discussion overload

I’m teaching honors introduction for the first time ever. A great group of 23 students, a small class for this place. Most say it is the smallest class they have been in here!  They have a lot to say. Not just empty BS. A lot of worthwhile, thought out things to say. They all wanted to talk! This is great, I don’t want to kill it, but it’s going to be quite a ride to manage it. For one thing, they are pulling in different directions so it is hard to keep a common thread going, although they did do a good job of listening to each other and addressing issues the previous speaker had raised. They also raised hands and waited to be called on, but there’d be six to choose from at any given time. I do not want the evolutionary selection model in which the most aggressive dominate and the less aggressive get crowded out, but neither do I want to shut down all that enthusiasm. Do other people have strategies for coping?

The class is 2/3 male, by the way, a demographic shock in a university that is 55% female and a discipline that is overwhelmingly female.

In case you are wondering, as the course is titled “The Sociological Imagination,” I opened by describing my own background and experience and then invited each student to talk about his/hers. Idea being that we sould try to practice the intersection of biography and history in our own lives. This then led into a discussion of segregation patterns in schools. I took Jessica’s suggestion from some time ago to assign an old article by Karp about why students don’t participate, which also contributed to a good and serious discussion. So I promoted discussion by starting with topics relevant to their own lives. Then they kept going with Mills’s first chapter.

So, any, ideas for keeping the spark of interaction alive while riding herd on discussion and preventing too much verbal competition for the floor?

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

4 thoughts on “discussion overload”

  1. You could try the ol’ token game. Start class by giving everyone three poker chips or something. Toss a chip in to talk, so everyone knows that everyone is allotted three turns to talk that day. I confess I’ve never actually done it, but I imagine it could be good with silent students (“OK, if you haven’t used any tokens today, the next question is for you”) as well as with dominating students.

    I hope you’ll update us in a few weeks about how it’s going.


  2. When several hands go up at once, I’ll call out the order of responses before I call on the first person (e.g., “Ok, x, y, z, then a, b, and c”). If one person tends to try to dominate conversation, I can pretend that I overlooked them and place them third or four in the order. Subtle, but it seems to work.

    I’ll also make sure that thoughtful students who aren’t as aggressive don’t get left out (“Hey olderwoman, you usually have some thoughts on this…”).

    Once I get a read on the students, it is easy to handle.

    Sounds like a fun class!


  3. i’ve also found it useful to just tell them what the deal is: ‘hey students, i love how enthusiastic you are and i don’t want to shut down conversation, but i want to make sure everyone gets a chance to talk who wants to. so if you talk a lot, i might sometimes skip calling on you in favor of people who don’t talk a lot.’ they get it.


  4. I agree with all three of the responses above, and have found that all work. But the concern about multiple directions at once, so students don’t follow a single discussion thread, is an issue. Often I will try to manage that by asking whether the next person wanted to address the same issue or a new one; if a new one, I’ll ask first if anybody wanted to continue addressing the last one.

    It’s a great problem to have – congratulations!


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