Discussion Leaders


In her freshman seminar, Joanna Nizynska has her students lead discussions throughout the semester. Through this process, they learn how to respond to the flow of conversation and guide discussion effectively.

They are required to do this twice, and they choose which week.  Joanna encourages them to come talk to her beforehand. The discussion format is up to the discussion leader, and Joanna will insert herself if necessary, but she allows the student to direct the flow of discussion.  Students are required to discuss whichever classic texts of cultural theory they read that week and draw on their classmates' reading responses.

When students meet with her, she often tells them to pick a passage they really like and start with a close reading of that passage with the class.  She finds that this works well because it anchors the discussion in the text.  She advises them to then extrapolate from the text and connect it to examples from everyday life.  In general, she tries to get them to understand that they are not presenting but leading.

She finds that this activity is good for shy students and that this often allows them to shine.  She also finds that the challenge for students is to guide the discussion in a way that doesn't stop others from talking but also does not let the conversation get out of control.  She admits that this structure is a double-edged sword because if she led class, more material would be covered; that being said, students tend to respond well to their peers.  As a result, Joanna will often provide a solid summary at the beginning of the next session to ensure that everything important was covered. 

Below is the description of this structure from the syllabus:

Leading discussions: Leading a discussion is a difficult but essential skill for your academic development, and it is worth starting to practice early in your academic career. Each student will be required twice in the semester to lead a discussion. You will be able to choose the texts you would like to discuss after the first week of classes. On the day you lead a discussion you are allowed not to submit your weekly response. You should plan to lead a discussion of about fifteen minutes, and you should strive to strike a balance between keeping it open and keeping it structured. In other words, you should be prepared to guide your audience to formulate certain points or at least certain questions, but at the same time, you should be careful not to constrain them too much (i.e., be prepared to go with the flow). All the while, be ready to rein the discussion in when in the heat of the conversation your audience loses the ideas from the text as their focus. You are welcome to explore your own approaches to leading a discussion (you can go from details to larger claims, or vice versa). Close-reading a passage is always a safe way to start, but you may come up with other ways (for instance, by showing a film clip that directly relates to the discussed material). You are welcome to consult with me before it is your turn to lead a discussion.