What’s in a Name? Getting to know your class

Steve Volk, August 26, 2018 (A reprise of an article published a year ago)

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

–Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii

After a summer that has quickly scurried away into some dark corner from which it will only emerge, like a baby newly born, nine months from now, we return to our classrooms. At least for those who didn’t spend the summer teaching or are not teaching this semester. As we reengage, hopefully refreshed and ready to go, I’m reminded of what the poet Nikki Giovanni once remarked when asked what she would miss most when she retired from teaching. (Lord knows, it wasn’t grading exams or sitting through department meetings!)

I’m going to be sorry when I retire — she wrote — because… if it’s one thing that I definitely enjoy, it’s my 8:00 class. My 8:00 class, they come to me, 8:00 AM, they come to me from their dreams, and I come to them from mine. And I would give up a lot of things, in terms of teaching; I really don’t want to give up my 8:00, because I like the freshness that they bring. And the other word would be, I like the love that we have for each other as we come into that class.”

Good to keep in mind.

Graduates-1973

When I began teaching, I was sure I’d never forget a student’s name. A few years in, and it became quite evident that wasn’t going to happen. OK, I don’t remember their names, but I was sure I’d never forget a face. Fast forward — maybe a few weeks? — and I realized no guarantees there, either. As the years went by, I was embarrassed to admit that I greeted returning alumni as if they were still in my classes (“So, how are your other classes going?” “Er, I graduated 5 years ago”) and, occasionally, currently enrolled students I bumped into at the gym as former students. I soon switched to a more noncommittal, “So, what’s going on?” when I saw a familiar face.

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Meet the First Years!

Steve Volk, September 4, 2017

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

One thing we learn as educators is that all students are different and need to be taught in ways that can best promote their learning and growth. I’m not talking about the “learning styles” literature, which needs to be approached with a good degree of caution and should not be confused with Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” research. (Indeed, a veritable “learning-styles-industrial complex” has developed around the approach, giving rise to dozens of companies all trying to sell their particular “learning-styles” product, even though, as many researchers have discovered, there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.) Rather, I mean that one of the great joys of teaching is getting to know students on an individual level so that we can provide the most appropriate help when needed. And, the other side of the coin, one of our great frustrations is lacking the time to do this to the extent that we would desire.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gained by examining an incoming class as a whole, not just at our own college, but across the country. At Oberlin, for example, we have just welcomed 765 new students (College and Conservatory combined). 58% of the class are women, 42% men, which puts us just slightly above the national figure of 55% women). We have learned that approximately 26% of the class are students of color, and that 88 foreign students from 40 different countries now call Oberlin home.

What about the national picture, where some 20.4 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2017 (an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000)? For many years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has published The American Freshman: National Norms, an annual survey of full-time first-year students (FTFT). I always find the survey a useful means to follow trends that are developing in higher education, some of which are mirrored on our own campus. Continue reading

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. Continue reading