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I absolutely love discussion. There’s nothing better than hanging out till 4 am exploring different facets of an idea, critiquing each other’s ideas, learning from another person’s lived experience, synthesizing different worldviews into a more full and nuanced whole, finding out what Judith Butler was saying from someone who could actually put up with that asshole’s terrible writing.

So, of course, I picked a school that advertised its seminar-style discussion-based classes.

As it turns out, discussion has roughly the same relationship to discussion-based classes as brie does to Extruded Cheese-Based Snack Product.

When you talk about interesting ideas with people, they’re generally people you choose to talk to. Of course, you don’t want to just talk to people who agree with you, that’s boring. (In fact, one of my favorite people to argue with is a libertarian moral realist Kantian.) But you get to filter for things like “has insight and interesting ideas” and “is willing to change their mind when presented with new evidence” and “listens and attempts to understand your point of view.”

In a discussion-based class, you are talking to an arbitrary collection of random students. (Occasionally, in upper-level classes, they may even be an arbitrary collection of random students from your major.) This means you have to put up with That Guy who thinks of themself as a great philosopher, as shown by their tendency to interrupt social psych class with questions like “what is love really? Like, on a spiritual level?”

Furthermore, there’s a certain level of trust and mutual respect you need for a really good conversation about ideas. The kind where you’ll wait and see where someone’s going with that absolutely ludicrous notion, or ask for clarification instead of just assuming that someone meant something utterly idiotic. The kind where you can point out flaws in your own position or defend the other person’s, because both of you know that this is not a game where you win by proving the other guy wrong (whether they are or not). The kind where either you have similar worldviews or you understand why and how your worldviews are different, so you don’t run into the rocks trying to explain things to each other.

It’s really hard to get that kind of trust in a discussion-based class unless everyone knows each other really well already (which is uncommon, especially if you have classes with asocial cockends like me).

In any given class, there are a couple people who don’t want to be there. The class fit their schedule, or it’s a requirement for their major or a distribution requirement, or their best friend is taking it, or they got dropped from the class they wanted to take at the last minute, or they have an enormous crush on the professor, or whatever. Those people are likely to be utterly uninterested in the topic and, thus, have very little of interest to say about it. But since the class is partially graded on participation, they have to speak up anyway. People being forced to talk about things they don’t care about is a recipe for conversational disaster and lack of insight.

In addition, in any class, at least half the people did not do the reading. (These probably include the uninterested people, but also a bunch of other people who are lazy, disorganized, depressed, taking six other classes and supporting themselves so they don’t have time for this bullshit, or more interested in parties than studying.) In normal discussion, you can simply explain the author’s point and move on; in addition, since you’re basically familiar with what people have and have not read, you can just talk about the things both of you have read. But since we’re all participating in the collective fiction that everyone has done the reading, no one is allowed to explain the reading to the people who didn’t do it or decide to talk about something everyone has read instead.