The Art of the Conference

Is there a secret formula for great classroom discussion?

September 1, 2015

What is the secret (or not-so-secret) formula for a great Reed conference? We asked seven professors representing all five academic divisions to share their insights on this subject—one of the most important, but also most elusive, aspects of a Reed education.


by Prof. Kathryn Oleson [psychology 1995–]

As you read through their responses, you’ll see that preparation and imagination are fundamental. Professors must select challenging course readings, devise an adaptable plan to guide classroom discussion, forge a sense of community, and prepare themselves to take risks. But it’s not enough for students just to show up—their preparation, commitment, and engagement are equally vital.  Indeed, when professors inspire students to share the responsibility for class together, we experience that Reed moment—communal ownership of learning. The hard work of education becomes the joy of discovery.

At Reed’s new Center for Teaching and Learning, we are honored to have become the repository for the college’s collective pedagogical practice and look forward to the student-, staff- and faculty-generated innovations to come. We encourage you to share your observations and hone your teaching and learning skills in affirmation of Reed’s traditions.

Prof. Oleson is the director of Reed’s Center for Teaching and Learning. She has been associate editor of the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology and coeditor of the Handbook of the Uncertain Self. Her research is focused on the ways the social self reacts in challenging academic contexts, concentrating primarily on self-doubt, achievement goals, academic procrastination, and behavioral strategies.

Learning from the Inside Out 

by Prof. Jennifer Henderlong Corpus [psychology 2000–]

Students learn best when they’re intrinsically motivated—when they’re guided by curiosity and interest, and given the opportunity to tackle challenges. Intrinsic motivation is powerful because it sustains beyond the walls of the classroom and provides a foundation for learning and life. Nobody at Reed needs to be convinced of this.

But intrinsic motivation is a fragile virtue, even for Reedies. Research shows that students can only maintain intrinsic motivation when their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met. A great conference, then, is one that supports these psychological needs. So what does that look like?  

Autonomy is supported when students see value in what they’re learning. How this is accomplished certainly varies by discipline, but in my field of developmental psychology we often consider how theory and research inform practice. For example, my students consider how socialization research guides the production of Sesame Street, how motivation research makes a case against high-stakes testing, and how developmental theories shed light on service-learning experiences. Of course, autonomy support is inherent to the conference method itself.  When students take responsibility for their own learning through active discussion and debate, they become co-creators of knowledge. This sense of ownership is critical for fostering intrinsic motivation.

Competence flourishes when learning is structured, perhaps ironically even in a student-centered conference setting.  This often means opening each conference with a few minutes of contextualizing commentary, followed by an “invisible” lesson plan of prompts and observations that guide students toward essential themes. Conference can also be structured through preparatory activities: In introductory psychology, for example, students complete written questions before conference that require them to extract design elements and interpret numerical data from each primary source reading. This type of scaffolding not only provides tools for understanding but also sends the important message that competence itself can grow.    

Relatedness is supported when students feel security and connectedness in their learning environments. In my experience, this requires ongoing dialogue about active listening, openness to differences, and the learning that comes from articulating our ideas to others. It involves referring to students by name, and encouraging them to talk to each other and build on one another’s contributions. It requires making space for all voices to enter the conversation. Research shows clearly that emotionally supportive classrooms promote well-being, intrinsic motivation, and achievement. We are drawn toward connection with others, and a great conference recognizes this aspect of our humanity.

Prof. Corpus is an expert on academic motivation and has conducted extensive research on the role of praise. She was named Oregon Professor of the Year in 2014.


Each Class is Unique 

by Prof. Kate Ming T’ien Duffly [theatre 2012–]

Each conference group has its own unique culture. What works for one group might not work for another group. Recognizing this is one key element of a great conference. One of the things that makes Reed classes so exciting to teach is that they often include a mix of students from across the college. For example, in my recent class, “Race and Identity in American Theatre,” there were many theatre majors, but also majors from anthropology, chemistry, economics, psychology, and sociology departments. Because students in any given course do often bring such a wide range of areas of interest and relative expertise as well as learning styles, I typically begin the semester by working with the students to collectively create a set of guidelines unique to that group. These guidelines become our commitment as a group to actively engage in creating a productive and rewarding class together.

