Protocols–A post on pedagogy

Most of my posts are about research, but this is a post about pedagogy.

This semester in my Theories of Sound & Music course, I tried out a kind of assignment that I was assigned as an undergraduate and graduate student, but which, as far as I can tell, is unique (at least in the States) to people who taught and studied at the philosophy doctoral program at DePaul University. My undergrad teacher who assigned them to me also went to DePaul (hi Elaine!), as does the other person I know who has assigned them (hi Rick!). Rumor has it that this kind of assignment is an import from German academia, which would make sense given all the Heideggerians and Germanists at DePaul. (Though if anybody actually knows the genealogy of this, please let me know.)

The assignment is called a “protocol.” It’s a synthetic overview of and reflection on in-class discussion that students present at the very beginning of the next class. The point is to have a detailed, thoughtful account of a seminar’s discussion, one that includes relevant quotes from the text, that synthesizes information, pulling out important concepts and running themes in the course, and poses a few questions that push the discussion further. From week to week, the class has a chance to reflect on the previous class’s material before moving on to the current week’s discussion. Often this helps students draw connections from week to week and reading to reading. In the end of the course, each student (and the instructor!) has a several-page summary of each week’s course work that they can refer back to if/when necessary. It’s better than individual notes because it (a) reflects a diversity of perspectives, and (b) is much more in-depth than notes usually are.


Here’s how it works: In the beginning of the course, an individual student or pair of students signs up for a particular week. That week, they take extensive notes, and between that class and the following class, they type up a 2-4 page single-spaced document that synthesizes the class discussion. By “synthesize” I mean pull out the most significant ideas and conversations, explain them in detail, and then offer some further reflections and ask a few questions that mover conversation forward. This is not minutes: it doesn’t just report what happened. It makes some decisions about what is most important and interesting, fleshes out those concepts, and offers further reflection on them. The student(s) bring hard copies of the protocol to class and then read it aloud at the beginning of the next class. Then, the class spends anywhere from 5-15 minutes discussing the protocol and the questions it poses.

It worked really well. The students said it made them really dig into course texts and it gave them a better understanding than studying for an essay exam or writing a prompt. It was helpful for me because I got a sense of what students were and weren’t taking up, and I could go in and remedy any misunderstandings that may have arisen in class discussion. I think it also really made students think about the course as a whole and see connections among ideas. I’m going to use it again in my junior-level social & political philosophy class next fall.


Here’s an example of a protocol I did as an undergrad.