Teaching through Paradox: The Individual Voice and the Group Voice

Steve Volk, May 7, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Before We Begin…

Today’s article is my final one both for the year and for CTIE’s “Article of the Week.” Skimming back, I found to my surprise that I posted the first article 10 years ago, almost to the day (May 6, 2008), although I didn’t begin to write weekly original articles until 2012. Since then, I’ve uploaded more than 125, posting them every Sunday during the school year, a practice that played havoc with my weekends. I’ve covered everything from writing good letters of recommendation, to managing difficult discussions, to suggesting ways to think about reading, writing, grading, and activism. I’ve ventured into national issues that impact how we are able (or not) to teach, explored the environment that influences how students are able (or not) to learn, and tried to read the signals as to how higher education is surviving the current Trumpian moment (poorly). The feedback I’ve received indicates that you enjoyed some of what I’ve written, but neither were you hesitant to let me know when you disagreed. You’ve called my attention to failures of spelling, embarrassing typos, and critical research I overlooked. All the feedback was greatly appreciated, and I can only hope you’ve found at least some of the commentary to be worthy of further thought.

But it’s time to move on. I intend to keep writing about education, teaching and learning, democracy, and the factors that shape each of them on my new blog, “After Class.” The title encompasses multiple meanings. In the first place, I have discovered that, quite often, more learning takes place directly after a class ends than during the class itself. Learning and reflection can bloom in the conversations that emerge when students approach to ask a question they somehow felt constrained in asking during class, as you chat with a colleague on the way back to your office, or when, as you pack up your laptop and head to the door, a boisterous conversation emerges in your own head as you ponder what on earth just happened in that class! Secondly, having retired from teaching in 2016, and now from directing Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am soon to be fully located in that “after class” space, free from grading papers and crafting seminars as well as from institutional responsibilities and constraints, where my schedule will be determined more by what I’m thinking or reading than by specific deadlines. And, finally, the title nods to the more intersectional approach that has shaped my thinking about education and democracy as friends, colleagues, and family members have introduced me to critical pedagogies, culturally relevant approaches, and the way in which on-going struggles against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and inequality are shaping demands for high quality, inclusive and equitable education in this country. In any case, should you wish to follow what I have to say, you’ll find me at After Class. There you’ll be able to subscribe to follow my posts when they appear, or if you would like me to subscribe you to the blog, just send me your email.

And now, back to this week’s article…

This week’s article was inspired by a photograph taken by William DeShazer for an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 30, 2018). He was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce it:

William DeShazer, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission. All following photographs are taken from this one.

The photograph carried the following caption: “At Illinois’s late-February game versus Purdue U., basketball fans strike a Chief Illiniwek pose.”

The Chronicle’s article, “The Mascot is Fiction. The War is Real,” reveals that even though the University of Illinois trustees “retired” “Chief Illiniwek” as their mascot in 2007, many students are still encouraged by a group supportive of the mascot to suit up in their old Illiniwek gear when they come to a game. Chancellor Robert Jones, for one, takes the challenge seriously. “Perhaps more so than any other time in the last 10 years,” he complained, “it has become a divisive issue that has in many ways pulled this otherwise outstanding, vital academic community apart.”

My interest in this photograph was not sparked specifically by the central issue of the story, the stubborn use of Native Americans as team mascots. (Only this year did the baseball team that manages to break my heart every season – the Cleveland Indians, for God’s sake! – begin to nudge their noxious “Chief Wahoo” off the field.) There’s much to be learned in exploring this topic (and James Fenelon’s Redskins? Sport Mascots, Indian Nations and White Racism, Routledge 2016 is a good place to start), but, instead, I’m interested in what the photograph tells us about crowds and the individuals who make them up as a metaphor for thinking about how we as teachers can embolden the voice of individual while also listening to and engaging the voice of the group. What can we do to support individuals as they learn to speak their conscience in the face of adverse social pressure? How we can make the group aware of its own voice and capable of self-generated change?

Reading the Photograph

“A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography. “Picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with an ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions.” While not the photographer, I intend to invade this image to raise issues that, likely, weren’t on his mind when he snapped it, fully aware that I am reading attitudes and behaviors into those caught by his lens which might be illusory or simply a reflection of my own thinking. But, on the other hand, the postures frozen in place by the camera look exceedingly familiar to me; I’ve seen them many times and have been there myself (metaphorically) so many times. So I’ll assert my peremptory rights of interpretation.

This photograph tells two different stories which, at their heart, speak to a certain paradox that we deal with in the classroom, one which Parker Palmer pointed out in The Courage to Teach. The first story is about conformity and the power of the “crowd” to assert its hegemony and intimidate opposition. The second is about non-conformity, resistance, ambiguity, and unease that challenges the wisdom of the crowd. As teachers, we must deal with both.

Here’s the photo once more: take a long look, and consider what you see.

William DeShazer, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission. All following photographs are taken from this one.

The image is of a group of young people, students, in an arena. They are decked out in Illinois orange and the great majority of them have their arms crossed. This, we will learn, is a “Chief Illiniwek pose,” the “Chief,” again, being the mascot (or “symbol,” depending on with whom one talks) of the University of Illinois from 1926-2007.

Let’s zoom in on one group (please forgive the lower quality of the blow-ups), which I call “All in for the Chief,” to get a better view of this. (I’ve given names to the images just to help me refer back to them.)

“All in for the Chief”

The faces in this group are quite fascinating, a combination of smiles (upper row) and grim determination (lower row). All of them, however, as with the great majority in the arena, are making a statement since the university’s board of trustees banished the “Chief” more than a decade earlier. I make no claim to know why these individuals chose to adopt the “Indian” posture, other than to say that they know they are making a statement and that they are defying the university’s desires. We also can be sure that they know they are in the majority in the arena.

Is this the end of the story? That students attending a University of Illinois basketball game demand the return of their “Chief Illiniwek”? “Photographs are really experience captured,” Sontag continues, “and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” What the camera acquired here was not just the apparent uniformity of the fans, but the fact that the crowd is composed of individuals, and as we keep observing, we encounter doubt, hesitation, ambiguity, and even resistance.

Let’s look further.

“In Sync?”

The young man to the left can be found in the center of the larger photo, just north of the horizontal midpoint. Is he craning his neck to look for a friend in an upper row? We don’t really know. But it’s not going too far to suggest that, having crossed his arms, he’s scanning the crowd to make sure that he’s in conformity with the group, that he’s not standing alone with his “Indian-folded” arms. His posture is confident, his face is less so: just checking, he might be thinking, just want to be sure that I’m not doing this alone! As I said, there’s absolutely no way I can claim to know what, in fact, was on his mind as he turned his head, or if anything was on his mind. He could have simply been reacting to a sound behind him (although no one around him has followed his glance). But whether I’m reading him appropriately or not, I would hazard to say that we have all be there: just a bit uncomfortable or doubtful about our actions and therefore glancing around to make sure we were in sync with our peers, that we were not out of step.

It’s not easy to stand against a crowd, particularly if we’re not quite sure what we think ourselves. And it’s even harder for adolescents who, research has shown, have a greater need for cognitive-closure in general and in the avoidance of ambiguity specifically. It’s not hard to read the discomfort of those who are unsure, a discomfort which is manifest in the “kind of/sort of” gestures we can see in the crowd.

“Not quite all in”

“Perhaps if I just begin…”









The two women in these images both suggest that they have less enthusiasm about adopting a “Chief Illiniwek” posture than their male companions. They don’t seem ready to buck the crowd by refusing the gesture, but neither do they fully embrace it. Their hands clasp at chest level, but their arms don’t cross. Is this a fair reading: “I not really comfortable about doing this ‘Indian’ thing, but maybe I won’t be noticed if I just kinda hold my hands together.” And what about the woman in the image below?

“Cough of convenience?”



I’ve labeled this a “cough of convenience?” as in: “I was really intending to do the arm-thing, but I had to cough so I couldn’t?” Can we read this as uncertainty? Refusal? What is clear is that she’s not nearly as committed as the woman on her right.



Just below the group in the “All in for the Chief” photo, stand four men in various postures of non-participation. One, to the right of center, has his hands together, but his arms aren’t crossed; the man to his right has his arms at his side, the one on his left could be clapping; and, the bearded man below, has brought his hand to his chin.

“Not doing this”

And finally, there is what I call the “Full Refusal”:

“Full Refusal”

Hands firmly sunk into her pockets, this woman, although surrounded by crossed-arms companions, is not participating. No ambiguity, no hand-clasping or apparent coughs. She will not go along with this.

Individual Voices/Group Voices

The predominant message in William DeShazer’s photograph blends well with the narrative of the accompanying article, that a decade after the trustees banished a Native American mascot, the students haven’t let him go. From the determined look on many of their faces, perhaps they are even more committed to him now than students were in the 1940s or 1950s when they didn’t bother thinking about what they were doing.

By paying more attention, we are better able to observe disturbances in the group’s zeitgeist. Some students mime the “Chief’s” bearing in a less-than-enthusiastic manner, while others reject the performance completely. So, what does it tell us? Probably the easiest take-away is that measuring a group’s response is not the same as being mindful what is going on with the individuals within it. “Is this clear to everyone,” we ask, after making a particular point in a lecture. The room says “yes,” as many heads are nodding in agreement. So we move on. Still, there’s the guy in the back row or the drowsy one two rows up. They aren’t nodding their heads but neither do they raise their voices to say that, no, they actually don’t understand. This is not a critique, for we’re probably not going to stop everything and ask, “Thomas. Do you have any questions?”  Not only can it be embarrassing to Thomas, but it can also suggest implicit bias on our part.  And we don’t have time to go over every point if no one indicates confusion. But reading the class closely can help you look beyond the group and reach out more effectively to the students who appear to need more help. The ability to read a group and the individuals within it at the same time, inward and outward reflection, often just comes with experience. (And this is another reason to have students leave a “muddy point” comment at the end of the class.)

My second point is a harder one to make. When I look at DeShazer’s photograph, I’m drawn to the students who appear to be caught in a moment of doubt or uncertainty as those around them assume the posture. They came to watch a basketball game, but they need to make a quick decision about a contentious issue with social consequences: to cross arms or not? Go with the crowd or refuse its pressure? I don’t pretend that it’s a huge deal to them, and it’s not unlikely that they will forget about it with the opening jump ball. But their body language indicates a flash of doubt. They embody the difficulty of going against the crowd or of taking a stand when one is not ready to make a decision. We often face such moments, but my question is whether we, as teachers, can help students when they come to these frequent crossroads.

Teaching as Paradox

Parker Palmer talks about the way in which teaching and learning are fashioned by various creative tensions, by paradoxes. It is paradoxical, for example, that the space of teaching and learning should be both bounded and open, hospitable and “charged,” silent and filled with talk. He also notes that the teaching space “should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group,” and this is the paradox that, for me, is best represented in the DeShazer photograph and which allows us to transfer its message to the classroom.

In our classes we work  to help students find their authentic voice whether they are in conformity with the group or not – indeed, even more so if they challenge the group. We also “listen for what the group voice is saying and…play that voice back from time to time so the group can hear and even change its own collective mind.” As Palmer puts it, “in a learning space shaped by this paradox, not only do students learn about a subject, but they learn to speak their own thoughts about that subject and to listen for an emergent collective wisdom that may influence their ideas and beliefs.”

This is not easy. How do we encourage students to articulate their ideas even if they might be considered unorthodox or unpopular? How do we create an environment in which groups can hear themselves, changing and growing when necessary? How do we help students appreciate complexity and accept ambiguity? How do we support them as they determine when to take a stand and when to say that they’re still thinking about it? How do we invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group?

Some of the answers to these questions are to be found in how we structure the space of learning, the classroom. I’ve offered some suggestions before about helping students establish their own rules of conduct to keep their discussions both open and bounded at the same time (see here, for example), or ways to encourage students to listen to each other. And, while I’ve talked about the role of social media and its impact on teaching and learning many times, the more that I think about it, the more I think it important to encourage students to adopt procedures that separate the classroom from a larger social media environment. What happens in classroom needs to stay in the classroom. When a student’s fashion choice for her high school prom generates 42,000 (largely) dismissive tweets in a matter of hours, it is not hard to see how students can become paralyzed by the thought of voicing an unorthodox opinion.

