Open Your Doors!

Steve Volk, Feb. 26, 2018

Diego Rivera, “Open Air School” (1932), lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

I fell in love with Diego Rivera’s lithograph, “Open-Air School” when I first saw it many years ago. An indigenous teacher, surrounded by her multi-generational students, sits at the edge of a field, open book in hand. In the distance, we see campesinos working the fields with their horses. A lone, armed horseman watches over the class, locating the lithograph in its historical setting, the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Those who fought the Revolution promised to bring literacy to the masses, a goal that was not necessarily welcomed by conservatives (nor always observed by government officials). In a process that would foreshadow literacy campaigns in Cuba in the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s, young literacy workers fanned out across the countryside, teaching reading and writing to those too poor to go to have attended school previously.

Many times, as in Rivera’s lithograph, which I was delighted to find in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, they taught their classes out of doors, in open air schools. And while, because of recent events, my attention immediately shifted to the man on horseback, the vigilant guard who was needed to secure the students their right to learn and the teacher her right to teach, I have always been struck by the openness embodied in the image, the way in which teaching and learning unfold in an enveloping environment rather than closeted away behind closed doors.

Alone Together

Much of what we do as academics, we do alone. Research, writing, and creative artistry all require considerable solitary time. We are alone in our offices, studies, labs, studios, and practice rooms for a good part of the time when we’re not teaching, although maybe not for as much as we would desire. What is more, when we’re teaching, we’re strangely alone even though surrounded by students. The western model of teaching, at least since universities came on the scene almost 1,000 years ago, is one in which teaching takes place behind closed doors: teacher and students, the expert and the learners. We do our teaching in the privacy of our closed-door classrooms, even if a few of us move outside at the slightest hint of a spring thaw.

Cours de philosophie à Paris Grandes chroniques de France, late 14th century. Public domain.
fin XIVe siècle

There are obvious reasons why this is a reasonable approach to our task as educators, but the closed-door model has more than its share of downsides. For me, this is not so much a question of the desirability of, literally, “open air” teaching, of being in nature, as much as it is about the benefits that can come when we open our classroom doors both literally and figuratively to let colleagues in to share our practice. I don’t think it’s too great an exaggeration to say that we have precious little sense of how our colleagues teach, what methods they use, or how they engage their students, in our own departments and programs, let alone others. All of which is a shame, since we can take pride in our abundance of exceptionally thoughtful and accomplished teachers.

The other problematic aspect of teaching solo, behind closed doors, is that we’re often convinced that we are the only ones who face difficult questions in the class, students who have become strangely cold, a classroom that has gone quiet, or technology that has just crapped out on us. We are alone even though there are scores of us going through the exactly the same things.

If we don’t open our doors to others, it’s likely because opening our classrooms to outside observers generally is freighted with negative, or at least anxiety-producing, connotations. When colleagues visit our classes, their purpose more often than not is to sit in judgment. They are there in order to provide some kind of required, summative evaluation, for annual review purposes, or at tenure time. And while presidents or deans may pop in to observe, a welcome gesture carried out to get a better sense of the institution, knowing they are coming to your class tomorrow can provoke acute gastric distress the evening before. And if you know that they (the review committee, the college president, the department chair) are coming, you will likely be up late into the night preparing in an especially rigorous manner.  There’s a joke from the UK that the Queen associates hospitals with the smell of fresh paint because every time she visits one, all the corridors have been touched up in anticipation of the royal arrival. Knowing that your colleagues are coming to evaluate your performance, you bring out the fresh paint.

Open Class Week

So, how can we open our classrooms and share our experiences without causing anxiety or disrupting on-going lessons? Here’s a plan.

During the week beginning Monday, March 5, CTIE will be sponsoring an “Open Classroom Week.” Faculty and staff are encouraged that week to throw open the doors to one or more of their classes, labs, or studios to welcome visits from colleagues. We hope this will be seen as an invitation to open up the teaching and learning process, normalizing (to ourselves and our students) the notion that we have much to learn from each other, and promoting cross-campus conversations about our approaches to pedagogy. Opening our classes during this week is intended as an encouragement for faculty to invite colleagues into their classes on a regular basis, as a way of normalizing the process of getting helpful feedback from colleagues we trust while removing the “fresh paint” anxieties that are a part of the way observations currently take place.

So, here’s what Open Classroom Week is (and isn’t) and how you can participate. Faculty who want to participate by opening their classes will indicate the classes and times during that week when they would be willing to have colleagues visit their class/es. (You can access the form here.) Those who want to participate – and it would be phenomenal if lots and lots of you did, from all parts of the College and Conservatory – should indicate the basic type of class you are teaching (e.g. seminar, lecture, discussion, etc.) and any particular pedagogical approach that they will be using (e.g., active lecture, community-based pedagogy, Socratic dialogue, etc.). I will compile and post a list of all the classes that are available so that those who want to visit a class can plan accordingly. (Please note: this is only for Oberlin faculty and staff; visitors to campus should go through the usual procedures in the Admissions office or elsewhere.)

Alexander Calder, “Open the Door and Let Me Through…” (1944), pen and ink on paper. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Those who visit a class should do their best to arrive a few minutes before class begins so that they can introduce themselves to the instructor. Visitors should sit at the back of the class in larger classroom or ask the instructor where to sit in smaller seminars. Instructors don’t have to acknowledge the presence of class visitors, but I’d strongly recommend that you do call attention to the “Open Classroom Week,” indicating that it is part of a project of encouraging cross-class visits among faculty as a way of breaking down barriers, sharing expertise, and promoting productive interactions across the campus. It’s important for students to recognize that we learn by observing others and by inviting feedback and discussion.

Class visitors are not expected to participate in the class. They can take notes for their own purposes, and if they have follow-up questions that can encourage dialogue, they should contact the instructor by email or in person. But, to be clear, the visits are not for assessment purposes. While a visitor’s notes can be shared between visitor and instructor, they are not public and should remain confidential.

I would strongly recommend that those interested in visiting other classes consider attending courses in different departments and divisions from the one in which they teach. Sit in on a science lecture if you are a creative writing instructor; attend an aural skills class if you teach math. Meet some new colleagues and see how others engage their students.

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