Tag Archives: pedagogy

Reflections from Some Colleagues’ Classrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching in Your Own Skin

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

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

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

In Love with the Subject

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

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

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

Accessing Deeper Understandings

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

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

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

Connecting to Students

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

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

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

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

Finding Our Authority

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

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

Teaching with Tenderness

Steve Volk, February 19, 2018
Contact: svolk@oberlin.edu

Always start with the names:

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bird and Mallow Flowers (ca. 1842), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College



Alyssa Alhadeff
Scott Beigel
Martin Duque Anguiano
Nicholas Dworet
Aaron Feis
Jamie Guttenberg
Chris Hixon
Luke Hoyer
Cara Loughran
Gina Montalto
Joaquin Olivier
Alaina Petty
Meadow Pollack
Helena Ramsay
Alex Schachter
Carmen Schentrup
Peter Wang

Victims of the Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. Since Adam Lanza killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been more than 140 school shootings in the United States. And, of course, those were preceded by Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and too many others.


How do we respond?

The appalling toll of gun violence in this country should need no reminding. But when we, as teachers, read of school massacres, it is a kick to the gut. Again. As individuals, we feel anger and sadness, rage and compassion all at the same time. Our empathy with the victims is strong. But as teachers, our response is direct and visceral; we feel a need to hold our students, a deep desire to protect them even as we know we can’t.

How do we respond?

Do we talk to them about Parkland? Do we talk to them about Albert E. Morton, a 31 year old Black man who was shot and killed by police while driving in his car in Harrisburg, PA, one of 123 people shot and killed by police in 2018? Do we talk to them about 20-year old Alexis G. who was deported to Mexico, a country he doesn’t know, in June 2017 after having lived almost his whole life United States? “If I were to sing an anthem right now, it would be the Star-Spangled Banner,” he said before being deported.

We shouldn’t be surprised if our students preferred to get on with their French lesson or hunker down in the biology lab, totally reasonable responses. And, since I never know what approach students would choose, I always check with then, and then follow their lead. So, I asked some students I’m working with how they reacted to the news of the Douglas High shootings. They all said the same thing: they have grown numb, anesthetized to events that have become commonplace in the United States. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said.  Since Sandy Hook, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide in which 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed. I had forgotten the date of the Columbine massacre, so I looked it up: 1999, which means that school massacres have been part of our students’ reality for their entire lives.


That was the end of our conversation. They wanted to get down to the work at hand. But I continued to think about how we respond to these criminal moments that crash into our daily existence. I refuse to call these events “tragedies.” As Simone Weil once pointed out, tragedy arises from a situation where one absolute obligation comes into conflict with another. Being in this country without documentation is a tragedy; massacring school kids is a crime. But how do we respond? How do we react to these continual horrors without always talking about them? Is there is a way to answer the violence around us without being overtaken by it? How can we help our students cope with trauma without forcing them to continually reflect on traumatic events?

“We are not all that is possible,” June Jordan, the remarkable poet wrote in “Outside Language.” “None of us has ever really experienced justice. None of us has known enough tenderness.”

“None of us has known enough tenderness.” The answer suggested in Jordan’s poem led me to Becky Thompson’s most recent book – which opens with Jordan’s poem as an epigraph. Thompson, who describes herself as anti-racist and feminist, a sociology professor, and yoga instructor, invites her readers to practice a “pedagogy of tenderness.” In Teaching with Tenderness, she suggests how we might adopt “gentler ways” of teaching. For those whose new-age bullshit antennae have begun to waggle uncontrollably, stay with this, at least for a few more paragraphs. I’m not going to talk about sitting in a circle and holding hands – although I could and she does. And I’m not going to suggest that our fundamental purpose as teachers is to make our students feel better. Teaching with tenderness, Thompson offers, is about locating our teaching not just in models of intimacy, but also in forms of intensity and intellectual depth. Teaching with tenderness is about improving student learning, as well as their mental health, by lending attention to emotions as well as cognition, body as well as mind.


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

Rituals are important in life events, from birth to death, and, Thompson argues, in class events, from first class to last.  She begins the semester with her students’ names (one reason why I began this article with names). I’ve written before about the importance of learning names at the start of class, and, when possible, taking steps to help everyone remember each other’s name. I’ve always thought of this as a form of simple politeness and inclusion. But Thompson suggests that there are deeper reasons than courtesy for this practice. We start with names because unnaming, removing names as was done through enslavement or during the Holocaust, and as is done in prisons today, is a radical form of dehumanization. Naming, then, is a step toward recognizing each other’s humanity by calling attention to the fact that names matter, “they hold stories to people’s heritage, to what they know or don’t know about their ancestors, to gender. It is a start in seeing each other” (42).

Thompson starts each semester with all the students sharing their whole name, where it came from, what it means, and how they feel about their names. The process begins with the first student, and each student thereafter has to repeat the names of all who preceded them.

Naming is one ritual, and Thompson’s classes are marked by others, such as checking-in at the start of class, and reflection at the end. It is her way of always honoring the students as individuals, as humans who stand at the center of her practice of teaching. It is a means of teaching with tenderness. 

Embodied Teaching

After many years of teaching, Thompson came to the realization that she “was passing on to my students some of the same costs I had paid to become an academic. When I was finishing one of my earlier books…I began to realize that the academy asked people to trade in their body parts, anything below the neck, in order to be successful. I remember feeling like I had ransomed off all of my body parts, except my head, in order to finish the book…After I finished, I realized that I wanted my body parts back – my legs, my arms, my core, my feelings especially…” (pp. 36-37). Tyrone Simpson, one of her colleagues at Simmons College, speaks of the academy as a “decorporealizing process.” Holding a Ph.D., he observes, is the proof that you have been “willing to be out of your body for an extended period of time.”

Utagawa Hiroshige, Akasaka, no. 57 from the series Sixty-nine Stations on the Kisokaidō (late 1830s), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Which is kind of weird, when you think about it, because both learning and teaching are fundamentally embodied practices. Stephen Cope writes that mind and body are “different points in the spectrum of subtlety…The body is a gross form of consciousness. The mind is a more subtle form of consciousness.” But we know this on a more obvious level: the process of imagining, studying, planning, analyzing, and creating continually bump into and interact with the limitations of our physical selves. We are tired, hungry, suffering various aches and pains. Thinking has embodied limitation. As does teaching: since we haven’t yet been replaced by robots, we still teach in our bodies, whether standing or sitting, whether we want to or not.

When Thompson remarked that the academy “asked people to trade in their body parts,” other than the brain, in order to succeed, she was speaking not only to the fact that most of us live extraordinarily sedentary lives, parked in chairs, staring at computer screens. And even if we move around class when we teach, our students remain largely stationary. (Indeed, one frightening aspect of the state of education today is that young children, beginning in the pre-school years, are required to spend more and more time glued to their desks, toiling away at “paper and pencil” tasks.)

Does “disembodiment” really matter for us, who teach college students who (generally) know how to stay (relatively) still for 50 or 75 minutes or longer? Absolutely. Consider the following: It’s Tuesday afternoon at 1:45. Class has been going on for 45 minutes and your students’ eyes have begun to glaze over; even you are feeling the energy leaving you drop by drop. What do we do? If I’m any example, we probably just soldier on, ignoring the tired or restless bodies. Or, we could take approximately 1 minute to have the students stand up and “shake it out.” Now, which approach will have the greatest impact on student learning? You can answer that.

Thompson was one of Maurice Stein’s graduate assistants at Brandeis University. Stein, a sociologist, was already a legendary instructor 50 years ago when I was an undergraduate there (he retired in 2002), and he evidently got even better over time. He always resisted the notion that there was one specific model for good teaching, suggesting that “there are probably as many possibilities as there are varieties of human beings doing the job of teaching.” When Maury felt a lull in the class’s energy, Thompson reports, he would insist that everyone get up and do the hokey pokey. “People thought that was hilarious, embarrassing, and silly,” she writes, “allowing them to roll their eyes at him as they twirled around. Perhaps because Maury is a serious scholar, and chose seriously intense books, he could get away with this frivolity, knowing that tenderness is a quality that balances between joy and rage, despair and hope” (35).

Utagawa Hiroshige, Catching Fireflies on the Uji River, from the series Famous Places in the Provinces (late 1830s), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Embodied teaching, of course, is neither easy nor straightforward. Tyrone Simpson, Thompson’s aforementioned colleague, is a “six-foot-one Black man with dreadlocks” who teaches in the “white space” of Simmons College. He can neither deny his body (“I am a walking limb,” he remarks), at the same time that his context requires him “to render invisible his own thoughts and experience of embodiment.” Further, the important feminist work to politicize sexual harassment has been used to render problematic attention to the body in the workplace. Nevertheless, keeping these in mind, there is pedagogic value in recognizing our own embodied ways and those of our students.

Emotional Amplitude

Thompson’s teaching-with-tenderness pedagogy is conscious of the impact of emotions on the learning process. She is a sociologist, not a psychologist, but significant psychological research has confirmed the links between emotions and learning/memory (in both positive and negative directions), and suggested that students’ emotions influence self-regulated learning and motivation, and these, in turn, impact academic achievement. Maury Stein, Thompson’s mentor, argued that it was important for students to develop both their intellectual and their emotional amplitude, and it is a lesson that Thompson uses in her approach to “teaching with tenderness.”

Allowing, let alone welcoming, emotions into class is complex and often fraught. It is difficult both for classes like macroeconomics or statistics, where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself as a “natural” outlet for emotion, as well as in classes whose subject matter foregrounds issues of social justice, particularly, she writes, as “colonialism, militarism, racism, and patriarchy remain structural impediments to tenderness” (15).  Yet the emotional life of students in either context will not be denied. Teachers need to be aware of our students’ anxieties, their feelings of being imposters in intense academic settings, or the emotional turmoil that may undermine their ability to concentrate, even as we know that we will not be privy to the specifics of their emotional states. We need to be conscious of how emotions can be launched by the subject of the class, and of our own role in dealing with the consequences. Thompson describes how she often “back[ed] people against the wall” when teaching about power and privilege, setting people apart from each other. “What I didn’t know early in my teaching,” she writes, “is that creating multiracial communities required finding ways to teach about power and privilege that loosened people up rather than hardened them, that countered defensiveness, that helped people get to a soft place with each other” (36).

