Meno):

Discussion is not a time to show off how much you know, or to state your opinions irrespective of whether they help everyone understand the discussion target. The measure of your contributions is how well they help everyone to achieve the common goals of the discussion. Since discussion is focused on helping those who have done the assignment to understand it better, an important corollary is that if you have not done the reading, you are unlikely to get the full benefit of discussion about it, because you will generally be a spectator rather than a participant when the best learning takes place. Cognitive psychologists have shown that it is active learners - those who are fully engaged and participating - who learn the most.

6. Productive contributions to a discussion are often somewhat prosaic and brief.

Remember that this is a discussion that is leading somewhere, if the discussion is being led well. In such a discussion, the norm should be to make points that take only one or a few sentences to say, and they may not be more insightful than just finding what the author says about the question. Occasionally a longer point is justified, but it should be prompted by a clear show of interest, or be something that helps everyone understand the assignment or to question it. A more common exchange might look like this:

Note especially both the quick turns and the pauses in this example and the one for point 5.

7. The leader of the discussion has a unique role in the discussion, which is to guide it in a way that both facilitates participation and helps everyone to understand and think critically.

The discussion leader, whether the instructor or a student leading a discussion, is a participant in the discussion, but generally has a set of goals. The goals are usually points that the leader wants everyone to understand or think about, and may also include leading everyone to understand a particular implication of what is being discussed, which may not emerge until the end or may come in the middle somewhere..If the leader asks a question, you can assume, if the leader is doing a good job, that it relates to the goals the discussion leader has for the group, and that it is leading somewhere.

A good discussion leader will fill in gaps when students are not participating, including summarizing points that he/she might prefer to emerge from discussion. Sometimes this is necessary to save time as well, so that the class can move on to something else. These interludes of mini-lecturing are a normal part of good seminar discussion. If you find the instructor or discussion leader doing most of the talking, however, then it may mean the class is not participating enough, or that not enough students are prepared to speak about the particular subject of discussion at that point. This is generally preferable to having unproductive discussion, and it may be necessary if no one is participating. Feel free to jump in and reclaim the role of a participant if you think the leader is talking too much.

8. Pay attention to the flow of discussion and try to make contributions relevant to what is being discussed, rather than jumping ahead.

The discussion may remind you of something you wanted to say about a later point in the readings, for example. Or you may just want to raise a point that has not been discussed. You can do this, but watch for the best times to do so. Generally, there will be a best point in the flow of questions that have been posed, or participants may be prompted to raise topics that have not yet been raised.

9. Take notes during the discussion, though they need not be extensive.

In addition to helping you remember things you may want to write about later, or just for your own record of the class, you may want to write down a note to yourself if you think of a point or question during the discussion that you want to raise later, to help you remember it. Try not to tune out the discussion itself while doing this, however. Making your own notes can help to define what you think is most important, to trace the points that get made by participants, and to help you contribute.

10.. If you are confused, it is good to say so, but try to explain the source of your confusion.

Admitting confusion can help everyone, and can be a good thing to do. Rather than saying,"I don't understand this. Can someone please explain it?", though, it is better to tell the class what you do understand, and how this leads to your confusion. For example, two apparently contradictory statements in a text can be cited. Or you can say, "I follow up to [some point], but I don't understand the use of [some word] here."

11. There should be time set aside in the discussion for you to pose questions that you would like the class to discuss. If this doesn't happen, remind the instructor to do so.

There won't always be time for questions from the floor that do not fit into the flow of the discussion led by the instructor, but ideally there should be. Bring them to class, and be assertive about having a chance to raise them, but be flexible about when/if they get raised.

12. Include questions you would like to pose to the class in your blog comments prior to class, if you think of them before class.

This helps other students and the discussion leader to know what you want to talk about, and makes it more likely that your question will be included in the instructor's line of questions.

13. If you have not spoken and have something to contribute, do so.

Students are sometimes shy about contributing. Assuming you have done the readings, there should be points in the discussion when you can speak. Don't worry about giving a wrong answer or making a mistake - that's part of learning and helps everyone.

14. If you have spoken recently, pause and see if others want to say something before responding again.

The flipside of overcoming shyness is overcoming the urge to contribute as much as you can. Students who do this often have a lot to say and make good contributions, but speaking does take the floor away from others who may need a moment or two of silence before they offer a contribution. Slight pauses and silences are a good thing in a discussion - they don't all need to be filled right away.

Note the total number of people in the seminar, and adjust your contributions accordingly. In a class of 5 people, each person (by definition) contributes about one fifth of the total discussion. In a class of 20, it is one twentieth. If everyone contributes equally, then they will all be close to this average. But most of the time, some people speak much more than others. If you are the type of person who speaks a lot, this tendency tends to have a bigger impact on equality of participation in a large class than in a small one, so you should think about making your contributions more concise and less frequent in a larger class. Give others a chance who have not spoken. Equal participation also means speaking up when you have not said much. There is no norm that says everyone has to speak the same amount, but people vary in their comfort with jumping in when there is competition for the available time.

In a larger class, it may be useful for the instructor to keep track of who wants to speak, e.g. by having students raise their hands and calling on them. If this is not happening and you feel the discussion would benefit from it, let the instructor know this.

15.. If you do not refer to the target texts or film in specific and appropriate ways during the course of a discussion, you are likely to convey the impression that you have not done the assignments, even if you have in fact done them.

In a course with a participation score, students are more likely to feel they should contribute even if they are not adequately prepared. Resist the temptation to do so. It will not help your score, and may hurt it. If you are in fact prepared, you have some responsibility to demonstrate this by referring to the assigned readings when you answer a question, at least when it is relevant. It is okay to refer to personal experiences or material not covered in class, but these should fit appropriately into a discussion focused on the assignments, and not be the only things you ever refer to. There is really no substitute for doing the readings. Finding a few passages you can quote will not help in the discussion if you do not know the full context in which they appear.

16. Always remember that time is precious in a class discussion - make your point as succinctly as possible.

Keep your contributions as concise as you can. When you speak, you are implicitly saying to everyone that listening to what you are saying is more important than the other things that could be happening at that point in the discussion. The longer you go on, the less plausible that becomes, and the more likely that other students and the instructor will see your comments as unproductive, and/or that you will prevent the discussion leader from realizing his/her goals for the discussion.

17. If your participation does not live up to these guidelines, don't feel ashamed. Just try to do better the next time.

This is the last guideline, and a very important one. These guidelines are not meant to make you so nervous about contributing that you stay silent for fear of being judged an unworthy participant. Everyone goes off on tangents sometimes, and if you don't have much experience with discussion seminars, it may not be obvious what and how much to say, or how to relate what you say to the readings, even assuming you have done them. These guidelines are not meant to shame anyone. They are meant to help you learn and participate more meaningfully. Seminar discussion is a collective art, and takes a lot of time to master. Try to reflect on and learn from your experiences with each discussion, and feel free to ask for verbal feedback if you want it.