When composing these guidelines, I start by asking the students to consider what makes for productive discussions. How can we encourage participation and hear everyone’s voice? What do we do if a controversy arises? What do we do if we are feeling silenced? We then generate a list as a large group. As a group we also discuss some of the delicate aspects of cultivating an inclusive and productive classroom conversation, particularly when discussing a difficult or provocative topic. We generate ideas about how to remain engaged in the conversation even when we may be feeling afraid to contribute to the discussion. And we talk about experiencing discomfort with difficult conversations—for example about race, racism, and privilege—and allowing for moments of not knowing. Through such conversations, students have invariably come up with excellent guidelines for class, such as:

At the halfway point of the semester, we check in as a group with our guidelines to see if we have been keeping our commitment to the class. Though there are often overlaps, each group’s list also varies in terms of the ideas or ethic that it emphasizes. These guidelines are thus a good opportunity to affirm that this is a unique group that has formed for one semester and must commit to each other and the class. They have proven to be an effective way of bringing the class together around an agreed-upon set of goals and guidelines and encouraging the active participation of all members of the class.

Prof. Duffly is a scholar-director and community-engaged theatre artist with a PhD in performance studies from UC-Berkeley. Her interests include acting, directing, socially engaged and community-based theatre, 20th- and 21st-century American theatre, race theory and performance, feminist performance, and food as/in performance.

Getting out of the Way 

By Prof. Walter Englert [classics 1981–]

Writing about what makes a good Reed conference isn’t easy, since there are many different models of conference teaching at Reed. I teach four kinds of courses: Greek and Latin language courses, advanced literature courses in Greek and Latin, Humanities 110, and classics courses taught in English translation. How I teach these different types of conferences varies, but no matter what the course, I have found that a great conference includes a number of essential ingredients: compelling material, a well-thought-out syllabus, students and faculty who are committed to going deeply into the material, and a willingness to learn from one another. In addition, the best conferences I have been a part of are ones in which I can gradually get out of the way, becoming less of a traditional teacher and more of a guide.

A good conference starts with an engaging topic and a syllabus made up of thought-provoking readings arranged in a sequence that enables the participants to get up to speed quickly and go deeper as the semester goes on. Everyone is responsible for reading the material carefully and contributing to class discussions. At the beginning of a semester, some people talk readily, while others are more reticent. But as the semester progresses, faculty and students find a balance in conference participation, as those who talk a lot learn to be more focused and concise, while others find their voices and contribute more to the discussion. As the group becomes more cohesive, members challenge each other to go further, helping everyone to engage with the material more productively. Ideally, there should also be opportunities for everyone to have a chance to lead the conference, taking responsibility for asking key questions and keeping the conversation going. Writing also plays an important role, whether in writing out points before conference to share with others, posting thoughts on a class Moodle, or developing ideas further in papers.

Ultimately, when a conference functions well, it is an amazing experience. It allows all participants in the class, faculty and students alike, to learn from the texts and each other. There is a sense of joy in taking the material to a deeper level of understanding, and becoming part of a group that learns together and is deeply invested in how much each one of us learns.

Prof. Englert is the Omar and Althea Hoskins Professor of Classical Studies and Humanities and teaches Humanities 110, Greek, Latin, and ancient philosophy.


Nourishing Discord

By Prof. Sarah Schaack [biology 2011–]

In my classes, our discussions center on papers from the primary scientific literature. Typically, they are very difficult—both conceptually and technically. In addition, in most cases there is a substantial foundation of previous theoretical and experimental work, much of which cannot be explained due to space constraints, upon which any given paper that we are discussing is delicately perched. Despite the difficulty presented by reading, understanding, and learning from a scientific paper at the margins of one’s knowledge, or the margins of all knowledge, this challenge is what makes such discussions joyful, productive, and rewarding. As one of my students once said, “if it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be any fun.”

As a conference leader, my main goal is to provide a forum for all voices. This begins by welcoming questions, many of which can be answered from evidence, but many of which cannot be answered, or cannot be answered yet. In one of my classes, I invite an author of the paper to class to participate in the discussion, thereby giving students the chance to pose their questions to the author, not the ether. This provides a window into the process of science, its communication, and the true complexity underlying the text.  

