More than Cleaning: Custodians and Student Success

Steve Volk, October 24, 2016

When you think of successful university careers, you might think of presidents, provosts, and deans; when you think of the wisdom to be found on campus, you’re likely to think of professors sharing the fruits of their decades of research on chemistry, classics, or quantum mechanics. You almost certainly won’t think of the folks cleaning the bathrooms, washing the floors, and changing the trash bags.

                                      — Serena Golden, review of The Philosopher Kings, a 2009 film about eight custodians  who worked at top-drawer universities.*

And yet I have been thinking about the people who clean our offices and the students’ dorm rooms, mow the lawns and rake the leaves, prepare and serve the students’ food, patch the roofs when there’s a leak, deliver food to our workshops, and – bottom line – make our surroundings not only habitable, but pleasant. They are, as Peter Magoda, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University, observes, with a nod to Ralph Ellison, “an invisible campus culture.” [“Teaching, Learning, and Campus Custodians: Untidying Conceptualizations of Wisdom in the Academy,” About Campus (July-August 2014), available via Ohio Link]


Window at Calhoun College (Yale) broken by Corey Menafee

I’ve been thinking about service workers on campus since I read of the Yale dishwasher, Corey Menafee,  who broke a windowpane in Calhoun College – yes, that Calhoun College, the residential hall at Yale named after the South Carolina politician, Secretary of War and Vice President who staunchly defended slavery – that depicted enslaved people picking cotton. Menafee felt pressured to resign from his job after being arrested by campus police on felony charges before ultimately being taken back by his Yale employers after a five-week, unpaid, suspension.

I have been thinking about service workers because the dining workers at Harvard are on strike for pay that will allow them to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. [UPDATE: Harvard reached a “tentative agreement” with striking workers on Oct. 25, 2016.]

But it’s not wages and working conditions that I want to write about today – although there’s plenty to be said on that account. Rather, it’s the role that service workers – particularly custodians, food servers, and those who interact with students on a daily basis – play in the education of our students, not to mention our staff and faculty. (I have learned more about Guyana from the gentleman who delivers beverages to CTIE’s Brown Bag Pedagogy sessions than from many of the books I have read on that subject.) Many of the service workers on campus, certainly those in the dorms and dining halls, will likely engage more frequently with the students than many faculty. So, as Magoda, author of the recently published The Lives of Campus Custodians: Insights into Corporatization and Civic Disengagement in the Academy (Stylus, 2016) cautions, “failing to recognize and benefit from their wisdom represents squandered learning opportunities to the detriment of the entire campus community” [3].


“Janitor,” photo by Erik Gustafson, Flickr CC

In a 2015 dissertation written at the University of Iowa (“Mutually Beneficial Interactions: Campus Custodian-College Student Relationships”), Jeremy John Reed points out that “a corpus of student affairs literature supports the notion that custodial employees’ assumed duties directly enrich the student success mission of universities…” [15]. Reed’s ethnographic research was based on case studies of four campus custodians’ interactions with students at “Prairie University,” the pseudonym for a large Midwestern public flagship university. In focusing on campus service workers, Reed privileges the voices of historically marginalized members of campus communities who, he observes, “may contribute more broadly to students’ educational processes than previously understood.” His conclusions echo the findings of Kuh, Schuh, Whitt and Associates who called attention to the contributions of non-faculty workers such as custodial staff and secretaries, individuals who create “an environment conducive to student learning and personal development” [Involving Colleges: Encouraging Student Learning and Personal Development Through Out-of-Class Experiences (Jossey-Bass, 1991)].

Custodians and Student Well-Being

“With the doors to both bathrooms propped open, Lucas begins cleaning in the men’s bathroom.” “Lucas” (not his real name) was one of the custodians Reed featured in his study. An unmarried man who had been working at “Prairie” for almost 10 years, Lucas had earned a BA and held a variety of management and human resources positions before becoming a custodian.

Heeding the supervisor’s earlier warning, [Lucas] situates a pair of large goggles over his eyes and pulls on a pair of heavy rubber gloves. As he cleans the sinks, he describes the chemical’s harsh nature. ‘It kills everything. Once it’s added to water it won’t burn your skin. But you don’t want it in your eyes…’ … Lucas says that the chemical’s strength is necessary to kill dangerous pathogens. ‘Keeping things clean you keep the students healthy and yourself healthy. It’s like one big family,’ he says. Finished cleaning, Lucas rearranges the cart parked outside the bathrooms. He notices a student sitting in a nearby chair in the lounge. ‘Are you texting your grandma?’ he asks with a smile. The student looks up from her phone and replies, ‘Nope. I did that yesterday.’ Lucas responds, ‘Oh, good! I’m sure she likes hearing from you.’

In providing students a clean and safe residence hall environment, custodians help enhance the physical well-being of students. It is one way, probably the best known, that they support the institution’s mission to see that every student succeeds.

Sarah Yakunovich and Wanda Horning, Oberlin College "Source"

Sarah Yakunovich and Wanda Horning, Oberlin College “Source”

But their work in support of students quite often goes beyond their job description, as Lucas’ comment to the student in the lounge suggests. Custodians provide an important set of caring eyes looking out for students’ well-being. “Bea” had worked at “Prairie” for 7 years, having completed two years of community college course work herself. She drove in to work from a small town about 20 miles away.

“This morning I walked in here at 8:00 and saw a student sleeping on that couch with her books on the floor. I went by again at 10 a.m. and thought, ‘Should I check on her? Is she okay?’ I watched to see if she’s breathing. It seemed like a long time to be there. You just never know [92].”

Custodians look after students in a variety of ways. They protect students from intruders (making sure protective doors are closed, identifying people in residential halls who might not belong) and promote student health (both in their work of cleaning, sweeping, mopping), and by looking after student welfare in a larger sense. “Scarlet,” a high school graduate, started at “Prairie” two years before Reed spoke with her. She recounted that “Last year there was throw-up in this one bathroom almost daily. So I let the RA know. Because if it’s a daily thing it could be that someone is very sick. Or it could be a sign of anorexia, or some other eating disorder. So I told the RA, Brenda” [95].

Reed’s work illustrates how custodians promote student educational success in a variety of ways both directly, by engaging with and remembering individual students and details about their interests, interactions with other students and with their families; by comforting them when they are ill; by spending their own personal time with students; and by supporting them in emergency situations, including the most challenging incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. It is not uncommon for custodians to be the first to hear from a student who has just been raped if the victim is too frightened or ashamed to speak with anyone else.

Custodians look out for the students’ well-being. “Emma,” with a high-school diploma and three grown children, had been at “Prairie” for nearly 5 years. As she discussed members of the swim team who lived on a floor she regularly cleaned, she recalled, “One year, something was going on with them. A trip or something. And I made them all snacks for it. They were all on diets so I put carrots and broccoli in baggies for them” [105-6].

Custodians frequently provide advice for students that others can’t or won’t. “Well, they might think it’s a difficult thing they’re dealing with but I don’t,” Lucas relates. “No, they’ve mostly come to me with small things. I just give them my thoughts. Tell them what I might do. I think Emma might have students telling her more big things. I think they see her as more of a mom since she has kids. Maybe me as more of a brother since I don’t have my own kids” [102].

The mentoring and listening role that custodians play is perhaps better known in the K-12 setting. Larry Everett, who began as a custodian at the Webster Elementary School in Sumter County, Florida, told a reporter eariler this year that he is often summoned on his walkie-talkie to rush over to a classroom because a student is shouting, throwing things, and demanding to talk with “Mister Larry.“ “Sometimes,” he says, “a teacher or guidance counselor will call me on my radio and ask if I don’t mind hurrying to room such and such. It’s usually because there is a student with a problem who says he will only talk to me.”

Courtesy SEIU

Courtesy SEIU

Reed’s study is one of a number that calls attention to the “potential unique contributions of campus custodians to college student success.” It is not just the narrow roles of cleaning and maintenance; rather, as the above cases indicate, Reed stresses the mentoring, advising, supportive roles that custodians play and warns that “administrators who do not leverage custodial staff proximity to, and enthusiasm for, interacting with college students, may miss an opportunity to enhance college student success” [114].

As the research affirms, custodians can play this enhanced role not only because they are in unique proximity to students, but because they often come from different backgrounds, than the students, and, at a school like Oberlin or other selective residential colleges, they actually live in or near the town and thus represent a reality that can be very distant from the students’ own experience – and very useful in the students’ broader education. Stephen Sweet (College and Society: An Introduction to the Sociological Imagination, Allyn and Bacon, 2001) called attention to the problematic nature of insular and invisible campus subcultures:

… as a consequence of limited experience, privileged students at Ivy League [and other selective residential] colleges will likely have little insight into what life is like for the rural poor, and the rural poor have little idea of what life is like at an Ivy League college. Lacking this information, both groups will tend to rely on stereotypes, unrefined and often uninformed depictions of groups different from their own” (cited in Magoda, 6).

When Students Need to Be Schooled

Magoda and many others have pointed out that one does not need to be credentialed as a teacher in order to be an educator. The story of “Vida,” a housekeeper at “Compton University” (a pseudonym), is a case in point. Vida grew up in Croatia. She had been living in the United States for 15 years and working at “Compton” for 14 when Magoda interviewed her. He cited a letter she wrote welcoming students to the residential hall where worked:

Welcome Students! My name is Vida. I’m originally from Croatia (part of former Yugoslavia). I have been living in the United States for 15 years now. I’m married and have two children, a 23-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. My daughter just graduated from Compton in May 2012. She majored in Romance Languages and Literature. This will be my 14th year working here. I put a lot of effort in making this place a comfortable home for learning and living. I know this is your first year at Compton—everything is new and difficult. I am here to help you feel more at home, so don’t hesitate to come up and talk to me. I’ll do my best to help. I wish you a successful and clean year! Your housekeeper—Vida

At one point during that year, a “Compton” student (not necessarily from Vida’s dorm) wrote a letter to the editor of the university paper asking whether “it bother[ed] anyone else that our stuff is being stolen from our rooms?” The student went on to argue that there were only “two culprits for the thefts on campus: students and housekeepers.” Since the writer couldn’t imagine that the former could be responsible, he suggested that those reading his letter should “Try to put yourself in housekeepers’ shoes. You [housekeepers] work hard for not much money. You clean toilets for teenagers who all seem rich, look the other way when they see you, and have more expensive stuff in their small rooms than any entire family you know.”

Vida felt a responsibility to respond, and her reply, worth reprinting in full, schools the student, perfectly illustrating the educational role that custodians can play in the lives of students:

I can’t remember the last time I read something so embarrassing regarding a group of people, in this case, housekeepers – Vida began. You are probably bright enough to realize you can’t judge a group of people like that. Before doing something like this, you should think hard about how many people you will hurt. Many times there will be an individual that will give the group a bad name.

