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Teach Methods of Disciplinary Thinking Through Speaking

We generally take speaking so much for granted that we don’t teach students how to speak, and that means we don’t teach students how to speak as a historian, as an anthropologist, or as a materials scientist. Some students, of course, will pick this up intuitively. However, many will not. Here are some ideas for ways to explicitly teach the practices of speaking in the field, which will help students to learn the practices of thinking in the field.

Ideas for Class Discussion:

Label the “moves” of disciplinary thinking and speaking as students perform them.
When students discuss material, ask questions in class, or form fledgling hypotheses and arguments, begin your response with a brief summary of their statement or question, categorize its approach, and perhaps reformulate it if necessary into the terms and approaches of the field. The point is not to launch into a lecture about how to speak in the field, but instead to regularly call students’ attention to the fact that they’re not just “talking about” the material in a general or popular way, but are learning to talk and think as an academic in the field.

Assign roles in class discussion.
For instance, one or a few students can be assigned to identify a particular form of argument or evidence use; or to summarize the discussion so far and identify points of conflict and counterargument that can be further pursued; or to ask for definitions of concepts or key terms as they arise in discussion. This can be a good way to offer quiet students a specific role, and to offer all students a higher-order awareness of what thinking processes they are learning to use when they discuss the material.

Ideas for Informal Presentations:

Set up in-class debates that deploy disciplinary methodology.
As an example, assign roles to students that position them as experts on some concept, theory, or evidence, and run the debate as a problem-solving forum. How would the expert on a concept explain this problem in conceptual terms? How would someone approach it from the perspective of a particular theory? What would an expert on the messy evidence have to say back to the theory about what hasn’t been attended to or doesn’t fit?.

Assign small groups of students to prepare summaries, critiques, or questions about the readings or material in advance, and then lead a brief, introductory discussion.

Ask students to give impromptu, 2-3 minute “elevator speeches” on the significance points of a reading, the previous class’s discussion, the results of a lab experiment, etc.
The point here is for students to learn to identify main points–significant claims, questions, conflicts, and results–in class materials, not to simply narrate or list what they remember. When students know they can be called on to do this, they will focus their attention more fully on trying to identify these in preparation.

Ideas for Formal Presentations:

Make the kind and disciplinary purpose of oral presentation clear to students.
Just as “papers” differ markedly in purpose and form from lab report to literary close reading, oral presentations also fall into many different genres. Is the presentation a preliminary design review? A poster presentation of completed research? A persuasive speech? An apprentice conference talk? Clarify the

  • purpose (to explain your research and convince your audience of your conclusions? to gain grant funding for future research? to explain a complex issue or idea to those new to this field? to brief policy makers?)
  • audience (management? other scholars in the field? one’s own lab group? the general public?), and
  • expectations (is this normally presented from notes, text, or memory? How are visuals used, if at all?), as well as how this form of presentation works in the discipline.

Provide models of professional presentations in the field.
Talks, lectures, conference presentations, design critiques, etc. in many fields are now filmed and available on YouTube. In addition, if these presentations are a consistent feature of the subject, consider videotaping students and (with permissions) making these videotapes available to students in future classes, perhaps with commentary or discussion of what’s more or less successful and why.