Assignment for the First Day of Classes: Define What Makes Us a Community

Steve Volk, August 21, 2017

Clip BoardLate August, for those who have been on campus, has been a time of frenetic activity, particularly for those charged with insuring that the buildings and grounds, torn up by myriad summer construction projects, are put back together before the students return. Project managers race around campus on golf carts and bikes, check lists in hand, fretting over what remains to be done in order to reopen buildings, unblock parking lots, and return pedestrians to their regular byways.

Faculty, too, consult our punch lists as the new semester approaches: finish the syllabi, read the books we just assigned our students, get the manuscript out the door. But this year our lists seem longer and more intimidating. Besides constructing classes to teach students calculus and creative writing, French and physics, we must prepare to help them cope with the madness spilling out of Washington, Bedminster, Pyongyang, and Charlottesville, from challenges to Title IX and affirmative action, to threats of nuclear war and the hatred radiating from an increasingly aggressive white nationalist movement. We must prepare to say something coherent about a “justice” system that, in the short time our students were away, saw fit to acquit the police officers charged with killing Terance Crutcher (Tulsa), Philando Castile (Minneapolis), and Sylville K. Smith (Milwaukee). After two hung juries, charges were dropped against the officer charged with the shooting death of Samuel DuBose (Cincinnati).

And we will need to prepare, with patience and passion, for the activism these provocations will surely generate, understanding how to support our students when they target injustice and inequity, and how to critique them when, in the process, they inadvertently undermine what makes us a community. Continue reading

The Past as Way Forward: Finding a “Useful History”

Steve Volk, March 13, 2017

Reparation-and-ReconciliationA group of faculty, staff, and students sat down together the past two Mondays to discuss Christi Smith’s Reparation & Reconciliation: The Rise and Fall of Integrated Higher Education (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). Smith is a visiting assistant professor in sociology at Oberlin, and, of course, she took part in the conversation. Her book examines three colleges (Oberlin, Berea, and Howard) that early on placed interracial coeducation at the center of their institutional missions. The book examines what impelled the colleges to make this choice and why, by the end of the 19th century, all three eased away from that goal. By the turn of the 20th century, Howard dedicated itself to the task of educating the black elite, Berea focused on Appalachian whites, and Oberlin, finding itself, as with the others, in a competition for donors and students, sought advantage by marketing itself more as an elite Eastern institution, and less as an avatar of interracial progress.

There is much to relate about the book and the discussions it generated, but I will limit myself to three topics. While these issues are of particular importance for Oberlin, I have no doubt that they will be relevant for many other institutions which, prodded by student protests and national conversations, are seriously considering the role that race and racism played in their institutions’ history and how these factors continue to shape their present. Continue reading

Transformative Mentoring Communities

Steve Volk, September 5, 2016

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               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

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community

Steven Volk, August 29, 2016

Suzuki Shōnen, "Butterflies," ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Suzuki Shōnen, “Butterflies,” ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Whether it’s your first year of teaching or your 30th, butterflies will likely take up residence in your stomach, kidneys, or any other organ of their choosing as the first day of classes draws near. Students often seem surprised when I admit to a massive case of the nerves at the start of the semester (and even more surprised when I tell them I get jumpy before every class during the semester). As much as nerves can rob one of much needed sleep, there’s also something wonderful about the preparation for the start of classes that I’ve long appreciated (and often commented on).

We may celebrate the New Year on January first or according to the demands of our liturgical calendars, but our real new year, complete with resolutions but probably absent the champagne, begins in late August, and with it comes the promise that this time we will “get it right,” for goodness sake! As much as we remain ourselves year after year, we also have the opportunity of re-invention each fall, of learning from past practice and reflecting on ways that this time, for sure, we will finally address our most serious challenges and take advantage of overlooked opportunities.

It’s not an easy time in higher education, or in the country, but we are remarkably privileged to be where we are, doing what we love to do, and working with students who may have overcome any number of obstacles and challenges to be here with us. Continue reading

Share Your Fears

Steve Volk, April 3, 2016

NoFear“No Fear” is a U.S. clothing brand designed for “active living”: extreme sports, mixed martial arts, surfing, energy drinks (energy drinks?). Anyway, you know the stuff and the message: go anywhere, do anything, live on the edge. (The company, by the way, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 – maybe the “fearless” life doesn’t always pay dividends.)

While the attempt to brand Oberlin “fearless” back in 2005 stopped short of bankruptcy, neither was it a hit. Oberlin College, after all, wasn’t marketing a lifestyle or an energy drink. But, even more than that, the slogan was peculiarly inept because it suggested that we, whose essence is to introduce our students to the “examined life,” either have no fears or that we can (and should) brush them off like crumbs from our pants.

I was reminded of this episode when reading a blog post from Cathy Davidson. I’ve been following her work for some years now. Davidson, a cultural historian, is the director of the “Futures Initiative” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Trained in English, linguistics and literary theory, her current work, in her own words, “focuses on trust, data, new collaborative methods of living and learning, and the ways we can change higher education for a better future.” Continue reading