We can also address this by introducing pedagogies that help students appreciate complexity, remain open to multiple opinions, and admire contradiction and paradox, and I’m sure you already employ many of these methods.

  • Set up in-class debates. You can assign positions in advance or have students randomly select their “side” at the last moment, requiring that they prepare to argue both sides of an issue;
  • Use role playing techniques to foster perspective taking;
  • In papers where students are required to come to a conclusion based on the evidence that they have considered, have them also elaborate the most likely objections to, or weaknesses in, their positions;
  • Have students present conflicting interpretations when reading primary source documents, whether historical or literary;
  • Help students both value evidence and understand its limitations and contingencies;
  • Encourage students to think beyond critique alone and help them to understand the implications or likely consequences of certain courses of actions.
  • Allow students to recognize their preconceptions, and offer them the chance to hear alternative narratives.

In the end, and perhaps most importantly, I think we teach students more by how we act than by what we say. Whether we want to be or not, we are role models to our students.  It is important not only that they hear us speak our minds, but that we give them the space and the encouragement to articulate their own thoughts, to experiment with ideas that may not yet be fully formed, to inhabit ambiguity as well as certainty, to hear the crowd yet listen for the resistant voices within it.

Career Development: What Role for the Faculty?

Steve Volk, April 30, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

A central tension has arrhythmically disrupted the heart of the university since its inception. On the one hand, some argue, the university’s sole purpose is to animate the life of the mind. As T.H. Huxley famously declared in 1894, “The primary business of universities has to do merely with pure knowledge and pure art – independent of all application to practice; with the advancement of culture and not with the increase of wealth or commodities.” On the other, it is hard to deny that higher education has always (and I mean, always) prepared students for their post-graduate futures, whether, in the beginning, as learned men of the church, or later as “gentlemen” who would embody and perpetuate specific cultural norms, as women who would become teachers, nurses or educated wives, as state bureaucrats or colonial administrators, as those who would fuel the nation’s economy or who possess the creative imagination to invent the jobs of the future. Indeed, one could argue that the only ones not prepared by their university years to do something else after graduation are the faculty, we who remain in place while everyone else moves on.

John Lavery, Miss Auras, c. 1900. Public domain.

If the pure vs. practical battle has been a long one, more recently the scale has tipped ever more heavily toward the “practical” side. We find ourselves criticized for teaching poetry rather than plumbing, economics rather than accounting. We’re spending too much time encouraging our students to look at art and not enough focusing on the vocational skills needed for the labor market of the future. Indeed, if one were to ask the state legislators who control the purse strings of higher education, our sole job is to serve up “career ready” graduates.

Those of us who teach in private liberal arts colleges could, until recently, feel a bit sheltered from the “more practical” drum beat that has become deafening for colleagues who work at public universities and in community colleges. But surging tuitions, stagnant wages, an increasingly segmented labor market, unaffordable urban rents, rising income inequalities, and concerned parents have all come knocking on our door as well, demanding, justifiably, that, as we attend to the “pure,” we do not neglect the “practical.” We are increasingly being asked to consider more thoughtfully the way in which our concerns for nurturing our students as critical and responsible thinkers can be more intentionally linked to preparing students for their careers, for their (multiple) employment futures. (The historian William Cronon tried to square this circle by arguing that education should “aspire to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.”)

How we more intentionally link our tasks in the classroom with the need to prepare students for success after graduation was the central question we explored at a recent workshop at Oberlin: What role does the faculty have in career development?

My own, idiosyncratic, answer to this question has changed over time. When I began teaching at Oberlin, in the 1980s, I tended to work more closely with those students who wanted to go on in history, who wanted to “be me” when they grew up, than with students whose interests were other than with history. Not only did the latter seem fully capable of taking care of themselves without any intervention on my part, but I was pretty sure I had little advice that could prove useful to them. When students did seek my counsel about their future careers, I would send them to Career Services where, I imagined, they would learn to write a resume and search for internships.

As the years went by and the world had a good laugh at our cloistered isolation, as the possibilities for my students, armed with PhD’s, to actually find tenure-track jobs deteriorated, my department and others began to sponsor lunches for students at which we discussed “What you can do with a History (or English, or Classics, or Anthropology, or etc.) major.” Of course, we should have recognized that the great majority of our majors had never become professors, but the shifting academic job market forced us to consider the alternatives that were available for our majors. At least at the departmental level we began to take greater responsibility for helping students think about their futures in a more helpful manner.

But this departmental approach has also come under scrutiny as it becomes clear that, while one can correlate college majors with future earnings, that engineering majors are likely to earn more than English majors – now why didn’t I think of that! – the link between a student’s major and the nature of her future employment is not at all as obvious. A recent study by the New York Fed, for example, found that while 62% of recent college graduates were working in jobs that required a degree, only 27% of graduates were employed in jobs that related to their major in any significant fashion.

So, how should we be thinking about career development at the present time, understanding both that we do have an important responsibility in preparing students for their future success and that this is a much broader responsibility than either preparing them for their first job or preparing them to (only) be good historians or anthropologists. At some level, we are preparing them for many types of employment as well as for jobs which have not yet been invented.

Helping Students Succeed in the Future

In the past few years, higher education journalists have devoted considerable effort to examining, “How Colleges Can Do Better at Helping Students Get Jobs,” “Why Aren’t College Students Using Career Services?”, or “What Gets Forgotten in Debates About the Liberal Arts.” Not surprisingly, few are hesitant to give advice. Colleges, they write, should “fuse business and the liberal arts,” while focusing on “delivering value,” and developing “market-responsive curricula.” Already I’m getting nervous. Does this approach to “career development” require that we become something other than what we are? That we put our highly educated thumbs down on the “practical-side” of the scale while letting Russian literature and Buddhism fend for themselves in the marketplace of ideas? More data analytics, less Emily Dickinson?

Not really. What I’ve come to appreciate, and what we discussed at the workshop, are the ways that, as we are teaching Russian literature and Buddhism and Emily Dickinson and data analytics, we can be more intentional in thinking about the ways we can help our students succeed after they leave college. Indeed, when you come right down to it, if the only thing we did was to prepare our students to succeed as students, it would be one sorry state of affairs. 

Our hopes for our students’ success are as comprehensive as our myriad interactions with them have been over their years on campus. We want them to succeed not just in terms of the jobs they secure, but in leading lives that are meaningful and fulfilling. Some years ago, Gallup polling, in association with Purdue University, asked about students’ post-graduate success by examining five “well-being” categories. I’ve partially modified them here as they can help us think about what success means. They include:

  • Purpose well-being: Do you like what your doing as a general rule and day after day; are you motivated in your work to achieve your goals?
  • Financial well-being: Are you doing well enough economically to feel secure, to be able to do a lot of what you both need and want to do?
  • Physical well-being: Do you feel you have at least some control over your health? Do you pay attention to your physical well-being and have enough energy to get done what you intend to do?
  • Social well-being: Do you have strong and supportive relationships? Do you have (real) friends to talk to?
  • Community well-being: Are you engaged in a community where you live or work? Do you feel a part of something larger than you?

It’s not hard to describe what it means to succeed at college: graduating on time, which means passing a number of courses, fulfilling major requirements, demonstrating competency in areas such as writing and quantitative and formal reasoning, etc. But it is more difficult to map those elements we think will pave the way for our students’ future success onto a set of graduation requirements since they are often aspirational in nature. The closest approximation we have of the outcomes we want for our students can be found in Oberlin’s “Learning Goals.” These describe the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we want our students to have gained during their undergraduate years. For example, we want them to have demonstrated mastery over specific bodies of information and to have gained an understanding of the disciplined way to approach knowledge and knowing; we want them to have acquired skills in specific competencies such as writing, but also in areas such as visual or information literacy. And we want them to have absorbed and be able to demonstrate certain non-cognitive behaviors or dispositions, that, in the end, and as the research suggests, will do more to assure their future success than other factors. Picking through the learning goals in search of these “squishy,” dispositional factors, we find (among others):

Creativity, planning, determination, inclusion, self-awareness, a sense of community, resilience, the willingness to take risks, an ethical and moral grounding, curiosity, empathy, a sense of responsibility.

As a community, then, we’ve agreed on what we would like our students to have achieved at Oberlin, but what do these desired outcomes have to do with “career development”? While “purpose well-being” (finding productive, satisfying, and remunerative employment) isn’t the only measure of future success, it will most often provide a solid foundation for success in other measures of well-being. So, that leads us to ask what employers are looking for in their employees? What learning outcomes do they most highly value? In 2015, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) commissioned a survey by Hart Associates that asked these questions. Here, in the charts below, are their answers.

If you map our “learning goals” to the “learning outcomes” that employers value, you’ll find that they are strongly aligned. What this suggests is that the role for faculty and staff in career development is not to become something that we’re not by refashioning the curriculum to respond to “market demand,” or to focus our on ROI (return on investment) rather than on student learning. But, at the same time, neither do these data indicate that we should be fully satisfied with what we are doing nor can we grow complacent. We need to be more intentional about how we help students think about their futures and more aware of what else we can do to enhance their chances for future success in the world of work. So, what can we do?

Five Recommendations

In the first place, I would return to the learning objectives we develop for our courses and recommend that we think more explicitly and more intentionally about the full range of goals we have. When designing assignments, we don’t always articulate the specific skills or proficiencies that can scaffold student success. These factors often don’t occur to us since we have long ago mastered them and no longer remember what it was like to struggle with them. Particularly for introductory courses, and especially for first generation students, spelling out the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will determine the successful completion of an assignment or a course can be enormously important. To spell out, for example, that the students are required to have gained not only an understanding of the Krebs cycle, but that they can also manage their time appropriately; that they have achieved insight into a Borges essay, but also the ability to work with others; that they not only understand how to solve differential equations, but have also gained in self-efficacy, the capacity for reflection, or patience and perseverance. I’ll talk about this further below, but stressing such goals not only helps students better prepare, but also increases their awareness of – and their ability to talk about – the skills they have gained, something that is critical for job interviews.

Image taken from “Lilliput Lyrics,” R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

Secondly, most likely you have already integrated many of the outcomes that employers value into your course designs, because they are of value to us as instructors. But are there specific skill areas that you should also be addressing to support career development that are consistent with your (and the college’s) desired learning outcomes? I’m thinking, in particular, of ways to help students become more effective oral communicators. Our overall learning goals state that “An Oberlin education should provide students with the ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes…”  Cortney Smith, in a 2016 “Article of the Week,” quoted Warren Buffett’s advice: “You’ve got to be able to communicate in life. It’s enormously important. If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.” She added that, “we need to impress upon our students the importance of being able to express their ideas and views in the most productive manners. And one way to do this is by emphasizing and evaluating student speaking in the classroom.”

Third, as I suggested above, we need to help our students develop a greater awareness of what they have learned, the skills they have acquired, and what they did to get there. Surveys conducted by the Career Development Center revealed that students aren’t particularly good at “articulating their value.” In other words, they either don’t always know what they know or they can’t easily talk about it. This is not about exaggerating one’s strengths or humble bragging. Indeed, by recognizing where gaps exist in their learning, students can better work to address them. Rather, and I’ve found this to be true in so many cases, many students don’t actually recognize, and therefore have a hard time articulating, their actual strengths. Some years ago, after reading through perhaps 20 drafts of a student’s essay for her Rhodes Scholarship application, I asked her to just talk to me about her experiences abroad during her junior year. That discussion brought to light some of her extraordinary skills that she didn’t think were worth mentioning since the narrative included failures as well as successes. (She made it to the finalist round.)

There are many ways we can help our students reflect on their strengths (as well as their weaknesses).  

  • After each project or exam, have them write about what they learned in completing the assignment: not about content, but rather what about their own learning was revealed to them.
  • If your students wrote a short essay at the start of the semester on what they hoped to accomplish over the course of the semester, have them bring it in and then write, in class, a short essay on what they actually accomplished and what needs further work.
  • A colleague in psychology at Ohio Wesleyan University requires her students to write a resume as part of a final project. This provides them with an opportunity to take account of their skills and experiences, including those gained in the class, as they think about their professional career. She writes, “The main goal of any résumé is to highlight your skills and experiences in an elegant way that draws immediate attention to your ability to organize and communicate with the highest degree of clarity.” (Sarah Bunnell, Department of Psychology, Ohio Wesleyan University, syllabus for Psychology 333, Child Development, Spring 2018).

