Clash of Old and New

Today was my day to facilitate for a graduate student discussion seminar. The seminar is well attended by quite a handful of faculty and post-docs, some thirty people. The discussion is almost always dominated by a few faculty, which is a great source of information but offers little opportunity for students to ask questions or wrestle with ideas themselves. To get at this, I tried breaking the class into small groups for the first half and passing out different sets of discussion questions. Things didn’t go as planned…

The faculty organizer of the course left the room during the discussion, apologizing that he was busy and would return when the small-group part was finished. I introduced the concept poorly and without discussing the idea with these professors before hand. Senior faculty present informed me that that it was inappropriate to treat this like an “undergraduate lab.” Some small groups had excellent discussions, others had more trouble getting going. The questions I had chosen tended to be too specific and the time for group discussion considered too long, despite that fact that no group covered both questions they had been given.

I underestimated the resistance and discomfort people would experience in being asked to form groups and talk to each other about that day’s reading. My tone and manner of introduction was probably too energetic and directive, which heightened the sense of “undergraduate lab.” The obvious opposition to the proposal from the faculty involved when the idea was introduced also seemed to set an expectation that being in small groups would accomplish nothing, setting a tone that I found stifling towards active group discussion.

I asked many people involved for feedback afterwards. While this feedback was not anonymous, many still gave direct critiques, particularly of the time allowed, the questions, and some of the approach as a whole. Overall, I found many of the quieter students, post-docs, and faculty supportive to very positive about the experience, while those speaking more frequently tended to be more negative.