The silent seminar
Katie Rhine, Geography & Atmospheric Sciences
During October 2020, students enrolled in HNRS 195, Global Medicine, have been reading the graphic novel, Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution, written by medical anthropologists Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye. I selected this book as the focus for this seminar over the summer, as Black Lives Matter protests and Covid-19's stark racial disparities captured news headlines across the country.
Lissa documents the unlikely friendship of a young Egyptian and American woman growing up in Cairo, Egypt. As revolutionary unrest unfolds, both women grapple with complex cultural differences and bioethical dilemmas over genetic testing, organ transplant, and social justice. This book appeals to a wide range of students, which is important because the 17 students enrolled in HNRS 195 come from more than a dozen different majors, spanning engineering and biochemistry to global and international studies and the arts.
Although I've taught this text many times, Covid-19 presented a unique challenge, as all of my students now join in for discussions on Zoom. In past semesters, I've used an activity called a silent seminar to get students "talking" about difficult materials. In this assignment, students divide into small groups and they are each assigned a question (and a marker color), which has typically been written on a large piece of paper or white board. They are prompted to (silently) respond to the question, write a different question, or respond to their classmate's comments. After five or so minutes they move to the next question, and can pick up on the conversations of the previous group that responded, or again ask questions and write their own thoughts. After four rounds, we see really extraordinary discussions unfolding, which delve into an impressive level of detail and rich engagement with one another. At the end of class, students study the conversations produced and present what they observed.
After a trial run, I successfully adapted this to an online exercise using Google Docs. I used breakout groups on Zoom to divide the class into small groups (as well as announce when they are supposed to rotate to the next question), then they open the four Google Docs on their browser. Each group is assigned a text color, so that they can see the different lines of discussion after each rotation.
Overall, I found that students loved this exercise, because it allowed them all to have a chance to share. It also provided a degree of anonymity that let them write, without fearing what others might think. It was a great way to introduce the text, and I am eager to try it again. The assignment structure can be found here.