Over time, she became more aware of how to deal with student anger and intensity, and the “complicated emotions that surface when examining oppressions, including how they are reproduced in class dynamics” (46). She now addresses these in a variety of ways, often through ritual, reminding students of their shared humanity by repeating part of the “Who Am I” naming procedure in every class, by changing her mid-semester evaluations (students evaluate teacher and course content, and their own participation and work of class as a collective; these are passed out randomly and, protecting student anonymity, students then read aloud their classmate’s commentary), and by introducing more literature into her classes. In this she took a lesson from the Puerto Rican poet, Martín Espada, who realized in his own work that the more horrific an event was that he was writing about, the more beautiful the language needed to be, to “keep the readers’ hearts open as they read.”

Nor are these lessons only for our students. “Teaching with tenderness,” Thompson writes, “involves a promise we make to each other, and a way of living, requiring consistent and radical acts of self-care…Tenderness opens us up to grieving, to ambivalence, to anger, to confusion…not easy feelings for sure.”

Slow Pedagogy

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bridge at Tsurumi, from the series Interesting Rest Stops at Towns Between the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1919), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Teaching with “tenderness” demands that we slow down the pace, helping to pull students out of the frantic rhythms of the news cycle that technology dumps into our laptops, and into more deliberate and contemplative modalities. Practices that slow our students down can help them resist the temptation to jump after every shiny thing that comes across their screens, to focus, and to engage with each other and with the subjects of their study with depth and respect. Holding them in front of a painting in the museum so they can become trained at careful observation, whether for use in their labs or in their daily lives; cultivating the patience they need to read a text closely, whether they are reading the news or a novel: these are practices that can help our students respond to the world around them with resilience and compassion. But above all, teaching with tenderness requires helping our students develop as respectful and active listeners.

“In academic culture,” Mary Rose O’Reilley writes, “we tend to pay attention only long enough to develop a counterargument…In society at large, people only listen with an agenda… Seldom is there a deep, open-hearted nonjudgmental reception of the other…By contrast, if someone truly listens to me, my spirit begins to expand.”

The same theme is woven through Anna Deavere Smith’s review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel, she writes, which “honors paying attention: seeing, listening, and, finally, singing. The novel inspires me to think that we need new songs, new ways of seeing, new ways of listening.” The importance of fashioning new ways of listening was, for me, the most important lesson of Thompson’s book as I tried to answer the question of how we respond to these continual moments of anger, frustration, sadness, and loss. “In the face of individual and collective deaths,” she writes, “we may not be able to fix anything. The most we can often do is listen.”

Ground Control to Major Tom: Supporting Music Across the Curriculum

Steve Volk, February 56, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu


Here I am sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

            David Bowie, “Ground Control to Major Tom” (1969)

David Bowie memorial in Brixton, London, 2016. Photo: Steve Volk

Could you use David Bowie’s songs to teach a cultural studies class? Certainly. How about English, History, Environmental Studies, Physics or Math? The question was answered at the “Music +” workshop which unfolded Friday in StudiOC. Kathryn Metz, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, crafted the session designed to help us think about the whys, hows, and with-whats of using music across the curriculum. If the lessons learned can apply in literally any liberal arts setting, it wasn’t hard to understand why the appeal of using music across the curriculum seemed particularly opportune for Oberlin, which has a unique (in the true sense of the word) set of resources that faculty and instructional staff can tap into. These include, of course, everything that a world-class Conservatory brings to the table: faculty, staff, a superb library that features a massive collection of books, scores, and music, streaming options, instruments, photographs, art works, and an impressive archive. Further, there is the opportunity to attend over 500 live performances a year including an Artist Recital Series that brings some of the most revered musicians as well as many rising young performers to campus each year (Sleep? Pfff, that’s for the weak!). Finally, we have an often overlooked but unparalleled resource: our students. Whether in the Conservatory or the College, a substantial number of students not only have come to Oberlin because of the music, but are at home with music from Bach to Beyoncé.

But, as much as I love bragging about how Oberlin’s musical button is bigger than yours, the central message of the workshop was that any teacher in any school can leverage music to increase student learning with access to a simple sound system and the internet.  

For me, the workshop stressed the learning potential of using music across a liberal-arts setting, both in the curriculum and in a broader, extra-curricular fashion, explored the resources one can use to make this happen, and provided a methodology that can be applied for teaching popular music in a variety of contexts. And it asked one important question: Why the hell aren’t more or us making use of this unparalleled resource?

The Role of the Arts in Learning: Arts Across the Curriculum 

A fantastical musical machine as imagined by Athanasius Kircher in his Musurgia Universalis (1650). Public domain.

Oberlin can be justly proud of two outstanding artistic institutions that bolster teaching and learning across the campus: The Conservatory of Music, as I’ve already indicated, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Let me turn to the AMAM as an example of the potential of using art to scaffold an entire curriculum.

In the past decade, based on an outstanding staff headed by the Curator of Academic Programs, Liliana Milkova, and a well-conceived and designed outreach program, the AMAM has become an important pillar of instruction in the college, reaching far beyond the art history or studio art curriculum. In the 2016-17 school year, for example, over 6,000 students visited the museum as part of 368 class visits from 33 different disciplines in the College and Conservatory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we now have in place a significant art-across-the-curriculum program at Oberlin.

The Music + workshop was intended to encourage a process that can replicate the AMAM’s success in the context of music.

Of course, one question to ask is why? Why leverage the arts to support learning? Fortunately, there is a substantial body of research on the impact of the arts (music, visual, performance) on student learning. If you are interested, I would recommend the following, among many others:

One of the most influential studies in the field, highlighted at the workshop, was the 1999 study commissioned by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (Sigh. Remember when we had a White House that cared about … ? Sorry, must stay on task!). “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning,” edited by Edward B. Fiske, argued that the arts, when well taught, “provide young people with authentic learning experiences that engage their minds, hearts, and bodies.” I probably don’t have to convince you, esteemed readers, of this, but just in case I’m bullet-pointing some of their conclusions. The arts, they argue,

  • Reach students who are not otherwise being reached;
  • Reach students in ways that they are not otherwise being reached;
  • Connect students to themselves and each other;
  • Transform the environment for learning;
  • Provide new challenges for those students already considered successful;
  • Encourage self-directed learning;
  • Promote complexity in the learning experience;
  • Allow management of risk by the learners.

So what, in particular, can music add to the mix, and what is the best way to go about integrating music into the curriculum? The question was answered through a wonderful demonstration, “What’s Music Got To Do With It?,” presented by Metz and Jason Hanley, the VP of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.  The interactive discussion was based on a model for studying popular music developed at the Rock Hall. You can read more about the approach in Susan Oehler and Jason Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy in Practice: An Introduction,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 21:1 (April 2009): 2-19. Oehler and Hanley explore a set of guiding questions that can be used to help students to dig more deeply into different genres of popular music. The authors organized them into three categories: context, sound, and meaning. And that’s where we went in the workshop.

From Oehler and Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy”

Ground Control to the Workshop

We examined the value of using music in a variety of ways through the work of Major Tom, aka, Ziggy Stardust, aka David Bowie, although his name was only revealed (to the unenlightened few who didn’t already know it) towards the end of the session. Our engagement with Bowie helped us think about how the investigation of a single musical example can lead students down multiple avenues, exploring aural experiences, the importance of historical context and cultural reception, repetition and creativity, and so many other things.

stratopaul, “David Bowie New England- Music News,” Flickr cc.

Begin with “Meaning.” We dissected the lyrics to “Ground Command to Major Tom.” (You can find them on genius.com, but here they are in any case if you’d like to try this at home.)

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills
And put your helmet on
(10) Ground Control (9) to Major Tom (8)
(7, 6) Commencing (5) countdown
Engines on (4, 3, 2)
Check ignition (1)
And may God’s love (Liftoff) be with you

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Within no more than 5 minutes we had generated dozens of questions and observations about the lyrics. We discussed issues of communication (Can you hear me?), technology (I think my spaceship knows which way to go), environment, religion, shirts, relationships, allegory, history, and oh so much else! And while it’s true, as a colleague pointed out, that we are more expert at pulling meaning and questions from texts than our students, the exercise highlighted the potential of using popular song lyrics as a gateway to a variety of subjects as well as different pedagogical practices (close reading, evidence and analysis, etc.).

Turn, next, to “Sound,” listening to the song itself.  The exercise brought me back to museum pedagogy. Much as the “Visual Thinking Strategies” (VTS) approach employed by the curators in the AMAM and other museums is launched by asking the simple question, “What do you see?” the “Rock Hall” pedagogy of popular music, which I’ll here officially name as the “Aural Thinking Strategies” approach, begins by asking, “What do you hear?” And, just as VTS follows up by asking “What more do you see,” ATS did the same: “What else do you hear?” Those with training in music theory or who can boast a performance background will certainly hear different things than the lay listener, but we all heard – and reported on – what the aural experience was for us. (While I won’t cover this point here, both VTS and the ATS approach can be modified and used with those with visual or hearing impairments.)

Investigating the “sound” layer opened new areas for discussion: instruments and instrumentation, tone of voice, employment of instrumental bridges, shifting narration, use of base, reverb, harmony and chaos, all of which suggested different meanings for the lyrics than those we had discussed previously. Adding visuals to the music added yet another layer. We watched the original 1969 video of “Ground Control,” and suggested how the visuals either supported or undercut understandings that we had developed before as well as how the music in the video different from the original audio performance, and why the changes were made.

We continued along the visual path by examining the album covers from the original UK edition released in 1969 and the U.S. release (“David Bowie: A Space Oddity”), highlighting the impact of Op-Art on the UK edition and considering the impact of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the second (“A Space Oddity”), moving – as with VTS – from “what do you see?” to interpretation: why?

