Creating the World Anew: Thoughts on a New Semester

Steve Volk, August 30, 2015


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

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

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.

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!

Reflection and the First Week of Classes

Steve Volk, August 23, 2015 (edited, augmented, and revised from Jan 31, 2014)

One of the things that I most enjoy about a life in teaching is the semi-annual prospect it provides to start anew. Whether we follow through on them or not, the resolutions we make at the start of each new semester offer an opportunity to reflect on what went well and what went pear-shaped during the last semester, as well as a chance to institute some changes to address the shortcomings.


Pete Seeger, 1964 anon for BBC Tonight In Person. Carl Guderian, CC-Flickr

There’s a boat-load of hopefulness built into this semi-annual reset button, and I was reminded of the importance of this when reading the 2014 obituary of Pete Seeger, a personal hero who visited Oberlin many times during his long career. “The key to the future of the world,” he observed in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” This doesn’t feel much like a time for optimism, but I’ve long believed that to be a teacher is in its essence to be an optimist. I’m not sure what we’re about if not preparing our students to take ownership of their learning and craft their own lives, so as to make a better future for themselves, their communities, and the world we inhabit. And that is an act of optimism.

So, how to begin…again? I often post “first-week-of-the-semester” advice at the start of the semester, and clicking back to some of them now might provide some ideas. For example, how to make plans now to manage the stress you know is coming; how to create an inclusive classroom in which all of our students can listen to and hear each other in the midst of very difficult conversations; or how to create an active learning environment in your classroom.

First-Day-VideoA few years ago I prepared a short (10 min.) video on the First Week of Classes, and although a few points are dated, you still might find some good advice there.

While thinking of what to say in this article, I awoke to something this morning in one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova, and it struck me as immensely useful as we prepare our classes. Popova was writing about the artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose massive spider sculptures (among her many spectacular creations) caught my attention some years ago. In a 1938 letter Bourgeois advised her friend and fellow artist, Colette Richarme, that “You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination. Once the drawing is established and composed, you compose the other values in the same way.” Not a bad bit of advice about teaching: we try to put the essence of what we need (not want) to teach into the course, and that always involves elimination. We choose with discernment,  but we have to put the essence of what we want to say into our classes.


Louise Bourgeois. Photo by Topyti, “Shadow of a Doubt,” CC-Flickr

Expectations and Reflection

So, returning to the first week of classes, here’s a suggestion. Sometime during the first week of classes, hand out an “Expectations Reflection Paper.” Many of us do this, or engage in a similar exercise, both to help students think about their expectations for themselves and the course and for us to learn more about them (and what they think they have signed up for. It can be a sobering experience to realize that their expectations and your syllabus aren’t in any particular alignment.)

You can set aside some time in the class for students to respond to the assignment; I have them work on the assignment outside of class. they are required to turn it in at the start of the next class. Some faculty ask students to put their names on the assignment, others explicitly don’t. If you want to use the exercise as a way to get to know your students, you’ll need to know who authored the papers.

I always have them put their names on the paper, and make the reflection paper a course requirement, for another reason. I collect and read the reflections at the start of the semester and then hand them back to the students at the end of the semester. This time I ask them to think about what they wrote earlier and to reflect on what they feel they have accomplished, where their expectations might have fallen short, and what they learned about their own learning in the process.


Mimo Paladino, illustration for 1998 folio edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

What to ask? Here are some starting ideas:

  • Why are you interested in this subject, or what prompted you to take this class? (Don’t be afraid to admit that you need it to fulfill a requirement.)
  • Have you taken other courses in this area or have you had other experiences (in classes or outside of the classroom) that you think are relevant?
  • What content knowledge do you hope to gain by taking this class?
  • What skills do you hope to gain by taking this class?
  • How do you learn the best? Formal lectures, class discussions, small group discussions, readings, assignments, practical engagement, group work, other?
  • Do you know of anything that might get in the way of your full participation in this class and which you can disclose? For example: Is this a particularly busy semester for you? Health issues? Family issues? Part-time work? Worries about your community or events in the world beyond the college? Lack of particular skills? Shyness? Please list anything that you feel comfortable listing, anything you think I can help with or should be paying attention to.
  • Do you have any particular worries about this class that derive from these concerns? Anything about the reputation of the class or what you have heard from other students?
  • What can you tell me that can help me remember you? (E.g., “I’m the one with pink hair who loves Bach and always sits in the back row.”)
  • In this class, do you expect to work more, less, or the same amount as in other courses?
  • Are you doing anything else this semester (or in general) that relates to or corresponds with the subject of this course (either in terms of what you are studying or things that you are doing outside of your classes)?

Finally, there are two questions that I always include:

  • What one thing can I do to help your learning in this class?
  • What one thing can YOU do to help your learning in this class?

Do you have other suggestions? Send them along.

Black Lives Matter and the Start of Classes

Steve Volk, August 16, 2015

VirasanaAt the beginning of yoga practice, we often sit for some time in virasana. With eyes closed, we begin to clear our minds – although mine usually just keeps trucking along. As we sit, we are often encouraged to think about the space in front of us, on our sides, and behind us. At my practice today, I began to think more about what occupies those spaces.

