Author Archives: ssvolk

To Whom It May Concern: Writing Letters of Recommendation

Steve Volk, September 25, 2017
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“Hey, Professor,” the email began. (What’s with the omnipresent “Hey.” Even on “Morning Edition,” it’s “Hey, Rachel” and “Hey, David.” OK, stay focused!) “Hey, Professor. I’ve been thinking a lot about next year and have decided to go back to school. I understand if you don’t have time, but I’d be hugely grateful if you’d write me a letter of recommendation.”

We’re rapidly moving into the recommendation-writing season. If you’re new to your position, you’ll only get a few entreaties. After you’ve grown old at your post, the requests can multiply into dozens or scores. And take it from someone who has put in some time here: the requests don’t stop after a student has graduated. (Two requests materialized in my inbox this morning; I’m still asked for letters from students who graduated in the 1990s.)

We all know that we’re not evaluated on the number of letters we write, and certainly not on their quality or impact. Feel free to put those metrics in your tenure file, but you can be confident in the knowledge that the peer reviewed articles you could have written in the same time will “count” more.

And yet I’m not alone in arguing that the letters of recommendation we write are among the most important of our tasks as teachers, that the time we put into them can be vital. They are about our students’ future.  Now, an enthusiastic letter will likely not win an unqualified student a fellowship – nor should it – but a poorly written or meh letter can damage the prospects of a highly qualified student to get into the program that can make a huge difference in her future. These letters, then, can be critically important.

So, here are a few things to keep in mind when writing letters of recommendation.

Getting to No

The first thing to consider is actually whether you can or should be writing for the student who has requested your support. There are bundles of reasons why we need to make every possible effort to aid those students who deserve our support. But there are also reasons to respond, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t.”

  • At the end of the day, we’re only human. If you are utterly overwhelmed with work, personal issues, or both, haven’t had time for a shower in 2 weeks and you’ve forgotten what your kids look like, it’s better to say no than to write a letter that will be lukewarm or sound insincere. Better to be honest with the requester and say that, at this moment, someone else could do a better job.
  • When students demand that you drop everything and post a letter — deadline TOMORROW — on their behalf, it probably doesn’t say a lot about their ability to plan ahead and isn’t considerate of your time. “Sorry, next time you need to ask sooner.”

Saying “no” in certain cases can be the best approach for the applicant as well:

  • If you think you shouldn’t write a letter for a student because she isn’t qualified or deserving, the best approach is to sit down with her (if still on campus, or by email if not) and say why you don’t think you can write a letter. It’s not easy to say these things, but it is much better for the student to know than for you to write a letter that would seriously damage her chances while she was left thinking that you were writing in her support. Further, if it’s your reasoned belief that the student won’t likely succeed in an intended field, he should know. A note of caution: Try to be aware of any implicit biases that might be behind your assessment – at least ask yourself some questions in that regard – but at the end of the day, you are the one being asked to write and if you don’t think you can write a strong letter, you need to say so and inform the student as to why you’re declining the request. The purpose of writing a letter of recommendation is to help students get what they are applying for, not to undermine them.
  • In very high-stakes competitions (e.g. national fellowships, etc.), it is no favor to the applicant to write a letter on their behalf when you don’t know them well and can’t speak fully about their work. I can’t write a strong letter filled with the needed evidence of excellence for a student who was in a 50-person survey three years before. Sometimes I’ll invite students to return if they haven’t been able to find someone else who knows them better to agree to write for them. But at least the student will know that the letter I write will be limited.

NOTE TO ADVISERS AND FIRST YEAR SEMINAR INSTRUCTORS: It’s never too soon to let students in on the fact that, some day, they want their instructors to write recommendation for them. They need to be cultivating relationships with the faculty that will facilitate this. This is particularly important for first-generation or under-represented students who may not be familiar with ways of leveraging their undergraduate education toward their future success.

  • Finally, and returning to the “we’re only human” theme: Let’s face it:  for whatever reason, there are some students who have rubbed us the wrong way. They can be smart, accomplished, and probably deserving of our support. But if you feel that you can’t let go of whatever it was about that student that pissed you off, better to say no than to sabotage their chances of success.


Getting to Yes

Not all requests are the same, and you should take the “ask” into consideration to try to get to yes.

  • Low-stakes recommendations (e.g., for study-abroad program, non-technical summer internships, etc.) can be written relatively quickly. These letters mostly should stress that the student is responsible, mature, works well in a group setting, can be expected to take initiative, etc. If you can say any of these things, just say yes.
  • Medium-to-high stakes recommendations (e.g., for graduate or professional schools, service programs such as Americorps, some on-campus jobs such as in the Admissions office, etc.), will require more of your time, and your decision can be determined by the kind of program to which the student is applying. I would write a strong letter for students applying to an MA programs even if I couldn’t support them for top-of-the-line PhD programs. Competition to get into good doctoral programs (particularly those which carry full financial support), law schools, or med schools is intense. Letters for these programs will take more time to write and imply that you expect the student to succeed if accepted. As suggested in the previous section, if you’re disposed to write for a student but have doubts or questions, discuss them with the student or consider talking with a colleague in your department who might also know the student.
  • Very high-stakes recommendations (for major national or international scholarships or fellowships, for former students who are applying for academic positions or graduate fellowships, etc.) can take a serious amount of time and require not just whole-hearted and sincere support, but evidence of a special knowledge of that student. Particularly in writing for the most competitive fellowships, you need to be able to say, and provide evidence to back it up, that the applicant is exceptional. Faculty who are writing for students applying to these fellowships should get advice from the faculty advisers for those programs or the Fellowships and Awards office.


Getting Ready to Write

Make sure you have what you need before sitting down to write, particularly if you’re working on a tight schedule. Among the important information to have:

  • Undergraduate transcript (which, at Oberlin, you can usually access via PRESTO);
  • Statement of purpose or at least a late draft of the essay/s they will write for their applications. If the student is applying to a variety of different programs, make sure you have statements for each area so you can craft their letters accordingly;
  • Resume, particularly if the student has already graduated;
  • Application details: names of the schools, programs, departments, or fields within the discipline to which they are applying; deadlines; format: online or (increasingly rare) hard copy, etc.
  • Copies of papers or other work completed in your classes. Many of us keep electronic copies of students’ work, but if you don’t have this, ask for it.
  • For very high-stakes competitions, I’ve found it useful to sit down with the applicant and go over goals, intentions, prospects for the future whether they are successful in the application or not.
  • Ask the applicant if there are any aspects of their work with you that they would like you to stress in the letter of recommendation.


Writing a Good Letter 

Gear your letter to the specific school, program, fellowship, etc., to which the student is applying. Generic letters or letters written without regard to the specific fellowship, course of study, or project proposed could hurt, and certainly don’t benefit, the applicant’s chances. You can use the same letter if a student applies to many different schools; just try to gear them to the specific school or program in question.

