Kempis: Discussion sections should be better tailored to suit Northwestern students’ needs


Nicole Kempis, Assistant Opinion Editor

The awkward silence following a Teaching Assistant’s question seems like an inevitable part of discussion section. The instructor, usually a young graduate student, tries to gently prompt students to respond, their desperate questions becoming progressively simpler until someone takes pity and finally answers.

I’m fairly certain that this experience is not one that most freshmen anticipate when they enroll in their first discussion sections. Many people envision college as a locus of fiery debates, a place where students are actively involved in political and social issues and are not afraid to voice their opinions. Although the public dialogue at Northwestern does have passionate moments, I’ve noticed that the topics of general conversations tend to stay light and relatively superficial.

Conversations during discussion section are no different. Although I have had a TA that did an excellent job of getting students to engage personally with the class material, the sense in the overwhelming majority of my discussion sections has been that the students, and often the TA, would rather be anywhere else.

This is frustrating not only because the section often feels like a waste of everyone’s time, but because discussion sections have the potential to inspire the kind of dialogue that seems to be lacking elsewhere on NU’s campus. Often it seems like TAs think that more people will participate if they dumb down the discussion, but this is completely counterproductive. Simplifying the class material denies students the opportunity to engage in nuanced dialogue and it renders what could have been an interesting class that much more boring.

Discussion should be an opportunity for students to get aggressive about their positions, to make stupid claims and learn from them and to hear a diverse array of opinions from their peers. You cannot truly understand your position on a complex subject until you’ve voiced it to someone else. These discussions are integral to the college experience because discussing our views with someone else helps us to better understand how our opinions fit into the context of a larger debate. More importantly, hearing, understanding and respecting another person’s opinion often helps us to refine our own arguments in ways that we can’t by ourselves. When the time comes to voice a complex opinion in a professional situation, or even in a casual conversation, having engaged in multiple discussions before hand allows us to present a much more refined perspective.

Moreover, discussion section could be a space for students to learn to speak publicly. It’s undeniable that people we meet form an impression on us based on how we speak. Too often students get decent participation grades just by providing answers, regardless of the logic of their arguments or ability to articulate their thoughts. I don’t think that’s good enough. The current system is failing to prepare NU students for a world in which they will not be rewarded simply for speaking, but will be judged instead on what they say and how well they convey their perspectives.

I can see the challenge TAs face. If they offer students criticism then students will be less likely to respond for fear of being chastised. Yet if TAs always acknowledge every point students make as “good,” the standard of the discussion becomes obscenely low and no one gains anything.

The solution is twofold. Firstly, TAs should work to engage students in debate by introducing questions that are personally relevant to students and pertain to topics that don’t have easy answers. Secondly, once people are participating, TAs should demand more from students’ answers. Thoughtful and original answers should be an expectation, as should our ability to express ourselves clearly without saying “like” every other word. These criteria may sound harsh, but how well or poorly students articulate themselves will affect how they are perceived by future colleagues and employers.

By focusing on fostering real dialogue and introducing higher standards, discussion section could become an avenue for students to develop thoughtful views and teach them to express these opinions in a more fluid way that would benefit them in the future.

Nicole Kempis is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.