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Using the 345 List: Discussion Questions, Fall 2005

If you've been to the course listserv page, you know what a listserv is, how to join your section's listserv, why we have a course listserv, and what to do if you run into problems using the listserv. This page takes on two important questions about the discussion questions you are required to post to your section's listserv: what for and how to. I've included "do"s and "don't"s to help you understand my expectations for your discussion questions. My goal is to make this page as useful to you as possible, so let me know if it can be improved. If anything is badly worded, unclear, or missing, please contact me with constructive criticisms. Thanks.

What For

At the most fundamental level, I prefer having you write weekly discussion questions to giving you reading quizzes or having a final exam. I can tell a lot about how carefully you've read a text from the kinds of questions you ask of it--and I'd rather watch how the kinds of questions you ask change over time than use the one-time assessment measure of a final exam. Rather than the teacher always supplying the questions and your job being to figure out the answers, having you ask interpretive/discussion questions can enable you all to influence or even set the agenda for a given class discussion. Rather than taking up valuable class time with pop quizzes or making you think this is the kind of course where it's ok not to do any work except for cramming for the exams, I want the discussion questions to help you get in the habit of being an active, critical reader. Even the activity of reading and thinking about others' questions in itself is valuable--you can get a very clear sense of what others are interested in, you can see the range of different kinds of questions that can be asked of literary/critical/theoretical texts, and it's very likely that others' questions will lead you to see the text in a new light. In fact, your getting in the habit of noticing interesting things about texts and asking incisive questions of them is the intellectual foundation of the course--these are the fundamental building blocks of literary and critical analysis, and they can best be developed by consistent, steady practice. The questions you and others ask can not only form the basis of our class discussion, but they can also spark ideas for the reflective essays and pedagogical and final projects in the course. The discussion questions provide opportunities for inquiry-based learning, class time gives you practice in generating and discussing possible answers to important questions, and reflective essays and the final project give you practice in choosing a challenging question and not only giving an answer to it, but the reasons behind it and the rationale for it, as well.

Two pragmatic reasons it's worth your while to put a significant amount of time and thought into these questions: avoiding boredom and getting better grades. If you ask questions that you're genuinely interested in and that you want others to be interested in, as well, you're increasing the chances that we'll have a vigorous class discussion. And when I calculate your final grade, I will be sure to raise the base grade of those who have made extraordinary contributions to class discussion and to the listserv. (You should be aware that since discussion questions are the only writing from you that I'll see until you do a reflective essay, they influence my general sense of how you're doing in the course and may well have some influence on how I grade your more formal writing assignments and projects.)

Of course, I use your discussion questions not only to help me develop lesson plans but also as an assessment tool. Your grade on the discussion questions will be determined by the number of on-time sets of questions you post to the course listserv. Since there are fourteen weeks when discussion questions are due in the semester, and since you are allowed seven missed weeks without penalty, 7 or more sets of questions=A; 6=B+; 5=B; 4=C+; 3=C, 2=D; 1 or 0=E. The quality of your discussion questions will be factored into your preparation/participation/team work grade.

How To

Many of you are probably familiar with writing discussion questions about literary texts--plays, poems, short stories, novels, autobiographies, and so on--but you probably have less experience generating discussions about expository, analytical, persuasive, reflective, speculative, and theoretical essays, which will be the bulk of what we're reading in this course. Although there are many similarities between analysis of logic and rhetoric and analysis of literature, poetics, and aesthetics, there are some key differences to keep in mind as you consider which of the many questions that spring to mind when doing the reading you wish to nominate for discussion time in class.

First, the good news. As opposed to narrative and poetry, which often work by indirection, connotation, circumlocution, irony, paradox, and leaving gaps for the reader to fill in, most essayists strive for some measure of clarity and persuasiveness. So understanding the writer's intentions and goals should be a relatively simple matter of identifying the main claim and the arguments and examples used to support it. To be sure, there are skills in doing this that you might be a bit rusty on (being able to distinguish, for instance, a position that a writer is arguing against or criticizing from that writer's own main argument), particularly if you've never taken a philosophy course. And certainly some of the terminology will take some getting used to (which is why I've put on reserve at Reed Library works that offer definitions and explanations of key terms and concepts and developed an extensive links page). But between the Rivkin/Ryan introductions that seek to provide overviews of a particular critical or theoretical approach, the handbooks that define key terms, and your own "close reading" of the essays, I don't expect you to encounter too much difficulty in figuring out what each individual essay is "all about." (Correct me if I'm wrong on this!)

But (assuming I'm right) this raises a problem: what, then, to focus your questions on, if not authorial intent and clarifying the meaning of a particular text? Let me offer a few suggestions.

One approach I'd recommend would be to try to identify implicit assumptions a particular essayist is relying on and raise questions about their validity. Another is to consider how persuasive you find a given writer's arguments and examples and to raise questions about that writer's use of logic or rhetoric. These approaches involve "close reading" strategies applied to individual essays.

Another set of approaches involves "comparative" strategies applied to two or more essays at a time. One approach would be to look for differences or disagreements among writers who are grouped under the same interpretive strategy but who nevertheless have different emphases or use different arguments, and thus to generate questions about those differences or disagreements. Another approach would be to compare what an essayist actually does with what Rivkin/Ryan identify as the defining elements of a particular interpretive strategy in their overview essays, and to generate questions that address similarities or differences that come out of that comparison. Another approach would be to compare an essayist from an earlier week's arguments and examples with an essayist from this week and to generate questions that ask people to take a stand on which position they find more persuasive.

A more "reader response" kind of approach would be to focus on your reactions to a given essay or debate or argument or example and ask questions aimed at finding out if people had similar or different reactions to it. Or to compare your own reading strategies with what a particular critic recommends and ask questions that stem from the relation between the two approaches.

You might also consider generating questions based on what happens when one tries to apply the critical or theoretical approach to the reading, interpretation, or criticism of a literary or cultural text.

As you can see, there are many approaches you could take to generating questions--in fact, many more than I've listed here--this discussion is meant to be suggestive rather than definitive. Here are some further informal suggestions/guidelines for generating discussion questions.



If you find it difficult to come up with questions, it's probably a sign that you're not reading the text carefully enough or giving yourself enough processing/brainstorming time. Adjust your work schedule accordingly. If you don't, you'll find it very difficult to complete the other, more formal writing assignments. Or to put the point more positively: the more work you put right now into asking questions, the better off you'll be when it comes time to write your essays and projects.

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ENGL 345: Critical Reading, Fall 2005
Created: 9/7/05 7:05 pm
Last modified: 9/7/05 7:05 pm
For earlier versions of this course, please go to the Spring 2004, Spring 2002, or Fall 2001 web sites.
Webmaster: Bruce Simon, Associate Professor of English, SUNY Fredonia