  • Provide some context of how long and in what capacity you have known the applicant.
  • Show that you know the applicant personally: The strongest letters are filled with specific examples that highlight the qualities the student possesses: Cite evidence from the brilliant papers they have written, how they took responsibility for class discussions, interactions with peers and faculty, how they overcame adversity, evidence of leadership, etc., particularly as these points relate to the goals of the fellowship or the proposed course of study.
  • For graduate school, address the applicant’s knowledge of the field of study: depth and breadth of knowledge, skills, methodology, research, languages where applicable, etc.
  • Communication skills: Is the applicant an effective writer? Does the written work submitted demonstrate a mastery of disciplinary conventions? Is the written material clear, well-organized and forceful? Is the applicant an articulate, clear, and effective speaker? Does the applicant have other communications skills, particularly as pertains to technology-related communication.
  • Personal dispositions: Industriousness, discipline, persistence, ability to reflect on mistakes, to take criticism, to work independently, empathy, commitment, maturity ability to adjust to adverse circumstances, etc. Does the applicant enjoy the trust and respect of fellow students and the faculty?
  • How does the applicant exemplify the personal qualities or selection criteria specified by the fellowship or graduate program? Specific examples are crucial.
  • Place the student in a larger context. Compare the present applicant to others who have applied for similar honors in the past or who have succeeded in such competitions, to others who have gone on to graduate or professional programs. She is “among the three best students I have taught,” “in top 5% of students in my 20 years of teaching,” etc.


What Can Hurt? 

Letters that do no more than summarize information available elsewhere in the application; that provide more information about the letter writer than the applicant; that consist nothing but unsupported praise; that damn with faint praise (it is not helpful to say that a student did what might be expected of all students: completed the reading assignments, came to class on time, etc.); that may be read as implying veiled criticism or whose criticisms might be taken to indicate stronger reservations than have been stated elsewhere.

Letters should be honest—and honest criticism, if generously presented, can enhance the force of a letter—but committees take critical comments very seriously. It is best to be cautious when making critical remarks, particularly when you have an overall positive regard for the applicant.

Does Size Matter?

Yes. Most high-stakes recommendation letters should be around 2-pages long; only the most important should be longer (i.e., if you really have something exceptional to say). A 2-3 paragraph letter is sufficient for very low-stakes recommendations, but can do more harm than good for very competitive application processes.



Some No-no’s: 

  • Asking students to write their own recommendations for you to sign: sorry, just plain unprofessional. Better to say no.
  • Taking a recommendation that you wrote for one student and using it for another. When you have written enough recommendations, they will tend to develop a bit of a “boiler-plate” feel to them. That’s probably unavoidable. But using the same letter for different students, particularly in very important applications, can be damaging, especially if those reading the letter find them very familiar sounding.
  • When writing a batch of letters for the same student or when reviving a recommendation written sometime earlier for a new request, always double check that you have addressed the letter to the proper program, the proper school, etc. Make sure that you don’t write a letter recommending your student for a public health program when that particular recommendation is supposed to be for graduate school in epidemiology.

Finally: Faculty advisers in specific professional fields (health-related, law, business), specific graduate programs, the fellowships and awards office, and the Career Development Center, among others, can provide much more specific and useful information as to what can help in writing certain kinds of letters of recommendation. Consult with them and take their advice!

Late addition (9/24 at 7:39 PM): Erik Inglis reminded me of Julie Schumacher’s (OC ’81) epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, 2014), “composed of a year’s worth of recommendations that our anti-hero — a weary professor of creative writing and literature — is called upon to write for junior colleagues, lackluster students and even former lovers,” as Maureen Corrigan writes for an NPR review. Maybe you’ll get further tips there!

Help One, Help All: Universal Design in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 18, 2017

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d'histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d'après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

NOTE: All illustrations taken from Buffon, Daubenton, Lacépède, G. Cuvier, F. Cuvier, Geoffroy Sa, Encyclopédie d’histoire naturelle; ou, traité complet de cette science d’après les travaux des naturalistes les plus éminents de tous les pays et de toutes les époques (1860)

The headline immediately caught my attention: “Atmospheric scientist at Illinois is on leave after refusing to provide lecture slides to student with disabilities.” Not exactly the Kardashians or the latest scorched-earth quote from Sebastian Gorka, but striking to a pedagogy-nerd like me. As I clicked through to the article, I found that the scientist in question wasn’t just “any” teacher, but a Nobel laureate with 41 years of teaching to his credit.


Although I’m more interested in this article for what it says about the state of “Universal Design” thinking than for the actual controversy at hand, some facts in the case are still in order.

  • The faculty member in question is Michael Schlesinger, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2007, he was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which, along with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in building and disseminating greater knowledge about man-made climate change. Conservative bloggers, for their part, prefer to see him as an “environmental extremist.”
  • According to a report in the Daily Illini, Schlesinger refused “to provide a student with electronic lecture notes, even after Disability Services confirmed the need for accommodation.” Further research reveals that the real issue was Schlesinger’s refusal to share his slides with the student. In fact, he is quoted as saying that he offered to pay for the student to have a note taker in the class, but that he opposed sharing his slides because he was unwilling to give one student an “advantage” over others taking the course who couldn’t access the slides.
  • According to the University of Illinois, Schlesinger was “not currently teaching.” Schlesinger insisted that he hadn’t resigned and did not tend to resign. Rather, he wrote, “I intend to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

The story can be read as an example of “nanny state” administrators stepping in to tell faculty how to teach their courses, or of crotchety faculty members who refuse to change their moth-eaten ways, even if it means noncompliance with university rules and federal legislation (Americans with Disabilities Act). For my part, I have no idea whether Schlesinger is the world’s best teacher or the world’s worst; I have no ability to judge him on the basis of a single act reported in the press. What did catch my attention was Schlesinger’s statement that he intends “to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students.”

364Universal Design for Learning

At the heart of Schlesinger’s statement is a belief that by accommodating one student (in this case a student with reported disabilities), an instructor is ipso facto disadvantaging all other students in the class. The clearest response to this pinched understanding came from James Basham, an associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas, who suggested that “if the professor has such strong beliefs about sharing slides with an individual student, he should simply share with all of his students.” Basham’s approach is the essence of what has been called “Universal Design for Learning.”

Universal Design for Learning took its inspiration from the architecture and product design processes pioneered by Ron Mace of North Carolina State University in the 1980s. A universal design approach aims “to create physical environments and tools that are usable by as many people as possible.” The curb cut is a perfect example: it was designed so that people in wheelchairs could more easily access sidewalks. But, if curb cuts proved beneficial for wheelchair-bound individuals, they were no less a boon for parents pushing strollers or shoppers bringing home the groceries. Curb cuts equally served old people with walkers and young people learning to skateboard. And that was the point. The idea of universal design is that by planning a design that takes account of the needs of everyone at the beginning of a process, rather than waiting to modify designs later when such needs become more visible or vocal, everyone would benefit.

Universal Design for Learning operates in precisely the same way. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 offers the following definition of Universal Design for Learning:

The term UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

(A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and

(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

By eliminating barriers to learning without eliminating challenges, everyone in the class can benefit, not just those who may have documented disabilities or who enter with different strengths than those traditionally valued by the academy. [On this, see Judy Marquez Kiyama and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, Funds of Knowledge in Higher Education: Honoring Students’ Cultural Experiences and Resources as Strengths (Routledge 2018).] Universal design for learning in higher education recognizes that what needs to be “fixed” is not the learner but the the way in which teaching and learning occurs.

