Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 26, 2016

All images from Lewis Caroll, "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There" (London: McMillan, 1871)

All images from Lewis Caroll, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” (London: McMillan, 1871)

As part of a class assignment, two Muslim students from Middle Eastern countries attended a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia. What happened next was sobering. The students were members of a course in religious studies, “Religion in Philadelphia,” taught by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez of Temple University. In the course Alvarez sought to introduce her very diverse students to a variety of religious practices and institutions in the Philadelphia area.

I’ll quote from the article that Alvarez wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fostering Open Communication in a Culturally Diverse Classroom”) to describe what happened next:

They were enjoying the beautiful building and taking in unfamiliar practices — holy water, repeated kneeling and standing, communion lines — when a parishioner photographed them with her cellphone and then abruptly left. After the mass ended, they ran into her outside the church, where she asked them if they spoke Arabic — yes — and if they were Catholic — no. When the students walked to their vehicle, multiple police cars stopped them.

The incident thankfully ended without further offense to the students when they explained the nature of their assignment for their religion course. But it left them, their classmates, and the instructor deeply shaken. While the professor had prepped both the students and the institutions they would be visiting in a responsible and professional manner, Alvarez was left to wonder whether “in today’s xenophobic climate” she could “continue to assign interfaith exchanges to my diverse students?” Continue reading

Good Job! Responding to student answers in order to spur learning

Steve Volk, September 19, 2016

Me: In the chapter you were reading this week, Silverblatt argued that the Spanish inquisition as carried out in Peru in the 17th century was a “modern” institution. Would you agree and how does her argument fit with what we’ve been discussing in class?

Student: This chapter really made me think about what “modern” actually means in terms of what we’ve been talking about. I mean, the Inquisition seemed to have a whole bureaucracy that went with it and even thought it followed different sorts of rules than we have now, there still were rules and procedures for actions that seemed to treat everyone who got caught up in it equally. It makes me think that Spanish colonialism was attempting a new approach to control that brought it into new territory.

Me: Good job!

You: I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Sheet Music, NY Public Library, 1896

Sheet Music, NY Public Library, 1896

The bread and butter of much of what we do in the classroom involves questions and answers. Whether the class is fully discussion-based or primarily lecture-driven, our questions – and the students’ responses – are a critical way to engage learning, assess who has done the work we assigned, discover what questions remain, and edge into new territory. The “Q&A” of a class is probably the prime argument for face-to-face, synchronous learning since it is in these question and answer exchanges that we often discover the most productive, and unplanned, learning opportunities.

In earlier articles (here and here, for example), I’ve written about ways to foster or organize discussions in class. But the casual, usually unplanned, questions we scatter about, and the answers they elicit, are a much more common occurrence in the classroom. They are like seeds to the soil, each with the possibility of germinating and growing into full-fledged discussions and greater insights. Continue reading

Office Hours: The Doctor is In

Steve Volk, September 12, 2016

A Scene In The New York Eye And Ear Infirmary, Second Avenue And Thirteenth Street, During The Hours For The Reception Of Patients. 1875. NY Public Library

A Scene In The New York Eye And Ear Infirmary, Second Avenue And Thirteenth Street, During The Hours For The Reception Of Patients. 1875. NY Public Library

After a faculty/staff workshop last week, I was able to chat for a moment with one participant, new to the college. She remarked that she was surprised that so many of her students had shown up for office hours in the first week of classes. Most, she remarked, were worried that they were already falling behind or that they were not “getting it”. I wasn’t surprised, but I also suggested that the students who came to her office were not necessarily the ones she needed to keep an eye on. Often it is those who don’t show up that one should be concerned about.

My experience, shared by others, is that two different kinds of students most often come to office hours: those who are quite prepared in the class, know the material, and know that office hours will help them to excel in the class or are a way to get to know the faculty member, which they understand is important. The other kind are students who are struggling, but often know the ways that they are struggling. In other words, they can generally form a question as a way to begin a productive conversation.

But the students who don’t come to office hours are often the very ones who could use the most attention: the students who: (a) are so confused by the course material that they can’t formulate a question about it; (b) are embarrassed by having to ask a question, thinking that since they have gotten into a selective college, they should be able to figure it out for themselves; or, (c) worry that they are imposing on the instructor’s time and have had no previous experience asking for help outside the classroom. Continue reading

Transformative Mentoring Communities

Steve Volk, September 5, 2016



               Marge Piercy, “To be of use”

York Minster Cathedral, England

York Minster Cathedral, England

Our work as teachers, at its best, can be transformational for the students we reach. We work hard to make this happen even if the results we seek are often hidden to us or only apparent years later. The labor of teachers reminds me of those medieval architects who planned the great cathedrals certain only that they would never see the results of their efforts. If we are fortunate, we discover that the seeds of growth we scattered have taken root. A student from years ago sends us an email of thanks, or we come upon a happy notice in the alumni magazine or the New York Times. And we are very pleased.

And we should be. Even if we are quite privileged to be teaching where we are, we are nevertheless part of a higher education sector that faces massive challenges, from growing student debt to decreasing legislative support for the very notion of a liberally informed public. And the crisis in higher ed is but a small part of the nation’s problems, tested as it is by growing inequality, persistent discrimination, and a political system that has become increasingly unhinged. And our country is part of a world torn by violence and baking under the fierce sun of climate change.

Still, in the face of all these impediments, those who work in our colleges and universities (not to mention in the K-12 sector) are committed to the proposition that we can make things better one student at a time. Yes, in the most transactional sense, we claim our salaries on the basis of just doing our job, not changing the world, but our job is teaching and the goal of teaching is individual (as well as collective) improvement and empowerment. We seek to make a better world one student at a time. Continue reading