Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging the Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching Difficult Discussions

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

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

Location and Context

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

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

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

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

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

alice4Further Suggestions

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

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

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

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

Steve Volk, September 19, 2016

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

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

Me: Good job!

You: I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Sheet Music, NY Public Library, 1896

Sheet Music, NY Public Library, 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stewit – Flickr cc.

Stewit – Flickr cc.

When They Are Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When They Are Unclear

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

When They Are Right

"Questions," Emily 2005, Flickr cc

“Questions,” Emily 2005, Flickr cc

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

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

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

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

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

A Culturally Responsive Approach

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

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

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

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

And now, about the Spanish inquisition…

Office Hours: The Doctor is In

Steve Volk, September 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonard Chien, Flickr, CC

Leonard Chien, Flickr, CC

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


The Invite: Getting Students to Come

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

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

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

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

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

Hour glasses; Players Cigarettes. New York Public Library

Hour glasses; Players Cigarettes. New York Public Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Comes up in Office Hours

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

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

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

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

Others can prove more complicated:

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

Helping Students Become Problem Solvers

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

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

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

Transformitive Mentoring Communities

Steve Volk, September 5, 2016



               Marge Piercy, “To be of use”

York Minster Cathedral, England

York Minster Cathedral, England

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

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

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

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

I’d say yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building trust among colleagues:

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

Attending to the relation between work and self:

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

Developing a culture of mentoring:

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

Build community:

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

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

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

Transformative Mentoring Communities

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

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

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

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

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

How Do You Create an TMC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community

Steven Volk, August 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Tell Them What They (Really) Want to Know

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

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


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

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

Thinking as Educators

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

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

How do we get from here to there?

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

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

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

Photo: Steve Volk

LA Graffiti: Photo: Steve Volk

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

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

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

Thompson continues:

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

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

Thompson concludes as follows:

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

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

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

Teaching Tips for the New Semester

Steve Volk, August 22, 2016

Frank Boyd, "In Memory," Creative Commons Flickr

Frank Boyd, “In Memory,” Creative Commons Flickr

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

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

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

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

Thinking About The Syllabus

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

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

The Honor Code:

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

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

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

In the Classroom:

Active Learning:

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

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

Beginnings and Endings:

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

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

Class Discussions:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Visualization Strategies:

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


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

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


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

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

New Approaches

Taking Risks:

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

Slow Pedagogy:

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

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

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

Attending to Specific Student Communities:

Avoiding Stereotypes and Implicit Bias:

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

Students on the Autism Spectrum:

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

International Students:

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

Technology in the Classroom:

Laptops in the Classroom:

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

Teaching in Troubled Times:

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

Between the World and Our Students

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

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

Steven Volk, August 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Classes Begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Run

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

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

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

Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism

Steven Volk, May 9, 2016

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Writing in the New York Times in late 1951, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed what he called a “new Decalogue” for teachers – intended to supplement, not replace the “old one” – as his response to the gathering fanaticism he perceived. As we have most certainly entered our own age of zealotry, it seems fitting to reproduce his words here:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition…endeavor to overcome it by argument any not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for it you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness. [New York Times, December 16, 1951]

While some bright spots remain in the global political landscape – the election of Sadiq Khan as London’s mayor, the first Muslim mayor in a western capital, stands out – the primary campaign season in the United States has seen intolerance and fanaticism take center stage. The campaign has produced a wholesale slide from (at least) modest regard for the truth to “spin,” “untruths,” and, finally, outright fabrications. According to one study, about three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are either “mostly false,” false, or “Pants-on-Fire” false. His statement that he “watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed was only one of a string of invented “facts” and illusory assertions. It hasn’t helped that Trump pushed the boundaries of what one can say so far that almost any statement could be made, and believed, by trusting followers. Certainly the calumnies leveled against President Obama paved the way.

When asked to define the difference between politics and business, Carly Fiorina, a one time presidential candidate and Ted Cruz’s running-mate-for-a-week, replied, “Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.” And she should know; about half of her statements were classified as “mostly untrue” or worse.

truthinessStephen Colbert coined the expression “truthiness” in 2005 to refer to people who will claim something is true because they just know it since it feels right in their gut. Presidential candidates are not alone as they trek through abundant fact-free deserts. And it is not a stretch to argue that the candidates are only following the evidence that many of their supporters have grown accustomed to hearing only what they want to hear, and believing only what they want to believe.

According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” majorities in 97% of U.S. counties disagreed. We’re not even talking about whether global warming is happening, just what scientists believe. In fact, 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. Jenny McCarthy, a model and television host, was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s wildly popular program where she (McCarthy) once again affirmed that vaccines and mercury cause autism. When asked where her information came from, she replied, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from.” (I’ll leave to others a discussion of the rise of the internet as the single most important factor in the democratization of information…as well as its almost inevitable replacement of rational argument with emotional name calling and narcissism.)