How It Works: Using Visual Materials

390I have little doubt that colleagues can provided many examples of how they have used universal design for learning principles in their own classes, sometimes without even knowing that this is what they were doing. I encourage readers to supply further examples from their own practice that I can use to update this article. I include the specific examples below as illustrations of universal design for learning approaches that have worked in my classes. Each instructor will decide what works best for your own classrooms.

This first example, using visual materials with a sight-impaired student, comes from a class I taught many years ago. It was probably the first time that I thought of a universal-design-for- learning approach, although I had no idea it was called that or that such an approach existed.

Matt was a student in one of my Latin American history surveys. (I use his real name because he later wrote a memoir and referenced the incident.) He enrolled in my course having spent the previous Winter Term in Guatemala. Matt was born with cataracts, developed glaucoma as a baby, and soon lost all vision in his left eye while retaining only partial sight in the right. So he came to my class with limited vision: he could read with the help of a computer and got around campus without a guide dog or cane. I made sure he was assigned a note taker and that the readings were available far in advance so they could be recorded for him. Soon after the semester started, however, his limited eyesight vanished completely when a corneal ulcer in his “good” eye became infected. As he was sitting in my class, he later wrote, “Suddenly the lights seemed really bright. Then it got really painful. By the end of the hour I could barely see well enough to get myself to Academic Services.” Matthew had become totally blind.

He returned to class surprisingly soon after, and I had to consider whether to ignore Matt’s new disability, to change my approach to a class that depended substantially on slides with visual (illustrative, not textual) content, or to accommodate him in some other way. I considered asking a classmate to sit beside him, describing the slides as I cycled through them. But the continual, if hushed, commentary would have foregrounded Matt’s disability, making him the center of class attention day after day. I could have sent him the slides ahead of time, but slides without commentary made little sense and I would been have constrained from changing  slides at the last minute to respond to issues that recently arose in class.

The solution I finally hit upon was actually quite consistent with universal design principles, as I later learned. I was forced to think about why I used slides in the class, and when I considered that I realized that some were relatively unimportant, a kind of visual filler designed to hold the students’ attention, and some were critical to the issues we were discussing. By treating each of these two variants the same (i.e., having them up for the same amount of time and not commenting further on the important ones), I was missing an opportunity to enhance everyone’s learning. I decided that when I got to an important slide, I would ask for a volunteer to describe what they saw on the screen; then for a second and a third student who would add depth to the description. Finally, as a class which including Matthew, we could discuss the visual representation and they ways that it helped us understand the subject we were studying. There was no need to call attention to Matt’s visual impairment or to provide him “special accommodation,” and all the students benefited by being made more aware of visual content, by developing their powers of observation, and by hearing others discuss the slide. By leading me to focus more on my goals, Matt helped me redesign my class in a way that helped everyone. The approach didn’t “advantage” Matt or “disadvantage” the sighted students: it helped everyone.

366How It Works: Note Taking

One of the more common accommodations faculty are asked to make is providing students with note takers. Indeed, Prof. Schlesinger, it would seem, volunteered to “pay the student” to hire a note taker in his class (something which led me to wonder whether he ever had prior contact with the Disability Services office at his university, since it undoubtedly would have provided, and paid for, a note taker). In any case, instructors generally ask students to inform us confidentially at the beginning of the semester if they require a note taker and are registered with Disability Services. Sometimes we’ll get a letter later in the semester if a student only recently registered or has sustained an injury that impedes note taking. I doubt that anyone thinks that the student who requires a note taker because she has broken her arm in a field hockey match is now getting an unfair advantage over the other students.

But let’s look at this a bit more broadly. I have no doubt that there were students in my class who had more trouble than others taking notes in class. Perhaps it was because English was not their first language; perhaps because they never developed good note-taking skills; perhaps because they just processed what was being said (often at a rapid clip) somewhat more slowly than other students. I also had no doubt that it would have benefited all students to read a set of notes taken by another student, just in case they missed some important in their own notes.

Thinking of the needs of all students a bit more closely, I decided to assign class note takers for my courses. Two students in each class were asked to take notes that they would share with the other students by posting them to Blackboard. (Students were excused if they qualified for a note taker via the Disability Services office.) Note taking became a (small) part of the final grade. I doubt that having class note takes dissuaded any individual student from taking notes, nor did it encourage absences, and my advice to students who had missed class was always to “get the notes from another student.” What had I accomplished? Many more benefited from this approach: students who didn’t qualify for a note-taker from Disabilities Services and yet could have profited from one; students who could have qualified for a note-taker but felt constrained from asking for one for a myriad of reasons; students who suffered a temporary physical problem but didn’t find the time to get themselves to Disability Services; students who wanted to complement their own notes with those from other students. No one was disadvantaged and everyone was advantaged.

How It Works: Assignment Design:

438When we think about universal design in terms of assignments, we often think of students who require additional time on exams. The clear design of assignments is another aspect of universal design that serves all students. Mary-Ann Wilkelmes, the principal investigator of the Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education project, has developed a simple protocol for assignment design based on explicitly answering three questions when creating assignments.

  1. The Task: What are you asking your students to do?
  2. The Purpose: Why do they have to do it?
  3. The Criteria: How will their work be evaluated?

Often we think that our assignments are clearer than they actually are because students don’t complain about them. But ask the reference librarians who are called upon to help students figure out what we’re asking for, and you’ll discover something different. Many seem to do perfectly well without these particular prompts. Maybe those who are better able to read our minds are just smarter and deserve a better grade. Um, no. They’re not any smarter, but they might be able to suss out what we’re asking for because they have a greater grasp of these “unwritten rules” of higher education. They have what Tara J. Yosso, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, calls “navigational capital.” Students who have had strong preparation through high school, who have taken a boatload of AP or IB courses, attended college courses while in high school, or whose parents are college teachers know the unwritten rules of the game: they know how to read a syllabus, how to locate the unwritten assumptions of an assignment, or – most importantly – have the confidence to ask the professor for guidance if the assignment isn’t clear to them. First-generation students, low-income, or historically underrepresented students, on the other hand, have come to college with all the “smarts” needed to do well in their classes, but they may lack the “navigational capital,” not to mention the self-confidence, to succeed.

But it also happens that the best prepared students really can’t figure out what we’re asking them to do because we haven’t been clear. In this case, universal design in terms of assignment design serves everyone, ourselves included. By being specific about task, purpose and criteria, we can be clearer in our own minds as to what we’re asking for in an assignment while helping all students, those with a strong academic preparation and those who are newer to the game, do well on the assignment. Once again, everyone benefits, no one is disadvantaged.

How It Works: Extra Time on Exams*

One of the more difficult issues logistically is arranging for extra time for exams or quizzes. Here’s an approach from Erik Inglis of the Art Department:

In my intro class, I used to give an in-class quiz, which meant it was limited in time, and cut into content. Now I have the students take the quiz at home–which revealed to me that I didn’t care if it took them 15 minutes or 30 minutes to come up with the answer–instead it was a more a matter of the appropriate length of the essay.  So, instead of students having to request an accommodation, everyone can have as much time as they think necessary–and I give a word-count, not a time-measure, to set parameters.  I tell students that this is one of the many benefits of the honor code (although he worries that students might be tempted to use outside sources for a closed book exam).