David Bowie – Phillips: http://www.teenagewildlife.com/Albums/SO/cover_philips.jpg

Then to “context,” as we followed the reappearance of themes raised for the first time in “Ground Control” (1969), to Bowie’s reimagined appearance as Ziggy Stardust in “Starman” (“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars,” 1972), and on to “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), “Hallo Spaceboy” (1996), and, ultimately, sadly, following some of the religious themes (“And may God’s love be with you”) through to his last album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, January 8, 2016, two days before he died. Intertextuality, the continuities and disjunctions of artistic lives and themes, the opportunity to see an artist reprocess central images over 40+ years of creativity, the historic meaning of Bowie in 1969 and at his death… So many themes to explore!

David Bowie, “Space Oddity,” 1972 RCA LP;
Fair use

But the discussion didn’t end there. We considered how “Ground Control” was taken up anew in the work of other artists, viewing Peter Schilling’s video, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1996). One could go on and on: we could have checked out K.I.A.’s version (“Mrs. Major Tom”) from 2002, in which Larissa Gomes narrates the story from the perspective of Major Tom’s wife who has been left at home. Or Sheryl Crow’s cover of that version on William Shatner’s Seeking Major Tom album from 2011. But my hands-down favorite was a version of “Ground Control” recorded, mixed and produced on the International Space Station by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013. Promise me that you’ll look at that, not to mention the original. (And I’ll leave it up to you and your students to discuss among yourselves what is original, or the meaning of authentic, or how we understand creativity itself in the context of remixing, sampling, or reimagining.) All of this by looking at one song and its history.

acb, “ZIGG’/ ST’-.|/DUST,” Flickr cc.

Where do you fit in?

If you haven’t figured out by now, I was incredibly energized by the workshop, not only because it featured the artistry of David Bowie, but because it offered teachers, particularly in liberal arts colleges, another way to integrate our students’ learning and their lived experience. Much as with (visual) art, and the value of the Allen Memorial Art Museum to students’ learning across the campus that I referenced earlier, music can provide a link into virtually any course.

At my “breakout” table, for example, we discussed the distinctions that different people or cultures make between “sound” and “music,” and just how critical these distinctions can be. Fredara Hadley, who teaches an “Introduction to African American Music,” among other courses, in the Conservatory, reminded us of the case of Jordan Davis, an African American teenager, who was shot and killed in Florida in 2012 because his white, middle-aged killer, Michael Dunn, was “offended” by the loud hip hop music that came from his car.

Much as we peeled off the various levels of engaging with “Ground Control,” so we can think of the many ways of deploying music across the curriculum. As with art, the most straightforward approach is through its content or subject matter: Medieval European history can be enriched with medieval music, either in live performances (and we are fortunate to have the exceptional Collegium Musicum, directed by Steven Plank), through recordings, or by viewing the instruments of the period. Courses on U.S. history in the 1960s or a study of social movements will easily find ways to use music as a text in their courses. Nor is this limited to social science or humanities courses. Our massive 4,014 pipe Kay Africa Memorial Organ in Finney is a perfect instrument, pun intended, for a physics lesson. But content or subject matter aren’t the only ways in when thinking about music across the curriculum.

As Professor Hadley observed, so many of our students traverse the campus with headphones on or ear-buds firmly in place, surely listening to music. But, are they listening or just hearing? Is the ubiquity of music actually getting in the way of listening (and not just because they don’t take out their ear-buds when they’re talking to you).  Bringing music into a class can be a method for helping students become careful, discerning listeners which, I would argue, is a skill that we could all use more of today. In a similar way, music can be used to bolster dispositional outcomes, ways of being in the world, that we hope to foster in our students. We know quite well that students (as well as most of us) are hyperactive; moving rapidly between various operations. “Empty” time that previously existed between tasks has basically disappeared since technology provides us with something to do to fill quiet spaces. What deliberate listening, as a learned disposition, can provide, much like close looking or careful reading, is a means of slowing students down, moving them out of hyperactivity – which has its place, to be sure – and into a modality where deep analysis and reflection can occur. While it is unlikely that most classes will find the time to play an entire album that students can listen to collectively, even 5-6 minutes of thoughtful and close listening can help students slow down.

Music to Unite

At the beginning of the Music + workshop, Dean Andrea Kalyn talked about music as a “thing” and a “mode”. In the former sense, music, she argued, is an experience that can awe us, an artifact that stands in its own right and in relation to the culture around it, and a set of skills to be learned whether via performance or as a new language, a different way of understanding. In the latter sense, it operates as a mode of creation (composition), re-creation (performance), and collaboration, a mode of listening, synthesis, and practice (discipline). Each of these aspects holds out potential to further engage and activate student learning by weaving together cognitive and affective, what they study and what they experience across the campus and the community. Music, then, has the potential of crossing barriers, both imagined and real.

Let me conclude, then, by referencing one of my favorite composers, John Luther Adams, who has been featured in these pages a number of times. Music (its study, composition, performance, reception, discipline, magnificence) offers us the potential of speaking to everyone on campus. But, in the wider world, it can unite those who have been separated. In late January, Steven Schick, a percussionist and conductor, peered through the fence that separates San Diego, California, from Tijuana, Mexico, and proclaimed, “Con la música nunca se puede dividirnos”: “With music, we cannot be divided.” He proceeded to lead a group of musicians located on both sides of the border in a performance of John Luther Adams’s hour-long percussion work “Inuksuit.” Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, observed the event from the Tijuana side of the border.

“The performance began almost inaudibly,” he wrote, “with musicians breathing into paper and plastic tubes. Then Schick let out a foghorn tone on a conch shell. This was a signal for a gradual crescendo, building to a gaudy roar of drums, gongs, cymbals, and sirens…Only performers were allowed in the adjacent strip; for security reasons, Border Patrol kept the audience behind the second fence. Some two hundred and fifty Americans showed up, having hiked nearly a mile to reach the site.”

Ross had seen “Inuksuit” a number of times but this performance, he wrote, “was overwhelming in its impact, for obvious reasons. As I listened, I couldn’t help registering the messages inscribed on the [Mexican side of the] wall: “What God has joined together let man not separate”; “Stop family separation”; “How many hearts must bleed?”; “La poesía es gente con sueños” (“Poetry is people with dreams”); “Love trumps hate.” Yet, as at other performances of Adams’s remarkable creation, the sheer volume of the climax had the effect of wiping my brain clean of concrete thoughts. I closed my eyes and found myself unaware of the wall’s existence: the wire mesh did nothing to stop the flow of sound.”

Music has the power to do so much. What are we waiting for?

Added Feb. 5, 2018 (1:06 PM)

A few additional resources:

Christy Thomas, “Active Listening: Teaching with Music,” Yale Center for Teaching and Learning (November 30, 2015).

Ronald A. Berk, “Music and music technology in college teaching: Classical to hip hop across the  curriculum,” International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 4:1 (2008), 45–67.

Janelle Monae f., “Hell You Talmbout,” Wondaland Records.

Deliberative Pedagogy: Practicing Democracy in the Classroom

Steve Volk, October 23, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Michel-Vincent Brandoin, Le magasin pittoreseque, Vol. 5 (Paris, 1837).

You don’t need me to tell you that it feels like the wheels are coming off the bus. Not to mention the windows, doors, and crankshaft. White supremacist blowhards wrap themselves in First Amendment flannels while forcing universities to cough up serious cash in security costs to defend their rights (money that, you can be sure, could have gone to more beneficial ends). Leftists at the College of William and Mary disrupt an ACLU speaker for defending the First Amendment rights of obnoxious organizations, while,  at Reed, they berate a mixed-race lesbian lecturing on Sappho, branding her as a “race traitor” for participating in a Eurocentric introductory Humanities course. Pro-Trump students at Whittier College drowned out  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra with chants of “Lock him up!” and “Build the Wall!” Meanwhile, state legislators in Wisconsin, North Carolina and six other states pass legislation silencing student activists in the name of — what else? — free speech. Faculty are placed on leave to “protect” them after exercising free speech rights on social media. And all this is taking place during the watch of a “president” who uses his free speech rights to deliver falsehoods, fabrications, and fictions that would make Charles Ponzi gasp.

Sigh. One only wishes there were some space where these complex challenges, these “wicked problems,” could be discussed, if not dispassionately, than at least with evidence, insight, and the goal of reaching greater understandings as we move to address them. Wait! There is! It’s called “the college.” But if colleges and universities have become the grinding stone on which “speech” issues are milled, to what island do we retreat in order to hold these conversations? No retreat, and no island, I’d argue, but to the classroom itself, the space where democracy should be practiced and not just studied.

Democracy and Higher Education

The connection between democracy and education, in the United States at least, has long been regarded as self-evident. Modern democracies can’t exist without a well-informed electorate, citizens who are able to separate truth from lies, humanists from hucksters. Maybe. But we also know full well that educated people are fully capable of electing hucksters and liars, and that advanced degrees don’t inoculate one from anti-democratic tendencies. (According to exit polls Trump won white men by a 63-31% margin over Clinton; among college-educated whites, he won by 61-39%.) Education can produce engineers whose applications are capable of transporting us across town in the shortest time in rush hour traffic; they can also design algorithms that, in the hands of party operatives, will shave unwanted voters from a toss-up district and pack them into a guaranteed-loss district thereby making a mockery of democratic promises of “one person one vote.”

Is education, then, irrelevant to democracy? Not at all, but, lest we give into outright cynicism, we must push harder to identify what are the crucial interactions between education and democracy that can make a difference in the direction of producing more democracy.

Tony Beltrand, L’Image, Paris, 1897.

We would do well to turn here to those who have written so persuasively about this association: John Dewey and Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Silvia Hurtado. Instead, I’ll round up a less likely suspect, Harry Truman – or, at least, the “Commission on Higher Education” that he appointed in 1947 to study the “principle goals” for higher education. Of the three that the Commission singled out, the first was that education should serve to bring about “a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.”

