Image: The Bird with the Human Head
In “What the Bird with the Human Head Knew,” Anne Sexton observes, “Abundance is scooped from abundance yet abundance remains.”1 In our work with students, there is an unending abundance of joy if we don’t lose sight of the daily benefits they put out into the world.
Unfortunately, as discussed in Chapter 1, a pervasive dissatisfaction can creep into our lives if we lose perspective. Sometimes, our joy can wane when students do not recognize our efforts on their behalf because they are “only” attending a community college. It is what happens in “big boy college” that is important to them. Similar disregard for the work of community colleges can also come from politicians, the public, and even some of our colleagues. Yet we cannot allow these individuals to make us forget the abundance with which we are surrounded by the majority of our students.
Before we can accept what the bird with the human head knew, it is necessary for us to accept the reality of our own ignorance. If we cannot be comfortable with what we don’t know, it is difficult—if not impossible—to design the type of student-centered classroom from which abundant joy can flow.
In addition to finding joy in the success of students, we should also share in the joy of our colleagues. By celebrating in the accomplishments of others, we can increase the world’s supply of joy.
Image: Equanimity Surrounded by Detractors
“Big Boy College” and Community College Voices
A student posted a message in a public forum informing readers that his new semester at “big boy college” was about to begin. Since transferring from a community college, he periodically posts about his “big boy college” experiences. It is unfortunate that he does not appreciate the significant advantages he received as a student at his community college; advantages he could not hope to experience at “big boy college” had he gone there for his first two years of college.2 Yet, he continues to take a demeaning stance toward his community-college alma mater and the professors with whom he studied.
I remember one spring semester when a university student taking one of my courses informed me that certain requirements for the community college class were not necessary at his university. My response was that “maybe our expectations are higher?” He is not the first university student with whom I have worked who was anticipating a blow-off class because it was offered by a community college. University students frequently struggle to meet community-college quality standards when they attempt to pick up a couple of “easy” classes during their summer breaks.
When I first started teaching at Schoolcraft College, students would refer to our institution as Haggerty High, a reference to the road on which we are located. Then, the economy faltered, and students took a serious look at their education options. They began to realize that Haggerty High was not something on which they had to settle because they couldn’t afford a good college. They began to realize that although inexpensive, Haggerty High and other community colleges provide them with a quality education.
What is more disturbing than when students assume that community colleges are inferior is when community-college faculty members conduct themselves as if we are inferior. One year, while coordinating a digital-literacy competition for Michigan community-college students, I arranged to have three university professors serve as judges: a co-founder of HASTAC who was then teaching at Duke University; the Director and CEO of Hybrid Pedagogy who was then teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and a former Andrew W. Mellon Fellow who is now teaching at Washington State University. After the judges were announced, a faculty member sent me an email asking “what can the community college student from an open-admissions school like [college name deleted] hope for from that level of judging?”
Ironically, when inviting these university professors to judge our contest, I was not as concerned about what our students could learn from them. I wanted those judges to learn from our students. The judges provided feedback that was extremely helpful for our students, but—more importantly—they were able to interact with and see the quality work produced by community college students. They have since incorporated that knowledge into their work promoting digital literacy.
While discussing vital educational issues, the voices of community-college students are practically non-existent. This is a problem that we can easily change.
Frequently, my students post comments to online articles. They join discussions that take place on Hybrid Pedagogy and HASTAC. They have also posted comments on articles published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. While engaging in public writing, community college students have no difficulty holding their own with university students, faculty members, and administrators.
In a conversation I once had with the author of two of the Hybrid Pedagogy articles which my students were discussing, he commented, “I’m excited to read some student response to this subject.” He recognizes that, while considering effective syllabi and the pedagogy of classroom discussions, student voices are vital. In fact, I often find student observations to be more perceptive than comments posted by faculty members—including myself—and administrators.
Our students will either live up to or down to our expectations. When we believe that their voices count and translate that belief into our pedagogies, our students can start to believe that their voices count in our classrooms. When students engage in public writing, they are empowered. They learn that they are individuals who deserve to be taken seriously because they have serious contributions to make. The positive responses they receive from their contributions in the public square confirm the faith we have in them and the confidence they have in themselves.
