Tag Archives: teachers

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community

Steven Volk, August 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Tell Them What They (Really) Want to Know

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

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


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

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

Thinking as Educators

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

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

How do we get from here to there?

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

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

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

Photo: Steve Volk

LA Graffiti: Photo: Steve Volk

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

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

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

Thompson continues:

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

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

Thompson concludes as follows:

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

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

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

Back-To-School Lit

Steve Volk, September 13, 2015

They arrive on our electronic (or real) doorsteps as punctually as the back-to-school adverts, and seemingly in the same quantity. Late August and early September in the United States is the season when the public is called on to contemplate the world of higher education… most often, what’s wrong with it. Today’s (Sept. 13) New York Times is devoted to higher ed. It includes an insightful piece on college tuition by Adam Davidson, a thought-provoking article by Annie Murphy Paul on whether college lectures discriminate (“A growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture 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”), a terrific essay by Edward E. Baptist on the challenges of “Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners” (“Whenever we dredge up the past, we find that the rusty old chains we rake from the bottom are connected to some people’s present-­day pains and others’ contemporary privilege”), and Syreeta McFadden’s contemplation on “Teaching Martin Luther King Jr. in the Age of Freddie Gray.” Read them.

Eva Hesse - Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Eva Hesse – Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Along with these types of stories in the New York Times one encounters a raft of articles that chronicle a student arrival at college for her first semester, describe high schoolers teetering on the cusp of the college-decision-year, follow parents unsure of whether they can afford the university that has plucked their daughter’s heartstrings, and sermonize on how higher education has sold it soul.

And then there is the burgeoning journalism (back-to-school lit, I call it) that falls into the subgenre of “What’s-The-Matter-With-Kids-Today,” a nod to “Bye, Bye Birdie” of Broadway fame (“Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”). These are the articles that lament the “The Coddling of the American Mind”, the rise of intolerance on campus, or, in the latest to appear, and in which Oberlin takes pride of place (The Atlantic, Sept. 11, 2015) , the spread of a new “victimhood” culture, an argument first described in the research of two sociologists.

There is much that can be said about the issues raised in these latter articles, and I would hope that faculty, staff, and students can discuss them further in a variety of settings. Here, I will only say that while many of us are confused or upset or angered by what not only appears to be, but is in specific instances, a fundamental disregard for the principles of academic freedom, we should also be aware of the context in which these articles continue to appear. Not to discount some of the arguments made, nonetheless the tendency in some of the reporting to generalize a relatively few examples of specific behaviors into a new student culture raises the question of how widespread these trends are within higher education. Similarly, to dismiss what scholars have found to be real and significant barriers to some students’ learning (what scholars have termed “microaggressions” ) by decrying or ridiculing the fact that a few students have deployed the concept in ways that are no longer recognizable or defensible, does not encourage a deeper understanding of what are important issues, and principles, for those of us who teach and interact with students on liberal arts campuses. Nor do these articles open the way to a productive discussion of the subject, something which is desperately needed. (Those looking for a well-researched introduction to the topic of microaggressions, for example, should consult the work of Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University – you can start here and here – or Kevin Nadal of John Jay College, CUNY – try here.) There certainly is much which we can, and should, discuss, including what I would term the emergence of a “safety” narrative on some campuses (usually elite, selective colleges or flagship university), but the seeming intent of the back-to-school-and-the-liberal-arts-colleges-have-all-gone-crazy articles to ramp up outrage against the education that takes place in these colleges should be interrogated along with the behaviors they describe.

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

We (the approximately 130 residential liberal arts colleges that remain) are a tiny percent of the overall higher education framework in the United States today (just over 2%, to be exact). There are nearly 20 million post-secondary students in the U.S. today, and many are struggling with debt, thinking about future employment, juggling studying with jobs and families, and just trying to learn in a political environment which disparages teachers and belittles actual knowledge. While writers in the Atlantic enjoy skewering liberal arts colleges as hotbeds of “political correctism” and left-wing students run amuck, and while we can share the anxiety of those wondering how any but the very rich will be able to afford a university degree, we are, in fact, doing many things right, and the back-to-school season is a good time to remind ourselves of this. Even researchers who have launched the most serious critiques of higher education for not adding to students’ capacity to think critically (Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift, for example) have concluded that liberal arts colleges are getting it right.

So, what is it we do (and, I could add, why does it seem to make our detractors so angry)? To help answer this question, I turn to my polestar in these matters, John Dewey, and to a lovely article that the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1989 (“Education as Socialization and as Individualization”). In the article Rorty offers an explanation of why liberals and conservatives see the purposes of education so differently. Conservatives, he suggests, stress the importance of education for socialization while liberals argue in favor of education for individualization. (Interestingly, he observes, in the United States, education up to the age of 18 or 19 is mostly a conservative stronghold; it’s mostly about socialization, “of getting the students to take over the moral and political common sense of the society as it is.” Higher education, on the other hand, has been mostly a liberal’s domain, about encouraging Socratic skepticism, a place where “we hope that students can be distracted from their struggle to get into a high-paying profession, and that the professors will not simply try to reproduce themselves by preparing the students to enter graduate study in their own disciplines.”

