Assignment for the First Day of Classes: Define What Makes Us a Community

Steve Volk, August 21, 2017

Clip BoardLate August, for those who have been on campus, has been a time of frenetic activity, particularly for those charged with insuring that the buildings and grounds, torn up by myriad summer construction projects, are put back together before the students return. Project managers race around campus on golf carts and bikes, check lists in hand, fretting over what remains to be done in order to reopen buildings, unblock parking lots, and return pedestrians to their regular byways.

Faculty, too, consult our punch lists as the new semester approaches: finish the syllabi, read the books we just assigned our students, get the manuscript out the door. But this year our lists seem longer and more intimidating. Besides constructing classes to teach students calculus and creative writing, French and physics, we must prepare to help them cope with the madness spilling out of Washington, Bedminster, Pyongyang, and Charlottesville, from challenges to Title IX and affirmative action, to threats of nuclear war and the hatred radiating from an increasingly aggressive white nationalist movement. We must prepare to say something coherent about a “justice” system that, in the short time our students were away, saw fit to acquit the police officers charged with killing Terance Crutcher (Tulsa), Philando Castile (Minneapolis), and Sylville K. Smith (Milwaukee). After two hung juries, charges were dropped against the officer charged with the shooting death of Samuel DuBose (Cincinnati).

And we will need to prepare, with patience and passion, for the activism these provocations will surely generate, understanding how to support our students when they target injustice and inequity, and how to critique them when, in the process, they inadvertently undermine what makes us a community.

We return to classes in what is surely the most challenging time for higher education in generations. Without even discussing our financial tribulations and the disturbing findings that highly selective colleges and universities are perpetuating, if not increasing, social inequality, we find ourselves plying our trade in a country in which, for the first time, growing numbers question the value of what we are doing. In July the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey which found that the hyper-partisan divide that characterizes almost every policy dispute in Washington now shapes the public’s regard for higher education as well. For the first time on a question asked since 2010, a majority (58%) of Republicans say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country; only 36% of Republicans found higher education to have a positive effect. In contrast, 72% of Democrats held a positive view.

Pew Research Center

Pew Research Center

Think about it: in a deeply divided country, a significant percentage of the population feels that as a society we would be better off without higher education. And if those views, as I’ll argue in a moment, are shaped by events at a few elite colleges and universities, they inevitably carry over to legislators’ decisions to cut funding to the Cleveland State universities and the Pima County community colleges of the country.

Speech Issues on Campus

There are many reasons for this divide, and many which are worthy of serious consideration (with the almost unimaginable cost of a degree at the top of the list), but only a few are central to the national debate. David Hopkins, co-author of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats (Oxford, 2016), recently argued, that the negative view of colleges and universities is an “expectable manifestation” of increased coverage of protests over speakers and issues such as cultural appropriation, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. All are complex issues that tend to be flattened (and most often ridiculed) by the media, and not just at Fox News. Further, these stories are then magnified by higher education’s internet outrage machine led by Campus Reform and The College Fix.

A Heckler at Cooper Union (Jay Hambidge, artist). New York Public Library, Art & Picture Collection, Public Domain

A Heckler at Cooper Union (Jay Hambidge, artist). New York Public Library, Art & Picture Collection, Public Domain

More than other issues, the national conversation about higher education in the past few years has largely focused on student disruptions of campus speakers. To be sure, the issue is a serious one, but, if facts still matter, the actual incidents are few in number. The student-led commotions that shut down Charles Murray at Middlebury and Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna are well known, as are the protests that prevented Milo Yiannapolous and Ann Coulter from speaking at Berkeley. Leaving aside the cancellation of speaking engagements where honorifics were involved (commencement speakers, by and large), which raises a different set of issues, I could find only one or two other instances in the last year in which students prevented speakers from delivering invited lectures.

Even if there were more examples of disruptive student behavior, it would still be deeply troubling to learn that legislators in a number of states have used these cases to muscle through measures to discipline students “who interfere with the free-speech rights of other students on their campuses.” Certainly, from the standpoint of academic freedom, this is a case where the “solution” promises to be far worse than the issue it seeks to address.

But the intense focus on Murray or Yiannapolous has raised substantial problems for faculty and others who are deeply concerned with the way in which inquiry and difficult discussions are pursued on our campuses – what has come to be called “campus climate” issues – largely because it has levered the discussion of complex matters into a free speech/First Amendment box. In fact, the conversations we need to be having are much broader and they have to do with the very particular kind of community we aim to establish on our campuses. The conversation we need to be having is about defining, at this moment, the social contract that stipulates how we will behave towards one another, and how that aligns with what we hope to accomplish as institutions of higher educational.

The Goals of Higher Education

While institutions of higher education have many objectives (the production of new knowledge, the perpetuation and enhancement of culture, the socialization of 18-22 year olds, the creation of an informed citizenry, etc.), our central purpose, particularly at liberal arts colleges, is to support student learning. Our mission statements often reference other goals – to “foster…effective, concerned participation in the larger society” (Oberlin), to help students become “engaged members of society” (Pomona), or to engage “with the central issues of our time” (Denison). But these broad mission objectives are always built around what we hope our students will do with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that they have acquired during the time spent with us. In other words, these critical goals of engagement and a commitment to social justice always presuppose the learning necessary for the formation of effective, aware and informed members of society. In that sense, the primary understanding that underlies all others, the pledge that defines our interaction with others in our community, whether students, faculty, staff, or administrators, is rooted in one central principle: What promotes student learning is to be valued; what hinders it, is to be questioned, challenged, and if needed, rejected. As hazy as this formulation is – for student learning will involve uncomfortable challenges as well as embracing support – such a starting point can add clarity to discussions that are muddled when approached as First Amendment or “free speech” issues.

Saul Alinsky speaking at the Symposium on Civil Disobedience in a Democratic Society, Oberlin College, December 1965. Oberlin College Archives

Saul Alinsky speaking at the Symposium on Civil Disobedience in a Democratic Society, Oberlin College, December 1965. Oberlin College Archives

Student Learning and Campus Speakers

So, how does this approach help anything? Let’s take the issue of invited campus speakers (and here I’m principally referencing private colleges and universities that are outside of specific First Amendment requirements). Speakers whose primary intent is to demean members of our shared educational community and who have made it abundantly clear that what they have to say will not contribute to student learning, should not be invited. As Stanley Fish recently put it, the university’s “normative commitment is to freedom of inquiry,” not to freedom of speech, and those whose vicious bigotry would deny that freedom to members of our community, speakers such as a Milo Yiannapolis or a Richard Spencer or a Jared Taylor, are not welcome. To believe that freedom of speech is at the center of what we do is to displace our obligation to student learning.

For these very same reasons, speakers who can contribute to student learning, even if their approaches make some students intensely uncomfortable, and who locate arguments within the conventions of academic inquiry, even if their outcomes are obnoxious and their methodologies subject to question, must be considered as guests who can further student learning. They should not be denied a platform, as tiresome as it may be to hear repeated arguments that have been refuted many times before. The best response, particularly for students who may not have heard the arguments previously, is to refute them again. The Charles Murrays and Heather MacDonalds of the world fit into this latter category. How these talks are organized, what space is given for Q&A, alternative discussions, preparation, venue, etc., are all important points that must be considered and addressed before the speaker comes.

By suggesting that some speakers must be allowed a platform while others can be denied, I am arguing that cases must be decided on their merits and judged by the standard of whether student learning is to be served. To sidestep that process either by arguing that all speakers must be given a platform or that any controversial speaker should be prohibited avoids what can be learned in such a discussion. I don’t suggest for a moment that these are easy conversations, but they are necessary and presuppose that we have a shared understanding of the social contract that unites us as a community.

Supporting the Learning Environment

A more difficult question arises when addressing the campus climate that supports learning, i.e., dealing with the daily, not the transient. The need here is to prevent the consolidation of an environment that permits orthodoxy – any orthodoxy – from becoming hegemonic. I have heard too many stories from students who say that they don’t speak up in class because they fear repercussion from some of their peers, and from faculty who worry that a few students seem intent on setting intentional trip wires for them to fall over, to imagine that this is not an issue. Indeed, if we fail as educational institutions intended to challenge students to think in complex ways about difficult issues, allowing this climate to continue unchallenged will be one road to failure.

ABUSUA protesting the lack of black theater and dance, early 1970s. Oberlin College Archives

ABUSUA protesting the lack of black theater and dance at Oberlin, early 1970s. Oberlin College Archives

Some perspective is needed here. I understand, but have little patience for, those who recall with nostalgia a “golden age of inquiry” when they were students, when “everyone was challenged to think critically,” when discussion wasn’t stifled by campus orthodoxy. Jonathan Haidt, the NYU social psychologist who, with Greg Lukianoff, gave us the “Coddling of the American Mind,” recently observed that, “When I went to Yale, in 1981, it said above the main gate ‘Lux et Veritas,’ Light and Truth. We are here to find truth.” While some aspect of Haidt’s (and others’) concern might be reasonable, no less true is the fact that Yale’s commitment to “Lux et Veritas” was based on a thoroughly Eurocentric canon that limited what students were given access to as either “Light” or “Truth.” (And I won’t even mention – OK, so I will – that African Americans only made up 6% of Yale’s student body in 1984, when Haidt graduated, and that the university only admitted women 11 years before he arrived on campus.) In short, we can’t address what is a real concern – creating a climate that supports learning by challenging all orthodoxies – by posing a mythic golden age to which we should return.

Further, I do not hesitate to ally myself with the many students (and faculty and staff and administrators) who feel a desperate urgency to confront racist, misogynistic, or homophobic views, particularly as they have been given a platform in the White House. While some of those views certainly exist in the academy, and while it is incumbent upon whites in particular to examine the basis of our privilege, the problem posed for our institutions is not that such issues are raised, but that the methods sometimes used to raise them can undercut our identity as educational institutions based on inquiry and discussion.

Our central approach to such challenges remains in supporting student learning as best we can, in ways that are culturally relevant and sustaining and that foster equity as well as inquiry. And we know that this is not accomplished through intimidation, explicit or implicit, by calling out those who are asking for conversation and clarification, and it’s certainly not done by labeling or shaming. Just as our students must be encouraged to critique, criticize and challenge, so, in turn, they need to be open to critique, criticism, and challenge. Faculty must be responsible for creating an environment in their classrooms where difficult questions can be raised and discussed, and where students who feel more insecure in these conversations are made to feel that they can raise questions, express opinions, and challenge arguments without fear of shaming in class or social reprisal (in person or via social media) outside of class.

Faculty should be encouraged to help students see themselves as teachers as well as learners. If they have disagreements or think viewpoints are racist, discriminatory, or ill-informed, they should be encouraged to act as they would hope their teachers would act, persuading through arguments backed by evidence and experience, by drawing others into the discussion, not by intimidation or silencing.

The First Day of Classes

There are many ways to begin to address these challenges, but I’d put just one on our late summer check list. On the first day of classes, rather than discussing the syllabus, assignments, or how many absences they are allowed, think of starting in a different way, regardless of what you teach. We all know that, as a country, we are going through a difficult time marked by sharp divisions. Perhaps it’s unprecedented – but as a historian I’d only say that it is surely unprecedented in the lives of our students. At this time, as we come together as a community, we need to ask ourselves: What is this education for? How does or should the college support the learning and well-being of all students? How do we envision, and then implement, an environment in which such learning can take place? What makes us a community? What do we need and expect from each other? And, finally, what is the nature of the social contract that binds us together and what does that mean in terms of how we treat each other?

The answers can help us build campuses that protect our students, move us toward greater equity, and promote the learning that is at the foundation of our existence.

And, We’re Back…

Steve Volk, August 17, 2017

(Note: A version of this article appeared on published August 22, 2016; this is an updated, expanded version.)

The summer is over (at least as far as the “Article of the Week” is concerned), and we’re back in business. It’s been an eventful three months, and we’ll have much to talk about as classes approach. But first, here are a few of the themes covered over the past few years, organized by topic, that you might find useful as you finish off your syllabi and plot your classroom adventures for the semester. We will soon be sending the faculty a survey that we hope you’ll fill out and return. It should help CTIE better plan events for the coming year.

For those of you on campus, my office has relocated (with me in it!) to the new Gateway center next to the Hotel. I’m in 213, second floor in the back. Stop by and say hello and grab a cup of coffee while you’re here.

Thinking About the Syllabus

From a course syllabus by Zac Wendler at Ferris State University

From a course syllabus by Zac Wendler at Ferris State University

Backward Design: From Course to Class (Feb. 27, 2017). Applying syllabus-level backward design to the class level.

In Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching (Oct. 10, 2016) Elizabeth Hamilton discusses the principles of universal design as applied to teaching.

The Dual Life of a Syllabus (August 4, 2015) discusses the syllabus as both a “legal” contract and a learning document and suggests approaches to both aspects.

Sharing Syllabi (March 7, 2016) introduces a syllabus sharing project run out of Columbia University and evaluates the pros and cons of making your syllabus publicly available.

In the Classroom:

Active Learning

In Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques (Oct. 25, 2015), Marcelo Vinces looks at the research on the positive impact of active learning techniques in STEM fields.

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning (Feb. 8, 2015) 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.


Wendy Hyman, in ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’: New Approaches to Assignments (April 17, 2017), suggests ways to incorporate student voices to the design of assignments.

In Designing Assignments for the New Semester (Jan. 25, 2015), I discuss the elements of “backward design” and how to craft assignments that are aligned with an instructor’s learning goals.

Secret HandshakesRevealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design (Sept. 27, 2015) 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.

Beginnings and Endings

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community (Aug. 29, 2016) explores how to use the first day of class to talk about something more important than the syllabus.

In The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins (Feb. 8, 2015), 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 (April 20, 2014) 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.


Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom (Sept. 26, 2016): How to help students talk about difficult or controversial topics.

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Inksheds and Eggshells (April 10, 2016) explores a technique whereby students free-write on a topic, 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 (Sept. 6, 2015) 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 (Sept. 20, 2015) offers ways to structure student discussions of course material outside of the class.

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively (Sept. 14, 2014) 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.


Grading: Fairer? Better? Utopia? (Nov. 8, 2015) looks at grading practices and asks if there are better, or at least fairer, ways to evaluate student work. The article explores, in particular, “specification grading,” a form of “contract grading” (see below).

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading (March 27, 2016) 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.

Group Projects

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Group Projects: It’s Better Together – But Only if You Plan (April 10, 2017): The benefits, and common pitfalls, of group projects, as well as information on how to grade them.


The Sound of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening (Feb. 20, 2017): On the role of silence in the classroom.

Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand (Feb. 1, 2015): 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.

Presentation Software

PowerPoint: Let’s Make a Meal of It (Oct. 3, 2016): Best practices when using PowerPoint in your classes.


Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Reading: A Short Guide to Contemporary Practices (and Problems) March 27, 2017: towards an ethics of reading.

Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills (March 29, 2015) 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) (Sept. 23, 2012) considers the question of how much reading should be assigned, offering some tips on how to figure this out for your specific classes.

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr (March 1, 2015) 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.


Image from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicagp: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

Image from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicagp: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

Cortney Smith, in Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking (Dec. 5, 2016), presents some strategies to help student speaking and methods for evaluating their speaking.

Good Job! Responding to Student Answers in order to Spur Learning (Sept. 19, 2016) suggests that how one responds to students’ classroom comments can help (or hinder) their learning.

A Teacher’s Identity in the Classroom

The ‘Us’ in Teaching (Oct. 31, 216). What parts of you do you leave outside the classroom; what parts do you bring in?


Lids Down! (Oct. 5, 2014) summarizes some of the research on laptop use in the classroom concluding that they probably do more harm than good except in specific contexts.

Visualization Strategies

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization (Feb. 14, 2016) points to the evidence that links 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.

The Honor Code

The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation? (Nov. 22, 2015) 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.

Equity and Specific Student Communities

Avoiding Stereotypes and Implicit Bias

Child.Jade.braindrainMarcelo Vinces, in From “Between the World and Me” to “Whistling Vivaldi”: How implicit bias trips up our brains…and what we can do about it (Nov. 21, 2016), offers strategies for identifying and getting beyond implicit bias.

The Stereotype Threat (Feb. 28, 2016) 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) (April 19, 2015) lists some approaches for teaching students who are on the autism spectrum.

International Students

In Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges (Nov. 1, 2015), 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.

Information Literacy

Women's March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

Women’s March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

With Rosalinda Linares, The New Information Literacy (Jan. 23, 2017): Working with librarians to separate fact from fiction, fiction from politics.

Finding Our Voice in a ‘Post-Truth’ Era (Dec. 12, 2016). “Post-Truth” and our responsibilities as teachers.

New Pedagogies, New Approaches

Stand and Deliver: (March 6, 2017). The pedagogy of movement in a classroom

In The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom (March 12, 2016) 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.

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time (Oct. 4, 2015) discusses techniques for slowing down so as to help students build their capacity for deep analysis, the basis of slow pedagogical techniques.

Tania Boster, in Community-Based Learning at Oberlin: Democratic Engagement Plus Significant Learning (Feb. 13, 2017), discusses the pedagogy of community-based learning and research.

Listening to Smart People (Feb. 6, 2017). What we can learn from different kinds of learners.

Office Hours

Office Hours: The Doctor is In (Sept. 13, 2016): How to make optimal use of office hours – and how to get students to come.

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo

Teaching in Troubled Times:

Student activism has been a major part of the higher education environment in the last few years. You’ll find some of my remarks on this in New Student Activism: Stops on the Road to New Solidarities (April 24, 2017).

The Past as Way Forward: Finding a “Useful History” (March 13, 2017): How learning communities joining different campus communities can help us build trust on campus.

You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back” (Nov. 14, 2016). What difference teachers can make in a difficult world.

My take on Bertrand Russell’s “Decalogue” for teachers, presented in an article I title, “Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism” (May 8, 2016).

Closing Time: Managing the End of the Semester

Steve Volk (May 1, 2017)

(Note: This is a revised and updated version of and article written on April 24, 2014).

