(When) Is a College Class More than a Class?

A year ago, Gardner and I began developing what we called an “alternative subversive advising curriculum” for first year students. Like many schools I suspect, ours was struggling with how to create an advising program that students would find value in. Gardner and I came upon the idea of using advising meetings to host a meta-conversation about higher education, and last year we made a good start at finding appropriate discussion topics.

I am now working on an idea for the second advising meeting this year, to be held in early October. The purpose of this post is to solicit your feedback on the idea, which I describe below.

I plan to start the session by reminding the students that at the first meeting of this year, I asserted that freshman year should be more than 13th grade. What I plan to do then is explore the extent to which their experience to date has confirmed or refuted that assertion. I’m going to do this by asking them to write for a few minutes and then discuss the following questions:

* Write down a list of all your courses.
* Which one is the most like high school? Why?
* Which one is the least like high school? Why?
* Which one(s) do you not find interesting at all? What is your strategy for dealing with your lack of interest?

These questions are preliminary to what I really want the students to consider and wrestle with:

* What should a student’s responsibilities be when they take a college course? Is a student responsible for anything more than coming to class and completing the assignments?

I plan to introduce Gardner’s Apgar at this point, which I used in my First Year Seminar this week for the first time. (I plan to have the FSEM students take it every week or so this semester.)

Can any of you suggest a short text I could assign in advance to inspire student thinking about this fundamental question?

– – – – – – – –

The first day of class for my FSEM, which is on globalization, I asked students to rate their interest in the topic on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 indicated indifference and 5 indicated passion. One student spoke up, saying

I have to tell you that I have no interest at all in globalization. The only reason I signed up for this course is that it had the last open seat of any FSEM when I registered. [Taking an FSEM is required in our new general education curriculum.] I hope you will give me credit for honesty.

While not responding to her explicitly, I stated what I had planned to say to introduce the course, that this course was not about grades or credits, but rather about genuine intellectual inquiry on a topic. That it was more about exploring questions than finding answers. And that anyone taking this course to satisfy a requirement, or anyone not interested in globalization likely would find this course frustrating.

The student’s admission unnerved me. Since then, I have been pondering what to do about it. It is as if having her in the course will inhibit the rest of us from building the genuine intellectual experience that I have planned. Still it’s unfair to put all the blame on her. What about other students who may have felt the same way, but didn’t admit it? Her public admission may have simply made it harder for me to maintain the fiction that my students are genuinely interested in making this course something bigger than a requirement. That fiction is important. Consider how we teach children to eat vegetables. If I claim that vegetables are tasty, and my children humor me by eating them, at some point they will discover that I’m speaking the truth. But if they don’t humor me and they don’t try them, they probably won’t.

I’ve decided to treat this student as a challenge. Can I convince her that school can be something more than a set of requirements? At present I am not particularly hopeful, but I’m going forward anyway.

– – – – – – –

It seems only fair to conclude the advising meeting with the following question:

* What should a teacher’s responsibilities be when they teach a course? Should the teacher be responsible for more than presenting the material on the subject of the course and testing students on their recall of the material?

Margaret Soltan at University Diaries spoke to this recently:

The point of college – the point of professors – is to spark in students an awareness of an intellectual world …; it’s to take students largely unaware of the depths and delights of serious reflection and inaugurate them into it. Of course students are free to take this or leave this; but the fundamental point of higher education is to display it, to seduce students toward it.

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8 Responses to (When) Is a College Class More than a Class?

  1. What a thoughtful post. I am so interested in your students’ responses to the questions about their high school classes. And I would love to think that high school teachers have the same obligation as professors–to spark an awareness of an intellectual world or at least spark a curiosity. But then reality sets in because, of course, I don’t have a class filled with students who *want* to be there. Some, of course, do. But my hope is that I can bring the others along so it’s not too painful. Your reflective response to your student’s admission makes me fairly certain that your own passion will move any students who are in that “passive” mode to a place that allows engagement and intellectual inquiry. Thanks for sharing….

  2. Leslie M-B says:

    I started to write a comment here, but it turned into its own blog post. I hope you find it useful.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Well, this is going to have me thinking for days, and I’m sure will eventually turn into a blog post of my own, but for now, I just wanted to throw out a thought for something you could assign to inspire student thinking. There’s an article in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, by Paul Walker (Vol 8, No 1, Feb 2008), titled “What do students think they (should) learn at college? Student perceptions of essential learning outcomes”. I know you want your students to ultimately be thinking about what their responsibilities might be as students but doesn’t that start with thinking about what is the point of college? What do they think they should be learning? Walker reports the results of a survey where he asked students what they believe ‘everyone should learn in college’ – many of the responses are more life and career skills than content and many of the narrative comments suggest students see that much of what they get out of college depends on what they put in.

  4. Steve,

    It’s great to see you being so transparent with your pedagogy–the twists and turns, the ups and downs–great teaching is a rollercoaster ride.

    Some thoughts about my experience with first-year seminars:

    I gave my first-years readings from Generation Me, discussed learning communities, and had them create personal multimedia learning narratives that connected their lives to the subject of the course. I’d also give them excerpts from Born Digital if I were still in the classroom, and we’d talk about what it means to be in college in this day, and how we will be concerned about the community as much as about ourselves individually–how the one feeds the other. It matters not a bit if they can get their heads around this idea to begin with. In time, they will open up magnificently to the power of reciprocal apprenticeships.

