The Complete Guide to Becoming a Great “Great Books” Teacher

Having led hundreds of great books discussions, I am often asked how to lead a good discussion. Years of labor can be boiled down into five commands that I cannot ignore. When I get afraid (as I do at the start of term), I remind myself to make it simple. What should I be doing? What must I do?

My friend Rod Dreher has shown that a good idea also needs a good title, so let us refer to this as the Constantine Comprehensive Classical Strategy (with these rules conquer):

Constantine Comprehensive Classical Strategy

1. Read the Book.

2. Think about the Book.

3. Ask a good question.

4. Listen and respond to students.

5. Go to step 1 and repeat (even in class).

stone-wall-1362501_640_optWhile this is more than a bit tongue in cheek, there is still truth here. If you are not doing these four, then look no place else for answers. Here is a brief description of each step and why it is important.

I have noticed in years of supervising great books teachers that reading the book is very helpful to leading a discussion on the book. In my experience, few good discussions of a book come from pooling the utter ignorance of unread tutors with unread students. In fact, I make it a rule never to teach a class without rereading the book for that class. Next week I teach Dante and so the Divine Comedy must be reread for new insights.

Tip: don’t use the same book where you can see old notes and highlights. Start over.

Thinking about the book as you read and after you read it is not a luxury to be done only if there is time. As a result, one cannot finish up the book in the bathroom on the way to class and really be ready for a discussion. A good question is the result of thought and has to come from going through the process oneself. A Kris Yee question is not a Cate Gilbert question is not a Tim Bartel question is not a Robert Stacey. . . I have “borrowed” ideas for questions from all of my co-workers, but only after making that question my own.

Tip: thinking takes time.

The hardest part of preparing for class or being in class is asking a good question. Most academics can lecture all day or write papers on their chosen topic without fear. Asking a good question, one that stimulates discussion that leads to new wisdom from the text is hard. The short cut of handing out wisdom we already had before we read the book, dazzling our students, blinds us to anything better than we already had.

God help me.

Tip: I reuse questions, but sometimes I refuse to do so.

For years (and still sometimes) my “go to question” for a first Iliad session has been to think with my students about the first line with some care. Often I do not do this, because I become overly familiar with my own ideas and student responses. This is more work and I have had new questions fail, but the text has also come to life for me in better ways even in the failures.

The easiest thing in theory is to listen, but in practice for most of us (or maybe just me!) it is very hard. We cannot just hear the words, but listen for inbuilt misunderstandings or even tangents that can be brought around to the central problem. No class can ever be the same, because the students are different even if the text and the opening question are the same.

You cannot say: “Today we will learn the tension between our divine passions and our frail humanity,” because the class may already know this and quickly more to something better or do something else to (rightly) wrench the discussion in a direction authentic to that group.

While listening, of course, one flips through the text, thinks, and forms another question. This is class. This is a great joy.

I know. All I have done is tell myself what I already know.

However, before paying for “better teaching seminars” or attacking the method or adding tricks and treats, perhaps I should make sure I am doing these five things!


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