Tips on discussion class participation

I’ve overheard people talking about how “what I want to say sounds good  in my head, but then when I want to say it, mush comes out” and it got me thinking, this is an issue for a lot of people in our beloved Midwestern United States. We are German, Scandinavian, English quiet types who don’t want to be the person always talking. (further evidence was confirmed in my travels to Europe)

There are two questions pertaining to this issue and each broach the subject of participation in a different way.  One, “What should I say and how can I feel confident about saying it?” and two, “How often should I speak?”

For some, this is no exercise, but simply a matter of “taking a discussion class and participating” and to those I applaud. However, I live in Minnesota, and there are certain social rules to follow that aren’t of the passive aggressive nature but more of the stoic, reserved, quiet Lutheran. Asking the above questions can seem relatively mundane and pointless, but I believe they are the questions so many people ask themselves during the course of a classroom session.

First off, if you want to know “what to say” I find it’s good to have a plan.  This particular class I am in has 25 or so students, and therefore each time you speak, you’re making a speech to a large group. Add to that, the professor is listening and while he may not be grading, you certainly don’t want to say something stupid – or require that he “rephrase your question or comment”(which is undeniably necessary at times).

Every great orator reads from notes. It’s incredibly rare for a leader to make a good speech that inspires completely “off the cuff” and this plan consists of the process of note taking while reading. Sure, it’s easy to think you can just read a ton of content, be inspired with ideas and thoughts about the content, then when you go back and browse it, those same thoughts will return. I would say this is easier when the amount of content is smaller, but substantially more difficult the more subject matter you have to read and the complexity of that subject matter. The book “Historiography” by Eric Breisach contains very dense, very intense and referential subject matter. It’s the story of history from Greek to Modern Day, and how History developed from story telling to reflections on primary sources.

While reading, scan each paragraph looking for quotable source material. If you don’t recognize names, places, or foreign language words ignore them for now – they will just slow you down.  When you come across a phrase or idea that triggers a thought, write it down in your own words. Don’t copy the phrase verbatim, put your take into what you’re writing.

If you find nothing inspires you in a paragraph, move on. It’s ok, not every paragraph has something that will speak to you immediately.

When finished with a chapter, review your notes and score or star the comments you find more interesting than others.

Now go back and review the names, places, and words that made no sense at the time. Review any chapters you didn’t have ideas about and see if they are in fact linked to an idea you already wrote down. Perhaps the idea you had was wrong or was absolutely right on. Make new notes and correct old ones.

Now when it comes time for the class and the teacher asks “what did you guys think of chapter xx?”, you already have your favorite ideas written down, all that’s left to do is read them. They are your own words, they are your favorite words, they are contextual and not ad hoc or “off the cuff” Just simply read what you wrote and wait for any responses. Easy, no pressure.

How often you should speak is entirely your call. It’s your style of engagement, your way of participating. It’s the teachers job to curtail any extra or unnecessary chatter. There are two things to remember that can help with this if you’re concerned. One, don’t be scared. Two, don’t be condescending or argumentative. Follow those two rules and you’ll have fun without feeling underspoken or outspoken.

Now, back to my chapter.

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