Fourth, be aware of what’s going on at the Career Development Office and encourage your students to check in with them early in their Oberlin years. While the faculty can do a lot to help students understand their strengths and address their weaknesses (to “articulate their value”), the Career Development Office is designed to help them in a variety of specific ways and using a new set of in person and online tools to help them build their networks, connect to alumni and others, and find career paths that will aid them in achieving their own goals.

Finally, I would encourage you to be aware that there are some students whose futures are more uncertain and fraught then is the case for the majority of our students. For undocumented students or those who are temporarily (and precariously) protected by DACA, graduation means yet again confronting the realities of a country that seems intent on denying them the success that they have earned and that they deserve. They will be a minority among your students, but you can support them by simply acknowledging their presence, even if you don’t know who they are, by your words, by insuring that the college supports them in every way possible, and by the actions you take as concerned citizens.

So, what role can the faculty pay in career development? A critical one, not just in helping our students gain the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to achieve success and fulfillment in their employment futures, but in helping them understand just what they have learned and how that can be used to find success in many different facets of their future lives.


Steve Volk, April 23, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Scrolling through radio stations while driving back from a conference in Michigan last week, I happened on a discussion (and performance) of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, which he titled “The Age of Anxiety.” It had been a long time since I last heard that piece – it’s not a part of regular classical playlists – and listening to it made driving the Ohio Turnpike in the snow a tad more bearable.

Bernstein’s mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, commissioned the piece, which premiered on April 8, 1949, with Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony and Bernstein performing the piano solo. The symphony was inspired by W.H. Auden’s long poem of the same name, which the Times Literary Supplement famously dubbed his “one dull book, his one failure.” (OK, so it did win a Pulitzer.) Bernstein’s short but “electrifying” work, written close on the heels of the Holocaust, reflected – he wrote – the “extreme personal identification of myself with the poem, the essential line [of which] is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith.”

We are again living in an “age of anxiety,” one which tests our search for faith, or understanding, or ideology, or meaning. But, whatever it’s about, it most certainly has been grinding away on our students.

What the Data Tell Us

Let’s start with the numbers, since that’s what we do: marshal the evidence.

Each year, the American College Health Association prepares a National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA II) to assist college health service providers, health educators, counselors, and administrators in collecting data about their students’ habits, behaviors, and perceptions on the most prevalent health topics. Among its central concerns are factors which, based on student self-reporting, negatively impact their academic performance (i.e., dynamics that can lead to lower grades, taking an incomplete or dropping a course, etc.). The chart below, from Fall 2017, lists the principal factors in alphabetic order:

American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA II)

The top five factors, in rank order, are:

Stress (33.5%)
Anxiety (26.2%)
Sleep difficulties (22.9%)
Depression (17.6%)
Cold/Flu/Sore Throat (14.7%)

In other words, three of the top five factors (and likely, the top four since sleep-related difficulties are often tied to the others) are mental health issues, outranking both more medically related issues (from chronic health problems to sinus infections and colds) as well as “time-management” issues (internet use; extracurricular activities).

Digging deeper into the data, we find that, within the last 12 months, students reported that:

  • Things were hopeless (53%)
  • They were overwhelmed by all they had to do (86.9%)
  • They felt exhausted (not from physical activity) (83.4%)
  • They were very lonely (64.4%)
  • Very sad (68.1%)
  • So depressed that it was difficult to function (40.1% )
  • They felt overwhelming anxiety (61.4%)
  • They experienced overwhelming anger (41.8%)

Within the last 12 months, 26.3% of women students (and 10.4% of male students) reported being diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety-related issues; 20.8% of women students (and 10.1% of men) were diagnosed or treated for depression, and 14.1% (4.0% of men) for panic attacks.

In the same period, 51.7% of female students (and 39.3 % of males) reported that “academics” (broadly defined) had been traumatic or very difficult to handle, and 44.3% of students reported that they experienced more than average stress, with12.3% reporting “tremendous stress.”

According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey (AUCCCD) for 2016, “Anxiety continues to be the most predominant and increasing concern among college students (50.6%), followed by depression (41.2%), relationship concerns (34.4%), suicidal ideation (20.5%), self-injury (14.2%), and alcohol abuse (9.5%). “

Indeed, college students are manifesting record levels of mental health issues, with anxiety newly at the top of the charts. Depending on which survey one consults, somatic symptoms of depression have been on the rise since 1982, and self-reported levels of mental health issues have been increasing since 1985. Some studies suggest that the level of depression college students report have been trending up since the 1930s.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have not reached anything close to a consensus as to why this is the case. Studies have pointed to everything from “modern life,” to  increased social media use, the ubiquity of smart phones, increasing pressures to succeed, helicopter parenting, the fact that many students come from unsafe neighborhoods, that they read about or experienced school (or other) shootings, are terrified that their parents may be deported, or are teetering on the edge of financial disaster. (A New York Times article from 2017 explores this further.)

And, since this is not my field, I couldn’t even hazard a guess outside of the unhelpful observation that (to paraphrase a bumper sticker) “If you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.”

But, regardless of the cause, the data are clear and point to very troubling rise of student mental health issues in general and anxiety-related issues more particularly. Our students, quite simply, are feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

Paying Attention

The central thing we can do at this point of the semester is to be aware of the high levels of anxiety which are present as a base line as we head into the most anxiety-producing weeks of the semester, when final projects are due, exams will be taken, and summer or future plans, if not yet made, must be finalized.

  1. Be aware of the mental health issues faced by students. Really. We’re not talking about the “delicate snowflake” crap that conservative pundits and a triumvirate of columnists at the New York Times seemingly can’t get enough of. We’re talking about being aware of the pressures our students are under in general and at the moment, and then doing all we can to promote learning and student success.
  2. What if — you respond — you’re pretty sure that YOUR students don’t fall into this category. In the first place, the data would suggest that they do. In the second, it doesn’t matter. The basic principles of universal design for learning indicate that by organizing classes to serve everyone, you will benefit everyone, including those you weren’t particularly thinking of. By eliminating barriers to learning without eliminating challenges, everyone in the class can gain, not just those who may have documented disabilities or who enter with different strengths than those traditionally valued by the academy. (As has been noted many times: curb cuts in sidewalks were “intended” for wheelchair use: but look at how many people pushing strollers, on rollerblades, lugging grocery carts, or riding skateboards have benefited.)
  3. Tune into your own emotional state. You can’t help your students when you, as well, are short of sleep, short of breath, and short of patience. P.L. Thomas recently observed that, “When ideology, cultural narratives and myths, are ‘out of joint’ with reality, the consequences are devastating to everyone, creating an environment of anxiety.” To experience anxiety is to be pushed into isolation. Thomas quotes Vik Loveday who, in “The Neurotic Academic,” explains, that while “viscerally felt at the individual level, to admit to feeling anxious and stressed-out is also to risk being perceived as failing to cope with the demands of academic life.” We are compelled to feel responsible for correcting those forces beyond their control. Don’t allow yourself to become isolated; talk to colleagues and friends.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Flowers on the Otsuki Plain in Kai Province, no. 31 from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (1858). Color woodblock print. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

What Can We Do To Help Our Students?

  • Slow them (and yourself) down. It is very late in the semester to begin “mindfulness” practices – helping students to check into their own mental, emotional and physical health – but it’s not too late to help them calm down. Understanding that this is the moment when you tend to shift from 33 1⁄3 to 78, it is nevertheless important to take a few minutes to slow down. Consider starting each class by having students (and you) close your eyes for a 1-2 minutes (it will seem like a very long time, trust me), and simply focusing on breathing: in and out, in and out.
  • Alternatively, project an image for them to focus on, and ask that they simply observe it while paying attention to their breathing, for 2 minutes. (Bonus points: have them comment on it for one more minute.)
  • Remind them to SHED (sleep, hydration, exercise, diet). Remind your students to drink a lot of water, to pay attention to what they are eating, to get some exercise every day, and to try to get a good night’s sleep. They won’t pay attention to you, of course. But what if the faculty in all their classes said the same thing? (Bonus points: bring in a few extra water bottles to hand out.)
  • Be aware of our counseling services and what they provide (Oberlin’s Counseling Center offers regular appointments and walk-in hours; talk to the Dean of Students’ office if you are unsure whether you think a student needs more attention than you can provide; bring a student to counseling if you think it is an emergency.
  • Make use of SHARE (Student Help and Resource Exchange). SHARE is a multidisciplinary group promoting student success by providing a forum for faculty, staff, and students to share concerns, supporting a collaborative approach, and providing opportunities for meaningful interactions. Students may visit the SHARE website to schedule a meeting with a SHARE Advisor. Anyone working with a student can complete a SHARE form. [Added April 24, 2018]

If you have other suggestions that can help students in this age of anxiety, please pass them along and I’ll add them to this list.

Here’s a short piece by Nancy Darling (Psychology) on “How to Relax in Five Minutes” that appeared in Psychology Today (March 10, 2017). [Added 04/22/18: 11:51 AM]

Less is More: Low-Stakes Assessments and Student Success

Steve Volk, April 16, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

There is a point in every semester when, it being too late to make significant changes in our current courses, we instead begin to think ahead to next semester. So, overwhelmed as you are by finishing up this term, getting in book orders, and planning research and writing for the summer, maybe you can keep this article in mind as you plan for the fall 2018 semester!

In this posting, I provide a few resources and summarize some of the reasoning supporting the argument that student learning is more enhanced by frequent, low-stakes assessments (“retrieval practices” in the technical lingo), with the opportunities they provide for continual feedback, than from infrequent, high-stakes assessments (e.g., a midterm and a final). While the research has suggested that this holds across all disciplines, the impact is noted especially in STEM fields and quantitatively based courses.

Some Research

First, a bit of the research. Where in the classroom cycle (class-studying-examination) does learning most take place? We generally think that students learn when they are studying (reading assigned texts or reviewing their notes), and that testing is the mechanism that tells us what has been learned. The same assumptions also buttress what many instructors think about classroom practice: students are assumed to learn in lectures (learning which is solidified when they study their notes), and tests help us know how much has been learned. The test, that that sense, is considered a “neutral event,” it measures without impacting learning. And yet, a considerable body of research has demonstrated that such an understanding is flawed; many cognitive psychologists now suggest that assessment practices themselves can produce large gains in long-term retention of information and concepts in comparison with studying for an exam. In other words, write  Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard, 2014), using “retrieval practices” (recalling facts, concepts, data, or events from memory) is “a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.”

To summarize his (and Andrew C. Butler) conclusions from one of Roediger’s many studies,

  1. Assessments (“retrieval practices”) often produce superior long-term retention relative to studying for the same amount of time;
  2. Repeated assessments are better than one-time testing;
  3. Providing feedback produces better results than assessment practices without feedback, although even without feedback, the learning results are better for multiple assessments;
  4. Some lag between study and test support retention and learning;
  5. The benefits of “retrieval practices” can be transferred from one context (domain) to another.

AFP; sitting for the “bac,” Paris, June 18, 2015

Cynthia J. Brame and Rachel Biel, both at Vanderbilt, offer a useful chart in CBE Life Sciences Education that summarizes the research on the relationship between testing and learning in undergraduate science courses. Among the findings of previous studies that they consider are the following:

  • Testing improved retention significantly more than restudy in delayed tests.
  • Multiple tests provided greater benefit than a single test.
  • Students in the retrieval-practice condition had greater gains in meaningful learning compared with those who used elaborative concept mapping as a learning tool.
  • Both initially correct and incorrect answers were benefited by feedback, but low-confidence answers were most benefited by feedback.
  • Testing improved retention and increased transfer of information from one domain to another through test questions that required factual or conceptual recall and inferential questions that required transfer.
  • Interim testing improved recall on a final test for information taught before and after the interim test.

But first, a note to the doubters – myself included. One of the central concerns I have always had about testing as a method of assessment, particularly high-stakes mid-terms or finals, or even post-reading quizzes, is whether they only promote rote memory learning (“When did Cortez first arrive in Mexico?” “Describe the wing structure of a bat,” etc.). I questioned whether the memorization of facts that (now) can be looked up instantaneously on a smart phone was necessary, or, in any case, whether what students learned would stick with them, or stick with them in a contextualized fashion, other than the memorization of random facts.

