The participation snowball

Today in World History I had both sections divide up into groups of 3-5 to read and discuss the rest of Nzinga Mbemba’s letter to the King of Portugal. Their instruction was to extract as much information from the document as they could.

They did very well with that, but this post is to note that the small-group process invited students into the discovery and deliberation who had said nothing in the big circle on Tuesday. I made wandery circuits of the classroom, not checking up but checking in, available for questions and as a sounding board. There was some lively conversation, mostly on point, from all but two or three students in both classes. I engaged them by complimenting their process and suggesting they take notes since their findings would come in handy for later discussions and papers. This had clearly not occurred to some of them; I was only prompted to it myself by the prior evening’s class being at a loss to repeat, for research prompts, thoughts and questions they had deliberated shortly before. And ironically, it’s not like that was the first time I’d noticed this issue either.

When we got back in the big circle some of the same people were again the main agents of discussion, but there were also some notable additions to the main flow, and a few more students who chimed in with particular findings or questions from their group work. About half the students in each section spoke at least once in the main group.

I think it’s pretty clear that the smaller groups engaged and enabled students who were below the threshold of active participation in the larger group. For some of them, this then scaled back up to the larger group.


  1. This may or may not just be intellofashion wank, but what you do when you divide a class into smaller groups is to take a sizable network with weak connectivity, and break it up into smaller networks (modules) with high internal connectivity. Then the trick is to establish the connectivity between modules. I.e. the topology of the dynamics has changed. — Inevitably, you yourself remain as the dominant node in the network. Do you transform your nodal place in the network? Do you realign your own connectivities, etc.
    To a lot of folks these days network theory is the philosophers stone. As usual, it isn’t, but it’s often a useful part of the tool kit, somewhere in thinking things through.

  2. Yes. Interestingly, one of my students has gotten big into networks and has a terrific analysis of the Mafia going, based on a huge law-enforcement database. What he’s found is that the capi are almost never the critical nodes – instead it’s guys he calls ‘bridges’, essentially the fixers who facilitate the action by making connections. No surprise, of course, but he knows how to represent this graphically so it’s super interesting.

    And isn’t it usually the case that when a class goes well there are a couple of those connection-making accomplices in it – and when one doesn’t, there aren’t? So then the winning strategy is to enable those guys and then keep feeding in the resources they need, while using them as leverage to bring some more into that ethos.

  3. You got it in one — or, actually, already had it. And for decades I’ve been working on the mafia model. (A lot of people in the department talk about Dyke’s mafia, especially when it raids one of their courses.) You may remember that the way I construct those bridges often is to construct dramatis personae out of people who raise their heads above the surface early on. Given the premise that an essential part of the job is to create equals insofar as you can (deconstruct the enormous presence of your own node) this works as well as most strategies. I’m probably more likely than you to promote conflictual dimensions to the cooperation in some cases. So, for example, in PHILOSOPHICAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE ENVIRONMENT, the Phil majors are embattled, and put on the defense: they have to establish the relevance of all their fancy talk. The Environmental Studies people are likewise put on defense: the perspective they get in their major alerts them to the sins of landfills, but doesn’t prepare them for the scope of the climate change issues that are the meat of the course. In the best of times a parallel aperture opens for Soc or poli sci people, and sometimes even the few folk singers and poetry writers from lit. Soooo we smoke out the alpha rationalist, the alpha tree hugger, and, say, the alpha politico. With the proper atmosphere of respect, groups self-organize around them. Their authority is recognized. Acolites (?) are pleased to support them, and belong with them. They get the power to set agenda and command class time (and send me off to work up something that has emerged as essential to move the discussion along). At best, my node is primarily a convenient resource to be tapped. E.g. last semester the pols were powerful and made me boot up a number on game theory — one of my star turns, as it turns out. Thermodynamics and measurement was the other main number they got me to do. Etc.
    This has seemed to me to be a quicker more efficient way to get real groups formed than the bottom-up “breaking up into groups.” Of course in a course like the environment course the students are super self-selected, but a similar thing sometimes happens in the base level Rachel/Chuck arts course: the alpha cynic; the alpha romantic; the alpha traditionalist; etc. I used the football players (a quarterback, among them!) in that way last semester. It was a glimmer of success in an otherwise ghastly void.
    It goes without saying that if you’re a “coverage” freak, this isn’t going to work, but there are already some good thoughts on that in Dead Voles.

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