Another colleague added the following:**

During my…years at Oberlin I have never given any student a timed assessment. To me the issue of how fast a student can produce information or analyze a problem is seldom a good assessment of what they are learning in class. Given that Oberlin has an honor code, it also seems to me to be a waste of valuable class time to have quizzes or tests during class — I have them all outside of class. I assign them pairs that vary on each quiz so that they DO proctor each other. I actually make half the quiz something that they complete working together and half something that complete alone but in the presence of the other student. I believe that the collaborative discussions they have about answers are useful pedagogically.

This colleague further noted that he had been diagnosed as dyslexic as a child and that he was always disadvantaged by timed exams in high school. When he reached college, he found many of his professors more sympathetic, giving him more time on exams. But, he added, “As a student I also felt like I had an unfair advantage [getting additional time] and I always made it a point to try to convince my professors…to allow all students to have more time on tests. I am pleased to say that many DID where it was feasible to do so. And I felt like my grade was fairer in classes when they did.”


When Professor Schlesinger remarked that he intends to “fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students,” a universal design for learning approach could be what he is looking for. By encouraging us to design a learning environment that can serve all students, such an approach can move us away from a concentrated focus on students who require “accommodation,” and towards a consideration of changes that can aid all our students. In the end, all students will profit from a classroom in which all needs, spoken or unspoken, certified or not, are taken into consideration. Such would be the case if the professor, so demonstrably wise in matters of atmospheric science, simply shared his slides with all students.

NOTE: For more on this topic, see Elizabeth Hamilton’s article, “Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching” (Oct. 16, 2016).

354* Added on Sept. 17 at 12:07 PM

** Added on Sept. 18 at 10:07 AM

Documents and the Undocumented

Steve Volk, September 11, 2017

LicenseWhen I was growing up our social studies teachers firmly inscribed a line between “history” and the “prehistoric.” The prehistoric, we were instructed, was the time of dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers and “Indians.” (Unprepared or unwilling to teach about one of the numerous Native American cultures that inhabited California before the arrival of Europeans, my Los Angelino classmates and I learned about a fictional indigenous tribe, a sort of cultural composite that mashed together north and south. No need to worry our elementary school brains over the differences between Chumash and  Payómkawichum.) The dividing line between “history” and “prehistory” was not animal vs. human, but those who inscribed their past in a written form and those who were “pre-literate,” another troubled term of the time. Prehistory was the time of the people who didn’t write. In short, we were taught to distinguish between those with “papers” and, well, the undocumented.

Eric Wolf, a path-setting anthropologist, was one of the first to challenge my California-befuddled brain in his 1982 monograph, Europe and the People Without History (University of California), proposing that people without formal writing systems were not by any means without history, although waves of European colonization had rendered them prehistorical.

When I went on to study history in college, and then made the decision to become a historian, my desire, part and parcel of the rebellious 1960s, was to inhabit an academic discipline that would reveal the history of those who hadn’t written their own in the form of monographs or journal articles. My first efforts, exploring the history of the Bolivian tin miners union, brought me to the archives and in contact with the octogenarian founders of the first Bolivian sindicatos. In my romanticized imagination, I would give voice to the voiceless, documents to the undocumented. Further study clarified that, while doing nothing of the kind, I was at least part of a larger historical process that searched the archive for traces of those who previous generations of historians had ignored.

Texupa, Mexico, 1579. Reproduced from Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, eds., Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

Texupa, Mexico, 1579. Reproduced from Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, eds., Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

As a teacher of history, my colleagues and I challenged students to “read between the lines,” or “listen to the silences” when studying a past that seemed quite determined to ignore the vast numbers of people who had inhabited the earth. Silence itself could, perhaps, reveal a hidden documentation when asked the right questions. If we couldn’t provide a voice to the voiceless, we could attempt to read the shadows and listen for the murmurs as a means of crafting a history of the “prehistoric.” This was not an act of magic, nor really of imagination: we just became attentive to spaces we had previously overlooked. If the pre-conquest history of the Nahua and Zapotec was largely written by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico, we could still read the complexities of a colonial history inscribed in the maps Spanish administrators ordered their indigenous artisans to draw, or in the court records that charged them with a variety of misbehaviors and misdemeanors. The documentation that makes up a history comes in many forms, but only if we value the people who have lived it. To render a people “undocumented” is to endeavor to remove their history.

DACA and Documentation

I have been thinking a lot about documents, documentation, and history as the Trump Administration first threatened, and then, disgracefully, sent out Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program on September 5. DACA was created by President Obama in June 2012 to provide modest but important protections for some young people who had been rendered invisible because they lacked documentation. When it was announced, DACA won the support of nearly 2/3rds of the U.S. population according to a Pew Research Center report. Once approved for the program, DACA recipients would (generally) be protected from deportation, could work legally, and obtain a driver’s license. To qualify, DACA applicants had to have entered the United States before 2007, be younger than 16 when they arrived and not older than 31 when the program began. They were required to maintain a virtually spotless criminal record, and needed to be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or the equivalent.

Loyola Marymount University student and ‘Dreamer’ Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of DACA. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP - Guardian- Sept 5, 2017

Loyola Marymount University student and ‘Dreamer’ Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of DACA. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP – Guardian- Sept 5, 2017

One key to the program is that they had to apply, which meant giving the government information that could easily put them at risk: fingerprints, addresses, biometric information. They had to make themselves even more vulnerable to a government that had betrayed them so often in the past and now said, “trust us.” Of an estimated 1.3-1.7 million individuals eligible for DACA, close to 800,000 ultimately applied.

To be clear, DACA status didn’t provide them with a “path toward citizenship” or permanent residence in the United States; it gave them a temporary way to come out of the shadows and at least momentarily put aside some fears, for they still faced the possibility that their parents could be deported. And they had to reapply every two years.

It is not easy to research this undocumented group of young people, but according to study by Tom Wong of UC San Diego, DACA recipients were, on average, 6½ when they arrived in the U.S. In other words, for a great number of these individuals, the only life they have known is in the United States. While we don’t know how many DACA recipients are undergraduates, the University of California system, for example, has approximately 4,000 undocumented students, a substantial number of whom have DACA status. Harvard enrolls perhaps 65. In all, an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from college each year.

Acts of Erasure

There are many ways to analyze Trump’s demented decision to terminate DACA: as yet another indication of his determination to re-impose the white, patriarchal, straight, Christian America of his Queens upbringing in the 1950s, the New York borough represented so subversively by Archie Bunker, as Jelani Cobb recently observed; as another piece of candy offered to his political base equally rattled by its own ethnic anxieties; or as a further measure of his determination to break anything that President Obama built. Whatever else this decision shows, it is more evidence that the man is devoid of empathy. He will not or cannot allow himself to imagine the life of an 18-year old brought from Honduras as a child, who, with much effort, became a young woman who danced with joy at her high school prom, proudly joined the military to serve “her country,” and now is encouraged to “self-deport” lest she find herself with a one-way ticket to a country whose language she no longer speaks, a town she doesn’t remember, and a family that no longer lives there. For Trump and his anti-immigrant backers (a faction which has been active since the nation was founded but which modifies its targets over time), she lacks documents and therefore neither her past nor her future is of concern. She does not exist in history. She has been rendered prehistoric.

