Giving Presentations
and Leading Discussions
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College


The assignment is twofold: first give a presentation and then lead discussion on the topics of your presentation for the rest of the hour.

The purpose of the assignment is (1) to give you practice in public speaking, (2) to give you a chance to pick the topics that deserve class time, (3) to share your research with the whole class and not just me, and (4) to raise consciousness about the dynamics and difficulties of a good discussion. If past evaluations are any guide, even students who don't enjoy speaking in front of others, or who do so poorly —perhaps especially such students— are glad of the opportunity to practice.

Oral presentation

The presentation should offer a reading of the text for that day. To offer a reading is to take a stand on what the author is saying, and how the author argues it, not merely to point out the presence of certain themes, to ask certain questions, or to give your own views on the same topics.

Your presentation should take 10-20 minutes. During this time, you should do all the talking. Wait until you're finished to ask the class questions and lead discussion.

Here are some tips for your presentation.

  • Aim for depth over breadth. Don't list all the topics discussed in the reading for that day (there's no depth here). Don't even summarize the author's position on all those topics (there could be depth here but the time limit will force these readings to be superficial). Decide what the important topics are, using your own standards of importance. Then offer a reading of the author's position on those topics. Master the detail and give us the perspective on the author's position that results.
  • Tell us on which topics you've chosen to focus. This will help orient us. Then when you start to give fine-grained detail on the author's arguments and conclusions on those topics, we'll know what to do with them.
  • Similarly, tell us what the author's conclusions are on the questions in the day's reading. This will help orient us. Then when you start to give detail on the author's supporting arguments, we'll know where you're going with them.
  • When the author's conclusions are unclear, and when the author's arguments for those conclusions are unclear, then clarifying them is a good use of your time. Because conclusions are usually clearer than arguments, plan to spend most of your time on the arguments.
  • Find the key terms and define them. Find the key distinctions and explain them. Find the key arguments and present them. Decide what's primary and what's secondary, and focus on what's primary.
  • The point is to help us understand the author, not to offer your own views in place of the author's. Criticism should come out (if at all) in the discussion phase. The presentation is all about what the author said.
  • You may consult your notes, of course, but please do not read your presentations. That is not only dull for your audience; it forecloses the opportunity to practice public speaking.

Presentation paper

Unless the syllabus says to submit nothing, then on the day of your presentation please turn in a short (1-3 pp.) paper on the issues of your presentation, and the questions or plan for your discussion afterwards. The paper must be typed. Because one purpose of the paper is to guarantee your own preparation, I will not give extensions on this paper. It will be graded pass/fail. This paper is casual, little more than your own notes typed up. It may be an outline rather than full prose, if you like.

The paper should include (1) your questions on the interpretation of your philosopher's position and argument, (2) your questions on the merits of that position and argument, and (3) a bibliography of the sources you consulted, if any, with annotations on their usefulness for your presentation topics. The questions should be those on which you plan to focus discussion after making your initial presentation.

If you plan to use this paper during the hour to help you organize and present your thoughts, then bring two copies, so that I can have one during your hour.

Leading discussion

When your presentation is over, lead the class in a discussion of the issues raised in the presentation, for the rest of the period.

Don't assume that discussions lead themselves, or that your fascinating subject matter guarantees success. Do not simply ask questions and hope that someone answers them. Plan the discussion. What topics do you want to cover? In what order? What will you do if nobody says anything? Use your own experience in good and bad discussions as a guide. What tends to silence people? What kinds of questions are intimidating, off-putting, unanswerable, patronizing? What kinds invite good discussion? How do you build on previous comments and help the class to do so?

You need not have answers to every question you raise, but you should raise good questions, know where in the text to look for answers, and have a plan for leading a discussion that might discover answers. Plan the discussion as carefully as you plan your presentation.

Don't limit the discussion to questions on which you have answers. Use the discussion as an occasion to inquire jointly with other prepared students into questions you find interesting and important.

As in the presentation, begin with questions about meaning and move only later (time permitting) to questions about merit. It's difficult and unwise to try to discuss the merits of a position we do not yet understand.

Help your peers who are presenting and leading discussion; they will be nervous but knowledgeable. Listen closely, speak voluntarily, follow up points of interest. (Also see the section on discussion in the generic hand-out.)

Here are some tips for your discussion.

  • Be creative! Do something different. Make it interesting. Use small groups, use the board, use a computer, use props, use dramatization. Use your imagination. There's lots of room for creativity in this assignment. (Try to make sure that your innovations enhance, or at least don't detract from, the content.)
  • It's hard to discuss conclusions, but it's easy (and fun and useful) to discuss arguments for conclusions.
  • Don't ask yes-or-no questions or questions with obvious factual answers.
  • Ask small, detailed questions (like "what's the argument for this conclusion?") before large, abstract questions (like "how does this compare with what so-and-so said?"). Ask interpretive questions (like "what does the author mean here?") before evaluative questions (like "is the author right about this?"). Let your earlier questions lay a foundation for your later questions.
  • You don't have to be experts who lecture or who have all the answers. If after a while you feel under pressure to expound or expatiate, then something has gone wrong. Back out of it rather than give in to it. This should be a discussion.
  • Remember all the bad discussions you've had to sit through. Don't repeat their mistakes!


In both the presentation and discussion portions of the hour, address the class, not me.

The presentation and discussion slots will be filled first-come first-served. Warning: think ahead and select early, because you will want time to prepare. You may also want to present in one week rather than another based on our reading for that week or your workload for other courses.

You should have picked your presentation/discussion slot by the third or fourth week of class. If you haven't, I will nudge you to do so, or draft you for an open slot.

I will be glad to meet with presenters and discussion leaders a day or two beforehand to discuss topics, questions, problems, and strategies.

I will not instantly bail out a bad discussion. There is some instruction in living with the consequences of poor preparation, backing out of a bad question, or dealing spontaneously with a tired or unmotivated class. I will try not to intervene unless I think we have already taken the benefit of that instruction and are wasting time.

Apart from that kind of intervention, I love to participate. Sometimes I speak too much during a student-led discussion, because I am so excited. I will try to say much less than usual in order to give the student leader(s) a chance to shape the discussion. At the request of the student leader(s), I can shut up entirely, play the role of a good student, or something in between.

I seldom grade the presentation/discussion. Your performance will be part of your "participation" grade. Sometimes I will put comments on your presentation at the end of your presentation paper. Either way, however, I'll be happy to talk (further) with you in my office about how you did.

If the enrollment is too large for everyone to present alone, then some of you may have to double or triple up, or some of you may have to submit your presentations in writing. If the enrollment is small enough, then some of you may be able to (or depending on the course, may have to) go more than once.

The syllabus for this course should indicate

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 1997-1999, Peter Suber.