Dialogue in class

Towards the end of my teaching session last year I experimented with a dialogue in one of my classes. We had read Bohm earlier in the session and although most of the students expressed disagreement with him, they seemed really interested in the ideas. When it came time to discuss their relationship to their research projects (how they were feeling about their research practices and work habits, their topics, the ethics involved in doing their research) I decided to run the class like a dialogue group. I explained what we were going to do. They would each have a turn offering something about their current relationship to their projects; together we would draw out connections and extensions between everyone’s comments and write them up on the board; then the dialogue would begin.

It went well and I could feel something shift in the way the class related to each other and myself through that class. Afterwards, many of the students came up to me and told me how much they had enjoyed it. Some said that they appreciated the experience of simply being heard and getting the chance to air concerns and questions in a non-judgemental environment. One student wrote a blog about it. She thought that the dialogue worked well because the class had a certain level of intimacy, already built up through the session. This is certainly true. There was a high level of trust and affection already in the group, and I suspect that is what emboldened me to try it out. She also felt that my presence, as a moderator, was necessary, because it helped keep the ball rolling when conversation faltered.

I understand why my student felt that way. As Bohm himself acknowledges, without a facilitator, at least initially, there would be too much self-consciousness and worry about whether the dialogue was working, for it to really work. The facilitator holds that anxiety for the group. But, and this was my experience, the facilitator does not contribute as much as the group might think.

In our dialogue session I had very little to do with the direction the conversation took. At first I piped up with occasional comments to clarify what was being said or offer a question to draw out the implications of a point being made. But I didn’t say much in the almost 2 hours we were talking. At first this worried me: had the discussion covered all the topics it needed to? Were some students left behind? Should I have intervened more to ensure that the conversation was more democratic. However, on reflection I realise that these concerns were misplaced because the conversation that emerged really was that of the group (and not of my engineering). Those who wanted to, spoke. Others, who did not, seemed happy to listen.

As a result, the conversation did falter at times. For periods it had those recognisable qualities of a lively conversation – free flowing ideas moving organically around the group, enthusiasm mounting as participants jumped in and took up the ideas of others. But there were also times when the conversation ebbed and even fell into silence. Those silences had an interesting quality. Unlike my student, I didn’t find them uncomfortable. I don’t recall anyone rushing to fill them and I certainly did not. Someone, often someone who had been sitting quietly for some time, would offer something before I felt the need to get the conversation going again.

This made me appreciate an aspect of Bohm’s dialogue that I have often brushed over in my reading: dialogue is as much about listening as it is about contributing. In fact, that quiet, almost halting space that opens up between contributions is the thing that allows you to consider, not only what has been said by others, but also what you have said. It has that quality, described by Bohm, of allowing your opinions to float in front of you where you can see them (as in a mirror). In think that if the conversation is too lively you don’t get the chance to see them in that way.

This experience of dialogue has also given me a different sense of what ‘class participation’ might entail. In that dialogue session it became obvious to me that students who were sitting quietly, making few or no contributions, were actually listening attentively. They were following the conversation closely, reflecting on what was said (and perhaps what was unsaid too). I realise now that their attentive listening was an important form of participation. I helped hold the group and allowed each statement or question to fall quietly into significance, to gain importance simply from the fact that it was received, really received by someone. This has made me think differently about how we (teachers) assess ‘class participation’. Though, god knows how I’d write a rubric to explain it!

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