… I was once in a situation like yours. I talked like you. I thought things like ‘l will never clean somebody else’s home.’ Then something happened and I lost all of my material belongings. I was still happy, though, because my family was alive and safe. I got a chance to work and support my family as a housekeeper, and I don’t feel ashamed. I make an honest living and can provide a good life for my family. I can never imagine an instance where I would steal anything. While I have not lived in a student’s shoes, please don’t try to put yourself in a housekeeper’s shoes. It is not an easy job. In conclusion, please don’t blame a group of people for an individual’s shortcoming. I wish you happiness and good luck in all your endeavors. —Vida

“Custodian,” photo by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

“Custodian,” photo by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

The Educational Community

Those of us who teach and work in small residential colleges represent an increasingly rare kind of community. With less than 2% of higher education students, we turn out considerably more than our share of educational, scientific, cultural, artistic, and intellectual leaders. While there are many reasons for this, a central one is that we provide an entire community that is there to support our students’ success. As those who have researched the role of service workers on campus make abundantly clear, we need to think about all the members of our community who make this possible.

As I was writing this, I thought, more than once, about the words of a colleague in physics, Stephen FitzGerald, who had the sorrowful task of preparing a “Memorial Minute” for a young assistant professor of chemistry, Jesse Rowsell (1977-2015), who died in a tragic hiking accident. FitzGerald closed his remarks by citing a note that was left on Rowsell’s door: “It was always a great pleasure chatting with you @ 3 a.m. as you were leaving. You will be missed!” It was signed: “Night Custodians.”

*The eight janitors in highlighted in The Philosopher Kings are Melinda Augustus of the University of Florida, Corby Baker of Cornish College of the Arts, Luís Cárdenas of the California Institute of Technology, Oscar Dantzler of Duke University, Jim Evener and Gary Napieracz of Cornell University, Josue Laujenesse of Princeton University, and Michael Seals of the University of California at Berkeley.

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Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching

Elizabeth Hamilton, October 10, 2016

Elizabeth Hamilton is Associate Professor of German Language and Literatures at Oberlin College. She specializes in Twentieth-century West German literature and film, East German cinema, Postwar narratives of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” and Disability Studies. She is the Section 504/ADA Coordinator at Oberlin. (Section 504 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination based upon disability.)

Universal Design for Learning is not yet well known, yet a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that some educators are already casting doubt on its merit. Its very name suggests something too good to be true, as though “universal design” really meant “one size fits all.” Knowing that one size will never fit all, I grasp the need for caution. Still I favor this approach that asks me to know my students better.

Let me first underscore that universal design is not a teaching method. It is an approach to planning and to creating methods and materials by which teachers consider the widest possible range of learners from the outset.

Borrowing from architecture, universal design is a set of principles that enables us to plan for the greatest possible inclusion from the start of a project, as opposed to costly retrofitting to meet an overlooked need. Have you ever seen an unsightly ramp outside of a beautiful building? Or a sign directing wheelchair users to the back entrance?

finney-cropI mean not to disparage those measures, as access is better than no access, even as an afterthought. But it’s the process of design that interests me here. Why didn’t the architects think that a wheelchair user might use the front door every day, as a regular customer of this business or student in this campus facility—or as its director, or office-holder, or president? The ramp and the elevator are moreover just the most visible accommodations. Many adaptive or assistive devices are retrofitted onto communication services, programs, and policies. Again, this is honorable, but I think it is time to take the next step. Retrofitting is costly and the narrow thinking that preceded it is clear: the atypical user was not really on our minds when we built this institution.

We now know more than ever about systemic barriers and stereotype threat. We are beginning to grasp the real benefits of diversity and the costs of exclusion.

Universal design asks us, the architects of our curriculum, to respect diversity as an asset. In my view, this is the set of principles that will best allow us to translate our aspirations for diversity into an actual framework of accessibility. Because while universal design is often evoked in conversations about disability, its great gift is in the welcome it affords to all students who, for any reason (or in defiance of reason) are not in the center of the room or the center of our attention when we plan. I’m thinking here of first-generation students, international students, students of color, and students whose first language or gender identity or class or heritage give them frames of reference that can make access to our curriculum an uphill climb. Their perceived differences are too often cast as deficits and our responses cast as “providing for special needs.”


Frans de Potter, Geschiedenis van de Gemeenten der Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, 1864

Universal design offers a way out of the normal vs. needy framework.

Universal design doesn’t wait for documentation of a disability before taking action, just as no curb cut requires a wheelchair user—or pedestrian carrying a heavy load, or parent pushing a stroller, or musician wheeling a double bass—to present a license before entering the sidewalk. Like the philosophy behind the curb cut, universal design presumes a range of users, and—this is important—it presumes competence on the part of all students, no matter their learning style.

curbcutBuilding Pedagogical Curb Cuts details practical accessibility innovations that teachers can incorporate in a range of disciplines. I contributed a short essay for this book when it was published in 2005. I share it now as a springboard for conversation even as I see how much has changed in the intervening decade.

Today’s classrooms already incorporate an array of universally designed features. This is as much a response to the changing demographics of our student body as it is a response to the shifts in critical inquiry that scholars are making in every field of study. These trends are merging, and well they should. We as teachers no longer restrict ourselves to formal lectures and traditional seminar papers any more than we as scholars rely solely on the monograph or conference paper to share our research. In addition to those still-valuable practices, we also use a variety of media; we engage more senses in class; we teach and test in a range of formats and settings; we use rubrics to evaluate student learning; we encourage collaboration; and we promote community-based learning. Whether we name them as such or not, universal design principles underpin the efforts we make to create multifaceted courses. We help our students engage with material when we open up new vantage points.

I have found that engaging my students in the process of enhancing access is the most instructive of all—both for students and for me. Here are just two examples of projects that you might consider and improve upon.

music-and-disabilityMy First Year Seminar students created Disability-Awareness-Month displays in each of our campus’s four libraries. Their task included thinking about how to make the displays accessible to a range of library patrons, including those who might have low vision. The students working in the Conservatory library included QR codes in their display to access apps with narration and musical selections. You can see it here and visit in person through the month of October. [Note: A fuller description of this project is included at the end of the post.]

Another class last spring studied works exhibited in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Ripon Gallery. This lovely second-floor space is unfortunately not accessible if a person cannot use stairs. My students each selected an artwork to describe in detail for someone who cannot see it, no matter whether the barrier results from limited vision or lack of an elevator or any other reason. They drew upon visual description guidelines in Art Beyond Sight to prepare for this project. Here is Anna Rose Greenberg’s vivid description of “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement” by Charles-Émile Jacque:

Charles-Émile Jacque, "Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement," Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Charles-Émile Jacque, “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement,” Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

What is “universally designed” in these activities? There are multiple entry points into the activities themselves and they function in tandem with other activities to form the whole of a universally-designed course.

  • They engage a variety of senses.
  • They draw attention to the medium in which knowledge is contained, and ask students to examine that very frame.
  • They constitute a portion of the students’ overall grades, valuing the learning acquired in means other than timed tests or traditional essays.
  • Timed tests and traditional essays accompany these activities because those practices have value, too.

As a teacher, my role is to explain the value and purpose of the activities I require, provide accommodations where necessary, and say clearly what I want students to get out of a given task. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. The tone of my courses changes significantly and for the better when I emphasize the purposes behind the assignments, the time limits, due dates, and participation requirements. The structures of my course then take on intrinsic meaning and don’t appear to students as arbitrary or exclusionary gates.

I close with a video of Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone, as he sings “Auf dem Flusse” from Schubert’s Winterreise. Mr. Quasthoff has performed around the world, including with the Cleveland Orchestra and in master classes at Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. As a so-called “child of Thalidomide,” Mr. Quasthoff’s physical growth was impeded, leaving his arms too short to reach piano keys. Nonetheless, he was required to play the piano in order to pass an entrance exam for the Hannover Konservatorium. The test would not be waived and no alternative method was offered for him to demonstrate his musical skills and knowledge. Denied admission, he turned to private study with Sebastian Peschko and is now recognized as one of the great interpreters of the Lied. How glad I am that his teacher was willing to think in alternatives.

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff's rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff’s rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)

Assignment from Elizabeth Hamilton’s First Year Seminar Program 093: Disability (Fall 2016):

3. Library Display Assignment (10%): This assignment introduces you to Oberlin’s
campus libraries. You will gain an overview of research materials and the steps you need
to take to gain access to them. You will explore the range of published scholarship on
disability. You will meet our professional library staff members and develop good
research and communication skills. You will collaborate with your classmates on
designing four library displays for October’s Disability Awareness month. You will also
gain research skills for pursuing your individual projects, due at the end of the semester.
First meeting: full class on Monday, September 19th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd Library’s
main-floor classroom.
Second meeting: small groups on Monday, September 26th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd
library, the Conservatory library, the Science library, or the Art library.

1. Decide how many works to display.
2. Decide which kind(s) of works to display: are you choosing works in which
disability is regarded as a problem to be solved, a perspective from which a
person experiences life, the product of created (and potentially removable)
barriers, or a little bit of all of these?
3. Decide which works to display: works could be by creative authors, natural or
social scientists, composers, or performers with disabilities, or works could be
ones in which disability is a major theme, artistic device, or perspective of a
significant character.
4. Choose a visual style for the display. Select, as appropriate, illustrations, props,
colors or borders.
5. Choose a way to alert viewers to the displays in other libraries.

After the displays are created, each student is required to fill out a self-evaluation rubric
on one’s own participation in the group project AND submit a one-page (250-300 word)
personal reflection essay on the process of creating the display. What did you contribute?
What did you learn?

Self-evaluation rubrics (found at the end of this syllabus) and personal reflection essays
are due on Monday, October 3rd.

PowerPoint: Let’s Make a Meal of It

Steve Volk, October 3, 2016


PowerPoint is used by a huge (I believe that’s the technical term!) number of faculty, students, administrators, business people, yoga instructors, plumbers, toddlers, and just about anyone else you can name except your cat. (Now we know who’s the smart one in the family.) In this post, I wanted to raise the question of whether we should be sharing slides with our students: If yes, then when (before or after class), and in what format (verbatim from class or edited, as slides or PDFs); if no, why not?

But then I thought: Why not make a whole meal of it and go over various aspects of PowerPoint use, not necessarily the technical (how do I get the transitions I want between slides, how on earth do I insert video, etc.?) but more the educational and aesthetic side of it. So, put your napkin on your lap, have your fork and knife at the ready, and let’s tuck in.

Amuse Bouche:

Is it PowerPoint, Power Point, or Powerpoint? Microsoft would have us believe that it’s PowerPoint, but are we going to let them boss us around? Well maybe for this time only for sake of consistency.

Appetizer: What makes for a good PowerPoint presentation.

Beyond a doubt, the best book ever on PowerPoint design (only 32 pages! only $2.00!)  is by Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Tufte, if you’ve been busy updating your Facebook status for the last few decades, is a statistician, artist, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University. Tufte has been called the “Leonardo da Vinci of data” (New York Times), the “Galileo of graphics” (Business Week), and the “Gordon Ramsay of visualization” (Food and Drink). OK, I made the last one up.

