Wednesday, February 24, 2021

How to Teach Engaging Discussion Sections as a Teaching Assistant

This is a guest post by Maria D. Duenas, PhD student at the University of California, Merced, and a long-time Teaching Assistant and Teaching Fellow in Sociology.

Graduate students are often tasked with leading discussion sections, yet graduate departments sometimes do not provide adequate training on how to teach effectively. 

During the first year in my Ph.D. program, I remember my cohort and I feeling unsure about what we needed to do in a discussion section since, for many of us, our undergraduate institutions did not offer discussion sections. Even if you have experience being a student in a discussion section, it can be difficult to know how to plan your classes. 

The goal of this guest blog post is to help ease graduate student anxieties about what to do in discussion sections by providing a structure you can use in your own classes. 

Before describing my recommended structure, I'd like to point out that the first task you should complete when designing your discussion section is to ask your instructor of record what expectations they have of you and the discussion sections. Getting clarity on those expectations up front will make things easier down the road. 

Unless I get specific guidance to do otherwise, the format of my discussion sections is class announcements, a mini-lecture reviewing the key concepts of the week, and class activities.
Image of an empty classroom
Photo by M. Monk on Unsplash

Class announcements 
A good way to start classes is with class announcements. Make sure to leave plenty of time for student questions, especially in weeks with upcoming assignment deadlines. After that, I either transition into a class activity or a mini-lecture.

A mini-lecture reviewing the key concepts of the week 
I review the key concepts of the week in a mini-lecture in PowerPoint. Your mini-lecture can be from 5 to 15 minutes and should cover the substantive arguments from the readings and lectures and how the arguments are supported. I use clear language and word choice in my mini-lectures and large font sizes in my PowerPoints to help create an inclusive class environment for students with disabilities and for students for whom English is not their first language. At the end of this part of class, I leave time for student questions. 

 Class activities 
Discussion sections offer an important learning opportunity for students to discuss course concepts with each other that they may not have in a big lecture. I use 1-2 active-learning class activities (3 at most – and only if they are shorter activities) in a 50-minute class period. 

Using backwards lesson design, I develop class activities that get students thinking critically and talking to each other in smaller groups of 2 to 3 about the main ideas or concepts of the week. As students are discussing in groups, move around the classroom, ask students questions about concepts or the discussion questions, and answer any questions they may have. Then, bring the students into a larger discussion as a class where you incorporate clear explanations of the key take-home points throughout the discussion. If students are misunderstanding a concept or idea, class activities allow you to see what to clarify and to continue reenforcing key points. 

Active-learning class activities can take many forms. One example is discussion questions with open-ended questions that engage students in critical thinking. Todd Beer at Sociology Toolbox has an excellent blog post with critical thinking discussion questions you can use in your classroom. 

Another idea is to have students watch a video that provides a real-life example of a concept and design discussion questions that ask the students to think critically about how a concept applies to the content presented in the video. You can also facilitate a guided class discussion where students inductively learn a course concept through a guided conversation. I developed a class activity that uses this technique to teach Goffman’s impression management. 

Students enjoy game-like review sessions using Taboo created through PowerPoint or Kahoot and simulations like PlaySpent that are followed up with reflection questions. 

Innovative activities that get the students doing something they do not usually do are memorable and exciting. For example, I designed an activity where students move around the classroom in groups to visit chat stations that list statements containing racist discourse and identify whether the statements are biological racism or one of the four frames of colorblind racism. ASA’s Teaching Resources and Innovation Library for Sociology (TRAILS) offers a great repository of class activities and other teaching resources that you can use in your classroom. 

Concluding thoughts 
Think of the class announcements, mini-lecture, and class activities format as adaptable to your specific course and student needs. For example, if you need to include a weekly quiz into your discussion sections, please feel comfortable adding this assessment into the general discussion section structure I present here. Christine Tulley advises us to think of class content as interchangeable segments you can use to build a class. 

Lastly, remember to be easy on yourself. You are learning how to teach, which takes time. Be understanding and patient with yourself as you develop course activities, ways to explain concepts, appropriate pacing for mini-lectures and activities, and more. 

What are some of your favorite class activities that you incorporate in your classroom?