Now, there are endless ways to think about what exactly this means and how those of us in higher education can help bring about a “fuller realization of democracy.” Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, recently implored “the nation’s colleges [to] join in preparing students to become active and informed citizens,” by providing them with a curriculum in civic education. For Bok, whose thoughts on higher education I have long admired, the issue is both one of instilling students with a sense of responsibility and equipping them to perform their civic functions more effectively. (“If a democracy is to function well, citizens need to be willing to express their preferences by voting…[and to] be reasonably informed and cognizant of arguments for and against important policy questions.”) This, he continues, is best done by offering a modest core of courses in U.S. government, history, and politics, basic economics, political theory, and “Great Books.”

The American Association of Colleges & Universities’ 2012 “National Call to Action” (A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future), also urged institutions of higher learning to “reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education.” But their call went further than Bok’s, and, to my mind, got closer to the crux of the matter.

In addition to designing curricular pathways through general education and through a student’s major or technical specialized field of study, how civic issues are taught and in what venues delineate yet another arena for enhancing civic literacy, inquiry, and collective action (p. 55, emphasis added).

To those who argue that the bus is about to hurtle off the cliff because we have failed to provide our students with a proper civics education, I would counter that you don’t learn to play the piano by reading a book about it; you don’t learn to practice democracy by taking a course on it.

George Du Maurier, Tribly, a Novel (NY: 1895)

This is not an argument against reading books on piano playing (start with Tim Page’s The Glen Gould Reader, Knopf 1984) or against taking courses that explore U.S. history or politics. I am arguing that if the link between education and democracy is to have a more consequential end than informing students how a bill gets to be a law or motivating citizens to vote (where they are as capable of electing scoundrels as saints), than what colleges need to provide is a pedagogy of democratic practice. For, in the end, it is the practice of democracy in our essential laboratories of learning, the classroom, that can best help us reroute the wayward bus.

Deliberative Pedagogy

The AAC&U’s Crucible Moment calls attention to three “civic pedagogies” that research has found to be particularly effective: (1) intergroup and deliberative dialogue, (2) service learning, and (3) collective civic problem solving. The “Article of the Week” has examined service learning (more appropriately termed community-based learning) previously. Oberlin has an outstanding set of community-based learning opportunities convened through the Bonner Center, and I would recommend anyone who is interested in serious, effective community-based learning and research to contact them.

Here, however, I want to focus on the AAC&U’s first point, addressing a specific approach known as “deliberative pedagogy.” My understanding of this pedagogy was informed by a recently published volume on the topic, Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017), edited by Timothy J. Shaffer, Nicholas V. Longo, Idit Manosevitch, and Maxine S. Thomas.

Deliberative pedagogy – the editors begin – is a democratic educational process and a way of thinking that encourages students to encounter and consider multiple perspectives, weigh trade-offs and tensions, and move toward action through informed judgment. It is simultaneously a way of teaching that is itself deliberative and a process for developing the skills, behaviors, and values that support deliberative practice. Perhaps most important, the work of deliberative pedagogy is about space-making: creating and holding space for authentic and productive dialogue, conversations that can ultimately be not only educational but also transformative (xxi).

When reading about the approach, I identified what I think are its three central theoretical and practical roots. The first derives from the tradition of deliberative theory, an approach that discards both adversarial and expert models of decision making in the context of highly complex (“wicked”) problems. Both approaches are critiqued as being “overly focused on certainty, and both clearly avoid the necessary engagement with values and value dilemmas.”  Instead, deliberative theory supports arriving at decisions through a social process of deliberation characterized by reason giving in which careful consideration of all options and their trade-offs is undertaken in a context in which all are given an equal opportunity to speak and be heard in an environment defined by the mutual respect given all participants.

Adon, “Lays of Modern Oxford” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1874).

The next two origins of the process speak quite specifically to its utility within a higher education setting. Deliberative pedagogy involves engaging students as partners in the process of learning and teaching, creating a context in which authority in the classroom is shared and in which both teachers and learners come to a deeper understanding of ways to “make our practice more engaging, effective, and rigorous” [See Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2014)]. These are the principles that underpin our Faculty-Student Partnership program.  Finally, the concept of deliberative pedagogy is closely aligned with theories of “high-impact educational practices” examined by George Kuh and others. These are educational approaches that have been shown to produce significant learning in students (e.g., first-year seminars, undergraduate research, community-based learning, internships, etc.) [see, for example, Five High-Impact Practices (AAC&U 2010)].

What ties these three elements together and generates the distinctively democratic quality of deliberative pedagogy is the importance given to group communication and social interactions. The process of addressing highly complex problems can engage students in the act of investigating, deliberating, and deciding, a process whose success depends on the students ability to communicate with one another across difference and in a context where decisions often require trade-offs between competing sets of goods. As such, it is an approach that is designed to address questions that raise competing values or benefits, and not one where available evidence only points in one direction. For example, the deliberative pedagogy methodology wouldn’t be useful when addressing the question: Is climate change happening? This is a question which has largely been answered, and deliberative pedagogy is not an invitation to introduce false equivalences or to pose adversarial approaches “for the sake of argument.” Rather, the approach is ideally situated to approach complex questions where positive values can be in play, for example: How should public policy address the challenges of a changing climate?

Michael Briand put it this way in Practical Politics (University of Illinois Press 1999, p. 42):

Because the things human beings consider good are various and qualitatively distinct; because conflicts between such good things have no absolute, predetermined solution; and because to know what is best requires considering the views of others, we need to engage each other in the sort of exchange that will enable us to form sound personal and public judgments. This process of coming to a public judgment and choosing – together, as a public – is the essence of democratic politics.

Methodology: A Brief Overview

There are three stages to deliberative pedagogy (stay with me, now: don’t let their names turn on your cynicism switch): divergent thinking, working through the “groan zone,” and convergent thinking. The best step-by-step introduction to the deliberative pedagogy is in Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Jossey-Bass 2014), which is available as an E-book on OBIS or Ohio-link.)

From Sam Kaner, Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, p. 13.

  1. Divergent thinking: The process begins by having students generate a wide variety of alternatives to the proposed question (or in the selection of the question to be examined in the first place) based on research, reading, interviews, surveys, and small-scale discussions. Students are cautioned to avoid “false certainties,” practices that lead us to avoid challenges to our way of thinking (selective thinking, confirmation bias, egotism) while questioning and disputing assumptions. Divergent thinking processes require that we become aware of competing sets of values, encourage dissent and question dominant perspectives. To engage this approach in a classroom means insuring that those who are still at a more tentative stage in their reasoning process are given the space to come forward and speak, and that the process not be directed at an early point of its deliberations by those who can command attention and express more certainty in their views.


  1. Working through the “groan zone”: So, now you’ve got a bunch of different propositions, approaches, suggestions, alternatives. How do you develop a meaningful way to pick through the “messiness of multiple competing positions” without either coming to a conclusion quickly or throwing up your hands in frustration, worrying that you’ll never come to any conclusion? The process requires much more than simply setting out positions and then voting to determine the most popular. Working through a set of ideas to come to a decision point requires considering “all the potential consequences to action, whether they are positive or negative, intended or unintended… [it] requires genuine interaction and discussion across perspectives,” which takes time and is, well, messy. The process is best undertaken by framing issues in a way that can foreground central tensions and trade-offs among perspectives, developing viewpoints clearly, and providing space and time for deliberation. Consider some of the major issues dividing U.S. society today: Should there be restrictions on gun sales? What should immigration reform look like? How should free speech issues be handled in educational settings? Imagine each of these debates as they have been carried out in the public sphere (in social media, pubic meetings, on television), and then think about how you would set them up for discussion in the classroom where your goal is understanding the competing perspectives and values involved rather than scoring points.


  1. Convergent thinking: This is where the conversation begins to move towards a decision point, and it involves “clarifying, consolidating, refining, innovating, prioritizing, judging, and choosing among opinions.” You won’t be surprised to hear that this is really hard. Students (as well as instructors) can become “paralyzed by analysis.” When faced with too many choices and a desire to remain open to unexplored possibilities, the easiest action could be no action at all, no decision, stasis. Engaged in a process whose main methodology is an openness to competing values, students may be unwilling to accept that decisions emphasize the “ultimate inequality of ideas and potential actions.” But this is also where thinking about deliberative pedagogy in terms of democratic praxis can help. Democracy can be best understood as an ongoing conversation rather than, fundamentally, a way to make decisions, as John Dewey (The Quest for Certainty, 1929) argued. Engagement with civic education can encourage students to vote. Not a bad thing. Deliberative pedagogy and similar methods of democratizing the classroom can help students learn to practice democracy in their lives. Probably better in the long run.

Deliberative Pedagogy on Campus

Martín Carcasson raises some interesting perspectives about the functioning of deliberative pedagogy in liberal arts colleges in his chapter, “Deliberative Pedagogy as Critical Connective: Building Democratic Mind-Sets and Skill Sets for Addressing Wicked Problems” (pp. 3-20). Colleges, he offers, seem to be “doing a nice job of providing opportunities for divergent thinking.”  But he suggests that in many ways they aren’t, as they are often hobbled by two factors. In the first place, “dominant epistemological perspectives” usually favor the search for certainty through scientific methods. It’s not that scientific approaches don’t provide valuable input, but a recourse to “scientific certainty” can close down exploration of different value propositions before different approaches are raised. I would add that they can also sideline other epistemological approaches that retain cultural and historical value. Secondly, he suggests that what is a strength of the liberal arts approach – introducing students to a variety of disciplines, epistemologies, and ways of asking and answering questions – occurs in different classes and departments. The problem, he suggests, is that “divergent perspectives [are] often [only manifest] between classes rather than within them, leaving students disconnected and ill equipped” to understand how to evaluate competing approaches. Biologists may foreground empirical methodologies which don’t take account of the values and histories introduced by critical race theory; artists can define community in a way that frustrates economists.

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

The good news is that we are beginning to develop integrative approaches to address the challenge of epistemological divergence: cluster courses, first-year seminars, community-based learning, and other pedagogical innovations that help students assess divergent values while still understanding the importance of drawing conclusions and taking action. Investigating deliberative pedagogical approaches in our classrooms, thinking about “deliberation across the curriculum,” as some have suggested, and integrating on-going community practices such as those provided by the “Dialogue Center”, add important layers to addressing the challenge of divergence.