“I must finish what I’ve started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began” (Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children).

Ann Nooney, "Closing Time," The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Public domain.

Ann Nooney, “Closing Time,” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Public domain.

The end of the semester, like the first week, poses specific classroom challenges. Most faculty are rushing to make it through the course syllabus (you remember: the one that looked perfectly well planned in January). And you still have to hand out evaluations (see: “Set for SETs? Student Evaluations of Teaching”), prep students for their final exams, read drafts of their last papers, squeeze all the students who want to present into the available time; and don’t forget the note from the dean’s office asking for fall book orders! The end of the semester is also a time when both student and faculty energy levels have bottomed out, even more so in the spring semester.

All of this can crowd out another important part of the teaching semester: marking the closure of the semester in a way that acknowledges all you have accomplished in the class, all the ground you’ve covered. It goes without saying that the best way to end the semester is the way that works for you. But here are some suggestions that have come up over the years from my own practice and some that I’ve taken from other teaching and learning centers.

Revisit the course goals in your syllabus with your class.

Two aspects of teaching have always struck me as curious, if inevitable. The first is that students are often frustrated at the start of the semester because they do not already know what they will only know by the end of the semester. The second is that students often lose sight of just how far they have come, how much they have learned, over the course of the semester. We can’t deal with the first point, but this is a good time to emphasize just how far you have traveled together. You can synthesize the main points covered in your course by way of a discussion of the goals you established at the start of the semester and what the class was able to accomplish. It’s yet one more way to help students reflect on the design of your course, why you structured it as you did, and how the assignments they have completed (along with the final assignment) were there to help the students achieve the course objectives. The review allows students to step back somewhat from the course content in order to examine the path they have jointly traveled on a broader level.

George E. Studdy, “The End of a Perfect Day,” George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public domain.

George E. Studdy, “The End of a Perfect Day,” George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public domain.

After you have revisited the syllabus and the course goals with students, allow time for student reflection and self-assessment, encouraging them to think about how they have achieved the learning goals set for the course and what they still need to do before taking a final exam, writing their last paper, preparing for recitals, or completing a final project. You can extend this by asking students to write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation that will allow them to reflect on their performance and behavior in the class. Such an exercise goes substantially beyond the self-assessment questions on the Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) forms which they will be getting shortly, and can help them think about their own learning, the next classes they want to take, or how they can apply their learning more broadly.  One instructor (Ted Panitz, a math teacher at Cape Cod Community College) asks his students to think about the following questions:




     Has your approach to math changed during this course or compared to previous courses? How?

     Have your attitudes or feelings about math changed?

     How do you feel you performed in this course?

     What would you do differently if you had a chance to do this all over again?

One question you might want to consider, particularly for a class in which there has been a substantial amount of discussion, is to ask students to reflect on their own participation in the discussions and whether they thought they intervened in a way that supported (everyone’s) learning in the classroom or whether it had the effect of isolating or silencing other students.

If you want, you can also add questions to encourage students to suggest ways you can improve class procedures or ask how they feel about particular teaching approaches you have used that semester and would like to hear specific feedback.

  • Have students create a concept map of the course they are just completing (for tips on how to do this, see here, and here.)
  • Student presentations often occur in the last few weeks of the semester. I know of one instructor who has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme that they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since we all know that teaching a subject is the best way to learn it. (And don’t forget to re-read Cortney Smith’s article on “Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking.”)
  • Encourage your students to revisit earlier assignments in the course as a way to measure their own learning in the class, to assess what they have learned and the areas in which they still feel unconsolidated. If the assignment was a paper, you can ask students to bring those papers to class and then break them into smaller groups where they can discuss their work with peers, focusing on what they learned through the writing of that assignment as they look back on it now.
  • In a similar fashion, you can have students in small groups discuss how their thinking has changed over the course of the semester. They can take notes for themselves (and/or for you). This can include new appreciations for the content covered, for their own strengths and weaknesses, or for meta issues as they reflect on their own learning.
  • Encourage your students to discuss what they consider to be the critical moments in the course: insights they have had; content that they have found most surprising; highlights in the course.
  • By way of course review for exams, you can group students to collaborate on one or two typical exam questions involving analysis, synthesis, application, etc.

Learning from the Semester

keep-calm-its-closing-timeIn “Learning from the Semester” (November 25, 2013), I offered some ways for faculty to look back and learn from the semester that just ended. Here (once again) are some questions to think about:

  • What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?
  • Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.
  • Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.
  • What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?
  • And, as with the strong points, why do you think you weren’t able to reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
  • Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think about doing differently next time? Jot down some notes to yourself to return to when you have the space to think about revising your syllabus. Points like: “Don’t even think about assigning that book again!” or “Student presentations went really well; leave more time.”
  • Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people you can talk to, and what are the resources you can consult, that can help?

Stress and Anxiety

StressWhile we all know this at some basic level, it is useful to keep in mind just how stressful the end of the semester can be for for faculty as well as students. We all have a lot to do, and there are many crunch-time challenges. In terms of students, we all notice a general increase in their tiredness, some more-than-usually bizarre behaviors, increased illness. But we should also be aware of times when stress turns into anxiety and when our usual techniques for helping students regain their footing and confidence could use extra support. As I noted in last week’s article, the number of students seeking mental health services at college and university counseling centers increased by nearly 30% between 2009 and 2015 (Center for Collegiate Mental Health). More than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015-16 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety (Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors).

Stay attuned to your students and don’t forget that we provide a lot of support services for students in need. If you are not sure whom you should be talking to, always start with the student’s class dean.

And don’t neglect yourselves, either: easier said than done when the work piles up, but exercise (even if only a quick walk), a good meal, sleep (ah! sleep!), and talking to colleagues, even if only to moan and complain, all are important.

Saying Good-bye…

.… can be a lot harder than you imagine, and it’s not unusual to feel a sense of loss (along with relief) as the semester and the year (and for your seniors and for some of you, a college career), all come to an end. Even after many years teaching, I’m often still amazed at how hard this can be. After all, they get to move on and you stay here!

So, don’t be afraid to share some parting thoughts with your students even though this might sound cheesy. If you mean them, your students will appreciate them.

I often tell my students that, once they have graduated, I’m happy to have them as “friends” on Facebook and that it actually means a lot to me that they keep in touch, let me know how they are doing and what they’re up to.

And, of course, this is the time for any end-of-semester ritual that you may have developed, from donuts to a highlight reel.  I’m not going to go all cultural anthropologist on you, but we develop rituals to serve a purpose, and, at the end of the semester, saying goodbye to students you’ve worked with, whether for a semester or over four or five years, is an important ritual and deserves to be observed. OK, before I get all verklempt, I’ll exit on a (maybe) humorous note. This is the lead graph from a piece by Trish Suchy that recently appeared in McSweeney’s.

Following Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s statement that ‘The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think,’ [which, indeed, she did] the department, nervous that our student indoctrinations were insufficiently ominous, hastily formed a committee charged with investigating the matter and making recommendations at an emergency faculty meeting. To our horror, we found that indoctrination ominousness(ity) is not even measured in our assessment rubric! After a long debate over the existence of the word ‘ominousness’ (some arguing instead for ‘ominosity’ — which does sound like it might be a board game) we opted for the hybrid compromise ‘ominousness(ity)’ and propose the following rubric to measure how ominously we are indoctrinating our students. [You’ll find the rest of this delightful piece here.]

The “Article of the Week” will now saunter off for its traditional summer hiatus of travel, reading, and, even some work. May your summers be filled with seemingly endless hours, pleasurable reading, inspired thoughts, rewarding writing, ocean swims, and whatever it is that makes you happy. See you in August.

And the summer night

New Student Activism: Stops on the Road to New Solidarities

Steve Volk, April 24, 2017
Contact at:

protest-silsIt has been an unsettled period at the Claremont colleges in California. On April 6, about 250 protesters at Claremont McKenna College blocked the entrance to the building where Heather MacDonald was scheduled to speak. MacDonald, a critic of the #Black Lives Matter movement, authored The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. She ultimately gave her talk for live streaming before a largely empty hall.

Students at Harvey Mudd staged an 8- hour sit-in demanding greater support for mental health issues on campus following the placement of an associate dean for Mental Health and Wellness on administrative leave. The president then closed the college for two days of campus-wide conversations on April 17-18 to discuss those protests and a series of other issues, including the leaking of what some characterized as “stinging remarks from professors” about students.

Following the death of a student at Scripps on April 6, the Residential Advisors at that college announced that they would go on strike on April 20 unless their demands, including the resignation of that college’s Dean of Students, were met.

Students at Pomona also responded negatively to a campus-wide letter sent by Pomona College president, David Oxtoby voicing his opposition to students who blocked MacDonald’s talk.

By coincidence, or perhaps less-than-divine intervention, I had been invited many months ago to speak at the colleges on April 18 as the 2017 Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning Distinguished Lecturer. My announced topic: “New Student Activism: Challenges and Possibilities.” This week’s “Article of the Week,” is the talk that I gave, with some edits, additions, and links to sources. Your comments, as always, are quite welcome.

Oberlin students march in favor of the rights of undocumented students. November 16, 2016. Photo Steve Manheim, Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria)

Oberlin students march in favor of the rights of undocumented students. November 16, 2016. Photo Steve Manheim, Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria)

What can we say about the moment we’re living in terms of student activism on campuses since the inauguration of Mr. Trump? On the one hand, students from Oregon State to San Diego State and from Auburn to Wichita State have staged powerful actions in support of undocumented students, DACA registrants, immigrants and refugees from around the world. On the other, events at Middlebury, Claremont McKenna, Canada’s McMaster University and elsewhere have attracted the media’s attention when students either shouted down speakers or refused to allow audiences access to hear them. Concerns over the erosion of civil rights under Attorney General Sessions have competed for airtime with protests over the cultural appropriation of hoop earrings (Pitzer College) or hair braiding (Hampshire College). That there are about 6,400 institutions of higher education in the United States and yet the actions of students at a handful of selective liberal arts colleges seems to set the tone for what the public thinks about this generation of students, activist or not, is probably par for the course. It nods to both the influence that a certain tier of private colleges and flagship universities has always exercised, and the (wearisome) pleasure that many in the media take in ridiculing students who protest at very expensive, elite colleges and who, in their opinion, should be thanking their lucky stars (or their wealthy parents) for being where they are rather than carrying on.

If it’s been an agitated semester at some of the Claremont Colleges, in contrast it’s been a relatively quiet year on my campus. Oberlin, situated by the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller at the center of the radical-irrational-illiberal vortex a year ago, has been, well, kind of calm. Reporters aching for stories of Oberlin’s nuttiness have been forced to return to protests from a few years back over the cultural appropriation of bahn mi sandwiches and sushi in the dining halls. (Google “Bahn mi,” and there, right behind the Wikipedia entry, is an article which leaves no doubt at all: “Lena Dunham Says the Oberlin College Food Court Serving Sushi and Banh Mi Is Cultural Appropriation.” How can you argue with that!)

I’m not teaching this year, but faculty and students I’ve talked to are not clear why it’s been so quiet. Some say that students are still a bit shell-shocked from the election results; that they are looking to have an impact without dividing the campus; that they are keeping their heads in their books as a defense mechanism. Or perhaps, it’s been quiet because our president announced at the start of the school year that he would be resigning on the completion of his tenth year at the college, and with that he removed a lighting rod for student protest.

And then again, and much more interesting, is the fact that there has been a lot of activism on campus. Students, faculty and staff have run numerous workshops on “undocu-Rights,” brought in speaker after speaker to discuss how to protect civil rights, sanctuary cities, “fake news,” and Syria and other countries  in crisis. Students have raised the issue of how to increase their access to the trustees, find more support in the budget for counseling services, and, most recently, challenge changes in housing and dining policies. But these aren’t (or haven’t been) headline grabbing types of activism.

The Illiberal Moment

Middlebury College protest against by guest speaker Charles Murray, seen in the background. March 2, 2017, Photo, Trent Campbell, Addison County Independent (March 6, 2017)

Middlebury College protest against by guest speaker Charles Murray, seen in the background. March 2, 2017, Photo, Trent Campbell, Addison County Independent (March 6, 2017)

My interest in student activism is a bit broader than the latest protest, although I’m quite interested in what Cornel West and Robert George have called an “illiberal” turn in activism that we have seen at Middlebury, Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, Hampshire, Smith, and elsewhere, campuses where students have blocked or disrupted invited speakers.  I’m interested in what such protests say about the moment in which we live, and, fundamentally, what these protests in both their “illiberal” and their progressive aspects say about the role of the faculty and the tasks of teaching and learning at this moment.

Even if the surprising electoral results have caused come recalibration in student protest, we are witnessing a level of student protest that has not been seen since the late 1980s, and perhaps not since its apex in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At Oberlin, we have been enmeshed in a cycle of protest since 2012. The current wave of student activism nation-wide has brought down presidents and chancellors, advanced reforms, generated criticism, and certainly captured headlines.

In sync with student activism since the 1960s, this generation of protesters has called for the redistribution of power and rule-making authority in colleges and universities, demanded changes that often rest beyond the institution’s grasp, pushed administrators into uncomfortable, if not untenable, positions, and, questioned the essential purpose and meaning of higher education itself.  After a lifetime in teaching, I must say that not only am I not disturbed by this, but that I would be more concerned if students grew complacent and only focused on getting their degrees, only focused on getting “value for money” without ever questioning what “value” means in the context of their education. After all, over the years it has often been student protesters who have reminded us of how far from many of our loftier goals for social betterment we have drifted.

And yet, if contemporary student protests can be seen as a continuation of earlier generations of activism, some aspects are different, both because of almost a half-century of neoliberal consolidation (which has done its work to turn students – and the rest of us – into a primary identity as consumers), and because we seem to be living in that distressingly “illiberal” moment that West and George referenced, one somewhat prophetically forecast by Fareed Zakaria back in 1997. In the context of rightist regimes — Hungary and Poland come to mind —  “illiberal” refers to governments that have reached power democratically (at least in the formal sense of receiving a majority of the votes), but that have turned their backs on minority rights that have long been a part of the democratic contract. Certainly, there are disturbing echos of this in Trump’s America.

When I use the framework of “illiberalism” to describe some student activists, I use it in the opposite manner. If student activists are jettisoning classical Millsian liberalism, particularly Mills’ view on the essential value of absolute free speech rights, regardless of content and regardless of how many may hold such views (“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”), they do this because the “democratic contract” often will not, unless forced, even consider, let alone protect, minority rights. While there may be some activists who conform to the media’s view that protesters are “precious snowflakes” who seek protection from opposing views, more accurate would be to characterize their challenge to Liberalism as one based on a realization that the “marketplace of ideas” has quite successfully excluded many minority views from the conversation for an awfully long time. More accurate would be to say that many students are asking that we see that the academy’s devotion to open discussion, which of course we seek to promote, is often tied to privileges that not everyone has access to, including many in our own institutions.

And yet, even as this may be the case, I worry deeply that the act of shouting down speakers, by some, or inviting speakers whose primary purpose is not actually to educate but to provoke one’s opponents, by others, will not only leave hard-won academic freedoms exposed and vulnerable, but can challenge what it is we do in our colleges and universities:  teaching and learning. In this talk (and now, article), while recognizing the importance, indeed the urgency of student activism, I will examine some of the “illiberal” characteristics of current student movements that seem problematic to the extent that they undermine their own ability to get desired changes; problematic in that they can undermine the ability of faculty and students to pursue common goals, particularly as regards the social justice mission of many U.S. colleges and universities. I’ll suggest why I think this is the case, and lay out some ways forward that foreground the role of faculty as critical (if often absent) mediators of student activism, and finally argue that the classroom must be a central space of democratic praxis, one that can positively impact not just how student demands are formulated, but how change can come about.

Student Protest: Through-Lines and Differences

Historians of student activism have observed that protests have been here “from the literal beginning.” Harvard students in 1638 protested their house master’s over-generous use of the rod, as well as his wife’s partiality for serving them moldy bread, spoiled beef and sour beer. Half the student body at Princeton was suspended in 1807 for engaging in a violent rebellion in favor of what they considered to be their natural rights.

Image courtesy of Carol Smith

Image courtesy of Carol Smith

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reminds us of a protest at City College of New York that greeted a delegation of Italian students in 1934 who were representing Benito Mussolini. Not only did the president of CCNY refuse the students’ request to disinvite the fascist delegation, but he made attendance mandatory for freshmen. When the Italians were  introduced, most of the 2,000 students in the auditorium began to kick up a ruckus. The student body president, who quieted the crowd by stepping to the podium to introduce the event, instead called the Italian students “dupes” and said they were “enslaved” by Mussolini. When a professor of Italian tried to grab the mic from him, fights broke out and the assembly was cancelled. President Robinson expelled 21 students, suspended the student government, and called more than 100 students in front of disciplinary committees, all for having stifled the free-speech rights of the Italian students. It makes Middlebury look like a garden party at Downton Abby.

When I think of the contemporary era of student activism, I foreground the activism of the late 1960s, protests that were ignited by the civil rights movement (student activists from Berkeley to Brandeis had been educated by Mississippi Summer in 1964), the war in Vietnam, demands to allow political speech on campus, and, to a lesser extent, women’s rights. Student protest was often tediously ideological (Oh, the hours spent parsing Lenin and Luxemburg!) and frequently militant (building takeovers, student strikes). Non-violence began to give way to some violent actions in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as the Weather Underground gained ground in SDS, although the majority of student protests remained peaceful. Student demands ranged from those linked to the anti-war movement (including critiques of the “military- industrial-university complex”), the closely related anti-draft movement, concerns for institutional reform, free speech rights, and demands for new curriculum.

Cover of the 2nd Edition of The Port Huron Statement. Public domain.

Cover of the 2nd Edition of The Port Huron Statement. Public domain.

