Tips on Being a Discussion Assistant
in One of Carroll's Classes


Getting a discussion to work is much harder than most people think. A key reason is that there are a multitude of responsibilities one must discharge simultaneously, and on the fly. Is the content on track? Are there any threads of the discussion that have been left hanging? Are there any essential topics that have not been covered yet? Are any people unduly dominating the discussion? Is anyone being silenced by the rest of the class? Is there broad participation? These are just a few of the considerations one must keep in mind as a facilitator of a discussion. This sheet of tips is intended to help you concentrate on the essentials.

First, remember that your job is to get others to engage in discussion, not to provide the discussion yourselves. Keep your own participation to a minimum. If you show the least willingness to do the work for the rest of the group, they will let you do so. You've probably been trained over the years to be eager to give "the answer" when you know what it is, so it may be very difficult to keep your knowledge to yourself. One way that helps is to focus on asking questions. As you do so, try not to have a set list of questions, as if your job were to quiz the class. Instead, identify before class some of the objectives you wish the discussion to reach, then concentrate on using your questions to help the discussion take its natural course. Build outward from their starting points. Get the class members to talk to each other, not to you, and to help each other to articulate significant, competing positions.

Second, and this may be the hardest thing of all to master, do not be afraid of silence. Especially when you ask your first question, there is likely to be a lull before anyone volunteers a response. This lull can be excruciating to an inexperienced discussion facilitator. Do not panic. Someone will eventually formulate a response to get you started. Remember that people need time to settle into the topic and to respond thoughtfully. One way to help them is to begin with tiny questions (e.g., "name your favorite incident in the reading") rather than to ask something cosmic (e.g., "what is the most important conclusion we can draw from this reading assignment").

Third, try to keep the discussion focused primarily on the readings. There will be a tendency for students to stray quickly to the present, rather than discussing the past, and also to spout off about what their own positions are on things, rather than building outward from the positions taken by the assigned authors. If people drift toward the present, simply ask them politely what bearing their remarks have on the dead people we're discussing that week. Doing so makes clear that references to the present aren't prohibited, just as long as they're kept relevant to the issues at hand. If students focus too much on their own opinions, simply ask them if the position they're advocating is their own, that of the author, or someone else's. That usually does the trick.

Fourth, be especially cautious of the tendency to pronounce moral verdicts. Many students will be strongly tempted to focus on deciding which of the dead people we study was "right" or "good". This will be particularly pronounced around the issue of "greed". Our job isn't to decide if all those dead people went to heaven or hell (or whatever the equivalent is in your moral schema), but rather to assess causation. We are here to assess significance. Try to elicit from the class as many well-developed, competing causal interpretations of the issues for the week as you can. By all means, try also to prevent too much discussion about how entertaining the readings are; it's a secondary issue.

Finally, devote some attention to breadth of coverage and breadth of participation. It isn't necessary that we cover every possible topic in the readings, and it isn't necessary for everyone to speak during the discussion period, but do what you can to keep us all from watching five people flog one topic to death for over an hour.