Teaching and Facts

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

While the tumble into truthiness and the rise of the internet expert should be of concern to all citizens, it is a particularly consequential development for those of us whose work it is to train students to value evidence, question sources, and approach broad claims with a degree of skepticism. We would do well to ponder precisely the value of our work as  teachers in higher education in light of the fact that the absence of a college degree is probably the single most important characteristic of a Trump voter.

And yet to maintain the democratizing work of higher education and not see colleges and universities return to their characteristic state as a sanctuary of privileged access is becoming more and more difficult. If the cost of attending private colleges and universities has been spiraling up, the real surge in tuition costs in the 21st century has been in the public sector. Sticker-price tuitions at private colleges and universities have increased by 45% between 2000-2001 and 2015-16 (17% in terms of net tuition increases); they have almost doubled at public institutions, and the reason isn’t hard to find. Legislators have removed their support of higher education as a public good.

ChartAfter all, why pay for expertise when Google can tell you what you need to know for nothing? Why should the public pay for anthropologists and philosophers and art historians when we need plumbers and welders? Indeed, why should the public pay for plumbers and welders when private enterprise should be giving them the training they need? Or, perhaps even more pertinent for those legislators slashing state education budgets: why use taxes to pay for a skeptical public who will then question their legislative priorities?

But we should not rush to congratulate ourselves for having created an insulated “bubble” where rational discourse and capacious skepticism naturally thrive and guide our interactions. We are hardly immune from the larger trends outside the liberal arts enclave. Social media whips us about every bit as much as it does those beyond our gates, if not more so for being an inward-facing community. Ironically – tragically? – discussions among colleagues who share many perspectives can seem to pose even greater challenges than conversations with strangers.

And yet we are not powerless at this time and in the face of such trials. But the question remains, how do we advance our work, and build our community, so that it is instructed more by Russell’s “decalogue” than by Trump’s demonology? How do we maintain oases of critical thinking in this terrain of truthiness? How do we establish not just the basis on which we can contest and evaluate ideas, but indicate to our students the value of what we are doing?

One way is simply to reaffirm the goals we champion for our students, and to assert them to ourselves as well. What we want for our students is no less than what we hope for ourselves.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

At Oberlin we have recently completed a process of specifying learning outcomes for students in the College of Arts & Sciences, not as a list of bullet points to satisfy some external reviewers, but as a part of a much deeper discussion of what it is we hope our students will take with them when they graduate. There are many ways in which our learning outcomes will resemble those at other liberal arts colleges, as indeed they should. Prominent among these is the importance we see in cultivating in our students the ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence. As an educational and intellectual community, we understand the value of serious investigation and the difficulties that entails, and we maintain the significance of fact-based evidence in any analysis. We will surely disagree on many points and in many contexts, but we are committed to engaging in a process whose procedures are clear and which have lent meaning to intellectual disputes for centuries and in many cultural contexts.

So perhaps, as we come to the end of what has been a challenging school year, we can reflect on those goals we share for our students, the values we hope our graduating seniors will build upon for many years to come. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, recently observed, that “Without anxiety there is no courage.” We have anxiety in excess. It remains for us to find the courage to recognize a way forward, a process that can begin by reaffirming those aspects of our students’ learning that we most value.

The statement of learning outcomes, which is excerpted and rephrased below for purposes of brevity, was passed by the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty in December 2015 and can be read in full here. One short of a decalogue, it can still guide our work.

As a faculty, we value:

  1. The ability to become deeply immersed in a single field of study. Concentrating profoundly in a field allows students to understand the logic and epistemology, assumptions and methodologies of a particular approach. Such engagement generates the potential for students to move beyond the skills of analyzing and evaluating information and towards the creation of new knowledge or approaches and the production of original work.
  2. The importance of being open to a wide breadth of knowledge, the scope of which spans scientific, humanistic, aesthetic, and behavioral fields of knowledge and ways of knowing. We want our students to be acquainted with the wide variety of ways that humans have asked and answered questions in the past and the present, within the traditions of western culture as well as within other cultural frameworks and ways of knowing so they can better appreciate that deep understanding draws on a variety of approaches and traditions.
  3. The ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence, and to understand the context in which evidence is produced. To become engaged participants in their own education, students must learn how to learn. The central tools in this process are those of critical analysis: an understanding that assumptions, approaches and conclusions must be tested, and that claims are to be examined in light of evidence. To engage in critical analysis is to be aware of the social, political, cultural, historical, and scientific contexts that have shaped the development of knowledge and, therefore, to be humble in the face of its limits. To become skilled at critical analysis, one must develop a number of different capacities, specifically the ability to conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information.
  4. Our students’ participation in, and appreciation of, the creative process as an important aspect of what it means to be human. We widely recognize creativity as a central component in the arts, and have long valued the expressive talents of our students. Creativity is also a cognitive process that underlies the work of our students across many fields and endeavors. Creativity implies the capacity to generate new ideas, approaches, or hypotheses, the skills involved in planning, and the determination and resources needed to bring an idea to life: in the concert hall and the classroom, on stage, the athletic fields, and in the laboratory, in the community and with the community.
  5. The ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes, by listening as well as talking, with both specialized and lay audiences. As the world is increasingly drawn together, we understand that our students will need to develop the skills and cultural competencies needed to interact effectively in languages other than English and through a variety of means, including visual, quantitative, and digital.
  6. The ability of our students to develop a critical understanding of the historical and cultural factors that underlie difference and inequality in U.S. and global societies. It is our responsibility not only to bring together a diverse community of students, but also to place our students in the epistemological, curricular, and pedagogical frameworks where they can learn to interact across the differences they encounter. Truly engaged learning requires the presence of diverse learning communities and the reduction of barriers to inclusion at every level.
  7. The ability to engage effectively with others as they work to understand and address complex problems from a variety of perspectives. Developing the practice of successful collaboration also entails a high degree of self-awareness and an understanding of the relationship between individual initiative and the potential of working with others.  Collaborative efforts should increase one’s openness to working not just across disciplinary approaches, but also alongside those with whom one may disagree.
  8. The ability of our students to develop an enduring commitment to acting in the world to further social justice, deepen democracy, and build a sustainable future. Oberlin’s long history of challenging some of this country’s gravest inequities underlines the responsibility our graduates feel to acting beyond narrow self-interest, of working together to create local and global communities that are more just, equitable, democratic, peaceful, and sustainable. These are lifelong ethical commitments that can be pursued via a wide range of careers pathways and social commitments.
  9. The ability to cultivate those habits that support healthy and sustainable living, responsible and empathetic interactions with others, and a capacity for self-reflection and contemplation. Our students should carry with them a strong ethical and moral grounding, a capacious curiosity, a broad capacity for empathetic engagement, an awareness of their own physical and mental well-being, and an understanding of the importance of being responsible in the world, along with the humility to recognize their own limitations.

Father Daniel Berrigan died this past week at the age of 94. The Jesuit priest, committed over his long life to peace and social justice, composed his own Decalogue in a 1981 book titled, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. One seems particular apt for today: “About practically everything in the world, there’s nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about of few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.”

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Student-Faculty Partnerships: Collaborating to Improve Teaching and Learning

Steven Volk, May 2, 2016

"Gloriosa Superba" from "The "The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin" (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

“Gloriosa Superba” from “The “The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin” (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

How do you know what’s happening in your classroom? For one thing, by being there, experiencing it live and in real time. But your ability to observe what is happening is always partial, and always from the perspective of you, the expert. You can video the course and review it later, which is a great way to see what’s happening in slow motion/freeze frame. But that can often be, well, painful (Did I really say that? Do I really sound like that? I never realized I had that nervous tick. Ouch!). Sometimes a verbatim record of the proceedings is not really what you want, and certainly not for every class. We ask the students at the end of the semester, but, again, their feedback at that point is often less than helpful.

Time to think about the Student and Faculty Partnership program.


Begun at Oberlin in the spring 2015 semester, the “Student and Faculty Partnership” (S&FP) program provides an opportunity for faculty to experience their own classes from a (novice) student’s perspective, but also divorced from the power relations that normally accompany and shape instructor-student relations. Oberlin’s S&FP program, currently completing its third semester, is modeled after the student consultant program developed by Alison Cook-Sather at Bryn Mawr College (Students as Learners and Teachers) in 2006, and is one of a small number of such programs currently underway at campuses in the United States and Europe, including the Student Observer Program at Carleton College and the Students Consulting on Teaching Program (SCOT) at Brigham Young University.

The program pairs a student who is not enrolled in the course (or any other course taught by the professor that term) and an instructor. Student consultants (who are paid for their time) attend one of their faculty partners’ classes per week, meet weekly with their partner, and bi-weekly with the program’s directors at CTIE (currently Marcelo Vinces and Steve Volk). The weekly student-faculty discussions are based on the student consultant’s observational notes of the class, and the bi-weekly meetings between student consultants and program directors explore the student-faculty dynamic and provide feedback to the students on how to reflect on and communicate what they see in class to the instructor.

Student consultants are not peer instructors or TA’s. They are not there to help students with questions about course content or offer advice on homework. That’s for the OWLS, the Writing Associates, or other such programs. According to Cynthia Taylor (Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois, Chicago) and Eli Rose ’15, who were paired as consultant and instructor during the pilot semester for the project when Taylor was at Oberlin, the student consultant’s main task was “to observe the atmosphere and dynamics of the class and to record these observations in detailed notes” providing space for the instructor and student to talk out their thoughts about the class based on the observational notes. (The information from Taylor and Rose will be published this summer in the proceedings of the Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education.)