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

How to Write a Compelling TEDx Script: Revise, Get Feedback, Repeat

I just finished writing a script for a TEDx talk and I am certain I have never before put in so many hours into such a short piece. 

I chose to write a script instead of speaking from an outline. The talk needed to be 12 minutes or less and the best way to ensure that would happen was to write a script.

As an academic, writing a TEDx script is like exercising a whole new muscle. I write all the time but had never done this particular form of writing. Learning how to do this well took a lot of time and feedback. Thus, I did something I have never done before: I got a speaking coach who read and listened to multiple drafts.

The first draft of my TEDx talk was similar to talks I have given in academic venues. The talk had place-based and historical references. It explained policies like redlining, White flight, and slum clearance. Here is my attempt at explaining why what I was saying in the talk was novel:
"If you read The Color of Law, then you know that federal policies created racial segregation. If you read The New Jim Crow, then you know that Black communities were devastated by mass incarceration. And, if you read How to Kill a City, then you know that gentrification has led to the displacement of working class and Black people from cities. Now, what you might not know is that segregration, incarceration, and gentrification are connected. My research into the neighborhood where I grew up has taught me that policies that created segregation laid the groundwork for mass incarceration, which in turn made gentrification possible."

I shared a version of the talk with this verbiage with my speaking coach. After listening, she told me she felt like she had just attended a fascinating academic lecture. But, that is not what a TEDx talk is. I needed more storytelling. I needed to cut some of the policy descriptions to make room for the stories. I needed to slow down and tell those stories. I also needed to cut the paragraph above because most people have not read those books.

I also reached out to a developmental editor I’ve worked with in the past, Audra Wolfe, as she has done some work on podcast and radio editing. She told me I needed to tell the stories in a way that evokes the senses and emotions. This was hard. For an academic, I might be a pretty good storyteller, but this was a whole new level. I wasn’t ready to invoke smells. But, I could try sounds. And, I knew I could invoke the visuals. I decided to describe the bus ride from my house in a primarily Black neighborhood to my school in a primarily White neighborhood.

I then presented the talk to a group of generous colleagues. My humanities colleagues, however, told me I needed to slow down and really tell the stories. This meant telling more of my own story as well as that of my friends. It meant providing more details and texture to the stories. This meant cutting even more of the policy discussions.

As a sociologist, I endeavor to strike a balance between storytelling and structural analyses. To tell more stories, I had to cut some of the policy discussions. This was hard as it all seemed so important!

I cut the part about how the Washington Real Estate Board’s code of ethics promoted racial segregation, about how White people were able to access federally-backed loans to open businesses in the 1940s, and about how only 2% of the loans insured by the FHA went to Black borrowers. I also had to cut the part about the wealth gap – DC’s White residents have 81 times the wealth of DC’s Black residents. I had to cut those because I didn’t have the space to explain them fully. There is no use giving a random fact if you can’t flesh it out.

I went back to my speaking coach with my revised script. She suggested I focus and really tell the stories I did tell. I cut the story of a family who left during White flight so that I could flesh out the other stories.

My speaking coach also said I needed a call to action for the conclusion. This was very hard. What should I tell listeners to do?

After a gut-wrenching discussion of the violence of disinvestment, lives lost, and people displaced and imprisoned, I couldn’t think of any policy suggestions that did the topic justice. More affordable housing? Changing lending laws? Providing jobs to formerly incarcerated people? None of these did the topic justice.

I reached out to my brothers, who share my politics and are not academics. I had come up with something about lessons learned and how White supremacy is encoded into laws. My brother Sean said: “Why just acknowledge the harms? Why not abolish the police?” My brother Ian said: “You wouldn’t end a talk enumerating the harms of chattel slavery by vaguely talking about profits over people and the deep roots of White supremacy, right?”

They were right. I had to stay true to my message and my values.

I revised the conclusion and ran it by my colleague and friend, Crystal, who suggested I end by calling back to the stories I had mentioned earlier. So, I did that.

I then gave the talk to three of my closest friends from Washington, DC who are not academics. They suggested I add in at least one uplifting story, so I did that. I ran it by my other brother, Justin, and his girlfriend, Tina. They suggested a couple of points that needed explanation.