Deliberative pedagogical practices, like other educational approaches which emphasize the creation of democratic classroom environments in which students are invited to become co-creators of their own learning, can offer some paths out of the current impasse on college campuses. The potential of these practices rests not on the belief that what is needed is a return to a time when all propositions were rigorously examined in the classroom. We know quite well who was excluded from even entering those classroom, particularly at elite universities, let alone who could participate in the discussions that took place in them during in those so-called “golden” years. Rather, the potential of deliberative pedagogy lies in its ability to create a new democratic praxis in our classes that both responds to current challenges, including the rise of intolerance and bigotry at the national level, and takes advantage of new possibilities created by increased inclusion and a deeper belief in the importance of equity for the future of higher education.




Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching

Elizabeth Hamilton, October 10, 2016

Elizabeth Hamilton is Associate Professor of German Language and Literatures at Oberlin College. She specializes in Twentieth-century West German literature and film, East German cinema, Postwar narratives of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” and Disability Studies. She is the Section 504/ADA Coordinator at Oberlin. (Section 504 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination based upon disability.)

Universal Design for Learning is not yet well known, yet a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that some educators are already casting doubt on its merit. Its very name suggests something too good to be true, as though “universal design” really meant “one size fits all.” Knowing that one size will never fit all, I grasp the need for caution. Still I favor this approach that asks me to know my students better.

Let me first underscore that universal design is not a teaching method. It is an approach to planning and to creating methods and materials by which teachers consider the widest possible range of learners from the outset.

Borrowing from architecture, universal design is a set of principles that enables us to plan for the greatest possible inclusion from the start of a project, as opposed to costly retrofitting to meet an overlooked need. Have you ever seen an unsightly ramp outside of a beautiful building? Or a sign directing wheelchair users to the back entrance?

finney-cropI mean not to disparage those measures, as access is better than no access, even as an afterthought. But it’s the process of design that interests me here. Why didn’t the architects think that a wheelchair user might use the front door every day, as a regular customer of this business or student in this campus facility—or as its director, or office-holder, or president? The ramp and the elevator are moreover just the most visible accommodations. Many adaptive or assistive devices are retrofitted onto communication services, programs, and policies. Again, this is honorable, but I think it is time to take the next step. Retrofitting is costly and the narrow thinking that preceded it is clear: the atypical user was not really on our minds when we built this institution.

We now know more than ever about systemic barriers and stereotype threat. We are beginning to grasp the real benefits of diversity and the costs of exclusion.

Universal design asks us, the architects of our curriculum, to respect diversity as an asset. In my view, this is the set of principles that will best allow us to translate our aspirations for diversity into an actual framework of accessibility. Because while universal design is often evoked in conversations about disability, its great gift is in the welcome it affords to all students who, for any reason (or in defiance of reason) are not in the center of the room or the center of our attention when we plan. I’m thinking here of first-generation students, international students, students of color, and students whose first language or gender identity or class or heritage give them frames of reference that can make access to our curriculum an uphill climb. Their perceived differences are too often cast as deficits and our responses cast as “providing for special needs.”


Frans de Potter, Geschiedenis van de Gemeenten der Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, 1864

Universal design offers a way out of the normal vs. needy framework.

Universal design doesn’t wait for documentation of a disability before taking action, just as no curb cut requires a wheelchair user—or pedestrian carrying a heavy load, or parent pushing a stroller, or musician wheeling a double bass—to present a license before entering the sidewalk. Like the philosophy behind the curb cut, universal design presumes a range of users, and—this is important—it presumes competence on the part of all students, no matter their learning style.

curbcutBuilding Pedagogical Curb Cuts details practical accessibility innovations that teachers can incorporate in a range of disciplines. I contributed a short essay for this book when it was published in 2005. I share it now as a springboard for conversation even as I see how much has changed in the intervening decade.

Today’s classrooms already incorporate an array of universally designed features. This is as much a response to the changing demographics of our student body as it is a response to the shifts in critical inquiry that scholars are making in every field of study. These trends are merging, and well they should. We as teachers no longer restrict ourselves to formal lectures and traditional seminar papers any more than we as scholars rely solely on the monograph or conference paper to share our research. In addition to those still-valuable practices, we also use a variety of media; we engage more senses in class; we teach and test in a range of formats and settings; we use rubrics to evaluate student learning; we encourage collaboration; and we promote community-based learning. Whether we name them as such or not, universal design principles underpin the efforts we make to create multifaceted courses. We help our students engage with material when we open up new vantage points.

I have found that engaging my students in the process of enhancing access is the most instructive of all—both for students and for me. Here are just two examples of projects that you might consider and improve upon.

music-and-disabilityMy First Year Seminar students created Disability-Awareness-Month displays in each of our campus’s four libraries. Their task included thinking about how to make the displays accessible to a range of library patrons, including those who might have low vision. The students working in the Conservatory library included QR codes in their display to access apps with narration and musical selections. You can see it here and visit in person through the month of October. [Note: A fuller description of this project is included at the end of the post.]

Another class last spring studied works exhibited in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Ripon Gallery. This lovely second-floor space is unfortunately not accessible if a person cannot use stairs. My students each selected an artwork to describe in detail for someone who cannot see it, no matter whether the barrier results from limited vision or lack of an elevator or any other reason. They drew upon visual description guidelines in Art Beyond Sight to prepare for this project. Here is Anna Rose Greenberg’s vivid description of “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement” by Charles-Émile Jacque:

Charles-Émile Jacque, "Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement," Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Charles-Émile Jacque, “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement,” Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

What is “universally designed” in these activities? There are multiple entry points into the activities themselves and they function in tandem with other activities to form the whole of a universally-designed course.

  • They engage a variety of senses.
  • They draw attention to the medium in which knowledge is contained, and ask students to examine that very frame.
  • They constitute a portion of the students’ overall grades, valuing the learning acquired in means other than timed tests or traditional essays.
  • Timed tests and traditional essays accompany these activities because those practices have value, too.

As a teacher, my role is to explain the value and purpose of the activities I require, provide accommodations where necessary, and say clearly what I want students to get out of a given task. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. The tone of my courses changes significantly and for the better when I emphasize the purposes behind the assignments, the time limits, due dates, and participation requirements. The structures of my course then take on intrinsic meaning and don’t appear to students as arbitrary or exclusionary gates.

I close with a video of Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone, as he sings “Auf dem Flusse” from Schubert’s Winterreise. Mr. Quasthoff has performed around the world, including with the Cleveland Orchestra and in master classes at Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. As a so-called “child of Thalidomide,” Mr. Quasthoff’s physical growth was impeded, leaving his arms too short to reach piano keys. Nonetheless, he was required to play the piano in order to pass an entrance exam for the Hannover Konservatorium. The test would not be waived and no alternative method was offered for him to demonstrate his musical skills and knowledge. Denied admission, he turned to private study with Sebastian Peschko and is now recognized as one of the great interpreters of the Lied. How glad I am that his teacher was willing to think in alternatives.

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by timelock.in (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff's rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by timelock.in (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff’s rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)

Assignment from Elizabeth Hamilton’s First Year Seminar Program 093: Disability (Fall 2016):

3. Library Display Assignment (10%): This assignment introduces you to Oberlin’s
campus libraries. You will gain an overview of research materials and the steps you need
to take to gain access to them. You will explore the range of published scholarship on
disability. You will meet our professional library staff members and develop good
research and communication skills. You will collaborate with your classmates on
designing four library displays for October’s Disability Awareness month. You will also
gain research skills for pursuing your individual projects, due at the end of the semester.
First meeting: full class on Monday, September 19th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd Library’s
main-floor classroom.
Second meeting: small groups on Monday, September 26th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd
library, the Conservatory library, the Science library, or the Art library.

1. Decide how many works to display.
2. Decide which kind(s) of works to display: are you choosing works in which
disability is regarded as a problem to be solved, a perspective from which a
person experiences life, the product of created (and potentially removable)
barriers, or a little bit of all of these?
3. Decide which works to display: works could be by creative authors, natural or
social scientists, composers, or performers with disabilities, or works could be
ones in which disability is a major theme, artistic device, or perspective of a
significant character.
4. Choose a visual style for the display. Select, as appropriate, illustrations, props,
colors or borders.
5. Choose a way to alert viewers to the displays in other libraries.

After the displays are created, each student is required to fill out a self-evaluation rubric
on one’s own participation in the group project AND submit a one-page (250-300 word)
personal reflection essay on the process of creating the display. What did you contribute?
What did you learn?

Self-evaluation rubrics (found at the end of this syllabus) and personal reflection essays
are due on Monday, October 3rd.

Between the World and Our Students

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

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

Steven Volk, August 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Classes Begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Run

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

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

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

Crisis and Pedagogy

Steven Volk, April 18, 2016

ChurchTo be in London is, in many ways, to be in the world. It is to participate in a rich (in all senses of the word), cosmopolitan culture. You can delight in remarkable theater, gleefully observe David Cameron dance around hard questions in Parliament, soar to a different dimension at a St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Evensong service, or simply observe all that the British empire, willingly or not, has brought to England’s shores. And you’re not in Kansas – or Oberlin! – anymore.

OK, so the internet, Skype, and Whatsapp means that it takes a real effort of will to leave “home” behind, but at least the London visitor remains less shaped by its gravitational pull. So it is that when I read about the controversies and crises dividing colleagues (and students) on our campus, I am fully aware of being separated from events by the wide Atlantic, and then some. Prudence and experience would caution against addressing the debates so much on the minds of friends and colleagues. There’s much that I don’t know, haven’t heard, haven’t felt myself, en carne propia. Silence makes sense; but can distance lend perspective? Can one “bear witness” without, indeed, having borne witness? If “witnessing” is essential before an empathetic environment can be constructed, and if there are lessons to be learned that can be learned from a remove, than perhaps one should at least try.