The Pedagogy of Student-Faculty Partnerships

"Amaryllis formosissima" from "The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin" (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

“Amaryllis formosissima” from “The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin” (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

We expect our student to be “responsible,” and learning to take responsibility is one of the key dispositions we hope students will gain as undergraduates. But what does that mean? As Cook-Sather points out, the students’ responsibilities within educational settings are generally conceptualized as “students doing what adults tell them to do and absorbing what adults have to offer. Student accountability here means compliance and acceptance: adherence to what is prescribed, asked, or offered by the adults in charge” (p. 3). In that sense, students and teachers have quite a different set of responsibilities. Teachers are responsible for teaching and students are responsible for learning.

The student-faculty partnership proposes a rethinking of what responsibility means, suggesting that students can become responsible not only in the sense of being accountable (i.e., answerable for their actions), but able to act on the basis of their own initiative, to become accountable for, to take ownership over, their own learning. Partnerships, then, are based on respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility between students and faculty.

To quote at length from a recent book by Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill and Peter Felten:

Studying and designing teaching and learning in collaboration with students does not mean that we simply turn the responsibility for conceptualizing curricular and pedagogical approaches over to students, nor does it suggest we should always do everything they recommend to us. Rather, it means that we engage in a more complex set of relationships involving genuine dialogue with students. These more complex relationships may involve negotiation where we listen to students but also articulate our own expertise, perspectives, and commitments. It means making collaborative and transparent decisions about changing our practices in some instances and not in others and developing mutual respect for the individual and shared rationales behind these choices. Indeed, it means changing our practices when appropriate, but also reaffirming, with the benefit of students’ differently informed perspectives, what is already working well. Sometimes it means following where students lead, perhaps to places we may not have imagined or been to before. In all of these cases, reciprocity is an integral element of the learning process: we share our perspectives and commitments and listen to students’ insights, they share theirs and listen to ours, and in the exchange, we all become wiser.

Having seen the program develop over three semesters, I would observe that creating opportunities for “genuine dialogue” between faculty and students is not necessarily easy. Negotiating teaching practices with students bumps up against much of what we have come to think about what we do as teachers. Since we control the content, we are the experts and therefore have little to learn from student input. This understanding is often confirmed by much of the input we get from students. That which we get at the end of the semester is (by definition) too late for that course, and is often delivered in a form that we may find hard to take seriously (Really? Comments on our clothing?) Nor are students trained to deliver important critiques in a way in which we are most disposed to hear – or listen to – them. We may learn some things from Student Evaluations of Teaching, but they are not the best instruments for encouraging instructors to listen to student input.

Yet there is little doubt that the people who are best placed to tell us about our teaching are the students sitting in front of us every day. But, as we know, this doesn’t happen magically. Cook-Sather, Bovill and Felten suggest that there are four key qualities to developing a student-instructor partnership that can open a significant conversation about teaching and learning: (1) trust and respect, (2) shared power, (3) shared risks, and (4) shared learning. As observed above, partnerships, particularly when we talk of shared power, cannot ignore the fact that faculty are the experts in the course, both in terms of content and teaching experience. But the partnership means that “the perspectives and contributions made by partners are appropriately valued and respected.” Bringing this to realization takes effort on the part of both students and faculty, but the results from our first three semesters of the Oberlin program suggest that it is worth it.


I think when most faculty hear of a program in which students are involved as commentators and collaborators, they assume that the program is giving the students unfettered authority or equality in the teaching process. But I realize now that taking student contributions seriously DOES NOT mean blindly or directly following their opinions and suggestions, but rather taking them seriously, carefully reflecting on and analyzing them, and then addressing the core concerns behind them in a way that is consistent with my overall goals and values.  (Faculty partner quoted in Cook-Sather, Bovill, Fenten)


Henry Erroll, "A Woman's Favour" (London, 1890), British Library HMNTS 012639.l.3

Henry Erroll, “A Woman’s Favour” (London, 1890), British Library HMNTS 012639.l.3

Selecting Student Consultants

Student who have been in the program have demonstrated a strong interest in the dynamics of teaching and learning. They often have criticisms of some of the teaching they have experienced, but also have moved to a position in which they want to take responsibility for improving classroom dynamics. Finally, many are interested in what they can learn by establishing a significant dialogue with a faculty member. Student consultants are often recommended by a faculty member to the program directors or simply respond to a call for participation in the program. They are chosen by the directors of the program based on the number of partnerships we are able to sponsor, their expressed interest in the program, and a compatibility with faculty in terms of available times and, occasionally, course content.

Many institutions that have implemented student-faculty partnerships, including Oberlin, have made a specific point of inviting under-represented students into the partnership, both to gain access to their important insights and to begin to counter the sense of exclusion that many of these students feel.

