Taking Turns

As we have already discussed, initiating encounters in an American context tend to be more broadly involving than in a Slovak context, while departures in the two cultures are inversely related (Slovaks have good-bye rituals where they are absent in English-speaking settings). Between an initiation and a closure, discourse can be structured around a series of turns, each containing its own beginning and end point. Differences in initiation strategies between Slovak and American speakers can reverberate across a larger more complex discourse, as revealed in classroom interaction between an American teacher and students in a Slovak university.

How is it that we take turns? In an American university setting, the common understanding is that there is an unstated invitation to take a turn . . . that class activities transpire in the form of dialogue. The default reaction to interruption is that it represents buy-in to the communication. Silence is also seen as a cue to participate. Overt questions coming from the teacher are tricky in this context . . . in an ideal dialogue (as opposed to an interrogation), participants extend questions regarding things they do not know but anticipate that audience knows. This is one reason why I am always asking for applications to Slovak. I look forward to your responses as expert information in an area that I am very interested in, but where I know little. It also provides an excellent opportunity to make applications of theoretical principles and terminology. In an ideal dialogue there are multiple sources of direction. This is a momentum-gathering phenomenon, isn’t it? Don’t you feel more inclined to take a turn when there are many students taking turns?

Technological support often can be used to underscore the essential dialogic nature of the teacher-student relationship. Our blog space, for instance, prompts for commentary; I get the first word, usually, but really I recognize that I am not the most important participant, as your commentary always makes up the bulk of every week’s dialogue. The e-mail channel through which contributions are made give further structured opportunities for dialogue. Skyping always involves turn-taking, and unlike our e-mails, it is typically the case that students initiate the dialogue in Skype. Similarly, the wiki space provides a format for interactive, group productions.

What are the specific things that prompt you to take a turn? And how “real” is that turn? That is, what distinguishes between honest participation and just going through the motions? How important is it for me to take the first turn in the week’s proceedings? What if we started class next week with it your turn? That is, I come to class looking forward to a cue to take the first turn, and not assuming that I am to fulfill this role myself? What if our class was organized like Tesco, so that my first appearance was at the back of the line of interactions, rather than at the front?