Why Don’t They Talk?

This semester I’m teaching first-year writing in our computer lab. I like the way the lab is set up. We have a large seminar type table in the middle of the room and the computers are all along the walls. This is great because we can be at the table away from the computers for certain parts of the class  (discussions, announcements, introducing activities) and then the students can be in front of the computers when they are writing. It works.

But the last couple of times I have taught in the computer lab I have noticed something. When we are sitting around the table having a whole class discussion things seem to go a little slow. Sometimes the discussion starts off fine, but then it seems to quickly die out until eventually there is silence.  I don’t know why, but the silence in a class discussion is not only the most uncomfortable silence in the world, but it seems to go on forever.  I’ve done all kinds of things to try to prevent this from happening. We’ve had a discussion about what makes a good class discussion, I’ve called on people, I’ve had them freewrite first and then discuss what they have written, but the end result is always the same. I ask a question and wait until someone answers. I ask another question and then wait.

And here is another thing. When I ask the students to do small group work, they talk up a storm, even when I come by and hover over their group. But when I bring them back to the table they become quiet.

One day this semester I finally asked the students what was going on. “Why is it,” I said, “that when you are in small groups you yak away and then when you come back to the table you’re quiet?” They all laughed and no one said anything. One student finally said, “Maybe when we’re at the table we think we’re supposed to be serious.”


But I’m wondering if something else is going on. A couple of times after the class discussion has died out I’ve asked the students to go to the computers to post and respond to one another on the online forum. They start typing and they don’t stop. The room becomes filled with the clicking of the keyboards. They can’t seem to say enough. And what they have to say is great—thoughtful, insightful, and interesting. Clearly they are thinking and making connections. They are saying the kinds of things on the online forum that I always hope they would say in a class discussion.

So why don’t they?

Recently I heard a Fresh Air interview with Sherry Turkle  from MIT who researches digital culture. The interview was fascinating! One of the points she made was that people, and particularly people of our students’ generation would rather text than talk on the phone. With texting they can control the conversation, they can think about what they would like to say and they can construct how they would like to say it before they say it. Talking on the phone (i.e. speech) doesn’t enable them to do that. They have to respond without the chance to think about their response. They also run the risk of making a mistake, of saying something wrong.

On the surface this may seem that we could blame the digital age for “ruining” our students’ ability to engage in a class discussion. But, I’m not sure about that. I remember as an undergraduate (and this was well before the digital age) that I was hesitant to participate in a class discussion because I was afraid of making a mistake. I just didn’t think I was quick enough to formulate what and how I wanted to say something.  I was afraid of bumbling, of mixing up my words, of sounding like someone who didn’t know what I was talking about.

I’m wondering if we need to think about class discussions in a different way. Maybe we are asking too much from these class discussions. We are asking students to construct thoughtful and insightful responses to our questions and to perfectly articulate these responses within the space of a minute or two. This seems like a lot. No wonder my students hesitate before answering. 

So maybe we need to step back and think about what we really want from class discussions. If we want our students to share what they are thinking and to think and respond to one another, maybe we actually need to give them the space and time to do that.  An online forum gives them that space. They can read, reflect, and then construct a response. Before hitting submit, they can read their responses, they can make sure they are saying what they intend. In other words, they can control what they are saying and how they are representing themselves in the discussion.

 Now I’m not saying that we should forgo with class discussion all together. I think there are moments in the classroom when class discussions should be used. But maybe we should think a bit more about what are our objectives for this classroom staple and think about when and how they can be the most effective. Sometimes it might be best to have the classroom filled with clicking keys than awkward silences.  

 So should we imagine a writing class with no class discussion? Any thought?

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