About Discussions during Colloquia

About Discussions

Richard Linklater’s film, “Boyhood,” follows the life of a boy, Mason, and his families beginning when he is five years old and concluding with his first experiences in college. To maintain a sense of continuity, Linklater filmed scenes with the same cast over a period of twelve years. One scene, in particular, is germane to our course. As he nears the end of his senior year in high school, Mason and his girlfriend are talking about college, and he asks, “What is the point?” We should all ask ourselves that same question everyday as we engage in the enterprise of higher education. The same question should apply to the individual elements in each of the classes that constitute your plans of study. What, then, is the “point” of a colloquium?

Ultimately we meet and discuss a topic related to the texts we have read in common because that is how we construct knowledge. Knowledge is not merely something we assimilate and store. When we read a text we encounter different types of information, and every time we read the same text we encounter and assimilate that information differently. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh you read about the setting, the characters (both mortal and immortal), their actions and the consequences of their behaviors, and their reflections on life, and you encountered that information in a very specific format created for a particular context. If, however, you do not reflect on, use, write or talk about that information from the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is as though that information does not exist. In other words, it is through the process of retrieving and using information that we construct knowledge. Thinking about what you read is vital to that process. In other words, as you review and contemplate what you have read, you begin constructing knowledge.  Generating written notes prompts you to organize your thoughts, arrange them sequentially, and establish relationships between one idea an another. Finally, by returning to those notes, articulating them in conversation, and listening to the responses and observations of the other members of the colloquium you refine those ideas and system of connections that constitute understanding or knowledge. Furthermore, because everyone’s encounter with the material is unique, sharing your thoughts complements and supplements the experience of others and contributes to their understanding.

In short, discussing the text is not about demonstrating that you have assimilated some information from the reading, it is literally the process of constructing your knowledge and understanding of the text. Human beings have developed the ability to communicate face-to-face over the course of hundreds of thousands if not millions of years, and we are very good at it. Moreover, we encode and process much more information through face-to-face spoken discourse than we can through any other medium of communication. So, from this perspective, here is what constitutes a successful colloquium:

1. Everyone contributes. Think of a colloquium as the performance of an athletic team. Playing a good game is not a function of whether or not the team wins but whether or not the individual members of the team contribute to the effort by playing their parts and performing at or near their peak. If some do not contribute their ideas, they both miss the opportunity to construct their own knowledge of the reading and withhold ideas and perspectives that could contribute to the knowledge of others.

2. If everyone has to contribute, no one individual or group of individuals can monopolize the conversation, regardless of how valuable their views might be. In doing so, they deny others the opportunity to construct knowledge, which has negative short- and long-term consequences for the group.

3. You should address your observations to the entire group even when responding to the views of one particular member of the colloquium. You are not presenting your ideas to your professor for his or her approval or evaluation. You are talking to the group, of whom your professor is just one member. He will reserve the prerogative of playing the role of coach or referee. A successful colloquium is not simply a series of dialogues between the individual members of the group and the professor. It is a collaborative engagement with the material.

4. Each member of the group must assume the responsibility of ensuring that everyone else contributes. This means that you will have to pose questions as well as contribute your views. If some are not sharing their views, it is not the sole responsibility of the professor or the ἐπιστάτης (epistátēs) to encourage them. That responsibility rests with everyone. Ultimately, the success of a colloquium does not depend on any one individual.

To provide some perspective on what this means for you as an individual, here is a passage from Scott Samuelson’s The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everybody about “class participation.”

“What is philosophy?” Dr. Donald Livingston used to ask us graduate students. After a numbing pause, this old southern gentleman in various crinkled hues of white, a bright handkerchief spilling disconcertingly far out of his breast pocket, would then muse in his sonorous drawl, “If a biologist asks, ‘What is biology?’ he is no longer doing biology. There is no mathematical formula that answers the question, ‘What is mathematics?’ But when we philosophers wonder what we’re doing, we’re doing our job.” But let’s begin with the more burning question for most of my students: What is class participation?

