The problem you want us to address in this blog — students have a hard time with abstract conversation — is VERY evident in my first-year seminar class. During the months of October & November I kept asking my students to brainstorm the problem “What does it mean to be American?” using as point of departure short assigned readings (from the book This I Believe). I always tried to choose three essays that had clear connections and asked them to prepare written responses before the small group discussions. The instructions for responses varied weekly (e.g. write a dialogue between …, write a letter to…, write an argumentative essay about….) Regardless of the written format, the conversations among students were “flat.” Only one group with a very mature/critical-minded freshman seemed to engage in larger conversations and not run out of “gas.” A second group that included three high-achieving students — and was “visited” regularly by the peer student mentor — was also able to carry on conversations for a while.
I expected a great IF discussion on the week of elections as I had assigned three essays alluding the importance of civic engagement and political participation, and had asked students to write a letter to a friend explaining why voting was important. The discussions, however, were as flat as ever! Three groups could not get off the ground and looked at me blankly no matter how much fuel I offered them…
When issues involving morals were debated — e.g. hate speech — the most common response was “This is wrong” or “This is right”. The picture was generally black-white (except for the group with a mature student). Relativism/ability to accept grey areas is not something these kids are used to do & the longer I teach in college, the more I realize “flexibility” or “ability to see through other eyes” is one of the most evident skills acquired through General Education courses/college education!
What tricks/techniques would I use to get students to engage in grey zone discussions? I think I would use case studies/anecdotal narratives that create awareness of the complexity of life. I would ask them to discuss events and to ask themselves how they would act in those circumstances, or to assume different roles… I would also ask them imagine the characters are not strangers, but family members or friends, and consider how their responses would change… I would also share with them how people in other cultures are in similar settings/times and ask them to consider the logic of their arguments… Finally, I would bring (engaging) guest speakers that could challenge their schemes through their personal experiences/lives…. These students seem to face so many difficulties addressing abstract notions that concrete examples/illustrations are probably essential to engage them in deeper discussions!