Andy’s Advice re: Class Discussions

Dear Andy,

Sometimes in class I feel like I have opinions and ideas I want to share but I feel an intense pressure to say what’s either right or politically correct and I often feel like our conversations are great it’s just hard for me to participate all the time because its a pretty big group but even so I want what I say to be well thought out and articulate and I wanted you to know that I am thinking about our conversations beyond the classroom and would like to contribute to the dialogue – what would you recommend??

Sent from [student]

~ ~ ~ ~

Dear [student]

Thank you for writing. Please feel free to write with thoughts or questions whenever you like.

With regard to speaking in class, I understand the pressure you feel about possibly saying the “wrong thing.” The first year I taught with Bob, I felt the same hesitation because I didn’t want to ever contradict him. The thing I’m understanding from him is he considers the class and his approach to it a form of “high-risk teaching.” He even spoke a little bit about that today in talking about having a “normal” conversation / discussion that you could have in another class vs. the kind of intense, personal “high-risk” discussion that’s possible in Community Building.

While it’s hard to believe there is no right answer (or at least a right answer Bob believes is correct), it’s actually true. He’s more interested in seeing sparks fly and students becoming personally invested in the conversation than considerations of politeness or having a calm, rational form of mature inquiry. Bob really likes it when there are some students with very definite opinions. Sometimes discussions can become rather heated and intense. These can be particularly challenging but also fruitful.

Bob wants to see the discussions go in unexpected directions no one could predict in advance. More than anything else, he wants students to learn and to think independently. This is not the kind of course where there is a curriculum with a series of knowable sets of facts and principles determined in advance. Instead it’s more about the process of discovery, considering alternatives, taking things to heart and trying on ideas for size. Ideally you should leave the course questioning a lot of the things you felt certain about when you began.

Modes of education

First day of class.

You should feel free to say whatever you wish in class discussions. In Bob’s ideal world, he and I could step out of the room altogether and you would all speak and talk and argue with one another alternately teaching and learning from one another. It’s not intended to be a calm, reasoned process. Forget about applying rationality to solving a problem (as you’ve likely been taught over the years). Instead the discussions are intended to kick you somewhere down in your gut and make you think about and face things you’ve never really considered before (or perhaps never wanted to consider). Uncomfortable things. New things. Things that might take days or even months to fully digest. Ultimately, the course should be transformative, not just academically, but personally as well. Bob understands we use our brains to think, talk and converse. We’ve generally been taught we should not allow emotions to influence our thinking, particularly at the collegiate level. He wants to reach down farther than that and touch your inner spirit, your soul, the part of you the rest of the university really couldn’t give a crap about.

It isn’t coincidental Bob was a religious studies, literature and fine arts major in college. He has always been about transcendent experiences that are ultimately beyond rational explanation. Those are the currency of artistic and religious experiences.

Please feel free to speak whatever’s on your mind regardless of whether it seems PC or not. Bob considers political correctness to be a barrier to learning. He doesn’t want us to use “nice euphemisms” and the kind of pleasant language we’d use during mid-afternoon tea with our aunt from out of town when addressing “delicate” issues. He wants us to speak from the heart and the gut directly as you would to anyone you met in the “real world of the street.” The room where we meet is intentionally set up to be unlike a typical classroom. If we could conduct the entire class sitting outdoors under an elm tree, walking around the city, hanging around cafes, moving from place to place as the mood strikes, that would be ideal.

students meet in the shade of a tree

Class meets outside Soulard Market during first walking tour.

So speak whatever you’re thinking. Try on ideas to see if they fit (or not). There are no points deducted for changing your mind, arguing opposites sides of an issue or just saying something that’s flat out “wrong” or “inappropriate.” Remember Bob’s sometimes interested in asking “unfair questions” and you should do the same.

I hope what I’m writing’s helpful. Feel free to call or write again. We can also meet and talk. Whatever you think will help you most. I’m very much open to listening and willing to give you my honest opinion.

Feel free to create confusion, come off as rude, contradict others, contradict Bob, contradict yourself. It’s only by trying things and then realizing what works and what doesn’t that true growth will occur. Butt into the conversation, particularly if you feel something strongly and if others seem to be dominating the conversation. It’s important that everyone participate in each discussion and that no one just hangs back to passively listen. If you do that, you might as well be watching the televised version of the class when things go all MOOC.



Graciously sent from Andrew Raimist’s iPad.


This post was adapted from a similar post for the 2013 Community Building course.

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