Re-reading the 1962 “Port Huron” statement, SDS’s “founding” document, one can get a sense both of some through-lines of protest from the 1960s to the present, as well as some differences. Even in the early 1960s, students were raising concerns that universities had become assembly lines intent on mass producing ideologically conforming bureaucrats who would graduate to take their places in the corporate hierarchy. Long before MOOCs made their way into the higher education environment, SDS warned that “Colleges [were] develop[ing] teaching machines, mass-class techniques, and TV education to replace teachers, to cut costs in education and make the academic community more efficient and less wasteful.”

But SDS also argued for the importance of making the university a center of debate and argumentation: “The ideal university,” the document reasoned, “is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond…” And far from seeing administrators as agents of or for student demands, SDS advocated for students to “wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy,” and to do this by forming “an alliance of students and faculty… mak[ing] fraternal and functional contact with allies in labor, civil rights, and other liberal forces outside the campus…[and] mak[ing] debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life.” [For more on this, see Angus Johnston, “Student Protest Then and Now” (2015) and Gerard J. Degroot, Student Protest: The Sixties and After (Routledge, 1998), among many others.]

As with many of the protests in the 1960s and 1970s, the current wave of student protest has been generated by, and is entwined with, national concerns, particularly racism, sexual violence, and growing inequality. Since Trump’s inauguration, students have brought attention to issues of immigration, the growing climate of xenophobia and the resurgence of white nationalism in the U.S. As well, campus protests have targeted college admissions practices, curricular inclusion, access to culturally relevant counseling services, and more equitable campus labor policies, among others. Much like earlier protests, student activism around these issues has developed autonomously on many campuses, although the Internet now allows local groups to remain intensely aware of events occurring elsewhere. Demands that were put forward at Amherst, for example, were independent of, but inevitably linked to, those penned at Missouri, Dartmouth, Kennesaw State and elsewhere.

Of the primary concerns prior to 2017, persistent racism on campus and in the nation, ignited by the #Black Lives Matter movement, attracted the most sustained attention of student activists. Regardless of the fact that colleges and universities are demonstrably more racially diverse than they were in the 1960s (and perhaps because of that fact), and that they are fundamentally transformed from the (mostly) all-white, elite institutions of the 19th century, as Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin wrote recently, the critique of campus life put forward by the current generation of students “poses a profound challenge to those who have never seriously contemplated how inclusion might or should change institutional practices inside the classroom and outside of it.” If attempts to improve “compositional” (or quantitative) diversity have been difficult, the demands for “interactional” (or qualitative) diversity have met even less success, leading to the students’ insistent questioning of issues of representation and accountability. (For more on this, see Tia Brown McNair, Susan Albertine, Michelle Asha Cooper and Thomas Major, Jr., Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

Mario Savio on Sproul Hall steps at UC Berkeley in 1966. Photo by Mjlovas at the English language Wikipedia.

Mario Savio on Sproul Hall steps at UC Berkeley in 1966. Photo by Mjlovas at the English language Wikipedia.

And yet, if the current generation of student protesters carry some of the same oppositional DNA from earlier generations, they also differ in important ways, some of which lend themselves to easy caricature, others which are a product of the technological age in which we live, and still others which can raise concerns. Among these differences, I would note five aspects in particular:

1) The interiorization of the language of protest. If some forms of contemporary student activism look familiar, the language of protest is often quite distinct, being less ideological than it was in the 1960s-1970s, and often highly psychologized, emphasizing issues of personal trauma and individual safety. This might have to do with the fact that, with the demise of socialist states in the world, the Left has edged away from “grand narrative” ideologies and is at a theoretical (and often practical) loss as to how to confront the current moment. Whatever the cause, the turn toward a language of “interiority,” with an emphasis on personal pain and feelings, quickly conjures up an eager media’s image of the “coddled” student who seeks safe spaces, avoids vexatious ideas, and sees college as a place to “practice activism.” This is even more the case when such language arises among privileged, sometimes very wealthy students at elite coleges. Student protests on individual campuses (especially when magnified by the media’s attention) often foregrounds personal and psychological over structural issues, or, as George Lipsitz, a professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, once put it, “the cultivation of sympathy over the creation of social justice.”

I am not prepared to argue what has given rise to this linguistic-political turn, but one can justifiably ask if it is one with a larger trend that has seen the number of students seeking mental health services at college and university counseling centers increase by nearly 30% between 2009 and 2015 (Center for Collegiate Mental Health); or a product of the fact that more than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015-16 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety (Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors).

At the same time, I hasten to point out that issues of safety carry a very different valence for black students (not to mention faculty and staff – as Raina Leon’s painful and poignant recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Don’t Let Them Steal Your Joy” reminds us), as well as for Muslims, immigrants, undocumented, trans and other marginalized communities, all of whom are at greater risk in an age when more people feel emboldened to act out their racism.  Recently released findings from the National Survey of Student Engagement notes that one in seven black students feels physically unsafe on college campuses.

Protester at the University of Missouri, November 11, 2015. Photo by Mark Schierbecker. Creative Commons.

Protester at the University of Missouri, November 11, 2015. Photo by Mark Schierbecker. Creative Commons.

2) The internet: Everything looks closer and bigger: The internet has helped to shape contemporary student activism in both positive and negative ways. Its democratizing impact has made it harder to keep repressive and hateful actions under wraps. News spreads quickly, and students at hundreds of universities are soon made aware of events happening next door, across the country, or around the world.  But there are negative consequences of this information-saturated moment, as well. “While every generation of black Americans has experienced unrelenting violence,” Robin D.G. Kelley recently observed, “this is the first one compelled to witness virtually all of it, to endure the snuffing out of black lives in real time, looped over and over again, until the next murder knocks it off the news.”

The internet has the clout to make distant events seem threatening, and to allow events unfolding half-way around the world feel as if they are unfolding in the middle of one’s own campus. The internet’s ability to “relocate” remote events can make it harder to hide police violence, but it can also lead some students to feel that they need to respond to every injustice, all the time, removing both proportionality and immediacy. And its relentless nature can cause others to become increasingly desensitized and disengaged. (And here we need to circle back to the question of why student language tends to foreground issues of safety and personal trauma. I hesitate to raise this, but if horrific images from chemical attacks in Syria can cause – yes, cause – Mr. Trump to launch his missiles, our students (who I can say without hesitation, are orders of magnitude more empathetic than the man with his finger on the launch button), often only have the tools of their language by which they can respond, and that language will often express itself in traumatized forms.)

Furthermore, the internet’s restless intrusiveness and the outrage machine that feeds off it can easily explode minor events into national scandals. Oberlin has been at the receiving end of this internet bullhorn as student gripes (back to bahn mi) more than once ended up being picked up by the Washington Post or the New York Times.


New York Times headline. December 21, 2015

There is something to recommend about less important campus protests unfolding in quieter ways that allow both students and administrators to attend to student demands  without having to perform before a national audience of irate critics. At the very least, less attention can help students further explore issues which, like cultural appropriation, are complex and involve more history than casual readers have time or patience for, particularly if they’d just rather be angry.

3) The “call-out” culture. The internet also can claim some of the credit or blame for what has been referred to as a “call-out” culture.  “Call-outs” emerged in an online context as feminists and other progressive activists drew attention to what they saw as oppressive or discriminatory behavior or language. The spread of call-out culture from virtual contexts to campus activism can raise attention to acts of explicit or implicit bias; but it can also stifle discussion and silence legitimate questions. Students, often those who have taken courses that theorize identity, might decide to “call out” their peers’ language, swooping in on words, and sometimes behaviors, they see as offensive, uninformed, or culturally appropriative for the purpose of shaming, rather than educating, them. In one of my classes, for example, discussion ground to a halt when one student argued that we should be more “tolerant of others on campus only to be “called out” as racist by a second. The issue – the difference between “tolerance” (i.e. accepting others, albeit grudgingly) versus a positive impulse for diversity and inclusion– could have sparked a thoughtful exchange. But the intent of the first student, it seemed to me, was not to encourage further discussion but to humiliate. (For a useful discussion of “tolerance,” see Omid Safi’s “The Trouble with Tolerance.”) Deployed in such a fashion, the call-out is a silencing mechanism that makes it harder to discuss difficult issues, including ones that are often at its very heart, such as implicit bias. That these guardians of proper discourse are very limited in number doesn’t lessen their negative impact as stories of call-out shaming in classroom discussions, at student meetings, or when aimed directed at faculty, circulate quickly, increasing the reluctance of those who have legitimate questions or different viewpoints from talking, and everyone from learning. It also heightens faculty concern that students are laying discursive tripwires for them. While I know of only a few cases where this seems to have happened at my own college, I also know that many faculty, particular those most vulnerable, fear that they will be on the receiving end of such an encounter. Needless to say, it’s incredibly difficult to teach effectively when walking on eggshells.

4) Responsibility for change: Students at colleges and universities across the country have demanded wide-ranging changes on their campuses. Oberlin’s administrators and Board of Trustees, for example, were presented with 14-pages of demands in late 2015. It is not new that students see universities and colleges as some kind of late-medieval or early-modern institution where one can ignore layers of modern administrative bureaucracy and go straight upstairs to the “monarch’s” office to lay one’s demands on his or her desk. Yet while contemporary student activists want change every bit as much as previous generations, they don’t always seem interested in making change. Their demands often call for their college president to transform the institution, rather than either calling into question the legitimacy of administrative power (which would be a more radical move), or demanding the creation of structures whereby students can work with others to initiate at least some of the changes for which they are advocating. This is a more reformist move, but one which can expand student agency in what is, at the end of the day, a liberal, not a revolutionary, institution. Yet, to the extent that student protesters have made the president or chancellor both the receptacle and the agent of their demands, the sacking of those leaders often becomes the easiest way for trustees to “resolve” campus protest that have reached a critical level. Remove the president and you remove the problem.

Consumer-grad5) The student as customer: As market forces continue to drive many aspects of higher education, above all the cost of entry, it was perhaps inevitable that student protesters would come to embody those features of neoliberal capitalist culture they most dislike. If neoliberalism’s tendency is to turn all relationships into market transactions, then it should not be surprising that student demands themselves appear as consumerist entitlements, not only when presented by parents on behalf of their children (why didn’t Liz get into the photography class she wanted?), but in student complaints about everything from course workloads, to those who argue that they should only have to take the classes they want because they are paying customers. As one Oberlin protester told The New Yorkers Nathan Heller, “Like, the way the courses are set up. You know, we’re paying for a service. We’re paying for our attendance here. We need to be able to get what we need in a way that we can actually consume it.” The language of the demand is instructive: an important argument can be put forward for expanding the curriculum to include courses in Africana history, or the Latin influence on jazz, or many other topics, on the basis of addressing hitherto ignored cultural experiences. But those demands would be framed in ways other than as consumer entitlements.

Enter the Faculty

As I suggested earlier, many contemporary student demands, like those of previous generations of activists, are intended to push administrators into uncomfortable corners by insisting that they resolve problems that are often out of their control (e.g., ending racism), pit campus groups against one another (who controls the curriculum?), or for which they lack the resources (creating new faculty lines, hiring additional counselors, expanding library support services).  At the same time, student protests serve to remind us of things that can and should be done (e.g., increasing pay for custodial staff; moving to innovate the curriculum; improving communications), and of the more fundamental ways that higher education has not only fallen short of its declared goal of laying the foundations for a more equitable and just society but is actually magnifying the problem. As Suzanne Mettler observed in Degrees of Inequality (Basic, 2014), between 1970 and 2013, for families in the top income quartile, the percentage of U.S. students achieving a degree rose from 40 to 77%. For those in the bottom quartile, the percentage rose from 6 to 9%. Student protests will not in and of themselves eliminate the gap between the goals we share and our ability to obtain them, but by demanding that we “mind the gap,” they remind us that steps still need to be taken by all parts of the academic community. (See, as well, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s special report, “Does Higher Education Perpetuate Inequality?” June 7, 2016).

In that regard, my hope is not that student protests end. If higher education is to remain an institution that holds to the promise of admitting all who desire to enter, have a transformative impact on those who come through its gates, and help to shape a democratic citizenry, I would hope that our students continue to hold our feet to the fire. In that sense, and I truly hope that this is not seen to be patronizing, our aim should be to work as partners with students to make them both more effective and more responsible agents of change (and for change) in higher education. I don’t believe our colleges and universities will ever become “post-racial havens, enlightened islands free of prejudice,” as Robin D.G. Kelley once put it, particularly “when they are surrounded by a sea of bias.” But they can better serve the aims of a democratic society, and including a more focused student voice in the mix is critical for how this can come about. Let me set out a few steps that can help get us closer to this goal.

Truth in Advertising (or, as the Beach Boys would put it: Be true to your school):

As Jeff Chang details in We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador, 2016), we live in a nation (re)segregated by income, race, cultural sensibilities, and political orientation. Distressingly, Beverly Tatum recently pointed out that more students now attend racially segregated K-12 schools than before Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Yet colleges and universities, particularly residential liberal arts campuses, stake their legitimacy on claims of bringing together an (increasingly unnaturally occurring) diversity: geographic, religious, racial, economic, and ideological. For that reason, as Corey Robin has argued, we are seen as “laboratories for social transformations,” experimental geographies where we can try to resolve issues that can’t be pursued in “society at large.” And while the actual diversity of our campus communities is usually more aspirational than actual, it is no less true that neither do they resemble the “real” world, which, in terms of residential and economic (and, hence, educational) geography, is increasingly homogeneous.

Ironically, this leaves our campuses open to censure from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Conservative populists, who distrust universities for any number of reasons, mock their imagined insularity. There is a disturbing cruelty expressed by those who ridicule student activists they imagine to be more concerned about gender pronouns than getting a job.  “Just wait until you get to the real world,” students are warned, “then you’ll get a well-deserved kick in the teeth.” It is no less ironic when progressive student activists, who do not see their own streets reflected on our campuses, complain that college “does not reflect the real world,” and declare, as did one Oberlin student interviewed by Heller for his New Yorker article, that they want to go “home, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”

The problem here is that we invite students into our uncommon communities based precisely on a promise of diversity, inclusion and equity. Oberlin’s mission statement, just one of many similar statements, proclaims its dedication “to recruiting a culturally, economically, geographically, and racially diverse group of students. Interaction with others of widely different backgrounds and experiences,” we promise, “fosters the effective, concerned participation in the larger society so characteristic of Oberlin graduates.” And yet neither Oberlin nor most other selective colleges and universities actually delivers a truly diverse student body or takes on board how institutional practices must change to reflect the new diversity that they do manage to deliver.

There are many reasons, often outside the control of college administrators, that determine this reality, so to say that our promises are more aspirational than actual is both a critique and a recognition of real (usually financial) limitations.  But to expect that many students wouldn’t react when our institutions fall short, when “dedication to” isn’t the same as “achievement of,” is short-sighted. A student at Yale writing about protests there in 2015 observed, “For starters: the protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party. They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day…The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.”

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo

The first way forward, then, is a simple one: truth in advertising. If we truly believe in diversity as an outcome, qualitative diversity, then we should be welcoming students into a shared struggle that can move us closer towards the creation of the community we desire but haven’t realized. Rather than promising a “post-racial haven” free from discrimination, we would do better by truthfully reflecting both our limitations and the challenges of living in a country where promises of “liberty and justice for all” remain painfully unfulfilled. Our invitation to students is not to join the perfect community, but to enter a community that accepts these challenges and will work damn hard to provide students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to advance towards these goals. We need to invite students to be responsible partners who will help us move closer to the community of diversity, equity, justice, and inclusion that finds an expression in so many of our institutional mission statements.

Focus on the Faculty

Colleges and universities have become much more complex than when Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California in 1963 who was later chewed up by the “Free Speech” movement, coined the phrase “multiversity” to suggest a new institution that joined undergraduate and graduate work, liberal arts and professional training, the arts and the sciences. But contemporary institutions of higher education have been forced to be much more than even what Kerr had in mind. Besides their core educational and extracurricular functions, colleges and universities are increasingly required, among many other services, to provide 24/7 student mental health counseling (refer back to the data on the mental health needs of the current student population), to staff complex legal aid services (particularly as colleges and universities have finally begun to pay attention to issues of sexual harassment and violence, thanks in part to Title IX), and to offer sophisticated career guidance and support before and after graduation. At many levels, these are indicators of success: we are actually enrolling more students from diverse backgrounds than before; we are actually paying attention to issues that previously were ignored or swept under the rug; we are actually concerned with student lives after graduation. But this has also meant that resources have migrated from teaching and learning to these new functions. And this has happened at the same time that the professoriate finds itself severely fractured, with a declining portion of full-time, tenured or tenure track positions and a mushrooming number of instructors trying to make ends meet as part-time, contingent faculty. And if the latter have little time to attend to student lives as they rush from campus to campus without an office to call their own, the former find themselves pressured to focus on securing grants, conducting research, and generating publications.

One result of these and other structural alterations (two-income earning households; the move by many faculty at liberal arts colleges away from campus towns and to nearby urban areas; etc.) is that oversight of students’ complex lives has drifted from the faculty towards an ever-increasing number of administrators and professional staff. And yet I would argue that while colleges and universities, necessarily and appropriately, have come to rely on skilled counselors when issues of student mental health or issues of sexual violence arise, and while our institutions benefit from professionally trained staff, institutions of higher learning have come to see student “life,” including student protest, as a matter for administrative, not faculty, concern. That should not be the case.

Don’t get me wrong: the faculty aren’t, by virtue of our education, training, or experience, more skilled or more patient with students than administrators or staff. In fact, often we aren’t. But of all campus constituencies, faculty remain in place the longest, have the most direct and regular contact with students, and, because of our location at the heart of the institution’s core mission, teaching and learning, we can often act as role models for students more so than other constituencies. Perhaps more critically than the above, many faculty are still afforded the protections of tenure, which means that, once achieved, we can more easily step out of our comfort zones and cope with difficult issues of student protest without fearing for our jobs.

