I’ve been meaning to write a post about a really successful activity I used in discussion sections a few weeks ago. Like all instructors, I sometimes struggle to get discussion going. Ironically, sometimes I struggle with this more with texts that students are initially most excited about. They have all sorts of things to say about what was interesting, unusual, unexpected, etc. in a text. But as soon as I ask a theoretical question, crickets.
I used google docs as part of an in-class exercise a few weeks ago that really got the kind of discussion I hope for going. We were talking about the first seven chapters of D’Emilio and Freedman’s Intimate Matters. These chapters cover pre-20th century sexuality in the United States. A friend who had taught this material before warned me that students read this as a bunch of interesting anecdotes, but had a hard time making sense of the broader arguments running through it.
I started discussion sections with the kind of questions I would typically use: “what was most interesting or compelling?” “What kinds of evidence do D’Emilio and Freedman use?” “Why did they use that evidence?” There are lots of interesting examples in these chapters, so students were eager to jump in with these questions. These questions warmed us up, so we were thinking about what it meant to do history.
Then I asked students to break up into four groups and take out their laptops (I had emailed them the day before to ask them to bring laptops and books to discussion section). I explained that each group was going to focus on only one or two chapters. I would email them a link to a google doc I had already prepared. The google doc had pages for each of the four groups. Each page had headings for “Main Argument”, “Periodization”, “Sources and Use of Evidence”, “Definitions of Sex and Sexuality”, and “Other Interesting or Surprising Notes”. The goal of the activity was (1) to work through the process of making sense of a text like this, and (2) to produce a shared resource that everyone could refer back to later.
I gave them about 15 minutes to do this. As they worked, I floated around the room to answer questions and listen in. But I could also go back to my own laptop and look at the developing google doc. This proved remarkably helpful. I could see when groups were struggling with a section and go ask questions or give suggestions to help them. In particular, a lot of groups struggled with identifying the main arguments. I asked questions about how different chapters were grouping evidence together to show patterns in how the meaning of sexuality was changing. Groups also struggled with the periodization heading. I could see on the google doc that most correctly identified what years their chapters covered. But we wanted to also think about why the authors grouped those years together. What made one group of years into a period, as distinct from the next, and how did this matter to how we understood the overall story of changes in meanings of sexuality?
It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized students could also learn from each other doing this activity. Everyone had access to the same google doc. Just like I could look at what they were writing from my laptop, they could look at what each other were writing. If a group was struggling with how to identify the main argument of their chapter or how to talk about the evidence in it, they could look at what other groups had written. This could give them insight into how to answer the questions for their own chapters.
When we regrouped as a class, I told everyone that we weren’t going to cover everything they talked about in their groups. They could refer back to the google doc for that. Instead, we were going to use the exercise to help us get to questions about how the D’Emilio and Freedman text fit into our class. We started with the question of what their main argument was. Not just individual chapters, but the book as a whole. Students talked about how they were trying to show changes in sexuality, sex, and gender over time. They were hesitant to say this was D’Emilio and Freedman’s main argument, but as we talked about it more, they grew more confident that this was actually an important argument to make.
Then we moved on to questions about what D’Emilio and Freedman were doing that was different from other authors we read. How were they asking new questions? How were they giving us new angles to think about sexuality? How did the authors try to show variation? What purpose did it serve? Students were really engaged in this discussion. The google doc activity gave them concrete data at their fingertips they could draw on.
This is something I will continue to experiment with as one of my teaching tools. Besides generating productive discussion, students seemed to really enjoy this activity. Several commented about it. It gave them ownership over the learning process. Everyone was engaged in this discussion in a way that they are not always.