Tufte is the one who made the chart below instantly recognizable to millions. He describes this as “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” It is a map by Charles Joseph Minard that graphically portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. The peach-colored band is the size of Napoleon’s army as he marches into Russia from the Polish border; the black-colored band is its size as he retreated from Moscow. The temperature and time scale is below. If we have some military historians in the crowd, throw out your lecture on the defeat of Napoleon and just show this graphic.

Charles Minard, Napoleon's Russia Campaign, 1812

Charles Minard, Napoleon’s Russia Campaign, 1812

That’s Tufte and Minard. Breathtaking suggestions on how to use information graphically, i.e., now to make interesting PowerPoint slides. Given that we’re mere mortals looking for tips on how to improve our slides, I’d turn to the following for useful advice:

I’ve already clearly ignored Godin’s recommendations about bullets and the NRA, so I’ll continue the appetizer with a few summary points when thinking about improving your slides:

  • Fewer words per slide! There are a number of reasons for this besides the obvious: Your slides should not be your lecture written out and distributed in chunks that you then read to your students. Fewer words per slide (can you keep it to 6?). This will:

(a) Force you to concentrate on what you think the main point is that your students should be getting;

(b) Allow your students to concentrate on that main point;

(c) Allow for more discussion about those points;

(d) More easily engage students than if they are frantically trying to copy down what’s on the screen EVEN if they know you will share your slides with them.

  • Design a slide using images or other data visualization in order to help students absorb the central points you want them to remember; Tufte’s main point, and the essence of all data visualization work, is that good graphics can bolster learning. Just imagine teaching a course in biology or physics, for example, without the use of a graphic, chart or image to help explain a point.
  • Communicate emotions: Research shows that memory is enhanced through emotional engagement. Slides that convey emotion can help students remember the content that is being discussed.

For more information on data visualization and image use in the classroom, see “Drawing to Learn: Beyond Visualization.”

Main Course: Slide Sharing with a Side of How and When

spagettiSo we’ve reached the main course: Should we share slides with our students? The answer, of course, depends on many factors. But let’s dig in:

Slides that are primarily textual. It’s probably a good idea to share your slides with students if they primarily carry content information that would be hard for them to copy down or take notes on during class. This is particularly the case for information that will be needed later (on exams or papers, for example). Further, making this information available will remove any disadvantage from students who are not fast writers (either on laptops or with pen and paper), have not yet developed good note-taking skiills, or who, because of a disability, are literally unable to take note s effectively. (Note: not all students who, because of a documented disability are eligible to be assigned a college-provided note-taker, will actually take advantage of this.)

The question here is more when as opposed to if. Some faculty will provide slides of their lectures prior to the lecture; some only after. The answer (as with so much else) depends on your overall purpose in the lecture. Faculty who don’t want to distribute slides before the lecture argue that students will have no reason to come to class; faculty who don’t want to distribute slides after the lecture say that it’s “unfair” to those who “sat through class” to distribute them to those who didn’t make the effort to attend class. To both sets of faculty I would just say: something else should be happening in class that makes attendance critical (and not just an attendance policy).

It makes sense to distribute slides to class prior to the class if they will help students learn more effectively during the class session itself. Students should be able to use the information to better prepare themselves for learning in the class, to ask more effective questions, to pursue lines of thought they couldn’t develop in class on the spur of the moment. I would often think that if I gave students the slides before class, I’d be giving away all my good “punch lines” and they’d be bored in class (or see that I had prepared and wasn’t “spontaneous”). That certainly would be the case if one is doing no more than reading from slides, but concepts, to be learned, need frequent reiterations, so you’re really not giving anything away by sharing slides before class.

It makes sense to distribute slides after class in most cases (see below for exceptions), since they become yet another source that students can refer to when studying the course material. Slides, even if they contain only a few words of information, can help students recall central concepts and “replay” class discussions. To the extent that your slides function as mnemonic devices, why withhold them from students. (If you’re not already doing this, uploading your slide set to Blackboard is as simple as uploading any other file.)

opposingIf you are lecturing from notes on your PowerPoint slides and only want the students to see the slides themselves since you have other information on “background” in the “notes” section that you’re not using in the presentation (e.g. “Stress this point because Emily and Sam seem to miss it consistently”), you can either make an edited slide set to upload, or, more simply, convert the set to a pdf and upload that; it will only capture your slides, not the notes. (From the main PowerPoint menu, simply “save as” a PDF.)

Slides that are mostly graphic, with images only. The main question here is whether the slides can be intelligible to the viewer (students) without you as an interpreter. Most of my slides, for example, are images which make little sense without the context I (or other students in class) provide. So I don’t distribute slides before a class, but I do make them available after the class so serve, as I noted above, as mnemonic devices for the students.


Other considerations.

  1. Use of copyright images or other material: images that you use in class are protected; images that you post to Blackboard are protected; but if students take your images and use them in ways that are not protected, well, that could violate copyright law. At the very least, make sure your images are credited and that you have discussed proper image use with your students.
  2. Your slides are, after all, your slides, your intellectual property. I’ve discussed before reasons why faculty might not want to share their syllabi on the internet. The same considerations would apply to your slide set. This would come down to an individual’s choice regarding how one thinks about intellectual property and its sharing. But I would stress that sharing slide sets with students via Blackboard is in a different category, and that faculty should be encouraged to do this for the reasons listed above. (You can always put a notice on the first slide: Property of x; all rights reserved.)

Dessert: Taking Microsoft off the Table: Keynote, other presentation software?

Microsoft’s PowerPoint, of course, is the standard. Much like “zipper” or “Xerox,” the term has come to stand in for all presentation software. Mac users are familiar with Keynote (which I’ve usually found to be a better presentation software in many ways), but Keynote doesn’t play nice with those who don’t have Macs and if you are combining slides with a PowerPoint user, it’s a giant headache.

Prezi is another option, and you’ve probably see it in operation at a conference. (If you’ve ever wondered why the “slides” seem to be moving from place to place on a very large canvas, that’s Prezi.) Prezi is wonderful in the kinds of engaging presentations you can create, seamlessly inserting visuals, text, and video, but you travel a fairly steep learning curve before you can learn to employ it very effectively, and if you don’t manage it well, your viewers will likely suffer from motion sickness as they are whiplashed around the screen.


Slidebean, another source of presentation software, has a website on the “Best Presentation Software of 2016” which, not surprisingly, finds their own product to be the best. Visme, another company, has its own “top 10” list of PowerPoint alternatives. (Guess who’s #1?). The good folks in OCTET can offer their own opinions. But for the vast majority of us, the choice comes down to using the presentation software that is most readily available, easiest to use, and most accessible to all of our students.

If that’s the case, than the key is learning how to use it in the best possible ways, i.e., in ways that help students learn and remember the most. A Prezi presentation might be just the thing for a conference, but not necessarily for sharing with your students. So in choosing presentation software, as with any educational technology, always focus on what are your primary learning goals and use the technology that can most easily serve those goals.

The Chocolates on the Table

I hope your appetite for presentation software is fully sated, but if you’re still hungry for more, send me some comments on how you use PowerPoint or other presentation software. I’m happy to prepare another feast.

Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 26, 2016

All images from Lewis Caroll, "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There" (London: McMillan, 1871)

All images from Lewis Caroll, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” (London: McMillan, 1871)

As part of a class assignment, two Muslim students from Middle Eastern countries attended a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia. What happened next was sobering. The students were members of a course in religious studies, “Religion in Philadelphia,” taught by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez of Temple University. In the course Alvarez sought to introduce her very diverse students to a variety of religious practices and institutions in the Philadelphia area.

I’ll quote from the article that Alvarez wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fostering Open Communication in a Culturally Diverse Classroom”) to describe what happened next:

They were enjoying the beautiful building and taking in unfamiliar practices — holy water, repeated kneeling and standing, communion lines — when a parishioner photographed them with her cellphone and then abruptly left. After the mass ended, they ran into her outside the church, where she asked them if they spoke Arabic — yes — and if they were Catholic — no. When the students walked to their vehicle, multiple police cars stopped them.

The incident thankfully ended without further offense to the students when they explained the nature of their assignment for their religion course. But it left them, their classmates, and the instructor deeply shaken. While the professor had prepped both the students and the institutions they would be visiting in a responsible and professional manner, Alvarez was left to wonder whether “in today’s xenophobic climate” she could “continue to assign interfaith exchanges to my diverse students?”

Acknowledging the Moment

alice2It’s probably fair to say that most of us whose lives are absorbed with teaching and learning share that concern. It is no exaggeration to say that the current political climate, and – let’s be frank here – the Trump campaign in particular, are making our job as educators that much harder. Calls to ban Muslims, introduce racial profiling, support stop-and-frisk policing, wall-off the U.S.-Mexican border, apply torture to suspected enemies, disqualify judges on the basis of ethnic origin, and other atrocities that Trump has endorsed, strike at the heart of democratic and human rights that are a vital part of national and international law and challenge the inclusiveness that is an essential ethical and moral underpinning of the educational process itself. (For a forceful rebuttal to the argument that college administrators and faculty must remain on the sidelines of all political contests, see “Help Stop Trumpian Calamity” by Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University.)

If the heightened xenophobia and fear exhibited across sectors of U.S. society has led faculty members to wonder if they can still conduct their classes in the ways that are necessary and have proven most fruitful to the learning process, the persistent killings of black men and women, and the concerted attempts by many students (and faculty and staff) of color to get higher education to respond in a serious fashion to a history of grievance and exclusion, are also shaping the classroom environment. All of this can make faculty feel, at times, that we are walking on eggshells, uncertain how to approach difficult topics (see below on what makes them “difficult”) or when a comment will head us in directions we feel ill prepared to pursue. All of which can lead to the feeling that we should keep our distance from such themes or rapidly steer away from them when they come up.

This is not to say that we are not used to teaching through discomfort – indeed, learning is often most successful when we create a context of discomfort that calls forth deeper questions and new answers. But, to be honest, most of us aren’t all that skilled at engaging topics that are outside our own comfort zone, ones we fear will be potentially explosive. And for most of us, race is often at the very top of the list. [(Among many others resources on this, see Beverly Tatum, Can We Talk About Race? (Beacon 2008)]. Why does race, in particular, offer itself as a “difficult” conversation? Derald Wing Sue, et al argue that difficult dialogues on race:

represent potentially threatening conversations or interactions between members of different racial or ethnic groups when they (a) involve an unequal status relationship of power and privilege, (b) highlight major differences in worldviews, personalities, and perspectives, (c) are challenged publicly, (d) are found to be offensive to others, (e) may reveal biases and prejudices, and (f) trigger intense emotional responses…Any individual or group engaged in a difficult dialogue may feel at risk for potentially disclosing intimate thoughts, beliefs, or feelings related to the topic of race.