Image: Accepting the Reality of Ignorance Leads to Wisdom
Accepting the Reality of Our Ignorance
In February 1989, I defended my dissertation on AA, Spiritual Issues, and the Treatment of Lesbian and Gay Alcoholics in which I traced the competing trends of individualism and perfectionism from the colonial period to 1935. I argued that Alcoholics Anonymous was successful, in part, because it was able to marry these two trends. I then analyzed the effect of the God talk in AA using lesbians and gay men as a model.
After successfully defending my dissertation, Dr. Mary Lea Schneider presented “Dr. Berg” to my friends, family, and colleagues who had attended my defense. It was an exciting moment both academically and personally.
After Dr. Schneider introduced Dr. Berg, I headed across the street with my family, friends, and colleagues to the Peanut Barrel where we threw our peanut shells on the floor while waiting to be served great sandwiches. Later that evening, I had a party at Castellani’s Market, one of the first coffee shops in East Lansing, Michigan where my guests were treated to an open bar and enjoyed a latte or cappuccino or one of the other new types of coffee drinks which were not as common in 1989 as they have become in the twenty-first century.
On the day I defended my dissertation, I had the rare experience of knowing that I knew more than anyone else in the world on my topic. No one anywhere, including the talented professors3 with whom I had studied, knew more than I did concerning my area of research.
Too often, newly minted PhDs stop there. We like the feeling of being the celebrated expert and desire to remain the celebrated expert. We cling to the illusion that we can hold onto the excitement of knowing more than anyone else. Unfortunately, faculty members who must feed their desire to remain the most knowledgeable person in the room are ill-equipped to design a class centered on their students instead of themselves.
Fortunately, the act of defending my dissertation also provided the antidote that can keep me from clinging to the sense of self-importance that I felt on the day I knew more than anyone else in the world concerning my research. That antidote was to realize the extent of my ignorance. In the grand scheme of knowledge, AA, Spiritual Issues, and the Treatment of Lesbian and Gay Alcoholics is pretty insignificant.
As professors interested in developing student-centered classes, we must first accept the reality of our ignorance and allow each student to become a content expert who can be—at various points during the semester—the most knowledgeable person in the room.
This is no false modesty. If I did not have confidence in my abilities, I would be too threatened by students discovering that I was not the all-knowing Dr. Berg who, one day almost 30 years ago—for the only time in his life—knew more than anyone else in the world on a particular research topic that was both important and insignificant. At best, I could only act as the fearful all-knowing Oz hiding behind a curtain in hopes that students would not see any hint of a lack of knowledge.
When I walk into the classroom on days I am responsible for the course content, I often have a “Plan B” and, sometimes, even a “Plan C” depending on how students respond to the lesson. I also have years of experience which allows me to do impromptu mini lessons when the need arises.
When students are responsible for the day’s course content, I can never be exactly sure what to expect. As students give their presentations, I am listening, taking notes on what I am learning, and jotting down ideas I can use to build on what is being presented. I—like the students—am both teacher and learner.
Even though there are days when students are assigned content responsibility, I have found that students sense that there is something different about the student centered class that allows them to begin taking responsibility for course content as early as the first day of class. A few years ago on the first day of class, Jacob Mulcahy-Miller suggested that we go to Candy Mountain and, after screening Charlie the Unicorn4 we discussed unicorns and stolen kidneys instead of the lesson I had planned. Yet I was still able to teach the substance of my lesson using his example.
Although I complain about Mulcahy-Miller taking us to Candy Mountain, I know that my complaint is one of pride; of realizing that I was able to teach the lesson I had planned by treating his contribution as an alternative route to success and not a detour to be endured.
When I asked Mulcahy-Miller for permission to use this example and his name in an essay that I was writing, he replied:
Lol, wow. I feel special. First class of my first year in college and I was already teaching the teach! :)
It takes confidence to create a class where students can make significant contributions. Yet, at the time he took us to Candy Mountain, I was three times older than Mulcahy-Miller and had been teaching college level courses longer than he had been alive. However, as someone committed to learning, I can be mentored and learn from a distinguished professor who wrote her dissertation on The Problem of Expiration in the Thought of Teilhard de Chardin: A Story of the Structural Limitations of the Teilhardian Synthesis and an eighteen-year-old who was attending his first college class.