We all know that learning is more than the memorization and the repetition of facts, that higher education learning above all must shift students to higher cognitive levels and outcomes. So, while we know, through a variety of studies, particularly the work carried out by Andrew C. Butler, that “repeated testing produce[s] superior retention and transfer on the final test relative to repeated studying,” what do we know about the impact of frequent assessment such as tests and quizzes on helping to move students to higher cognitive levels? Can what was learned via testing be “transferred,” extended to other domains and contexts? And can attention to “retrieval practices” help students better cope with some of the negative consequences that accompany high-stakes testing? Stick around for some answers.

What to Keep in Mind

  1. Frequent, low-stakes testing is better than infrequent, high-stakes testing.

The research cited above suggests the many reasons why this is the case. To put it in practical terms:

Jenna Carter,”Test,” Flickr cc

a. We know enough about high-stakes testing to know that such assessment practices can have serious negative effects on identity-threatened groups in specific contexts: Blacks and Latinx in the sciences; women in math; etc. Further, low-stakes testing reduces the anxiety associated with high-stakes testing since one’s future isn’t riding on one or two tests. And we know that student anxiety in general has reached frightening levels. In 1985,18% of incoming first-year students agreed that they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do.” In 2010, that figure increased to 29%. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

b. Frequent testing allows students to practice remembering, a useful capacity building skill. But, to help students not just retain information but to use retrieval practices to move to higher order thinking, the testing should be “effortful” (e.g., short answer rather than multiple choice), spaced (allowing enough time to elapse for some forgetting to occur) and “interleaved” (one should introduce different topics and problems rather than having students master one topic at a time and then move on to the next). (These are points that Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel stress in Make it Stick.)

c. Frequent testing helps students know where they stand in a course, making it more likely that they will seek help when needed, i.e., when it can actually make a difference. Particularly in STEM courses, if students only realize that they are in a very deep pit at the mid-term point, there is little that they can do to climb out.

  1. Feedback is better than no feedback.

While the research suggests that low-stakes testing without feedback is actually better than relying on studying alone in terms of student learning, it also indicates the key role that instructor feedback plays in boosting student learning.

a. Most obviously, feedback from the instructor will let students know where they stand in a course. As faculty, we often have our own ways of intuiting how students are doing in our classes without resorting to formal testing mechanisms. Are they coming to class? Do they look engaged? Are they falling asleep in class? Have they come to office hours when asked? Some of these indicators are fairly accurate; others can be not only wrong but seriously problematic, particularly if they feed off of implicit biases. But the point is that students don’t share these “insights” as to how they are performing in a course. Many will feel that they are doing just fine, when they are actually standing at the edge of a precipice. (A recent study reported on in the New York Times suggests that men, more than women, overestimate their abilities in science classes. Who would have thought!) Concrete feedback from instructors can help students obtain a more objective sense of how they are doing. They may not always “hear” it or respond appropriately to such information, but offering feedback most often is quite welcome and useful.

b. Providing feedback to correct responses as well as incorrect answers is highly useful. As Brame and Biel discuss in the above cited article, feedback on both low-confidence correct answers and incorrect answers may further enhance the testing effect, allowing students to solidify their understanding of concepts about which they are unclear.

c. Feedback can come from instructors on exams or other assessments, or from in-class peers. One research study found that when students answer an in-class conceptual question individually using clickers, discuss it with their neighbors, and then re-vote on the same question, the percentage of correct answers typically increases.

Gary Larson, The Far Side

  1. Low-stakes, frequent testing with feedback helps students think more intentionally about their own learning.

I have written before about ways to support student metacognition. One way to do this is to encourage students to reflect on their own process of learning by having them respond to feedback on exams, quizzes, or other assignments.

a. Students can “self-test” as part of their studying process, and then measure the outcome versus their expectation, but few will actually do this, and generally those who do are not always the ones who could use additional help. Providing concrete evidence of accomplishments can help students more accurately assess their level of comprehension and (hopefully) seek help to address those areas that need attention.

b. Frequent assignments tied to reflection exercises can help students think about what they did (to prepare for an assignment, for exaple), what the outcome was, and what they will do differently the next time.

c. No-stakes formative assessment (a short quiz at the end of the class or a simple “one-minute paper”) can help students think in a more focused fashion about what they know and they need to focus on.

  1. Design questions that can move students to higher order thinking.

While not every exam must be “effortful,” with some thought, one can design multiple choice questions to lead to higher order thinking.

a. Cynthia Brame, from Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, provides the following advice: Presenting a problem that requires application of course principles, analysis of a problem, or evaluation of alternatives tests students’ ability to engage in higher-order thinking. Instructors can design problems that require multilogical thinking (“thinking that requires knowledge of more than one fact to logically and systematically apply concepts to a …problem”).

Here are two examples she provides:
















b. In Dynamic Testing: The Nature and Measurement of Learning Potential , Robert Sternberg and Elena Grigorenko suggest, as the title indicates, a more dynamic approach to testing than what is typically provided in static, standardized tests. Essentially, this calls for determining the state of one’s knowledge; refocusing learning on areas that need more attention; and retesting to measure improvement. It is testing that helps the learner focus on new knowledge (i.e., on “learning”), rather than on what has already been accomplished. In this sense, well-designed testing can move the student to higher cognitive levels.

  1. Break large assignments/exams into smaller pieces

Designing, for example, eight assessments tools that are effortful, spaced, and interleaved, takes some work, particularly when you are accustomed to giving a midterm and a final. True enough, but think about breaking the high-stake assignments you already give into smaller pieces, as suggested by Sara Jones at Michigan State University’s “Inside Teaching.”

a. Replace high-stakes, large tests into several quizzes.

b. Scaffold large projects (independent research projects, term papers, etc.) into a variety of related steps: topic, preliminary bibliography, outline, final bibliography, draft, etc.

In the end, if there’s one “take-away” from this posting, it is to become more intentional when thinking about the assessments we rely on, particularly in terms of exams or quizzes. The research is quite conclusive that, when well prepared and followed by feedback, “retrieval practices” are more effective in reinforcing student learning than studying in and of itself. Frequent, low-stakes assessments are an important way to promote student learning.

Remembering the Lessons of Dr. King: An Inclusive, Quality Education for All

Steve Volk, April 9, 2018. Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Two weeks ago, I explored John Dewey’s understanding of how reflection impacts teaching in the “Article of the Week.” For Dewey, I noted, reflection was an intricate process in which we derived meaning from our experiences in a systematic and disciplined way, “in community,” and in a context that led to growth not just of the individual but of others as well. Reflection was a central part of learning and, learning, in the context of an educational setting, always took into consideration the purpose of education itself. For Dewey, this purpose was not simply the abstract intellectual development of the individual, but the way that the individual’s intellectual, emotional, and moral understandings came to support and sustain democratic society.

I was drawn back to Dewey’s views on the purpose of an education this week as I, and millions of others, solemnly observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of us used the moment to search for lessons from Dr. King that could inform a search for ways to counter the dismal moment the country is living through. In particular, I was looking to understand what are our responsibilities as a community of educators at this time. Like Dewey, Dr. King understood that an education that only taught one to “think intensively” or to think “efficiently” was insufficient. “The most dangerous criminal,” King wrote while still a student at Morehouse College in 1947, “may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”  “If we are not careful,” he warned, “our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington Temple Church (1963), Library of Congress and World Telegram & Sun photo by O. Fernandez. Public domain

I was not surprised, then, to learn that the United Federation of Teachers awarded Dr. King its “John Dewey Award” in 1964. King’s acceptance speech, delivered on March 14, 1964, was not one of his more memorable talks, but I was staggered to see its continuing relevance more than a half-century later, a sign both of the power of King’s insight and of the fact that so many struggles that he took on remain uncompleted today.

For Dr. King, 1963 represented a high-water mark in terms of the accomplishments of the non-violent direct action movement in its fight for civil rights. Still, he warned that the “civil rights issue…will now be faced and solved or it will torment and agonize the political and social life of the nation.” To read, only in the last two weeks, of the shooting by police of Saheed Vassell or Stephon Clark is to recognize that the killing of black people by law enforcement continues to be a national crisis, and that the political and social life of the nation is still agonized by racism, King’s unsolved civil rights issue.

Dr. King and Education

In his speech accepting the John Dewey Award, Dr. King identified education as a central “battleground in the freedom struggle.” Because he understood that education was a road, perhaps the road, to equality and citizenship, he argued that “it has been made more elusive for Negroes than many other rights.” Depriving Blacks access to equal and quality education was “part of the historical design to submerge [them] in second class status.”

Racism complicated access to a quality education for Blacks, but that wasn’t the only factor involved. “First,” he charged, “education for all Americans, white and Negro has always been inadequate. The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige their work justifies. We squander funds on highways [at least, we used to], on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on an over-abundance of over-kill armaments, but we pauperize education.”

Draft of King speech, UFT-Dewey Award, 1964: Courtesy of King Center archive: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/notes-uft-address#

And yet, although he saw all children, White and Black, as well as all teachers, as being negatively impacted by the “pauperization” to which education was subjected in the United States, for Blacks, the quest for education was “literally a question of life or death…In a society requiring ever higher standards of knowledge, the Negro is doubly handicapped by discrimination and lack of education.”

Dr. King’s sobering words were fresh in my mind when I read two reports on education issued this week. They underscore that not only does the “civil rights issue” remain unsolved today, but that this country has in significant ways retreated from the explicit demands, not to mention the implicit hopes, of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), as well as from many of the legislative landmarks passed 50 years ago, especially the Voting Rights Act. Public schools in the U.S. are now more segregated by race (and class) than at any time since Brown. As Beverly Tatum recently observed,

Nationwide, nearly 75 percent of Black students and 80 percent of Latino students attend so-called ‘majority-minority’ schools. Both Black and Latino students are much more likely than White students to attend a school where 60 percent or more of their classmates are living in poverty. Separate remains unequal as schools with concentrated poverty and racial segregation are still likely to have less-experienced teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, inadequate facilities, and fewer classroom resources.

In 90 of the 95 largest cities in the United States by population for which data is available, more students of color than White students attend public schools where most of their classmates are poor or low-income – and this by a substantial margin.

It is nothing less than a national disgrace that 64 years after Brown, as the Rev. Dr. William Barber II recently critiqued, “we’re still funding schools with property taxes where the quality of a child’s school can be determined by the size of the parents’ bank account rather than the potential of the child’s brain.”

Punishing Students of Color

The first of these studies released this past week examined “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities,” and it both confirms and adds to the stark evidence of the discrimination faced by students of color, particularly Black boys, that had been published previously. According to the authors of the GAO report, using the latest data available from 2013-14, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined through suspensions and expulsions in K-12 public schools. Further, “these disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.”

Black students, for example, accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented some 39 percent of students suspended from school—an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points. Black students were similarly overrepresented in other types of discipline including corporal punishment and arrests (see chart below). (Students with disabilities were also overrepresented in each of these categories, but not by as high a proportion.) Earlier studies have shown that disproportionate levels of suspensions and expulsions for Black students begin in pre-school. Black children represented 18% of preschool enrollments in 2014, but received more than one out-of-school suspension in 48% of cases.

What the new GAO study indicates that other studies haven’t examined is that Black students were overrepresented in all forms of punishment regardless of the income level of the school, although the degree of overrepresentation does go up in conjunction with the poverty level of the school. In terms of suspension from school, for example, Black students were overrepresented by 12% at schools at very low poverty levels and double that amount at schools with 75-100% poverty levels.

The GAO study recognizes that the issue of who gets disciplined and why is a complex one, but the authors reviewed a variety of studies that maintain that “implicit bias—stereotypes or unconscious associations about people—on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behaviors differently based on the students’ race and sex.” (See, as well, Smolkowski et al, 2016.) The report also cites studies that have found that the types of offenses that Black children were disciplined for were largely based on school officials’ interpretations of behavior. One study, for example, found that “Black girls were disproportionately disciplined for subjective interpretations of behaviors, such as disobedience and disruptive behavior.” Finally, a different research study used eye-tracking technology to show that, among other things, teachers gazed longer at Black boys than other children on video clips when asked to look for challenging behavior. 

