Sorry I’m once again so late posting my blog. We’re only just finishing the term – final grades are due today. I’m happy (and a little surprised, frankly) to report that I am an IF convert! My loftiest goals were not met – students didn’t all decide to become allies on issues of oppression and take over the campus. However, a bunch of quiet, introverted students spent seven rather intense IF sessions discussing thorny, controversial, hard to discuss issues surrounding racism, sexism, and homophobia. They didn’t come out with any “product” (other than writing a take-home final on the various issues), but they engaged the material in ways I have not often seen. They managed to unpack sticky issues surrounding oppression and privilege without simply reinforcing stereotypes or deepening levels of discomfort, all while agreeing to disagree on issues that tapped into deep-seated belief structures. I think each student was truly challenged (mostly in a good way) on at least one issue, and I learned that the world doesn’t collapse when I’m not in charge. So, success!
In terms of developing student skills, I tried to focus on the following:
Speaking and contributing to the discussion: given the number of introverts in my class, much of my early work was simply encouraging the quietest students to participate more. I urged them to bring five discussion points or questions from the reading for each session. Once they actually started coming in with specific points they had identified, they became more confident about entering the conversation, though a couple were almost always silent unless prompted. Another piece I found useful was to tell facilitators in their preparation that one of their roles was to draw out the quieter students. In my feedback to more talkative students (I provided feedback to each student after every session), I also invited them to try to draw out the quieter students, which seemed to help.
Listening: I had three or four students who were more willing to talk then others, and a couple who had a tendency to occasionally dominate the conversation. They recognized this in their own reflections, and in our blackboard comments to one another, they commented on the need to listen more and leave more time and space for others to contribute. When I urged these students to use their comfort level in speaking to try to draw out others, it seemed to help a bit.
Note-taking: This turned out to be a skill students needed help developing (don’t know why this surprised me). I didn’t work with this enough, but next time, I think I’ll use part of a class to analyze the first set of notes that are distributed, and we’ll talk about how they are useful and how they might be improved. In final reflections, several students said they were not sure how to take good news, especially for others’ use.
Facilitating/leading a discussion: Each student only got to facilitate once, so I was not able to track progress over time for individual students. I also tried to set up the schedule so that students I deemed most capable and confident would go earlier to set good models (I had distributed a brief survey asking students to rate their strengths and weaknesses on the above skills). Like others, I found that the shyest students often made the best facilitators. I think this was in part because they took the preparation more seriously, in part because they were better at directing the conversation than participating in it, and in part because the other students were the talkers. The two most talkative, highest-achieving students were frustrated through the first half of the sessions, often because they found themselves dominating the conversations but not listening well enough to engage honest dialogue. As facilitators they had the tendency to take over the conversations, rather than simply guiding them. They came to recognize these traits, and in their final reflections, both students commented that they had learned the value of listening, though they recognized they weren’t very good at it. I found it was key to have facilitators share their questions ahead of time so that I could give them feedback. The students who took this seriously led the best facilitations. Those who either didn’t send me their questions or sent them too late for feedback struggled the most.
I was initially disappointed not to have the class working toward some major project, but in the end, I was satisfied with using the IF process to generate good, structured discussion of texts that deal with controversial, often hard to discuss topics. I had too many other mandates for the course and overloaded the course with too much content to do justice to the full IF process. I’m planning to use IF for an upper-level class in the Fall, and I’m looking forward to incorporating all the steps with some type of final project (still to be determined) at the end. I expect this will create more group dissention (I had none this term), but will also push the learning. We’ll see. For now, I’m happy to report that for this starting skeptic who had way too much packed into a first-year research class, the IF process was a wonderful way to discuss tough ideas and provide an early taste of the facilitation process. I’m a convert!