Ernest C. Withers, The "Little Rock Nine" first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Ernest C. Withers, The “Little Rock Nine” first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Dewey’s approach, Rorty writes, wasn’t based on either conservative or liberal precepts. He offered “neither the conservative’s philosophical justification of democracy by reference to eternal values nor the radical’s justification by reference to decreasing alienation.” For Dewey, the promise of an education was its democratic value as an on-going experiment engaged in…by us. Dewey asks that we “put our faith in ourselves – in the utopian hope characteristic of a democratic community…” For Dewey, hope, “the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past – is the condition of growth.”

We, on campus, have been thinking much about both the value and valence of hope, as we pondered the words of Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, who was on campus last week and continue to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in our reading groups.

For his part, Rorty sadly observed that there now are certain aspects of the U.S. educational establishment that Dewey couldn’t have foreseen, but that we should not hold this against his vision of hope. Dewey “could not have foreseen,” he wrote, “that the United States would decide to pay its pre-college teachers a fifth of what it pays its doctors. Nor did he foresee that an increasingly greedy and heartless American middle class would let the quality of education a child received become proportional to the assessed value of the parents’ real estate.”

Rorty is a Deweyan, and, as he put it, “We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the student see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centered is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to make themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts, as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Susan B.] Anthony, [Eugene] Debs and [James] Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings. With luck, the best of them will succeed in altering the conventional wisdom, so that the next generation is socialized in a somewhat different way than they themselves were socialized…To hope [this way] is to remind oneself that growth is indeed the only end that democratic higher education can serve and also to remind oneself that the direction of growth is unpredictable.”

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

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

There are politicians and pundits, and, yes, some administrators, who, when reading the back-to-school lit which will make its way to their desktops, think that higher education is too important to be left in the hands of professors, let alone allow the students to have a voice in it. But I think of what it is that we have done and what we should continue to do. And I am reminded of what the Civil War historian, James McPherson, pointed out in his 1975 book, The Abolitionist’s Legacy (Princeton): an extraordinarily high percentage abolitionist leaders were shaped by their colleges. In a sample of 250 antislavery leaders, nearly 80% either had college degrees or spent time in college. This, at a moment when less than 2% of the overall population was college educated. If we are doing what we should be doing, our students, even those who might not get everything right as they attempt to cope with the world around them, what they bring with them, and what they are learning, will succeed in “noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surrounds” – and try to change it.

Creating the World Anew: Thoughts on a New Semester

Steve Volk, August 30, 2015

Grace Lee Boggs. Photo: Robin Holland

Grace Lee Boggs. Photo: Robin Holland

Grace Lee Boggs celebrated her 100th birthday on June 27. For those who don’t know her, Grace Lee Boggs is a philosopher, activist, teacher, and an inspiration. Her father, Chin Lee, ran a restaurant in Toishan, China, before emigrating to Providence, RI, where Grace Lee was born. Facing the enormous obstacles of race and poverty, she was nonetheless able to enroll in Barnard College on a scholarship. There she followed some inner voice that pointed her towards philosophy. She went on to complete her doctorate in philosophy at Bryn Mawr.

In the 1940s there were no jobs for a Chinese American woman in the academy, and certainly not in philosophy. So when she moved to Chicago in the early 1940s, it was for a $10 a week job at the University of Chicago’s library; she lived rent-free in the basement of a nearby building. Grace Lee Boggs, an adherent of Hegel, has long argued that one has to suffer the negative in order to make progress, that the greatest lesson we can learn is to “make a way out of no way.” And so for her, the reality of living in a rat-infested building was not without its positive outcomes. Her determination to address her own basement circumstances led her to a group of African American activists who were fighting the same miserable housing conditions. She soon became a tenants’ rights activist, and eventually met and married James (Jimmy) Boggs, a black auto worker and labor activist.

Grace Lee and James Boggs

Grace Lee and James Boggs

They moved to Detroit in 1953, where she still lives, always a philosopher, always an activist, always an educator working with others to “make a way out of no way.” Grace Lee Boggs has been an active participant and valued voice in the movement for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and black power. In 1994, she co-founded Detroit Summer, “a multi-racial, inter-generational collective” that functions as a training ground for activists, attracting young people across the country each year.

I’ve been thinking about Grace Lee Boggs this week as I wrestle myself into the proper frame of mind for starting a new semester, a process which invariably reminds me of the importance of what it is we do as teachers. In the process, I came across a fairly recent interview with Boggs with Krista Tippett’s on the latter’s “On Being” podcast. Boggs spoke about what I would call the “physics” of social change. Referencing the work of Margaret Wheatley , she “pointed out how Newtonian science and scientific rationalism has made us think of life and reality as made up of particles. [But] quantum physics,” she offered in contrast, “gives us the opportunity to look at change in a very different way. Not in terms of mass but in terms of organic connections and emerging changes, of changes that take place at a lower level so that at a mass level [they] have more permanence and more reality.”