Fearing the silences of the dazed classroom, I used to follow the custom of giving a certain number of “participation points,” which could be earned exclusively by asking and answering questions in class. In my first year teaching philosophy at Kirkwood, I had in class a woman about my age who spent each period scrutinizing me in silence from her cheap desk in the rear of the room. As I’d bumble through lectures and discussions, her stony gaze never left me. But no matter how hard I’d try to stare her down after my most riveting question, she never participated.

Maybe because her brow spoke unmistakably of having earned her bread by its sweat, I began to second-guess myself, imagining that she was stewing to herself, “Who does he think he is, lecturing me on life?” or, “Unbelievable they pay him to do this.” Sometimes I consoled myself that she wasn’t thinking much of anything, that she was simply punching the clock and struggling to understand enough basics to pass and move a rung up the economic ladder.

I teach a lot of students, upward of 125 a semester; so it’s hard for me at first to affix names to faces without the advantage of the notes I scribble on my attendance sheet. It wasn’t until I passed back the first assignment that it dawned on me that this was Deanne Folkmann, the author of the best paper by a long shot. Though a little rough around the edges, hers was the only essay that demonstrated a nuanced sense of the text, that quoted and reflected on passages we never talked about, that beamed with the unfakeable glow of real thinking. It was not a prelude to a career in philosophy. It was philosophy.

Other than the greatest thing of all, putting a good book in someone’s hands, I’m not sure how much I did for her as a teacher that semester. What I had first taken for punching the clock was in fact a monk-like silence. She was taking in whatever bits of knowledge I dispensed and then revisiting Plato, Epictetus, and Kant in order to illuminate her life. She believed, naively and correctly, that Plato, Epictetus, and Kant could be of service. She reminded me of the sunlit world of philosophy, the world that dawned on me when I first held all the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas in my ignorant hands.

I wish I’d kept her papers. Nowadays, as a more experienced teacher, I’d pull her aside and ask her to tell me about herself. Maybe it’s just as well our dialogue went on indirectly, though something in me longs to have heard her voice. At least I had the presence of mind to jot down in my journal what she wrote at the end of her final, the sole personal note she ever struck with me, so personal I almost can hear something of her voice’s timbre in it:

I’ve realized my quest for knowledge will take me away from my job as a factory worker. For many of my coworkers the paycheck is enough. It’s been enough for me at times. Not anymore. Knowledge can take me on a journey to places I can’t yet imagine. Strange, but philosophy has made my job more bearable, and it’s also made it somehow unbearable. Powerful words to live by: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

That’s class participation.

No, Ms. Folkmann did NOT participate in class. She undoubtedly gained from her experience in Samuelson’s class, but the other students did not. Rather than sharing and testing her insights in conversation with her fellow students, she kept to herself. In fact, her failure to engage with others, including the professor, may have detracted from the overall quality of the course for everyone. At least, Samuelson’s description of his reaction to her silence suggests that it may have a negative effect on his approach to the material and the class. Furthermore, while engaging in a private dialogue with the professor through her written work, she probably benefitted from the comments and perspectives of the other students who actually participated. In other words, she took but never gave back. Consequently, it does not matter how profound your ideas and observations might be, they are of no value to the community unless you share them.

Contributions to a discussion should conform to the conventions of academic discourse, which also apply to your written work. Here are some guidelines and how they would relate to a simulated discussion based on readings from On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, a text that frequently appears among the readings for Humanities 102:

1. Do not indulge in sweeping, unsupportable generalizations, such as:

Suzy: “I agree with Lucretius, religion is the cause of social dysfunction.” or
Jackson: “I like Epicureanism!”

In the first case, you should identify what Lucretius said specifically about religion and what constitutes, in your reading of the poem, social dysfunction? In the second, what particular aspect of Epicureanism appeals to you?

