Asking questions that provoke debate
One of the most significant challenges I faced when having to suddenly move my classes online at the delayed start of the Japanese academic year in May 2020 concerned the course material that had presupposed lengthy, in-class conversations.
A mixture of international and home students had usually been spending half the class time in group discussions around a carefully planned series of questions about each week’s topic.
By “carefully planned”, I mean my questions aimed to provoke debate because they relied on tasks that gradually forced the students to find a common answer on topics that were bound to initially create cognitive divides within the group.
A simple example: “What makes something ‘more religious’, but is not necessary for that something to be religious?” is a question that never gets the same individual answer, but works very well for a group that is asked to collaborate on making a list for such things.
Chiba University stipulations in the first semester of this year, however, were exceedingly strict.
They required all classes to be conducted asynchronously, using learning management software, and to avoid server overloads and excessive burdening of students’ timetable, tasks had to allow two to five days for completion.
I feared that this meant my questions for the group discussions would receive only stale answers because their pedagogical value relied on spontaneous interactions between students.
The solution that I found was to turn my questions around and ask students to discuss online the sort of concluding query or problem that I would have encouraged them to reach in a “regular” classroom setting.
And these questions almost always happened to start not with “what” but with “why”.
For example, instead of the above question about what makes something religious, students were asked to think about “why would some people or communities like or dislike being called ‘religious’?”.
With the help of new audiovisual material that presented one-sided views on the topics at hand, I organised weekly forums on such “why” questions, with two essential rules:
1) Students had to dedicate half the length of their contributions to reacting to the forum discussion.
2) They were encouraged to use sources and examples outside the syllabus, but they had to properly reference them in their response.
I contemplated assigning a “chair” role to one of the students to coordinate and encourage the debate, but in the end it was not necessary. Perhaps, the topic – religion and social issues – was intriguing enough for everyone to have something to say, and my final reaction to each week’s forum was enough to launch the next week’s debate.
Managing multilingual discussion
The above system only solved the issue of content. I still had to deal with the multilingual nature of the class. As many teachers with experience in such settings know, discussion-heavy courses are never in just one or two languages.
In fact, since the majority of international students at Japanese universities come from other countries in Asia, and some from Europe or the United States, neither Japanese nor English is their native language.
In practice, my so-called “bilingual” Japanese-English class has always been in Japanese plus at least six other languages, none of which is English.
Indeed, I knew already that students were using a variety of online dictionaries and smartphone applications to communicate with each other and get the gist of the discussion, so I realised that I now had to purposefully integrate that work into the class.
I asked students to employ translation software, such as Deepl, to read not only other students’ comments in forum discussions but even online material that they would probably not engage with in other circumstances.
The trick here was to point them towards texts that were different from regular academic papers.
Free translation software may not be that effective for complicated scholarly arguments. Still, they show relatively good results with online encyclopedia entries and introductory textbook chapters, where the language is more straightforward, and sentences are shorter.
In this way, I tried to enhance the trans-local and transcultural format of the class by encouraging the consumption of material written in languages that sometimes were unfamiliar to all the students.
As a result, the shared effort to use any online tool available to understand others’ – students’ or authors’ – arguments worked as a relatively successful alternative to the usual multilingual, in-class debates.
Ioannis Gaitanidis is an assistant professor at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Chiba University in Japan.