Russ Hunt

From Text to Talk: Supporting the Oral with the Written

Teaching Perspectives 13 (Fall 2010) (St.Thomas University): 2-4.

There are a number of familiar, and continuing, challenges faced by instructors who want to use oral discussion as a strategy to help students learn. Some of these most of us never think much about because they seem to be simply intrinsic components of the situation; others are familiar to all of us.

The familiar ones are, among others: the fact that oral discussions tend to be dominated by some students to the exclusion of others; that many or even most students speak only to the instructor and have little regard for the fact that what's going on is supposed to be a multilateral discussion rather than a question-answering session; that many students are reluctant to disagree with or even qualify what others say; that feelings are hurt when they do; that discussions tend inexorably to center around the instructor's interventions; that when they don't they tend to wander into the personal, the superficial, and the trivial.

We all know this, and most of us have developed more or less successful strategies for dealing with them. All have problems: calling on students directly to shift the dominance tends to intimidate the silent; interventions tend to be understood as evaluations. So, "yes, good, any other thoughts?" tends to shut discussion down because the "authority" has approved, whereas the noncommittal silence followed by "anyone else?" tends to shut discussion down because it's understood as "Wrong."

And so forth. Some the problems we don't often recognize tend to be structural: the first response to a question or proposition intended to stimulate thought and discourse tends to shape the entire discussion; those who might have thought of a different approach entirely are sucked into the wake of the discussion and often forget what their original response was; those who tend to be less aggressive in participation end up discussing someone else's idea rather than their own; if the discussion is unilaterally wrenched in another direction by the teacher's intervention it becomes her interrupted lecture rather than a true dialogue.

Even though such problems are part of the territory, I, like most of my colleagues, believe there's something irreplaceably valuable about helping students formulate and take responsibility for their ideas, place them into a polite but uncompromising academic environment, and learn from being wrong, or partial, or even from coming up with ideas that impress and engage others. My career choice, in fact, was governed -- over a half century ago -- by the conviction that academia was the only place (the only place I knew of, anyway) where such discussions regularly took place.

A couple of ideas I've been working with for some years seem to me helpful; I offer them here in the hope that others might find them so -- or might, finding they don't work for them, use thinking about them as a tool to come up with something more useful.

The first is based on a classroom strategy which was developed here at St. Thomas in the eighties, by a number of us who had been involved in the STU Writing Programme. It's called "inkshedding," and has had some influence in the profession elsewhere, as well as here at St. Thomas (I've included some references at the end if it turns out you'd like to know more about it). For the immediate purpose, it will suffice to say that it is a process which uses writing as a way to conduct a discussion. Here's how it works. Suppose you have an issue you'd like to hold a discussion on. It might be a text, an idea, a problem. You begin by simply asking people to "freewrite" about it for some specified time -- ten minutes, or 300 words, or something. You make it clear that the writing isn't to be marked or evaluated, that it's a way to do a "brain dump," as people used to say: to get ideas out and down so that they can hold still and be thought about. People can do this in class, or between classes, bringing their writing in hard copy to the next meeting.

Then you convert the freewriting into inkshedding by having these texts read by others. Depending on the size of the class there are various ways to do this; I often suggest that people simply exchange them until they've read some minimum number -- five or six. Or you can divide the class into reading groups. I encourage students to mark in the margins ideas that it would be worth discussing . I also make clear that most of what people write -- like most of what we say -- is transitory and not a very good basis for discussion, and that that's okay.

I then go to oral discussion, encouraging people to pin their comments to something they read, though if they don't it's not a serious problem, because when people have written about something they often find it a lot easier to say something coherent -- and to resist the momentum of a conversation to careening down a dead end.

This has helped me create discussions that are less superficial and more likely to proceed from some reflection. The second idea helps me to engage a wider proportion of the class in the discussion. To structure that discussion, or to get it started, I use a deck of 3X5 cards, each with a class member's name on it. I usually have them fill out the cards at the beginning of the course, and use them regularly. To start, I say that we're going to do a round (if there are more students than I'm likely to have time for in a session, I say we're going to do a round of a dozen or so people).

I shuffle the cards, and deal them out one at a time. Students whose name comes up have the floor -- just as in a usual "round," they can pass if they like with no opprobrium, or they can say what they think relevant. I often encourage them simply to read a passage from a text they have in front of them. As in a round, the speaker has the floor, and then we pass on to the next one (I often remind students that if someone says something they want to respond to, they should make a note). When the round is done, the floor is open for discussion.

Works for me.

References

Hunt, Russell A. "What is Inkshedding?"Conversations about Writing: Eavesdropping, Inkshedding, and Joining In. Ed. M. Elizabeth Sargent and Cornelia Paraskevas. Toronto: Nelson Thompson, 2005. Web: <http://www.stu.ca/~hunt/whatshed.htm

Wyche-Smith, Susan. "Inkshedding." Assessment in and of Collaborative Learning. [Developed and edited by the Washington Center's Evaluation Committee]. Olympia, Washington, n.d. <http://www.evergreen.edu/washcenter/resources/acl/c3.html>

Smith, Tania. "Inkshedding: an activity for events." EduRhetor: Rhetoric in Education & Society. Blog. 23 January 2009. Web: <http://edurhetor.wordpress.com/2009/01/23/inkshedding-for-events/

I would like to thank Thom Parkhill for a helpful reading of an earlier draft.