Establishing a rigorous and invigorating classroom

February 24, 2020

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Robert Reid-PharrRobert Reid-Pharr, Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and of African American Studies strives to create a “rigorous but not frightening” classroom experience for the course Gender, Sexuality, and the Archive, in which students take turns leading class discussion—presenting thoughts on, challenges to, and questions about course readings derived from essays they have written. With facilitation from Reid-Pharr, their peers then ask difficult questions of the discussion leader that begin to generate meaningful conversation.

The benefits: Students leave feeling more confident in their understanding of the material and have a greater investment in the course. The structure allows students to practice wrestling with difficult material, and because expectations are the same of every student, they empathize with one another and understand that pushing the conversation enhances everyone’s learning. “There is no hiding. Rather than trying to avoid being put on the spot, students realize, ‘I have a vocabulary and skillset worth sharing.’”

The challenges: In his role as facilitator, Reid-Pharr has to balance when to push students’ questioning of the discussion leaders, and when to calm things down. The goal is for students’ questions for their peers to be challenging without being too harsh. Reid-Pharr explains that he is “trying very hard for them to view themselves as a team.” Moving forward, this class may be offered as a much larger Gen Ed course, so Reid-Pharr is working on scaling this level of engagement and feedback amongst students.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Discussion leaders read their essays aloud, verbatim. This conveys to students the difference between writing in a journal and preparing a text that will be read to a listening audience. Reading verbatim both enhances students’ presentation skills and calms the nerves of those developing their oration.
  • Curate a repository. While students bring photocopies to class for everyone to read along, Reid-Pharr also requires students to post their essays to Canvas prior to class. This enables them to prepare for the discussion and serves as an archive. Often times, students recall previous discussions in their own presentations as a way to build on the conversation.
  • Make yourself available as a resource. In the real world, when academics produce a piece of writing, they seek the wisdom and help of peers and colleagues. Providing students with opportunities for help throughout the writing process can give students the tools that they need to succeed in a more realistic context.

Bottom line: In providing opportunities to lead a discussion, respond to difficult questions, and ask questions of their peers, Reid-Pharr explains that he wants students to come out of the seminar with a specific set of skills including improved writing, the confidence to deliver a formal presentation of ideas, as well as the art and practice of public speaking.