It is important to be clear that “race” and, therefore, the “dialogues about race” that take place in U.S institutions of higher education, are relevant to every class that is taught, not just those that have “race” in the course title. Because we teach in institutions that are a part of a larger history of exclusion, and because we claim, even if we fall short of the mark, that we value inclusion, we are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., recognize what is going on) when we look out at the students sitting in our classes and see who is there and, more importantly, who isn’t. We are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., take steps to change our practice) when we devise our curriculum and see who is represented and who isn’t, when we examine our pedagogy and realize what kind of learning it attends to and what kind is pushed to the margins. In short, the discussion of race happens even when it doesn’t happen. So no one gets a free pass from this discussion.

These were some of the things that crossed my mind as I read Alvarez’s disheartening narrative. And so I wondered:  If the world outside our classrooms is becoming less hospitable to the conversations and interactions we need to have, and if we worry about how these essential discussions will happen in our classrooms if we are nervous and worried about missteps and feeling unprepared to have them, where will they happen?

Approaching Difficult Discussions

alice3The heart of Alvarez’s essay is not what happened to her students, but the advice she offers in order to engage these difficult conversations so that the pervasive xenophobia does not set the tone of her classes. She observes that encouraging these discussions requires “helping students develop an awareness of their own cultural narratives and differences,” and that we need concrete strategies if we’re going to do this. (I would only add that she could easily add “faculty and staff” to the category of “students.”) These strategies, she continues, “include explicitly clarifying the assumptions and methodologies of academic inquiry, breaking down required skills into components that are addressed at the assignment level, and, most crucially, making the classroom a safe place for discussion so relationships can grow and empathetic engagement can occur.”

“Yeah, right,” you’re probably thinking. Easier said than done, and bromides aren’t going to help me when I’ve opened the door to something I’m not prepared for.  And certainly we all know of examples (of colleagues, if not ourselves) where attempts at such discussions, or even less challenging ones, crashed off the rails. There are no guarantees that these discussions will prove useful for our students or ourselves; but there probably is a guarantee that avoidance of critical topics is abrogating our responsibilities.

Location and Context

Among the many suggestions that Alvarez raised to help educators think about engaging difficult discussions in the classroom, I found one in particular to be quite helpful. Faculty, she writes, should “instruct students in how to locate and contextualize their comments, and to model such behavior themselves. At a minimum, this involves indicating whether statements are based on experience, observation, academic research, or some other source.”

Her examples are illustrative. One student’s broad assertion that “Christians believe that Jesus is returning soon,” can, with purposeful questioning by the instructor, be located and contextualized into a more grounded, and limited, claim: “When I was growing up, I was taught in Baptist churches in Western Pennsylvania that Jesus is returning soon.”

She suggests that faculty help students specify the context or location of a statement they make or questions they offer. For example, when a student in Alvarez’s course stated that “Muslim women hide when men enter the home,” she asked that it be rephrased to help locate where that statement was coming from, whether it was generated by something the student read or observed, for example. A follow-up rephrasing that: “I read in an article by Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud that African-American Muslim women in Philadelphia in the 1970s often moved to the kitchen when men entered the home,” provides specific context for the assertion and also locates its origin in a research article.

Personal experience can also be brought in as part of the evidence, but it is to be contextualized as just that – personal experience.  Alvarez quotes from one of her students who responded to the first comment that, “When I was growing up in a Sunni home in Kuwait, my mother moved to a private area of the home when unrelated men entered.” Or, as another added, “In my extended family in Turkey, women welcomed friends and neighbors into their homes and ate with them as long as male relatives were also present.”

By contextualizing and locating statements or questions, broad claims that often leave us either speechless or wanting simply to close off the conversation can be further examined, contextualized, and evaluated on the basis of the evidence: direct evidence, reported evidence, academic evidence, cultural evidence, visual evidence, etc. Such an approach can move the discussion from a series of unsupported statements to a conversation based on evidence, while allowing students to “hear one another’s comments as unique experiences.” This kind of opening can easily lead, if one allows, to a deeper examination of what counts as evidence in our disciplines, as well as what might get left out or become undervalued, and whether critical voices in the discipline have explored ways to compensate for this.

alice4Further Suggestions

Beyond locating and contextualizing, Alvarez and others offer some suggestions that can help us think about how we can use these discussions to help generate greater understandings, light as well as heat:

  • No class member should be asked, or assumed, either by the faculty or other students, to speak for a whole group.
  • Don’t load the weight and responsibility of explaining racism on students of color; explaining homophobia on queer students; explaining Islamophobia on Muslim students. Audre Lorde put it quite succinctly: “People of color are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.”
  • Be aware of the ways that unconscious stereotyping and implicit bias impacts how we “see” our students, even if we are sure that we are not doing this and certainly don’t intend to stereotype. (CTIE’s workshop on “Implicit Bias,” on September 29, will address these issues.)
  • Respond to questions and situations honestly: “I’m unsure right now,” or, “Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with that, too. Is there a way we can talk about it?”

These conversations are not easy to have, and it is likely that some will go awry. But as the public conversation becomes more degraded, it increasingly falls to us take on and model discussions that need to happen. As the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano reminded us, describing what he called the “looking glass [upside down] school” which “teaches us to suffer reality, not change it; to forget the past, not learn from it,” we can do things differently if we put our minds to it. Perhaps, Galeano continued, there is “no disgrace without grace, no sign without a countersign, and no school that does not beget its counterschool” [Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World, (Picador 1998)]. Creating the space for difficult discussions is one way to foster those increasingly needed “counterschool” spaces.

Good Job! Responding to student answers in order to spur learning

Steve Volk, September 19, 2016

Me: In the chapter you were reading this week, Silverblatt argued that the Spanish inquisition as carried out in Peru in the 17th century was a “modern” institution. Would you agree and how does her argument fit with what we’ve been discussing in class?

Student: This chapter really made me think about what “modern” actually means in terms of what we’ve been talking about. I mean, the Inquisition seemed to have a whole bureaucracy that went with it and even thought it followed different sorts of rules than we have now, there still were rules and procedures for actions that seemed to treat everyone who got caught up in it equally. It makes me think that Spanish colonialism was attempting a new approach to control that brought it into new territory.

Me: Good job!

You: I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Sheet Music, NY Public Library, 1896

Sheet Music, NY Public Library, 1896

The bread and butter of much of what we do in the classroom involves questions and answers. Whether the class is fully discussion-based or primarily lecture-driven, our questions – and the students’ responses – are a critical way to engage learning, assess who has done the work we assigned, discover what questions remain, and edge into new territory. The “Q&A” of a class is probably the prime argument for face-to-face, synchronous learning since it is in these question and answer exchanges that we often discover the most productive, and unplanned, learning opportunities.

In earlier articles (here and here, for example), I’ve written about ways to foster or organize discussions in class. But the casual, usually unplanned, questions we scatter about, and the answers they elicit, are a much more common occurrence in the classroom. They are like seeds to the soil, each with the possibility of germinating and growing into full-fledged discussions and greater insights.

We all employ a standard set of questions types that we use in discussions, some of which are more productive than others:

The question that we use to see if the students did the reading, were paying attention in class, or can bring in new information to help the conversation: “So, what else was going on in Europe when Stravinsky composed the ‘Rite of Spring’?”

The more unfortunate can-you-guess-what-I-have-in-my-mind question: “Remember what we were talking about at the start of the semester? How does that relate to today’s reading?”

The generative question that doesn’t have a single answer but can promote a fruitful discussion: “What would life on earth be like if our planet had a weaker gravitational pull?”

The time-to-move-to-a-new-issue question that is guaranteed to produce no answers at all: “Any questions at this point?”

For now, however, I’m more interested in how we respond to student answers than in how we ask questions. And so, my question to you:

Are there ways to respond to a student’s answer that can model the kinds of inquiry, discussion, and interactions that we see as an important part of their learning?

In this, I’m particularly interested in – can you guess what’s on my mind? Anyone? Anyone? – how we respond to students who give what we think of as the best answers to our questions, i.e., the student in the opening dialogue who was right on target.

Stewit – Flickr cc.

Stewit – Flickr cc.

When They Are Wrong

To begin: There are a lot of ways to deal with answers that are either factually wrong or otherwise off base, and we all know them. I don’t believe it’s ever appropriate to demean or embarrass the student in the Kingsfieldian mode of “Paper Chase” (“Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”) To my mind, such a degrading response is not a demonstration of “tough love” or hardening our “coddled” students for “the real world.” Such a response only reinforces what they already know: that we hold power over them. Correction should be about guiding learning, not deriding the learner.

You can simply say: “Nope, not right,” and invite other students to have a go at it. Depending on the nature of the question (i.e., something other than a simple fact), you can try to find out where the first student went wrong, which is almost always more productive than simply coming up with the correct answer. Such an approach embodies the assurance that the first student has the capacity to come up with the right answer, and that her misstep is a common one that can produce greater insight for the class as a whole.

You can move on to another answer without responding to the first (incorrect) answer, hoping that the next student will be able to provide the correct information, at which point – and, again depending on how important the issue is – you can ask the student who got the right answer to explain how she got there.

Hart Schaffner & Marx, Chicago, c. 1919, New York Public Library

Hart Schaffner & Marx, Chicago, c. 1919, New York Public Library

In domains where there really aren’t “correct” answers, your responses will be geared to the characteristics of the student’s answer:

  • That’s a good point, but it’s not what we’re exploring here (and either suggest you’ll come back to it or just drop it);
  • Interesting observation: can you tell me what evidence you used to get to that conclusion since I wouldn’t have gone there myself?
  • Nope: Voltaire died before John Stuart Mill was born, so it’s pretty hard to argue that Mill influenced Voltaire’s work. But what’s the connection you see between Mill and Voltaire?

When They Are Unclear

A lot of times, I find myself unable to understand what a student is arguing (sometimes because I literally can’t hear them: Can you repeat that?). Probably more than I should, I’ll say “Uh huh” and move on to someone else. When I’m on my game, I’ll ask the student to repeat the answer, saying I’m not sure that I understood it, or ask if there are other students who can clarify the answer for the class. If it’s clear where the student’s “misdirection” is coming from, I’ll try to point it out. Or, if there are terms used in the answer that I either don’t understand or think the student is using incorrectly, I’ll try to focus on that. Often this is a way that students can bring knowledge gained in another class into your class, to everyone’s benefit.

When They Are Right

"Questions," Emily 2005, Flickr cc

“Questions,” Emily 2005, Flickr cc

We have a number of standard responses to answers that are “correct” (i.e., provide accurate factual information, present a strong analysis, accurately sum up an author’s argument, etc.). Most often, we’ll just give some affirmative confirmation: Yes! Exactly! Right! Good job!

