Soul-crushing Discussion Classes

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Renegade Rhapsody

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

– Isaac Asimov

“Sure, discussion can be a great way to learn, but first you need to know enough to be able to discuss the topic intelligently. When we read a book on a subject we wish to learn about, or watch a documentary on PBS, The Discovery Channel, or The History Channel, we don’t resent the fact that we don’t get to chime in every few minutes with our own take on the subject. We are just trying to accumulate information and a certain degree of understanding.”

– Tina Blue, University of Kansas Professor of English, The Dismal Discussion Class

Be it the lack of any new knowledge or the inane repetition of the same ideas, discussion based classes can be frustrating. (Lloyd Morgan/Flickr)

Be it the lack of any new knowledge or the inane repetition of the same ideas, discussion based classes can be frustrating. (Lloyd Morgan/Flickr)

Being able to bullshit on the spot is an undeniably useful skill for the individual, but the societal repercussions are epic. You end up with travesties like the Sokal affair, evolutionary psychology, “issues of national security” or Dick Cheney’s entire diabolical career.

We need to use our fleeting college time efficiently, and one can learn nothing in discussion classes far more easily than in lecture classes (though allowing Facebook Portals/laptops in class is quickly eroding whatever advantage lectures once had).

The internet is a double edged sword, of course – I can go on MITOpenCourseware or Bookos and learn everything for free. The issue is that the credential (a badge denoting a Neanderthalic level of competence) can set you back $250,000 (Prices tend to climb during state-backed non-dischargeable debt bubbles). The unsustainability of the residential college model in light of the uber-disruptive technology known as the interwebs is fodder for another article entirely.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve had some decent discussion classes at the Claremonts — but they’re rare gems, and I consistently get a better return on intellectual investment from lecture classes.

Student discussions are fantastic when they’re genuine. I’ve had many heated, mutually enlightening discussions over meals. However, in discussion classes the impetus is often artificial– a grade-based coercion– a nagging feeling that one must say something, anything. I always do the reading and never shut up, so that’s not a problem for me, but it pains me to listen to consecutive, contrived and inarticulate comments. I lose a little bit of faith in humanity 90% of the time my classmates speak.

Also, there’s the issue of paying professors $80-100K for what amounts to smirking knowingly and expecting students to mind-read and utter buzzwords when prompted by vague hints (long silences punctuated by rising intonations consume a lot of aggregate lifespan). I could spend that time reading books that don’t require coercion to entice readership.

Professors, extremely (over) educated individuals, are spending several hours a week listening to students manufacture high-grade bovine fertilizer. These people should be engaged in cutting-edge research, contributing to the wealth of human knowledge.

Granted, professors who got their PhD in Post-Colonial Alcoholic Caribbean Hermaphrodites’ Poetry with an emphasis on Spaces, Language, Culture, Abstraction and Society probably aren’t winning any Nobels anytime soon — not a big loss. But some talented people are squandering their skills.

This also applies to lectures: record the lecture once and put it online. That way, your students and people all over the world can watch and re-watch it to their heart’s content.

And in a lecture course, so long as the professor stops periodically to field questions, what’s lost? How about using the forum on Sakai, if the need arises to discuss? It’s the best of both worlds.

Also, what’s up with professors requiring students to teach class periods? Tuition is a little too high for us to accept this kind of shirking. I’ve seen it in an economics and biomedical engineering course.  It would be one thing if I learned a comparable amount of useful information when students lectured, but this occurs as frequently as the Vatican admits wrongdoing.

Also, what’s up with professors requiring students to teach class periods? Tuition is a little too high for us to accept this kind of shirking.

Shyness is a real thing. Some people really are introverts, uncomfortable in high-pressure group discussions. Introverts also seem drawn to the long, quiet hours of academic study anyway. It’s unfair that grades for scholarly understanding should be based on one’s ability to display oneself prominently in a discussion (about which few have anything substantive to contribute anyway). Non-substantive petty debates occur, but someone just wants to win. It wastes the other students’ time and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Scholars read and write — leave the manipulative verbal battles to politicians and other such scum.

Another group marginalized by discussion classes is exchange students, or non-native English speakers. Though many of them have fresh insights and are perfectly proficient writers, they shrink away from speaking in class because they are self-conscious about their accents. America, more broadly, overvalues gregarious self-promotion and seriously neglects quiet, methodical, thoughtful consideration.

“Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.” – Jimi Hendrix

Sometimes those with the least insightful comments speak the most. We’re often too polite and they don’t get any negative feedback. That should change.

There are some painful things that happen in discussion classes that don’t occur in lecture. Like when one student echoes essentially the same comment as someone before. The worst are uncomfortably long silences.

Fear of social rejection and public speaking outrank painful death in experiment apprehension levels. If we measured cortisol and norepinephrine levels in students, I’d wager 100:1 that these hormone/neurotransmitter levels are higher during discussion classes. And guess what? Cortisol negatively impacts memory and learning. Ergo, learning may be retarded by social pressure.

Too often I come out of a class period having learned nothing new (that I didn’t get from the reading). I’ve also noticed insecure knowledge-resentment in some professors. Most teachers appreciate when their students are well-versed in the area, but some get resentful if you appear to surpass their knowledge at any point.

