The Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Faculty Collaborative consists of 15 faculty from Davidson College and five other Associated Colleges of the South institutions who are committed to learning and implementing new ways to improve and deepen the quality of their class discussions. Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, these faculty, who come from a wide array of disciplines, studied and discussed different deliberative pedagogy methods, shared their ideas and questions with one another, and worked to embed deliberation in their classrooms. In this special blog series, members of the Collaborative describe and reflect on their experiences developing and teaching their deliberation-involved courses.
This year, I participated in the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative’s (DCI) DeeP Collaborative. The course that I chose as my deliberations course was REL288: The Religious Question in Modern China. I chose this course because it is usually smaller than my introductory-level survey course and it requires more in-depth engagement with the material. Moreover, this course usually attracts a mix of participants with varying backgrounds in East Asian Studies. I thought the deliberations might be a good way to get more in-depth dialogue among participants.
One of the best things about participating in the DeeP Collaborative was the chance to engage with a group of experienced and creative pedagogues at Davidson and other ACS institutions. During the first semester, in both our large group sessions and smaller group meetings, I was able to gradually build the deliberative components of the course. One of the greatest things about this group was that everyone was willing to share their knowledge and experiences with others. The DCI also had some wonderful resources such as a facilitator’s handbook and several sample deliberation guides for learning how to set up deliberations.
Based on consultations with my DeeP Collaborative group members, I ended up deciding to hold a deliberation for each major unit in the course: Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Islam/Tibetan Buddhism/Christianity. At the end of each unit, participants were tasked with designing and executing a deliberation. They would work with the same group the entire semester and were responsible for distributing the workload in an even manner. They would rotate through the roles of designer, facilitator, and deliberator throughout the semester. They needed to come up with a deliberation guide for each deliberation session. I would circulate amongst the discussion groups throughout the class session, listening to their deliberations in a non-invasive manner.
The question of how to evaluate the deliberations was something that I struggled with as I designed the course. I wanted to strike the right balance between keeping the students accountable and not creating so much pressure that it would inhibit quality discussion. In the end, I chose to use the rubric that Dr. Graham Bullock and Dr. Daniel Layman shared from their second-year politics course. However, instead of a faculty member grading them, I had the students do self-evaluations throughout the semester. In order to encourage intellectual risk taking I told them to reflect on what they thought they could improve on, what they learned, and their personal growth throughout the semester. I did not ask them to evaluate each other because I wanted to promote co-operation, not competition. I also thought it would be too much to focus on both the deliberation and evaluating others.
When I surveyed participants at the end of the semester, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. They described:
- gaining a deeper and broader level of understanding of the course material in comparison to essay writing
- having practiced active and engaged listening skills
- learning to have empathy for others and different perspectives
- having the space and time to explore others’ ideas further in comparison to traditional class discussion
- learning how to facilitate a discussion, including time management skills and how to step back and draw out others’ ideas
- finding it valuable to hear others’ perspectives because it stimulated their own learning
In terms of motivations for speaking during the deliberations, they described:
- speaking because they had something to say, rather than to accumulate participation points
- feeling motivated to listen to, understand, and build on each others’ comments rather than responding only to the instructor
Finally, in their written reflection journals, participants described being anxious and skeptical about the deliberation exercise at the beginning of the semester. Because I had made the groups where I purposely grouped students together who did not know each other, they also described the initial deliberations to be a bit awkward. They described the quality of deliberations improving as they got to know each other better and became more familiar with the format.
Students’ descriptions of the deliberations largely corroborated with my in-class observations. Their written reflection journals also provided me insights that I could not gain from simply observing them. In my observations, students were well prepared for discussion, having clearly reviewed the readings and class notes. It was much easier to determine whether or not they had done the reading assignments than in traditional discussion formats. It was also really interesting to listen to the students and hear all the excellent insights they had on the material. The deliberations were learner-driven rather than instructor-driven. Finally, I was really impressed by how students all adopted a respectful attitude towards Chinese culture and religions despite the majority of them not having grown up in it. There was a wonderful exchange between students with familiarity with Chinese culture and those without.
In the end, I think the greatest thing gained from having the students do these deliberations is that it provided an all-around better learning experience that was managed by the students rather than imposed by the instructor. Students took ownership over their intellectual journeys and simultaneously developed strong listening, analytic, and communication skills through the deliberations. In my opinion, two participants summed it up best:
- “[The deliberations] allowed me to focus my learning more on curiosity than on grades and…completely changed the course for the better.”
- “While writing and learning to write are very important, I think that writing a paper on a subject fails to capture a lot of the “color” of a debate. Without other people to challenge you on your ideas you can become very static. Additionally, it is very easy to accidentally get a straw-man idea of someone else’s opinion simply because they aren’t there to better flesh it out.”
These two comments center student learning, enjoyment in intellectual inquiry, and the space to really listen to, think through, understand and respond to arguments. The fact that the exercise was “ungraded” also made it “low stress” and “effective” as a learning tool, to use the phrasing of several respondents.
Implementing the deliberations into REL288 with the support of the DeeP Collaborative was a pedagogically transformative experience this year. Next semester, I’d like to try it with larger classes to see if this exercise can be scaled. I may also mix up the groups mid-semester as some students suggested doing so in order to give them a chance to work with different people. Finally, students had personal distance from the majority of the topics we discussed in this class in that for the majority of participants, it was about a culture that they did not grow up in. We did not discuss topics that were as high stakes as abortion, immigration, and racism, for example. However, it created the type of environment where participants trusted each other enough that one day they might be able to breach such topics with sensitivity, respect, and empathy.