But I would argue that how we respond to the student who provides an informed answer is even more important than how we respond to incorrect answers since our response allows us to model the kind of inquiry we’re interested in promoting. Factually correct responses can just be affirmed, often by repeating and rephrasing the answer for emphasis and clarity: yes, photosynthesis is the process used by plants (and some other organisms) to convert light energy into chemical energy.

For deeper questions, open-ended and analytical, affirming the correctness of a student’s answer with a “Good job!” doesn’t help the other students (or even the student who answered) understand why that answer is a good one, or, more generally, what makes for a good answer other than its “correctness.”. It’s important to take the time (again, when dealing with what you consider to be the most critical issues) to explain more: “Great. Here’s what I thought was important about your answer: you explained it on the basis of evidence from the readings and even noted what Katie said in class last week; you extended some of the arguments we have been making in class, and you even suggested some problems you had with Freud’s analysis, putting forward your own interpretations.” At which point you can ask others in the class whether they agree with the student’s critique of Freud.

What’s being modeled is that arguments are based on evidence, that evidence can be gathered from many sources, that it’s important for students to listen to each other in class as well as you, since good discussions are often at the basis of their learning, that insightful analysis can produce good critiques, and that it’s important to take a bit of a risk and challenge some of the ideas that have an authoritative standing.

Granted, not every response will be as thorough, and sometimes we’ll just say “Exactly!” when a student gives a thoughtful answer, but slipping in some of these more extended responses can be of great help for all in the class.

A Culturally Responsive Approach

Finally, one critical element of responding to students in class is the ability to listen deeply and with an awareness of cultural differences among our students. Culturally responsive teaching, as Pedro Noguera argues, recognizes that we need to be teaching the way that students learn, rather than expecting students to learn the way that we teach. Lisa Delpit, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Educational Excellence at Florida International University and a graduate of Antioch College, stresses that while the main resource we bring to the classroom is our own expert knowledge, this knowledge is layered on the skills and knowledge that our students have brought with them. The knowledge that is gained, say, growing up on the south side of Chicago may not be reflected in the text by a prominent urban sociologist we have assigned.  But when that lived knowledge is cited by a student as evidence for an argument it deserves to be heard and treated as important information to be considered seriously rather than dismissed out of hand.

John Dewey, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, New York Public Library

John Dewey, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, New York Public Library

In many ways this is an expansion of arguments that John Dewey introduced in The School and Society (1899). Dewey argued that school curricula (he was talking about younger students, to be sure) should be student-centered, based on students’ own interests. This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t teach physics or economics if students aren’t “interested” in them, but that teachers can support more learning by connecting each student’s life experiences and interests to the existing curriculum. Raising questions and responding to answers in culturally responsive ways can help do this work.

And now, about the Spanish inquisition…

Office Hours: The Doctor is In

Steve Volk, September 12, 2016

A Scene In The New York Eye And Ear Infirmary, Second Avenue And Thirteenth Street, During The Hours For The Reception Of Patients. 1875. NY Public Library

A Scene In The New York Eye And Ear Infirmary, Second Avenue And Thirteenth Street, During The Hours For The Reception Of Patients. 1875. NY Public Library

After a faculty/staff workshop last week, I was able to chat for a moment with one participant, new to the college. She remarked that she was surprised that so many of her students had shown up for office hours in the first week of classes. Most, she remarked, were worried that they were already falling behind or that they were not “getting it”. I wasn’t surprised, but I also suggested that the students who came to her office were not necessarily the ones she needed to keep an eye on. Often it is those who don’t show up that one should be concerned about.

My experience, shared by others, is that two different kinds of students most often come to office hours: those who are quite prepared in the class, know the material, and know that office hours will help them to excel in the class or are a way to get to know the faculty member, which they understand is important. The other kind are students who are struggling, but often know the ways that they are struggling. In other words, they can generally form a question as a way to begin a productive conversation.

But the students who don’t come to office hours are often the very ones who could use the most attention: the students who: (a) are so confused by the course material that they can’t formulate a question about it; (b) are embarrassed by having to ask a question, thinking that since they have gotten into a selective college, they should be able to figure it out for themselves; or, (c) worry that they are imposing on the instructor’s time and have had no previous experience asking for help outside the classroom.

After reading the “Letters to the Editor” in this week’s Oberlin Review (Sept. 9, 2016), I find I must add another category: those who feel such “an overwhelming sense of shame and self-blame” about outcomes in a class that they will not speak to the instructor. It’s not my purpose to criticize or even analyze such sentiments, although the student’s recommendation, that it is the administration’s task to “do more to…encourage students to approach their professors,” suggests that (some) students are coming to rely more on the administration to resolve their issues with the faculty, whereas, to me, this seems an obvious shared responsibility for faculty and students, not administrators.

Leonard Chien, Flickr, CC

Leonard Chien, Flickr, CC

But let’s think about office hours for a few minutes, and focus in particular on how instructors can encourage students to seek out faculty support after class, since faculty office hours are available, and what can happen during office hours can increase the students’ ease at asking questions and taking away gained knowledge.


The Invite: Getting Students to Come

We put office hours on our syllabi, announce them in class, remind students to come see us if they have any questions, particularly before papers are due or exams are given. We invite them to see us if they have any questions about a grade received and, particularly, what they can do to prepare for the next paper or exam. Such invitations are usually sufficient to round up the usual suspects, i.e., those described above: students who are familiar with academic practices and the foundational rationale of the residential liberal arts college, that faculty are here because of the opportunities we have to engage with students. We have research obligations, and families, and our own lives to live, but we have signed on at a liberal arts college for the opportunity (and challenge) of being with students without the intervening layers of TA’s or graders.

We take steps to make sure that the students who have scheduling conflicts with our posted hours can find a time to see us. We schedule additional hours “by appointment” (although the formality of that invite might put some off, whereas a statement that, “if you can’t make the regularly scheduled hours, we’ll working something out; just send me an email,” could produce more positive results). Would such measures have encouraged the letter-writing student who waited 15 months before getting in contact with her professor to come in (and discover that the posted grade she was embarrassed about was recorded in error)? Hard to say; probably not, so other approaches should also be employed.

Some faculty have begun to use “virtual” office hours as a way to accommodate students who can’t make regular, face-to-face office hours. The easiest way to do this is through a commercial (mostly free) product such as:

  • Google Hangouts (free video conferencing);
  • Skype (you can be sure that most of your students will already be on Skype);
  • Zoom,, Jive Chime are other products that offer screen and multimedia sharing as well as group conferencing and offer free (if limited) access.

But, given that the basic argument for a residential liberal arts college is that students can talk to us face to face, in-person meetings are what we want to stress.

Hour glasses; Players Cigarettes. New York Public Library

Hour glasses; Players Cigarettes. New York Public Library

Often, faculty send emails to a specific student, or catch them after class, to encourage (or require) them to stop by during office hours. This approach will work for a few more students who needed the extra push, but, again, probably not for those who seem more nervous about such meetings or are less aware of their purpose. Some students imagine that if they don’t come in to see us the “problem” – for why else would we be asking them to stop by – will go away. Others, as suggested by the letter-writer, are embarrassed or “overwhelmed” by “self-blame.” How to get to those students?

The easiest way, which probably only works for smaller classes with 20-25 students or less, is by requiring that all students sign up for a meeting with you at least once in the first module, if not more. This is particularly important in first-year seminars as a way to introduce students to the practice of office hours if they are not already familiar with the concept. By inviting all your students in to office hours, you insure that such visits are not seen as an occasion for the instructor to tell the student what she is “doing wrong,” or that she is “in deep trouble,” but a regular part of an education and that they are quite valuable for many reasons, not the least of which is to get to know the professor better.

But what about in larger classes where the possibility of meeting individually with each of 50+ students is impossible? You’ve sent out the general invitation, posted it on your syllabus, encouraged students in class, and even sought out the particular student after class inviting him to come to your office hours. Still no visit. One suggestion is to approach that student directly after class ends and ask if he has a few minutes free right then to talk. No need to go to an office –find a spot outside the flow of traffic where you can give him a sense of what you’d like to talk about during regular office hours, and try to set up a future appointment. For example:

  • “I’ve noticed that you’re very quiet in class but I can see from the short comments you’re posting on Blackboard you have a lot to offer the class. Maybe we can figure out a way for you to contribute to the other students’ learning by speaking up. Come to office hours and we can talk more about this.” Or,
  • “I noticed in your first exam that some issues of algebra are difficult for you and are making it hard for you in general chemistry. The college offers a lot of peer support and other help in those areas. Can we set up a time for you to come in to speak with me so I can make sure you know about where you can get exactly the help you need?” Or simply,
  • “I’m often fascinated/curious/intrigued by some of the comments you make in class. I’d love to talk to you more about them. Can we set up a time for you to come in?”

Sometimes students, a few, to be sure, find it intimidating to come to your office, so a “neutral” space – meeting in the library, the student union, the local coffee shop, or outside on the lawn if it’s good weather – can help in that regard.

And if you think that students should “get over it,” cut the crap, take responsibility and  just come to office hours, that may be true… but you also might be losing the one or two students who actually want help but lack the cultural capital (particularly the experience in academic life) to know how to get it.

Finally, if none of these strategies work – and I’d be happy to post other suggestions that colleagues have that have worked for them – you might think of contacting that student’s class dean or advisor to suggest the nature of the issue. I’ve found it unusual for students to resist repeated attempts to coax them to office hours, but for those who simply won’t come in, something else is probably involved and it won’t necessarily be resolved on the student-faculty level.

What Comes up in Office Hours

From Henry Campkin, "Peter Little and the Lucky Sixpence" (1851). British Library

From Henry Campkin, “Peter Little and the Lucky Sixpence” (1851). British Library

There has been (probably too much) discussion in the media about “safe spaces” and the “comfort” level of students nowadays. But there is no doubt in my mind that office hours must be seen as a safe space for all students, particularly for those who have been reticent about coming in or who might otherwise be wary of why they have been asked to come in. That doesn’t mean that difficult topics aren’t to be discussed (why they failed the last exam, didn’t turn in a paper, or have missed two weeks of classes). But for students whose prior experiences with teachers have been fundamentally negative, creating the space where one can talk is essential.

For most student visits, the nature of the visit will soon become apparent: to talk about an assignment, to go over an exam, or to clarify some points that came up in lecture or discussion. We all know how to engage such conversations.