Activists rally in New York. Photograph: Albin LJ/Pacific/Barcroft Images - Guardian; Sept. 1, 2017

Activists rally in New York. Photograph: Albin LJ/Pacific/Barcroft Images – Guardian; Sept. 1, 2017

Frankly, I’m not interested in understanding why this man does what he does; my concern is for those who will suffer from his actions. There is no time in this short essay to explore the historically sour welcome given migrants, both “sanctioned and subjugated,” into this country. Nor can I explore the virtual lack of citizenship that has been the reality for African Americans living here. But some brief background is needed to understand, in particular, the existence of millions of migrants from Mexico and Central America.

Mexican workers arrive in San Francisco, World War II

Mexican workers arrive in San Francisco, World War II

For more than a century, the United States has depended on the labor of those coming from south of the border. They came when their toil was needed, and returned home when conditions turned. A purposefully porous southern border encouraged both an inflow of low-cost labor to U.S. farms, mines, and other industries, and the opportunity of a return home to their natal communities.

But in the 1990s a trap door fell. As the U.S. beefed up its border enforcement in response to conservative political pressure, those workers who had previously moved back and forth across the border no longer could risk leaving the United States to return to what most still considered their homes. Further, as Washington began toughening its immigration laws in response to the same pressures, those who were already here found that they had no way to legalize their status (or that of their non-U.S. born children) if they stayed, and virtually no legal way to return to the States if they left. So while the decision to terminate DACA is particularly cruel for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have known no other life than what they have experienced in this country, U.S. immigration laws are no less punishing for the millions who have come here to pick our crops, tend our gardens, and care for our children, who, in short, have taken jobs that others don’t want.

Trump’s decision to rescind DACA is above all an act of erasure, an attempt to remove those without documents from “our” history. Iowa Representative Steve King was quite explicit about this. DACA recipients, he argued, should either self-deport or “live in the shadows,” where they can, presumably, provide cheap labor for Iowa’s meat packing firms. The question, though, is what can we do to protect the tens of thousands of DACA (and non-DACA) students who attend our classes and graduate from our universities?

DACA and Higher Education

Institutions of higher education and their associations have been uniform in their condemnation of Trump’s actions. Shortly after Trump’s election, more than 600 college and university presidents, including Oberlin’s president Krislov, signed a statement urging continued support for DACA. This week, Carmen Ambar, Oberlin’s newly installed president, circulated a letter to the campus linking the institution’s support for DACA to its historic mission of inclusion: “Today,” she wrote, “we are called to continue that legacy as we fight for the rights of young, undocumented individuals who have benefited from [DACA].” Going a step further, on September 8, the University of California filed suit in federal court against the Trump administration for unconstitutionally violating the rights of the university and its students by rescinding DACA on “nothing more than unreasoned executive whim.”

Carlos Esteban of Woodbridge, Va., a nursing student and DACA recipient, rallies with others outside the White House, Sept. 5. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press) – LA Times, Sept 6, 17

Carlos Esteban of Woodbridge, Va., a nursing student and DACA recipient, rallies with others outside the White House, Sept. 5. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press) – LA Times, Sept 6, 17

Colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to protect the privacy of student records, provide DACA students with legal aid and, in some cases, financial support, establish offices to provide targeted support and counseling, enroll students without regard for their immigration status, insure that campus security and police forces do not make inquiries regarding any student’s legal status, advocate in the name of their institutions for new laws to protect DACA recipients and all undocumented students, and lobby their legislators to pass legislation to reform an immigration system that has grown increasingly punitive and threatens to spill back into a racially exclusionary system.

But what do we, teachers of these threatened students, teachers of all students in our classroom, do? The issue, as Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities recently noted, is not a partisan one: “We do have values to serve, and these are not partisan values.” For obvious reasons, we are unlikely to know which students in our classes are DACA students or who lacks legal status. This is all the more reason to make known to all our students that we are part of an educational community that is formed by the values of equity and inclusion, that all our students are equal members of that community regardless of any aspect of their identity or status, that all are deserving of a quality education, and that we will work with them to insure they receive it. It is also important to indicate again, that if any student is in need of special consideration and feels unable to communicate that need directly to us, they should work with the Dean of Students’ office, which can bring the matter to our attention.

One of the consequences for our DACA and undocumented students who have been forced to live a life of intense vulnerability is that we do not know, we cannot know, their histories; we do not know, we cannot know, the effort they must put in just to keep up with our classes, let alone excel in them. Preparing for an exam or writing a 10-page paper is hard enough given the complexity of our young students’ lives. Concentrating on those tasks when you don’t know if your mother will be put on a plane and sent to El Salvador when she reports to her next meeting with ICE agents, planning what courses to take for a future which may crumble at any minute, requires more focus and effort than most of us can muster. And yet, we do not know, cannot know, about it because their vulnerabilities have rendered them silent.

And this is where we come in. We must be clear that in our classrooms and in our communities, our students will not be made voiceless; they will not be made invisible; they will not be stripped of their past and turned “prehistoric” because it matters to us, deeply. If our students can’t speak up, we need to become better listeners who can be aware of the silences. If our students can’t ask for our support, we need to offer it without their asking. DACA and the undocumented have a home in our colleges and universities, and we need to make sure that they know it.


Meet the First Years!

Steve Volk, September 4, 2017

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

One thing we learn as educators is that all students are different and need to be taught in ways that can best promote their learning and growth. I’m not talking about the “learning styles” literature, which needs to be approached with a good degree of caution and should not be confused with Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” research. (Indeed, a veritable “learning-styles-industrial complex” has developed around the approach, giving rise to dozens of companies all trying to sell their particular “learning-styles” product, even though, as many researchers have discovered, there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.) Rather, I mean that one of the great joys of teaching is getting to know students on an individual level so that we can provide the most appropriate help when needed. And, the other side of the coin, one of our great frustrations is lacking the time to do this to the extent that we would desire.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gained by examining an incoming class as a whole, not just at our own college, but across the country. At Oberlin, for example, we have just welcomed 765 new students (College and Conservatory combined). 58% of the class are women, 42% men, which puts us just slightly above the national figure of 55% women). We have learned that approximately 26% of the class are students of color, and that 88 foreign students from 40 different countries now call Oberlin home.

What about the national picture, where some 20.4 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2017 (an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000)? For many years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has published The American Freshman: National Norms, an annual survey of full-time first-year students (FTFT). I always find the survey a useful means to follow trends that are developing in higher education, some of which are mirrored on our own campus.

This “Article of the Week” will present some of HERI’s data for students entering in 2016 which were published a few months ago, as well as figures from a few other sources. The HERI data were compiled from a survey of 137,456 students including 80,000 students at baccalaureate institutions, of whom about 49,000 were from private 4-year colleges. While HERI and other sources I’ve examined report on a multitude of topics, here I just including a few snapshots that I found most informative.

