10 Guidelines For Talking About Texts

Hard-won tips for how to talk productively about texts with a group of people

These guidelines are specialized for helping a group of people explore a single text that everyone has read. These are a summary of the St. John’s College guidelines to having great conversations about The Great Books.

1. Be Brief

Good conversation more closely resembles a game of hot potato than a relay race. Don’t be a ‘ball hog.’

2. Help each other — you’re a team

Help your interlocutors. You’re a team! Listen to them carefully, ask clarifying questions, give them the benefit of the doubt, try to find support for their positions, and be very careful and constructive when you consider criticizing a point. And don’t be a ball hog.

3. Ask Genuine Questions

If what you say is born out of curiosity and a desire for understanding, you can’t go wrong. Steer clear of grand declarations or speeches. Also there’s never a bad time for a quick “Do I understand you to be saying…?” Ask for an explanation if you need it. Getting everyone on the same page is more important than sustaining the conversation’s momentum.

4. Think Costumes, Not Fortresses

Be flexible when defending a particular view of a work or portion of a work. Its better for everyone to consider perspectives and ideas like costumes or masks that we are trying on and can change with ease, instead of treating them like fortresses you defend and attack.

5. Avoid Non Sequiturs

To keep the various threads of the conversation flowing, address what was recently said. For example, “Adam raises an important question…”, “To strengthen Jane’s position, look at the third paragraph of section 2”, “I don’t want to lose the topic Micah just raised, but to take a step back, I don’t think we’ve answered Eileen’s question sufficiently — let’s look at paragraph 10 of book 3 …”

6. Refer Only to What Everyone Knows

In a conversation, it is more respectful and productive to refer only to what is known by everyone so everyone can understand and contribute. Reliably, everyone in a Conversera will know about the work.

7. Quote

Quoting or referencing the work directly to ask questions and make points helps to ground the conversation in the work.

8. The Pause

It is pleasant to pause after the opening question for a few minutes to review the text and think about what could be said before saying anything.

9. Go With The Flow

Give up your expectations and attempts to control where you believe the conversation should go next. Embrace a spirit of spontaneity and playfulness.

10. Enjoy Yourself : )

In the end, conversation is supposed to be fun. Remember to have a good time!

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