Others can prove more complicated:

  • There are times when it becomes clear that the student is in over her head, by which I mean that she lacks some fundamental skills (reading, calculation, etc.) that are required for the course but that you can’t provide. Often we will take a lot of time to try to offer the help required. But it is also important to point the student to the help she can get elsewhere: the Learning Assistance Program, peer tutoring in writing, quantitative tutoring, or the sciences. If you think the student will need additional support, it’s a good idea to contact that person’s advisor (you can find him/her on Blackboard), or class dean.
  • Conversations may quickly turn toward more personal issues. You will have to determine whether that kind of conversation is one that you want to or are prepared to handle: troubles with boy/girlfriends, issues at home, questions of identity, or other serious matters. The longer one works with students, the sooner one comes to realize whether this is a conversation you feel it is important to engage in, or whether it is an area that you clearly lack the expertise to take on, and that the student needs to go elsewhere for help and advice. In this matter we are under some obligations (to pass on evidence of sexual harassment, or evidence of cheating, for example), and many matters are better handled by counselors, class deans, friends, or other trained personnel.
  • There is an abundance of evidence (here, here, here) that faculty of color and women faculty are likely to be turned to in moments of distress (particularly by students of color or female students) and invited into personal conversations. This added burden has been called “cultural taxation,” and few administrations have figured out how to compensate faculty or staff for the time required to take on such advising. How faculty/staff of color handle such conversations is beyond the scope of this article, but the evidence is quite clear that they will be asked more, are likely to be more generous with their time, and will find themselves uncompensated for their generosity and sense of responsibility.

Helping Students Become Problem Solvers

I have been fortunate to sit in on some training sessions for some of Oberlin’s peer tutors. The message in those sessions is always the same: tutors provide guidance to allow the students to solve their own problems, they don’t provide the answers. This is often the same message at office hours: when students come to your hours with problems they can’t solve, your task is to help them solve them for themselves, not to provide them with answers. One entry into this is to help students figure out the source of the problem: inaccuracies in reading, thinking, computation.

Linda Acitelli, Beverly Black, and Elizabeth Axelson of the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, provide some very useful approaches to these issues, and I recommend you take a look at their article, “Learning and Teaching During Office Hours.”

But, in the end, if students aren’t coming to your office hours, you can’t provide the advice they could benefit from. So think about how you are going to get them to come, and send in the strategies that have helped in the past.

Transformitive Mentoring Communities

Steve Volk, September 5, 2016



               Marge Piercy, “To be of use”

York Minster Cathedral, England

York Minster Cathedral, England

Our work as teachers, at its best, can be transformational for the students we reach. We work hard to make this happen even if the results we seek are often hidden to us or only apparent years later. The labor of teachers reminds me of those medieval architects who planned the great cathedrals certain only that they would never see the results of their efforts. If we are fortunate, we discover that the seeds of growth we scattered have taken root. A student from years ago sends us an email of thanks, or we come upon a happy notice in the alumni magazine or the New York Times. And we are very pleased.

And we should be. Even if we are quite privileged to be teaching where we are, we are nevertheless part of a higher education sector that faces massive challenges, from growing student debt to decreasing legislative support for the very notion of a liberally informed public. And the crisis in higher ed is but a small part of the nation’s problems, tested as it is by growing inequality, persistent discrimination, and a political system that has become increasingly unhinged. And our country is part of a world torn by violence and baking under the fierce sun of climate change.

Still, in the face of all these impediments, those who work in our colleges and universities (not to mention in the K-12 sector) are committed to the proposition that we can make things better one student at a time. Yes, in the most transactional sense, we claim our salaries on the basis of just doing our job, not changing the world, but our job is teaching and the goal of teaching is individual (as well as collective) improvement and empowerment. We seek to make a better world one student at a time.

My question for today is whether we ever pause to think about ourselves, as faculty and staff, and our own needs for formation and transformation, in the same way? Our frustrations with our institutions may be myriad, but rarely do we take the time to see ourselves as we see our students, as individuals needing to be nurtured and mentored one person at a time, to create better selves, better communities, and a better world. We talk constantly, depressingly, about what makes our work disheartening, tense, fragmented. We complain; we become cynical. But can we take the steps needed to change what we can, one person at a time, until we again find our values confirmed in our institutions, until we have created the communities that can sustain us? Can we rebuild trust and find some shared way forward?

I’d say yes.

The Friendly Invitation, 1802. John Kay engraver. New York Public Library

The Friendly Invitation, 1802. John Kay engraver. New York Public Library

What if you received an invitation, in the form of an email, phone call, or personal conversation, that invited you to participate in a community of “respect, regard, acceptance, and trust, in which others want to see and encourage the best in you.” Would you accept that invitation?

This question was posed in a book by Peter Felten, H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Aaron Kheriaty and Edward Taylor, Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher Education (Wiley 2013). I discovered it while hunting for some advice on programs of faculty mentoring. What I found was actually a proposal (and a template) for creating sustaining communities can liberate spaces within higher education where faculty and staff can, in the words of Parker Palmer, “reflect on our work and life,” while “remembering our calling, exploring meaning and purpose, clarifying personal values, and realigning our lives with them.”

The authors of Transformative Conversations present a case for the creation of small groups, Formation Mentoring Communities (FMCs) — which I have taken the liberty of renaming Transformative Mentoring Communities (TMCs) — in order help in crafting the kind of professional, personal, and institutional lives we seek. These are voluntary, free-forming groups that come together to engage in meaningful conversations designed to build trust, reinvigorate ourselves, rebuild the communities that sustain us, and by extension, nudge the academy to resemble more of what we want it to be.

If TMCs are the Solution, What’s the Problem?

One needn’t have experienced the past few, trying years to know that as faculty and staff we face many trials in our college communities today (not even mentioning the broad structural impediments of finances, equity, and access). I would point to four of these as I think about the challenges we face as we attempt to shape new communities to address them.

Building trust among colleagues:

In general, we relate to colleagues through the organizational channels that our institutions have designed (departments and offices, faculty or staff meetings, committees, etc.) and as a part of the culture that permeates higher education (often competitive, not always willing or able to overcome historical patterns of discrimination, increasingly tied to the consumerist orientation of parents if not students, legislators if not administrators). Sometimes we meet through other, fortuitous overlaps: our kids’ schools, soccer clubs, religious practices. Many of these interactions are useful in getting to know one another; others make this more difficult. Large faculty meetings are designed to accomplish specific tasks, must follow specific procedures, and are (shall we say) not particularly known for nuanced or sensitive dialogue. Departments and programs can be friendly, but your colleagues will be called upon to evaluate you at some point. As small as our colleges are, we have few opportunities to sit down and talk with others at length and over time, to get to know them. And we cannot address our differences or build the trust needed to move ahead unless we know each other.

Attending to the relation between work and self:

As members of an academic community, we are busy in multitudinous ways. We teach, carry out research, rehearse and perform, write and paint. We advise and mentor students, go to athletic events to see our students compete and plays to see them perform. We have lives that may include partners, children, and, if we work at it, friends. (A pair studies in the American Sociological Review from 1985 and 2006 found that the number of people, including family members, with whom randomly selected interview subjects discussed “important matters” has declined over time, and wasn’t very large to start with.) We attend countless meetings where agendas are handed us, work carried out, and outcomes evaluated. In 30 years of teaching I noticed that the “unoccupied” spaces I had – “free” time between given tasks – diminish precipitously. When I began teaching, I would find 5, 10, 15 minute periods between larger obligations that I could use to think about what I was doing. Now, since I can answer an email or a text in 30 seconds, there is no space small enough that I can’t fill with some kind of work (or what has come to pass as “work”). I’m find myself with no time to think about what I’m doing, how my values are reflected in my work, how my work is reflected in larger transformative missions.

Developing a culture of mentoring:

Colleges and universities have developed many mentoring programs, some better than others. Most offer “coaching” models where senior faculty/staff members advise junior faculty/staff. There are a number of concerns with such a model, beginning with the most obvious: in a true mentoring relationship, both partners in the relationship have chosen each other, they are not assigned to each other. But, beyond this, the standard mentoring relationship accepts that there is a status difference between “mentor” and “mentee,” and that the learning or advice goes in one direction. We all need mentoring.

Build community:

Even given that much of our professional time as is spent with others in teaching, meetings or committee work, the work we do can be profoundly isolating. Most often, we carry out our research, study and plan by ourselves. We often think that the challenges we face in our classrooms, in residential education, or in the library or art museum are challenges faced by each one of us, alone. Reward structures often heightens competition rather than collegiality. Further, as academics, we are by nature critical rather than nurturing, always ready to answer “yes, but” rather than valuing what is said to us. We must attend to the communities we need for support and growth.

From "The River Dee. Its aspect and history" (1887). British Library

From “The River Dee. Its aspect and history” (1887). British Library

Transformative Mentoring Communities

In Transformative Conversations, the authors suggest that Formation Mentoring Communities (FMCs), what I’m calling Transformative Mentoring Communities (TMCs), are one way to begin to address these challenges.

TMCs are small conversation groups of 4-8 members “characterized by solidarity, concern, reciprocity, and mutual respect” [19]. They are “cooperative, egalitarian arrangements that focus on the good of group members themselves,” that exist “to help participants explore, form, articulate, and live out their values” [21]. The conversation groups come together of their own initiative, meet on a regular basis (usually bi-weekly or monthly), and form a particular kind of community – one aimed toward formation and nurtured by conversation.

As important is what TMCs are not: They’re not committees (with obligations, timelines, external outcomes), they are not sponsored (they do not “report” to anyone), no one is required to attend a TMC,  and they are not therapeutic groups designed to heal wounds (although they may do just that). TMCs offer a type of organization through which faculty and staff can create new ways of relating to each other and new forms of realizing one’s own values.

For the authors of Transformative Conversations, TMCs can create new possibilities for collegial interaction and institutional change.

  • They create hospitable spaces where participants will be listened to, heard, and welcomed.
  • They offer safe environments for their members. The notion of the “safe-space” is a charged topic in higher education today as relates to students. The members of TMCs understand, on the other hand, that we will be more likely to take risks, to “let go of the reins of self-consciousness that bind us to the known” when we are in hospitable and, yes, safe environments.
  • Academics rarely talk of courage but it takes courage to recognize and act on one’s core values, and TMCs can help participants so this.
  • Honesty often puts us in contexts of vulnerability. In the academic world, we often either see ourselves, or expect that others will see us, as the “smartest people in the room,” the ones who know all the answers, who know what to do. TMC participants, on the other hand, have the honesty to bring their “imperfect selves” into the group.
  • Trust is foundational to TMC communities – trust in each other so that participants can speak honestly, listen attentively, and be more present. And trust in a process whose end is not scripted or known and can take a long time to develop.
  • As diversity is a condition for human growth and flourishing, so TMCs need to explore diverse aspects of individual and group identities, taking the time to build the trust necessary for deep engagement across differences.
  • TMCs require the humility to admit that we don’t have the answers, whether we have been here 35 years or six months; we don’t know where the journey may take us but are optimistic about the possibilities.
  • TMCs require that participants be accountable for their actions: as professionals, to the members of the community, and to ourselves. In this context, accountability is a process of encouragement, not evaluation.
  • The purpose of the TMC is not specifically to build friendships, but that is often the result. The authors, all of whom have participated in their own TMCs, describe the friendships that evolved in their own mentoring communities as what Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics, books IX and XIII) called “genuine” friendships. They were built not only by affection but by “concrete acts of the will.”