Political Orientation

It will come as no surprise to learn that the entering cohort of full-time, first-time college students in the fall 2016 semester was the most polarized in the 51-year history of the Freshman Survey, in general and by gender. (Any guesses as to what the results will show for the 2017 entering class? I shudder in anticipation.) Fewer students than ever before (42.3%) categorize their political views as “middle of the road,” while an all-time high of 41.1% of women self-identify as “liberal” or “far left” with respect to their political views. This compares with 28.9% of men who consider themselves in the same categories, yielding the largest gender gap in self-reported political orientation to date.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

More broadly, here is how incoming first-years thought of themselves politically:

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Openness to other viewpoints:

The fact that more students nationally are moving away from a “middle-of-the-road” self-definition is not, it itself, either surprising or necessarily troubling. It could suggest that entering students are more aware of political issues and more willing to define themselves in relation to on-going debates. What IS troubling – you thought I’d skate away from this one, didn’t you? – are the findings regarding the degree to which politically defined students profess that they will “tolerate” others with different beliefs. (What “tolerating” other beliefs means isn’t fully defined.) Somewhat less than one-third of self-identified right-of-center students indicated a low tolerance of others with different beliefs. This compared to 82.0% of “middle of the road” students and 86.6% of left-of-center students who said that they “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” would “tolerate others with different beliefs.” The complexities of teaching in an environment where those who hold different political beliefs aren’t “tolerated” are enormous.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Why are students going to college?

For many years after the financial crash of 2008, students focused on economic criteria as the primary reasons for going on to post-secondary education. As the unemployment rate began to decline from 2012 to 2016, the trend was paralleled by a decline in more purely job-related or financial reasons expressing why a high school student wanted to continue on to  college – although such reasons are still very important. The percentage of students concerned about going to college to get a better job has modestly declined from an all-time high of 87.9% in 2012 to 84.8% in 2016, hardly a dramatic decline. First-time, full-time college students in 2016 were ever-so-slightly less likely to consider “making more money” as a very important reason to attend college (72.6%) compared to their peers who started college in 2012 (74.6%). It’s heartening (at least from my perspective, others might disagree) to see a rise in the desire to gain “a general education and appreciation of ideas” and learning “more about things that interest me,” as reasons for going on to college. But we be foolish to neglect the underlying economic considerations when thinking about our students.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Here’s a chart listing the “top objectives” that in-coming students named as  essential or very important goals they wanted to achieve by going on to college or university.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

First-Generation Students:

Of course, there are significant variations among student cohorts. First-generation students, for example, are more likely to consider the cost of their selected institution and being offered financial assistance as very important factors in selecting their college (56.1% and 58.2%, respectively) compared to continuing-generation students (45.1% and 43.9%).

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of first-generation college students enrolling full-time in four-year institutions has hovered around 20%. In 2015, approximately 17.2% of incoming first-year students self-reported as first-generation, the lowest proportion of first-generation students in the history of the survey. In 2016, roughly 18.8% of the cohort of incoming students identify as first-generation college students.

If it’s hard to understand exactly what these numbers suggest, the demographic composition of first generation students is striking and suggests the changing racial and ethic composition of higher education which is already strongly underway. Only 10% of first generation students were white, whereas 27% were Black and 57% Latino.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Mental Health Concerns:

Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such conditions. Distressingly, the number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. According to studies published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 33% of students in the past 12 months felt so depressed that it “was difficult to function.”

The trends are likely to continue based on data on incoming students. More than one-third (34.5%) of incoming first-time, full-time college students reported frequently feeling anxious. Students identifying with any of the disabilities, psychological disorders, or chronic illnesses listed on the instrument have a greater likelihood than other freshmen to have frequently felt anxious in the past year.


Last year Oberlin graduated 178 students who had been registered with the Disabilities Services office. This number included students with regular accommodations (i.e., those whose documentation was in order), students considered as “provisional” (those whose documentation was not up to date or incomplete); and temporaries (about 3-5% of students with broken arms, concussions, etc.). By the end of the spring 2017 semester, the office had seen about 700 students, or approximately 23% of the student body. Think about it, people. That’s a very significant number.

The Oberlin figures are generally in line with national trends. Overall, nearly 22% of incoming first-year students identified as having at least one disability/disorder. All reports indicate that the figure is increasing. A decade ago (2007-08), 11% of undergraduates reported a disability.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

For those interested in reading more about students on the autism spectrum, I can recommend two recent articles: Jan Hoffman, “Along the Autism Spectrum, A Path Through Campus Life,” New York Times (Nov. 19, 2016), and Paul Basken, “Colleges Are Trying a Broad Approach to Autistic Students. What Will That Cost?Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2017). [Note: “premium” content available via the library.]

Gender Identity and Sexuality:

The HERI survey for the first time in its history asked students to identify themselves by gender identity, and then used this data to ask about levels of confidence in specific skills or attributes. Compared to the nationally normed sample, students identifying as transgender have far greater confidence in their artistic ability (52.0% vs. 30.7% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”) and creativity (64.0% vs. 52.6% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”). By contrast, transgender students rate themselves lower than first-time, full-time students in the areas of social self-confidence, leadership ability, and physical health.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offered an overview of the sexual orientation or identity as self-reported by in-coming first year students.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Social Media Use:

I found it both interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive that increased social media use on the part of in-coming students didn’t reveal any decline in the amount of time they spent with face-to-face contacts. Full time, first-year students entering college this fall do not seem to substitute more frequent use of online social networks for in-person interactions with friends. Three-quarters (75.2%) of students who spent at least six hours per week using social media during the past year also spent at least six hours per week socializing with friends in person. By contrast, roughly half (48.2%) of students who averaged less than six hours each week connecting in online social networks also spent six or more hours socializing with their friends in person. More time online = a greater likelihood of more face-to-face interactions? I need to think about that one more.

If you, like me, wondered where all this time was being spent, here’s some indication.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Wait — one might say at this point — students are spending more (or the same amount) of time on average socializing, exercising, and hanging out online as studying? Obviously, the data need unpacking, and will vary widely by the type of institution. But when we think despairingly of “today’s students” (as in “what’s the matter with students today”), I’d strongly recommend reading Gail O. Mellow’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Mellow, the president of La Guardia Community College, observed in “The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students” (August 28, 2017), that “Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full-time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.” Four in ten students work at least 30 hours per week; 25% work full time and go to school full time. My guess is that they aren’t the ones exercising or socializing with friends during their “free” hours.

Whatever the numbers and the trends suggest, we all know that all students bring their own stories, strengths, and concerns to college and that, if the statistics can help us better comprehend the state of higher education, only by getting to know our own students can we provide them with the support and guidance they deserve.


What’s in a Name?

Steve Volk, August 28, 2017

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

–Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

After a summer that has quickly scurried away into some dark corner from which it will only emerge, like a baby newly born, nine months from now, we return to our classrooms. At least for those who didn’t spend the summer teaching or are not teaching this semester. As we reengage, hopefully refreshed and ready to go, I’m reminded of what the poet Nikki Giovanni once remarked when asked what she would miss most when she retired from teaching. (Lord knows, it wasn’t grading exams or sitting through department meetings!)

I’m going to be sorry when I retire — she wrote — because… if it’s one thing that I definitely enjoy, it’s my 8:00 class. My 8:00 class, they come to me, 8:00 AM, they come to me from their dreams, and I come to them from mine. And I would give up a lot of things, in terms of teaching; I really don’t want to give up my 8:00, because I like the freshness that they bring. And the other word would be, I like the love that we have for each other as we come into that class.”

