As Classes Resume…

Steve Volk, January 30, 2017

I was fortunate to be able to attend the (just-concluded) national meetings of the American Association of Colleges & Universities. The AAC&U is among the most forceful and persuasive organizations defending high-quality, inclusive liberal education in the United States. AAC&U’s president, Lynne Pasquerella, staff, and many of the speakers at the conference offered a full-throated defense of inclusive higher education, the linking of education and calls for social justice and a path forward in seeking racial healing on our campuses and in the broader community. These positions were all the more important in the face of the mounting attacks on the ideals we hold as educational institutions that unfolded in tandem with the conference.

Illustration from Christina Georgina Rossetti, "Goblin Market," Illustrated by L. Housman, p. 29

Illustration from Christina Georgina Rossetti, “Goblin Market,” Illustrated by L. Housman, p. 29 (British Library, public domain)

As I flew back from San Francisco, I continued to think about issues that were raised, both regarding the development of approaches to teaching that can help us reach all our students, as well as how to think about the distressing political climate we find ourselves in. I haven’t been able to process everything I heard, but here are some points that stayed with me from the meetings, beginning with what we should keep in mind as classes restart for the spring semester.

First and foremost: Think of concrete ways you will defend and support students who are most vulnerable at this time and who have already come under attack, particularly undocumented and Muslim students, as well as students from those communities  which the current administration in Washington has chosen to belittle and threaten. You may not know which of your students are vulnerable, but assume that those at greatest risk are seated among your students and make sure your classroom is a welcoming space for all. Regardless of the subject you teach, our students need to be supported and we are the best ones do to that.

Second: Think of specific ways to support students, staff, and colleagues who are feeling overwhelmed by the sea change in Washington and the policies which have emerged this past week that directly challenge core principles of the academic community, and the central moral and ethical standpoints that we hope would define us as a human community. Among the former is a belief in evidence-based arguments and the value of rational discussion; among the latter is a commitment to defend and protect the weak, and to offer refuge for those most in need.

Third: Think of specific ways to support yourself. We can’t be of help to our students if we are too overwhelmed to think.

"Goblin Market," p. 17. British Library public domain

“Goblin Market,” p. 17. British Library public domain

Beyond these points, here’s a sampling of some issues that were raised, facts that were shared, and quotes that struck me as generative and useful to keep in mind as we head into a new semester.

  • Never forget the power of youth to transform the world.
  • Listen to your students’ stories: narratives have the power to shape who we are and what we believe.
  • Think about what we can do to help our students listen to one another by fostering authentic dialogue.
  • Consider how we can make our classrooms radical spaces of transformation.
  • Make sure you articulate your course learning goals in your syllabus.
  • Faculty must make sure they are not to treating their students the way that surgeons often treat their patients, without regard for their real, lived experiences. (Harry Brighouse)
  • “If we want to teach our students better, shouldn’t we get to know them better?” (K. Patricia Cross).

  • Don’t allow the word “justice” to be morphed into “just us.” (Gail C. Christopher, W. K Kellogg Foundation)
  • Public (K-12) schools today are more segregated in every region of the United States except the West than they were in 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education was decided.
  • We live in a “color silent” society: we observe the consequences of race, but don’t talk about it. (Beverly Tatum)
  • Where are the equity gaps in the education we are providing?
  • Seek to create expansive communities on our campuses, and envision what the community can look like when racial hierarchies are jettisoned.
  • What do we say to all our students about their chances of success? How do we see student success? Are we helping students find agency by crafting narratives about their own success? Are the narratives of success that we employ shaped by our students’ actual lives, or do we only recur to traditional markers when thinking about what achievement means?
  • Do we continue to consider students of color fundamentally from a deficit perspective?

  • That fact that our message about the importance of a liberal education does not seem to be resonating would suggest that we aren’t delivering it very well. How can we sharpen our message and in the process build a political constituency that will support the broad goals of higher education?
  • “It is no accident that all democracies have put a high estimate upon education… Only through education can equality of opportunity be anything more than a phrase. Accidental inequalities of birth, wealth, and learning are always tending to restrict the opportunities of some as compared with those of others. Only free and continued education can counteract those forces which are always at work to restore, in however changed a form, feudal oligarchy. Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” (John Dewey)
  • Choose rationality over fear.
  • What are the habits of mind and spirit that keep one open to the world?
  • We have failed to teach people what democracy is and what it requires of us. (Jelani Cobb)
  • 13% of community college students are homeless.

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