The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas

Supplemental Discussion Sections

The Jefferson Center supports voluntary supplemental discussion sections in lecture courses that include substantial readings from primary sources and engage fundamental questions of enduring human concern. This is a time for students to develop skills of close reading, listening, and writing, and to explore important questions raised by the texts.

Things for the professor to do:

Review your syllabus and course assignments for the semester. Since the sections are most successful when the goals of the meetings are closely aligned with the evaluation scheme of the course, please consider making at least one written assignment or option for a written assignment a short interpretive essay, if you are not doing so already.

Each week, help your TA identify especially important passages to read and questions to discuss in the sections.

Encourage students to attend the sections by mentioning them regularly in lecture and announcing or allowing your TA to announce the topic for each week’s discussion. 

Administrative Tasks for the TA:

Choose a time or times to hold the discussion section(s). You should schedule one section a week for classes with enrollments under 100 and two for those over 100.

Schedule a room. Your department receptionist can do this for you or direct you to the person who handles this.

Post information about the times and place of the sections on Canvas.

Consult with your professor about readings and questions to focus on.

At each session, pass around a sign-in sheet with the name of the course and the date on it. After each session, write up a short description (1-2 sentences or in point form) of the topics and questions discussed. This can be written on the sign-in sheet or attached.

File your reports, including the sign-in sheet and description of each session held that month, by the last day of each month in the Jefferson Center office, MEZ 3.112.  

Substantive goals for the discussion sections:

Reading: Students should develop skills of active reading and close, careful textual analysis, with an approach that is at once critical and sympathetic. They should learn to analyze the arguments of the text, put them in context, and apply them to other contexts. This practice should be a mainstay of the SD sections.

  • Analysis: What type of text is this? What is the author’s project, and what is he trying to achieve? What is being argued? What is the evidence offered? How cogent is the argument? What important premises or conclusions are relevant here that are not being explicitly stated? What different interpretations of this text have been offered or could be offered, and what are their relative merits?
  • Context: What is the historical context that can help us understand the author’s perspective and the challenges he faces? Who is he writing for? How do the ideas presented here relate to the broader intellectual discourse that the author is part of?
  • Application: how does this text shed light on problems we face today, or help explain events and controversies in the present world? If this author is right, what implications does that have for how we should live, individually or collectively? How might the ideas presented here call for a re-thinking of our own assumptions?

Listening: Students should develop skills of active, critical but sympathetic listening.

  • Lectures: students should become active listeners in lectures and effective note-takers.
  • Discussion: students should learn to listen carefully to one another, build on what others are saying, and respond directly and constructively to others’ ideas.

Writing: Students should apply the other skills they are learning to write effective essays interpreting texts. Examples of student writing should be shared and analyzed in a constructive spirit to address all aspects of the writing process.  


TAs who are leading supplemental discussion sections and grading papers based on great books and texts may also wish to use the following documents, both of which they are welcome to adapt or distribute:

Advice on Writing Essays in Political Philosophy 

Essay Evaluation Rubric