Good to keep in mind.

Graduates, Oberlin College. 1973 Hi-o-hi Yearbook. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Graduates, Oberlin College. 1973 Hi-o-hi Yearbook. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

When I began teaching, I was sure I’d never forget a student’s name. A few years in, and it became quite evident that wasn’t going to happen. OK, I don’t remember their names, but I was sure I’d never forget a face. Fast forward — maybe a few weeks? — and I realized no guarantees there, either. As the years went by, I was embarrassed to admit that I greeted returning alumni as if they were still in my classes (“So, how are your other classes going?” “Er, I graduated 5 years ago”) and, occasionally, currently enrolled students I bumped into at the gym as former students. I soon switched to a more noncommittal, “So, what’s going on?” when I saw a familiar face.

While my face and name forgetfulness is more likely due to advancing years, and not anything as dramatic as prosopagnosia, it concerned me that students would think I didn’t care who they were. Students are (justifiably) upset with faculty who haven’t learned their names, more so if it appears that instructors are not putting any effort into it. (This reaches another level altogether if faculty consistently, and perhaps pointedly, mistake one minority student for another, what has been called the “cross-race effect”. That’s not my subject here, although I’ll return to it in a future article.)

For all the discussion of the importance of remembering names, there has been little research on the impact on student learning of faculty members’ ability to remember their students’ names. At least until now. A study recently published in CBE – Life Sciences Education by Katelyn M. Cooper, Brian Haney, Anna Krieg, and Sara E. Brownell (“What’s in a Name? The Importance of Students Perceiving That an Instructor Knows Their Names in a High-Enrollment Biology Classroom”) tried to measure the impact of “name-knowing” in a 185-student, upper- level biology class. Among the findings:

  • Over 85% of the students who responded on a post course survey thought it was important that the instructors knew their names.
  • When asked why, many wrote that it made them feel valued, that it helped them feel that the instructor cared about them.
  • Students also indicated that having an instructor know your name made them feel more invested in the course and likely impacted their behavior in the course; it made them more comfortable seeking help from the professor.
Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1960. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1960. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

So, while the researchers couldn’t determine whether name-knowing was linked with an improvement in student performance, it’s not a stretch to imagine that students who are more invested in their classes, and more willing to get help from the instructor, are likely to learn more and do better.

These findings are also broadly consistent with the conclusions reached by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takas in How College Works (Harvard 2014) which argued that “personal connections are often the central mechanism and daily motivators of the student experience” (p. 4, italics in original). While there’s more to “personal connections” than knowing a student’s name, calling a student by name can help pave the way for such a connection to form.

Pronunciation: First (try to) do no harm…

And while we’re at it, we should also stress the importance of correctly pronouncing a student’s name. For all students, and especially the children of immigrants or those who are English-language learners, having a teacher who not only knows their name but can pronounce it correctly signals respect and inclusion. I always call role on the first day of class. Some time ago, after the first class, a student came up to tell me it was the first time that a teacher had correctly pronounced her name on the first day of class. Ever. Her first year in college and no teacher had gotten it right before. She still remembered that some years later when I saw her at a reunion. I was able to do this because she had a Spanish-Mayan name, but I often find myself linguistically challenged with names that aren’t in my language wheelhouse. Asking for help is always the best way forward in such circumstances. I was teaching in China over the summer and, quite sure that I would do serious damage to their names, I had the students pronounce their names – and asked them to correct me – until I finally got it right. [For a good article on this in the early childhood classroom, see: Mariana Souto-Manning. “Honoring Children’s Names and, Therefore, Their Identities.” School Talk (NCTE) 12.3 (April 2007): 1-2.]

Tricks of the Trade

So, how can you remember all those names? There are lots of suggestions out there. For example, try these from the University of Virginia, these from Carnegie Mellon, or these from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Without claiming any originality, I’ve compiled a squadron of suggestions (in no particular order), including some old favorites and some newer approaches.

Use a seating chart for the first 2-3 classes: Ask students to sit in the same place for a few classes to help you learn their names more quickly. (You’ll find that, even without asking them, most students will sit in the same seat all semester long.)

Photos: use the “Photo Roster” tab in Blackboard: Blackboard, and many other learning management systems, will provide you with photos of students enrolled in your classes. This is probably the best way to learn the names of many of your students before the first class even though I’m always staggered by how different many students look when seated in front of me from when they took the photo. But it’s a good start.

Keep in mind that some students may have changed their names since enrolling, and even though Blackboard allows students to change their preferred name on this platform if they wish, you will want to make sure that you have updated the necessary information.

Photos: use your phone. If you want current photos, you can have students come up, maybe three at a time, write their name on the board (and any pronunciation guides if needed along with their gender pronouns), and snap their photo with your phone.

Help the students learn each other’s names: One of the best methods of learning student names is to make sure that they know each other’s names and use them in class when referring to each other (“I agree with Julio, who argued…)

Arrange students into groups of two and have them introduce themselves to each other, coming up with three interesting facts about their partner. Then have them introduce their partner to the class as a whole, which is a boon for students who are reticent about introducing themselves.

Alternatively, you can have students write something about themselves, put it on a card, and give it to you. (You can then attach a photo to the card from the Photo Roster or draw a quick, 20-second sketch of the student.)

Have students say their name each time they speak in class, at least in the first few weeks of class or until everyone (instructor and the students) feels they know everyone’s name. This will require that you remind them frequently, but it pays off.

Pick one thing that says something about you: Have students pick out one item from their backpacks, purses, wallets, etc., that says something about them, and then introduce themselves to the class: “Hi, I’m Shang. This is a Metro card from the Beijing Metro which I took to get to my high school.” “I’m Amy, and this is my mouth guard – I play field hockey.”

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1968. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Hi-o-hi Yearbook, 1968. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

“Tent” cards: Hand out 5X8 cards, have students write their names on them, make a “V” out of them, and put them on the front of their desks. This helps everyone learn names (unless you’re assigned to the purgatory of a fixed-seating classroom). Collect them at the end of the day, and have your students pick them up as they come in for the next class. (You can also use this as a handy way to keep attendance, at least at the start: students who didn’t get their cards are marked absent.) Here is one student’s comment about using name tents from the biology class study referenced earlier:

“I had my name tent out a couple weeks ago, and the person sitting next to me called me by my name. I turned around. It makes me respond better, because they call you by your name instead of like, ‘Hey.’ Some random person is talking to you, and they just want to discuss a worksheet question. When they call your name—I don’t know what it is—it makes me want to have more communication with them, better communication since they call you by your name.”

Easy does it: For very large classes, try to memorize a row of students per day. In the few minutes before class begins, review what you’ve already memorized and then add another row of students to that list.

Create visual associations. James Paterson, a psychology teacher in the UK and finalist in the World Memory Championships, suggests creating “a visual association between the student’s name and their face, no matter how weird or illogical it might seem. If your student is called Oliver for example, you could imagine him begging for more marks, like Oliver Twist – it’s incredible how easily the full name can be recalled with only the most tenuous of associations.”

Ask for help: Particularly during the early weeks of a course, ask for the students’ help in remembering their names. They usually appreciate the effort you are taking.

