Friday, 24 January 2014

Pharrell-timed discussion

I think there is this idea that a seminar is a place for lively discussion and informed debate. In practice, it's not like that. More often, in my experience, it's the seminar leader who does most of the work, and the similarity of the endeavour to drawing blood from a stone varied depending on a multitude of factors: group size, group ability, group demographics, work set, how much other work has been set that week, what time the seminar is, how hot the room is...

Today I had the first proper seminar for my spring morphology module. It started off badly, with only 50% attendance. After getting just 75% to the lecture, this is slightly worrying, so I hope it picks up. Anyway, the group itself is a good one - both seminar groups are filled with bright, keen students. Today I wanted them to discuss a chapter I'd asked them to read. It's an interesting and important discussion of the kind of data we use by the ever insightful Maggie Tallerman, who taught me everything I know about morphology.

I wanted this discussion to be interesting for the students, more so than just doing exercises. I put some discussion questions up on the projector to get them going. I even started them out with an easy exercise to get them in the right frame of mind. Then I split them into groups of 5, not so big that they would fight to be heard, but big enough to generate discussion. Trouble is, with only ten students, that's only two groups, and the room was suddenly silent. Each group could hear the other, and it was too intimidating, and no one said anything.

First, I tried to stimulate conversation by joining each group. That was successful for about three seconds. Then, fantastically, I realised the problem was feeling self-conscious, and put some music on. I had to ask the students the best way to do this, of course, but having been told to YouTube something, I just picked the first song on the 'music' channel, which was Pharrell Williams' 'Happy'. Straight away, discussion was easier because they weren't aware of the other group and me being able to hear everything they said. OK, they were still shy and quiet, but it really did make a difference. They talked till the end of the song (well, with some lulls) and then we discussed the questions in the full group.

In future, all seminar discussions will be accompanied by songs.

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