Friday, August 9, 2013

Great Books and the Discussion Method

This is a comedy blog where I post cartoons.
But sometimes my other great love wanders in here and I have a hard time pushing it out- the classics and great books. This post is about them - I am totally breaking my "not just talking about school" rule.

Background: I attended an entirely discussion based - (NONE of our classes are lectures) classics college program and graduated. I am feeling a little "school-sick" here in August. (For more information google Thomas Aquinas Collge or St. John's College to learn more about great books).

Thinking about the fact that I am not going back to school in the fall makes me aware of a sort of empty void. When I graduated so many people asked me (most of them not very familiar with my educational background or the kind of school that I attended) “ Aren’t you glad to be done?” or “You are finally finished whoo- woo!”… To which I responded courteously,  “grumble…mumble… no idea….what they are talking about,”.  In some ways yes I am happy to be done, but in most ways, I am not happy. It is not like I will ever be done wanting to read great books and discuss them – and Thomas Aquinas (and St. John’s) were places in which these books were the focal point of my life, they took precedence over everything else I did. In many ways I have lost the love of my life, reading the Phaedrus cemented that for me – “be a lover of wisdom” shouts Socrates as I walk back into the hustle and bustle of the city, not knowing when I will see him again. Knowing that this all consuming education might never be the case again cast a kind of funereal pall over graduation.

As a result I wanted to write some things that I have learned – or tips:

Fall In Love –
a.       Fall in love with the books.
b.      Fall in love with the discussion method.
Discussion is an art form.
-          Ask yourself, “What continues a conversation and what shuts it down?”
In improvisational comedy actors are on a stage for hours at a time, without any previous script making people in an audience laugh. How does this happen? How does the story line continue for half an hour or longer? There is a secret something called a “yes rule” the actors say “yes” to what the other person proposes this allows the story to continue as opposed to shutting it down. [1] Think about what brings a conversation to life. Sometimes opposition enlivens a conversation sometimes opposition is killing it – pay attention. Know the difference.  In class you should be asking yourself, “Is what I am doing fueling the conversation or beating it to death?” Sometimes you are killing a conversation by doing nothing – you are letting it get beat to death right in front of your face. Don’t stand idly by – jump in.
-          We are on a team. You are here with other people who will allow you to see aspects of the text you could not see by yourself. As a class your goal is to seek the author, to come out of a class with a better understanding of the text than you could have had by yourself.  
-          Bringing in the original text empowers the conversation. You are talking to the author, to the book itself, let it speak. It is your job to bring the voice of Tacitus, Homer, and Conrad into the classroom. This is also a great litmus test, “Is this discussion going well?” – When was the last time somebody quoted something from the text itself? An hour – you guys are tanking. It doesn't matter if you feel like you made five intelligent points, you are collectively sucking. Dive into the text itself, we are not here to learn about your opinions.
-          Ask as questions things that you think you know the answer to – be ready to hear some stuff you didn't expect. A question gets other people in the game. A statement puts you on the center stage saying, “I think this and I am right.” You might be right. Whatever. Sacrifice your “being right” to bring others in.
-          Ask yourself “What is my motivation for saying this?” Is it to look smart? Then shut up. This is a hard one for me – Aristotle says if you see that you lean towards a vice, swing hard in the other direction. Say something wrong on purpose – hit your own ego in the face. If you are not talking to learn, stop talking. Am I willing to be wrong? You should be.

The search for truth –
At Thomas Aquinas I feel like the search for truth means, “Look around until you find things that confirm your faith. If anything endangers it, fear not!  For we don’t have to take these ideas or authors seriously, we don’t read from these authors to learn from them anyway, we read them to demolish them.” That is not the search for the truth; it is the search for confirmation.  It is petty, and shallow, it is undeserving of the great books. Work to understand the authors first that is what class is for.
Be a Liam Collins – make a scene. Don’t buy it unless you believe it. Popular opinion at Thomas Aquinas could use some enemies.
Be a Bridget Coughlin – if you believe it know why. "Because my dad said so" is not good enough for Bridget it is not good enough for you either (awesomeness of Mr. Coughlin not being denied).  “Because everybody said so,” is not good enough – of course everybody said so, the student body is made up of people who think the exact same thing. Challenge yourself.

Anyway there are some things that I wanted to say – For all of you that read this and remember all of the times that I did not follow my own advice in class. I am sorry and maybe saying this stuff concretely will help others not make my mistakes.

[1] Examples:
Me: “You are Queen Frostine the candy princess.”
You: “No I am not.”

Let’s try again with the yes rule:
Me: “ You are Queen Frostine the candy princess.”
You: “Yes I am, my full name is Martin McCann the candy princess.”


  1. Awesome Liz! Muchos gracias. :) ~ Alyssa

  2. :'( I will miss you so much Liz! I am so very glad I had the opportunity to get to know you- as short as that might have been. You are truly inspirational and I will miss your live humour...please keep up the blog!
    -Paul Grimes

    1. No worries - I do not intend to give up my blog. I am also glad that I got to know you Paul, have a great Junior year!

  3. Thanks, Liz. That's one of the greatest compliments anyone could pay me in regard to my efforts as a student, not because I think that putting up a big fuss is great in itself (though I will admit, if you twist my arm, that I get pleasure out of saying what nobody else is saying) but really because the effort to remain true to my conviction that it was central to intellectual integrity to never "buy it" when something still made no sense was the source of the greatest struggles I went through at TAC.
    Fortunately, even in the midst of those struggles, I didn't talk in class with sentences like the one above, usually.

    More importantly though, great post! I totally feel everything you described in that first paragraph. It's hard to know what to put your passion into when life, the universe and the meaning of everything isn't placed on the table before you every single day.


    1. You are welcome Liam - also: I without a doubt think it is way fun to say what nobody else is saying.
      Also it is a hard fight to put life, the universe and the meaning of everything on the table for oneself every single day. I am finding that I am not wonderfully successful at it.

  4. Great post, Lizard. Wish you had been around when I was an idiot freshman.

    1. thanks don't worry I sometimes failed to take my own advice...

  5. Replies
    1. Thanks! I think some of these could use some more explaining but I haven't been asked questions about them so I guess they make more sense than I thought.

  6. Liz this is great! I thought your advice would be pedestrian and expected- then I realized I get tired of the text and help the class tank when I just want to answer my own questions. Great advice. Hilarious post.
    -John Parker

    1. Hm it is interesting that you expected my advice to be "pedestrian and expected". Son, I lived the great books for six years and I do not do things which are pedestrian or expected. However, I appreciate that it made you rethink your approach to the text itself.
      I remember reading through the Iliad for our first seminar at St. John's I was kind of bored and not that into it, I finished it but mainly because I am a committed student if I had been reading it on my own I would have quit before the end.
      - our first seminar changed that for me it brought Homer to life and it helped me see just the beginning of why the Iliad is one of the greatest and most captivating stories ever written. That is what class should do, especially seminar.

  7. Great advice. I could have used this freshman year. Everybody who's still at TAC in these comments should try spreading this to the freshmen when they come in (and everybody else too, actually).

    1. Thanks! and feel free to share it - I put it on the internet "that it might be shared" In fact I can think of some more and I might add to it a little.

  8. I want to go back to school now, just so I can print out your bullet points and hang them in prominent places. Why did I not have such advice to pass on as a Senior? It was because I was lazy, but that's not the point.

    Good post.

    1. Thanks! I was going on a run yesterday and I started daydreaming about doing math.
      Brain: "I would love to do math. We could do props on a board for old times sake."
      Me: "What?! Math daydreams? Daydreams about doing math? What is my internal world coming to?"