Names and assignments: Often, as hard as I try, it’s not until I start reading assignments (and passing them back) that I finally remember all the names. I have found it really important to hand papers back to students as a way of learning their names (although that’s not going to help you if you do everything electronically!).

Challenge yourself: After introductions the first day (particularly for seminars), see if you can remember everyone’s name in the class. Try doing it at the start of the next class as well.

In the end, I still have problems remembering student names when I see them in something other than a classroom context, but it then it never hurts to say, “Can you remind me of your name? Sometimes I can’t even remember my cats’ names!”

Sandra Cisneros, 2009. Creative Commons.

Sandra Cisneros, 2009. Creative Commons.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday morning when he is shaving, songs like sobbing. […]

At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister’s name Magdalena – which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least- – can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza. I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do. (Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street)

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

Steve Volk, August 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

Pew Research Center

Pew Research Center

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

Speech Issues on Campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goals of Higher Education

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

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

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

Student Learning and Campus Speakers

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

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

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

Supporting the Learning Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Day of Classes

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

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


** Just to be clear, my critique here is of Haidt’s nostalgia, not of the many students at Yale at the time who saw the invitation to find in “Lux et Veritas” a way to “change the system,” as one grad put it to me. I apologize for any misunderstandings. [Added Aug. 22, 2017, 12:41 PM]

And, We’re Back…

Steve Volk, August 17, 2017

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

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

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

Thinking About the Syllabus

From a course syllabus by Zac Wendler at Ferris State University

From a course syllabus by Zac Wendler at Ferris State University

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

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

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

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

In the Classroom:

Active Learning

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

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning (Feb. 8, 2015) explores the concept and theory of active learning and offers advice on how to help prepare students for collaborative, communicative classroom practices where they can learn as much from each other as from the instructor.


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

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

Secret HandshakesRevealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design (Sept. 27, 2015) argues that there are a variety of ways in which academic success has always been an “insiders” game, and that if we are to give all our students the best chance of success, we need to design assignments clearly, explicitly, and in a way that all can understand.

Beginnings and Endings

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

In The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins (Feb. 8, 2015), I argue for the importance of using the few minutes before class actually begins to help create an environment where students are at ease and attentive.

The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning (April 20, 2014) examines relatively traditional ways to end a class (e.g., talking faster to get in everything you wanted even as the students are packing their bags and heading for the door) and suggests better ways to make productive use out of the last five minutes of class.


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

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Inksheds and Eggshells (April 10, 2016) explores a technique whereby students free-write on a topic, then pass their comments to a second student, and so on for about 20 minutes until the discussion moves to the class as a whole.

Let’s Talk about It: Fostering Productive Classroom Discussions (Sept. 6, 2015) considers ways to set up a class so that discussions have the greatest chance of supporting student learning. In particular, it provides approaches to help students be responsible talkers and listeners when working with their peers.

Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class (Sept. 20, 2015) offers ways to structure student discussions of course material outside of the class.

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively (Sept. 14, 2014) argues why discussions are an important pedagogy for learning, and offers advice on how to set up discussion groups, structure small-group conversations, and bring the learning occurring in the break-out groups back to the class as a whole.


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

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading (March 27, 2016) contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment. There are a variety of ways to engage in “contract grading” (three are discussed in this article), but all attempt to clarify the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions.

Group Projects

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

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

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


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

Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand (Feb. 1, 2015): A synopsis of Lee Knefelkamp’s (Teachers College, Columbia) technique for helping students listen for understanding: i.e., for meaning, the impact of affect, communication, and response, in a responsible fashion, and in order to expand the complexity of one’s own understanding.

Presentation Software

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


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

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

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

Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills (March 29, 2015) provides an introduction to the “Active Reading Document” approach developed at Texas Lutheran University as a way to help students at all levels of reading get a better grip on the practice.

Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables) (Sept. 23, 2012) considers the question of how much reading should be assigned, offering some tips on how to figure this out for your specific classes.

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr (March 1, 2015) addresses the question of how much reading is too much reading (tl;dr = too long, did not read) and how to help students be better readers.


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

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

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

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

A Teacher’s Identity in the Classroom

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


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

Visualization Strategies

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization (Feb. 14, 2016) points to the evidence that links image and understanding, particularly in the sciences, where visualizations can be integral to the teaching of complex concepts. Visualization, teaching students to illustrate concepts, can be an effective way of helping students understand complexity in a variety of fields and communicate with clarity.

The Honor Code

The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation? (Nov. 22, 2015) traces the history of the honor code at colleges and universities and argues that there are a variety of assumptions built into this traditional pledge that need to be unpacked and discussed. The article also suggests that we need to be paying particular attention to how international students, who may have very different understandings of “honor,” understand and observe the code.

Equity and Specific Student Communities

Avoiding Stereotypes and Implicit Bias

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

The Stereotype Threat (Feb. 28, 2016) discusses research on the ways in which we carry around sets of implicit biases that can negatively impact our students’ ability to learn and reach their full potential.

Students on the Autism Spectrum

Teaching and Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (April 19, 2015) lists some approaches for teaching students who are on the autism spectrum.

International Students

In Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges (Nov. 1, 2015), I take account of the fact that the number of international students enrolled at liberal arts colleges is increasing at a rapid pace. The article provides specific advice for how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the remarkably diverse population which is now present on our campuses, and explores specific approaches or practices that may prove difficult for international students: working with open-ended assignments, receiving feedback on assignments, class participation, etc.

Information Literacy

Women's March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

Women’s March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

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

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

New Pedagogies, New Approaches

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

In The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom (March 12, 2016) Sebastiaan Faber argues that the ability to take risks with one’s teaching in order to make classroom teaching a collaborative endeavor where students take ownership over their own learning and become accountable for it as well, depends on building trust, accepting one’s own vulnerability, and suspending one’s authority in the classroom.

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

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

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

Office Hours

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

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

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

Teaching in Troubled Times:

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

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

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

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

Closing Time: Managing the End of the Semester

Steve Volk (May 1, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisit the course goals in your syllabus with your class.

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

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

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

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




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

     Have your attitudes or feelings about math changed?

     How do you feel you performed in this course?

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

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

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

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

Learning from the Semester

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

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

Stress and Anxiety

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

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

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

Saying Good-bye…

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the summer night

New Student Activism: Stops on the Road to New Solidarities

Steve Volk, April 24, 2017
Contact at:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Illiberal Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Protest: Through-Lines and Differences

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

Image courtesy of Carol Smith

Image courtesy of Carol Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New York Times headline. December 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

Enter the Faculty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on the Faculty

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

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

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

Educational Opportunity Program, Berkeley

Educational Opportunity Program, Berkeley

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

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

Focus on the classroom

The Political Classroom

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

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

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

The Democratic Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Choose your Own Adventure”: New Approaches to Assignments

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

"Macbeth," Holinshed Chronicles Folio. Public domain

“Macbeth,” Holinshed Chronicles Folio. Public domain

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Gradually into the New Assignment Waters

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

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

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

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

All In: Choose Your Own Adventure

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          or Continue the story of any Ovidian character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

          or? I am open to other unconventional approaches.

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

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

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

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

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