Teaching Ferguson

Steven Volk (November 29, 2014)

“How should academics respond to the death of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of his killer,” David Perry, a history professor at Dominican University asked in a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education? “If you teach critical race theory, criminology, modern American history, African-American studies, or any number of other subjects explicitly linked to Brown’s death, then I suspect you already have a plan. But what about the rest of us?”


Street Art, Ferguson: Sebastiano Tomada (http://www.sebastianotomada.com/)

In previous “Articles of the Week,” I have discussed the challenges of bringing contemporary events into the classroom, particularly if their lessons don’t easily “fit” into your subject matter. [Among others, see March 11, 2013 (“One Big Motrin”), Nov. 12, 2012 (“Personal Convictions and Teaching”), and Sept. 27, 2010 (“Rove and Responsibility”).] Continue reading

Thinking and Doing: Going with the Flow

Steven Volk, November 23, 2014

“Sometimes you just want them to do what you ask them to do and not question it.”

This was one of many comments that emerged from a conversation when nearly 30 coaches and faculty sat down last Friday to break bread (actually, pita) and talk about how we think about student learning on our different ends of the campus. I had never been in this kind of a discussion in nearly 30 years at Oberlin. And I don’t think that anyone else who was there had, either. The hour-long conversation was not only truly pleasurable; it opened a window on the benefits of bringing all parts of our residential, liberal arts campus together in dialogue while also helping me think differently about what we do as teachers.


Peasants breaking bread. ”Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio”, 14th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

The coach’s comment, which initially sounded so jarring to me, sunk in quickly among faculty who teach in performance areas of the curriculum: music and dance, as well as among the coaches. It soon opened two different conversational paths. One related to a challenge we face as instructors in liberal arts settings. Our bread and butter is helping our students question perceived wisdom, to “display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others,” as Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University recently put it. “For many students today,” he continued, “being smart means being critical,” always asking questions. But there are limitation to that, not just (as Roth pointed out) that our students in being too “critical” can become unwilling to engage with material they might otherwise ignore or find problematic. Continue reading

Athletics & Academics: Building a Co-Curricular Future

Steven Volk, November 16, 2014

Division I Athletics have experienced a particularly thorough (and well deserved, in my opinion) thrashing of late. From bogus courses for athletes at the University of North Carolina, to the involvement of high profile athletes in (unpenalized) sexual assaults, to the NCAA’s recent granting of de facto autonomy to sports teams in the “Super Five” conferences, athletics as practiced in the most powerful Division I conferences continue to raise questions about why they are housed in institutions of (one hopes) higher education. If I don’t get upset by these revelations (and often I do), it’s only because I find it nearly impossible to draw comparisons between, say, the Ohio State football players just two hours down I-71 and the students in my classes. No criticism intended of particular Ohio State players, but we don’t seem to inhabit the same world of undergraduate education. And yet, of course, we do. So, what’s different about athletics and student athletes at Oberlin and other Division III, liberal arts colleges? And, more importantly, are we taking advantage of the differences? Continue reading

“I Can Grab On To That”: Helping Students Learn in Uncomfortable Places

Steven Volk, November 9, 2014

WQXR, a classical music station in New York, runs a program called “Meet the Composer,” hosted by Nadia Sirota and produced by Thea Chaloner and Alexander Overington (by the way, an Oberlin grad).  Not long ago, the composer they met was John Luther Adams. Now, we know this wasn’t the mysterious third John Adams to become president of the United States only to fall out of the history books and our memories. But neither was he the guy you’re probably thinking about, the minimalist composer John Coolidge Adams much in the news of late as his Death of Klinghoffer recently opened at the Met. Rather, John Luther Adams is a composer inspired by nature who won the Pulitzer this year for his breathtaking composition, Become Ocean. (Click here for a free listen to its premier at Carnegie Hall.) Sirota’s interview with Adams was picked up and showcased for Radiolab’s  October 3, 2014 edition, a program produced by some of my favorite Oberlin grads, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

Back to the story: In the interview, Adams talked about one individual who who had a huge influence on his own work, a composer with the impressive name of Edgar Victor Achille Charles Varèse (1883-1965). Continue reading