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Why Conferences? Changing the
Nature of Class Discussion
"People need to have some sort of explanation for things
or else a crisis arises."
Student in discussion of Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

This statement, about a prerequisite for moving from an old paradigm to a new one, could work as a motto for Core. The class arose partly from a sense of crisis beyond the university's gates, a crisis furrowing the brows of the entire culture, high, low, middle. Such a course is needed, but I'm firmly convinced that the course has also taken a wrong turn by not integrating technology into the syllabus from the beginning. Even though the syllabus reflects the experiences of men and women from many different cultures, Core still looks like a book museum. The reluctance of many teachers to engage in collaborative work, beyond in-class discussions, only makes matters more troubling.

It is very easy for teachers to provide their readings of a passage or entire text, colored by their own experiences and study. A handful of teachers resort to lecture, after a few weeks of silence in the discussion room, and test retention of the material with exams. Some students prefer this approach, since the course is required and the teacher is not asking them to generate original ideas or to defend them. Such a pedagogical turn does nothing to enrich the students' lives beyond the two semesters in the classroom; at best, we can say that they did the reading, at worst, we did not prepare students to be flexible-enough thinkers capable of "reflective living after graduation" (Core Syllabus, 1998).

Many teachers adopt a Socratic method of discussion, as I have on days when we sit away from the computers. Even this approach has its limitations, as Barker and Kemp (1990) claim in their critique of the "proscenium" classroom. One student speaks at a time, usually in response to the teacher, and interactions involving the entire group are rare. Our students are clever, and they soon realize that such efforts at "discussion" become "a method of enforcing effort" (Barker and Kemp, p. 11). Besides, as many proponents of electronic discussions note, the Socratic method puts a single student in the limelight; shy students dread this, so the best showmen tend to dominate the discussion classroom (Hawisher 1992).

A few teachers have moved to a completely student-centered approach. This pedagogy also has its limitations in a traditional setting. How to start the ball rolling for a rousing discussion of Nietzsche's theory of racial ressentiment? For grappling with Primo Levi's endurance in the slave-factories at Buna and Auschwitz or Oskar Schindler's redemption in the midst of that enormous evil? For one such "collaborative" class here, though not a section of Core, a student admitted to me that the teacher simply sat in front of the class, stonily silent, and awaited students' input. One day, 50 minutes passed without a word. Class dismissed.

In addition to proscenium lecture, Socratic drill, and traditionally student-centered discussion, I began to wonder if synchronous conferences, used with mixed results in my first-year writing classes, might not break the Core students' conspiracy of silence. Would such an exercise lead to better face-to-face discussions which I begin, hopefully like Socrates, with a series of innocent questions such as "what is a person?" (to echo the haunting "If this is a man," the original title of Levi's Survival in Auschwitz). Such conferences might encourage conversations appropriate for what Hawisher and Selfe (1993) call "prefigurative times." The class, recognizing this (and reading Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions in my sections), could engage in Kuhnian "abnormal discourse" that occurs "without regard to rules, assumptions, goals, values, or mores" (Bruffee, 1996, p. 93). At first glance, this type of conversation may seem too shapeless, but some classroom practices kept the conversations on-task.

Many of us in composition are comfortable with a collaborative view of knowledge, an epistemology explored in the writings of Kenneth Bruffee and others. Writing teachers have designed student-centered classes that avoid the terrible silence my student experienced. In writing classes, of course, students are actively involved in learning through writing workshops and other tasks. With this type of learning:

[W]e derive our authority as teachers from being certified representatives of the communities of knowledgeable peers that students aspire to join, and that we, as members of our chosen disciplines and also members of the community of the liberally educated public at large, invite and encourage them to join. Teachers are defined in this instance as those members of knowledge community who accept the responsibility for inducting new members into the community (Bruffee, 1996, p. 94).

It seems odd that other humanists have not widely embraced this view. This description is hardly revolutionary to those who, for centuries, have worked as mentors for young scholars entering the field. Moreover, Vygotsky's claim that "reflective thought is public or social conversation internalized" (Bruffee, p. 87) or Bruffee's notion of knowledge as a social construct should not threaten us. Even Rene Descartes, whom Bruffee sets at odds with the social-constructivist view of knowledge, was the product of his time and was influenced and then received by other Enlightenment thinkers. Another heroic loner, Thoreau, could not escape the outside world at Walden; as Carolyn Guyer (1996) points out, our notions of "heroic separateness" may be just that--notions. And even were a completely solitary genius to exist--imagine Thoreau or Descartes hunkering down in a shack in Montana--what good their ideas without an audience? Then, too, the role of audience in re-shaping any idea, even protecting it from extinction. In the Middle Ages, only a group of Inquisitors, not a school of philosophy, would have greeted Descartes' ideas about matter and the self. Rousseau was forced to leave his beloved Geneva, and Descartes' contemporary Galileo recanted his cosmological "heresy" after the Inquisition showed him the instruments of torture.

We humanists too often take a Cartesian view of knowledge as the product of individual genius. A paucity of coauthored articles attests to this. If the writers and philosophers we study engaged in conversation with their peers and debated the ideas of their predecessors, why not our students?

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