On the Virtues of Student Presentations

A teacher points to a chalkboard with chalk while reaching toward the viewer with other hand


Jay Voss

Image Credit: 

Alexander Raths via The Atlantic

I currently teach Banned Books and Novel Ideas here at the University of Texas, a required course that is intended for undergraduates just commencing work in the major. The reading on my syllabus tends toward Slavic texts, namely various selections from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Nabokov. Such texts are challenging for students – both in terms of my students’ ability to decode the layers of irony spouted off by such characters as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and also in terms of the way these works often spotlight regional pride and arrogance. Imperial Russia, after all, has a phenomenal number of things in common with twenty-first century Texas, but digressing on this point is fit for another venue. The best way I’ve found to make these challenges most accessible to my students is to require each student to introduce class discussion one day each semester.

Perhaps the grandest recommendation this system offers is that it automatically insures that each student has an opportunity to voice his or her own interpretive concerns. Students in my class are allotted however much time they need to introduce the text – I suggest something in the ballpark of 10-15 minutes in my syllabus, but these presentations often go much longer. I merely require that individual students “introduce” the previous night’s reading. Students are subsequently free to go about this in any way they deem fit. Their burden of having to think about introducing material – without really any directing on my part – forces students to think about the text thoroughly and in ways that are important to themselves. Each semester, several students inevitably decide to ask their peers a list of questions. Others, however, have opted to show video, present a close reading of a text, or share personal information that illuminates the text and ultimately fosters class cohesion. Students like the system because they feel they’re in control of discussion. Which, if literature is valuable because it enhances our empathy, including everyone’s perspective in discussion is most necessary.

But, you might ask, how do I ensure that my own pedagogical imperatives are brought to the fore each and every day in class? Well, I’m always subtly directing conversation towards the precise things that I want to talk about, and if there’s ever a moment that needs and clarification or interpolation, I make sure we stop and muse over that particular moment. Maybe I ask my students a question about whatever text we’re reading in order to get them thinking in the directions that I think are important. Students are much smarter than we often give them credit for. If given a complicated text, as a group they will almost always be able to identify most of the important moments that deserve closer attention and “interpretive pressure” (to use a trendy phrase). All they often need is someone who can make sure that their reasoning is logically sound. In my own teaching, it has proved immensely valuable to discover a way to provide each student with just such an opportunity in class.


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