The semester will begin soon, just a few slim weeks since the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. What is more, we’re coming off a summer which, for many of us and our students, was an appalling, angering, and disheartening period, filled as it was with so many Black bodies cut down by racist violence. As we tried to cope with Charleston, our thoughts were quickly forced to ask why Sandra Bland was pulled over for not signaling a lane change…and ended up dead a few days later; why Samuel DuBose was pulled over for not having a front tag…and was promptly killed by a white University of Cincinnati officer; why Christian Taylor was gunned down by a white police trainee in Arlington, TX. The Washington Post recently reported that 24 unarmed black men have been killed by the police so far this year, that’s 40% of all the unarmed deaths. And that’s likely an under count. Sam Sinyangwe of the Mapping Police Violence project reported that 179 African Americans have been killed by the police so far this year.


Peter Strain for the Washington Post

“Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?” the BBC asked back in May as our students were leaving campus. Perhaps that question only remains alive for foreign journalists still trying to figure out why racial carnage in the United States is so endemic. Sinyangwe writes, “In the aftermath of Ferguson…there was this big question ‘Is this a pattern, is this an isolated incident?’ What [my data] shows is that Ferguson is everywhere. All over the country you’re seeing black people being killed by police.” He notes that “Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people last year. And that’s taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here.” Perhaps, as I have come to realize, what was appalling about this past summer was not that it was unusual but rather that it was all too common. What has changed is that we’re hearing about this racial violence since body cameras and social media have become our nation’s paper boys, ready to drop this news on our doorsteps every hour.

This is not the time or the place to answer the BBC’s question, but it is a time to recognize that for many of our students, faculty, staff, and community members, the maddening crimes of this not-yet-concluded summer occupy all the spaces around them. These events, and what they imply for their own lives and the society we live in, are never far from their thoughts.

This may not be true for all of us, but whatever space Ferguson and Baltimore and Prairie View and Cleveland does occupy in your mind, as we prepare for classes and the return of our students, we would do well to recognize that for many in our community, our students above all, an education that doesn’t provide the tools to think critically about the BBC’s question as well as the set of skills needed to change the reality that calls forth such a question in the first place, is not an education.

What does this mean for how we teach our classes or engage our students? Beyond a doubt, it will mean different things for different people, and that’s as it should be, for there is no one way to approach this. But I have found a few important articles that give some good advice, and surely more are out there. I would recommend Dan Berrett’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Year of Racial Tumult Brings Potent Lessons – and Risks – to the Classroom,” as well as Colleen Murphy’s article, also in the Chronicle, “How a St. Louis HBCU, Deeply Touched by Ferguson, Handled a Difficult Year.” Do check out a Penn State website, “The Fire This Time: Understanding Ferguson. Learning from Faculty, Students, and Community Members, from Penn State and Beyond as they Engage the Events in Ferguson, MO.” For those on Twitter, I’d strongly recommend the #FergusonSyllabus and the follow-up #CharlestonSyllabus that was put together by Chad Williams at Brandeis. See, as well, the #Charlestonyyllabus produced by the African American Intellectual History Society. You can also find a list of New York Times articles on Charleston and its aftermath here.

However we think about this past summer, and year, we need to be aware of the fact that many in our community are hurting and we need to begin this year with a recognition of the pain that they suffer. We should understand that even if these events don’t take up all the space around us, and even if these are subjects what we don’t directly teach, they are events that have deeply impacted many in our community.

Here’s another timely resource. If you’ve ever hiked in the UK, you’ve likely encountered stinging nettle, and not in a friendly way. A slight brush against the plant produces a burning sting that goes on and on. As luck (or some other intention) would have it, the crushed stem of the jewelweed which grows right next to the stinging nettle, can be used to sooth your irritated skin. If the events of this summer were like a stinging nettle, than the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (NY: Spiegel & Grau), a short memoir-polemic, is the nearby jewelweed. Coates’ is a massively important voice, his insights stunning, disturbing, unforgettable. This is a book that must be read. A few faculty, led by Pam Brooks, have been planning some discussion groups to explore Between the World and Me, and the A&S dean’s office has agreed to provide interested faculty with copies. We’ll get out more information on this soon.


Peter Strain, “Black and Unarmed,” for the Washington Post

The Dual Life of a Syllabus

by Steve Volk, August 4, 2015


Shark Syllabus – Jack Dowell – CC/Flickr

If you’re ahead of the game, your syllabi for the fall semester are finalized and ready to go. If you’re like me, they are hardly ready for prime time and you’re probably feeling like the guy in the photo. In either case, particularly if you’re new to syllabus writing, here are a few things to think about as you prepare, revise, or tweak your syllabi.

The syllabus is a strange animal: it is conceivably the most important (and complicated) teaching document you will prepare each semester and yet, after you hand it out, most students use it for one thing only: to find out the readings assignments or when papers are due or exams scheduled.

The root of the problem is that the syllabus is really two different documents serving two different purposes. On the one hand, it is the most comprehensive guide that you will prepare detailing how you plan to organize a body of information in such a way as to reach your educational goals while having the greatest impact on student learning. On the other, it is seen as a quasi-legal contract that sets out your responsibilities to the students and what they must do in order to successfully complete the course. The first purpose is most often invisible and implicit; the second needs to be explicit and unambiguous. Continue reading