2. Support your comments and perspectives with specific references to the text. Come prepared with these references noted in your project notebook, so you can devote your attention during the colloquium to the discussion and not to tracking down passages. When others mention passages, follow along with them. [When the text is available online, the ἐρευνητής (ereunētés) should project the text.] Do you agree with how they read and interpret the text? Here are revised versions of the comments above:

Suzy: “Lucretius notes in lines 1.102-109: “And you, at any moment now, / in fear of hierophantic threats, will seek to leave me. / For think of the endless fantasies your priests / devise, that can subvert all reasoned thought / and turn your life to terror and confusion! / Of course! For if men saw that all their troubles / must one day end, somehow they’d find the strength / to stand against the hierophant and his threats. / But now they can’t stand ground nor make reply / for fear of eternal torment after death.’ For me, at least, this passage brings out something about the role of religion and the impact it can have on one’s life. He talks about how the priest’s fantasies “subvert reasoned thought.” In other words, it is not just that the stories or visions they present may or may not be fantasies, which one can choose to accept or not, but that those views and how the priests present them can actually cause one to doubt one’s own experience or understanding. Not that doubt itself is necessarily bad. We should always be a bit skeptical and think critically about what we hear, but they can cause us to loose confidence in ourselves as independent, rational individuals. That, to me, leads to social dysfunction. Consequently, when I encounter people, religious or otherwise, who are so sure and articulate about their views, I sometimes have a hard time presenting and supporting my own perspectives. So, I end up going along with what they say. Sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it isn’t. Agamemnon’s sacrificing Iphigenia, which Lucretius describes in 82-102, is just one example of how the pronouncement of a priest can lead to social dysfunction, in this case, human sacrifice.
Jackson: “Suzy draws attention to a couple of Epicurean ideas that appeal to me. One is the emphasis on the observation of natural phenomena and the goal of arriving at rational explanations for events based on their understanding of the physical world. The calm that kept the Greeks at Aulis was not the result of a god’s displeasure but a consequence of natural forces. Let me add to the Suzy’s quote from book one, a similar passage from six. In lines fifty through fifty-five Lucretius writes: “Besides, men see in heaven and here on earth / things happen, that often fill their minds with fear, / and humble their hearts with terror of the gods. / They’re crushed; they crawl on earth, because, perforce / through ignorance of causes they confer / on gods all power and kingdom over the world.” The second is the notion that the lives of superior beings, that is, the gods would logically reflect that kind of rationality and a greater knowledge of the universe. Lucretius continues in 6.58-75:

If people have learned that gods live carefree lives,
and still, for all that, wonder by what means
phenomena may occur, especially those
they see in heavenly zones above their heads,
then they will slip back into their old beliefs
and take on heartless masters, whom they deem
almighty; poor fools, they don’t know what can be
and what cannot; yes, and what law defines
the power of things, what deep-set boundary stone;
thus with reason blinded, they err and err.
Reject such thoughts! Far from your mind remove them,
unworthy of gods and alien to their peace!
Else power divine, belittled by you, will often
harm you—not that gods’ power can be so damaged
that anger would drive them panting for fierce revenge,
but that you’ll picture these placid, peaceful, harmless
creatures aboil with billows of rolling wrath,
and then won’t enter their temples with peace at heart.

In other words, we actually debase gods by attributing to them the limited intelligence and irrationality of human beings. The Epicurean gods remind me of the extra-terrestrials in Carl Sagan’s Contact. They are not like the intrusive Overlords in Clark’s Childhood’s End. Even if they were interested in helping human beings develop as a species, they would certainly use more subtle and less intrusive means.

3. You will note that Jackson’s contribution responded to and expanded on Suzy’s comment. A discussion is not a set of isolated observations. Every comment should relate to the topic at hand and acknowledge what one or more of the contributors has expressed. In games that involve teams, no one EVER scores a point without the assistance of at least one other player. [In this case, Jackson has mentioned works by Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clark. What are they? Novels? Movies? Novels that became movies? The ἐρευνητής (ereunētés) should search for more information about them and be prepared to contribute to the conversation if the discussion moves in that direction.]

