Goals and Grading

Discussion is at the heart of what we do in the Humanistic Studies Program. Academic conversation relies on a combination of advanced social and intellectual skills. Set out below are some of the faculty's expectations about the sorts of skills that ought to be developed over the course of the semester and how they will be evaluated.

Minimum Expectations

ATTENDANCE: Classroom discussion depends on every student being in class every day. Your absence from class not only deprives you of the benefit of what is discussed and learned that day; it also deprives the rest of class of your insights and questions. Students are expected to attend every class session (except for serious reasons, such as illness or family emergency). There is no policy allowing a certain number of "cuts" throughout the semester. Unlike written work, classroom discussion cannot be successfully made up. Consequently, absences--including excessive excused absences (those authorized by the Office of Academic Affairs)--may lower your participation grade and will certainly result in less knowledge. Lateness to class is disruptive and may also lower your grade.

DEPORTMENT: Polite and respectful behavior is absolutely necessary for successful discussion. Students should take care of all personal matters before class begins, so that once a class session starts, they do not have to leave the room. Students need to avoid distracting behavior (having private conversations, eating snacks, doing homework for another class, etc.). Common courtesy requires that you pay attention and listen carefully to whoever is speaking.

LISTENING: Listening is just as real a skill as speaking, reading, or writing. It is vital to classroom discussion because, obviously, any two-way communication depends on receiving as well as sending. Good listening skills include the ability to: answer precisely any questions posed by other students or the instructor; refrain from repeating as your own point something already raised by another speaker; follow instructions for classroom activities (group projects, assignments, etc.). Listening is a prerequisite for effective speaking.

SPEAKING: Every student is a crucial member of the learning community that forms in each class. She therefore has a responsibility to contribute to class discussion. Her contributions must have content to them and be related to course themes, not made simply to hear herself speak. As a member of the group, she has to learn to become open-minded and tolerant of other points of view, and be ready to be persuaded by another discussant. At the same time, she defends her own point of view with reasoning and evidence, even if she is alone in her opinion. She learns to accept constructive criticism from others without taking it personally. At the same time, she is able to question and criticize someone else's ideas in a sensitive, tactful way that minimizes feelings of hurt or insult in the other person. She learns how to "agree to disagree."

Grades: Failure to meet the minimum expectations listed above (in each of the four categories) will result in a participation grade somewhere in the C, D, or F ranges, depending on the severity of shortcomings according to the judgment of the individual instructor. Success in meeting these minimum expectations will result in a grade somewhere in the B range.

More Advanced Expectations

(Listed in ascending order of difficulty and sophistication)

In addition to mastering the minimum expectations, an outstanding student contributes to class discussion at least once every class period, usually more often. Her contributions display many of the following characteristics:

  1. The student develops her ideas at some length, in detail, rather than giving abbreviated, "yes" or "no" answers. On the other hand, she does not dominate the discussion in a way that discourages others from contributing.
  2. She reveals a sound, accurate grasp of the text (not confusing characters, events, or plot details), thereby demonstrating adequate preparation for class. She can refer the class to specific examples or passages in the text to make her point.
  3. She asks thoughtful questions that push the class to clarify, deepen, or expand its knowledge of a topic.
  4. She connects the material at hand to topics in other courses, previous class discussions, current events, or personal experiences.
  5. She shows leadership by initiating new topics of conversation, building a consensus for a particular interpretation, summing up or building on points made by others. She is dependable and enthusiastic, no matter how difficult or uninteresting she finds the reading, no matter how long the assignment, no matter how late in the semester. She fills in awkward silences with a comment or answer that helps preserve the momentum of discussion. In general, students and instructor alike look to her for help and she gives it.
  6. She offers comments that are original, fresh, imaginative, or inspiring. As a rule, she moves beyond what is obvious, beyond plot summary or mere recitation of facts--though she can supply that, too, when the occasion calls for it. She analyzes the subject, critically evaluating the text rather than passively accepting it as "truth."

Grades: Listed above are the sorts of behaviors and competencies found in superior classroom discussion, which typically earn the student a grade in the high-B or A range.