In the life of a professor, what’s more satisfying than a successful class discussion? A classroom abuzz with ideas, students who are energized and alert, sinking their teeth into the assigned material, riffing in surprising, productive ways. Isn’t this why we got into the game in the first place? To cultivate curious minds in real time?
The flip side, of course, is that when discussion is flailing, we as professors (and humans) can feel like we’re flailing too. Even if most of us have well-developed tolerances for awkward silence, no one likes pulling teeth, and facilitating a stillborn discussion is no one’s idea of fun. Regardless of how things go, leading a class can be an emotionally charged experience that affects our sense of confidence and self-worth. On bad days, in those uncomfortable silences when we find ourselves staring out at rooms full of vacant faces, we might even find ourselves questioning our careers.
To be sure, these challenges are basic to the profession, and any grad school TA who has led a single discussion section will have already begun to grasp as much. But after 15 years of teaching, I’m only now realizing that these challenges open onto another set of much more complicated challenges relating to equity and inclusion in the classroom. But more on this point in a moment. First, some brief backstory.
Recently, I was teaching an intermediate-level media studies course, and despite the fog of a global pandemic and the inconvenience of teaching and learning with masks, things seemed, eight weeks into the semester, to be going fairly well. Overall, students seemed prepared and engaged; on balance, our discussions were lively, focused, and productive. The mood in the room seemed generally positive, and most days I would leave class feeling optimistic about the course.
Then one day after class, as students were filtering out into the hall, I noticed two students hanging back, hovering near the edge of the room. They were whispering to one another but also glancing in my direction. In the moment, I couldn’t tell what they were up to, or what they wanted. Were they waiting to speak with me? Making fun of me? Did I have mustard on my shirt? Had I somehow flubbed during class?
To move on from this awkward moment in a kind and friendly way, I waved, wished them a good afternoon, and began to head for the door.
“Actually,” one student said. “We need to talk.”
Here I should mention that these were BIPOC students—one female and one gender nonconforming—whereas I am a cisgender white male.
The ensuing conversation was unnerving but ultimately illuminating. Their main concern, it turned out, was that they did not experience our classroom as an inclusive space. In their view, a few white students had gotten into the habit of monopolizing our discussions, making it difficult for them and other BIPOC students to pave inroads into our conversations. Their frustration with the class had reached a head, and they were coming to me in the hopes that I would address the issue.
Throughout this exchange, I listened more than I spoke, did my best to validate the students' experiences, and tried not to act defensively. I also assured the students that I would take their concerns seriously and make adjustments moving forward. In the end, I’m confident that I handled the situation appropriately, but I still felt blindsided: I simply did not expect students to approach me with these sorts of concerns. That same week I was teaching critical race theory in another class. I was also helping spearhead an antiracism initiative on campus and was the PI on a major grant application focusing on antiracism in the arts. Making the campus equitable and inclusive is an essential goal of my pedagogy and a focal point of my service to the college. To have students challenge me on these grounds cut deep.
As I tried to make sense of where I’d gone wrong, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I wondered whether the students’ critiques weren’t entirely fair. Sure, certain individuals were more vocal contributors, but I didn’t feel like anyone was monopolizing. On any given day, there were plenty of moments when conversation would trail off and when I would encourage the class—someone, anyone—to speak up. I always made a habit of scanning the room, looking out for potential new contributors; if a student ever wanted to speak, I would always give them the floor. I was supportive and appreciative of everyone’s contributions, and made every effort to be inviting, nonjudgmental, and respectful to everyone in the room. What more could students expect?
Also, I felt unsure about how to follow through on some of the specific things my students asked of me. For example, they requested that I instruct certain students to speak less often in class; however, for a combination of reasons, I worried that shutting students down might prove counterproductive. When discussions are on life support, I often rely on talkative students to carry the conversation. It is good pedagogical practice, I realize, to ask monopolizing students to make space for the contributions of others, but there can be a fine line between a monopolizing and a conscientious contribution. My course participation policy also explicitly encouraged students to speak on a regular basis: "Do your best to make regular, thoughtful contributions during class discussion. Keep in mind that A-level participants speak quite often, offering insightful comments, raising questions, and encouraging the participation of others." Would I need to revise my syllabus mid-semester? That didn’t seem like a good idea.
At the same time, I also knew that it took courage for these students to confront me with their concerns and that they wouldn’t have done so had they not felt truly uncomfortable in my class. This awareness ate at me. Over time, as I worked to process my emotions and reflect more deeply on the situation, I began to understand that if I felt blindsided by this confrontation, my own blind spots must be to blame.
For the rest of the course, I made it a point to respond to some of the students' suggestions. They asked, for example, if we could do more close reading activities in class, so I incorporated several of those. Rather than immediately calling on the first volunteers in the room, I also began taking longer pauses after asking my questions, to give more students an opportunity to raise their hands. I didn’t wind up silencing any of my students, but I did check back in with the concerned students a few weeks later to see how things were going for them. While they still had concerns about the class, they could also tell that I was making an effort and voiced appreciation for this.
I’m still working to make sense of how I can do things differently, and better, moving into the future. I’ve familiarized myself with literature on best practices for facilitating inclusive class discussions. I’ve also revised my participation policy in a way that places less emphasis on speaking and greater emphasis on active listening:
Your active and engaged participation is crucial to your learning and the success of the course. It is through the comments you make and the questions you ask that we all learn, and I encourage everyone to make regular, thoughtful contributions during class.
That said, I also understand that participation takes a variety of forms. For a combination of reasons, some students are more inclined to speak publicly than others, and speaking isn’t the only way to be a productive class participant. For example, active listening is just as important (or MORE important) than speaking. Attendance and punctuality are also fundamental aspects of participation.
Above all, I’ve been reevaluating my long-held assumptions about what makes a class discussion successful in the first place. I’m realizing that even if a discussion feels like it’s going great to me, it may not feel that way to all of my students. I’m also recognizing that the adrenalized nature of facilitating discussion can undermine my ability to evaluate the subtle dynamics of a classroom. Even if signs of trouble are clearly visible, I may be more likely to focus on things that are going well. I suspect I am not the only one who has fallen into this trap, but we can all learn from our mistakes. And we can all strive to do better.
Chicago Center for Teaching and Learning. (2002). Facilitate inclusive discussions. https://inclusivepedagogy.uchicago.edu/advanced-strategies/facilitate-inclusive-discussions#recommended-practices
Joe Bookman, PhD, is an assistant professor of media studies at Beloit College, where he teaches courses in media studies, film, and audio and video production.