Persistent Inequality in Postsecondary Education

The second study to emerge this past week that calls our attention to all that remains to be done to advance Dr. King’s work, concludes that students of color are systematically underfunded at the postsecondary level compared to White students.  In “Gaps in College Spending Shortchange Students of Color,” written for the Center for American Progress (CAP), Sara Garcia examines how the underfunding of schools that serve students of color in the K-12 years carries over into higher educationl. It is well known that public school funding for K-12 education has persistently discriminated against students of color, creating understaffed and underperforming schools. The CAP’s report confirms that “these inequitable patterns do not end when a student graduates from high school put persist through postsecondary education.” According to the study, public two-and four-year colleges spend, on average, more than $1,000 less per year on students of color (identified in the report as Black and Latino) than what is spent on their White counterparts. When added up nationally, “public colleges spend approximately $5 billion less educating students of color in one year than they do educating white students” (emphasis added).

A variety of factors contribute to this significant funding disparity; the CAP report suggests that one of the most important is that students of color are “disproportionately more likely to attend institutions that have lower revenue and government funding per student—meaning that those institutions also spend less on education for each student.” To take California, a state with a relatively high level of postsecondary education funding, as an example: California is slated to spend $33 billion on higher education this year, but considerably less is directed to the state’s community colleges where students of color are overrepresented. Louisiana offers an example of a state which spends comparatively little on higher education: While there is no major gap in spending across different racial or ethnic groups, the state spends around a third less on higher education than the national average, and so all students, White as well as students of color, are disadvantaged financially.

How does state spending impact the chances for student success? A recent Harvard study determined that a 10% increase in total college spending could produce an additional 55 bachelor’s degrees per year at a typical four-year university. Further, while about 60% of students enrolled at 4-year colleges will graduate within 6 years, only 38% of students at community colleges will obtain their credentials either at their initial institution or at an institution to which they transfer in the same time.

Fighting for the Education of All

In 2017, 53 years after Dr. King’s award, the Rev. William Barber II, architect of the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement, received the UFT’s John Dewey Award. His address, like Dr. King’s, highlighted the central role that education must play in the democratic struggle, observing that “the only way we as a nation cannot educate every child is to argue that some don’t matter like others matter, and some children are inferior because of their race, their zip code and their class.” Like Dewey and King, the Rev. Barber said that “fight for the humanity of all children” is central to the “moral revival” of the country. “Public education and access to a high-quality, well-funded, diverse public education and access to college, to community college, and [to the] development of the soul and the brain is a moral issue.”  

So, where does that leave those who teach in private, selective, majority White liberal arts colleges? Is this of concern only for K-12 teachers? Only for those at community colleges or in state-funded, public institutions? Not at all. In fact, we must recognize, as Andrew Delbanco recently put it, that private institutions “need to do a better job of meeting their public responsibilities.”

These responsibilities, I would suggest, point in two directions. In the first place, it means working towards inclusive excellence on our own campuses. Inclusion and equity demands that we look farther than enrollment numbers as we measure whether we are actually inclusive, and that we go beyond what is traditionally valued in terms of how we measure “excellence.” This is not in any sense a “lessening” of standards, but rather expanding our capacity both to recognize and to value the multiple strengths and cultural knowledges and skills that students bring with them from their (less represented) home communities. Sasha Eloi-Evans, of the University of Rochester, captured this when she argued that “Institutions must be supportive of the social and cultural needs, in addition to the academic ones, of all their students, and do so by instituting inclusive habits of the mind and heart in the entire community. Looking forward, the focus should be about eradicating the exclusionary practices that require students to change who they are or fight herculean battles in order to be successful. Diversity efforts at all institutions should be about acknowledging and appreciating students for who they are – making it difficult to dismiss them or their concerns.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses Oberlin College in Finney Chapel, on Oct. 22, 1964. Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives

Secondly,  private institutions, regardless of the size of their endowments, the depth of their resources, or the sweep of their histories, face an uncertain future if they do not take on the struggles of the public sector, both K-12 and postsecondary, as their own. There are many reasons why that is the case. The battles that public sector educational institutions must wage to get the funding they require are, in the end, battles that will determine whether voters see education as a public good or a private consumable. As polling indicates the impact of declining support for higher education in general, will be felt on private and public institutions alike. Further, the walk-outs that teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere are carrying out not only to be paid a living wage but to teach in classrooms where their students can learn and thrive, are efforts that demand our support if we are to fulfill Dr. King’s call to stop “pauperizing” education, “pay our teachers as professionals,” and “surround them with the prestige” their work demands. Finally, the struggles that public school, K-12 educators take on as they try to provide quality, inclusive, free education for all students is a struggle that educators in private higher education must join if, now and in the future, we want to have students in our classes who represent the great diversity of the national and international community, and not just the children of those few who can absorb ever-increasing tuition bills.

In private as well as public institution, our efforts as educators must be, as Dr. King understood, and as the Rev. Barber reiterated in the present, an effort not just to “sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, the facts from the fiction,” but an education that is rooted in both meaning and morality. “The complete education,” King argued in 1947, “gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” Those objectives are before us.


Chemistry Students Tell a Convincing Story: In The Forensic Crime Lab

Rob Thompson, Professor of Chemistry, Oberlin College
Contact at Robert.Q.Thompson@oberlin.edu

In 2015, the Association of American College and Universities issued a report (Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success) that listed the skills that employers seek in college graduates. The outcomes most highly valued were critical thinking and analytic reasoning, written and oral communication, complex problem-solving, ethical decision-making, and teamwork skills. Employers believe that all students should be expected to complete a significant applied learning project before graduating from college. Many college majors offer a capstone course or project that fits the bill.

Sherlock Holmes, The Long Journey, public domain

In chemistry and biochemistry at Oberlin College we do not offer a capstone course, but we do encourage all students to be involved in independent research before they graduate. In addition, several of our courses include research-like, multi-week projects that do match the label: significant applied learning projects. One of those courses is Analytical Chemistry, taken mostly by junior majors. After building laboratory and data handling skills and learning to be more independent in experiment design over the first two-thirds of the semester, students engage in a forensic analytical chemistry project. A crime scenario and associated physical evidence are presented to the students, and the students are tasked with determining, by instrumental analysis of the evidence, what happened and who did what at the crime scene. One lab section serves as the prosecution team while the other must defend the accused at a mock trial that concludes the project. Three non-science Oberlin faculty members make up the jury panel.

A major hurdle for students is presenting data, results, and conclusions to a non-specialist audience. Many students by their junior year have had experience giving posters and presentations at chemistry and biochemistry conferences, but few, if any, have had to explain their work to non-scientists. Without specific attention to and instruction in presenting science to a general audience, most students at trial fail to convince the humanist or social scientist or musician of the value of their data and the significance of their conclusions. This was quite evident when the project was first instituted.

Atelier 02, “The Jury,” Flickr cc

As a remedy, assignment, class, and laboratory time is now devoted to exploring best practices. Students are provided readings about presenting scientific evidence to the trier-of-fact, almost always a non-specialist audience. Assigned articles include: Communicating Science to the Public, by N. Dalrymple, New York Academy of Sciences, ebriefing posted on 5 February 2013; Expert Witness and Jury Comprehension: An Expert’s Perspective, by J.S. Schutz, Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 7, Iss. 1, Article 7. A favorite quote from these readings (by judge Catherine D. Perry of the Eastern District of Missouri) is “Triers-of-fact, whether judges or juries, need to have things explained to them. Evidence that works is evidence the fact finder can understand. The trial lawyer’s job is to make the evidence understandable. That is not to say that fact finders should be treated like three-year-olds; treating us like reasonably intelligent twelve-year-olds will do the trick. In other words, keep it simple, explain it, make it clear, show us as well as tell us.” Sage advice for both the courtroom and the lecture hall.

In addition to the readings, staff from Oberlin’s speaking and writing center visit the class to provide both general and specific suggestions for delivering an effective oral presentation. The class time includes student activities to get them thinking about how not to and how to best present science topics. Later, the instructor provides more concrete examples of best practices from past trials. Finally, the students are tasked with rehearsing their talks in front of roommates and friends who are not science majors. With this instruction in place, the effectiveness of student presentation has greatly improved.

Image from “A treatise on the distillation of Coal-Tar and Ammoniacal Liquor, and the separation from them of valuable products,” 1882. British Library, public domain

The forensic laboratory project’s main goal from the perspective of an analytical chemist is to bring together and fine tune all of the laboratory skills and instrumental skills and knowledge that the student has gained over the course of the semester. But as it turns out an equally important success of this laboratory project is teaching the student how to speak to the public, how to convince the listener that their chemistry experiments were of high quality and that their findings are significant and to be trusted. This is an especially important skill in these trying times with much disregard for science-based decision-making and charges of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

Note: The author has a book for sale, Instrumental Investigations: A Laboratory Manual of Forensic Analytical Chemistry, that makes it easy to implement a forensic project lab in any undergraduate analytical or forensic chemistry course. Contact the author if interested.

Having served as a juror for one “case,” I can report that I was hugely impressed not just by the depth of scientific knowledge which the students brought to the “case,” but by their poised and compelling presentation of the facts to the “jury.” (SV)

What Would Dewey Do? Thoughts on Teaching and the Process of Reflection

Steve Volk, March 26, 2018
Contact: svolk@oberlin.edu

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the Faculty-Student Partnership program that CTIE has been running at Oberlin for nearly five years is sitting down every other week with the students in the program. (I will quickly add that it’s also lovely to meet with their faculty partners, although that happens less frequently.) (Information on the FSP can be found here.) Each meeting provides an opportunity to discuss how the student are supporting their faculty partners, whether providing input through their observations, reflecting with them on how the class they just observed went, or simply listening as the faculty think out loud about their plans for the next class. But, as the semester proceeds and the end is in sight, I often ask students, based on their experience in the program and thinking about their own teachers, to list the characteristics of what they consider a “good” teacher to be, as well as how they would define a “good” student.

John Dewey by Andre Koehne, 2006, Wikimedia

Over the years, the students’ views of what good teachers bring to their classrooms have remained highly consistent. Invariably (and not surprisingly) they always begin in the same place: good teachers know their subject; I mean, they really know it. Further, they almost always indicate that not only do good teachers know their subject matter inside and out, but that they are able to communicate their passionate regard for it, and in that way, their love of physics, economics, psychology or whatever they’re teaching becomes infectious. It is this passion that often attracts students to major in a field that they had never considered, let alone taken a class in, before. Geology? Anthropology? Who knew it could be so thrilling!

The third point the students always raise is that good teachers help them to feel “safe” and “welcome” in those classes. (Hold your “delicate snowflake” critiques for a moment; we’ll unpack all of this shortly.) Finally (at least in terms of our discussion here), the students in the FSP program always observe that good teachers really listen to their students, are demonstrably interested in what they have to say, and often help them say it more clearly. That these teachers are listening is also evident to the extent that they will make adjustments, both large and small, in their classes that take account to what the students were saying.

New students in the program add additional observations over the years, but these four elements always seem to be present. And it’s not too surprising; I imagine that most of you would have come up a very similar list, and many of these same points came up in the last article I wrote about sitting in on my colleagues classes during “Open Classroom Week.” But as I was mulling these points over following the last discussion with this semester’s FSP students, I thought of the way in which the practice of reflection plays into each of these points, largely since the FSP program is itself predicated on reflection, on providing a structure and a forum for faculty, in concert with their student partners, to reflect on their practice.

Dewey’s Concept of Reflection

I’ve written before about the importance of reflection, particularly metacognition and self-regulation, to student learning. Here I want to think about these student comments in light of the reflection we do as teachers (a topic I began to think about here.)

John Dewey, 1902. Wikimedia

This led me back to John Dewey, a philosopher whose work on learning (How We Think and Democracy and Education, among others) is foundational…if a bit obscure. Or, as one educational researcher put it, “any student of Dewey’s knows that an encounter with his prose can be work.” Fortunately, Carol Rodgers, the researcher in question, has written an exceptionally clear introduction to Dewey’s concept of reflection that both helps systematize his writing on the topic and makes it more accessible to the lay reader. Much of what I summarize below comes from her article, “Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking,” which appeared in the Teachers College Record in June 2002.

For Dewey, the idea of reflection is a complex process, involving making meaning out of our experiences in a systematic and disciplined way, in conjunction with others (“in community”), and in a context that values the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and others. It is an integral part of Dewey’s view of the cognitive and affective mechanisms that lead to learning, that the purpose of education itself must be central, and this he understood to be “the intellectual, moral, and emotional growth of the individual and, consequently, of democratic society.”

