VIEWPOINT Classroom Dialogue Should Foster Capable Contributors By Adam Hoit

It is time to take stock of the state of discussions here at Georgetown. We often extol the virtues of discussion over pure lecture in campus classrooms but seldom ask what exactly accounts for these virtues. Here I intend to do just that. For a worthwhile discussion, three factors must be at work: a passionate professor, committed students and engaging material. I will discuss the former two, for we can exert immediate influence over both.

We students need a guiding force in discussion to avoid stumbling in circles of speculation. This is where the passionate professor plays his or her role. With a gentle yet learned hand, he or she can steer students toward ends of indeterminable value yet to be imagined by students. I do not underestimate the difficulty of this task though. For those who shy away from the challenge, I offer that brilliant failures are far superior to opportunities forsaken.

Professors must be passionate, not in order that they may be understood but rather that their students may be moved toward such understanding. St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “Love ranks above knowledge in moving.” A professor’s love of a subject enkindles a passion for the very material within his students. Passion is universally understandable while knowledge is relatively attractive. If a professor has all-encompassing knowledge but, lacking passion, fails to connect with all his students, he has failed his task of broadening the horizons of his intellectually impoverished pupils.

I mentioned that students must be committed to ensure a successful discussion. I should clarify – students must be committed to both the material and to themselves. The former is rather self-explanatory. When a professor asks for the class to read the material, he means it. We must read the material and commit to it in order that we can produce competent commentary. Granted, it is not an abomination to slack off or miss an occasional assignment. Nevertheless, the more successfully we can commit to the material as an object of our curiosity, the more fruitful our discussions will be.

As for the latter, oft-forgotten facet of the commitment, the commitment to us is the most commonly neglected. With surprising frequency I hear some variation of the following prefatory remarks before student commentary in discussions: “this is probably wrong,”this is a stretch,”I was going to say,”I do not know if this is what you want but . . .” I admit that I was guilty of these same meek expressions, though now cognizant of their function; I avoid them at all costs. These remarks serve to distance responsibility from the commentary following them. They are a means of protection for those who fear that their ideas might not be sufficiently worthwhile to contribute.

Rather than hide behind sheepish introductions, we should demand accountability and commit ourselves to our contributions. As Samuel Johnson observes of human wishes, the same applies to all of humanity, “They mount, they shine, evaporate and fall.” How can we shine if we are unwilling to fall?

In an academic environment where participation in discussion frequently factors into grades, it is not surprising that students utilize such remarks. If I do not have something to say, it is my responsibility not to say it rather than invent and contribute commentary that smarts of intellectual refuse. When professors force participation in discussions, they not only skirt the issue of true student commitment but also encourage students to continue with their prefatory comments that eschew responsibility.

We students must not continue down this road of resignation brimming with meaningless platitudes and timid contributions. It is no coincidence that discussion of irony is pervasive in our classrooms, for irony plays to truth without committing to it, just as do the myriad prefatory remarks. Listen in your next discussion class for the ever-present mention of the ironic and for the meek preludes that usher in questionable double-speak. Learn that these do not constitute desirable discussions. We must take responsibility for our commentary and begin by eliminating our diffidence. Above all, we must commit to ourselves as capable contributors to discussions with no need for constant qualification.

I would much rather shine and fall than never shine at all.

And this is no stretch.

Adam Hoit is a senior in the College.

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