Origami dinosaur

"Triceratops" by EmreAyar via Flickr

And now for something completely different: the book.

I laughed to myself this week when brainstorming this post, realizing that it felt different to be talking about a technology so intimately associated with librarians to the point of stereotype. I suppose it says something about modern iSchools that we are usually arguing over proprietary file formats and digital scholarly publishing models rather than arguing about, you know, reading. It feels refreshing to be back in familiar territory, though, and with a new perspective on The Book, that monolithic concept and cultural institution.

I’m reminded, too, of my work in a preservation class this term, where we practice “media archaeology” — examining the larger historical, cultural, and technological contexts for legacy or defunct media forms, in order to better understand them. It’s great fun to look at player pianos and phantasmagoria and stereopticons, but one of my favorite discussions so far has been the one in which we attempted to see the book “from a distance,” to de-familiarize it and see it anew.

It was in this spirit that I approached the readings on book clubs and Socratic seminars, thinking again about the intertwined processes of reading, writing, and research.

The articles by Tredway and Metzger thrilled me. Here is concrete evidence of how to put into practice our earlier readings on theory — How People Learn especially calls for authentic contexts for learning, and I was inspired by the step-by-step approach to deep reading and discussion modeled in both classrooms described in these articles.

Indeed, one of my most successful experiences as a teacher of writing and rhetoric was when I stumbled upon my own rudimentary Socratic seminar technique. It was my third semester of teaching, and I had struggled with helping students see beyond the pro/con model of reasoning, in which they picked an argument, and then presented the “for” and the “against,” with little room for difficult thinking and meaning-making in the interesting in-between gray areas.

I knew I had a good shot at engaging them in a deeper discussion when I found a trio of short essays to complement a unit on research writing I’d already designed for the class. The unit included a viewing and discussion of the documentary Food, Inc. and was always a talker for my students — many of them from small towns and farms in Idaho.

The essays presented a spectrum of opinions on the ethical and moral issues at stake with food and the production of animals for their meat. Through our discussion of the film and other writing and reading activities, the students had a good grasp of the “landscape” of the topic, and I decided to take a risk on a seminar-style discussion, led by the students themselves. I had no idea if they would actually put in the work to closely read the essays, develop discussion questions, and then engage with each other in class, but I wanted to try it. I certainly didn’t do all the extensive preparation described by Metzger, though I wish I could do it all over again now!

The experiment went well, though. I asked the students to sit in a circle and to talk to and look at each other — perhaps one of the most important factors for facilitating this kind of activity, to my mind. So much of school is talking to and performing for the teacher, and I was determined to try to shift the dynamics of the class, just a little.

Their conversation was a little halting at first, but then it took off. Students debated key points, and challenged each other to explain their reasoning, something I was always doing when grading their papers, but in this context, it felt real — not tied to a rubric or grade. Afterward, several students lingered to tell me how much fun they had. We had all had a dialogue with the writers of the essays, and with each other. I only wish I had done more of these activities during my short time in the classroom.

What’s interesting is that I got similar feedback just this winter after helping to host our student-led library conference, quasi-con, put on by SI’s ALA chapter. Students said they felt they had experienced real discussions in the morning unconference sessions, rather than the usual classroom talks directed at a professor.

I’m excited to think and talk more about how libraries can facilitate these kinds of peer-to-peer discussions. I also wonder how these activities on deep reading and thinking can translate to adult learners and non-school contexts — do adults have the same motivation to be drawn into debates designed to help them see other views, or have their own long-held views challenged? This somehow feels riskier to me, though just as valuable.

Editor’s note: Two Monty Python references in one blog post! My work here is done.