As noted above, students are paid for their time in the partnership in recognition that this is a significant commitment and that since the students are not enrolled in the course, they need to be compensated, at least to the extent of our budgetary ability. Their pay is consistent with the pay of other student workers on campus.

Ideally, student consultants are paired with the faculty without regard to the students’ background in the class being taught by the faculty member. This is particularly relevant for intro level courses where the novice status of the student consultant would put him or her at the same level as those students enrolled in the course and therefore better able to note what seems confusing or problematic in the delivery of course material. On the other hand, there are occasions when the partnership will work better by pairing a student who has specific academic preparation (e.g., in the sciences or music) with a teacher offering an intermediate or upper-level course.

Finally, student consultants cannot be enrolled in the course for which they will serve as a partner, nor should they be enrolled that semester in any other courses offered by the faculty member. The reasons for this are obvious enough: the student-faculty partnership requires a relationship that is as open and honest as possible, and this can be compromised if the faculty member is giving the student consultant a grade in some other course.

Selecting Faculty Partners

Franz Keller-Leuzinger, "Vom Amazonas und Madeira" (Stuttgart, 1874), British Library HMNTS 10480.h.1

Franz Keller-Leuzinger, “Vom Amazonas und Madeira” (Stuttgart, 1874), British Library HMNTS 10480.h.1

The program is open to any faculty member, although usually faculty won’t apply for a student consultant until their second year or later. It requires that faculty have a specific goal in mind as regards their teaching in a specific course rather than just wanting to participate in the program. For example, Cynthia Taylor described her own interest as follows:

The instructor [Taylor] had previously taught this course twice before. She was particularly interested in trying to improve student engagement with the material, as feedback on the course previously had indicated some students found the material dry or uninteresting. She also wanted to know what material was particularly confusing to the students, and how to make material more comprehensible in general.

Faculty who have applied to the program have been interested in getting feedback on a specific pedagogic approaches (e.g., discussion-focused instruction) or technology (e.g., clickers) that they will be implementing for the first time.

While more tenured than junior faculty have applied for the program, not only can such a partnership provide newer faculty with important and thoughtful feedback early in their careers, at a time when they can implement changes as needed, but participation in the program is a very concrete way of demonstrating a desire to continue to improve one’s teaching.

Calls for faculty participation in the program most often come out at the end of each semester, with the number of partnerships dependent on budgetary issues. For the Fall 2016 semester, we will be able to sponsor four partnerships, two in the College and two in the Conservatory.

The Partnerships in Action

At the heart of the S&FP program is the weekly meeting between the instructor and the student consultant. These meetings are based on the notes that the student consultants take during the one (sometimes two) classes that they attend each week. Students involved in the program are trained in observational note taking, specifically in differentiating what they observe from any interpretation of why it is happening. They are also trained in how to reflect on what they have observed and how to discuss issues from the class with their faculty partners in ways that can be best heard by the instructors. Most often, the faculty partners will tell the student consultants what they should pay particular attention to in each class.

For example, the instructor might have told her student consultant to pay attention to moments of disruption in the class when she was lecturing. The consultant’s observational log might note that, in a class that began at 10:00 AM, one student left the room at 10:15; another at 10:18; a third at 10:20 (each returning to the room approximately 5 minutes later). While the student consultant can’t know why they left the room (bathroom? boredom? thirsty?), she could observe that this had an unsettling impact on the room (students became distracted, watched them walk to the door, stopped taking notes, etc.). On this basis, the student consultant could suggest a topic for discussion with the faculty partner: the impact of having students shuffling in and out on the classroom environment. Should the instructor develop “bathroom” rules? Should she allow the class as a whole to decide rules for non-emergency leaving during the class since they are the ones who are being disrupted?

Student observation notes from Cynthia Taylor and Eli Rose, "Using a Student Consultant in a Computer Science Course: An Experience Report"

Student observation notes from Cynthia Taylor and Eli Rose, “Using a Student Consultant in a Computer Science
Course: An Experience Report”

Student consultants usually send their faculty partners a copy of their notes in advance of their weekly meetings so they have the same information for their conversation. Here’s how Taylor and Rose describe their weekly meetings:

These meetings generally lasted about an hour, and the topics discussed varied widely in specificity, from comments like, “I noticed that some of the students seemed confused at this point”… to in depth discussion of what distractor answers would best illustrate common student misconceptions in a peer instruction question. The student consultant would also frequently ask the instructor what her perception of something that had occurred in class was, or the instructor would ask the student consultant what his personal experience learning specific material had been. Discussions tended to be grounded in specific lecture slides or course materials, but also touched on student reactions to the course as a whole, and occasionally touched on what could be added to materials like labs or problem sets in order to aid student understanding of specific points.