Educational Opportunity Program, Berkeley

Educational Opportunity Program, Berkeley

To the extent that it is easier to shift the burden of contentious student behavior to the administration (to the president above all), the faculty absolves itself of any responsibility to help our students become active and responsible members of a democratic and just society. Faculty need to engage the challenges of student activism, supporting appropriate student desires to create the more inclusive, diverse, and equitable institutions that are envisioned in our mission statements, while critiquing demands or behaviors that undercut what we stand for as communities engaged in teaching and learning. Faculty, regardless of our own political orientation, need to be prepared to confront and challenge attitudes that would silence discussion in class, to help students think about and address difficult or ambiguous issues, and to model what effective participation, inclusive discussion, and a strengthened democratic culture can look like.

We can do this in many different spaces around the campus, from the athletic fields, to residence halls, to local coffee houses.  But it is in the classroom where we will best cultivate the potential of student activism.

Focus on the classroom

The Political Classroom

In The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy argue that schools “are, and ought to be, political sites.” Schools are being political, they contend, when they are “democratically making decisions about questions that ask, ‘How should we live together?’” (italics in original). I would argue that the classroom is one crucial space where students develop “their ability to deliberate political questions.”

Many faculty would assert that only in a few disciplines are instructors prepared to deliberate “political questions.” Yet, as John Dewey maintained when advocating for instruction in the sciences, teachers should think of these subjects not as bodies of “ready-made knowledge,” but as products of a method that would enhance moral reasoning. “If ever we are to be governed by intelligence, not by things and by words,” he wrote, “science must have something to say about what we do, and not merely about how we may do it most easily and economically.” [Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell, 1991), p 170]

Further, to the extent that politics is about power, access to resources, and representation, then all our classrooms, calculus as well as constitutional law, are in an important sense “political.” In all our classrooms, we teach not just our subjects, but how to “live together.” And regardless of the subjects we teach, faculty are continually faced with the question not just of  who is in the room, but, more importantly, who isn’t, and why? We need to be asking: Who is more likely to succeed and who less? How does the way we teach impact the lives of our students, and how do (or how should) their lives inform the ways we teach? The answers to these questions are often shaped, if not determined, by understanding who has access to resources, both economic and human, and doesn’t; who will find support and representation both on campus and after graduation, and who won’t. These are questions for all our classrooms, and in that context all our classrooms are “political” even if the subjects we teach aren’t.

The Democratic Classroom

But, in an even more profound sense, classrooms are political in that they can and should be spaces of democratic praxis, spaces that embody the ideals of empathy, responsibility, community, equity, and critical consciousness. Democratic classrooms can enable students not just to learn the subject matter but to learn how to question, listen, speak up, critique, and participate meaningfully. Or not.  But we, as faculty, do have input here. Our classrooms will not prepare students for the practice of deliberative democracy unless they themselves embody democratic practices and are open to student voices, histories, and concerns. If student protesters are demanding agency and relevance, the classroom should be a place where they practice what these mean concretely.

ListenSo, do we turn our classrooms over to the students while absolving ourselves of any responsibility to teach the subjects that we are best prepared (and paid) to teach? Do we acquiesce to consumerist demands that we should only teach what they want to study? Not at all. Here are three points to engage what it means to construct a democratic classroom. [Much more could be added as the literature on this topic is deep. If you wanted to construct a genealogy of the theme, start with John Dewey (Experience and Education), move to a disciple of sorts, Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed), then on to his disciple, Ira Shore (When Students Have Power).]

Transparency and student voice: Of the many issues raised by student activists, the demand for “transparency” is one heard frequently. Whether this demand expresses a concern that decisions that impact student lives are being made behind their backs or is simply a call for better communications, the demand for transparency often feels incomplete; I’m always left waiting for the other shoe to drop. What is supposed to happen through greater transparency, when decision-making processes are brought to the light of day, when financial accounts are shared, when communication is more purposeful? This is not to argue against, transparency, just the opposite: transparency must come with the responsibility of using information in productive ways.

Transparency in the classroom entails both faculty disclosure and student responsibility; it requires, in a sense, that the other shoe drop. A central challenge for the democratic classroom lies in the instructor’s openness to disclosing the course’s architecture, the foundation on which it’s built and the structures which rise on that foundation: What theory of learning informs the pedagogy? How are its learning goals determined? How will the weekly readings and assignments build skills and knowledge? Why are specific readings chosen and how do assignments scaffold learning? How will students be responsible for their learning? Providing transparency about the architecture of pedagogical decisions opens one’s teaching approaches to examination (including self-examination) and invites students into the co-construction of learning in the classroom. Faculty don’t give up their expertise when they are forthcoming about the pedagogical choices they make. Rather, they signal that student input is critical for the conversation to advance, and that student voices need to be informed and their arguments well considered if the class is to be a democratic space of learning.

Respect, the process of inquiry, and the issue of free speech on campus: Student activists often question the basis on which arguments will be evaluated. As teachers and learners, we need to be able to construct arguments and arrive at conclusions that are based on evidence, open to examination, and subject to moral and ethical assessment. We need equally to help our students be aware of the ways that authority itself is both constructed and contextual, subject to revision and reevaluation. We need to be awake to the circumstances that encourage or dissuade participation in the conversations that take place in our classrooms.

When students enter the academic community, we hope they come with a desire to engage in a process whose goal is greater understanding and deeper reflection, not just the gaining of skills and a degree that can be leveraged into a higher salary. How, where, when, and in what form this learning happens should always be open for discussion, but not the community-defining goal of learning itself.  Greater comprehension, insight, and the capacity for deeper reflection takes place through a process that allows all manner of ideas to be raised, discussed and evaluated…and dismissed if need be.

The process of teaching and learning requires respect if it is to succeed. Student activists often bridle at this, suggesting certain views are not deserving of respect, those which spew racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic invective, for example. I agree. But what we require as an educational community is respect for the process through which learning takes place, not necessarily for the views that are expressed. This is why, in a fundamental way, the discussion of free speech within a campus community is different than the issue of free speech outside the academic community.

This is probably one of the few places where I agree – at least partially and to my surprise — with Stanley Fish who recently argued that “the university’s normative commitment is to freedom of inquiry,” not to freedom of speech. “Freedom of speech,” he writes “is not an academic value. Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value.” (I would just note that neither he nor I address the question of whether specific speakers should be allowed to speak on campus, a decision that can revolve around a set of different factors including whether the institution is public or private, and whether safety issues are involved.)  Fish’s argument is that academic communities, by virtue of their essential missions of teaching and research, value training and hard-won expertise. And while one should always be aware of the academy’s (and one’s own) blind spots, we are not the “University of Google” or the (highly-regarded) “Sizzler University.” We have no responsibility to teach (or to let be taught) that the Holocaust didn’t happen or that enslaved Africans were immigrants looking for a better life in America.  To these arguments, I would add that most academic communities are united by the values their members share, including the right of those who are part of that community to occupy that space without being denigrated or attacked. Outside the walls of the academy, I’m a free-speech absolutist. Within its walls, the values established by that community, including the right to exclude ideas that have been shown to be not just fundamentally wrong, but whose primary purpose is to demean members of that community, can be excluded.

Let’s not fool ourselves: This argument places a huge responsibility on those who would exclude certain voices to be clear why they are off limits for an academic community and, just as importantly, why other speakers who will make community members uneasy and uncomfortable and probably unhappy, nevertheless present arguments that need to be heard and debated within an academic setting. I’m not saying this is easy; I’m just arguing that neither absolutist free speech nor the exclusion of all unpopular positions will help us find the proper way for academic communities to proceed just because they make decisions easier. What always hangs in the balance is the learning that can be gained, not the ease of making decisions. To paraphrase Dewey, as educators, “we must have something to say about what we do, and not merely about how we may do it most easily and economically.”

Ambiguity and humility: José Antonio Bowen, now the president of Goucher College, recently argued that “Pedagogy is about moving from comfort to discomfort and eventually finding comfort in discomfort.” An essential part of that journey will transport students through zones of ambiguity before they come to a realization that some questions don’t have straightforward answers even if their moral and ethical foundations are clear. Racism is vile and destructive; how it came about and how one roots it out are much more complex. In that sense, understanding ambiguity and complexity doesn’t mean abandoning moral convictions. How we make our institutions more inclusive and equitable is a challenge of immense complexity; but the fact that we might not find easy remedies doesn’t make the goal of creating just, inclusive and equitable institutions any less desirable. These are lessons best learned in the classroom.

By Way of Conclusion: No, It’s Not Easy

A few weeks ago, I heard a truly transformational discussion between the Reverend Traci Blackmon, the Senior Pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, and Rabbi Susan Talve, of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. Their conversation, about the work they engaged in after the police killed Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, was titled “Solidarities in Difference and Faith.” I was struck by many aspects of the conversation, but above all by the “solidarities” that existed between these two women, both faith-based community leaders. As they talked, it became clear that their relationship was rooted in trust, and that the trust they shared, and which was brilliantly on display, was the product of years of dedicated work in their respective communities around common issues of racial justice and healing. It was beautiful to behold.

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

Towards the end of the conversation, one student asked their advice about the challenge of repairing the fractures that divide various communities on campus. To begin, Reverend Traci began, “You don’t enter a community to change it; you enter to be changed.” Important advice which should probably be the headline for all our new students’ orientation programs. And then Rabbi Susan, in concluding, said something that I have said many times and that you have undoubtedly both heard and said yourselves: “If you can’t do this [work of community building] at Oberlin, you can’t do it anywhere.” Slot in the name of any liberal arts college – Harvey Mudd, Pomona, Swarthmore – and you know what I’m saying.

But that’s when I realized that no, that’s not actually true. That, in fact, our small and “unnatural” communities might be the hardest places to reach the kind of trust that allows students to grow closer through the mistakes, missteps, and misunderstandings that they will inevitably produce. And it’s not because our students aren’t willing or are somehow incapable of generating the trust that allows community and deeper understanding to truly develop. It’s because students neither have the time nor the opportunity to engage in the long-term, difficult but ultimately rewarding labor that lays the foundation in which all true “solidarities” are anchored. The work we do as faculty and staff, I firmly believe, is amazingly important; it is capable of changing lives and even saving lives. It is in many cases what allows our students to do such incredible things once they graduate.

And so, here’s the thing: while I’m often frustrated by how students can act in ways that damage alliances rather than strengthen them; and how they often seem unwilling to take the first step if it doesn’t guarantee them that they will win the war; or how they can be harder on those who seemingly agree with them than on those who disagree with them; or how they often seem ready to bite the hands that are trying to nourish them, nevertheless I am rarely disappointed with what they become once they head out into the world. And I thank Reverend Traci and Rabbi Susan for helping me understand why: we may prepare our students but cannot provide the actual context in which the hard work of community building happens. This long-term work will only happen when they leave here (wherever that may be), lay down roots in their own communities, and engage in the hard work of building trust, alliances, solidarities. That’s where they take what we (hopefully) have taught them and put it to work. There, not here.

This doesn’t make me sad or value any less what we do in our own colleges; if anything, it makes me even more convinced that what we do is critical. But it does give me a clearer understanding of our limitations as well as our possibilities. We will not solve the “problem” of student “illiberalism,” but, if we put our minds to it, we can do the work of democracy one classroom at a time; we can nurture democratic culture by keeping in focus what we do, not how to do it more easily and economically. It is work that requires engaging our students in discussions which may make them uncomfortable and uncertain, and which will challenge them to think in more complex and less certain ways, but which ultimately will prepare them to build the solidarities they will need if they are to confront the world that awaits them.

“Choose your Own Adventure”: New Approaches to Assignments

Wendy Hyman, Associate Professor of English (Oberlin College), April 17, 2017

"Macbeth," Holinshed Chronicles Folio. Public domain

“Macbeth,” Holinshed Chronicles Folio. Public domain

Like most teaching faculty, I’ve experimented with an array of strategies for augmenting (and evaluating) student learning over the years. Some have been fairly conventional: response papers, short quizzes, class reports, blackboard posts, final research papers, cumulative exams, and the like. Others have been more creative and comparative: writing “biographies” of books in Special Collections (trying to discern something like the “life story” of a 400- or 500-year old object), curating an exhibit in the Allen Memorial Art Museum  (although a literature professor, my scholarship sometimes delves into visual studies), writing imagined dialogues between literary characters, selecting among textual variants in order to create mini “editions,” or creating “liner notes” to speculate whether Petrarch or Dante is the mysterious “Italian poet from the thirteenth century” in Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.”

But until recently, one thing I had never experimented with was giving students a choice about which assignments to complete or when to complete them. After all, standardizing the “what” and “when” of student work not only enables one to anticipate the grading tsunamis, but also ameliorates the grading process itself (read a few essay-based exams in a row, and you quickly develop a rubric for what “A” or a “B” answers looks like). Plus, as a female—and, for a while there, young—faculty member, I worried that I needed to be stringent in order to be taken seriously. Like developing a cherished reputation as a hard grader, I thought of inflexible deadlines as my friend. My reasons for keeping things simple and keeping them on a set schedule were not entirely self-interested, however. Like many professors, I found myself persuaded by the oft-repeated truism that it is part of our job to teach our students respect for deadlines. Surely it is the rare academic who has never turned in an article, book review, or assessment report after a promised deadline, and I admittedly felt a bit hypocritical playing bad cop. But we hear again and again that the work world, unlike higher education, will not tolerate the foibles of the disorganized and dilatory; in order to best prepare our students to flourish after graduation, it thereby seems like it must be our mandate to keep them on schedule.

A Midsummer Night's Dream act IV, scene I. Engraving from a painting by Henry Fuseli, published 1796. Public domain

A Midsummer Night’s Dream act IV, scene I. Engraving from a painting by Henry Fuseli, published 1796. Public domain

But over the years I began to resent occupying the role of the disciplinarian who insisted on calibrating demerits for each day of lateness. In terms of contact with students, deadline management also places inevitable emotional friction into the least edifying part of the student-teacher relationship. I’d so much rather talk about how my student’s thinking is evolving than adjudicate whether they really needed another 24 hours to turn in the essay reflecting said thinking. More important, the rigidity seemed inimical to the kind of creative, inventive, higher-order thinking I wanted to foster in both my students and myself, and the impression I wanted to leave of their encounter with the material. Do I want them to remember that I was the person who taught them to turn in an essay on time even if they have the flu? Or the person that enabled then to do their best work because I had not discouraged self-care?

Stepping Gradually into the New Assignment Waters

A few years ago, a new class gave me a chance to test out doing a few things differently. It was a new lecture-style course, a 100-level Introduction to Shakespeare directed at non-majors. I therefore anticipated many first-time visitors to college-level humanities courses: opera singers and oboe players, geologists and mathematicians, pre-med students taking a required English class, or first-years who had promised a grandparent they would try out Shakespeare. I wanted to signal my understanding that each of these students would bring different interests and strengths to the table, and I also wanted the “opportunity costs” of trying out something new to be low. At the same time, with 50 students in the class (and half that many in another that was writing intensive), there was a limit to how much I could really personalize things. So I considered a compromise. What if, in addition to short quizzes and a final exam, I gave students a menu of 4 choices for the remaining 10% of their grade? And what if I allowed them to turn in or perform their student-choice assignment whenever they chose?

Christian de Köhler, Othello with Desdemona, 1859. Public domain

Christian de Köhler, Othello with Desdemona, 1859. Public domain

To my delight, the experiment went very well. Most of the students chose to do a recitation (option: to perform a soliloquy or group scene either in class or in my office), while others cheered them on. Several chose to analyze a film adaptation, while another analyzed a performance of the opera Otello. A few discussed a scholarly article about one of the plays, and a couple others even examined primary sources reproduced in our textbook. While a few did treat the assignment as peripheral, most really relished the opportunity to take agency in their choice, and to round-out the course’s approach with something more personal. Certainly, the recitations animated the classroom, and created a sense of mutual respect and group bonding that made the lecture hall feel more intimate. But best of all, I was enabling a kind of multi-modal learning even in a lecture course, and in a way that I think increased the student sense of buy-in.

All In: Choose Your Own Adventure

I was pleased enough with how this went that, last semester, I decided to radically increase the student-choice component of an upper-level course, giving students what I described as “choose your own adventure” approach to the majority of assignments. It took a good amount of planning to set up, a significant amount of flexibility to administer, and a willingness to take a real leap of faith in my students. But if it enabled me to focus less on my role as Keeper of Deadlines, and more on my role as enabler of scrupulous analysis, elegant expression, and metacognition, how could that be bad? It certainly seemed like a class called Shakespeare and Metamorphosis, which read Shakespeare in conversation with classical Ovidian myths about transformation, was an ideal place to ask for more self-direction from students—and to try out something new myself.

Ovid, Metamorphoseon libri XV.... Title-page. Collection of Hayden White and Margaret Brose, 1556. Public domain

Ovid, Metamorphoseon libri XV…. Title-page. Collection of Hayden White and Margaret Brose, 1556. Public domain

Of course, the details of any such experiment would need to be adapted to the learning goals of the course, the skill level of the students, and the exigencies of the professor’s schedule (full disclosure: I am not doing anything like this now, during my hectic 3-course semester). But for me, it looked like this: all students were required to write one analytical essay (6-8 pages) worth 25% of the grade; and all students would receive 15% of their grade for their attendance and participation in discussion. Beyond this, it was up to each student to determine the means by which they would find it most beneficial to be evaluated according to a menu of options that I provided. Admittedly, this took me some time to work out:




5%:    Start off class discussion with a substantive response to something we’ve read; pose         questions.

10%:  Oral presentation (5-10 min) of an article—summarize, analyze, point to ideas it raises;

          or Visual analysis (3pp) of an object in the AMAM in relation to Ovid/Shakespeare;

          or Response paper (3pp.) analyzing any primary or secondary reading for the day.

15%:  Annotated bibliography of 3 articles not on the syllabus (one paragraph per source);

          or Analysis (3-4pp) of a translation of one of our primary texts.

20%:  Attempt to create your own myth (!);

          or Continue the story of any Ovidian character.