Image: Enjoying a Hot Beverage
Non-Teaching and Sympathetic Joy
Once when I took some personal time to attend a funeral service, students in my research-writing class met without me. Later that evening, I received the following note:
You missed a marvelous class session today. I thought it was very productive and the bulk of the class stayed until the end of the class period despite you not being there.
I was neither surprised that the students had a very productive session without me nor that most of the students stayed until the end of the period. Why wouldn’t they? They were designing a fascinating project in which they took a personal interest. Two of their representatives met with someone, who had been recommended by the dean of students. The representatives then invited this person to attend class—the class I missed.
From the two-sentence report I received, I knew that the day was productive. I also knew that, once I finally received the details, I would be expected to do everything possible to support a project that I already knew did not fit the specifics of what I had planned to teach this semester.
Several years ago, during a conference session on “The Less I Teach, the More My Students Learn,” one of my student co-presenters5 explained that the class he had taken had done something specific. Then he said that the class had done something else and then they had done something else. He concluded by excitedly proclaiming, “At this point, Dr. Berg hadn’t taught us anything!” The audience laughed. They also realized that the student had obviously learned a great deal in a class where I had not taught him anything. He had learned as much as he did because students were given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning.
Then there was the day when I became so sick after arriving on campus that I had to leave early even though I had no way to warn students that class was being cancelled.6 The next class period, I said that we would start with the student who was to present the day I cancelled class. It was then that students informed me that this student had given his presentation during the previous class period. In confusion I asked, “But wasn’t there a sign on the door cancelling class?” It turns out that the students took down the sign. They were present and prepared for class and didn’t see any reason why it needed to be cancelled.
Once, when I told the story of the uncancelled class to a colleague, their first response was to ask, “How could you grade the student if you weren’t there?” This person had totally missed the point of the story. Because I work so closely with students, I already knew he would earn an “A” for the presentation. What was important is that the students felt empowered to take down the sign and meet without me.
Although I am fond of saying that “I try to teach as little as possible,” I am aware that the role of faculty members in the classroom is vital for student success. It is faculty members who create a culture of learning in our classrooms and provide students with the skills they need to be successful scholars. If we do not lay the groundwork, students would be unable to take responsibility for their own learning.
Unfortunately, the less we try to teach in the traditional sense, the more we open ourselves for critique. Extrinsic rewards for those who try to change systemic problems are rare; especially from those whose systems we are trying to change. Fortunately, sympathetic joy allows us to participate in each others’ successes. For example, when I was telling a team of students that they would need to consider certain issues as they designed a survey, one of the students told me that they had already discussed those points. After all, she explained, “I have taken psychology.”
I rarely have the opportunity to hear a student explain what he or she learned in my class. But, if I listen to students talk among themselves while I am “not teaching them anything,” I am able to see them apply the knowledge they learned in other classes. These were classes in which my colleagues placed a value on student learning instead of simply teaching students. And I have faith that my colleagues benefit from my non-teaching as I benefit from their focus on student success.
Image: Of Caffeinated Goats and Students
Losing Control in a Student-Centered Class
Before I was able to begin my presentation in Ancient World History, a student asked a question that turned into an hour-long discussion. The sidebar lead to me scrap my presentation. Scrapping my presentation required that I totally revise the first unit I was in the middle of teaching in such a way that nothing I had prepared would work anymore.
Students left class that day with a homework assignment that put them in control of the next class’s lesson and possibly next week of classes as well. Eventually, they will have to design an appropriate assessment for the unit because the assessment I designed had become irrelevant. As they were walking out of class, they were already talking about their plans for the next class and how excited they were to continue that day’s discussion which was far more sophisticated than what I had planned to teach that day.
It was only the fourth day of class, and I had already lost control.
When I recounted this story to a friend, he asked, “So, forgive me, but if the students are in control of Monday’s lesson and will prepare an appropriate assessment to show their learning, then WHAT DO YOU DO?” My friend asked his question to tease me in the same way I needle a minister friend each time I suggest that he only has to work one day a week. But there is a serious component to the question that should be considered.
If our classes are student centered in such a way that students teach significant portions of the class, what do we do as professors? Or, in other words, why should the college pay me to sit in the back of the room with my cup of tea while my Ancient World History students teach class?