Reflection is a “meaning-making process,” and, to be sure, as Rodgers observes, the ability to make meaning out of experience is a quintessentially human process. Experiences are what happens to you; what one makes of that experience, the meaning that one takes from it, derives from one’s ability to link that experience to prior experiences in a systematic and disciplined way. That is learning. It would seem, then, that the process of teaching is a process of providing the (disciplinary or otherwise rigorous) means of linking experiences (things that happen, reading a book, thinking, etc.) in a purposeful way. That is what good teachers do, but they can only do this because they are subject matter experts. Still, to leave it there is to miss the second part of what Dewey suggests about “meaning making” and what, I would argue, underlies the other characteristics that students pick up on when talking about the teachers who have meant the most to their learning.

What avail it — Dewey wrote (as quoted in Rodgers) — is to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”

Dewey isn’t referencing the soul as spiritual, rather he suggests that the meanings we make are rooted in the values that we maintain. For Dewey, the primary values were those of democracy and equity, “the extent to which the interests of a group are shared by all its members [and the extent to which it] makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms…” Education, then, is not an act of transmitting information from expert to novice, nor, as many politicians keep banging on about, of seeing that the student has (just) enough skills to get a job. It is framed and giving meaning by values – and that’s what students perceive about their teachers.

This sense is reflected in the passion that they bring to their subjects, the rigor and attention they require of their students, and the fact that their classrooms are considered “welcoming” and inclusive. So let’s turn to those points.

The Welcoming Classroom

The narrative of the “coddled” student, the “delicate snowflake” who flees from difficult discussions and seeks comfort over controversy, is one that has gained ascendancy in the last few years, not just in more conservative media, but among New York Times op-ed writers and in other, liberal, venues. I don’t intend to take up that perspective here, and I’m quite sure that there are some students who fit that bill. But what the students I work with talk about when they talk about “safe” and “welcoming” spaces are classroom where, because the teachers worked so hard to make them welcoming to everyone, could more easily engage those difficult discussions.

Two points from Dewey’s approach to reflection enter the discussion here. In the first place, an experience involves an interaction between the person and the world; meanings are made of experiences, “reflection” occurs in broader contexts. As Carol Rodgers writes,

Because an experience means an interaction between oneself and the world, there is a change not only in the self but also in the environment as a result. The effect is dialectical with implications not just for the learner but for others and the world. Through interaction with the world we both change it and are changed by it.

Classrooms that are inclusive of a variety of experiences, in which all are made to feel not just welcome but that the classroom is structured with them in mind, are those open to the kinds of difficult interactions and conversations that help students change the world and be changed by it.

There are many ways in which teachers construct inclusive and equitable classrooms without  lessening the rigor of their classes. Expert teachers are often better able to do this than novices both because they simply have had more practice at it, but also because they are more at home with their subjects: having taught for some years gives one more confidence in her ability to teach the content well, attentive to its complexities and nuances. Experience also gives the teacher a greater sensitivity to class dynamics and a bit more space in which she can pay attention to interactions in the class. Beginning teachers often reflect “out,” thinking about experiences after they happen; more seasoned teachers can also reflect “in,” absorbing and changing in the midst of an experience.

Which raises the last point that students in the Faculty-Student Partnership have often commented on: those teachers who stood out for them were the ones who were best able to “listen to students.” When I asked them to explain this further, they raised a number of points. In the first place, “listening” involved teachers who showed themselves to be deeply interested in what their students had to say. Secondly, these teachers encouraged and solicited student input and comments. And, finally, the teachers actually listened, i.e., they tried to understand the student’s perspective without reshaping it by reference to their own (i.e., the teachers) set of experiences.

Dewey’s inquiry based model of democratic education

Let me put this in the context of asking questions and, once more, look to Carol Rodgers for help. We’d probably all agree with Dewey’s view that, “A question well put is half answered.” Helping students to formulate questions is “a disciplined [process] that demands that the individual continually ground his or her thinking in evidence and not overlook important data that may not fit his or her evolving ideas…” Rodgers observes that,

This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of reflection. The question that a learner is able to formulate depends directly on the completeness and complexity of the data or description that he or she has gathered and generated. The completeness and complexity of the data are in turn made visible according to the extent of the teacher’s own ability to observe, pay attention perceive, and be open — in short, be present – to all that is happening in the classroom.

Good teachers, the students I spoke with suggested, were those who were “present” in their classrooms.


Two other aspects of Dewey’s understanding of reflection seem an appropriate way to conclude, even though they were not part of the students’ commentary. In the first place, Dewey argued for the importance of reflecting “in community.” To think without having to “express oneself to others,” is an “incomplete act.” Working in community with other teachers “allows teachers to acknowledge their interdependence in a world that scorns asking for advice and values, above all, independence for both students and teachers,” Rodgers argues.

Finally, for Dewey, reflection must include action. Reflection that does not lead to action is not responsible. So, even if action is partial or hesitant, trying out of new ideas that, themselves, will become subject to reflection, conversation, and new action, is a fundamental step in the process of reflection.

Reflections from Some Colleagues’ Classrooms

Steve Volk, March 12, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

All images from Geometrical psychology, or, The science of representation: an abstract of the theories and diagrams of B. W. Betts (1887) by Louisa S. Cook, which details Benjamin Bett’s attempts to model the evolution of human consciousness through geometric forms. Full book, to see how it’s done, here.

Last week offered me the opportunity to sit in on some colleagues’ classes as part of “Open Classroom Week.” Rarely, if ever, do I get a chance to attend someone’s class unless it’s part of a formal evaluation process, either as requested by the faculty member (formative) or as part of a larger, departmental, evaluation (summative). We don’t sit in on colleagues’ classes simply to learn from what they do as teachers. Other than those who are visiting to pass judgment on our teaching, the only guests we have in our classrooms are prospective students and their parents, some Kendal residents, or the occasional emeriti who, having forgotten that they no longer teach in that room, wandered in. it’s not surprising that we remain wary about having “outsiders” in attendance. Which probably explains the brief flash of panic that crossed the face of one colleague who, after setting up in the front of the class, looked up to see me happily installed in the back row!

My take-away after attending five classes during Open Classroom Week? Absolutely fantastic!

In this “Article of the Week,” I’ll provide some feedback on my experience, which I know was shared by many of you who took part in the program and wrote me. I will also braid in some insights provided by the always-inspired Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach. My observations are far from original, but might serve some purpose even if you’ve heard them many times. My schedule allowed me only five visits; I wish I could have attended the classes of all 17 instructors who participated in the program; I know most of you had even less time available. I picked classes from the College and the Conservatory, and from all three divisions in the College.

Some years ago, Ken Bain wrote What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard 2004), a frequently cited text. Well, here’s what I observed our best teachers doing, and I have no doubt that I  witnessed only a tiny sample of the kind of teaching taking place across the campus every week, teaching that highlights the same quality, intensity, and deep level of student engagement as that which I observed.

Teaching in Your Own Skin

In the first place, there is no one way to teach. All the instructors brought their own style of teaching to the classroom. You could say, “well, duh” (I did warn that nothing I say will be particularly original), but one of the hardest things to figure out when one is beginning as a teacher is what will be your teacherly style, how will you be able to teach in your own skin? We come into the profession greatly influenced (for better and for worse) by those who have taught us, by our mentors. We may even spend our early years trying to imitate our mentors, a process that can easily go south. We know what they did that worked for us, but when you come right down to it, we’re kind of weird. Many of us were already deeply engrossed in our fields and could already picture ourselves standing where our teachers stood. On the other hand, relatively few of our students will follow our path into the professoriate – the times they are a- changin’ – so understanding what will make them engaged and excited about their learning is not the same as recreating what our grad school mentors did, what turned us on.

And it’s not that easy to find your own teaching persona. We hear a colleague lecture and we say, “I want to be like her.” Of course, the question is who will we be as teachers? Teaching “in your own skin” is not quite as straightforward as “being yourself,” since teaching is a performance: who we are as teachers is not always the same thing as who we are outside of the class in our “civilian” lives. Those teachers whose classes I had the pleasure to visit had all figured this out to the great benefit of their students.

The classes I visited were all taught by experienced faculty, and they shared a comfort in what they were doing which was expressed in their very different styles. Parker Palmer advises that “we teach who we are.” Teaching, he writes, “like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.” In the end, he concludes, “knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge.” So, good teaching, at some basic level, requires self-knowledge. I can’t comment on what “self-knowledge” those I watched brought to their teaching, but I can say that each brought something different, and that all had different ways of engaging their students that demonstrated their great comfort and ability to teach who they are. Funny or serious, in motion or stationary, talking or listening, prodding or standing back: each had a different approach, and all demonstrated how deeply they were paying attention to the rhythms of their class and their students.

In Love with the Subject

Spanish, biology, psychology… In each class that I attended the deep affection (I think the word is appropriate) that all held for their subject was completely evident. They wore it on their sleeves, pinned to their clothes like so many badges. You, students, are not being introduced to secondary dominants in music theory because you “have to” know them (ok, you have to know them), but because they are fascinating. “Saccadic eye movement velocity” is not a term that’s thrown out to impress or to be memorized. It’s offered as a fascinating way to begin to identify panic disorders experimentally. De rerum natura? Who knew Lucretius could be so enchanting.

We are all drawn to our subjects, or, as Parker Palmer would say, our subjects chose us. Palmer found meaning by reading C. Wright Mills who taught him to view the world through the lenses of social theory, since “by putting on new lenses, we can see things that would otherwise remain invisible.” Falling in love with our subjects is often about coming to understand our own place in the world and what it is about our particular discipline that helps us comprehend what we were aching to understand. Some of us, like Palmer, come to it through books, others through experiences. I think I came to my own subject when, as a 15-year old high school exchange student in Chile, I took a night-long trip south from Santiago. We pulled into a small town at about 3:00 AM to use the bathroom and, as I stumbled out of the bus, I saw three kids, probably 6-8 years old, sleeping on the sidewalk. Trying to answer the question of why they were there was probably what drove me to study history.

However one comes to it, in every class I sat in on, the instructors were clearly in love with their subjects and communicated that affection with their students. To be sure: this won’t happen all the time. Sometimes we are in intense dislike of our disciplines because they fail us, they resist providing us the answers we demand. And, frankly, sometimes we’re too tired to manifest passion of any kind; that’s how life is. But bringing students into a discipline, i.e., into a “disciplined” way of looking at the world, is something the best teachers do with much love, not because their chosen way of understanding the world is the only one available, but because it is the one that chose them and they are eager to pass that along to their students.

Accessing Deeper Understandings

It seems a little gratuitous to say that our faculty know what they are teaching. (Another “duh” moment.) What impressed me was how they shared that knowledge with their students. Let me explain. Part of the process of coming to know a subject is to understand its complexities, intricacies, and uncertainties. To “know” history is to know more than what happened when. To “know” chemistry is to know more than the chemical notation for potassium. Knowing how complex our subjects are, we are cautious about simplifying them because we know how easily the simple can become simplistic. (It’s easier to do with fields that aren’t our “own,” and I’m quite aware that It’s something I do all the time in these articles, probably much to the annoyance of the cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists among us.) I think this is probably one of the reasons that popular science writing is so challenging: those who write or explain science for a broader public (Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday: I’m looking at you!) are doubly careful about maintaining the integrity and intricacy of their subjects while helping a non-specialist audience understand what they are talking about.

That said, what I saw in all the teachers I observed was an ability to present complex ideas in a manner that helped students grab on to them at the level they are at without sacrificing complexity. There are certainly many ways to do this, often subject dependent, but, in the classes I observed the faculty usually did it by deploying a repertoire of thoughtful and appropriate analogies and carefully chosen metaphors. Some of these probably occurred to them on the spur of the moment, in response to a specific question. Others have likely been developed over time and are held in the ready, like arrows in a quiver, to use a metaphor.

Both figures of speech are extremely helpful in bringing students into complex subjects. Think about what a metaphor does. If we go with Artistotle’s definition, and why not, we read that “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (Poetics (1457b). Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor (1978), writes: “Saying a thing is or is like something-it-is-not is a mental operation as old as philosophy and poetry, and the spawning ground of most kinds of understanding, including scientific understanding, and expressiveness.” Metaphor and analogy take something from one domain and place it in another. Teaching with metaphors and analogies allows the best teachers to replace the complex items in their subject with appropriate examples in a domain that is more familiar to students. Each of the teachers I observed had his or her own way to use these devices to make their subjects accessible and interesting.