How Do You Create an TMC?

TMCs can be created by individuals who have come to the conclusion that they want to be a part of institutions that affirm their values and unite them in a nourishing community, and that to do so takes time, energy, dedication, and commitment over the long run. They come from faculty and staff who recognize that the communities we want to create, the institutions we hope to strengthen, are not going to arise from a single convocation, from multiple workshops, from lofty strategic plans or from administrative mandates. They will only come when we decide to change our own culture, when we engage in our own “transformative conversations.”

Two women in conversation on the street, 1913. New York Public Library.

Two women in conversation on the street, 1913. New York Public Library.

Who can create an TMC? You, me, us. Transformative Mentoring Communities are usually groups of 4-8 people, faculty and staff, who commit to meet on a regular basis, usually every two weeks or at least once a month, and set their own agenda as they develop. They begin when individuals reflect on their hopes and aspirations, think about who on campus might share similar intentions, and invite those others to join them in a conversation where they can “work toward what is best for each other.” Members can come from one’s department or office, but they don’t have to (and TMCs should avoid having individuals in the same group who are involved in a formal evaluation of one another’s professional work). When thinking about the membership of an TMC, consider the issues on campus that are most contentious or that could most benefit from prolonged and engaged conversation, where building trust is positive goal. Consider diversity and joining together individuals at different career stages; think about bringing faculty and staff together. But, above all, try to find a common thread for your TMC, something that can weave the group together.

You can invite members to the group by talking with them and asking them for their reaction to the very idea of a “transformative” conversational and mentoring group. Ask colleagues to lunch to explore the idea, explaining your own hopes for a group and why you are asking them to join.

Once the membership is determined, all you have to do is choose a meeting space and time. Group members should commit to set aside that time for a regular meeting. Usually, it’s up to the convener to set the agenda for the first meeting, to provide a framework for why the group is meeting. The group can decide to read something in common, to react to a quotation, poetry, or particular topics. The agenda is free for you to pursue as you create your communities. Once established, the basic rules of the TMC are collaborative stewardship – no single individual is in charge of the meetings or the process — shared facilitation, confidentiality, and a commitment to creating a different sort of space on campus where the traditional ways of operating do not apply.

TMCs are about helping their members strengthen the values that shape their lives and determine their practice. To the extent that these groups expand and incorporate more and more people on campus, it is my hope that we will be able to change our culture and our institutions to better reflect who we are and what we believe is important. In the end, it’s up to us to make these changes.

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community

Steven Volk, August 29, 2016

Suzuki Shōnen, "Butterflies," ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Suzuki Shōnen, “Butterflies,” ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Whether it’s your first year of teaching or your 30th, butterflies will likely take up residence in your stomach, kidneys, or any other organ of their choosing as the first day of classes draws near. Students often seem surprised when I admit to a massive case of the nerves at the start of the semester (and even more surprised when I tell them I get jumpy before every class during the semester). As much as nerves can rob one of much needed sleep, there’s also something wonderful about the preparation for the start of classes that I’ve long appreciated (and often commented on).

We may celebrate the New Year on January first or according to the demands of our liturgical calendars, but our real new year, complete with resolutions but probably absent the champagne, begins in late August, and with it comes the promise that this time we will “get it right,” for goodness sake! As much as we remain ourselves year after year, we also have the opportunity of re-invention each fall, of learning from past practice and reflecting on ways that this time, for sure, we will finally address our most serious challenges and take advantage of overlooked opportunities.

It’s not an easy time in higher education, or in the country, but we are remarkably privileged to be where we are, doing what we love to do, and working with students who may have overcome any number of obstacles and challenges to be here with us.

Tell Them What They (Really) Want to Know

So here’s some advice for the first day/week of classes. You’ve heard some (maybe all) of it before, but, repetition never hurts. (Already the first piece of advice: you’ll need to repeat the information you give to students on the first day of class. Don’t expect them to have “heard” it, and the more important the information, the more the need for replication).

The syllabus is a strange mixture of legal contract and teaching document. While it needs to signal to students what we expect of them (as well as what they should require of us), it can be particularly off-putting if the main thing students encounter is a list of and restrictions and injunctions. So it is for the first day of class: to greet students with a catalog of prohibitions (no laptops, put away your smart phones, don’t come in late) is not much of a welcome, and, anyway, there will be time to get to that.


Certainly, students will want to know what the course they have signed up for is about, but since the content of most of our courses is largely self-evident, I would suggest that students really want to know something else. They want to know what is it you have found so exciting, intriguing, or challenging about your field to keep you with it for years – if not decades. Your students will explore the field with you for the next 15 weeks. Maybe they have already discovered the questions that have brought them to your classroom, but letting your students know why you came to study economics or neuroscience or dance is a way of signaling that you once sat where they now sit, with more questions than answers. What they want to know is how you got from that first class to where you are today. What were the questions you encountered you felt compelled to answer? Who helped you answer them? Who gave you support when you needed it?

You’re not going to answer all of those question on the first day, but just by raising them you can bring students to your enthusiasm for your subject while letting them know that you, the expert, understand what it means to be on the other side of the desk, to be a novice. You will find time later to unpack assignments and readings, and in any case you might want to give them the syllabus as the first reading assignment in the course before discussing it. But for the first class: tell them why what you do is important to you and how you hope it will matter to them as well.

Thinking as Educators

In an earlier posting (“Classroom Communities and College Communities,” March 4, 2013), I proposed that colleges contain two kinds of communities, one that we build within our individual classrooms, and one that, collectively, we attempt to create across the college as a whole. I want to borrow a bit from that article to discuss the first kind of community, the one we generate in our classrooms, and how to think about that in the context of the start of the semester.

If we do our jobs well, over the course of the semester we will construct an authentic community in each of our classes where, on the first day of the semester, we probably found a group of individuals who shared little in common other than being in the same place at the same time. What we want is to create a community where students not only come to share a interest in the subject matter, but also feel a sense of kinship such that each is eager to support the learning of the others.

How do we get from here to there?

A good way to start is to engage students with the challenge of building that community. What do they think will lend the greatest support to the creation of the kind of learning community they (and you) have in mind?

As teachers, we are aware of the standards to which we hold students: we expect them to be respectful of each other and of us, to challenge but not disrupt the class, to be aware of the ways that words (and actions) have histories and carry consequences, as well as being cognizant that as learners we all make mistakes and should/must be able to learn from them.

Each of us likely negotiates differently the fine line between risk and comfort, challenge and disruption. But it is always good practice to engage students in a discussion of the kind of community they want to see in their classroom. In particular, you can ask them to develop the rules they think would most support and sustain productive learning. One benefit of asking students to develop their own rules of classroom engagement is that they become responsible for maintaining the rules (and can be reminded of them later in the course). Obviously, there is no guarantee that a set of rules alone will prevent behaviors that can eat away at classroom community, but establishing a shared starting point can be helpful.

Photo: Steve Volk

LA Graffiti: Photo: Steve Volk

Some years ago, I came across some advice that Audrey Thompson, a professor of education studies at the University of Utah, put in her syllabus, and it helped me think about the kind of community I wanted to create in my own classroom. Here’s some of what she wrote,

I will be asking everyone in the class to think like educators: if you feel that you have a better understanding of particular materials than do other students, ask yourselves what you have had to learn to get to this point, and see if you can make that understanding available to others (without lecturing them).

Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. What Thompson argues in this regard, and what I have found to be useful in my own classroom practice, is that students should be reminded that they are not only students but also teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.

Thompson continues:

If you feel threatened by particular people in the class, think about how to address them so as to get past the impasse: how can you teach them how you would like to learn from them? Thinking as educators means attending to the conditions of learning as well as to whether everyone is learning.

When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility. As student-learners, they do not want faculty or other students to disrespect or abuse them; as student-educators, they need to be aware when their actions have the same effect on their peers or on us.

Thompson concludes as follows:

Thinking as educators…doesn’t mean that no one can ever get angry or that everyone should always be ‘nice,’ but it does mean that you have to show respect for others. ‘Difficult’ behavior – and indeed ‘nice’ behavior as well – becomes an issue when 1) not everyone has the chance to speak; 2) not everyone is listened to; 3) someone is abusive, patronizing, or disrespectful; 4) opposing stances are not acknowledged and addressed when people have questions about them; and/or 5) people expect other people to understand their position when they have not explained their position.

We can create positive classroom communities in a variety of ways: via the knowledge that is generated, the relationships that are supported, the challenges that are addressed and overcome. But as Vincent Tino argued in “Classrooms as Communities,” student engagement will always play a central role in what happens for the simple reason that if students aren’t engaged, learning will not occur to the full extent it should. (A future workshop will explore the ways that implicit bias and what has been called the “stereotype threat” can make it harder for certain students, because of race, gender, religion, sexuality or disability, to feel that they are legitimate members of the academic community we are working to create on campus.)

The start of the semester is a spectacular time to engage students in the excitement we feel about the subjects we teach, and to invite them into a classroom community that will thrive to the extent that all take responsibility for both teaching and learning.

Teaching Tips for the New Semester

Steve Volk, August 22, 2016

Frank Boyd, "In Memory," Creative Commons Flickr

Frank Boyd, “In Memory,” Creative Commons Flickr

So I walked out to my driveway… and I couldn’t remember what I was there to do. Trash goes out Wednesday nights and it was Tuesday, so not that. Not to fix the flat on my bike, either; I forgot to pick up the patching kit in town. It won’t be until the next morning, in the shower, that I finally remember that I needed to ask my neighbor to feed the cats while we’re away.

Some years ago I shared with colleagues one of my favorite poems, “Forgetfulness,” by the marvelous Billy Collins. “Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,” he sighed, “it is not poised on the tip of your tongue/or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.” How true. I’m at a point where I forget that we’ve already seen the movies on whose behalf I lobby enthusiastically to go see, or the mysteries I check out of the library only to (re)encounter their strangely familiar plots. This also happens with the timely advice that I’ve received over the years, advice that, Collins again, seems to have “retire[d] to the southern hemisphere of the brain,/to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

And now I’m even forgetting the useful advice that I’ve given.

Assuming that maybe you have forgotten it as well, and as a way to bring faculty and staff new to the college into the loop, I’ve put together a “playlist” of past readings on pedagogy and classroom practice to refresh us all at the beginning of classes. Other advice (new and old) on evaluation and assessments, reflections and reconsiderations, will come later in the semester.

Thinking About The Syllabus

The Dual Life of a Syllabus discusses the syllabus as both a “legal” contract and a learning document and suggests approaches to both aspects.

Sharing Syllabi introduces a syllabus sharing project run out of Columbia University and evaluates the pros and cons of making one’s syllabus publicly available.

The Honor Code:

The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation? traces the history of the honor code at colleges and universities and argues that there are a variety of assumptions built into this traditional pledge that need to be unpacked and discussed. The article also suggests that we need to be paying particular attention to how international students, who may have very different understandings of “honor,” understand and observe the code.

