From time to time, college instructors assign students to lead a discussion about readings in class. What do instructors want from this?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. After a decade of assigning and grading these assignments, I have some clear expectations. This guide should be useful for students in political science, sociology, anthropology, history, literature (especially literature criticism), and any discipline in college in which professors ask students to take part in leading course discussions.
Your presentation is about the reading
One reason instructors assign presentations is to make sure that at least someone in the class has actually done the reading. It’s a terrible feeling (and a waste of a lot of money!) to try to run a class where only a couple of students know what’s going on. So the first principle is to make sure that you clearly summarize and explain the reading. That means, in particular, that you
- identify the thesis or argument of the piece (in your own words, ideally)
- describe the contours of the author’s argument
- explain the supporting evidence the author provides
Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading
Yet the assignment is rarely that students should just offer a summary of the reading. Instead, you should seek to connect and to critique the reading.
The first way to succeed here is to connect the reading to the theme of the class and to what the class has done so far. How can you make clear the connections between this reading and the course? You could try to explain how the reading advances particular themes or arguments, and whether it offers illustrations of particular concepts or particularly compelling pieces of evidence. The piece could also be trying to rebut or refute the larger arguments of the class, and in that case you should make that clear. If you’re very lucky, then the piece directly takes on another reading, and in that case you should make that very clear.
The next way you can succeed is by offering a critique of whether the author has actually succeeded in their goal. Did they make a persuasive argument? Does their evidence actually support their theme? Could they have anticipated objections to their argument? Are there obvious rebuttals or flaws that they should have done more to guard against? Make these points clear — and then go on to consider whether there are subtle issues or arguments that could have been addressed.
I want to be clear that you’re not just looking for a knockout blow here. You’re also looking for the hundred-dollar-bills on the sidewalk–the points the author could have made but didn’t that would have strengthened their argument.
The next level is to address whether what the author couldn’t have known (such as subsequent events or more recent discoveries) have strengthened or undermined the author’s argument. A brilliant piece about how countries will never go to war because the costs of war are too high may be persuasive and airtight–but if an author wrote it in 1913, a year before the First World War, well, there may have been some holes in it.
The advanced move here is to show how a seemingly obvious refutation or contradiction wasn’t, by the way–for example, the costs of the First World War were inordinately high, and it was in some ways the belief of national leaders that the costs would be low (or lower the earlier war came) that shaped their behavior, which is a more complex point than just saying “hurr-durr world war”.
Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading, and really it’s about what it means for the class
The final big step you should try to accomplish is to bring both the author’s argument and your critique back to the goals of the class. This is the masterful move your professor most wants to see: what’s the bottom line for the class? What do you think that the piece brings to the discussion, either as a positive or negative example or both? Being able to display your ability to talk about the strengths and limitations of a reading, and to relate both sides of that balance sheet to the goals of the course, is the real mark of someone who has “done the reading”–and it’s a lot more than just offering a rote summary.
The real goal here, after all, is to spark a good class discussion that everyone can benefit from. You want an opportunity to open up discussion rather than closing it off, and offering your thoughts (especially your strong thoughts!) can be a great way to do that. Identifying clear areas in which there’s still room for debate can also help the course.
Organizing a 5-minute presentation
So how should you organize a five-minute presentation?
Ideally, 30 seconds or show should lay out your summary: X piece says this, it’s supported by that, and it relates to our discussions about the other thing. It has these strengths and flaws, and it means this big takeaway for us. Then spend about one or two minutes each on the summary and the connections/critique to build out your points. Finally, spend the remainder of the time (at least 30 seconds, but more ideally 60) making your original argument that you already previewed.