Connecting to Students

Metaphor and analogy are means by which effective teachers map their domain of knowledge onto a student’s domain of interest. Like much of what we do, its success depends on context and appropriate usage. Sports metaphors can become truly obnoxious if the idea behind them is that everyone loves football. But thinking about Cortez’s encounter with Moctezuema II on a causeway into Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519 as the equivalent of two athletes taking the field but playing completely different games and by fundamentally different rules, can bring some students to a deeper understanding of what their momentous encounter was like because it taps into their set of interests.

A lot of literature on successful pedagogical approaches emphasizes the importance of being able to connect to student interests. And yet, such an approach often smacks of the purely transactional and, frankly, is very close to pandering: We’ll show students we care if we play their music, dress like them, or learn the latest slang. Maybe we should only teach to their interests? Goodbye to most of our subjects!

Connecting with our students is no more about imitating them than being a good teacher is about imitating our mentors. This doesn’t mean that one can’t explore their “vernacular” as a way into deeper understandings. Hip-hop, to take just one example, can and has been used as an important pedagogical approach (see, for example, Hill and Petchauer, Chang, or Akom).  But helping students find fascination in a subject doesn’t require becoming an 18-year old. As often is the case, Palmer explains this best. “What we teach,” he writes, “will never ‘take’ unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students’ lives, with our students’ inward teachers.” What he means by this, I think, is at the heart of what we value so highly in a liberal arts education. It means turning extrinsic motivation (the external, the transactional, learning for the job) into intrinsic motivation (internal, meaningful, learning beyond the job). It is what we mean in our quest to shape “live-long learners” rather than adopting a singular focus on seeing that our students can land their first job after college. This doesn’t separate learning from career – anything but (and stay tuned for more on this). But it does speak to the importance of connecting to our students’ “inward teachers.”

Again, what I experienced in the classes I visited were a variety of ways, some profound, some whimsical, that faculty connected to their students’ lives and interests. They connected through their subject matter: An upper-level genetics course examined the marketing of BiDil, which Arbor Pharmaceuticals calls “the only heart failure medicine specifically indicated for self-identified African American patients,” generating a discussion about race and genetics. A history course explored how medieval writers connected ideas of sex differences with how they configured the world. Others brought the esoteric into a more common resonance through little “factoids” thrown out like bonbons: Do you know what “appoggiatura” means? Probably not. Did you know that it proved to be the winning word in the 78th Annual National Scripps Spelling Bee? Others brought in popular culture to teach particular points, listening to a YouTube video to hear how a pop singer from southern Spain aspirated her “T’s”.

Finding Our Authority

I’ve talked in the past about challenges to our authority in the classroom, challenges that are often socially determined and rooted in the ways that students (and we) perceive power. Let me close by returning to the notion of authority, once again by way of Parker Palmer. For Palmer, the ability to cultivate our “inner teacher” is a question of finding a comfortable way into our authority as teachers, into our “capacity to stand [our] ground in the midst of the complex forces of both the classroom and [our] own” lives. Authority, he points out, is not meant in the external sense of power, working from the outside in – the authority we bring to a classroom that is expressed by the fact that it is we who will determine our students’ grades. Rather, he references authority as “coming from a teacher’s inner life…as people who are perceived as authoring their own words, their own actions, their own lives… Authority comes,” he argues, when one reclaims one’s own “identity and integrity, remembering my selfhood and sense of vocation.”

What I saw in my visits were the many ways that these teachers brought their authority into the classroom. I know that the teachers whose classrooms I visited are just a few of the many here who teach with similar truth, conviction, and authority. So, my final take-away is to hope that we will continue to allow ourselves to be inspired and instructed by the many wonderful teachers who surround us and who, by authoring their lessons in the classroom, are helping our students to author their own lives.

Difficult Discussions, “Hot Moments,” and Contra-Power Harassment

Steve Volk, March 5, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Last week’s CTIE workshop on “Facilitating Discussions” focused in large part on techniques for organizing and promoting effective classroom discussions, in large part thanks to the excellent suggestions provided by workshop participants. The conversation was so rich that we only turned to the theme of “difficult discussions” in the last 20 minutes. To compensate, today’s Article of the Week will focus exclusively on those complicated, “hot moment” challenges that spring up in our classes: how to prepare for them, manage them, and learn from them. I’ve addressed this topic before (here and here), but just as the events that create a need for this conversation continue to manifest in our classes, so it’s always useful to return to the theme.

Why “Difficult Discussion” Are Necessary

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café,” Illustrated London News, 17 Sept 1870

The definition of what is a “difficult discussion” is fairly important in that most of our classroom discussions should be “difficult.” By this I mean two things. The first is tied to the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky who argued that the social engagement arising in a discussion itself is central to the way that children and adolescents learn. Cognitive structures, for Vygotsky, originate in social activity and are “inextricably linked with language, which is itself a social construct. It is through social language” that students learn the cognitive and “communicative tools and skills of their culture.” This also relates to Vygotsky’s notion of the “zone of proximal development.” To put this simply (perhaps simplistically), there are tasks that students can do without any outside help. Activity that remains within that zone will quickly become boring; no learning will occur. Similarly, there are tasks that students are not able to do by themselves at the beginning. Setting up activities in this zone without providing support will guarantee failure and frustration. Optimal learning takes place in a “zone of proximal development” where learners, aided by the social context provided by teachers and peers, push beyond what they already know into new learning. In that sense (and I hope to be forgiven by the psychologists among us who are probably appalled by my presentation), learning occurs when students, scaffolded by the support they receive from teachers and peers, are thrust into the unfamiliar, the difficult. The discussions that provoke learning, then, are almost by definition, “difficult.”

Difficult discussions can be useful in a second way, most recently and poignantly described by Elizabeth Barnes, a philosopher at the University of Virginia, in “Arguments That Harm – And Why We Need Them.” Barnes begins by asking whether some ideas are “so offensive that they shouldn’t be engaged with?” Focusing on Peter Singer’s work on disability (“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed…”), which she finds “offensive, to say the least,” she concludes that, for a variety of reasons, “it is literally my job to think and talk about difficult ideas. The discomfort and hurt when dealing with views like Singer’s are real. But if I’m unwilling to take on a measure of discomfort, given how much privilege I have and how little I have to lose, then I’m not sure I’m using the privilege of an academic life the way I ought to be.” (I would not be doing justice to the richness of her argument if I didn’t also reference her argument that “there are some ideas that shouldn’t be engaged with.”)

So, by referring to “difficult” discussions, I’m talking about both the need to address difficult topics and other kinds of challenges, particularly challenges rooted in one’s identity, that can, and do, arise in our classes.

Three Kinds of Challenge

There are many ways that such problematic conversations can arise, but here I’ll focus on only three. They have to do with:

  1. Content: There are topics in our culture which have proven to be incredibly fraught, topics that we, as a society, are not good at discussing. Race is probably at the top of the list. While managing conversations about race or sexuality or privilege requires a tremendous amount of skill for those whose academic training is in these fields, even thinking about guiding such discussions can immobilize many of the rest of us, leaving us to hope that these subjects don’t arise in our classes. And yet we live and teach in the United States in the early 21st century: these topics are part of our students’ lives, and our lives, whether we are prepared to teach them or not.
  2. Silencing and Self-Censorship: Mark Twain once observed, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” I remember coming home after my first year at college practically bursting out of my new tweed sports jacket, eager to show my parents just how little they knew about the war in Vietnam or the civil rights movement. Oy gevalt! Late adolescents and young adults can be merciless to their peers as well as their “elders,” provisioned as they are with lots of new knowledge but not the commensurate skill set that would help them engage productively in conversations. Discussions in our classes can become difficult when students explicitly demean or otherwise rip into their peers for views that the latter express, or when students self-censor their comments for fear (whether real or imagined) of immediate or later reprisals.
  3. Challenges to Authority: Talk about contradictions! On the one hand, we crave students who challenge our ideas, taking issue with the readings we have assigned or drawing very different conclusions than we might have expected. On the other, when these become what has been termed “contra-power” harassment, challenges to our authority as teachers based on our identities and not our ideas, that’s a very different matter. There is no question that this topic, even more than the previous ones, is highly contextual. It’s not that a student’s challenge to a senior, white male faculty member teaching a course on – say – Latin American history is particularly easy to handle. But contra-power challenges to the authority of a junior, Black, female professor are of a different order of magnitude altogether.

In this article, I’ll focus more on “hot moments” in class that can unexpectedly arise, rather than on teaching planned course material that deals with very contentious issues. For that (and much else) I’d recommend Kay Landis, ed., Start Taking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008). The book is available as a free download, so what are you waiting for?

Start at the Start

Establishing class “rules of engagement” is the single best way to prepare for the difficult discussions that might come. Class rules won’t put an end to difficult discussions, but they can help you manage them. Whether you establish the framework for classroom behavior or you encourage your students to write their own guidelines, it will help to have some previously agreed upon procedures to turn to when conflict arises. (I would note that rules written by the students themselves have a greater authority in these moments than rules that you have presented without discussion.)

Rules should cover some obvious (if easily ignored) terrain:

  • treating everyone with respect
  • listening without interrupting
  • allowing everyone the chance to participate
  • prohibiting name-calling or character attacks
  • encouraging questions when something isn’t understood
  • never assuming that one knows what another person is thinking
  • avoiding assumptions about class members or generalizations about social groups
  • not asking individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group

You can go a step further by establishing guidelines that can help you achieve the intellectual seriousness required by the learning process:

  • Maintaining confidentiality, pledging to keep the classroom as a “safe” space, a space in which students can work through their understanding of an issue without fear that rhetorical missteps, a lack of knowledge, probing questions, or unpopular positions will be used to attack them on social media or in face-to-face interactions outside of class. If students are public with their own thinking, whether hegemonic or heterodox, that’s on them, but what occurs in the classroom stays in the classroom.
  • Responding to a speaker’s comments is a complex act that can usefully be discussed. And here we’re not talking about interrupting or yelling, which should not be allowed. But it is one thing to discourage body-language signaling when in disagreement (eye-rolling, looks of exasperation), and another to suggest that students must remain in rigid (and, let’s be honest, white, middle-class) silence when in agreement. Perhaps you’ll find it OK to let students snap their fingers, or say “un-huh” when they agree. Responses are not without cultural histories and practices, and even discussing them can create an environment that makes difficult discussions less difficult.

If you are the one coming up with the rules, you need to explain why they are there and what is their intended purpose. If students come up with them, have them discuss why they think they are necessary, what purpose they are to serve.

The final point here is that coming up with classroom conduct guidelines in the first week does not free you from the need to remind everyone of them often, both when they are breached and as a way of reminding everyone of what was agreed upon earlier. (A recent book by Frances E. Jensen on The Teenage Brain notes that prospective memory – the ability to hold in one’s mind the intention to perform a certain action at a future time – is associated with the frontal lobes of the brain. This area develops significantly between 6-10 years old, and then again in the twenties; not so much in between. In other words, forgetting is not simply a function of not paying attention. Blame their brains!)

Handling “Hot Moments” in Class

Mr. Vesuvius erupting, photo by Tempest Anderson, Yorkshire Museum

It is possible that many of you, fortunate readers, have never had a “hot moment” experience in class – the unexpected flash where tension crystalizes in a comment, gesture, or action that cuts across the normal flow of things. But most of us have experienced such moments. These can be contra-power challenges to you (“I find it really racist that you’ve assigned this text”), confrontations with peers (“like she would know!”), or pronounced physical reactions to something that has happened, and you might not even know what (a loud groan, the student who walks out in tears). In each example, you didn’t see it coming. 

I suppose the good news is that you can prepare for “hot moments” as well as for the class where you know that the content will be contentious. Here are a few responses to consider, keeping in mind that sometimes the best response to a challenge, particularly when directed at you, is to ignore it in class and take it up in a different venue. I’ve gathered the suggestions below from a few sources (which you’ll find at the end of the article), as well as my own experiences.