Sophina Gordon, "Flowers, Earth's silent voices" (Philadelphia, 1865), British Library HMNTS 11651.g.22

Sophina Gordon, “Flowers, Earth’s silent voices” (Philadelphia, 1865), British Library HMNTS 11651.g.22

All student consultants (up to four per semester) would meet bi-weekly with the program directors. At these meetings students would compare notes from their various classes, discuss the strengths their faculty partners brought to the classroom, reflect on the conversations they had with their faculty partners and how these  discussions developed: awkward moments, what they brought to those discussions, any problems that came up in terms of their own interactions: what could they have done better. Finally, we would examine their assumptions about the feedback they gave to their faculty partners. One theme that often appeared in these discussions was the student consultants’ feeling that it was their responsibility to offer solutions for issues that they either observed or that were raised by the faculty. They were reminded that they are not in the partnership to provide the instructors with “solutions” to teaching problems. The primary role that student consultants play is as observers who can, with a novice’s eye, help faculty see better what is happening in their classes. Faculty partners certainly can, and do, ask student consultants for their advice, but decisions remain with the faculty member.

Benefits and Difficulties

The Taylor-Rose paper lists what they observed as both benefits of the program as well as difficulties that developed over the course of the semester. On the positive side as far as the faculty partner is concerned, are:

  • The opportunity for a weekly, in-depth discussion of the class with someone who observed it but is neither a formal faculty evaluator or a student in the course.
  • The opportunity to continually reflect on and revise approaches taken in the course. While many faculty reflect on their courses in an on-going way, having a weekly conversation about the course makes this much more likely.
  • The ability to gain insight from a “novice perspective.” Most of the advice we get about teaching comes from other experts, and yet we teach novices. It was critical to receive feedback from a student, a novice in the field.
  • Input from different parts of the classroom: the student consultant would often sit in on different student discussion groups in a large class setting, providing the faculty partner with input she couldn’t get herself.
  • A written record of most of the class discussions: “It was surprisingly helpful for the instructor to have a written record of all class discussion from a class period. Being able to review student comments and questions while reviewing and revising the lecture allowed for reflection on discussion details that the instructor otherwise would likely not have remembered.”

The student consultant reported that the program allowed him to reflect more deeply on his own learning process (“Discussing students’ reactions to concepts with the instructor, he discovered new approaches and understood subtleties that he missed the first time around [i.e., when he was a student in the course].”). He also noted that he learned that his own approach to learning was different from other students, that “the student consultant note-taking process (sitting in the lecture hall, being as attentive as possible to the atmosphere of the room, recording it in detail, trying to think from the perspective of 37 other people) quickly expanded his ideas about students’ experiences of computer science classes.

Needless to say, having another set of eyes on your classroom will not always produce agreeable results. As Taylor wrote, “It is not pleasant to be reminded that the back row of your class was reading their phones instead of paying attention. There were times when a lesson didn’t work and there was no clear reason why or how to fix it.” Faculty may worry that student consultants are questioning their competence in the classroom, an issue that the program directors often address in their meetings with students consultants, making sure that the students remember that their role is to observe and to provide their partners with valuable insights, but they are not there as “consultants” in a traditional sense, experts who are hired to “fix” problems. Students consultants, for their part, are not accustomed to being in this role and may find it difficult to raise certain subjects in their meetings with their partners. (Many also regret not having the same kind of interactions with faculty in other courses they take.)

Ultimately, and perhaps the most important lesson I have learned while directing this program, is that there is not always a “fix” for every problem that arises in the classroom. For the instructors involved in the program, it is valuable to know that the are not the only ones to face such problems; student consultants, for their part, come to appreciate to a much greater extent both the complexity of teaching and the care and attention that faculty put into their courses in order to achieve an optimum learning outcome.


Open communication is not particularly easy; not between faculty and faculty, students and students and, to be sure, faculty and students. For one thing, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the size of an audience and the likelihood of good exchange: the larger the audience, the harder to have a meaningful exchange of ideas. For another, a basic level of trust is often needed before meaningful conversation can happen, and that is often only built up over time. The Student-Faculty Partnership program allows these exchanges to develop organically. As they continue, one can hope that these conversations can be expanded to broader and broader levels.

NOTE: The go-to book on this subject, exploring the theory behind the program as well as detailed accounts on its strengths and difficulties, is Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

Richard Jefferies, "The Dewey Morn" (London, 1884), British Library HMNTS 12636.w.6

Richard Jefferies, “The Dewey Morn” (London, 1884), British Library HMNTS 12636.w.6


Learning from the Semester: 2.0

Steven Volk (April 25, 2016)

[The following is an edited and updated version of a post from 2013.]

From Guy Newell Boothby, "Doctor Nikola" (London: Ward, Lock, & Co,  1986), p. 335. British Library.

From Guy Newell Boothby, “Doctor Nikola” (London: Ward, Lock, & Co, 1986), p. 335. British Library.

