On talking about apples

In my course on Music and Media, students are required to lead one in-class discussion during the semester. I decided to assign this for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is that I get tired of listening to the sound of my own voice; but I also believe that leading and contributing to discussions is a skill, one that can be improved through practice. During these discussions, my class sits in a circle. The discussion leader (or leaders) sit in two desks at the front of the room, while I try to choose a desk near the back of the room. I do my best to stay out of the discussion, since the whole point of the exercise is to get the students talking to each other, not to me. Since I’ve always been the student who can’t stand awkward silences and has to jump in with the answers (think Hermione in Harry Potter, complete with the frizzy hair) this is excellent practice for me, too, in letting others speak. 

I was nervous when the time came for the first of these in-class discussions. The two women who signed up to lead discussion had participated in earlier discussions, but (at least in these initial class meetings) seemed somewhat shy and quiet. I hoped that this assignment wouldn’t prove too burdensome for them, and told them they could have anywhere from half an hour to the full hour and a half for discussion of their assigned text—we could just see how the conversation went. I was also a bit nervous about the text I had assigned, Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,” which can be opaque even to someone who’s well acquainted with literature on media and technology. I worried that undergraduates, who had probably never encountered any work of McLuhan’s before, would find the text overly demanding, and that their peers would find it intimidating to join in the discussion. 

My concerns turned out to be completely unjustified. Our classroom leaders came armed with questions, just as I had asked—and not only questions, but insightful and pointed comments that drew out the discussion far longer than the half hour I had assigned. One of the class leader’s comments struck me as an utterly brilliant extension of McLuhan’s arguments; she said, “If I have an apple, and I tell you I have an apple, then it’s like you and I have agreed on the set of characteristics that the word “apple” means.” I haven’t been able to forget this comment since—because, as she went on to explain, it reinforces the concept that language is a medium at the same time as it draws attention to the way social forces define our interactions, both with and through media. Her comment sparked an intense discussion about “what we mean when we say things,” which touched on contemporary politics, social media, and how we come to understand the difference between right and wrong. We did eventually come back to McLuhan, but this turn in the conversation had changed everything, because all of a sudden we were talking about something with real-life significance—how a medium, whether it’s television, or radio, or language, shapes the way we understand and interact with each other.