I tend to converse at two opposite extremes: either I dominate the conversation (i.e. I am lecturing to my students) or I remain silent as I thoughtfully take in the ideas of others…or just plain tune out. Recently I was reminded of an etiquette game for children on the art of conversation. While sitting in a circle, children take turns sharing ideas and listening by tossing around the conversation ball. The lessons in this activity are that no one dominates the conversation, that everyone participates, and that it is as important to listen as it is to speak. The playful ball tossing is also a reminder to keep the conversation moving. From time to time I should brush up on this activity in both my professional and personal life.
College students could also stand to practice conversational etiquette. Usually the professor or a handful of students dominate conversation in the classroom. And while this structure may present some presentational benefits to learning, we should be doing more to prepare students for a highly transferable skill: the ability to engage in conversation on an unfamiliar topic with people other than their familiar network of friends and family. We have unrealistic expectations if we expect discussion-based learning to occur where the fundamentals of conversation are absent.
I truly believe in the Music Appreciation Class and my ultimate goal is that students will learn to enjoy having rich conversations about music from active listening habits. In a summer version of this class–Jazz and the American Spirit–I capitalized on my low enrollment in order to give the old conversation ball a try. While listening to Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas,” the students and I actively conversed, discussing everything from tempo and instruments present to the distinct timbre of Rollins’s tenor sax and his motivic exploration during solos. Some students even chimed in with acute observations of the drum beat and comparisons to the styles of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon. In small groups, this exercise pushes students to draw on background knowledge (whether limited or extensive) and remain in the conversation. In a sense, students have to improvise on the spot and remain in step with the other members of the group much like the jazz musicians they are describing. Note to self: with my larger classes this fall, I will need to break the class into several small groups.