Crisis and Pedagogy

One question we face, it seems to me, is whether crisis can produce more than anguish and bitterness, whether it can produce learning. Writing in a remarkable collection of essays [1], Shoshana Felman raises the provocative question of whether there is “a relation between crisis and the very enterprise of education?” Or, “to put the question even more audaciously and sharply: Is there a relation between trauma and pedagogy?… Can trauma instruct pedagogy, and can pedagogy shed light on the mystery of trauma” (p. 13)? For Felman, the Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Emory University, the question was forced on her as she reflected on a course she taught at Yale in 1984, a course she later described as an “uncanny pedagogical experience.” The experience spurred her to further research on the topic, resulting in much work on testimony and witnessing.

Felman’s course explored literature, psychoanalysis, and history to investigate the genre of “testimony.” She recounts how, after deep and engaged discussions on Kafka, Camus and Dostoevsky, Freud, and the poets Mallarmé and Paul Celan, the students watched two videos from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale, after which point, she writes, the class “broke out into a crisis.” The material was so difficult, so deeply emotional and disturbing, so traumatizing, that the students’ collective response was to become silent in class and to talk about it compulsively outside of class. The students, she wrote, “apparently could talk of nothing else no matter where they were…They were set apart and set themselves apart from others who had not gone through the same [classroom] experience. They were obsessed. They felt apart, and yet not quite together. They sought out each other and yet felt they could not reach each other…They felt alone, suddenly deprived of their bonding to the world and to one another. As I listened to their outpour [of private phone calls, visits, and emails],” she continued, “I realized the class was entirely at a loss, disoriented and uprooted.”

I can’t imagine what I would have done in such a situation, but with considerable thought and discussion with colleagues, Felman reeled the course back in from the brink, through conversation, reflection, writing and testimony, turning what could have been an emotional and intellectual train wreck into an immensely valuable lesson for students and teacher alike. As she put it, one “possible response to the answerlessness through which the class is passing now, can be given in the context of our thought about the significance of testimony… The narrator [in the first videotape, a woman who was improbably reunited with her husband after the war] herself does not know any longer who she was, except through her testimony. This knowledge or self-knowledge is neither a given before the testimony nor a residual substantial knowledge consequential to it. In itself, this knowledge does not exist, it can only happen through the testimony: it cannot be separated from it. It can only unfold itself in the process of testifying, but it can never become a substance that can be possessed by either speaker or listener, outside of this dialogic process. In its performative aspect, the testimony, in this way, can be thought of as a sort of signature.”

It is Felman’s conclusion that I want to engage today, perhaps as a way of thinking about where we are and the crisis that appears to be defining our community.


An article in Inside Higher Education on April 12 discloses, in its lead paragraph, that:

“The majority of the faculty of Oberlin College have signed a statement condemning anti-Semitic statements made by a colleague on social media, though a vocal minority have refused to lend their names.” The statement reads, in part, ““Bigotry has no place on the Oberlin campus (or anywhere).”

The petition arose out of a perceived lack of (public) action from administrative or faculty bodies regarding what IHE terms “a series of anti-Semitic and, in some cases, factually inaccurate anti-Israel posts” that a faculty colleague, Joy Karega, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, had posed on her Facebook page in 2014-15.

For those not following events on our Ohio campus – and even for some who have been following the issues – eyebrows must have been raised. How can you put out a statement that is so obvious in its construction and not get everybody to sign? Who supports bigotry, for goodness sake? Debates on the issue are usually generated in terms of what constitutes bigotry, not whether people think it is a good thing.

And yet the article makes clear that a “vocal minority” refused to sign, and as it indicates (and as I know from viewing the petition and those who signed it), Oberlin’s Black faculty and well as many other faculty of color, constitute a substantial percentage of the non-signers. From this alone, we know that the issue is not only complex, but that it is “answerless,” to use Felman’s term, without both history and testimony, unless we try to hear the stories of those who chose not to sign, unless, indeed, all stories can be heard. (Full disclosure: I also declined to sign the petition, although I like to think that I unequivocally support the statement that bigotry is abhorrent to everything we do.)

I will not abuse the privilege I have of writing to the Oberlin faculty in the “Article of the Week” by commenting on Prof. Karega’s statements or what should be done in terms of her status other than to insist that, like any faculty member, she has rights that must be both observed and respected. Nor will I comment on the petition other than to note that its circulation, while seemingly intended to break a silence and allow the faculty to state their opposition to what they see as an act of bigotry, has made even more visible a ruinous division. In that light, I want to pick up what Johnny Coleman, professor of Art and Africana Studies, concludes in the IHE article: “Moving forward, we need to engage a more nuanced and constructive process.” The question for me, as it always is, is whether what we practice in our teaching can help us address what I see as a crisis in our community.

dividerCrisis and Learning

A number of psychologists have argued that children grow and develop on the basis of overcoming specific crises that they encounter. Erik Erickson, for example, argues that the child develops as she successfully resolves social crises involving such issues as establishing a sense of trust in others and developing a sense of identity in society. For Shoshana Felman, as well, contemplating the meltdown of her 1984 class at Yale, crisis offered a way to look at learning far beyond the clichéd notion of “danger and opportunity.”

I would venture to propose — she wrote — that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience – the recipients – can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust [or, we might add, the past and present history of racism] precisely did with the information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read or put to use (p. 52).

The work that crisis does, then, is to make something visible that previously might have been seen but was not recognized.

This is not a comforting lesson about teaching. Who the hell wants teaching to be an act of perpetual crisis? To be sure, there are other paths to learning besides crisis, and we know that much of what we do in the classroom involves the more mundane aspects of “passing on information.” Still, as Alice Pitt, the current Academic Vice Provost at York University (Canada), argues, learning is not so much an “accumulation of knowledge but a means for the learner to alter himself or herself…as tensions emerge.” [2]

When crises surface, they can generate significant breakthroughs not just in how we view each other, but in our ability to understand what we didn’t recognize before, if we understand our responsibility to hear one another.

I have found the same issues discussed within museum pedagogy, particularly when dealing with emotions that can arise when visiting “difficult” (sometimes called “conflict”) museums, museums such as the Villa Grimaldi torture center in Chile, Robben Island in South Africa, the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, or the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The challenge for curators at those museums becomes how to help visitors cope with any traumatic crisis that their visit may occasion by helping the learner to develop deeper relationships to the “historical Others,” those who suffered and resisted at those sites and whose ghostly presence in those spaces can turn museum exhibits into traumatic triggers. And coping, Deborah Britzman argues, can only happen by acknowledging the incommensurability of their pain. [3] What educational outreach staff at such museums must recognize is that, as hard as it is, allowing a retreat into emotional disengagement relieves us from our responsibility to recognize human suffering, thereby encouraging a kind of “passive empathy” that allows us to separate ourselves from the situation and from others.

Learners “need to be faced with the tensions of empathic unsettlement” if they are to learn in difficult situations. [4] Therefore, what we ask of our students, what curators ask of their visitors at “difficult” museums, is to receive the lessons offered, the history provided, with critical awareness, personal responsibility, and a respect towards those who have suffered and resisted.


We should expect no less of ourselves if we are to learn in a moment of crisis. If we are to take up Coleman’s call to move forward in a “more nuanced and constructive process,” than I would suggest that the beginning of that journey is to leaven the process of intellectual inquiry (clarity, exactness, rigor of argument, familiarity with the current state of scholarship, etc.) with a sense of personal responsibility, a willingness to truly hear the stories of those who have lacked, those who still lack, privilege and power, and an understanding that actions, even well-intentioned, can produce unintended consequences.

I will leave for others a discussion of how intellectual inquiry can precede and suggest that when I speak of responsibility, it is in the sense that philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas spoke of it: “Responsibility is what is incumbent on me exclusively, and what, humanly, I cannot refuse. This charge is a supreme dignity of the unique. I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible…” [5] Claudia Eppert and Roger Simon explain that the learner who is positioned to receive testimony about an oppressive history, is “under the obligation of response to an embodied singular experience not recognizable as one’s own.” [6]

When I speak of hearing the stories of others, it is in the dialogic sense offered by Felman, a hearing that can transform information that no one could recognize into something that we can “truly learn, read, [and] put to use.” It is a recognition that, when faced with the tensions of “empathic unsettlement,” our only way forward is to hear and understand the incommensurability of each others’ histories and to recognize each others’ pain.

And when I speak of the importance of consequences, it is in the sense of the Spanish term, consequente: being consequential with one’s actions, being able to see how one’s actions (or inactions, for that matter) will impact others, being aware of the way that actions can only be read through history and histories, and we must take that on board.

To close, I return again to Felman’s class and what she learned from it. To live in the era of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, of slavery’s shadow and redlining, of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, is to live in what Felman calls the “age of testimony.” And in such an age, teaching (and learning) must go beyond just transmitting information “that is preconceived, substantified, believed to be known in advance…” We must be willing to testify, to “make something happen.” We are called on to be performative and not just cognitive, to feel as well as think, to listen, not just talk, and to be heard.

“It is the teacher’s task to recontextualize the crisis,” Felman concludes, “and to put it back into perspective, to relate the present to the past and to the future and to thus reintegrate the crisis in a transformed frame of meaning.” As we think about the present moment in our community, we are called upon to be both teachers and learners in this process.

[1] Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] Alice Pitt, “Reading Resistance Analytically: On Making the Self in Women’s Studies,” in L.G Roman and L. Eyre, eds., Dangerous Territories: Struggles for Difference and Equality in Education (New York: Routledge, 1997)

[3] Deborah P. Britzman, “If the Story Cannot End: Deferred Action, Ambivalence, and Difficult Knowledge,” in Roger I. Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert, eds., Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Remembrance of Historical Trauma (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000): 27-58.

[4] Julia Rose, “Commemorative Museum Pedagogy,” in Brenda Trofanenko and Avner Segall, eds., Beyond Pedagogy: Reconsidering the Public Purpose of Museums (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014):115-133.

[5] Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985).