Zoe: Jackson, you suggest that the Epicurean gods would not be as irrational as human beings. At the same time, I imagine that they are subject to the same natural forces that act on atoms everywhere in the universe, including the attractive forces that lead to procreation. Presumably they have learned to control the impulses that might disturb their peace, such as those Lucretius depicts in his discussion of love in book four, where he writes:

This we call “Venus,” hence we speak of “love”
and of that drop of passion, first and sweet,
that trickles into our heart and brings cold care.
For if your love is absent, still her image
is with you and her name sings in your ear.
But we must shun these images and scare off
what feeds our love, and turn our thoughts elsewhere,
and jet our humors into someone’s body,
not keep them, and, once trapped by one lone love
save up sure woe and worry for ourselves.

I have been thinking about what would constitute love among these gods and how that would affect their relationships, first with each other and then with lesser creatures, such as human beings. Let me draw everyone’s attention to one additional passage, where Lucretius describes the evolution of human communities. It is 6.1011-1027:

Then, after they got them houses, hides, and fire,
and woman yielded to man and joined in one
were known, and saw their own begotten children,
then first the human race began to soften.
For fire saw to it that shivering flesh could now
not bear the cold beneath a tented sky;
and Venus took toll of strength, and children’s smiles
easily tamed their parents’ prideful hearts.
Then neighbors began to join in friendship, vowing
to do each other no hurt nor injury.
They made great point of children and womankind,
with childlike cry and gesture signifying
that all men must show kindness to the weak.
Still, not always could they win agreement,
but much the best part honored their covenants;
else all mankind had been destroyed right then
and the race could not have continued to this day.

So, it seems to me that if gods are more evolved and rational, they would have the ability to live peacefully in a community, engender baby gods while avoiding the dangers of possessive, pathological relationships, and “show kindness to the weak,” who, I would imagine, might include human beings. Nat, I remember your comments about how friendship, as Aristotle described it, might apply to the gods. What is your vision of the Epicurean gods?

Nat: Well, I have been thinking about this. I agree with Jackson and Zoe that the gods would have to be more rational, and they would have a much greater understanding of the universe, which would enable them to meet their needs without harm to themselves and insulate themselves from whatever natural forces might disturb them. (They would surely have developed sunscreen, for example.) The would be able to lead the contemplative life as Aristotle envisioned it, and even if they had greatly expanded cognitive abilities and maybe even live within different spatial and temporal circumstances. Still, they would still have to live within the limits, which the material world imposes, at least as we know them, such as gravity. At the end of book five in lines 1448 to 1457, Lucretius describes the current state of human evolution, which the gods must have long eclipsed:

Navigation, agriculture, cities, laws,
war, travel, clothing, and all such things else,
money, and life’s delights, from top to bottom,
poetry, painting, the cunning sculptor’s art,
the searching, the trial and error of nimble minds
have taught us, inching forward, step by step.
Thus, step by step, time lays each fact before us,
and reason lifts it to the coasts of light;
for men saw one thing clarify another
till civilization reached its highest peak.

So, they are technologically advanced and perhaps as an aspect of that technological advancement is the ability to create forms of life to make their lives even easier. Now we are back to the Sumerian gods who created human beings “to till the land, tend the flocks and engage in every other activity that was conducive to the comfort, satisfaction and best advantage of their divine lords” (George, Epic of Gilgamesh, xxxix). So now, maybe we have the replicants of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the fabricants of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and the Jack Harpers and Victoria Olsens of Joseph Kosinski’s “Oblivion.” Presumably, they would take care of their helpers, but how would those helpers respond to their roles?

