Lauren Miller Griffith
February 19, 2016
Despite the fact that I lead discussions every single day in my classroom for some reason I still struggle with leading discussions of monographs. Yes, I have my standard ‘go to’ strategies (think-pair-share, Socratic style question and answer, etc.), but inevitably the same students speak up and I either have to call on the more reticent students by name or allow them to remain mute. So every now and then I like to bring in a more unusual discussion technique. For example, I might have them do a rudimentary form of content analysis using post it notes and large flip-charts. Or, I might have them form a human graph, using their bodies to indicate the strength of their agreement or disagreement with a statement related to the reading. While these techniques are effective, and are a wonderful way of getting quieter students involved, they could quickly become tiresome if done too often. At a small liberal arts college like mine it is even more important to have a big bag of ‘tricks’ because I often have the same students in two or even all three of the courses I teach in a given semester. Therefore, I am always on the lookout for new discussion activities that will keep students engaged, encourage full participation, and avoid the dreaded crickets. In my past life as a faculty development specialist, I often gave workshops on discussion techniques, but as a professor, I shied away from some of the very techniques I taught to others because I was afraid they would be hokey or just fall flat. This is honestly how I felt about the ‘mocktail party’ when I first read about it in Brookfield & Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching. But this semester I was ready for something new. Since more than half of the students in my class said on day one that they had enrolled in my Latin America course because they had taken intro with me and thought it was ‘fun,’ I figured they would at least tolerate my pedagogical experimentation. So with a little trepidation, I hosted my very first ‘mocktail party’ this month.
The basic idea is to encourage free flowing discussion that simulates the kinds of impromptu conversations one might have at a cocktail party. Of course, this is more than a little contrived. Even in graduate school, I had never been to a cocktail party at which everyone discussed the same book. And as far as deep intellectual conversations are concerned these are generally facilitated by the presence of alcohol, which was obviously not an option for my 200-level course. So I knew I had some work to do if I wanted to simulate this kind of environment. Building off of the recent popularity of card decks that can be set out at a dinner party to spark conversation, I create a set of cards that ask questions related to the book, I, Rigoberta Menchu. For example:
- In the introduction, Burgos-Debray says “Rigoberta learned the language of her oppressors in order to use it against them.” Find at least one person in this room who has learned another language and talk to them about how prepared they would be to challenge oppression in that foreign tongue. Discuss the quote with this person and ask them how that shapes their opinion of Menchu.
- Find someone who identifies politically as liberal – ask that person how he/she feels about the allegation that the guerilla forces sometimes antagonized the national army and encouraged them to carry out massacres in indigenous villages as a way of gathering support for their cause. Does that change his/her perception of Rigoberta Menchu and her family or does your classmate think that the ends justify the means?
- Rigoberta Menchu broke off her engagement because her betrothed wasn’t committed to the peasant struggle. Find someone in this room that is either engaged or in a long-term, committed relationship. Ask that person what he or she thought of her decision. Ask that person if he or she would be prepared to do the same. Why or why not?
For this particular class session, I reserved a lounge in our student union where we could move about unimpeded by desks. This space also has several couches and moveable chairs where clusters of students could sit if they so desired. Each student received a card at the beginning of the class session. I provided light snacks to add to the festive environment. Then I set them loose to talk to one another for approximately 30 minutes. I too circulated around the room, allowing myself to be pulled into various conversations. Within the first 10 minutes or so, students settled into somewhat stable groups and their conversations really took off. Things got loud! As the volume grew, I worried that students were off task and talking about things unrelated to the book, but as I listened more closely, I found that the students were absolutely on track. Though not necessarily talking about the Maya peasant struggle of Guatemalan politics, they were talking about subjects like terrorism, torture, and ‘stand your ground’ laws, which are incredibly relevant to the content of the book and to our contemporary lives. By giving them the freedom to direct their own conversations without hovering over them as might be the case in a more traditional classroom discussion, they were able to find real meaning in Menchu’s story. Implementing this more structured form of the mocktail party does take some advanced planning, and it isn’t something I would want to do more than once a semester, but it did help us explore themes from the book in a novel way that was exciting, thought provoking, and as one student remarked afterwards, it felt like what a college anthropology course was supposed to be like.
Lauren Miller Griffith, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of anthropology at Hanover College. Her research focuses on the intersections of performance, tourism, and education in Brazil, Belize, and the U.S. Specifically, she focuses on the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira and how non-Brazilian practitioners use travel to the source of capoeira’s birth to increase their legitimacy within this genre. Lauren’s current interests include the link between tourism and conservation education in Belize. She is particularly interested in how landscapes become encoded with memories and how this specificity of place can foster intercultural competence in “sun, sand, and sea” tourists.