[6] Roger I. Simon and Claudia Eppert, “Remembering Obligation: Pedagogy and the Witnessing of Testimony of Historical Trauma,” Canadian Journal of Education 22 (1997): 175-191.

Share Your Fears

Steve Volk, April 3, 2016

NoFear“No Fear” is a U.S. clothing brand designed for “active living”: extreme sports, mixed martial arts, surfing, energy drinks (energy drinks?). Anyway, you know the stuff and the message: go anywhere, do anything, live on the edge. (The company, by the way, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 – maybe the “fearless” life doesn’t always pay dividends.)

While the attempt to brand Oberlin “fearless” back in 2005 stopped short of bankruptcy, neither was it a hit. Oberlin College, after all, wasn’t marketing a lifestyle or an energy drink. But, even more than that, the slogan was peculiarly inept because it suggested that we, whose essence is to introduce our students to the “examined life,” either have no fears or that we can (and should) brush them off like crumbs from our pants.

I was reminded of this episode when reading a blog post from Cathy Davidson. I’ve been following her work for some years now. Davidson, a cultural historian, is the director of the “Futures Initiative” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Trained in English, linguistics and literary theory, her current work, in her own words, “focuses on trust, data, new collaborative methods of living and learning, and the ways we can change higher education for a better future.”

I’m also an attentive follower of the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) project she co-founded in 2002 with David Theo Goldberg. In 2004, Davidson and Goldberg published “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” in which they argued that emerging global forms of communication and digital learning are so complex and potentially so revolutionary that they require a new alliance of humanists, artists, social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, working collaboratively and thinking and acting collectively, to envision new ways of learning that can serve the needs of a global society.

Diego Rivera, "Open Air School," lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

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

Last August the HASTAC community of scholars sponsored an on-line conversation entitled “Towards a Pedagogy of Equality.” The conversation was led by Danica Savonick, a HASTAC (pronounced “hay stack”) Scholar and doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center; it was sponsored by The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. The program’s planners designed this “conversation” to be the first of eight discussions which would serve as a foundation for a larger project intended to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice. Quite nicely, I thought, they call the project: The University Worth Fighting For.

The Pedagogy of Equality

As part of the “Pedagogy of Equality” conversation, the organizers launched a Google Doc on which they asked all those participating in the online discussion to describe their favorite strategies, practices, activities, techniques, or assignments that were designed to promote or model equality in the classroom. In the document, contributors gave the activity a name and provided a short explanation of how it works.

The Google Doc of that conversation is still available, and if you check it out, you’ll find a wealth of concrete ideas for increasing participation in the classroom, making assignments more interesting, and bolstering opportunities for student learning. Among others, these include some relatively well-known activities such as “Think-Pair-Share”: the instructor poses a question, students are asked to think about and then write their responses, pair with another student to discuss the question and their answers, and then share their conclusions with the whole class. (You can find a more detailed description of the activity here). But I also found activities and approaches I hadn’t previously encountered, such as pairing learning with music (after we have a particularly heady or difficult text pair it with a song that is a mnemonic device or another way into the work”).

One exercise, in particular, caught my eye. It was from Cathy Davidson and she called it, “Share your fear.” Here’s what she wrote:

Have people write down, on post it notes, three things that they fear will keep them from mastering the material in the course and then, on post it notes, three skills/experiences/areas of expertise where they excel and that they know they can offer to others. Have them put the “fears/inadequacy” post-its onto giant post-its arrayed around the room.  Then, in a single file, have everyone go and silently (no talking or joking) circle the room and read all the things classmates are afraid they won’t/can’t/lack the ability to fully master. Take that in. It’s humbling to see all the areas where people feel inadequate.  Then, have everyone go around and put the “skills” post its, with their names, over all the “fears.”  These are partners for the course, resources, collaborators.

Davidson suggested that such an activity can help students:

  • take advantage of other people’s expertise beyond the teacher’s as a way of understanding that the instructor is not the only expert in the course;
  • demonstrate their own expertise; and
  • embrace their own expertise.

And Students Are the Only Ones with Fears?

From "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End," by Atul Gawande

From “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” by Atul Gawande

It is very late in the semester for such an exercise, and so I offer it as a morsel for you to tuck away and perhaps pull out at the start of the next semester.

But Davidson’s exercise also got me thinking about teaching and learning in general and the fact that students are not the only ones who have worries and fears when they enter the classroom. It is no less certain that, as teachers, we carry our own bundles of anxieties into the room. To be sure, most are different than student fears although some (perhaps a nagging sense of inadequacy) probably are shared. But no fear? No way!

Our apprehensions often march about most demonstratively during the night hours towards the start of each new school year. I don’t have to tell you about the dreams and nightmares which trouble our mid-August sleep, the ones in which we are taking math tests we didn’t prepare for, German exams in courses we never bothered to attend. They are the dreams where we are required to read aloud in a language we have long ago forgotten, and, anyway, the letters seem to be swimming about on the page. The dreams where we show up to lecture in our bathrobes. These pre-semester doubts are part of what I think of as our common culture of teaching.

But anxiety is not the same as fear; fear is a step further, something that often develops after the mid-point of the semester when we no longer find we have time to correct a problem, when we feel that we have lost control of a class, can’t find a way into a conversation that is essential for student learning, worry that we no longer share an epistemology that will allow us either to resolve disputes or even discuss differences. And fear is when we feel that we are about to trip over the barely visible wires that someone (students? colleagues? ourselves?) has set out for us, when we can no longer imagine getting done what has to get done, when there simply is no time for friends, partners, children.

No, students aren’t the only ones with fears. So is there an exercise or assignment we can design that can help us “share our fear”? Perhaps.

If I could gather all of you into a big room, here’s the exercise I’d prepare for you. I would ask you to write down, on post-it notes:

  • Three fears you have about your pedagogical practice, what you are trying to do in the classroom. These can be things that you worry will keep you from doing what you need to do to allow you to reach your goals as a teacher, help the students learn, or permit you to create an environment in which everyone will get the most out of the few weeks we share with our students.
  • Three fears you have about the impact your professional life has on your personal life.
  • Three fears you have about the institutions in which you carry out the work of teaching and learning.

Then I would have you write on separate post-it notes three things you can rely on to help you address your fears: the skills, experiences, or expertise you rely on when you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, the histories of past practices you can remind yourselves of when you wake in the night worried about a class that you feel is crashing and burning, the strengths and resiliency you have built up that have carried you to where you are today.

Finally, I would ask you to write the names of three people you can talk to when these fears gnaw at your stomach and trouble your sleep. You know who they are – the question is whether you will talk to them.

The “Share Your Fear” Virtual Exercise

We’re not sitting together in a big room, but the internet exists for just such moments! While you can’t put post-its on a wall, I’ve put up a Google Doc which you can populate with your fears and the skills you have to help address them, your anxieties and your support networks. While you’re at it, write down the people to whom you can turn to share your fears (although you’ll want to leave that off this doc) You also can add additional information about yourself that you think is relevant in terms of providing context to your concerns (e.g. gender, race, length of time you have been teaching, etc.).

The “Share the Fear” document will be our wall of post-it notes; it will be available for anyone with the link to read and add to (so keep that in mind when posting). After some time, I’ll try to summarize what has been written, where our concerns overlap and where they diverge, and what we can learn by sharing our fears. If this exercise, when used with students, helps them understand their own strengths and how to take advantage of other people’s expertise, this can help us understand that we are not alone in our fears, and that we have resources built up over years and networks of support that can help.

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization

Steven Volk, February 15, 2016

London is a city of museums, and I have had the good fortune to take my students to quite a few in my (still) short time here. Last week, for example, in class we studied the so-called “Glorious Revolution” (1688-89) in England (more on its glories, real or imagined, in another post!). And then on Friday we traveled up river to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see an exhibit on Samuel Pepys, the garrulous diarist who chronicled so much of the second half of the 17th century.

John Michael Wright, "Charles II in His Coronation Robes," c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015)

John Michael Wright, “Charles II in His Coronation Robes,” c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015).

There’s only so much I could say in class about Charles II, the man who restored the monarchy to England after a brief flirt with republicanism, without spiraling my students into a deep slumber. But, on entering the Pepys exhibition, the visitor is almost immediately confronted by a portrait of the monarch in his coronation robes painted by John Michael Wright (c. 1687). What the spectacular painting could say was infinitely more informative (not to mention entertaining) than anything I could cobble together.

Supporting the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand word, we know that images are remarkably generative texts. Perhaps this is because, as John Berger has argued in his hugely popular book, Ways of Seeing, published in 1972, and based on a BBC series of the same name, seeing and recognition come before words. We see, and then explain what we see with words. But, he continues, at the same time what we know or believe affects how we see. Our past knowledge or experience changes the way we see.

Nearly 40 years earlier, John Dewey, in Art as Experience, also considered the relationship between what we see and what we know. Dewey discussed the critical nature of seeing as experience, suggesting that “experience is a product, one might almost say bi-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with the world,” adding that this was the “foundation upon which esthetic [sic] theory and criticism can build” (220). For Dewey, the art object was the primary site for the dialectical processes of experience and the unifying occasion for these experiences.

In his 1934 study, Dewey challenged the assumption that art does not have a connection with outside content. Much as Berger will argue later, Dewey suggests that art can concentrate meanings found in the world. The difference between art and science, he argued, is that art expresses meanings, whereas science states them, giving us directions for obtaining the experience, but not supplying us with experience. So, to take a very recent example, Einstein gave us the “directions” for looking for gravitational waves resulting from the collision of black holes colliding, and now that we have “seen” them, it remains for artists (among others) to express the meanings of such an event.

Computer visualization of black holes colliding (BBC News, Feb. 11, 2016)

Computer visualization of black holes colliding (BBC News, Feb. 11, 2016)

This relation between words and images, science and art, and image and understanding was on my mind when I read an article (kindly sent me by Roger Laushman) by Kim Quillin (OC ’93) and Stephen Thomas, titled “Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology,” [CBE Life Sciences Education, Vol. 14 (Spring 2015): 1-16].