25%:  6-7 pp. analytical essay on any primary source from the second half of term;

          or an Ovidian Shakespeare text (e.g. Venus and Adonis) not on the syllabus;

          or one or more myth(s) from another culture/linguistic tradition, etc.;

          or a Final exam comprising discussion of terms, passage analysis, and one essay.

50%:  Final original research paper, 16-20pp.; requires 6-8 secondary sources and a consultation with a librarian.

?%:    Online virtual exhibition/web page: let’s discuss what you envision, and agree on scope.

          or? I am open to other unconventional approaches.

This menu of options was followed by five samples of how a student might get to 100 points, and some ground rules: All students had to submit a personal plan by week 2 for how they intended to meet the course requirements (they were allowed to modify the plan after this date if their interests changed, as long as they submitted a revised plan and explanation). I stipulated that no more than three of any element could be submitted, urging that in most cases two would be better to expand the skill set developed. All students had to earn at least 20 “student choice” points by the end of week 10, unless writing the research paper, and all were required to turn in a sheet showing their “accounting” at the end of the semester.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, "Minerva at the House of Envy," 1664 - 1700

Ovid, Metamorphoses, “Minerva at the House of Envy,” 1664 – 1700. Public domain

There were scheduling issues I had to think through. I needed to allow only two discussion starters per day so as to not take too much time away from class discussion; that part was therefore handled by sign-up sheet. I had to take into account the registrar’s rules for the submission of final projects. And I had to help the students, primarily through one-on-one conversations, think through how to figure out their rubric. But here is where the somewhat dizzying logistics made way for intentionality and responsibility: because each student had to give serious thought to what their aims and intentions for the course were. Is this a semester, I asked them, in which you really want to work on your writing by tackling a series of short essays with ongoing feedback? Is this the semester in which you want to try bringing together your English and Creative Writing majors by writing your own myth? Are you interested in working on your research skills, and therefore want to develop an annotated bibliography? Do you need more practice giving in-class presentations, and can we set up a schedule for those? It almost goes without saying that by asking them to take responsibility for what they most wanted to work on, they were more likely to achieve it. And far from thinking that flexibility was a synonym for slack, the class truly set itself wonderfully high expectations: from a scholarly 20-page research papers for a graduate-school bound student, to a site-specific installation by a TIMARA major in Tappan Square, replete with an original score, which reimagined the town green as an allegorical landscape.

And what about those deadlines? As you might imagine, students were initially a bit overwhelmed by this array of options. They did their earnest best to come up with plans they could stick to. But as they kept learning, their interests changed, and so did their intentions. I accepted every revision. Likewise, as deadlines piled up, many students had to revise their own due dates. I accepted every new date. Each time, the students seemed apologetic that they had fallen short in some way, but I told them that, instead, they could use this as a wonderful opportunity to self-reflect about how they worked best, what they might need to prioritize differently in the future, and how much time they required for various tasks. Because in reality, the world of work very rarely dictates singular deadlines that can be tackled one by one. Instead, we all must learn to multitask in increasingly complex and demanding environments that reward us more for nimbleness than for rigidity. And that, too, is something that my Shakespeare and Metamorphosis students so deftly taught me.

Group Projects: It’s Better Together – But Only if You Plan

Steve Volk, April 10, 2017

Gold and Silver Fish of China, 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Gold and Silver Fish of China, Chinese painting, c.1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Assigning group projects is a fairly common practice across the disciplines. You can read Penny J. Gilmer’s book on Transforming University Teaching Using Collaborative Learning (Springer 2010), view the collaborative project between Denison University and the American University of Bulgaria described here last week, or explore these software engineering group projects from the Australian National University. And much more in between.

Quite often faculty will wait until the end of the semester before designing a collaborative project as a final assignment. What could go wrong? Um, a lot? And while there’s no single way to fashion group projects that are guaranteed to succeed, the surest way to nudge it off the rails is to assign a group project as a time saver for you: Let’s see. I’ve got 50 students in the class. If I put them in groups of 5, I’ll only have 10 projects to read at the end of the year. Yay! (And I speak from – sad – experience on this score.)

But there are also steps to take to help group projects succeed. Here are a few elements to consider as you plan for collaborative work in your classes. Since the central point is to make sure that group work aligns well with the overall learning goals in your course, it is likely already too late in the semester to integrate it in a meaningful way. But it’s never too soon to start planning for next semester. So, here are five areas to think about:

  1. Why assign group work: What are the pedagogic considerations? How will you discuss the collaborative assignments with your students?
  1. How to form groups: student choice or your own? Will you randomly assign students to a group or will the groups be formed based on specific characteristics you are looking for? Will they remain the same all semester or change with every project or discussion?
  1. Group maintenance: What steps can you take to help groups succeed? How will you help groups deal with contentious internal dynamics and stay on track?
  1. What can you do to increase the likelihood that everyone in the group is working up to an expected standard and that there are internal accountability mechanisms?
  1. How will you assess the final product in a way that’s fair to both the group (in terms of its collective effort) and to the individuals within it?

Why Group Work?

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

One Pink Fish, Two Green Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Perhaps the most obvious reason to consider adding collaborative work to your syllabus is because research has shown that cooperative learning produces greater academic achievement than either more traditional competitive learning or individualistic learning. David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Karl Smith, the go-to researchers when examining the pedagogy of cooperative learning, undertook a meta-analysis of 168 studies comparing learning types about ten years ago. Their findings, published as Active Learning: Cooperation in the University Classroom (Edina, MN: Interaction, 2006), disclosed that cooperative learning increased student academic performance by approximately one-half of a standard deviation when compared to non-cooperative learning models. For the statistically unaware among us, myself included, that’s a moderate, but important, impact. Further, their study showed other positive outcomes of collaborative work, including increases in student self-esteem and a growth of positive attitudes about learning. George Kuh, an important assessments researcher, similarly concluded in a 2007 study that cooperative group learning promotes student engagement and academic performance. [G.D. Kuh, J. Kinzle, J. Buckley, B. Bridges, and J.C. Hayek, Piecing Together the Student Success Puzzle: Research Propositions and Recommendations, ASHE Higher Education Report, No. 32 (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2007)].

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions, including a study by Jennifer L. Faust & Donald R. Paulson, “Active Learning in the College Classroom,” which argued, “A recent review of research on cooperative learning found that it boosts development of critical-thinking skills and fosters social interdependence and support among students (Slavin, 1996). Further, when compared with more traditional competitive or individualistic learning methods, cooperative learning improves students’ attitudes toward their subject area, improves relationships between students, and improves student retention.”

I would also suggest a second, fairly obvious, reason for including group work activities in your classes. There are very few jobs for our graduates where collaboration skills and the ability to work in teams will not be essential. From scientific research to artistic creation, the ability to collaborate successfully is often central to success. According to a 2016 survey carried out by NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers), nearly 80% of employers said they are looking for leaders who are able to work in a team.  And I would add, to broaden the perspective beyond employment, the ability to work closely and positively with others should be prized by all of us who understand the benefit to society as a whole of cultivating adults who can actually work together rather than those who – like someone I won’t name – never learned to play well with others! Cooperative group work is the forum through which team-work skills can be learned. Particularly for faculty who include “collaboration” as a desired learning outcome for their courses, group work provides a mechanism for building capacity in that area, one that can be assessed along with the content of group work projects.

Whether you include group work in your course design for these reasons or others, it’s important to discuss the rationale of collaborative work with your students so they can gain a clearer sense of why you structure your classes as you do and the importance you place on this particular skill. I’ve also found it instructive to ask my students what preconceptions they have of group work (whether we’re talking about quickly formed discussion groups or formal groups that are tasked with producing joint projects), what aspects they enjoy or dislike about such work, and how they think collaborative work projects should be designed. It’s particularly important to address any negative preconceptions that students have about group work so they can be addressed specifically (particularly those preconceptions are inaccurate) and so that student considerations can be brought into the planning process. In this regard, the most common complaint that students have about group work – undoubtedly a product of past experience – is that they will be placed in a group with “free riders,” that responsible students in the group are the ones who will end up doing all the work while the social loafers share in the benefits. There’s no question that this can happen, but you can discuss with the class the measures you’ll set up to lessen the possibility of social loafing and to guarantee that all in the group will be graded fairly and based on both collaborative and individual effort.

Forming Groups: Random or Structured?

Two Green Fish, Two Brown Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Two Green Fish, Two Brown Fish, Chinese painting, c. 1800-1899, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, Public Domain

Researchers typically distinguish between small ad hoc groups that work together for a single class (e.g., discussion groups), and those “formal cooperative learning groups,” whose work can span a semester and that often involve joint assignments. You likely organize informal groups all the time and don’t need further advice on that score: either have students turn to people sitting close to them or, to insure a that the same friends don’t always stay together in a discussion group, have the students count off with all the “1’s” together, etc. Often, it’s just a question of the amount of time you have as to which you choose: a quick “think-pair-share” exercise works best with those sitting close by, a more extended discussion can allow for more social mixing.

Forming groups for long-term work (“formal cooperative learning groups”) requires more planning. Having read a fair amount on how different faculty set up their groups, it seems that there’s no single way to guarantee success. (You’ve probably noticed by now that success is never guaranteed!).  Among the various methods are allowing students to select their own group members, faculty selected groups based on random characteristics (e.g. all the tall people; all the sophomores, by alphabetic order using first names, etc.), faculty selected groups based on specific characteristics, particularly heterogeneity (e.g. matching students with strong background in the subject with those who have a weaker background; matching science majors with humanities majors; pairing students who did well on the first two exams with those who did poorly, etc.). Some faculty strongly believe that students do best when they exercise their own agency and therefore they should determine their own groups. Others who believe in the importance of student agency might also want the selection process to be more deliberative, more thoughtful. One of the problems that can occur if the faculty select the group is that they likely to be blamed in case things head south, or be expected to “fix” soured relationships in the group. One of the problems that can occur if you let the students decide on group membership for themselves is that problems in individual relationships might carry over into the group (or persist after the class ends); friendships can often get in the way of group performance.

With these points in mind, here are two suggestions, recently put forward by John Warner writing in Inside Higher Education.

Warner highlighted a colleague who would hand out 3×5 note cards to students on which they listed a few people (the number depending on the ultimate size of the group) they wanted to work with, and one peer they would rather not work with. He would then arrange groups based on the cards. (The students, by the way, did not know what anyone else wrote on their cards.)

Warner himself modified this process by asking his students to write a “group project resume/letter” to be read by the other students. The “resume” would include such things as schedules (when they were busy), individual competencies, skills the student felt she was good, or not so good, at; level of comfort with taking direction from others; etc. And then they discussed their goals and values regarding the project and the course. What was more important for them, the grade? The group experience? Students then circulated around the class, read the resume/letters from their classmates, and finally filled out a 3×5 card as in the exercise above, listing other students they wanted to work with and those they didn’t. Finally, Warner would form the groups, trying to insure that nobody was put in a group with a person they explicitly said they didn’t want to work with and endeavoring to put them in a group with at least one person they said they wanted to work with.

The bottom line in terms of group formation is that you need to understand your own priorities when determining group composition: is it student autonomy? Insuring a specific heterogeneity in the group, or other factors. Then think about using the index card route as a good middle ground. I particularly like Warner’s approach since it encourages students to be quite reflective about the process from the very beginning.

Insuring Good Practice

Great Barrier Reef fish. Bio-diversity Heritage Library.

Great Barrier Reef fish. Bio-diversity Heritage Library.

Even if you can’t  guarantee the ultimate success of group work, there’s a lot you can do to smooth the process and improve the outcomes of collaborative work.

  • Groups that form late in the semester with the intent of completing a final project not only stand a greater chance of unsuccessfully confronting many of the characteristic problems inherent in group work (e.g., free-riders; scheduling disasters; personal conflicts, etc.), but the students also can’t benefit from many aspects of well-planned collaboration. By scaffolding smaller group work projects into the syllabus over the early part of the semester, students will be able to build capacity by getting practice working in teams before the a final, high-stakes group assignment.
  • Size: Researchers suggest that a 3-5 person group generally is the best (“exhibiting the best performance in some problem-solving tasks,” according to Johnson et al, 2006). More than 6 can be unwieldy in terms of scheduling.
  • Role assignment: The data on this is a bit mixed, but faculty often assign roles in group work in order to avoid some of the more common problems associated with collaborative projects such as dominance by a single student or the social loafing problem. But rather than assigning more traditional roles (leader, note taker), think about using the following roles: skeptic, conciliator, manager, synthesizer, analyzer. (See Heller and Hollabaugh, “Teaching Problem Solving” (1992), and then rotate these roles among group members over the course of the project. (You can read more about various group roles from Carnegie Mellon’s Teaching and Learning Center here.)
  • Devise a plan of action: Help the groups plan their approaches, particularly who will be doing what and when. Model how students can plan a lengthy or complex project by discussing how you would go about the work; make sure that planning is actually a significant part of what the students are doing in their project. Help the groups set interim deadlines. Discuss what, from your experience, are the most common problems they will encounter: time management, getting materials from off-campus, drafting and redrafting papers, etc.
  • Meet with the various groups over the course of the project and see that each time you meet with them, a different student reports on the progress of the group and the difficulties it is facing.
  • Either establish ground rules for group practice or encourage group members to set their own. Cover such points as attendance (what if students can’t make a group meeting), communication (e.g. how quickly should they be expected to respond to a text or email); listening to others; constructive critiques, etc. (Here’s a template for a team contract from Carnegie Mellon.)
  • Talk about conflict resolution: Conflicts will happen, and it’s good to prepare for them ahead of time. How can they talk to a team member to express disappointment, frustration, or upset without totally alienating the offender? Role play different “types” of behaviors (e.g. the person who is always late to meetings or dominates discussion). In short, develop ways to raise likely issues in a hypothetical fashion before they present themselves in real time.

Interim Assessments and Individual Accountability

An important tool for collaborative projects is an assessment plan by which team members (and later you) can hold their colleagues as well as themselves accountable. One way to do this is to have students evaluate their individual and group work during the course of the project (as well as at its end). Nancy Darling (in Oberlin’s Department of Psychology) once shared with me her group work rubric (designed for an end-of-project assessment), although it can as easily be used as a regular check-in for students (see chart below.) Students are asked to rate themselves and their team partners on a variety of criteria including attendance, preparation, participation, leadership, follow through, cooperation, and equity.


Prof. Nancy Darling’s assessment rubric

For assessment to work well, make sure that the expectations you have for their work are clear: students will have a hard time evaluating their own (and others’) performance if they don’t know what is expected of them. You can provide students with examples of projects that have worked well in the past, discussing the specific aspects that added to the success of the project, as well as examples of projects that didn’t work so well (detailing, in this case, what went wrong).

Final Assessment

The naturalist's miscellany, or Coloured figures of natural objects. London: Printed for Nodder & Co.,1789-1813. Bio-Diversity Heritage Library. Public Domain

The naturalist’s miscellany, or Coloured figures of natural objects. London: Printed for Nodder & Co.,1789-1813. Bio-Diversity Heritage Library. Public Domain

While assessing a final group project deserves an article by itself, here are a few pointers to get you going until I get around to writing that piece. In the meantime, I’ll direct you toward the very useful suggestions from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center.

As I suggested above, begin by making sure your assessment criteria are clear, particularly in terms of how you will grade both the product and the group process, and whether you will also be grading individuals in the group by separate measures.

This last point is particularly important as one of the keys to helping group work succeed is in concretely addressing the problem of free-riderdom, that some students will do the heavy lifting and others will get the same grade while not having worked as hard.

I was recently listening to an interview with Noah Hawley, the show-runner for the FX remake of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, taped at the 2014 Austin Film Festival. The point Hawley was making seemed quite appropriate for how to think about the relationship between individual and group work. He argued that while you can’t “make a Coen film by committee,” indeed, that it’s “kind of hard to make any movie by committee.” nevertheless film is fundamentally  “a collaborative medium … a team effort.” Collaborative work, in the sense that Hawley was talking about, works best when it melds individual effort with team work.

We probably don’t need to draw any conclusions about the value of individualism vs. cooperation to understand that it can be demoralizing and demotivating for students to feel that they are being taken advantage of. One way to avoid the problem of social loafing is to combine individual assessment along with group assessment. You can do this on an interim basis by scheduling quizzes on relevant material groups are working with or by adding an individual component to the final group project. For example, along with the final product, students individually would be required to reflect on the group process, write an essay on some aspect of the project, or post journal entries during the course of the project discussing what they are learning. Each student’s final grade would then be the sum of the group’s grade along with an individual factor, using any proportional division you — and perhaps the students — feel comfortable with. The instructor in one example I read about required a group project plus short individual papers summarizing what they learned from the assignment and what they contributed to the group.

Make sure that you assess the process as well as the product. As with Nancy Darling’s rubric above, have each member of the team evaluate their own contribution, the contributions of other team members, and the dynamics of the team itself.

Finally, and in conclusions, one of the best ways to prepare for collaborative work is to talk to your colleagues. Either they will have a lot of examples to share with you, or will know who has developed thoughtful group work. Talk to them; it will save you a lot of time and experimentation.

What do you do to prepare students for group work? How do you assess it? Feel free to share your comments.

[Information gathered from, among other sources: Carnegie Mellon’s “Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation,” Krista D. Forrest and Emily E. Balcetis, “Teaching Students to Work Well in Groups,” Association for Psychological Science 21:2 (Feb. 2008); Macie Hall, “Making Group Projects Work,” Johns Hopkins  University Innovative Instructor Blog (May 1, 2013); University of Maryland, CTE-Lilly Teaching Fellows, “Group Work and Collaborative Learning: Best Practices” (August 9, 2012); and Cynthia J. Brame and Rachel Biel, “Group Work: Using Cooperative Learning Groups Effectively,” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.]



Global Connections 2.0 (or are we up to 3.0?)