It would have been much easier for me to show up for class and discuss the videos I had already prepared than it was for me to sit in the back of the room feverishly taking notes so that I can appropriately respond to the information my students present. Because I was not in control of the presentation’s content, I had to be extremely attentive and actively engaged in the class discussion so that I could make sure that, regardless of what students choose to present, the skills they need to develop in terms of the course competencies were met. Fortunately for students, I am not unique in my interest in providing student-centered classes that provide them with both course content as well as skills to succeed in the 21st century.
I once read a Facebook post by a university colleague who announced, “My Romanticism course is broken. Now I’m hoping that… the participation of my class can help me put it back together again.” As part of the discussion, he admitted that it was he who broke the class by destroying the assumptions that were found in the syllabus. I knew he had laboriously taken time to develop that syllabus. Now he and his students are “spending the rest of the semester reinventing a Romantic Lit survey for Electracy.”
Through the grapevine, I have heard that someone with whom I work believes that my non-teaching makes a mockery of our work as professors. Because I do not know the identity of my critic, I can only speculate as to my colleague’s worldview; a worldview that does not recognize the benefits of the student-centered classroom or the work involved in allowing students to make significant course decisions. Although my friend was joking when he posed the question to me, I could imagine someone who has been successful in a traditional classroom all of their life viewing my non-teaching and seriously asking, “WHAT DO YOU DO?”
Fortunately, we have answers to the hard questions. Our willingness to lose control of our classes or to announce that our well-designed syllabus is broken is actually a sign of dedicated teaching, rooted in sound pedagogy. Our non-teaching produces student engagement that leads to learning, and we take joy in the accomplishments that grow from such engagement.
After one class discussion, I received the following message from a student enrolled in the ancient world history course in which I lost control.
This article was given to me by a Muslim friend of mine. I remember you had said you were not very clear on [a Muslim] creation story, and neither was I, but this link should be a very good representation of their beliefs.
Discussing class with a friend and finding this article does not benefit the student in terms of their grade. But, as of the second week in a student-centered class, this student was no longer primarily motivated to get a good grade. They had become engaged with subject matter and wanted to learn. And they wanted to help me learn as well.
What do we do as student-centered teachers willing to lose control? Among other things, we provide a foundation of student engagement that allows students to focus on learning instead of grades. Instead of trying to game the syllabus, they can spend their time enjoying a learning process where they will learn more than what is required by the syllabus.
Image: Come on it, the Water’s Fine
Swimming in the Deep End
A colleague once commented that she admired the quality of work that I am able to get my students to achieve. She continued by telling me that she often feels as if she were watching me swim in the deep end, while she hugs the edge of the pool wearing a life preserver. Concerning the pedagogical strategy we were discussing, her observation was accurate. But that is not the entire story.
I often watch my very dedicated colleague swim in the deep end as I clutch the edge. I cannot hope to get the quality work from my students that her students are able to produce under her guidance.
I am very grateful that my colleague’s leadership skills have facilitated various campus events. These are events that I have neither the skill nor the temperament to organize. Students at our college profit from her commitment to quality education and her willingness to venture into the deep end. She swims by while most of us watch while clinging on to our life preservers.
Students in my classes learn important skills which they do not have the opportunity to learn in most of the other classes they take. But, if all faculty members taught like I did, students would obtain neither the quality education nor the transformative experience a college education offers.
First, not all students are well suited for the radically student-centered type of class I teach. Many need the structure that some of my valued colleagues provide. Other students find that some quality courses, taught by colleagues, are too rigid and welcome the freedom I offer them. We cannot each be all things to all students.
The second issue is that I cannot adequately teach all of the skills students need for success. I do what I do very well. But I am not very good at covering the skills that my colleague incorporates into her classes. Students need to swim in the deep end with both of us, as well as other faculty members who excel using pedagogical approaches very different from our own.
Several years ago, I had a student who really liked my teaching style and did very well in the course he had taken with me. I enjoyed working with him throughout the semester. But because he wanted to be a high-school history teacher, I told him that he should not enroll in any other history courses I taught. As a future history teacher, he needed to be exposed to a variety of approaches to the study of history and he could only get that exposure by enrolling in classes that were taught by professors whose approach was different from mine.