As the semester moves to it close (insert fist pump), it’s a good time to reflect on what you learned from the semester as well as considering what you think your students are taking away from your classes. To begin, here are three ways to track your teaching, from the quick and simple to the more time consuming.

End of Semester Snapshop

While you can, and probably should, reflect on your teaching at many points during the semester (see nos. 2 and 3 below), two moments can be particularly productive: Some 2-3 weeks before the semester ends (when you already have a very good sense about how the semester has gone), and about 2-3 weeks after the semester ends (or once you have had a chance to read student evaluations). You are all unbelievably busy right now, but try to set aside 30 minutes to begin to answer these questions – and then return to them when you can. It is useful to engage in this process before you read the students’ evaluations, as you want to be able to consider from your own perspective why the semester turned out as it did.

(1) What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?

What did you accomplish? Try to answer this question concretely. Was it the assignment you designed to help you evaluate whether students were reading the text closely and which worked exactly as planned? The discussions, which were a lot livelier than other times you taught the class? The students’ ability to recall basic materials, as demonstrated by better exam results than in previous years? The fact that you were able to establish a dynamic in class that allowed students to talk about extremely difficult topics? In short: What worked well in the class?

(2) Why do you think that happened? Can you link these outcomes to your teaching methods.

What did you do differently? Was it a matter of the composition of the class or of your methods? If outcomes were different than in previous years, reflect on why that was the case.

"Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

(3) Did you achieve your learning goals for the course?

This, of course, should lead you back a consideration of your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.

Did you use assessment methods – papers, tests, projects, etc. – that can help you answer this question reasonably? If you find that you have learning goals that aren’t being assessed, you should make a note to change that next semester.

(4) What were you dissatisfied with in terms of how the course is turning out?

What didn’t work as you would have liked it in your classes? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking, “Next time, I probably shouldn’t do that”?

You can think about this in a variety of ways. For example:

(a) The pedagogy you employed. The mix of discussion and lecture, more active learning techniques, preparation for discussions, group work, student presentations, etc.

(b) Structural factors: Maybe you have found that teaching after lunch is not the best time; that the classroom you were assigned did not help your teaching and should be changed, that the class size did not lend itself to the particular pedagogy you employed.

(c) Classroom management issues. Did you allow one student to assert too much sway over the other students? Did you not step in where you should have? Did you not address management issues early enough? Should laptops be banned in your class as students are not using them appropriately? Should you have a “bathroom” policy to prevent a continual in-and-out of students from the class? How have you responded to challenges to your authority? How have you dealt with tensions that have come up in the class?

(d) Course Materials: Were students doing the readings? If not, why? Was the reading too basic? Too theoretical? Did mechanical issues (not being able to upload files, etc.) get in the way of their being able to complete assigned readings? Were the readings improperly paced (too much right during midterms) or unengaging (even for you!).

(e) Assignments: Too many? Too few to give students proper feedback? Should you be assigning multiple drafts of papers? Would smaller quizzes work better than one or two high-stakes exams? Did you assign collaborative work without preparing for it?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

(5) As with your successes, think about why things didn’t work and what you can do the next time to change those aspects that you can change.

If time doesn’t permit you to plan out a concrete strategy for doing things differently next semester, jot down a note to remind you about the things that you should consider addressing.

(6) Who can help?

If you are not sure what to do to change those aspects of your course that you agree should be changed, jot down the name of the person/people you can talk to or the resource you can use.  Who are the colleagues and mentors, on campus or elsewhere, who you should be emailing to set up a coffee date? Where can you find materials that address the topics of your concern?

After the SETs Come In

Try to go through the same exercise after you have read and digested the student evaluations of teaching (SETs) for your courses. (For advice on how and when to read your students’ evaluations, see the “Article of the Week” from Feb. 7, 2010: Reading Student Evaluation of Teaching).  Get a sense of whether your self-evaluation finds any resonance in the students’ comments, or whether you come to different conclusions – and you need to think about why that’s the case. Reflect on – or talk to a colleague about – any disparities. Just because the students liked your class (i.e., gave you favorable ratings), it doesn’t mean that you met your learning objectives. Just because some students didn’t like certain aspects of the course, it doesn’t mean that those aspects should be jettisoned.

Longer-term Reflection: Annotated Syllabus

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

While it is useful to reflect back on your class at the end of the semester, you can gain more insight by reflecting on your classes in real time. This is particularly useful for people like me whose memory, to quote Billy Collins, has “decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.” Create a “dummy” syllabus for your class. If your regular syllabus doesn’t include information on what you are planning to do on a class-by-class basis, make sure that this dummy syllabus does. So, for example:

Wednesday, November 27: Make goal of class: Help students classify polysaccharides based on function in plants and animals and describe how monomers join to form them.