The “Author, Not Ether” series arms students for deeper and more generous discussions of texts, even when the author is not present, as is typically the case. In discussion, reading and exploring the text and the data often leads to a plurality of interpretations, disagreements, and more questions. These kinds of engagement, dissent, and controversy are a regular and positive feature of a good discussion. Nourishing discord, while maintaining an encouraging environment, is the most difficult part of leading a discussion that matters and is memorable.

Leading a discussion involves tending to the fine balance between discussants with different strengths. In any class, there are mavens who can find data and details quickly. There are also those who are great at not missing the forest for the trees. One goal of a good conference is to practice, develop, and reward people for their strengths as discussants—but another is to try and help them appreciate and develop in the areas they feel weak in. Although I rarely need to fuel the discussion, I occasionally act as translator, fact checker, framer of contexts, or provocateur.  

A truly great conference is one where we not only unpack the study we are reading about at the moment, but go further. When we can bring our diversity of backgrounds to a specific paper and link its questions and discoveries to the broader landscape of knowledge based on the primary literature as a whole—that is a great discussion.

Prof. Schaack is an expert on genetics, genomics, transposable elements, and mutation. 

When It Clicks

By Prof. Douglas Fix [history 1990–]

It was mid-semester and students in my large seminar on late imperial China now knew each other’s names, as well as our expectations for each class: reading, pondering, and being prepared to discuss the assignment (R. Bachelor’s “The Seldon map rediscovered” and T. Brook’s “Gazetteer cartography of Ye Chunji”).

Four students had each prepared two discussion questions (DQs), and those questions were now in everyone’s hands. But right now, several important decisions were mine to make. Should I start with Jan’s questions? She had articulated some especially complex ideas but they might not engender active discussion. Would colleagues understand why she had asked us to imagine the Ming cartographer arguing with his literati field staff over surveying techniques? Perhaps start with Silas, a first-year student who rarely spoke in class? Would he shy away from the articulate ideas I often found in his written work if I called on him first? The order of questions on the handout seemed the most logical way to go, but Phil’s was first and he’s been overly talkative these last few meetings. Maybe start with Sarah’s #2, which referred to the maps of border regions and the paintings of frontier aborigines that we analyzed on Wednesday. I know we need that review.

As it turned out, four students had written critical summaries of the reading. Combined with the thoughtful DQs, that morning’s discussion was primed for success. Yet the fundamentals for success rely on common practices and cultivated habits. Early in the semester, we had created a set of criteria for excellent DQs. Précis assignments and my systematic guidance of reading strategies had encouraged careful, critical reading of the assignments. Seminar colleagues were familiar with each other now, and they thrived on the healthy competition that had emerged from mutual stimulation and diligent preparation. I had remembered not to assign too much reading, to keep us focused on DQ-writers’ problematics, and to guide discussion, not derail it.

And I was lucky to have Ben’s coherent and subtle explanation of a key term (Ye’s relational grid) that many did not comprehend, and Jill’s concise summary of the morning’s insights when our 50-minute class was about to end. When it clicks like this, I know why I love my job.

Prof. Fix leads seminars on the history of China and Japan, and is part of the faculty that teaches Reed’s unique multidisciplinary course on Chinese humanities. 


Plan for the Unexpected

By Prof. Margot Minardi [history 2007–]

For me, teaching means having a Plan A, a Plan B, and a willingness to abandon both if something more interesting or important happens. The mystique around Reed’s conference model is that intellectual conversations unfold organically the moment everyone comes into the room. When that happens, it is indeed magical. But magic is unreliable, especially when it’s ten weeks into the semester and you haven’t seen the sun in 21 days.

I apply to conference teaching and learning what Max Weber said of social science research: “Ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion.” 