Too often, educational debates forget that students need to be exposed to a variety of best practices. Students would be harmed if a specific best practice were to be universally adopted. I can imagine someone arguing “But don’t you think that compassionate teaching practices should be universally adopted?” Of course I do. But I would make a distinction between adopting compassion and requiring specific types of compassionate practices. For example, I would not want to see a requirement that professors must allow students to revise assignments because doing so is compassionate. As I argue elsewhere, sometimes saying “No” is the compassionate response. Also, should students be allowed to revise assignments in which they exhibit gross academic dishonesty? Or what if they submit their revision after the semester ends?
In her TED talk (which I learned about while watching another colleague swim in the deep end), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains in The Dangers of a Single Story that while we can learn valuable lessons from a single story, a single story is dangerous because it never gives the full perspective. If, to use one of Adichie’s examples, we were to rely on the single story found in American Psycho, we would need to conclude “that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.”7
In a lesson on narrative, I incorporated Adichie’s and—by extension—my colleague’s view of narrative by screening The Dangers of a Single Story. Yet, the course remained primarily my narrative. The narrative of my class is a valuable single story taught from the deep end of the pool, but it remains a single story that needs to be supplemented with other narratives, taught from the deep ends of other pools.
It felt good to have my colleague recognize the hard work that it takes to swim in the deep end, while promoting student success. But, as someone committed to quality education, I am equally excited to put on my life preserver and cheer her on as she, too, swims in the deep end.
Image: Tips and Tricks #05
Everyday Tips and Tricks for Finding Joy in Student Success
Working with just one irresponsible student can dominate our time in such a way that the pervasive dissatisfaction discussed in the first chapter can seep into our lives like a spreading fog that obscures the abundance of joy around us. Yet we have so many student successes on a day to day basis. We can increase those successes and the joy we find in them by adopting practices that support student transformation and achievement.
Our students will live up or down to our expectations.
As professors in a student centered classroom, we provide the foundation that leads to student success.
When possible, allow students to conduct class even when you are absent.8
Give control of classes to students.
Students are empowered when they do public writing.
While engaging in public writing, community college students have no difficulty holding their own with university students, faculty members, and administrators.
Frequently, my students post comments to online articles. They join discussions that take place on Hybrid Pedagogy and HASTAC. They have also posted comments on articles published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.
Allow students to become content experts in our classes.
Allow students to teach the teacher.
Encourage students to incorporate their knowledge from other classes into your classroom.
In the course methodology or some other section of the syllabus, invite students to share course content from their previous experiences. Reinforce this with announcements in class and other class activities.
I sometimes tell students that I am preparing nothing for the specific class period because they are supplying the content. Content might be videos or memes or something else that they bring to class.
Remember that a best practices are not universal. Students need to be provided with a number of best practices from a variety of professors.
When you walk into the classroom on days you are responsible for the course content, have a “Plan B” and, sometimes, even a “Plan C” you can use depending on how students respond to the lesson.
When students are responsible for the day’s course content, you can never be exactly sure what to expect. As students give their presentations, you need to listen, take notes on what you are learning, and jot down ideas you can use to build on what is being presented.
Sextan, Anne. “What the Bird With the Human Head Knew.” Complete Poems. Houghton Mifflin, 1984.↩
I cannot cite specific advantages this student received because the list could be used to identify him.↩
Mary Lee Schneider. Victor Howard, and Milt Powell. W. Fred Graham served as the outside readers. Cathy N. Davidson resigned from my committee when she left Michigan State University for Duke University after years of working with me and just months before I defended my dissertation. Her resignation made it easier to set up the dissertation defense than if she had had to return to Michigan. Stephen Botein, my major professor in history, died in 1986 just after I had completed my comprehensive examination. Glenn Wright briefly served on my committee until my research interests changed. After he formally left the committee, he did continue to advise me.↩
Steele, Jason. Charlie the Unicorn. Two Cows. 2008.↩
To say that this student was a co-presenter is a bit of a misrepresentation. I was sitting in the back of the room drinking coffee while he and his student colleagues did “my” presentation for me.↩
I now use Remind.com to communicate with students via text message.↩
Adichi, Chimamanda. The Dangers of a Single Story. TED Talk. July 2009. Retrieved 29 November 2018.↩
Be sure to check your college policies before doing this. Because of liability issues, I have had to stop allowing students to meet in the classroom when I am not present. However, they can meet in the library without me.↩