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Reflections on last semester

Last semester Pradip and I collaborated on teaching parallel IF courses.  Our students read the same texts and explored common themes.  While Pradip’s students produced a series of photographs, my students wrote a series of essays – including essays that ideas raised by Pradip’s students’ photographs.   Teaching this class was challenging and rewarding – and I have been thinking a lot about the experience, in part because I am teaching a very different course this semester in which I am adapting IF methods.

Here are a few of the things I learned – perhaps most are obvious, but I figured I would name them just in case.

First, though, I think it will be helpful if I provide a little more background about my class last semester.  My course was a writing centered “College Colloquium” course. The College Colloquium program is designed exclusively for first semester students at Willamette.  The courses are generally capped at 14 students.  Each professor teaching a college colloquium serves as the academic advisor for the students enrolled providing the opportunity for an unusually close relationship with students even for a small liberal arts college like Willamette.  The students in each colloquium begin to get to know each other even before the first class meeting since they are grouped together as a cohort during the “opening days” festivities and events that take place before the start of the semester.  Thus even before the class starts, there is a sense of camaraderie.

The primary goal of the College Colloquium program is to introduce students to the challenges, rigors, and opportunities provided by a liberal arts education.  In particular, College Colloquium faculty are given a mission of working with students to develop communication skills, especially writing.  Students are asked to write a series of essays throughout the semester, each of which requires the completion, submission, and review of drafts.  The courses are designed to be interdisciplinary, discussion-based seminars in which students engage in close readings of texts.  Faculty are free to choose course subjects that may lie within their areas of personal interest without necessarily being a part of their academic expertise.  In many respects the content of the class is less important than the process and the development of reading, thinking, and communication skills.  (In other words, this was a course ripe for the IF approach.)

The title of the course I taught was “Exodus and Political Transformation.”  The course description read:

Labor activist Mother Jones told the story of Exodus. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. John Winthrop brought it to America with the Puritans in 1630 and 347 years later Bob Marley and the Wailers were singing about “leaving Babylon” and “setting the captives free.” In his last sermon before he was assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero proclaimed that, “today El Salvador is living its own exodus.” Throughout his presidential campaign, Barack Obama made frequent reference to this same story of Exodus – although he often stressed the writing of the next chapter, the story of Joshua, the successor of Moses. As these examples suggest, the Exodus tale of oppression and liberation, identity and revolution, law and (dis-)order, the miraculous and the mundane, memory and forgetfulness, has been told and retold by people seeking social and political transformation. In this class we will begin by carefully reading the biblical narrative of the exodus and then proceed to examine how people have sought meaning and identity within the narrative, adopting vital metaphors, crafting new interpretations, drawing their hopes for radical change from this resonant story of liberation and progress.

The class met three days a week for an hour.  Once the course got moving and the students settled in, I organized the class in the following manner:  On most Mondays we met as an entire class to discuss the assigned texts.  On most Wednesdays, I divided the students into two groups of seven for a small group discussion using the IF discussion methods.  That is, in these small groups I assigned one student to serve as a facilitator and one student to serve as a note-taker.  All students in the class took on these roles on a rotating basis.  Over the course of the semester every student had the opportunity to serve as facilitator and note-taker – and some students had such opportunities more than once.  (Such variance was a product of illnesses and other vagaries typical of any group of students and any course.)  On most Fridays we worked on writing – either doing exercises together as a class or through individual writing consultations with me and the upper-class writing associate assigned to the class.

OK, with this background, here is what I learned.

1.  It is a challenge to use the IF method with first-semester students because they are working so hard to figure out how to be a college student.  In many ways, teaching such a course to first-semester students is a remarkable opportunity: I can use this course to help students define what an undergraduate seminar should be and how they can take on roles and responsibilities in the classroom.  Getting to this place, however, means helping students work through the stage of being bewildered by their first undergraduate learning experience – including dealing with (in many cases) their first low grades on a writing assignment.  Succeeding requires lots of patience and trust in the process, in large part because so much energy is invested in getting to students to on the one hand, critically reflect their own beliefs, habits and comforts and on the other hand, encourage them to believe that they can handle the challenge of being disturbed in this way.  It helps if you have lots of individual meetings with the students in which you can push, pull, cajole and encourage them to rise to the challenge.  I spent a lot of time working with the students in this course outside of class and I think it was vital to the success of the IF method.

And one more thing: as much as I think it is important to be supportive of the students, I think it is also helpful to be tough, if not a hard-ass.  In the early weeks of the semester, the students in my class were too content to play it safe and to let the student-centered discussion format convince them that they could get away without preparing sufficiently for class.  One Monday, while I was leading the discussion, the class was flat and uninspired.  I stopped the discussion after 20 minutes, spoke to the students in a very serious way about the attitude and effort required for a vibrant seminar – and told them that they were failing to meet this threshold.  And then I kicked them out of class and told them that they should come back Wednesday better prepared for a seminar discussion.  They did – and the course took off from that point forward.

2. This course required me to be organized in new ways.  I generally try to teach in a way that enables students to make discoveries through their reading of texts and through “Socratic discussions.”  Because I am comfortable guiding the discussions, I allow lots of space for students to roam, knowing that I have accessible a range of possible destinations.  Typically, the structure of these discussions is relatively loose.

With the IF discussions, the students served as their own guides and my role was to give them a structure and process to help them navigate together.  Establishing this structure and then stepping back forced me to approach the design of my class in a very different way.

3. One thing that I failed to do adequately last semester – and which I think was a mistake – was to allow time to debrief the small group discussions.  I think ending the discussions with ten minutes left in class is not easy – but it is a very helpful way (especially early in the semester) to signal to students the importance of the process of learning.  Even in a process-oriented IF class, it is all too easy for students – and for me – to get caught up in the content of the texts and discussion because it is what we are accustomed to and what we get excited about.  And yet, even if it means cutting the conversation short, that ten minute debrief is both helpful in building individual communication skills and is enabling students to anticipate the discussions that will take place in the ensuing weeks of class.

4.  One key lesson I learned from the Summer Institute was the idea of having each class and each exercise build on each other and work towards a discrete goal.  This perhaps sounds obvious, but I think it is easy to approach a class session as a separate entity.  (E.g. the goal of a particular class is to examine the meaning of a specific idea raised by a text.)  In the course I taught last semester, the discrete goals for the class were the essays each student had to write.  I framed every discussion, every small group meetings, every lightning round, as designed to help the students achieve this goal.  This sense of intentionality lent an overriding sense of purpose to student led discussions and helped keep momentum moving forward even as I stepped back.

5.  I was very fortunate to be able to collaborate with Pradip – even though he was in Tennessee and I was in Oregon.  We communicated by email or phone after almost every one of our class meetings.  Since we were both teaching this class for the first time, we were able to do a lot of conceptual work and problem-solving together.  There is a lot to be said for having a partner in this endeavor.

It is for this reason that I think that these blog posts and responses can be extremely helpful.  The opportunity to share ideas and make discoveries with other people committed to thinking creatively about undergraduate education is one of the great pleasures of IF.