Each day, after that class has finished, enter some notes on the syllabus as to how the class went, paying particular attention to whether you think that the class helped the students reach the objectives you have set out (in this case classifying polysaccharides). Also think about what evidence you have to answer this question (do you ask for “muddy points” responses at the end of class? Do you use clickers or other audience response systems that let you know whether the students are “getting” it?).

Jot down notes of in your opinion worked and what didn’t: was it the way you broke them up into discussion groups? The amount or nature of the reading assigned? The presence or absence of contextualizing material? The day you chose to examine the topic (The day before Thanksgiving? What was I thinking!).

Finally, enter some notes as to what you would do differently the next time around: Less/more reading; start with a quiz to see where they are at; have them work in groups; make the goals of the class more transparent; work to create an atmosphere where students can talk more easily about controversial issues; etc.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss annotating classes now and again. The last thing you need is to be hard on yourself. Maybe your best bet is to try to open a syllabus template that you can get to whenever you can. If you set impossible goals, you won’t accomplish them, and the purpose is not to find another reason to feel guilty (and we all have many of those) but to begin a practice that can be empowering.

In For a Penny, In for a Pound: The Teaching Portfolio

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 226. British Library.

‘Lilliput Lyrics … Edited by R. Brimley Johnson. Illustrated by Chas. Robinson’ 226

To contemplate creating a teaching portfolio is to accept that you’re willing to spend some quality time reflecting on your teaching. At some level, the teaching portfolio is an ongoing conversation between #2 (the daily syllabus annotations) and #1 (the end of semester reflections). The syllabus annotation is at the heart of a teaching portfolio, but the portfolio allows you greater space for reflection on your teaching philosophy, pedagogical approaches, readings on – and thoughts about – learning theory, longer blog posts (either public or private), articles that have influenced your thinking, etc.

You can set up a portfolio quite easily using Google sites or any one of a number of (free) commercial products (WordPress, IMCreator, etc.). The main issue is not to get hung up on the technology. Perhaps all you want is a set of folders (either on your computer or actual folders) into which you can place these materials: standard syllabus, annotated syllabus, reflections on particular classes or on the course in general, emerging “philosophy” of teaching, notes on pedagogy, classroom management style, essays on finding your own teaching style, articles that have proven particularly important in your teaching, comments from people who have observed your teaching, student reflections, student work in response to particular prompts, comments from mentors and colleagues, etc., etc.

The main goal of the teaching portfolio, as far as I’m concerned, is to complete the feedback loop that ties together action, reflection, and reformulation. For example: Tried a very directed set of primary source readings in philosophy class to get students to understand John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberalism and the individual. Don’t think it worked given that their answers to a short reflection piece at the end of the class; papers on topic turned in two weeks later were imprecise and often factually incorrect. Thought about goals for that class, talked about it with a colleague in the department, and read more about what other philosophy teachers do when teaching Mill. Here’s a plan for the next time…

For more on teaching portfolios, consult the excellent handbook written by Hannelore B Rodriguez-Farrar (The Teaching Portfolio: A Handbook for Faculty, Teaching Assistants, and Teaching Fellows) at Brown University, the materials prepared by the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, or the paper (“The Teaching Portfolio”) by Matthew Kaplan at the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning.

Final Reflections: What Have Your Students Carried Away?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

The end of the semester is a time, all too often, of exhaustion and, at some level and speaking for myself, disappointment. In light of this, reflecting on what we think our students have actually absorbed from our classes is a useful exercise.

One of the most complicated issues we face in teaching is understanding in a comprehensive fashion what our students have taken away from the course. I think of this as somewhat different from what they have “learned.” We can get a good sense of that through our students’ written work or quizzes and examinations. What I’m talking about is more speculative: what do we think they will carry with them into the future, what will shape the way they think about the subject of our classes or more broadly? What will they remember 10 or 20 years in the future?

This is, of course, one of the devilishly hard questions of assessment. In the humanities, in particular, we know that more often than not, many students will “get it” only after the course is over. Synapses will be closed that remained wide-open during the class; light bulbs will finally turn on. And, more often than not, when this happens, it won’t be tied back to a particular class or even a particular course.

Of course, there is no way to know what the group of students just completing your class will take away from it. But thinking into the future is actually the starting point of “backward planning” and, as such, the first step for planning your next course syllabus. So, what do we think they will put in their backpacks and carry away with them?

I’ll use my own teaching this semester as an example. One of my classes is on museum studies (“Museum Narratives”). I am quite sure that only a few – OK, no one – will remember anything about exhibition morphology, how depth, ring factor, and entropy work in exhibition design. But I think that most, when they walk into a museum in the future, will think about how exhibition layout relates to content and audience, will search for the museum’s narrative rather than only focusing on its artifacts, and will continue to consider what Stephen Greenblatt meant when he divided museum exhibitions between those that worked through resonance versus those that work by wonderment.

And maybe that’s good enough.