Grace and Jimmy Boggs - 1990s

Grace and Jimmy Boggs – 1990s

Boggs’ analogy struck home, positioned as I am (and as we are) at the entry door to the semester. In her strong, deeply intelligent, century-old voice, speaking from the heart of Detroit, a city kicked to the curb by the wealthy and powerful, she argued that it was an unparalleled time to be alive, the best of times. While she lamented that we “no longer recognize that we have within us the capacity to create the world anew,” she affirmed that “there’s something about people beginning to seek solutions by doing things for themselves, by deciding that they are going to create new concepts of economy, new concepts of governance, new concepts of education, and that they have the capacity within themselves to do that.” Grace Lee Boggs, an activist for 75 years, looked back at her early years in the struggle. Recalling lessons learned from Hegel, she reflected on the difference between the possible and the necessary. In the 1960s, she observed, she and other radicals thought they should address only what was necessary. Now she believes that focusing on the possible is “so much richer” because it demands creativity and imagination, and it is imagination that opens up the world that you can bring into being.

Our work, Boggs reminded me, is the work of opening the possible to, for, and with our students. It is, to return to Hegel, helping them understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom. “The goal to be reached,” he wrote in The Phenomenology of the Mind, “is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary…”

David Gooblar’s most recent “Pedagogy Unbound” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that “for our students, particularly the first-years who are right now in a near frenzy of anticipation for their college careers to begin – we [teachers] are the university.” Not the administrators, coaches, or buildings. I don’t actually agree; our students will come to define the college and their years here in a myriad of ways, from the intellectual engagement of the classroom to the thrill of performing on Hall Auditorium’s main stage, or in Finney, or on the athletic fields. For many, college will be the quantum mechanics of combining with others to make “organic changes.” But I do agree with him that “we are uniquely invested with the power to shape our students’ college experience” as well as their ideas about what their purpose in life might be. As Henry Giroux has written, pedagogy is an act of intervention, a commitment to the future. It’s always good to remember that through our interventions, we can help our students explore the idea of the possible, appreciate the difficulty, as well as the pleasures, of the journey to wisdom, and encourage in them the creativity and imagination that will carry them to own their education and shape their future.

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I always turn to two sources as particularly useful when thinking about our incoming students. Our own schools are eager to give us data on what states and countries our students hail from, how well they did on their SAT’s, and how many edited their high school newspapers.  The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes an “Almanac” each August that gives a broader sense of incoming students (always reported with a one-year delay; this year’s Almanac, for example, reports on “Freshmen at 4-Year Colleges, Fall 2014.” (Counting all undergraduates, some 18.5 million students were enrolled in 2- and 4-year programs in the spring of 2015, about 13 million of whom were in 4-year institutions.)

So, looking just at the first years, what can we say about first-year students?

  • 66.7% are White/Caucasian; 12.8% Asian American/Asian; 11.1% African-American/Black; 16.6% Latino (including Mexican-American/Chicano, Puerto Rican, and other) [All classifications are from the Almanac.]
  • 13.5% of entering students come from families earning less than $25,000 a year and 41.8% from families earning $100,000 or more.
  • Most (47.2%) defined themselves as “middle of the road” politically, with 31.7% selecting “Liberal” or “Far left,” and 21% choosing “Conservative” or “Far right.”
  • In their last year of high school, in an average week, 57% spent 5 hours or less studying; 48% spent less than one hour working for pay; 55.7% spent less than one hour reading for pleasure.
  • 61.3% reported that they tutored another student “frequently” or “occasionally” during the last year, while 43.1% admitted falling asleep in class, and 52.5% failed to complete their homework on time.
  • This is always one of my favorite data points: 71% placed themselves in the “highest 10%” or “above average” in terms of their “academic ability.” Hmmm. On the other hand, only 47.5% put themselves in those two categories when evaluating their math ability and 46.1% in terms of their writing ability.
  • They deem themselves, by very large majorities, “very” or “somewhat” strong as regards empathy, “tolerance of others with different beliefs,” or their ability to work cooperatively with diverse people.
  • What did they see as “very important” reasons for going to college? 86% said it was “to be able to get a better job” and 73% “to be able to make more money,” while 47% said it was to “make me a more cultured person.” Just so we’re not too disheartened, 82% said that it was very important “to learn more about things that interest me” while at college!

My other go-to source is Beloit’s “Mindset” list, a yearly list that points out what traditional-age students entering college that year would not have experienced or known. For current first-year students, most of whom were born in 1997, here are a few tidbits that caught my eye.

Since our incoming students have been on the planet:

  • Google has always been there with them, as has South Park, hybrid cars, and Harry Potter. The Lion King (Julie Taymor ’74) has always been on Broadway; Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have always been members of NATO; and Hong Kong has always been under Chinese rule.
  • Our incoming students have never had to lick a postage stamp, could always get Phish Food from Ben and Jerry’s (Jerry Greenfield ’73), watch CNN in Spanish, and tune in to “This American Life” (Alex Bloomberg ’89, producer). And the New York Times was always printed with color photographs!

Have a great semester!