Though I've taught for quite some time now, I still find myself surprised by the disconnect between what I think my students are thinking about and will react energetically to, and what they actually write and say.
Take today's class. I had them read several (very) short articles on Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), a disorder where otherwise normal people want to have healthy limbs amputated. The first assigned article is from the late 70's and presented a fairly dubious but provocative argument for categorizing the disorder as psychosexual.* The last is from 2008, and the authors put forward a brain-based explanation, but their conclusion runs against some data collected in other pieces we read. So we've got self-amputation, sexual deviancy, bizarre behavior in general, conflicting explanations, etc. Just a lot of puzzling, wild stuff. Who wouldn't want to talk about it? Right?
So I expected the class to light up, but the response was, well, okay. Nearly every student did talk at some point during the 80 minutes, but I had to pull it out of many of them with questions, some of them eventually quite leading. What's going on?
One way to get a little insight into what and how students are thinking when they sit around the table so quietly is to ask them. Putting a little more McGraw advice into practice, at the very end of class I asked students to write down a lingering question or a point that seemed important but remained muddy to them. The responses ranged from specific questions about today's subject (e.g., How can apotemnophiliacs think amputation will stop them from getting negative attention?) to more general questions about the course itself ("How will studying a scientific topic from a philosopher's point of view ... explain the union of mind and body?"). Good stuff for the most part. Now I have a better idea what I should be sure to speak to, and how.
Near the bottom of the stack of these "one-minute papers," I came across one that ended with:
"This class keeps making me think. It's uncomfortable at times."
So maybe things are going better than I think.
Note to future self: The Discussion Board feature of Blackboard is a nice tool, but it works best when weekly posting is folded explicitly into students' course grade. I told them that contributing to the board falls squarely within the "Participation" category (worth 20% of the total) — and some have contributed some nice thoughts and questions. But it's not on fire, if you know what I mean. Sometimes the route to deep learning has to pass through strategic-learning territory.
Also, as I promised/threatened in the course syllabus, I put out an open invitation at the end of class for anyone to join me for lunch at Wilson College. Number of students who came to lunch with me today: 0. Ah well, maybe next week.