Grading No-Grade Discussion Groups

Mark Edwards

Last summer some colleagues and I were talking about how to connect better with students in new, non-coercive (no grades!) ways.    I got the idea for a joint student-faculty discussion group based on a shared interest—in this case, religion and politics.  Since my friends in Theology and English were already doing this for topics like just war, Wendell Berry, and so on, I decided to give it a shot.  Turned out to be the highlight of my 2012-2013 academic year (Ed's "Jesus Jokes" lecture a very close second).

Regarding membership, I decided to limit the group to ten people and make it invitation-only.  I thought that, beyond what could fit at a standard conference table, we’d start to lose some people in discussion.  Turned out we still lost one or two people along the way, although they did tell me they benefited from just “listening in.”  By invitation-only, I only wanted faculty and students with a strong personal interest and investment in the subject; no extra credit, no merit plan steps (for faculty), only laying up treasures in liberal arts heaven.  For students, I first approached my former religion and politics class and then my current national government class.  We settled on four faculty and six students and started meeting in September.

Finding a topic for discussion, in the Fall of 2012, was easy: The elections.  Finding a method for discussion was much more consequential than I had realized.  The chief challenge, of course, was getting past the “teacher-student gap.”  How to establish the equality of all discussants?  How to encourage student ownership of our discussions?  What names to use (Mark or the default “Dr. E”)?  How to (for faculty) shut up and allow for real exchanges?  God knows how or why, but I decided that everyone should bring a typed anonymous question they wanted to take up, we’d put them all in a “bag ‘o fun,” draw one out at a time, and then spend ten minutes on it.  That way, we could get through 5-6 questions in an hour, and everyone had a shot at framing our conversation without fear of looking stupid.  The end result was just what I had hoped for: We had a wonderful time thinking alongside each other about substantive issues that we really cared about.  And, the question of whether Obama is or is not the anti-Christ didn’t come up once, so, mission accomplished!!

This semester, we decided to read a book together (copies graciously paid for by our President).  Although everyone was supposed to submit suggestions to a faculty-student “steering committee,” only one person (me) recommended a title.  We went with David Sehat’s award-winning The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2012).  Although personally a stimulating read, Sehat is even better in good company.  Lots of thought-provoking questions, praises, and critiques from students and faculty.  To be sure, it’s been more challenging to get everyone together and to get my colleagues to read all the assigned chapters (at our March meeting, it was just me and two students).  I’m hoping we can end well tomorrow at our last meeting.  I hoping as well to continue the group with new people and topics next year.  We’ve talked about hosting a campus-wide event on our subject, but who knows.  For me, it’s just been great fun.

The point of all this: Does anyone do anything similar with their students?  If so, how do you do it?  Any suggestions you might have for improving the discussion group format?     


What a great idea, Mark! It seems like you have a gift for bringing together groups of people, too.

I have not done this as a faculty member yet, but I was part of something similar as a student. It was technically an independent study group (so that the organizing professor could get credit for all the work invested), but we basically read books and discussed them, and then went on trips to meet historians and other interlocutors of the past (the theme of this group was Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement).

I think you touch on something really important about college that both students and professors miss too often--the fun of interactive learning in an intimate setting, with no tests or evaluation attached. It' so great to see that you have made this dream a reality in at least one significant way. I wish opportunities for this were more widely available given everyone's institutionally-structured-priorities for publishing.

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