I don’t know if you’re keeping count, but I definitely called in a lot of favors for this talk. I asked at least 27 friends and colleagues to either read the script or listen to the spoken version. I haven’t even mentioned everyone here. My colleague Anthony also read it and provided great feedback. He gave great tips on how to phrase things and where to slow down for more impact. My mother gave me feedback on an early version. She told me I needed to narrow down the points I was trying to make. My friend Christina told me I needed to make the argument clearer.

Once the script was done, it still wasn’t over. I needed to rehearse and to figure out how to perform the script. There was a part of the script that was very hard to deliver effectively because of the emotional ride in that part. I reached out to a friend and colleague, Nicole, who is a theatre professor and she stepped in and generously gave me some amazing tips on delivery.

My university agreed to professionally record the talk, so I delivered it on a stage. I got a student to help me with the graphics and the university’s media team put the video and graphics together. It thus looks a lot better than just me in front of the zoom screen.

I didn’t tabulate the hours I put into this effort. But, I know I worked on the talk at least 10 hours a week for 8 weeks, so at least 80 hours of writing and revising. I also spent at least another 40 hours practicing it. I listened to it and practiced it out loud every single day on my afternoon walks.

Was all this effort worth it for the TEDx talk? Watch it here and let me know!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

If You Want to Do a TEDx Talk, Start Preparing Now

Exciting news: My TEDx talk "How to Kill a Neighborhood and Make a Profit" will be released on January 23, 2021! 

I have long thought about doing a TED or a TEDx talk. (TEDx events are independently organized TED events.) Thus, when I heard of a local opportunity, I applied immediately. That was in February 2020. As you can imagine, that event was canceled due to the pandemic. 

Once I applied, however, I started giving some serious thought to what I would say in a TEDx talk. To apply, I had to tell the organizers what I would say, so I had already come up with a throughline: Disinvestment in Washington, DC made gentrification possible. 

The throughline is the argument on which your entire talk is based. If you imagine your talk like a tree, the throughline is the trunk and you use the branches to fill the argument out. 

Your throughline should be based on your expertise. I am writing a book on this topic, am a Washington, DC native, and am a sociologist of race. For academics, the expertise and credibility part is straightforward. However, I also wanted to choose a topic I have personal as well as academic interest in. I could have given a talk based on one of my other areas of expertise, but this topic is the nearest and dearest to me because everything I discuss in the talk happened in the neighborhood where I was raised.

Your throughline also should convey something novel or unexpected like Barry Schwartz’s TED talk, which explains that more choice makes us less happy. That’s unexpected, right! 

Tanya Golash-Boza delivering her TEDx talk

The novelty doesn’t have to be something only you know, but it should be novel to a broader audience. For my topic, academics who study gentrification know that gentrification requires disinvestment. However, most people have not thought about the fact that racist housing practices and policies like redlining and blockbusting led to disinvestment in Black communities and made gentrification possible. Another twist in my talk is that the community I discuss is a Black middle-class community, which adds another novel dimension to the conversation on gentrification. 


Once I had my throughline in place, I began to think about which stories I would tell – both from my own story of growing up in a neighborhood that has gentrified and from my research. There are so many stories to choose from, so I had to decide which stories would be the most compelling 

On November 17, 2020, the organizers from the TEDx UC Merced event reached out and told us they decided to go virtual so the event was going to take place in January 2021. And, the script was due on December 23, giving me less than five weeks to prepare. 

Luckily, I had already begun working on the talk because five weeks is a very short time to come up with a compelling script. So, the first lesson in all of this is: If you want to deliver a TED or TEDx talk, start working on it now so that you are ready when the opportunity arises. (There are plenty of opportunities to deliver a TEDx talk – this website lists several events every day!) 

Come up with a throughline and a full outline before applying. First of all, you need a good throughline to apply in the first place. And, secondly, this will give you a head start on preparing. 

When I received my invitation to give my virtual TEDx talk, I had my throughline and a very draft-y version of the talk prepared. Only a few lines from that original draft made it into the final version, although the throughline stayed the same. I worked on my talk every single weekday (and some weekends) between November 17 and the date I delivered it: January 11, 2021. 

I will write a couple more blog posts in the coming days to provide more TEDx related tips. So, please comment below if you have questions!

And, please watch and share my TEDx talk!