Face-to-face discussion bolsters engagement, productivity in WC English courses

By Emma Reilly
Opinion Editor

At Washington College, students encounter a range of pedagogical approaches as they take classes across academic disciplines. Many WC humanities courses, and courses within the English department specifically, are structured around in-class discussion.

WC’s relatively small class sizes, especially in upper-level courses, allow a discussion-based approach to be easily implemented. Students can engage with one another in a group setting without feeling obligated to carry the conversation alone. At the same time, student voices aren’t drowned out by a crowd of contributors.

As an English major, I have encountered this sense of group solidarity in my courses. Students can engage in conversation respectfully, contribute with candor, and ask questions freely.

These aspects of a discussion-based approach strengthen the impact of college-level courses by encouraging interpersonal discourse and building on key skills. I don’t feel that I would be as prepared to discuss texts or criticisms effectively if I hadn’t encountered this approach at the College.

In addition, WC’s return to in-classroom learning provides for increased eagerness, spontaneity, and productivity in discussion-based English classes as the restrictions of learning on Zoom are left behind.

Facilitating discussion online is simply not as effective as talking to peers and professors face-to-face.

According to Professor of English and American Studies Dr. Alisha Knight, discussion encourages English students to develop a sense of open-mindedness and provides a space for them to become comfortable with asking and answering questions.

“It’s important for students to discover what they know and understand,” Dr. Knight said.

It is that process of self-discovery and independent realization that motivates and inspires me as I progress through my major.

Some students may have misconceptions about what is actually achieved in a discussion-based course. Discussion in the classroom goes beyond mere casual conversation; in fact, discourse between students can be challenging, complex, and labor-intensive.

“It’s not just, ‘Let’s just chat and have a good time.’ It’s having a conversation to serve a particular need in that particular class,” Dr. Knight said.

Discussion requires students to listen and react to peers, synthesize materials, and acknowledge various perspectives as they develop an understanding of a text or other object of study.

“We tend to think of talking as something that is easy,” Associate Professor of English and Associate Chair of the English Department Dr. Courtney Rydel said.

In reality, discussion involves “rigor and sophistication” that will challenge and engage students, according to Dr. Rydel.

The communication and critical thinking skills students develop in discussion-based classes are vital, even for those of us who aren’t English majors.

“Being able to articulate and express your ideas on the spot and in dialogue with others is a crucial skill, both as a life skill and a professional skill,” Dr. Rydel said.

The benefits of discussion-based learning are more significant than ever as WC transitions to in-person learning. Face-to-face discussion between peers and professors has taken on a new light in English courses now that the barrier of a computer screen has been removed.

According to Associate Professor of English and Director of the Gender Studies Program Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor, the productivity of classroom discussion relies heavily on body language and eye contact that can’t be processed as readily on Zoom.

In person, the interpersonal connections peers establish through discussion feel tangible. In contrast, online learning can be fatiguing and distracting in a way that hinders students’ overall engagement with and enjoyment of class discussion.

According to ABC News, “distance learning is getting disappointing marks from some educators and from the Center for Education Reform, which found that many students are not getting the feedback and engagement they need.”

I don’t find my attention wavering as easily in-person, and I’m more interested in what my peers have to say. This is a change that I think English majors — and the rest of WC’s student body — will benefit from this semester. By taking courses structured around discussion, WC students will be able to create spaces for captivating, intellectual conversation both in and out of the classroom. Now that we can be together, face-to-face, let’s take advantage of it. Let’s talk.

Photo by Samantha Jarrett

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