Steve Volk, April 3, 2017

"Sam_6010," photo by Johanna L., Flickr - Creative Commons

“Sam_6010,” photo by Johanna L., Flickr – Creative Commons

The higher ed press has run a number of articles recently on the ways that institutional collaborations can save money by multiplying scarce resources while providing opportunities for students and faculty not normally available on any single campus.  Susan Palmer, the executive director of the Five Colleges of Ohio (Denison, Kenyon, Ohio Wesleyan, Oberlin, and Wooster), for example, wrote about a number of our collaborations including projects on digital scholarship, faculty planning, curricular coherence,  integrated learning, language enrichment, and others.

Individual faculty have been collaborating with colleagues at other institutions for years, often using readily available and free software (usually Skype) to “bring in” the author of a book the students are currently reading, listening to “on the scene” observations from colleagues living in areas of the world where important events are occurring, or connecting language learners with peers in target language countries.

Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. student at Keep Co-op, Oberlin College, 2010 (Photo Amanda Nagy)

Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. student at Keep Co-op, Oberlin College, 2010 (Photo Amanda Nagy)

Beyond this, some faculty have put the time and effort (and often blood, sweat and tears) into developing more intensive collaborations across institutions and national borders because the results, in terms of student learning and personal impact as well as the faculty members’ own professional development, can be so significant. At Oberlin, the “American Democracy” project run by emeriti history professors Carol Lasser and Gary Kornblith, comes to mind.  Beginning in 2010. The project consisted of two parallel partnerships, one between Al Quds University (Palestine) and Oberlin College, and the other between Tel Aviv University (Israel) and Oberlin College. Using a common sourcebook of readings, courses on the American democratic experience were taught in tandem at the three institutions. Besides posting reflections on a joint course management site, students from all three institutions “met” via video conferencing and, for a number of summers, in person in Oberlin.

Certainly, technology plays a large role in bringing widespread communities together. Blogs, Skype, Zoom, or other video conferencing tools make connections possible. But when considering a new generation of collaborations, the main factor should not necessarily (or not only) be the availability of the technology that underlies them, as important as this is, but – as with the American Democracy project – the pedagogic outcomes that make the investment of time and effort worthwhile. Simply put, before launching into collaborations which will demand a lot of your time and – often – resources, you need to be clear that what is to be gained in terms of student learning and one’s own professional engagement.

Global Liberal Arts Alliance

As a way of highlighting the work involved, and the impressive results that can be obtained, I’m going to highlight two projects that arose from collaborations between the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) and the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA). You know of the former, so let me explain the GLAA. Founded in 2009, the GLAA is a partnership of American style liberal arts institutions made up of 29 institutions representing 17 countries including Japan, Nigeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Morocco, Ghana, India, and Pakistan, among others.

One of the GLAA’s projects is “Global Course Connections,” which links courses taught in two (or more) GLAA campuses in different countries. For example, Zeinab Abul-Magd (History, Oberlin) linked her course on Borders, Wars, and Displacement in MENA with that of a colleague (Amy Austin Holmes) who was teaching at the American University in Cairo. Julie Brodie at Kenyon connected her Modern Dance and Choreography course with Ana Sanchez’s similarly themed course taught at the American College of Greece. (If you’re interested in applying to the program, you can get more information here.)

Here, I’d like to feature two “Global Course Connections” that were recently reported on by the GLCA/GLAA Consortium on Teaching and Learning. (Full disclosure: I co-direct the Consortium.) Each project underscores the ways that the pedagogies leveraged by these connections made not only resulted in significant student learning and personal growth, but also produced important professional development opportunities and ongoing professional relationships for the faculty involved.

Language Learning: Connecting the U.S. and Bulgaria

When I was learning Spanish, back when the Habsburgs were still running the show in Spain, I was given a pen pal with whom I corresponded. We exchanged maybe two letters each semester which featured scintillating exchanges: Hola, Gustavo. ¿Cómo estás? ¿Vayas a una escuela?  Snore.

With Skype and other free or cheap conferencing software, the world really opened up for language instructors. Here was the opportunity to connect students to their same-age peers in target language countries. A Spanish learner in a U.S. classroom could connect to a student in Buenos Aires and discuss futbol, trends in pop music, or politics while actually seeing each other on a screen.

Diana Stantcheva (left) and Gabriele Dillmann

Diana Stantcheva (left) and Gabriele Dillmann

But those connections still had limitations, as Gabriele Dillmann, Professor of German at Denison University, came to realize.  Dillmann had been connecting her introductory German class with students in Germany, but the linking was not as productive as it could have been. As the students’ conversations were, naturally enough, in German, the German students were often less engaged in a conversation that was only going to have an impact for one set of learners. It was, as Dillmann put it, “simply boring” for them. The students, both native German speakers and native English speakers, kept switching to English when they grew frustrated because the German students were all fluent in English. What was needed, she realized, was a connection between two groups of students in different countries who were both learning German.

Enter Diana Stantcheva, Professor of German at the American University of Bulgaria (AUBG) in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. Using the course connections made possible through the GLAA, they began to think about bringing German learners in an Ohio classroom together with German learners in Bulgaria, learners who were on the same level of language learning, had the same set of interests, the same inhibitions, and, as Dillmann put it, were “on the same power level.” When one person knows a language fluently and the other doesn’t, Dillmann and Stantcheva argued, “there’s a shift that’s not very conducive” to real communication. The connection with AUBG, where a little more than half the students are Bulgarian and the remainder from a variety of countries, was a perfect opportunity to test these understandings.

Two pairs of Denison-AUBG students involved in a German-language learning class

Two pairs of Denison-AUBG students involved in a German-language learning class

If the outcome of the collabortion can be measured by a desire to repeat the project, there’s no question that this has been successful. Since the fall 2013 semester, Dillmann and Stantcheva have taught together nine times. As Dillmann said, “I can’t even imagine teaching a course without Diana anymore.” Using a variety of video conferencing technology (Zoom, Skype) and blogging tools, students are connected asynchronously at the level of the class and synchronously on their own. They are formed into groups of four (2 from each university), and they join up a variety of times over the semester to talk as well as to collaborate in carrying out joint projects.

Both instructors have documented the significant impact of this program particularly in terms of the students’ growing capacity to speak German – but they have also observed a clear improvement in all four language proficiencies (speaking, reading, writing, understanding). And more is learned than the target language. Students come away with enhanced technological and digital skills, including important lessons in digital etiquette across cultural barriers; inter-cultural learning; and collaboration skills as practiced in global environment. In the end, what made a difference in terms of student language learning was, as the instructors put it, that this was “not language production for the sake of language production; it’s language production for the sake of communication.”

As important, particularly when thinking about the sustainability of such projects, both faculty members have used their collaboration to advance their professional careers. Together, they have attended four international conferences and meetings and published three papers with two more forthcoming.  As Dillmann observed, “For me, I must honestly say, it’s probably been my most productive time.”

You can learn more about this collaboration through a short video of a conversation between Dillmann and Stantcheva, as well as the longer (42:00) version. Finally, Dillmann has posted “tons of examples” of their collaboration on her website and invites those who are interested to use everything that is there.

Narratives of Peace, Conflict, and Justice

Dagmar Kusá (left) and Deirdre Johnston

Dagmar Kusá (left) and Deirdre Johnston

The second collaboration engaged three faculty members: Deirdre Johnston, Professor of Communications at Hope College (Holland, Michigan, USA), Dagmar Kusá, Professor of Political Science at the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA) (Bratislava, Slovakia), and Rima Rantisi at the American University in Beirut (Lebanon). The three faculty members developed a collaborative course which they titled, “Narratives of Peace, Conflict and Justice: Transitions in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”  Their collaboration was designed to allow students at the three sites to study processes of peace, conflict and justice in their own countries before bringing them to a new setting, South Africa. In particular, students at Hope College examined the history of race and race relations in the U.S., students at BISLA explored the treatment accorded to the Roma population in Europe, and those in Beirut investigated issues of religion and tribe in Lebanon. Visiting South Africa, a country that was largely unknown to the participants, and witnessing the same kinds of conflicts as in the settings they knew and had studied in their own countries, was quite powerful for the students, particularly as they came to realize how pervasive themes of conflict and the desire for justice were in all human societies.

The “Peace, Conflict and Justice” collaborative is a fine example of lesson that you need to put in the time in order to get at the desired results, and that successful collaborations, understood as those that produce significant learning opportunities for the students and important professional development for faculty, take considerable effort — and produce important rewards.  It took the faculty involved more than two years of work and numerous meetings to elaborate a course structure and theme, develop a common syllabus, and decide on joint readings, film work, and assignments. In the end, they agreed to organize the course around three main goals: (1) Student self-awareness, i.e., opening a process which would allow students to reflect on, and be responsible for, one’s own identity; (2) Awareness of the other, including understanding and coping with one’s stereotypes of those defined as other; and (3) Using narrative approaches to understand the process of identity formation and identity conflicts.

The course was structured on the basis of what they called a laddered, “three-dimensional perspective taking” approach. The first stage involved learning about a source of systematic oppression within one’s own national/historical context (as mentioned above:  race in the United States; the Roma community in Slovakia; and religious oppression in Lebanon). Students gathered background on their domestic systems of oppression, which they then had to teach to students from the other two countries. Through this process of teaching to the other students, they learned that those students also had a perspective on their own domestic context which was not necessarily shared by the foreign students.

Students visiting the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa

Students visiting the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa

The second stage involved a circular process of seeing oneself as other, in other words, as being complicit within one’s own domestic context of oppression and see others as also complicit in their own domestic contexts. Finally, the travel to South Africa involved students in the process of learning in a “neutral” area, where they were coming “fresh,” i.e., without a history, into the setting.  This led to the sharing of research ideas and carrying out research on the themes developed in the course.

But perhaps the most important impact of the course came after the students returned home as they reflected not just on what they learned by being in South Africa, but what they could do at home to address systems of oppression in their own domestic settings.

The Impact

As with the language-learning collaboration, this one also had a strong impact on the faculty participants’ professional development. By developing a joint syllabus and course framework, they exposed each other to new literatures, new sources, and new approaches to teaching themes that each had been engaged in for years.

Even more, the impact on the students made all the hard work worth it, according to Johnston and Kusá.  On an intellectual level, the students came to understand the complex ways that systems of oppression operated, how the church in South Africa, for example, could both lend institutional support to apartheid and also fight against it. The students also underwent considerable personal transformations. For many students, the topics covered in the course were very personal, having lived through periods of conflict and violence in their own countries. Their discomfort, in fact, was often quite evident to the instructors. But that discomfort also led to greater learning and a realization of the need to take responsibility for one’s own community. One student contemplating leaving Lebanon, for example, decided that she needed to stay to work for those things she understood were important. The faculty described the casual conversations that absorbed the students while traveling, standing at a bus stop or eating in a restaurant, as particularly powerful. Transitional justice, ethical approaches, communism vs. capitalism; models of urban development: all were themes that the students brought up on their own.

Harvin-JohnstonSarah Harvin, a student at Hope College who was a part of the project, spoke, along with Johnston and Kusá at a recent GLCA gathering in Ann Arbor. For her, the most meaningful (and difficult) aspect of the course was using this laddered approach to learning (studying your own identity, seeing yourself as other, and applying lessons learned in a new context). She talked about how difficult it was to reconcile perspectives within one’s own group in order to be able to explain those perspectives to the other two groups of students, particularly as their topic was the history of race and racism in America. But the process of being in South Africa where all three perspectives (U.S., Slovakian, Lebanese) were constantly engage in grappling with a new, and highly complex environment, was invaluable, giving everyone the experience of seeing that history through three lenses simultaneously.

Harvin reported that she had gone on a Hope College trip to Rwanda two years earlier, but, as it was only with other students from her own college, she was never able to get out of what she called the “Hope bubble.” On this trip, however, Hope students traveled with students from other countries with whom they had build up a level of trust, and who, therefore, had no trouble saying, “wait, stop, hold on. That’s your U.S. perspective talking.” Harvin continued, “That for me was good to hear; it was a check on my privilege as an American, as a person with a U.S. passport.” But at the same time she had to reconcile “that privilege with the experience of being underrepresented [African American] in the U.S.” The questions she was left with, “How do those two experiences co-exist? How do I deal with those two different aspects of identity,” questions which were really at the very foundation of the course, clearly continued to resonate among both students and faculty.

You can see a short video about this collaboration here, and an extended video (26:11) here. Finally, click here to see a slide show the participants put together from their South African trip.


The Global Liberal Arts Alliance course collaborations provide remarkable opportunities to significantly impact student learning as well as one’s own professional development. But I’ll leave you with a third example that has a bit of a “Black Mirror” aspect to it, although I mean that in the kindest of ways. (If you’re not familiar with that British series, follow the above link – and prepare to be disturbed!) I’m going to quote from some promotional materials on “Portals,” since I haven’t seen them in action, to explain what they are:

Portals are gold spaces equipped with immersive audiovisual technology. When you enter a Portal, you come face-to-face with someone in a distant Portal live and full-body, as if in the same room.


OK, so “portals” look like big, gold shipping containers — I told you they were a bit weird — although they are also can come as a set of life-sized screens, or as tents. Confused? The idea is that in these “portals,” of whatever design, you can interact with others who are inside portals around the world; interact in real time and life size. Think of a full body Skype…one that actually works (or so I imagine).

But they aren’t just boxes with technology. The portals come with, and are run by, “portal curators” who program dialogues, classes and events, lead local outreach and provide live language interpretation. Portals (and curators) are based in places like Afghanistan, Cuba, Jordan, Germany, Honduras, India, Iraq (Harsham Refugee IDP Camp in Erbil), Iran, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar, Pakistan, Palestine (Gaza Sky Geeks tech incubator in Gaza City), Rwanda, South Korea, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Portal Curators

A few portal curators (Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Berlin, Mexico City, Herat)

The portals can be used to connect classes to study history, link individuals to study language, bring together entrepreneurs to explore start up ideas, join artists to perform together. They can be used to launch global conversations, connect citizens, etc. Now I’m sounding like their press agents, and I haven’t seen what they are capable of doing in person. But check them out yourself at Shared Studios and let me know what you think.

We are obviously in a new age of connection and collaboration which technology makes possible. But, as with all any educational endeavor, it needs to be driven by student learning and what can be gained through the effort, and by faculty engagement, and what is sustainable. The toys one can play with are fun, but not the most important thing.

What collaborations have you been engaged in? What has worked for you? What was important but unsustainable?

Reading: A Short Guide to Contemporary Practices (and Problems)

Steve Volk, March 27, 2017

Susan B. Anthony, c. 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Susan B. Anthony, c. 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Three articles on three different aspects of reading caught my attention this past week. One argues that before students can “read to learn” they need to “learn to read,” and that among the various reasons that students aren’t doing their reading assignments is the fact that they “cannot read well enough to understand the texts many faculty assign.” The second, a short essay by the distinguished Princeton scholar Peter Brooks, uses the so-called “Torture Memos” written by Jay S. Bybee to argue that some readings of texts are carried out with such “bad-faith, distorted interpretation” intended that we would be well served by developing an “ethics of reading” in response. Put in other terms, the reading “problem” encountered by Brooks was not a question of inability to understand, but a willful desire to misrepresent what was written. The final article, “The Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy,” goes one step further, suggesting that “we” (by which the author means students, literary critics, and the educated elite in general) have stopped reading. This is not the if-they-are-reading-online-it’s-not-really-reading argument. Rather, as the author argues, we are witnessing “the growth of a population that can read but simply doesn’t want to.” Doesn’t understand; willfully misinterprets, doesn’t read. What’s a teacher to do?

Let’s take these articles in reverse order, starting with the Alex Good’s “Rising Tide” essay which appeared recently in The Walrus, a Canadian online journal. While previous centuries have been marked by mass illiteracy, this century, Good argues, is the first in which “aliteracy has come out of the shadows, encouraged by its public, sometimes even proud, display—not just among our vulgar celebrity classes and undereducated young people but among the very people (the intellectual gatekeepers, tastemakers, and cultural elite) that previous generations looked to as role models.” One finds in the article some curmudgeonly grumbling about students who aren’t doing the assigned reading, and of syllabi that have slimmed down considerably since, well, whenever one got one’s degree. Or, as a weary grey-beard put it: “Why bother making Tom Jones a required text? They aren’t going to read it anyway.”

4th grade students at Oneida School in Schenectady, New York, 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, 1943. Public Domain

4th grade students at Oneida School in Schenectady, New York, 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, 1943. Public Domain

But that’s not really the problem Good is addressing. It’s not students but professors (and the literary class writ large) who are troubling his waters.  The attitude Good worries about was summed up by the professor of Canadian literature he met recently in a bookstore. When Good asked him if he had read a new Canadian novel he could recommend, the professor replied, “I never read anything unless I’m paid.” I will resolutely avoid any Canadian angle here and wonder, instead, if neoliberalism and its totalizing transactional nature isn’t to blame. Perhaps, but there’s more.

Franco Moretti, an Italian literary scholar and founder of Stanford’s Literary Lab, advocates what he calls “distant reading,” understanding literature “not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data” about the texts. In other words, the new reading is … not to read at all. To quote at length from a 2011 New York Times article by Kathryn Schulz on what “big data” is doing to reading,

We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of “Jude the Obscure,” become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England — to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small. Since no feasible amount of reading can fix that, what’s called for is a change not in scale but in strategy. To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.

Oh, my.

In its place the Stanford lab uses “computational criticism,” in all its forms, to study literature, looking for meanings by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data. I’m hardly in a position to question the method – but the thought that literary criticism is best carried out by not reading texts is, not to put too fine a point on it, depressing. Still, maybe what Moretti and the Stanford lab are after is a technology of criticism and so its disassociation from reading is at least understandable. We could ask if they still read for pleasure if not for insight?