Drawing of Michael Faraday's 1831 experiment showing electromagnetic induction: Arthur William Poyser (1892) Magnetism and electricity: A manual for students in advanced classes, Longmans, Green, & Co., New York, p.285, fig.248, public domain

Drawing of Michael Faraday’s 1831 experiment showing electromagnetic induction: Arthur William Poyser (1892) Magnetism and electricity: A manual for students in advanced classes, Longmans, Green, & Co., New York, p.285, fig.248, public domain

There is little question that visualizations are integral to scientific thinking and the teaching of science. Scientists rely not only on words to explain their findings, but on a host of visual materials: graphs, diagrams, charts, illustrations, etc. And they have long done so.

But visualizations are also, in a more Deweyian sense, a primary way to communicate complex science to the lay reader (and the everyday citizen) as experience, and so their importance in that realm should not be underestimated.

Scholars in the sciences and arts have published a considerable amount on how work to improve visual literacy can be leveraged to scaffold learning in the sciences. [For a good example of this, see Liliana Milkova, Colette Crossman, Stephanie Wiles and Taylor Allen, “Engagement and Skill Development in Biology Students through Analysis of Art,” CBE Life Sciences Education, Vol. 12 (Winter 2013): 687-700] Two intriguing papers have suggested that encouraging students to draw in science classes will not only improve their ability to understand underlying concepts, but to become engaged and active in their science classes.

Transmission cycle of Zika virus

Transmission cycle of Zika virus

Writing in Science [“Drawing to Learn in Science,” Vol. 333 (Aug. 26, 2011): 1096-97], Shaaron Ainsworth, Vaughan Prain and Russell Tytler suggested that there are multiple ways that teachers can bolster student (novice) learning in science classes by encouraging students to draw. Drawing, they argue, can do this by: enhancing engagement on the part of students who do poorly at rote learning or might have felt excluded in more traditional science classes; catering to individual learning approaches as different students will generate different visualizations; generating their own representations, through which students will deepen their understanding of the specific conventions of representations and their purposes (e.g., this is how a line graph works and why you want your representation to communicate the most information in the sparest way); helping students learn how to reason in a method other than argumentation (an approach that research has shown to have great success when student generate and refine models supported by their teachers); helping learners overcome limitations in presented material, organize their knowledge more effectively, and integrate new and existing understandings; and, finally, helping students learn how to communicate effectively.

Flea, from Robert Hooke, MICROGRAPHIA or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665)

Flea, from Robert Hooke, MICROGRAPHIA or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665)

Quillin and Thomas (“Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology”) apply this model specifically to the biology classroom, lamenting that biology has lagged “behind physics and chemistry in acknowl­edging and explicitly teaching drawing as a skill, especially the drawing of abstract visual models as a tool for reasoning.” They argue that model-based reasoning is “a powerful tool for fostering conceptual change and meaningful learning in students.” Further, they suggest that when model-based learning is applied to science visual representations can be used to generate predictions and explanations. If many (most?) biology teachers use visual representations in their teaching, a much smaller number expect their students to draw or make models. “Drawing-to-Learn” is intended to “to distill the complexity of drawing into a ‘big picture’ framework that can serve as a launching point to facilitate future work in biology.”

Quillin and Thomas break their examination into three separate topics: They set out to: 1) define what they mean by drawing in the biology classroom; 2) articulate clearly the pedagogical goals of drawing-to-learn; and 3) propose a set of teaching interventions that can serve both as prompts for interested instructors and also as testable hypotheses for researchers. Here, I’ll examine only the second and third points while encouraging you to read the article in its entirety. Nevertheless, and to encourage you to dig further, they summarize their main pedagogical goals for assigning drawing exercises in the following chart:

ChartIt is important for faculty to have thought out the pedagogical goals of such a project from the start. Assigning drawing as a way to help students engage more actively in science learning (improve moti­vation) or to help them see more carefully (improve observation skills) are very different pedagogical goals than assigning drawings to help students understand concepts (lower-order cognitive skills) or solve a complex problem (higher-order cognitive skill). But each of these is important. “Like­wise,” the authors continue, “assigning drawings to students to help them learn (stu­dent-centered goal) and assigning drawings so that instruc­tors can assess learning (instructor-centered goal) are very different pedagogical goals, but both can be used to improve student learning. Finally, teaching drawing as a learning tool (such as the use of concept maps to help memorize content or see the big picture) is a different goal than teaching draw­ing as a science process skill (such as drawing models to design an experiment), but both are valid and worthwhile. Overall, the key is for instructors and researchers to artic­ulate goals clearly so that appropriate interventions can be designed and aligned between the formative and summative quadrants to achieve those goals.”

The authors conclude by suggesting various ways to scaffold drawing skills to address specific learning goals. The overall goal of our teaching is to move our students to more expert-like practices, and to do this most effectively we need to understand what can get in the way of learning, including whether we are placing too heavy a cognitive load on students, and therefore exercises can become unproductive (as per the theory of “cognitive capacity”).

In this light, they argue for three different kinds of faculty interventions, one based on improving student motivation and attitudes toward drawing (affect); one designed to teach the skills of translating information to a visual form within the field of biology (visual literacy), and one designed to give students the practice and feedback on the use of models as reasoning tools (model-based reasoning).

Here’s the chart they provide to summarize these points:

Chart2Quillin and Thomas conclude with a series of suggestions for further research on the application of such a model of learning to different students and classrooms. Among their questions:

  • Which types of interventions are most successful in improving students’ ability to draw and reason with their models?
  • What are the barriers that limit the utility of drawing exercises in class?
  • How do gender, ethnicity, background experience, and content knowledge influence student abilities and/or affect regarding drawing-to-learn?

As we answer these questions, it seems to me that the learning theory that informs model-based reasoning in biology can be applied not only in the other sciences, but in the social sciences and humanities as well. If you’re using model-based reasoning in your classes, share your findings with us.

Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques

Marcelo Vinces, October 25, 2015

Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), founded in 1989, is a leading advocate for transforming undergraduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) teaching and learning in the United States. A project of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), PKAL is dedicated to empowering STEM faculty, including those from underrepresented groups, to graduate more students in STEM fields who are well trained and liberally educated.

I had the opportunity to attend PKAL’s Ohio conference last May. Scott Freeman, a biologist at the University of Washington, opened his keynote by projecting an image by Laurentius de Voltolina taken from a 14th century manuscript, Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia.

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

That’s Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, founded in 1088. Besides the obvious differences in garb, student demographics, and technology, the scene is a familiar one to all of us. The lecturer stands at front, and his pupils are seated in rows facing him. Some scribble notes, some listen intently. In the back, two students have checked out altogether and are speaking to each other. And look: there are the students we’re all familiar with: one bent over in ecstasy or agony, but more likely just asleep, as is the one who sleeps through the lecture as well as the chatter of the two students behind her. Maybe it was a late night with some fine Italian wine. More likely, the result of a boring lecture. With that, Freeman asked the audience: How is it that we are still teaching science at universities much the same way it was done in the 1300s?

Two recent opinion pieces have expanded upon this very question, touching on the growing body of published research indicating not only that the venerable tradition of the lecture may be less effective for learning than “active learning” techniques, but that they may produce particularly negative results in the sciences for underrepresented groups: minorities, women, low-income and first-generation students.

In “How Black Students Tend to Learn Science,” Terrance F. Ross, writing in the Atlantic, focused on research carried out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Washington. The studies concluded that learning techniques that permitted students to become active participants in constructing their own learning rather remaining passive recipients as in traditional lecture courses, consistently resulted in better performance by students. The research, “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work,” was conducted by Kelly Hogan, a professor of biology, at the University of North Carolina, and Sarah L. Eddy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington. In particular, the studies examined how differences in race, culture, and a family’s higher-education background can affect the methodologies by which students learn. Ultimately, it questioned whether college courses—specifically STEM-related ones—that use older teaching approaches are the best fit for colleges today, considering the increasingly diverse student populations we are educating.

Hogan and Eddy compared a traditional lecture approach and grading based solely on exams with a model that let the students mold how they learned and were assessed. These approaches included preparatory and review assignments, guided reading questions, and extensive student in-class engagement. As we can see in the graph below, while the new model was effective across the board, it worked particularly well for minorities. The gap between black students and their white and Asian counterparts (the two highest performing demographics in the class) shrunk from 5.5 percent under traditional lecture structure, to an average of 2.6 percent in the new setting.

Average Grades by Race

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times (“Are College Lectures Unfair”) Annie Murphy Paul reviewed several studies, including those mentioned in the Atlantic, all of which suggested that the traditional lecture format is “not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.” Paul suggests that there are several possible reasons to explain the difference. One, she notes, is that “poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates.” This is not just a problem in the way we might easily imagine but more so since research “has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess. The same lecture, given by the same professor in the same lecture hall, is actually not the same for each student listening; students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear.”

Active learning approaches are able to overcome these deficits, according to the research, disproportionately improving the performance of historically underrepresented students in STEM areas. Why? The research suggests that active learning helps limit students’ sense of isolation while fostering communal feeling among classmates. Other research has shown the detrimental effect on learning of being a “solo” in a class context and points out that active learning can be especially effective at reducing the achievement gap of women, low-income, and first-generation students by creating more collaborative, lower-pressure environments that increase a sense of belonging for everyone.

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

So why, given the growing body of data and the demographic trends in the United States, aren’t these approaches embraced more widely? Scott Freeman, the PKAL keynote speaker, went even further, asking us to consider whether not using active learning techniques in STEM courses could even be considered unethical. In his talk, he presented results of a meta-analysis of 642 papers examining the effects of active learning. These broadly demonstrated benefits across disciplines, class size, course level and major or non-major courses. His own studies in an introductory biology course showed enhanced performance in active learning versions of the course, with benefits particularly pronounced among underprepared students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

So, what are your thoughts on active learning? Why do we tend to stick to the traditional lecture format? What are the real barriers that keep us from using innovative pedagogies and how can we lower them? What have your experiences been with active learning approaches in the classroom?