    In my first-year seminars, I took a good two weeks at the opening of the semester to have them explore the context of the course within their larger learning journey: http://bgblogging.wordpress.com/2007/05/16/umw-faculty-academy-day-two-workshop/
    We explore the community, our reciprocal apprenticeships, the fact that each of us comes to this moment from distinctly different experiences–some have had “bad” experiences with, in my case, writing-intensive courses, in the past. Others see themselves as writers. It matters not a whit. The young woman who professed no interest at all is a huge asset to your class, for the potential for her to grow through this experience is huge! Dramatic resistance is usually a sign of a lack of self-confidence, false bravado. Last year one of my first-years said she thought she had signed up for “Creative Non-conflict” not “Creative Nonfiction” and was dismayed to discover herself in such a course. She turned out to be one of the leaders. innovators and most enthusiastic fans of the class.

    In other words, I wouldn’t focus on each student’s interest in the subject at the outset; instead I would focus on how fascinating it is to be engaging in a group exploration of one of the crucial issues of our time. Assume they are interested, give them authentic opportunities to connect the subject to their own lives and to the world, and keep showing them your passion.

    Three weeks in last fall, I wrote this post: http://bgblogging.wordpress.com/2007/09/27/three-weeks-into-the-semester-stopping-to-catch-my-breath/ Perhaps it’ll help.

    Looking forward to following along as you go!


  5. Laura says:

    I’m not sure I can add much to the already great comments that others have posted. As someone who almost exclusively teaches required courses (freshman comp), I don’t worry at all about whether they are interested in the course. Most of them aren’t. What I have been able to get my students to think about is what they’re doing in college. The answers to this question on day one are sometimes heartbreaking if you have any kind of economic diversity. I have had people say they were there because it’s safer than home, because they’re expected to take over the family business and need to learn accounting, because they got a football scholarship. Some say because they want to learn. Some expect to learn. They just don’t know what that means yet.

    I don’t actually take the student’s response as negative. There were no other slots available. It’s not that she’s completely uninterested in globalism; it’s just that there might have been something else she was interested in, but scarcity put her in your course. I see first year seminars as an introduction to college that happens to anchor itself within a topic. I have had as my topic the nature of college education, which makes things really fun. We read My Freshman Year, which actually has an interesting section on international students that would be good for students in a globalization course to read.

    I guess I’ve just never lived under the fiction that the students are there to be inspired by my topic. I always hope that they will be but I assume they’re thre for lots of reasons, most of which probably have nothing to do with interest in the topic and more to do with the oddities of scheduling, who’s taking what class, timing when signing up, etc. I hope I’m not sounding negative here. I don’t mean to and certainly I approach my classes with enthusiasm, but it’s more enthusiasm with the project at hand–exploring a topic, learning together–rather than with the idea that the students are interested. It’s hard to explain.

  6. Gardner says:

    So I’ve been mulling this one over a l-o-n-g time. What’s a good First Reading to get down, as Van Morrison would say, “to what’s really real”?

    I know it’s important to establish trust, but I’ve also found that unless there are clear and unmistakable signs early on (even on day one) that this class is Not Business As Usual, it gets hard to convince students that possibilities for transformative learning really do exist in the course they’ll be experiencing. It’s very, very difficult to balance the tension-and-release. How to get the crowd all wound up but also fired with happy determination? How to get to Illich’s “eutrapelia” (graceful playfulness) while also gaining the intellectual stamina and drive to prove to oneself the lesson that always need to be re-learned: that we are capable of much more than we think we are, and that our capabilities are most effectively engaged in community.

    So what should be that first reading? You know I’m partial to fables, so “Immigrant” is high on my list. I also love “break your head” essays that refuse to resolve neatly, or at all; the point then becomes to learn to search for something other than closure and resolution (I suppose that’s a good way to think about “Immigrant” as well). I’ve had very good luck with Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature” in this respect. I used it as a first writing assignment in all my English 101 courses. They’d read the essay, then have to write in response to the question (formulated by Bartholomae and Petrosky, the editors of “Ways of Reading”) “Percy talks about common and complex tourists. Imagine that these categories apply to readers. What would a common reader notice in the Percy essay? What would such a reader miss? What would a complex reader notice? What would such a reader miss?” What unfolded afterwards was a long, arduous, and humbling process for all concerned (including me), in which it became clear that schooling to date had taught us all certain modes of imagining and boxing up complexity, modes that were really quite limiting when it came to deep understanding and patient analysis. Quite an eye-opener. It was a great demonstration in how difficult it is to see what’s right in front of you. I suppose that’s also one moral of “Immigrant.” πŸ™‚ It’s all about the “dialectical move” Percy imagines. Something like a sailboat tacking here and there to keep moving forward whichever way the wind is blowing.

    I’m speaking to Cherry Award winner Steve Davis’s biology class on Friday here at Baylor. It’s a class on science education. Steve’s letting me give the students a reading assignment. I chose chapter six, “Learning Webs,” from Illich’s “Deschooling Society.” Illich’s radical view of the necessity of self-directed learning, and the ways in which formal schooling obscures that need and blocks that activity, is highly provocative. It sparked a good deal of thoughtful engagement from my New Media Studies students last spring, some of whom were outraged at Illich’s dismissal of school, some of whom were very pessimistic about the chances of self-directed learning succeeding on the scale Illich imagines.

    The chapter is available online: http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Deschooling/chap6.html

    In “Lessons of the Master,” George Steiner talks about how hard it is just to stay awake, and how staying awake is the necessary first step in any education. I suppose this lengthy comment is all about wake-up calls I have loved. πŸ™‚ I hope these remarks are helpful.

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  8. Tirza says:

    Well written article.

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