John R. Shirley
31 October 2007
“Classroom Discussion: Models for Leading Seminars and Deliberations”
Walter C. Parker, in his “Classroom Discussion” article immediately introduces the importance of free dialog for political purposes. Parker says that “dialogue is the basis of thinking”. Parker equates a lack of free dialog with “dumbing down” a population by an absence of expressiveness. Mr. Parker is concerned that when teachers talk about having a class discussion, this usually involves only “recitation” that the teacher effectively dominates.
According to Parker, there as several major obstacles to using effective discussion in class. He says lack of adequate time and large classes of students are more obvious obstacles, with a lack of effective models and “masked domination” being less obvious and even more challenging problems. He then goes on to give two statements, one from an African-American teacher, and another from a Euro-American “social scientist” to illustrate his point.
The problem with the statements Parker uses to prove his point is a high degree of bias. The first statement, from the teacher, generalizes about what “white people” do, in an offensive way that would not be accepted if it came from a Euro-American speaking of “black people”. What if that “white” teacher said of “black people”:
When you’re talking to black people, they still want it to be their way. You can try to talk to them, and give them examples, but they’re so headstrong...they just don’t listen well...
This quote, altered only by changing “white” to “black”, would be considered offensive and unfair if said about another group, but is somehow considered acceptable coming from the individual who made the statement, and being directed as it currently is? The second statement says that “power relations...are unjust.”
Generalizing what any “color” people do, based solely on the shade of their skin, is prejudicial and highly offensive, and should be well beneath serious consideration in this century. There are three obvious problems about the quote from the “social scientist”: the first, and most obvious, is that the term “social scientist” is an ambiguous term, and appears chosen to avoid giving the genuine academic and professional credentials of the individual in question. Is this person a sociologist? A psychologist? Perhaps this is an anthropologist who specializes in small-group learning environments. Any of these descriptions give academic credence to statements made by this individual, and works towards making statements made by this person academic evidence. Instead, the reader is given a misleading description of Elizabeth Ellsworth, an expert on pedagogical design (with a specialization in media).
The other problems with Dr. Ellsworth’s statement are related to logic. Ellsworth says that classroom dialog rules should assume that everyone has equal right to speak. It is amazing to me, as a relative academic fledgling, that someone with so poor a grasp of logic is allowed to have her own classroom, much less be considered an expert on teaching design. If everyone has equal right to speak, the teacher has no control over the class. If everyone has equal right to speak, there is no actual point in having a teacher, because everyone’s ideas are equally valid. The years of study and work the instructor has invested are without weight, despite his or her supposed expertise. This is blatantly ludicrous.
Dr. Ellsworth’s complete final quote in this article is “...at this historical moment, power relations between raced, classed, and gendered students and teachers are unjust.” “At this historical moment” is essentially meaningless, and is a “throwaway phrase” to make this statement sound more scholarly. Dr. Ellsworth has already said that an equal voice in the classroom is impossible because of these “unjust power relations”. The problem with this intensely true-sounding sound bite from a pedagogical expert is a poor understanding of language.
“Power” means possession of controlling influence . Since Dr. Ellsworth believes that there should be no “controlling influence” in the classroom, it logically follows that there cannot be “just power relations”. Parker has wasted the reader’s time and weakened his own argument with his would-be-authoritative quotes.
Parker goes on to describe the methods of two teachers. One uses seminar, while the other uses deliberation. Both methods, as used by the teachers in the article, appear valid and potentially helpful. Either method appears to offer ways to help students gain a deeper understanding of subjects, while also helping them develop critical thinking/”habits of mind” skills. It is a shame that Parker’s introduction of prejudicial and flawed statements early in the article prove so distracting to the reader.