the class that taught itself

In the spring of '96 I taught a course called "The Literature of Community", a seminar in which all the members of the class, including me, lived in the same building. This was Van Pelt College House, here at Penn.

We viewed and discussed - heatedly debated - the film On the Waterfront. I asked the students to summarize the film pithily by email (we used a listserv, one that hummed with incoming messages night and day, mostly night).

Here is a super-succinct summary of the film written by Alex Platt in the middle of the night on January 18, 1996:

So, we're all a bunch of squabs looking over our shoulders for the hawks that live on top of the hotel, with the occasional longshoreman to throw us a handfull of feed? Is that why ideally "everybody should care about everybody," cause we're all in the same pile of sh+t?

When students walked into class the next day, I wordlessly handed them a sheet with this on it:

Read the comment carefully - it's pithy and suggestive rather than explanatory (typical Alex, I think) - but if you take time to comprehend it you will be able to discover a general criticism of the film we watched last night. So read it and work out in your mind what Alex's position on the film is.

If you agree - more or less, on the whole - with Alex's position, sit on the side of the room nearest the windows.

If you disagree - more or less, on the whole - with Alex's position, sit on the side of the room nearest the door - across from the windows.

If you don't know, don't care, prefer not to take a position one way or the other, side along the back wall, between the windows and door walls.

Then they began to discuss - passionately. I experimented that day, deciding not to say a single word until at least 30 minutes into the class. It worked. They did it all themselves and the discussion covered pretty much all the points and topics and approaches I would have wanted to raise myself.