The preparation I do before class is the “brooding and searching” that will (with any luck) spark greater insight and wonder when we are all together in the classroom. What questions will cut to the core of a Supreme Court opinion or a narrative about a shoemaker’s role in the American Revolution? Is there an image from antislavery propaganda or a passage from an 18th-century novel that might offer a provocative entry point? Would a map, a timeline, or a brief discussion of the scholarly literature provide useful context? How might I encourage students to think about what’s at stake (intellectually, politically, morally) in the history of racial categorization or the framing of the Constitution? How might I arrange the students and even the furniture to promote different kinds of interactions? What would happen if students sat face-to-face in small clusters of four, rather than around a gigantic table? 

On a good day, I come into class with a sense of how I want to approach each of these aspects of the class, and I have a back-up plan if my initial inclinations don’t work (that’s the “Plan B”). Some days we end up doing none of the things that I had planned, and we still have a great conference. Preparation doesn’t mean sticking to a script.

Planning and preparing are those “ingredients” that I try to bring to the table as a teacher. But in a conference that goes well, the students have done those very same things—they’ve not only finished reading Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, but they’ve contemplated how it compares to another classic slave narrative we’ve just read by Frederick Douglass. That way, the conference benefits from all of our separate “brooding and searching,” and we move closer in the short time we are together toward fulfilling and furthering the curiosity that brought us there in the first place.

Prof. Minardi is the author of Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts. In addition to Humanities 110, she teaches classes on early American history, race, and social reform movements.

The Dangerous Journey 

By Prof. Charlene Makley [anthropology 2000–]

In my way of thinking, the ideal conference at Reed, like the intellectual journey of anthropology in general, is dangerous. But not just to those who might feel shy or marginalized in such communal encounters. For if we acknowledge that Reed conferences, regardless of subject matter, are high-stakes performances in which students and professors’ intellectual selves are on display, we have to move beyond the theatrics of what I call the “brains-on-sticks” model of conference dynamics to create a space in which all participants can be open to the unexpected. 

In my 15 years of teaching anthropology and Chinese studies at Reed, the best conferences I have had were multivoiced conversations in which we trusted each other enough to pose real risks to the presumptions, as well as to the personas we had brought to the room. This is not the danger of soul-crushing intellectual conquest, but, just as in anthropological research, the challenge of holistic intellectual experimentation, the courage to open one’s self to others and to other worlds. 

If we are to realize the promise of the liberal arts education that a Reed conference supposedly embodies, we have to ask ourselves what does it really mean to share time? The anthropologist Johannes Fabian famously differentiated the state of shared (or “coeval”) time from mere simultaneous presence on the one hand (e.g., occupying a classroom between 10 a.m. and noon), and on the other, from simple contemporaneous existence (e.g., presuming we all inhabit a particular era, like we are all students, enjoying the liminal period of a college education). Such notions of unproblematic copresence, I would say, allow us to presume an easy sameness of personhood and motives, the liberal pretensions of simple dialogue and multicultural tolerance. By contrast, shared or coeval time is a joint achievement, in which participants work hard to create the conditions for co-constructed knowledge despite (and because of) our many differences. 

In the ideal Reed conference, the subject matter is less relevant than this delicate work of creating the grounds for the unexpected, of opening the floor to all. In my wide-ranging anthropology courses, the best semesters we have had were when I did not over-structure students’ encounters with the materials, but instead when I worked in the first weeks especially to facilitate their encounters with each other, ceding some of my leadership to them so that we shared responsibility for our sustained conversations. 

When students begin to address each other by name and respond to something new offered by another, I know we have begun to share time. When a shy or minority-identified student feels supported enough to break silence and share a thought, I can tell we have successfully created the conditions for knowledge. When the fear of error or political correctness fades and students allow each other to test ideas out loud, I realize we have constructed the grounds for mutual respect and trust. It is only then, I find, that conferences become truly dynamic, even kinetic, as we break from tables and move around the room, using the board, changing up groups, altering the space. Achieving such shared intellectual time can be fun, but also frightening. If we can only encounter the unexpected by opening to the other, by allowing our interlocutors a glimpse of our selves as works in progress, than that is the true challenge, the productive danger, of an ideal Reed conference.

Prof. Makley teaches courses on sex and gender, Tibet, China, and globalization. She is an expert on the history and ethnography of the Sino-Tibetan frontier zone.

Tags: Academics, Campus Life, Professors