American Library Association, United War Work Campaign, Week of November 11, 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

American Library Association, United War Work Campaign, Week of November 11, 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Other conditions encourage abstinence from reading. Geoff Dyer, the British novelist, prolific writer and perceptive critic recently observed that he found it “increasingly difficult to read.” He noted that,”This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before; the year before I read fewer than the year before that. The phenomenon of writer’s block is well known, but what I am suffering from is reader’s block,” a condition which seems to be shared by any number of writers – Philip Roth comes to mind – as well as critics such as Chuck Klosterman, who have abandoned reading altogether. Is this quantitative reduction in literary intake rooted in the same malady that has taken its toll on me? Does he fall asleep three pages in? No, not that. Instead he offers a characteristically charming, if somewhat suspect, interpretation, of a condition I’d call ARRB, age-related reader’s block:

…my declining ability to read is itself the product of having read a fair bit. If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a propor-tionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. The more thoroughly we have absorbed its lessons, the less frequently we need to refer to the user’s manual. After a certain point subjective inwardness becomes self – rather than textually –  generated. Of course there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, when I was a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.

Alex Good is more concerned, on the other hand, with the arguments of Pierre Bayard, author of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, a text whose levitation to the Amazon best seller’s list must be the height of postmodern irony. (Or maybe customers just purchased the tome but didn’t read it.) Bayard is a professor of French literature who admits to frequently commenting in professional as well as social gatherings “on books that most of the time I haven’t even opened.” As the stunned Good writes, “Not reading, Bayard believes, is in many cases preferable to reading and may allow for a superior form of literary criticism—one that is more creative and doesn’t run the risk of getting lost in all the messy details of a text.” I’m willing to accept Dyer’s argument, but with Bayard we’re getting into a territory that sounds disastrously familiar. (“Who knew that health care could be so complicated?”)

Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Which brings us back to students in our classes. I don’t imagine that many of us, regardless of discipline, would breathe a sigh of relief that our students hadn’t lost their ways in the “messy details” of whatever text they were assigned because they never bothered to crack open the text in the first place. But (to return to curmudgeondomness) what about Sven Birkert’s narrative in the Gutenberg Elegies, of students who “don’t get” Henry James, or Joyce or Woolf or Shakespeare or Ellison. “The collective experience of these students,” he argues, “most of whom were born in the early 1970s, has rendered a vast part of our cultural heritage utterly alien.” Tom Bissell, standing up for his own generation, offers a more utilitarian riposte for students’ reading choices in an essay in Salon:

What has changed, I suspect, is the size of the average college student’s sense of entitlement. Thirty years ago, a student unresponsive to James may have swallowed “Brooksmith” like spinach, afraid of what a public dislike of James might have revealed. Since many students today regard their role as that of a freely discerning consumer, disliking James is as easy as sending back an overdone fillet.

If the student is a consumer (discerning or not), then reading becomes effectively a commercial transaction: I’ve paid my money, I’ll tell you what I want to read – or even if I want to read. And if their literary role models are saying the same thing (“I never read anything unless I’m paid”), well, there you have it.

An Ethics of Reading

Peter Brooks’ call for an “ethics of reading,” published in Diversity and Democracy (20:1, Winter 2017, 22-23), was not written in response to what Good describes as the upsurge of uninformed discourse, where “ignorant bloviating or, even worse, the manipulations of self-interested parties,” rush in to fill any void left by the absence of informed commentary. But his essay serves that purpose admirably. Brooks was appalled by Jay S. Bybee’s ability to read a set of prohibitions on torture as if they were endorsements of such practices.

A bit of background for those who have forgotten: In 2002, John Yoo, then Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the United States (now a law professor at Berkeley) and Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, head of the Office of Legal Counsel of the United States Department of Justice (and now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) prepared a set of memos at the request of President George W. Bush to answer the question of whether the administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, were consistent with legal practices prohibiting torture. (And to remind us further, the United Nations [Geneva] Convention Against Torture describes torture as “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, [which] is intentionally inflicted on a person.”) The Bybee memos came to the conclusion that acts which were “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” did not “rise to the level of torture,” and therefore could be ordered by the President. (In 2005, the dean of the Yale Law School called the Bybee memo “perhaps the most clearly erroneous legal opinion I have ever read.”)

If Good protests against those who don’t read but still feel entitled to criticize, Brooks takes on the ethically shameful practice of a reading that is predetermined to produce a single interpretation (and, in the case of the Torture Memos, an interpretation whose consequences go far beyond the banalities of a harsh critique).

Brooks claims no particular moral virtue for his fellow humanists, only that they/we are trained to actually read texts, whether literary, artistic, legal, historical, or commercial (who knew reading could be so complicated!). As he writes,

what has most often been called ‘close reading,’ and sometimes by which I think is the better name, ‘slow reading,’ teaches us to bring our full attention to what is before us on the page, to explore its ways of making meaning as well as what we may ultimately see as its messages. In practicing close reading, we learn to stay within the world of the text without foreclosing its possible implications. Ideally, we exchange our understandings of what and how the text means with others, in a collective interpretive enterprise that is largely self-correcting, by which I mean that it prevents aberrant understandings form gaining traction.

While communities of interpretation may not arrive at uniform understandings, they can nevertheless “generally reach consensus on what counts as valid or not” (emphasis added).

Staying “within the text,” as Brooks suggests, is the beginning of a process of ethical reading, not its end point. “Teachers of literature,” he stresses, “ventriloquize voices, from the past and from other cultures.” The reading of texts therefore is a process of opening oneself to a “trans-personal and tran-subjective enterprise, one that teaches you about your own condition only if you are willing to allow yourself to be temporarily alienated in otherness.” The lessons of close reading and interpretation, when posed as an ethical practice, suggests that we take texts seriously. Not only does this demand that they (actually) be read, but that, as required, they be read closely. This is an act of responsibility which accepts that there is no canonical interpretation to be “imposed ex cathedra,” but also admits that the act of reading is an inherently empathic process. Paying attention to the ethics of reading, Brooks concludes, can “make us more skeptical and self-aware.” And, he adds, it even “might prevent us from falling into the moral abyss of the Torture Memos.”

Stereo card, Williams, Sophus, photographer, ca. 1867-1873, Berlin. Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Stereo card, Williams, Sophus, photographer, ca. 1867-1873, Berlin. Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Learning to Read

So, if intellectual elites have abandoned reading, and political elites are willfully reading against all interpretative consensus, how do we animate our students to read purposefully, intelligently, empathically, ethically, closely? These questions are taken up in “Reading to Learn or Learning to Read? Engaging College Students in Course Readings,” a new article in College Teaching (65:1, January-March 2017: 28-31) by Mary Margaret Kerr and Kristen M. Frese, both in the Psychology in Education Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Earlier studies have suggested that there are four primary reasons why college students don’t complete assigned readings (although, judging by the emails I’ve gotten over the years, the competition for the best excuses is fierce!): 1) they are unprepared to do the reading (i.e., they don’t have the skills to understand what they are reading); 2) they’re not motivated (either extrinsically, by quizzes, exams, or other feedback mechanisms, or intrinsically, because of the what they’re asked to read); 3) they lack time (too much work, an unrealistic amount of assigned reading, competition from other obligations, including paid jobs); and 4) they underestimate the importance of reading (i.e., they feel they can do well in the course by only attending the lectures; they figure they can learn about the readings by listening to others discuss them; or they think that college reading is somewhat equivalent to more typical high school reading: find facts and memorize them).

The authors offer a variety of approaches designed to address each of these reasons. For example,

  • Engage students in a discussion of why being prepared for discussions by doing the reading is important not just for their own learning but as part of the students’ responsibility to support the learning of the class as a whole;
  • Give frequent, low-stakes quizzes based on assigned readings to insure that students are not just finishing the reading, but understanding it;
  • Make sure that readings are linked to course lectures, and that students are required to respond to the readings in exams or papers.
  • Use quick in-class surveys (e.g. “muddy point responses”) to find out what students found most confusing (or compelling) in the readings;
  • Ask students to summarize reading notes through word clouds, short podcasts, illustrations;
  • Employ “just-in-time teaching” methods: pose one brief question online (via Blackboard or other media) before class that students need to respond to in writing prior to the start of class — or do the same thing at the start of class — regarding the reading assignment as a means of understanding what needs to be covered in that day’s class;
  • Have students send in specific questions they have had on the reading prior to the start of class.
Utamar Kitagawa, "Kobikichō arayashiki koiseya ochie," 1780s. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Utamar Kitagawa, “Kobikichō arayashiki koiseya ochie,” 1780s. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Other “Articles of the Week” have considered what is the correct amount of reading to assign (here and here), ways to scaffold students’ reading skills, and how to encourage students to write their own textbook. One of the more difficult issues in terms of reading to understand is identifying when specific students are having such broad difficulties understanding the reading that they actually can’t formulate useful questions about the reading, leaving the instructor with serious questions on how to help. This is certainly a moment to turn to the Learning Assistance Program or similar office for advice and consultation.

But what these articles together suggest is that there are arguments to be made about the value, ethics, and technology of reading, not to mention its pleasures, that we can no longer take for granted. Falling into a defensive crouch about students who just aren’t doing the reading doesn’t seem to get at the full nature of the issues involved, and so engaging in discussions both with our students and among ourselves about the practices of reading can be useful and relevatory.

The Past as Way Forward: Finding a “Useful History”

Steve Volk, March 13, 2017

Reparation-and-ReconciliationA group of faculty, staff, and students sat down together the past two Mondays to discuss Christi Smith’s Reparation & Reconciliation: The Rise and Fall of Integrated Higher Education (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). Smith is a visiting assistant professor in sociology at Oberlin, and, of course, she took part in the conversation. Her book examines three colleges (Oberlin, Berea, and Howard) that early on placed interracial coeducation at the center of their institutional missions. The book examines what impelled the colleges to make this choice and why, by the end of the 19th century, all three eased away from that goal. By the turn of the 20th century, Howard dedicated itself to the task of educating the black elite, Berea focused on Appalachian whites, and Oberlin, finding itself, as with the others, in a competition for donors and students, sought advantage by marketing itself more as an elite Eastern institution, and less as an avatar of interracial progress.

There is much to relate about the book and the discussions it generated, but I will limit myself to three topics. While these issues are of particular importance for Oberlin, I have no doubt that they will be relevant for many other institutions which, prodded by student protests and national conversations, are seriously considering the role that race and racism played in their institutions’ history and how these factors continue to shape their present.

Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson, first black woman to be granted a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. (Oberlin College, 1862). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

“Reparations” is the first topic and I enclose it in quotes as it had a different meaning when used by those who worked to integrate the three colleges at the center of Smith’s study. The second topic is the way that our institutions’ histories – and here I’m most interested in Oberlin’s history – inform our identities:  i.e., how the stories we tell ourselves about our past either advance or hinder the work of justice we consider crucial on our campuses today. And, finally, I’m interested in how cross-campus discussions can provide a generative space in which the college community can both listen to and hear each other. The three themes, I would suggest, are linked through the concept of responsibility. Understanding that not everyone reads history the same way, I am nonetheless interested in how we can be responsible to, and take responsibility for, our past in the way that we carry out our work in the present, whether that work is learning, teaching, raising money, admitting students, connecting with alumni, or all the other things we do on our campuses.


Reparation & Reconciliation explores the role of the American Missionary Association and its connection to the drive for what they called “coeducation” in higher education, by which they meant racial integration. The AMA was founded in 1846, 13 years after Oberlin took root in the swamp lands of the western frontier. The organization was led by Protestants who preached the ending slavery and fought for the education of African Americans. Among the 11 colleges the AMA founded (or co-founded) were Berea, which had close ties to Oberlin, and Howard. The institutions that it founded, many of which became part of what would later be called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), dedicated themselves to “breaking down the barrier of caste [race].” And they saw the “obliteration” of the sense of racial superiority and entitlement of the “people who believe they are white,” to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’ terminology, as central to that task.

College and universities would play a central role in breaking down “caste” barriers in the nation as a whole. The AMA saw this as a moral obligation and, for that reason, argued for it to be taken up by individuals and not relegated to the government. They sought a profound transformation which could only arise, so they reasoned, through interpersonal transformation. And what better place for this to occur than then in the hinterlands, far from corrupting influences. It was in these remote spaces (Oberlin and Berea in particular) where, students who “pray[ed] together and stud[ied] together” would learn to live respectfully with one another. These interactions, rather than laws, policies, or rules from above, would fuel the transformation required not just to end slavery, but, radically, to undermine racism.

Carter Godwin Goodson, Berea class of 1903

Carter Godwin Woodson, Berea class of 1903

As we noted in our discussions of Smith’s book, such an approach was wildly optimistic about the role that education (in general) and a few colleges (in particular) could play not just in bringing slavery to a halt, but in “dismantling” the “American caste system.” There is something deeply attractive (and highly problematic) about seeing oneself as the central player in such an struggle. But, of course, to do so is not just to give schools an impossible task, but to misrepresent the very nature of the problem. Writing in 1959 in an otherwise troubling essay, Hannah Arendt wondered why we “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve.” As Cory Robin (who referenced the Arendt essay) recently observed in Salon, “race or race privilege is indeed constructed…not merely by words and symbols, but by laws, taxes, wealth and institutions.” Neither K-12 nor higher education can “solve” the legacy of slavery and racism outside a deeper systemic and institutional  reformulation on a massive scale. But that doesn’t mean that educators have no part to play in this struggle for justice, and that brings us to the first theme, “reparations.”


The concept of “reparations” has been in the news in the last few years, specifically in the context of higher education. On March 3, 2017, more than 500 people gathered at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to explore academia’s ties to slavery and in what ways, financial as well as intellectual, this history should be addressed. The speakers included Craig Steven Wilder, author of the agenda-setting study, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities (Bloomsbury, 2014), Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown University, a school which recently offered preference in admissions to the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold in 1838 to keep the university afloat, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who authored an influential article in 2014 in The Atlantic on “The Case for Reparations.” Mr. Coates was unequivocal on the need for economic reparations. “I don’t know how you conduct research showing your very existence is rooted in a great crime,” he remarked, “and then you just say, ‘Well, sorry’ and walk away.”

In her study, Smith suggests that the concept of “reparations” for the American Missionary Association derived from a different understanding, one that sprang from the word’s origins, reparare to “repair” or “make ready again.” It was in this spirit, Smith argues, that “members of the AMA argued forcefully that white Americans owed former slaves for past wrongs, and that their work would help repay an incommensurable debt. If slavery created a logic of race as a marker of status inequality,” she continues, “the AMA viewed its reparative work as correcting that imbalance; they viewed education as essential to secure mutual respect” (p. 13), offering a “vast debt yet unpaid to…ex-slaves…” Speaking at the 1872 Berea College commencement, William Brown, himself a former owner of enslaved people and a Kentucky State Legislator, told the audience that “to slave labor he owned his education, his wealth…and that there was a solemn obligation resting upon him to repay, as far as possible, the debt he owed the race” (p. 14).

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

The notion of “reparations” as “repair” is central to the way many Jews understand tikkun olam, to “heal, repair, and transform the world,” as the journal of the same name puts it. I was reminded of this as I heard the truly transformational discussion at Oberlin last week between the Reverend Traci Blackmon, the Senior Pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, and Rabbi Susan Talve, of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. Their conversation about Ferguson, titled “Solidarities in Difference and Faith,” was not formally about “repair,” and yet it was all about repairing as an act of healing needed if one is to come into justice in the world.

The discussion of reparations as Ta-Nehisi Coates raised for the Unites States, or even at the level of colleges and universities, as in the case of Georgetown, i.e., payments for wrongs done, is an important one to engage. But, Blackmon and Talve seemed to suggest, just as we had raised in our own discussions, that the responsibilities of reparation as repairing is not necessarily (or only) to be found in its transactional aspect. Rather, repair (“reparations”) also demands that we “wrestle with ourselves in difficult circumstances,” as Rev. Traci put it, and that we struggle together when we find ourselves in places of disagreement.

So what can that mean concretely? One part of coming together, to extrapolate from Blackmon and Talve, is to engage in work that begins at what they called the “soul level,” and what I would see as coming to know ourselves through our history, and not necessarily the stories that we always tell ourselves about who we are as an institution. Oberlin’s history is a different one from that of Georgetown, Yale or Brown, and in many ways we can be rightly proud of it. Yet, as a reading of Smith’s book discloses, Oberlin is not a case apart: it, too, inhabits a complicated and compromised past, one that contains troubling aspects as well as bright moments. Perhaps, then, reparation in the sense of “repairing” the institution requires that we come to terms with that actual history in the hopes of moving from a “mythical” narrative to a more “usable” history, as Renee Romano, chair of the History Department, put it.

Toward a Usable History

The early history of Oberlin is well known. It was founded on the western frontier in 1833 as a “peculiar” commune devoted to a rather strict interpretation of Protestantism (no dancing, drinking, tobacco, etc.). Oberlin’s place in history would change a year later when a group of “rebels” from Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary, students and faculty who supported abolition and racially integrated education, traveled north to join the new commune. Though nearly half of Oberlin’s students objected, the trustees – then as now willing to buck student demands! – resolved “that students shall be received into this institution irrespective of color.”

Arthur (r) and Lewis (l) Tappan, abolitionists, financial backers of Oberlin, founders of the American Missionary Association

Arthur (r) and Lewis (l) Tappan, abolitionists, financial backers of Oberlin, founders of the American Missionary Association

While the action cost Oberlin some enrolled students and the vitriol of conservative pro-slavery forces, it also brought much needed financial support from New York’s Tappan brothers, Arthur and Lewis, wealthy abolitionists in England, and those who shared the cause of abolition elsewhere. Even in its initial state as an imagined utopian community, Oberlin was nevertheless dependent on the wealth of supporters who believed in its mission. For the first part of Oberlin’s history, then, the moral concern for interracial coeducation aligned with the interests of its financial supporters.

Oberlin College Women's Graduates, class of 1855. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Oberlin College Women’s Graduates, class of 1855. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Yet even in its first decades, through mid-century and beyond, black enrollment at Oberlin remained in the 5-10% range and efforts to seek a more fully integrated campus were more limited than at Berea, for example. Nevertheless, black and white students shared classrooms, chapel activities, and work duties, and Oberlin produced a significant number of the nation’s black women college graduates. In 1865, the Chicago Tribune proclaimed that Oberlin had “solved the social problem of the nation.” One could only wish!