Lewis Hine,"Girls in classroom, Traveling Library at Public School Playground, July 1910," New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Lewis Hine,”Girls in classroom, Traveling Library at Public School Playground, July 1910,” New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

In the Classroom:

Active Learning:

In Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques, Marcelo Vinces looks at the research on the positive impact of active learning techniques in STEM fields.

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning explores the concept and theory of active learning and offers advice on how to help prepare students for collaborative, communicative classroom practices where they can learn as much from each other as from the instructor.

Beginnings and Endings:

In The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins, I argue for the importance of using the few minutes before class actually begins to help create an environment where students are at ease and attentive.

The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning examines relatively traditional ways to end a class (e.g., talking faster to get in everything you wanted even as the students are packing their bags and heading for the door) and suggests better ways to make productive use out of the last five minutes of class.

Class Discussions:

Inksheds and Eggshells examines a technique whereby students freewrite on a topic that has come up in class, then pass their comments to a second student, and so on for about 20 minutes until the discussion moves to the class as a whole.

Let’s Talk about It: Fostering Productive Classroom Discussions considers ways to set up a class so that discussions have the greatest chance of supporting student learning. In particular, it provides approaches to help students be responsible talkers and listeners when working with their peers.

Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class offers ways to structure student discussions of course material outside of the class.

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively argues why discussions are an important pedagogy for learning, and offers advice on how to set up discussion groups, structure small-group conversations, and bring the learning occurring in the break-out groups back to the class as a whole.

Lewis Hein, "The constant visitor, Main Children's Room, 1914," New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Lewis Hine, “The constant visitor, Main Children’s Room, 1914,” New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division


Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills, provides an introduction to the “Active Reading Document” approach developed at Texas Lutheran University as a way to help students at all levels of reading get a better grip on the practice.

Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables) – another post considering the question of how much reading should be assigned, and offering some tips on how to figure this out for your specific classes.

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr addresses the question of how much reading is too much reading (tl;dr = too long, did not read) and how to help students be better readers.


Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand presents a synopsis of Lee Knefelkamp’s (Teachers College, Columbia) technique for helping students listen for understanding: i.e., for meaning, the impact of affect, communication, and response, in a responsible fashion, and in order to expand the complexity of one’s own understanding.

Visualization Strategies:

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization suggests the strong link between image and understanding, particularly in the sciences, where visualizations can be integral to the teaching of complex concepts. Visualization, teaching students to illustrate concepts, can be an effective way of helping students understand complexity in a variety of fields and communicate with clarity.


In Designing Assignments for the New Semester I discuss the elements of “backward design” and how to craft assignments that are aligned with an instructor’s learning goals.

Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design argues that there are a variety of ways in which academic success has always been an “insiders” game, and that if we are to give all our students the best chance of success, we need to design assignments clearly, explicitly, and in a way that all can understand. In particular, assignments need to state the task (what we are asking students to do), the purpose (what learning goals the assignment is designed to address), and the criteria on which the student will be evaluated.


Grading: Fairer? Better? Utopia? looks at grading practices and asks if there are better, or at least fairer, ways to evaluate student work. The article looks in particular at “specification grading,” a form of “contract grading” (see below).

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading.  Contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment. There are a variety of ways to engage in “contract grading” (three are discussed in this article), but all attempt to clarify the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions.

New Approaches

Taking Risks:

In “The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom,” Sebastiaan Faber argues that the ability to take risks with one’s teaching in order to make classroom teaching a collaborative endeavor where students take ownership over their own learning and become accountable for it as well, depends on building trust, accepting one’s own vulnerability, and suspending one’s authority in the classroom.

Slow Pedagogy:

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time discusses techniques for slowing down so as to help students build their capacity for deep analysis.

Harold E. Edgerton, "Moving Skipping Rope" (1952), Gelatin silver print, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Harold E. Edgerton, “Moving Skipping Rope” (1952), Gelatin silver print, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin

Attending to Specific Student Communities:

Avoiding Stereotypes and Implicit Bias:

The Stereotype Threat discusses research on the ways in which we carry around sets of implicit biases that can negatively impact our students’ ability to learn and reach their full potential.

Students on the Autism Spectrum:

Teaching and Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) offers some approaches for teaching students who are on the autism spectrum.

International Students:

In Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges I take account of the fact that the number of international students enrolled at liberal arts colleges is increasing at a rapid pace. The article provides specific advice for how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the remarkably diverse population which is now present on our campuses, and explores specific approaches or practices that may prove difficult for international students: working with open-ended assignments, receiving feedback on assignments, class participation, etc.

Technology in the Classroom:

Laptops in the Classroom:

Lids Down! summarizes some of the research on laptop use in the classroom concluding that they probably do more harm than good except in specific contexts.

Teaching in Troubled Times:

My take on Bertrand Russell’s “Decalogue” for teachers, presented in an article I title, “Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism”

Between the World and Our Students

William Blake, "America a Prophecy," New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “America a Prophecy,” 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Steven Volk, August 16, 2016

Another hot summer of discontent dogs our heels as we prepare for the start of classes. It has been two years since Michael Brown was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, 18 months since a grand jury sitting in St. Louis County refused to indict officer Darren Wilson for his death, sparking protests in 170 cities across the United States.

Two days prior to the grand jury’s verdict in Missouri, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by officer Timothy Loehmann two seconds after Loehmann and a second officer slammed their squad car to within a few feet of the young boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park. A grand jury convened by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor refused to indict either officer in the case.

These two were a small part of the hundreds of cases of black men, and women, killed by police in the past two years.

The death roll, sadly, infuriatingly, continued to grow over this past summer with, among others, the shooting of Sherman Evans in Washington DC (June 27), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (July 5), Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul (July 6), Earl Pinckney in Harrisburg (Aug. 7); and 23-year old Sylville Smith in North Milwaukee (Aug 13). According to an on-going project by the Washington Post, approximately 28% of the 587 individuals killed by police so far in 2016 (whose race was recorded) were black. An additional 17% were Latino. The proportions are similar to those from 2015.

Over the course of the sweltering summer we also witnessed the shooting deaths of numerous police officers, most notably five officers in Dallas, killed by Micah Xavier Johnson on July 7 and three officers in Baton Rouge, killed by Gavin Long, 10 days later. (Thirty-six officers have been killed by gunfire so far in 2016, which compares with 39 killed by gunfire in all of 2015).

And “witnessed” is the right word since, many of these deaths were recorded as they happened and circulated via social media, placing all of us at the “scene of the crime.”

William Blake, "Thus Wept the Angel..." 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “Thus Wept the Angel…” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Literally thousands have died in terrorist attacks in the past three months, from the massacre of 49 party-goers at an Orlando night club on June 12, to countless hundreds killed in attacks in Istanbul (June 28), Baghdad (July 3), Dhaka, Bangladesh (July 1), Balad, Iraq (July 7), Nice, France (July 14), and Kabul (July 23), among many others. And these do not even take account of the on-going annihilation of Syria. (Wikipedia carries a continually updated list of what it terms “terrorist incidents.”) Closer to home, in Chicago, 67 people, almost all black, and as young as 2, were murdered in July alone.

And to this list of unsettling events we can add the tumult of what has surely been the most unsettling presidential campaign in many decades.

The purpose of this catastrophic catalog is not to lend credence to the Trumpian charge that all “we” hold precious rests on the thinnest of threads (which only he holds in his hands), but rather to call attention to the fact that as our students arrive on campus over the next two weeks many, likely most, will carry the events of this summer with them in their heads and hearts, not to mention their smartphones. And so will we – faculty, staff, administrators, and all who have a hand in the education and well-being of our students.

The question is how should we address the events of the summer when our students return to class? How do we attend to our own health and well-being? I would propose both an immediate answer and some thoughts for the longer-term.

When Classes Begin

Most immediately, we must recognize the emotional toll that this past summer (and the year before that, and the one before that) has likely taken on our students and on us. We arrive at the first day of classes well prepared to teach calculus, Russian, Middle Eastern history, modern dance, Buddhism, organic chemistry, and much else. Addressing the crises of this and other summers doesn’t mean that we drop everything to examine the moment in which we live and ignore what we are trained to teach. Our responsibilities as teachers are much greater.

But we should, I would argue, acknowledge the emotional and mental costs of the on-going turmoil on our students, and recognize them in ourselves. We are humans before we are biologists or computer scientists, and many of our students want to know that we are not oblivious to what is happening in the world or to the pain that many of them feel.

In the end, such an acknowledgement is not difficult or time consuming. The easiest thing to do is to state, simply and directly, that the we are well aware that summer has been a hard one for students, just as it’s been for faculty, staff and all who work at the college. It is also important to note that there is support for students when they need it and to encourage them to speak to us or to others who can help in times of greater stress. But, even as we recognize how current events pull on their time and emotions, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide them the education they will need to succeed in the long run, and that we will strive to do that in each of our classes and all of our interactions with them.

In some classes, the subjects studied will directly address on-going events in the United States and elsewhere. But for most, our subject matter is different. Nonetheless all of our classes have as a goal the same fundamental objectives: to prepare students for their lives after college: to enable them to think analytically, reason critically, write persuasively, argue from evidence, engage with energy and passion, see different sides of a debate, and contribute productively, intelligently, and compassionately. These are things that they will learn in astronomy and art as well as in courses on Middle East politics and race in America. These are lessons to be absorbed in classrooms, athletic fields, co-ops, and dining halls.

Our task, then, is not to make our classes something that they are not intended to be or to privilege a relentless preoccupation with the present that can obscure a thoughtful consideration of both past and future. But it is a recognition of the burden of the present that allows us to better engage our students with their own future.

William Blake, "The Terror Answered," 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “The Terror Answered,” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

The Long Run

In the longer term, we answer the question of how we address the events of the summer by acknowledging that this is hardly a new question; the world is always with us although we like to think that we can somehow escape it once inside our classrooms. But not only does the “real” world shape the complex lives of our students, it also influences the outcomes we seek through our teaching and how we imagine and plan for a future that our graduates will soon inhabit.

Secondly, we answer the question by building communities that are both a part of the world and apart from it. When we invite students into our classrooms, laboratories, studios, athletic fields, and residence halls, we usher them into a world that should honor the communities they come from, but also allow them the space to imagine and practice new ways of thinking, new forms of being, the creation of new selves and new communities. In this sense, education as an act of transformation can help students recognize the urgency of the world while also understanding how they will need to prepare themselves in order to change it. In other words we want to help our students address, in Shakespeare’s words, “necessity’s sharp pinch” while equally gaining the patience and perseverance required not only to get to the end of a semester, but to last over a lifetime of struggle.

To the extent that we are strategically positioned between the world and our students, to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates, we can most productively occupy this position by acknowledging the many ways that the world presses in on them, and us, and by providing them the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to understand and change the world for the better.