Tag Archives: community

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community

Steven Volk, August 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Tell Them What They (Really) Want to Know

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

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

Prohibitions

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

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

Thinking as Educators

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

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

How do we get from here to there?

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

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

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

Photo: Steve Volk

LA Graffiti: Photo: Steve Volk

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

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

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

Thompson continues:

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

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

Thompson concludes as follows:

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

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

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

Rove and Responsibility

How can we as teachers help our students think about contentious events on campus in a productive and useful fashion? I hope I’m not being totally naïve when I ask this question, because I do believe faculty have a serious responsibility to engage these issues. Not only are we members of this community with standing, but we carry a considerable amount of moral authority. Here, then, are some suggestions. If you have more, as well as contrary opinions, please post them to the blog or send them to me.

1. Provide context. As an historian, I always find context is important. We live in an increasingly contentious time in which speakers and viewpoints out of favor with legislators, administrations, faculties, or students are being outright banned or prevented from being represented on campus at a growing rate. The poster child for this is Bill Ayers, a (recently retired) education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was banned from the University of Wyoming, Boston College, Georgia Southern, and the University of Nebraska, among others. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Chris Hedges was booed off the stage during a commencement speech at Rockford College (an event described in the local paper under the Orwellian headline: “Speaker Disrupts RC Graduation”). Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was continually disrupted as he attempted to speak at the University of California, Irvine in February 2010. [For more, see the ACLU (http://www.aclu.org/free-speech) and FIRE (http://www.thefire.org/cases/topcases ).] Of course, the highly contentious “town hall” meetings of the summer of 2009 stand as a backdrop to the present moment, even if they took place in a different sphere than the academic. Nor is the banning or disrupting of speakers on U.S. campuses a new occurrence (think back to the many bans on left-wing, radical, and communist speakers in the 1950s and 1960). But I would suggest that the context of Mr. Rove’s talk is one in which the space for civil discourse has been narrowing, and it is useful for students to consider how their actions on one campus can become a part of a chilling trend in which debate is replaced with shouts.

2. Of course, the heart of the discussion one can have with students has to do with not just the first amendment right to free speech, which is extremely important in and of itself (even in its breech), but of the particular rules of discourse and behavior in our own educational community. These are not easy discussions to have with students, but they are important ones. Stating the obvious – that we are a community dedicated to the exchange of ideas – is useful but insufficient. Is it never right to disrupt a speaker, however uniformly hateful he or she may be? Unwilling to play the “Hitler card” so soon, I would raise a less significant straw man: what about Florida pastor Terry Jones? Once given a forum, should he be prevented from speaking? Allowing students to discuss these issues in class can provide them with a somewhat sheltered space to think about these questions – unlike what they are likely to find in Finney on Tuesday. I say that the rules of our community are useful but insufficient because our students (indeed we, ourselves) find these inadequate to solve the question by themselves. Otherwise, we could just pull out our JS Mill and leave it at that. So I do believe we should discuss the behaviors which bind us as a community as a starting point, including the right for many to speak, but also would argue that we have to go beyond that.

3. Help students think things through to the end. Full disclosure: I participated in a few confrontations at my graduate university when we prohibited speakers from speaking. I felt deeply, passionately and personally convinced that these individuals were criminals (and while my views have hopefully become a bit more sophisticated over the years, I still see them as exactly that, criminals). And yet I wonder to this day whether my tactics (not my beliefs) would have been different had members of the faculty I respected encouraged me to think the matter through to the end. Yes, you can prevent “x” from speaking here, and students at the other university down the road can do the same, but what is it you want to accomplish besides denying him a stage? Disruptions turn conversations around to the issue of disruption, not the presentation of the political or humanitarian matters that you want to call attention to.

4. As students who are, hopefully, training to be more than chemists, historians, or oboe players – who are training, in fact, to be citizens, we can help them ask questions about the events that they will confront. Why, for example, is a particular speaker invited to speak on campus? Without impugning the motives of the College Republicans in this particular case, I would suggest that at least one purpose of the invitation was to be provocative, i.e., to challenge or test the campus by showcasing a lightning-rod figure whose views are likely to be generally unpopular to the majority. (There are other purposes as well, of course, but this is the one that is important to our discussion. The others are subsumed under Mill’s observation that one reason for free speech is that you can actually learn from what you hear.) One can probably say similar things about other speakers from different viewpoints, but as teachers we ask our students to be smart, not naïve, and one way to be smart is to question motives, and not accept arguments on face value. What, then, is the purpose of this invitation from the perspective of those who are suspicious of it, and how should one’s actions be guided by one’s reasoning? You can point students to some ways of answering the question, including research (e.g., New York Times, “Rove Returns, With Team, Planning G.O.P. Push,” Sept. 25, 2010).You might point out to students that they can think more effectively about any response by considering the purpose of the visit. If you think, for example, that by disrupting a speech you will allow some to claim that free speech only exists for progressive causes at Oberlin, and that this will then become part of a larger argument about how colleges and universities have become hostile to conservative views and that this is more reason why voters should turn out of office those who “pal around” with “extremists,” – if you believe this, than it would seem rather foolish at best to willingly walk into a trap that has been set for you. And this is the case for arguments on either side of the political spectrum – our task as teachers is to help students ask the kind of questions (and then determine the kinds of responses) that are most likely to be informed, informative, and productive.

5. Help your students think about what interest they have in this event, what interests the community has, and the dangers of assuming that one is acting in the “best interests” of the community even though you may be in the majority. Democracy, after all, is about more than majority rule; it is about minority rights.

6. Help your students clarify what they want to accomplish? Small (or large) groups can disrupt audiences. We’ve seen that play out in U.S. politics over the past two years (“You lie!”). Shutting down speech with which you disagree is an easy act, not a difficult one. Determining how to insure that your point of view is heard (and not just the disruption that you have caused) is much harder. As faculty, we need to help students accomplish what is difficult but productive, not what is easy and damaging.

Your role as a teacher and mentor is not to tell students what to think, but to help them think through issues and consequences and, if useful, arrive at alternatives. The fact that you teach math and not politics is irrelevant to the fact that we are all members of this community, charged with helping our students think not just as mathematicians and politicians, but as citizens.