Edmonia Lewis (Albumen print, c.1870), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain

Edmonia Lewis (Albumen print, c.1870), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain

This is a significant history. We would do well not to forget that the same year Oberlin was founded Georgia passed a law forbidding any person from teaching a slave or a free black to read or write. Still, the history of Oberlin’s first century, while one we can affirm, is also uneven and certainly complex. The historical narrative, while read fully, underscores the fact that Oberlin’s founders acted from conviction, but also out of necessity; that Oberlin’s commitment to interracial (and gender integrated) education was sincere, but also not as fully immersive in practice as what was carried out elsewhere; and that many student welcomed their black classmates, but others didn’t, as the case of Edmonia Lewis among others can attest to. In the end, Oberlin (then as now) became a lightning rod for those who hated the principles that defined the institution, but the college in reality was a small, complicated institution that enrolled a relatively few black students while struggling to find its way in a world where ideals didn’t pay the bills.

This becomes even more evident by the end of the nineteenth century, as Smith’s history recounts. While Oberlin, Berea and Howard all placed interracial coeducation at the center of their institutional missions, by 1900 all three had largely shifted to different concerns. Howard increasingly focused on shaping a black elite, Berea turned to the education of Appalachian youth, and “Oberlin modeled itself on elite universities… [drawing] upon its moral heritage to cast [itself] as ideal preparation for leaders in the burgeoning U.S. colonial empire” (p. 6). There were many factors that led these institutions in different directions and away from what had been central concerns. Smith points in particular to the rise of competition among the growing number of institutions of higher education and the need for individual colleges to stand out in this challenging environment. For Oberlin, the result was that, while never backing away from its commitment to educate African Americans – no small promise, let us remember, at a time when the Klan’s largest local chapter, some 50,000 strong, prowled about in nearby Summit County – it shifted its focus to other priorities and away from its earlier pledge to provide a community where daily experiences would help build the foundation for a “multi-racial social and political union.”

 Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C. , 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Public Domain

Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C. , 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Public Domain

In the end, what occasioned this transition was in large part the same imperative that solidified Oberlin’s commitments at an earlier moment of choice in 1834: funding. Then as now, Oberlin needed to pay its bills and, given that such a large number of its alumni were teachers and preachers, not exactly well remunerated fields, the search for donors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was considerable. And, as opposed to the earlier years of its history, these people were less driven by social beliefs about race, and more interested in what would attract students to the cornfields of Ohio. As well, it should not be surprising that, as Smith writes, “one consequence of its increasingly national applicant pool was that students no longer necessarily shared Oberlin’s beliefs about race and social equality…On campus, a small group of white Oberlin students even protested sharing dining tables and dormitories with black students” (p. 179).

So what does this history mean to us? How do we digest it in a manner that in useful in the present?

A recent article by Paul A. Kramer, a historian at Vanderbilt, in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review asks what history can teach us in a “time of crisis.” He quickly dispatches the troubling and troublesome idea that historians, all knowing as we are, should be murmuring “the lessons of history” into the receptive ears of policymakers (as a recent argument put forward by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in favor of the creation of a “Council of Historical Advisers” suggested). The anodyne notion that those who “cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana) met a similar and well-deserved dismissal. If only it were so easy!

So what is history good for? “Historians seeking a democratic and egalitarian society,” he writes, “have crucial roles to play…they must make the case for history itself – for the ways current distributions of power, privilege, and resources emerge from and are inseparable from the past.” Fundamental to this argument is his contention that even as historians are disrupting legitimating myths, they can “set themselves to the imaginative work of historical re-creation.”

What I think many of us engaged in the discussion of Smith’s book found useful was precisely this process of digging through the narratives of Oberlin’s more “mythical” past in order to find a complex but useful history that can be leveraged to bring the whole community into conversation as we construct a “useful” history. That conversation, about what, in actuality, we were, needs to inform the dialogue about what we want to be going forward as a community founded on the principle of interracial coeducation.

Writing more recently of the upsurge of student activism confronting issues of racism on college campuses, including Oberlin, Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin observed that the critique of campus life put forward by the current generation of students “poses a profound challenge to those who have never seriously contemplated how inclusion might or should change institutional practices inside the classroom and outside of it.”

By taking up these new challenges in light of our “useful” past we can find one way to do the work of “reparations,” of repairing what is broken.

So, how do we engage in the reparative conversations about a shared history that can move us forward as a community?

Cross Campus Conversation

Surely the basis, and the resources, for such a discussion exist. And who should be included in that conversation? Everyone. Faculty and students engage in educational conversations all the time, or at least I hope we do! More rare is it to have conversations that bridge all offices on campus. You can imagine how interesting it was for those of us discussing Smith’s book to talk about Oberlin’s need to find donors who would support it mission over time with colleagues from the Development office, to talk about what brought students to Oberlin in past centuries with folks from Admissions, and to discuss with students how Oberlin’s founders believed that this kind of education was capable of transforming a nation – even if they were mistaken.

Lewis Sheridan Leary, an Oberlin harness maker, accompanied John Brown on the raid of the Harpers Ferry arsenal Oct 1859 and participated in Oberlin Wellington rescue Sept. 1858

Lewis Sheridan Leary, an Oberlin harness maker, accompanied John Brown on the raid of the Harpers Ferry arsenal Oct 1859 and participated in Oberlin Wellington rescue Sept. 1858. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives.

The work of creating a usable narrative about the actual history of interracial coeducation at Oberlin, one that can help shape our community in a moment of challenge, is of much importance. The conversations that we need to have are only possible, in a sense, because of what Oberlin’s founders set in motion. But the terms of that conversation have to be on the basis of what Brown-Nagin (among others) have suggested, and must look at history, as Jelani Cobb wrote in a recent New Yorker article, “for what it is.” Speaking broadly, he argued that “Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.”

Perhaps the national challenge of this current moment, a challenge that is hardly new to African Americans in particular, as Cobb and others have pointed out many times, is precisely what is needed to propel us into conversations about our past and the responsibilities we have to repair what has gone asunder. These are not easy conversations, but they are essential. And, as Reverend Traci and Rabbi Susan advised, “When you run into difficult places and you disagree about things, it’s better that we struggle together.”

Stand and Deliver

Steve Volk, March 6, 2017

Anonymous, 'Le voeu du faisan,' Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain

Anonymous, ‘Le voeu du faisan,’ Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain

We went to hear Tafelmusik in concert at Finney on Tuesday night. We arrived early, but ran into so many friends that we didn’t get a chance to glance at the program before the musicians took to the stage, all 17 or so of them. Which partly explains how surprised I was when the ensemble (except for the cellists, double bass player, and harpsichordist) started to play while still very much upright. They moved around the stage, forming into and retreating from small clusters, bending in to the counterpoint, musically conversing with each other by their body language. At one point, a violinist bowed her way from the entrance doors of Finney to the stage. And boy, did they deliver! The music, which highlighted J.S. Bach’s time in Leipzig, was marvelous, even more so as it was complemented by an intriguing slide show projected behind them and a well-voiced narrator who put Bach’s music into context. The narration not only illuminated Leipzig as a central crossroads of early 18th century Europe, but explored everything that went into a Bach composition: how the paper he wrote on, the ink he wrote with, the instruments his players used were crafted into existence; what clothing he and his fellow Leipzigers (is that the term?) were permitted to wear, sumptuary laws being what they were; where his musicians performed, and on and on. It was wonderful. And having the ensemble on their feet and in motion seemed to elevate their music making to an even higher level.

And so I wondered: To what extent did the kinetic performance enhance its overall musical quality? (I should add that there was one violinist who remained seated. My guess is that she was stationary because of a mobility issue and that Tafelmusik had nonetheless been able to make her a full participant in the concert, neither excluding her nor drawing attention her way.) The concert made me think about movement and learning and the fact that, unlike these Tafelmusicians, in most of our classrooms, students enter, find a chair, and remain seated for 50 or 75 minutes at a stretch.

Mind and Body

Unidentified dancer in rehearsal for the stage production of "Cats," Billy Rose Theatre Division,New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Unidentified dancer in rehearsal for the stage production of “Cats,” Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

There is a large body of literature on the relationship between mind and body, cognition and movement, generally finding that people of all ages learn better when they have been or are active. The research is quite clear that activity is essential in early childhood education, which is why it’s appalling that teachers, under legislative burdens to make their 5- and 6-year olds “college and career ready,” are taking away recess time in favor of paper-and-pencil tasks at a desk. And what’s the punishment meted out to fidgety kids: no recess for you!

I reported earlier on an elementary school in Owensboro, KY, where the kindergarten teacher won a grant to purchase “pedal-desks.” Because motion increases learning and there’s no time for recess, why not have students pedal at their desks while they are learning math! I’m waiting until they figure a way to connect the desks to the school’s power grid and use kid-power to reduce their utility bills. Think of the possibilities!

More seriously, the problem here is not that it’s silly to consider the impact of motion on learning, but that what needs to be studied is the way that motion itself can be a part of pedagogy rather than a mindless, hamster-on-a-treadmill activity. Of course, the dancers and theater people among us have argued this point forever, but do we listen? Rarely. My guess (raise your hand if I’m wrong) is that the vast majority of instructors operate in traditional classrooms where students come in, sit down and remain seated for the whole period, excepting their move to a new seat when discussion groups are formed. Science labs would be different, as would studio art, and, certainly, theater and dance classes and all athletics. But most of us engage in teaching and learning with our students firmly planted on their bums. And yet, as Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, argued in How the Body Knows Its Mind (Atria Books, 2015): “Moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own. People use their body all the time when problem solving, without even knowing it” (p. 69). These movements literally can be as slight as moving our eyes or as large as moving our limbs. Perhaps that is why, I would guess, that most of us are up and about when we teach, either standing at a lectern or, more likely, wandering. (Beilock jokes that one of the best things about becoming a faculty member is that faculty don’t have to remain in their seats during class.)

The Neuroscience of it All

Here’s a bit of the neuroscience behind this (although, caveat emptor, this is not my field so colleagues who actually know what they’re talking about should correct anything that is flat-out wrong or misleading). So, the brain passes information from one part to another, while eliminating unnecessary data and storing valuable data, via neurons (See, for example, Colcombe et al., 2006). Say you’re reading a book: your brain’s frontal lobe is figuring out if the material is new or old, something it can dispose of or information that needs to be stored. If new, the brain encodes the data for storage which will then allow it to be retrieved when necessary (Medina, 2008). How much is absorbed and stored depends on a lot of factors including whether there is a proper balance of neurochemicals and growth factors to bind the neurons together long enough for them to communicate.

Something called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps neurons “converse” with one another while building and maintaining cell circuitry, i.e. the kind of system of interconnections that allows the brain to function. So, and hopefully I haven’t made too much of a hash of it, the more BDNF, the greater the amount brains exchange and retain information. And this gets to the crux of the matter: BDNF is elevated with neural activity which then enhances signal capabilities with synaptic transmissions; this causes an increase in protein synthesis promoting structural integrity, all of which is essential for the long-term storage of information. And what elevates neural activity and, hence, BDNF? Would you guess, movement? Probably, if you’re a dancer or a tennis coach.

Study from Motion #27.

Study from Motion #27.

As I noted before, researchers have carried out substantial research on the relationship between exercise and cognition. To cite just two examples, a small-scale 2007 study by German researchers found that “people learn[ed] vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise” [J.J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008), p. 45]. And, at the other end, a comprehensive review by Tomporowski, Davis, Miller and Naglieri published in 2008 reported that “gains in children’s mental functioning due to exercise training are seen most clearly on tasks that involve executive functions. Executive functions are involved in performing goal-directed actions in complex stimulus environments, especially novel ones, in which elements are constantly changing. Behaviors such as these have long been seen as important for children’s adaptive functioning.”

Of course, this is hardly new: Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. The question is not necessarily whether a regular exercise regimen is good for the mind as well as the heart, but whether movement undertaken as part of the act of learning is valuable. Or, to turn it inside out: are students losing something by remaining seated during most of their class time? As John Medina, a development molecular biologist affiliated with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, cautioned, “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”

Well, what if someone actually studied whether intentional physical activity carried out during a college lecture class could increase a student’s achievement level? We’re in luck, because Michala Paige Patterson did just that for her dissertation at the University of Missouri’s School of Education (“Movement and Learning in Lecture Classrooms,” 2011). I’ll only briefly describe this study since I’m not competent to judge the reliability of its design. And even though her conclusions were modest, the research is important to consider when we think about how to scaffold student learning and when we take into consideration the remarkable fact that students have bodies as well as minds.

Patterson worked with four faculty members who offered standard lecture classes. During class, the “treatment” group of students would activate their circulatory systems by performing a “low-impact and/or low intensity movement activity.” Patterson reported mixed findings among the 4 professors whose classes she used in her study. Two showed a statistically significant gain in student achievement when exercises were interspersed in a lecture class; two showed no difference. I was most interested in her conclusions: “By combining the data and different attributes of the professors, there appears to be a manner of incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome. Therefore, this researcher encourages and recommends further development and use of the techniques used in this project.” While she thought that something in the research protocol itself was limiting the impact of the activity, I would argue that the key is in “incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome.”

We already know that students have a limited attention span (some say as low as 7 minutes, others as high as 20 minutes), but they’re not going to make it through a 50-minute lecture without losing attention. So scheduling some movement with a break in the delivery is not a bad way to go. Is it time for the pedal-desks? Noooooooo!

Movement in Service of Learning

SpringerParker, "After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997

SpringerParker, “After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997:

Let’s go back to the Tafelmusik concert: what if we were to use movement to further content learning or pedagogic approaches the way that movement improved the musicians understanding (and performance) of Bach? Leaving all this neurosciency stuff behind, I’m pretty sure that the players on stage understood Bach’s use of counterpoint and harmony more deeply by physically moving as they interacted with the other musicians. So how can we use movement in class to further specific learning goals? Here are two examples.

The first comes from Naomi Roswell, a junior environmental studies major who is currently participating in the Student-Faculty Partnership program and brought up this example during a recent meeting.

Movement, stasis, independence, dependence

Everyone stands in a circle. Ask each person to select two others (without telling them) to use as reference points. Each person’s task is to remain equidistant from the two others (i.e., in an equilateral triangle) as everyone moves around the room without anyone knowing who has chosen them as reference points. What happens if you move quickly? Slowly? As some point, and this often happens quickly, the room reaches stasis. Then the facilitator, who is observing rather than moving, can ask one person to take three steps, and watch as everyone else adjusts to maintain an equidistant posture.

Can you tell if someone is dependent on you? Much of the time, people are so focused on their own reference points that they don’t realize they are are a reference point for someone else. The lessons derived from this movement exercise can increase understanding about how one’s actions impact others without our even being aware of it. This is a theme that can easily fit into many social science and humanities courses, from sociology to environmental science.

Run it a second time: now each person picks two reference points, but one of them must have two specific qualities (e.g. be wearing glasses and have a striped shirt). Does the room come to stasis more quickly, or more slowly? The facilitator can again ask one person to move and see what changes that action brings about. This time the underlying lesson is that there are two independent systems at play. The exercise can be about an ecosystem with the glasses/stripes individual as a “keystone species” a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically; or the facilitator (generally no one picks them as a reference point) is an insect that occupies such a small niche that if it moves, it hardly impacts the habitat.

Or the lesson can be about relationships and dependency. What does it feel like to always be responding to the movements (requirements/demands) of others and have no autonomy yourself? So, for example: Your child can’t enroll in school without proof of vaccination, but you will lose your job if you take time out to bring her to a clinic which is a 2-hour trip because you have no car? And what if you are able to take the time out to go to the clinic only to find that it’s closed on Tuesdays, the day you arrived, because its funding was reduced and you don’t have a phone to confirm the opening hours? All these “movements” impact you, but you have little ability to respond effectively. What would “stasis” look like in this context? Comprehensive care?

Choreographer Gillian Lynne directing dancers for the stage production "Cats," Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Choreographer Gillian Lynne directing dancers for the stage production “Cats,” Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Slowing it Down

I’ve written before about “slow pedagogy,” the importance of helping students develop an ability to engage in tasks that require “deep attention” by slowing down the pace. This is increasingly important as students (and we, ourselves) are constantly involved in activity that requires very short, little attention bursts: hyper-attention. Checking texts, answering the phone, listening to a snatch of music. In contrast, close readings of texts, deliberate time spent observing art in the museum, extended research projects are all ways to build capacity for deeper levels of attention that are an essential part of learning.

With this in mind, are there ways to help a class “slow down” in order to better engage?  I’ve thought of using a meditation (clear-your-mind) approach, but since it rarely works for me during my yoga practice (when I’m either thinking about what I’ll have for lunch, some article I’m working on, or whether I’ll go to Drug Mart right after class or later in the week), I don’t imagine that it will work on 30 students sitting at their desks and thinking many other thoughts. But physical activity can serve this purpose, and here’s one exercise developed by a colleague at Oberlin. How this is carried out depends on the configuration of the classroom, where desks and chairs are located. Have students line up at the beginning of class in order to walk as slowly as possible from one end of the room to the other. While there can be a bit of silliness involved the first time the exercise is carried out,  the physical act of moving slowly can make a difference in how students approach the class. The exercise can work as a kind of border crossing movement: we are leaving the outside world behind and entering a new space of engagement and learning; as a tempo regulator: we are going to slow down and focus; or as an opportunity to break up a class in which students have been sitting for a long time and just need a change of pace to clear their heads.

In these exercises or others that you develop, you’ll want to think about how they will impact students with mobility issues, visual limitations, or other conditions that might impair their ability to participate, and plan accordingly. But whether or not you have differently abled students in your class, you can increase everyone’s learning by asking your students how they would redesign the exercise with such students in mind.

Movement increases our brain’s ability to “learn”; intentional movement can help students learn what it is we are teaching. Do you have physical exercises, movements that you use in class? Care to share them?