  • Allow speakers to clarify their comments: Sometimes we launch full speed into a discussion of something that actually wasn’t intended in the way it emerged from a student’s mouth. Asking for clarification can prevent this unnecessary detour as well as allowing the speaker more space to more fully consider what he or she just said.
    • Did I understand you correctly? Did you really intend to say that? Let me summarize what you said: Is that right? Can you expand on that statement so we can understand it more fully?
  • If the comment was, indeed, intended and the student chose not to amend it, you can discuss the impact of specific language choices or words used. If you choose, you can explain why a particular approach or choice of language used raises the stakes of the conversation, especially if you think that some students don’t understand or respect the likely emotional responses of other students.
    • Let’s remember that we may be talking about classmates when we say… I can imagine that your use of that metaphor could easily feel like an insult to… There are good reasons why some people will find it hard to take your comments seriously after you use such language. I worry about the impact of those words on students who have experienced…
  • Where a conversation is running aground on the basis of differing conclusions that the students are coming to, try to help them find evidence for their positions or look for remaining questions to be answered. You can write on the board: “what is known” (evidence from the readings, lectures, etc.), “what is disputed” (is there contradictory evidence?), and “what they want to know more about” (remaining questions).
  • Remind students of your class guidelines. This can be useful in a number of contexts, both in terms of inappropriate verbal acts as well as disruptive non-speech acts (pronounced groans, eye-rolling, angry looks, etc.).
    • Remember when you insisted that we include a statement on our class guidelines that said we should try not to personalize viewpoints?
    • Remember the class guidelines that require that we treat each other with respect even if we dislike their ideas? If you don’t like what you heard, present an argument that can be discussed.
  • Depersonalize the issue: Try to separate the comment from the person who said it, and introduce the topic into a broader discussion:
    • A lot of people think that. Why do you think they do? Are there other ways of looking at this? Is someone willing to share a different view?
  • Engage the entire class: As with the previous example, this move allows you to broaden the discussion, taking it away from a single, adversarial student and allowing you, if possible, to tie the comment to something you have been examining in class:
    • Do others have concerns they want to share? How does this relate to what we were discussing/reading last week?
  • Help students to think of themselves as teachers as well as students. I’ll repeat what I wrote in an earlier Article of the Week: Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. I have found it useful to reminded students that we are all both learners and teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.
  • Reflect through writing: If an incident was significantly disruptive, or if the topic is producing nothing but silence, have the students reflect and write for 5 minutes. They can write about what they are feeling and thinking about the incident that just occurred in class, why the topic and your invitation to discuss it has produced silence, and why they don’t feel that they can talk about it out loud. You can ask a few students to share their comments or, if that seems too fraught, collect them and use them as a way to prepare a future class.
  • If someone rushes out of your class in distress, send a friend to be with them.
  • Help students move ahead. Sometimes our impulse is to avoid these difficult moments or to get them over with as quickly as possible. We can help move on from the eruption by suggesting ways to transition away from the “hot moment” without at the same time ignoring or burying it:
    • One of the things that this discussion demonstrated was the problem of generalizing from a particular experience.
    • Let’s keep these points in mind as we get back to the topic we were discussing…

Contra-Power Challenges

It’s hard enough to manage a difficult discussion, let alone one that challenges your authority in the classroom. To be clear, these are challenges which go beyond a disagreement with something you have said – which we often welcome – and largely involve your identity. What you have said, the readings you have assigned, the topics you have brought up, and even your “right” to be teaching a particular course, are contested because of who you are. A few students can be quite adept at saying things in ways that can trigger our emotional reactions and push all our buttons: Why are you even teaching this course? I refuse to read this book – it’s clearly racist and homophobic! I just looked it up and, actually, the correct date is…

It’s a lot easier to suggest that your best response in these situations is to recognize that your buttons have just been pushed and to stay calm and maintain your perspective than it is to actually do so. But, if you are able, attempt to turn the criticism into a broader discussion, while trying to prevent a one-on-one dispute with a student:

  • So, the way you said that suggests that there is strong link between one’s identity and knowledge. That provokes a strong response in me, because it challenges my qualifications to understand and teach a subject because of who I am. OK, let’s look at that. To what extent does one’s social location limit or inform the questions she asks? Does identity constrain knowledge and, if so, how? Do identity and social formation give insights that others who don’t share that identity can’t obtain? What additions would you recommend to the syllabus?

Easier said than done, and there are times that the emotions that have been triggered in you are such that you need to let the moment pass, either to return to later, or to discuss outside of class (see below). If you need some time to collect your thoughts, give the students a brief writing exercise, perhaps suggesting that they reflect on whether the discussion reflected class guidelines, or discussing the difference between comments intended to trigger and arguments that can lead to debate.

Taking it Outside

There are times when you find yourself at an impasse in class, either with a particular student, or in terms of the larger discussion. At that moment the best approach is to move on and think of what can be done outside of class.

  • Invite the student who challenged you to come to office hours where you can discuss the issues that were raised in class in a less freighted atmosphere. You can show that you care about the student’s learning, and want to follow up on comments that were raised in class that were important but couldn’t be dealt with at the moment.
  • Follow up with the distressed student who left class, encouraging him or her to come visit you and to bring a friend if that would help.
  • Follow up with the class as a whole via email, either reflecting on the discussion now that you have had time to absorb it more fully, or discussing questions that were raised that you would like them to think about before the next class.

Finally, if you have been caught up in these “hot moments,” in any form that they take, you will know how truly debilitating they can be. It is vital that you connect with your own support network at these moments: talk it through with colleagues, friends, or partners. You are not the only one to go through this, so don’t keep it to yourself. If you feel that something that was said in class rose to the level of a threat or negatively impacted your ability to teach the class, talk to your department/program chair or the Dean.

I’d like to say that accumulated experience with “hot moments” in the class lessens their emotional impact on you, but It doesn’t. Still, experience does give you a broader repertoire of responses that you can draw upon and makes you aware that the class will go on, and that, because of your skills, students will continue to learn.


City University of New York, Handbook for Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom,

Kay Landis, ed. Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University), 2008.

University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, “Making the Most of ‘Hot Moments’ in the Classroom,” and “Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.”

Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching, “Difficult Dialogues.”

Open Your Doors!

Steve Volk, Feb. 26, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Diego Rivera, “Open Air School” (1932), lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

I fell in love with Diego Rivera’s lithograph, “Open-Air School” when I first saw it many years ago. An indigenous teacher, surrounded by her multi-generational students, sits at the edge of a field, open book in hand. In the distance, we see campesinos working the fields with their horses. A lone, armed horseman watches over the class, locating the lithograph in its historical setting, the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Those who fought the Revolution promised to bring literacy to the masses, a goal that was not necessarily welcomed by conservatives (nor always observed by government officials). In a process that would foreshadow literacy campaigns in Cuba in the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s, young literacy workers fanned out across the countryside, teaching reading and writing to those too poor to go to have attended school previously.

Literacy campaign, Nicaragua. http://www.asamblea.gob.ni/359132/rostros-de-la-alfabetizacion/

Many times, as in Rivera’s lithograph, which I was delighted to find in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, they taught their classes out of doors, in open air schools. And while, because of recent events, my attention immediately shifted to the man on horseback, the vigilant guard who was needed to secure the students their right to learn and the teacher her right to teach, I have always been struck by the openness embodied in the image, the way in which teaching and learning unfold in an enveloping environment rather than closeted away behind closed doors.

Alone Together

Much of what we do as academics, we do alone. Research, writing, and creative artistry all require considerable solitary time. We are alone in our offices, studies, labs, studios, and practice rooms for a good part of the time when we’re not teaching, although maybe not for as much as we would desire. What is more, when we’re teaching, we’re strangely alone even though surrounded by students. The western model of teaching, at least since universities came on the scene almost 1,000 years ago, is one in which teaching takes place behind closed doors: teacher and students, the expert and the learners. We do our teaching in the privacy of our closed-door classrooms, even if a few of us move outside at the slightest hint of a spring thaw.

Cours de philosophie à Paris Grandes chroniques de France, late 14th century. Public domain.
fin XIVe siècle

There are obvious reasons why this is a reasonable approach to our task as educators, but the closed-door model has more than its share of downsides. For me, this is not so much a question of the desirability of, literally, “open air” teaching, of being in nature, as much as it is about the benefits that can come when we open our classroom doors both literally and figuratively to let colleagues in to share our practice. I don’t think it’s too great an exaggeration to say that we have precious little sense of how our colleagues teach, what methods they use, or how they engage their students, in our own departments and programs, let alone others. All of which is a shame, since we can take pride in our abundance of exceptionally thoughtful and accomplished teachers.

The other problematic aspect of teaching solo, behind closed doors, is that we’re often convinced that we are the only ones who face difficult questions in the class, students who have become strangely cold, a classroom that has gone quiet, or technology that has just crapped out on us. We are alone even though there are scores of us going through the exactly the same things.

If we don’t open our doors to others, it’s likely because opening our classrooms to outside observers generally is freighted with negative, or at least anxiety-producing, connotations. When colleagues visit our classes, their purpose more often than not is to sit in judgment. They are there in order to provide some kind of required, summative evaluation, for annual review purposes, or at tenure time. And while presidents or deans may pop in to observe, a welcome gesture carried out to get a better sense of the institution, knowing they are coming to your class tomorrow can provoke acute gastric distress the evening before. And if you know that they (the review committee, the college president, the department chair) are coming, you will likely be up late into the night preparing in an especially rigorous manner.  There’s a joke from the UK that the Queen associates hospitals with the smell of fresh paint because every time she visits one, all the corridors have been touched up in anticipation of the royal arrival. Knowing that your colleagues are coming to evaluate your performance, you bring out the fresh paint.

Open Class Week

So, how can we open our classrooms and share our experiences without causing anxiety or disrupting on-going lessons? Here’s a plan.

During the week beginning Monday, March 5, CTIE will be sponsoring an “Open Classroom Week.” Faculty and staff are encouraged that week to throw open the doors to one or more of their classes, labs, or studios to welcome visits from colleagues. We hope this will be seen as an invitation to open up the teaching and learning process, normalizing (to ourselves and our students) the notion that we have much to learn from each other, and promoting cross-campus conversations about our approaches to pedagogy. Opening our classes during this week is intended as an encouragement for faculty to invite colleagues into their classes on a regular basis, as a way of normalizing the process of getting helpful feedback from colleagues we trust while removing the “fresh paint” anxieties that are a part of the way observations currently take place.

So, here’s what Open Classroom Week is (and isn’t) and how you can participate. Faculty who want to participate by opening their classes will indicate the classes and times during that week when they would be willing to have colleagues visit their class/es. (You can access the form here.) Those who want to participate – and it would be phenomenal if lots and lots of you did, from all parts of the College and Conservatory – should indicate the basic type of class you are teaching (e.g. seminar, lecture, discussion, etc.) and any particular pedagogical approach that they will be using (e.g., active lecture, community-based pedagogy, Socratic dialogue, etc.). I will compile and post a list of all the classes that are available so that those who want to visit a class can plan accordingly. (Please note: this is only for Oberlin faculty and staff; visitors to campus should go through the usual procedures in the Admissions office or elsewhere.)

Alexander Calder, “Open the Door and Let Me Through…” (1944), pen and ink on paper. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Those who visit a class should do their best to arrive a few minutes before class begins so that they can introduce themselves to the instructor. Visitors should sit at the back of the class in larger classroom or ask the instructor where to sit in smaller seminars. Instructors don’t have to acknowledge the presence of class visitors, but I’d strongly recommend that you do call attention to the “Open Classroom Week,” indicating that it is part of a project of encouraging cross-class visits among faculty as a way of breaking down barriers, sharing expertise, and promoting productive interactions across the campus. It’s important for students to recognize that we learn by observing others and by inviting feedback and discussion.

Class visitors are not expected to participate in the class. They can take notes for their own purposes, and if they have follow-up questions that can encourage dialogue, they should contact the instructor by email or in person. But, to be clear, the visits are not for assessment purposes. While a visitor’s notes can be shared between visitor and instructor, they are not public and should remain confidential.

I would strongly recommend that those interested in visiting other classes consider attending courses in different departments and divisions from the one in which they teach. Sit in on a science lecture if you are a creative writing instructor; attend an aural skills class if you teach math. Meet some new colleagues and see how others engage their students.

The week will come to an end with a “Talking Teaching” social hour hosted by CTIE on Friday, March 9 (5:00-6:00) in StudiOC, where all who participated, visitors and visited alike, and others even if you didn’t participate, are encouraged to share drinks and talk.

To participate in “Open Class Week,” please visit this link or let me know if you have any questions.