“As someone who enjoys reading history in his spare time, I sometimes try to bring history into class discussion, and often times when I do that, the professor feels like I’m undermining his or her authority. As if they are the only ones with a monopoly on historical or scholarly knowledge. I just wish they were more truthful in their labeling of classes,” said Gagan Singh, PZ ‘14.

Or when you consistently know the answer, wait for a long pause (to let others speak) and then eventually raise your hand — they still resist calling on you to “give the others a chance.”

Life is too short for that.

It’s a waste of time for those that have actually understood the assigned material. Those aggregated minutes could be spent reading something else. Bright, hard-working students end up being held back by the rest of the Gaussian, +0 SD pack animals. (Side Note: most of you should not be at college, wasting societal resources. All you do is drink, check Facebook and desperately try not to get one another pregnant. If you take offense to this, I’m talking to you. But everyone’s got to go to college…).

The emphasis on “Socratic” “student-directed learning” is a recent phenomenon in the educational world — lectures have been condemned as overly “authoritarian” or not Post-Modern enough in their repudiation of objective knowledge. I bet to differ, and so does University of Kansas English Professor Tina Blue. In her essay, “The Dismal Discussion Class,” she describes several arguments against excessive student discussion in class:

          […] [One professor confessed that] students who were doing all the talking in class were driving him crazy, because they knew nothing and often seemed not even to have read the assignments.  But of course they were “participating,” so they were the ones earning the points in the discussion class, even though all they were doing was wasting everyone’s time.

          That’s a large part of the problem with discussion classes.  They so often are a waste of everyone’s time.  Bright students know this and resent it terribly.  They don’t want to listen to ignorance hold forth, and all too often that is what a discussion class amounts to.  Furthermore, truly intelligent, serious students–like my young friend–do not want to sound like fools, so they are not eager to babble on in public about subjects they don’t feel they have mastered.  In fact, that is one of the sure signs of intellectual integrity: recognition of the limitations of your own knowledge and a willingness to learn from those who know more than you do.

          Yes, of course, discussion can be a very effective way of exploring a topic and understanding it at a deeper level.  But discussion works best when those who are discussing a topic already have some knowledge and understanding of that topic.  At the beginner-level, a discussion class is usually just an invitation to fill the room with hot air.

          That’s why so many undergraduate discussion classes are such dismal affairs.  Most of the students sit there like lumps, while one or two, or maybe three, blather mindlessly as if they were in a therapy group, or hold forth pedantically on topics they really don’t understand.


Project based learning. I learn most in writing term papers, following what I’m passionate about. I can determine where my knowledge lacks and concentrate there. This is one of many reasons why Finnish education blows other (imaginary) nation-states out of the water: students are given a task or subject and are thrown into the deep end.

“Just as eating against one’s will is injurious to health, so studying without a liking for it spoils the memory, and it retains nothing it takes in.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

For all the bureaucratic gibberish about “life-long learning,” you’d think “educators” could offer a few classes on learning strategies, heuristics and logical pitfalls. Books about cognition, like Daniel Kanheman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, would be useful to anyone.

Students often complain when a professor shows a film. See, I rejoice when a film is shown because most films are thoughtfully composed and I usually learn something. I adore documentaries – they are concise, moving and have incredible social impact.

Professors should not be DJs, compiling a reading list or recommend media. I can get that from any bibliography – professors should synthesize vast amounts of information, sort it for reliability, and download it into my brain as fast as possible.

Professors should not be DJs, compiling a reading list or recommend media.

Caveat: A lot of lecture classes make me want to end life on this planet, too. Some professors are well meaning, but suffer from researcher syndrome: they can read, experiment and publish like the dickens, but their capacity for elucidation is wanting. (Others have tenure, and prefer to parasitically rest on laurels).

These well-intentioned people tend also to be introverts – those that excel in bookishness but not as professors (teaching is performing). This disconnect reflects a problem of PhD acquisition: to get a PhD, you need to write a decent dissertation. There is no mechanism that weeds out unskilled lecturers.

Job talks help, but frequently the material presented is so hyper-specialized and jargon-filled that discerning abstruseness from mere poor explanation is impossible. Prospective hires should lecture on the material they would be teaching, not the area they and 4 other people in the world understand or care about. Impenetrability is inversely correlated with originality – academics need to dress up their mundane and irrelevant ideas with buzzwords and obscuritanist language to legitimate their own meaningless existence.

“I don’t think there’s anything deeper than the surface. Intellectuals have to make [their discipline] look complicated — it’s part of their job.” – Noam Chomsky

4 Responses to “Soul-crushing Discussion Classes”

  1. Katie (PO '13) says:

    God, I know, the only thing I hate more than having to listen to the mindless drivel of my classmates is when my (over) educated professors are threatened by my superior grasp of their topic.

  2. Julia says:

    I want this to be satire. I really do. But if it’s satire it’s so badly done that it shouldn’t have been published.

    And if it’s not satire….I’m amazed this made it past the editors, between the wholly unnecessary & violently off-color examples and the ridiculous generalizations. I understand that this is part of a special series, but I’d still expect some basic level of journalistic integrity here.

  3. 1776 says:

    U MAD, BRO?

    *Somebody’s* making assertions without an argument to back them up…!

    “When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign;
              that all the dunces are in confederacy against him.” -Jonathan Swift

    • 1776 says:

      That was addressed to Julia, by the way. “Off color” and “ridiculous” are great words for vague criticism, but they are like calling something “weird” — not specific enough to accomplish anything other than an impression.

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