（劉仁洲 博士候選人 撰文） (Jen-Chou Liu, Ph.D. Candidate in English, University of Minnesota)
Using Writing to Stimulate Class Discussion
The day after the 2016 US presidential election, I walked into my Literature and Public Life classroom with a heavy, uncertain heart. I had just had a long conversation with a Korean friend about what could have happened to immigrants and international students like us. We were scheduled to discuss Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things, a novel about trauma, guilt, colonialism, and discrimination against the untouchables in India. I knew I was expected to address the election results, because I had repeatedly asked my students to use our readings about race, immigration, gender, education, and globalization to think through Hilary Clinton's and Donald Trump's campaigns. As I stood in the front of the room and saw distress on many students' faces, I decided to turn the tables and let them talk first. I invited them to share their feelings and thoughts, and I promised I would not make any response. I just listened. After all who wanted to speak had their turns, I reminded them of the importance of conversation, the model on which I designed every aspect of the course from reading, class discussion, to writing.
As a scholar of eighteenth-century British literature and history, I am fascinated by how London's coffeehouses created a public space for people to have meaningful conversations about current events, issues, and ideas, and form opinions. I model my classroom on the London coffeehouse to create an inclusive and democratic learning environment in which students could experience and join what literary critic Kenneth Burke calls "the unending conversation" about ideas, a conversation where "you listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar."Good writing is just such a conversation: one must listen closely to what others say and use it as a launching board to develop his or her own arguments.
I used to think that if I could design good questions, students would organically have good discussions. After having taught in both Taiwan and the US, I have realized that good discussion questions alone are simply not enough. Sure, I could always count on a handful of extroverted students to speak in front of the whole class, but I also want to involve the shy, introverted students whose ideas are just as valuable. To encourage everyone to join the conversation, I use frequent, low-stakes, completion-based writing assignments to help students generate ideas that can be shared with the class. Before every class meeting, my students complete annotations or worksheets to practice different cognitive skills: identifying references, making analyses, and asking research questions. Then every two to three meetings, they review their annotations and worksheets to identify one idea and expand it to a one-paragraph argument in a blog post, which is also completed before class. These low-stakes assignments allow students the space to try and fail, to write a lot and badly before they can write well. It also helps them get into the habit of making arguments on a regular basis and incorporating critical thinking into their daily workflows. Before class, I read everything the students wrote and select comments for class discussion. In class, I "invite" (as if they had a say) students to share and elaborate on their comments as a curator. Without the pressure to come up with something smart to say on the spot, they are more comfortable and willing to speak in front of their classmates.
The American essayist Joan Didion thus explains the purpose of writing: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means." As a heuristic tool, writing helps us generate and develop ideas. When purposefully implemented in the classroom, writing provides scaffolding for students to think critically and join the unending conversation.