Guide for Discussion Leaders
III. Choosing Subjects
Choosing subjects for forums or discussion groups is a critical part of organizing the activity. No matter what method of selecting subjects is adopted, it should result in a choice which will hold the group together. The leader may have in mind specific subjects which he personally believes are important for the men to discuss. He should remember, however, that he is promoting a voluntary activity. He needs to find subjects upon which he can expect to make a successful start. Once the group is organized, he will have the opportunity of selling subjects for which the members-if approached “cold” during the development period-might express little enthusiasm.
One caution is to be observed in choosing subjects. No subject will lead to a valuable discussion unless the essential facts are available to the group. Limit, then, the choice of subjects either to those for which adequate reference materials are at hand, or to those for which some available expert can supply the facts at the meeting. Unless this caution is observed, discussion meetings are likely to fail in their purpose and may end in bickering that reacts unfavorably upon morale. It follows that trivial and highly personal subjects that may lead to a “gripe session” are to be studiously avoided.
1. Analysis of interest questionnaires: This is one important use of the questionnaire described earlier. In counting the votes for questions checked or listed by the men, it will be helpful to rearrange them in the order of preference as indicated by the number of votes received by each. The leader can thus get a rough idea of the general interest of his group. The specific subjects preferred will help him determine whether, in the main, the men are interested in current war or in postwar questions, whether they want to discuss subjects of military, international, national, community, or personal import. An analysis of this sort will be helpful also to a program committee. In using the analysis it is not necessary for the leader or his committee, if he has one, to choose those subjects which have the largest number of votes. The data from the questionnaire may be used rather as a guide to the range of interest they display. The choice of questions for discussion must take into account the availability of reference material for study, the presence in the command of suitable experts, the judgment of the leader and his committee, the policies of the commanding officer, the timeliness of the subjects suggested, and similar considerations.
2. Program committee: It has already been stressed that interest may be stimulated by using an organizing committee. If a committee is used, the best way to make it effective is to give it the specific job of planning the program. The members can examine the data secured by the leader from interest questionnaires and can add their own ideas about the preferences of men who are likely to attend the meetings. If the committee is called together early, it can assist in the preparation of the questionnaire. The committee can also determine what use shall be made of experts; what experts may be available; whether to plan small and informal discussion groups, larger forums, or panel discussions; when and where the meetings will be held; whether single meetings or a series should be planned. If a series is settled upon, the committee can select a title for it like “Camp Blank Forum” or “G. I. Roundtable.”
3. Phrasing the question: When a topic has been decided upon, it is important to phrase it as a discussable question. Such a question will draw attention sharply to a major issue associated with the topic. Most such questions should ask for a “yes” or a “no” answer. For example, assume that the subject for discussion is the type of economic and political system that may emerge in France after the war. A topical phrasing of this subject like “Postwar France” is relatively uninteresting and certainly indicates no discussable issue. The question, “Will the French Republic live again?” makes a better phrasing. It invites the marshaling of facts about French economy and politics around the affirmative and negative positions which may be taken with respect to the question. Sometimes a leader may be tempted to phrase his question so as merely to ask for information: “What sort of government for postwar France?” This type of question may occasionally appear appropriate, but it is never as strong a springboard from which to launch a discussion as a question that points the issue clearly.