4. The time you will spend in conversation with each other about these readings and other aspects of this course, if you attend all of the colloquia and workshops, will amount to about forty hours. That constitutes more than a full week of work, i.e., five eight-hour days. If we were a soccer team, that time would amount to almost twenty-two ninety-minute matches (including the fifteen-minute halftimes) during the semester. As a member of a professional or athletic organization, you would develop a clear sense of your responsibilities and your unique ways of contributing to the goals of the team. You would also develop a familiarity with the habits, interests, talents, and views of the others members of the group. A sense of how each of you relates to the work of the course forms the basis of an effective discussion. In the example above, Zoe drew on her experiences with other members of the class to widen the conversation and draw Nat into the exchange of ideas. As noted above any form of professional engagement whether in the workplace or in an athletic competition fails to reach its potential unless everyone contributes. Although the ἐπιστάτης (epistátēs), like the leader or captain of a team, bears the primary responsibility for the productive use of our time in class, she or he is not solely responsible for the success of the colloquium. What this means, in practical terms, is that every member of the class needs to pay close attention to what the others have to say and respond accordingly. It also means that we all have a responsibility to ensure that everyone participates in significant and meaningful ways, that is, that we all both construct our own knowledge and help others to do the same.

Zoe: That reminds me. Does anyone remember Lucretius referring to slaves or slavery? What did the Epicureans think about slavery?

Jackson: I can’t recall any passages.

Nat: I just searched for “slave” in the text and get two hits. The first appears in 3.1035: “Scipio, thunderbolt-warrior, scourge of Carthage, / gave bones to earth just like the meanest slave.” The other is in a passage from book four, lines 1171-1176: “But grant her now the world’s most lovely face, / let every inch of her flesh breathe forth love’s power: / still there are others, still, we lived years without her; / still (and we know it) she does what the homely do: / drenches herself, like an idiot, with vile smells / (her slaves slip out and titter behind her back).”

Suzy: That seems unusual especially for a poem that claims to explain the nature of the universe, including the relationship between human beings and gods. Wouldn’t Lucretius have something to say about slavery perhaps as the result of some negative human impulse such as avarice?

Zoe: I just had a look at the selection from Livy we read. That text mentions “slave,” “slaves,” or “slavery” at least twenty times. What are some of the other Epicurean sources? Does anybody know whether they address slavery? What about the Latin in Lucretius? Maybe he uses other terms or concepts. Does anybody have the Latin text?  

5. Ultimately, critical reading is a process of questioning what you read. The text may yield some answers, but many will remain unanswered. You should record questions that arise in the course of your engagement with the text in your notebooks and raise some of them with the other members of the class. The same holds for our discussions. They should provoke questions in the minds of all the participants. Further discussion and the perspectives, knowledge, and experiences of the others in the class may answer some. Others will require further study outside of class. Some will be profitable to pursue, others may have to wait for another time and place. Our discussions offer an ideal opportunity to learn how discern between the two. In the discussion above, Zoe asked a question about the text, which led to some interesting findings and some further questions. Ultimately, the context of a discussion in class, where we construct our knowledge of what we have studied outside of class is not suited to the process of finding other Epicurean sources and researching the Epicurean view of slavery. That can begin at 11:55 am.

During the colloquium, the στατιστικολόγος (statistikológos) will score the contributions of each member of the class. He or she will look specifically at three aspects of your comments: (1) how they relate to previous comments and questions, (2) how you incorporate sources in support of your observations, and (3) whether they constitute significant contributions to the discussion. Returning to the athletic metaphor, think of your comment as a play in a football game, and you were the quarterback. Did the play you ran reflect your teams situation in the game and position on the field? Did it make use of the resources at hand? Did it involve as many of the other players as possible in ways they could best contribute to the goals of the team, that is, to score points? Did the play succeed? If so, why? If not, why not? For those who prefer a comparison to music, think of your comment as a solo passage in the performance of a string quartet, a symphony, or garage band. Did you come in at the right time and on key? Did your playing reflect adequate preparation and practice? Did it contribute to the overall performance? Was it one of the high points of the concert? If so, why? If not, why not? The στατιστικολόγος (statistikológos) will use a scoresheet, which will constitute an evaluative record of the discussion as described in “Information (Spring 2016).” Here is an example of the scoresheet.


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