Why Are We Here?

“Why are we here?” seems like an overly existential question for such an early point in the semester, but chances are our students have been asking themselves that very thing. In one sense, there’s the “Why am I in ______ if I’m a ______ major?” But there may be larger aspects to the question as well: “Why am I in college?” As early-semester adversity, the feeling of being overwhelmed, imposter syndrome, homesickness, or some combination of these hits them, it can be very easy for students to wonder if they “really should be here.” And that’s when we can see the temptation to make choices that sabotage the rest of their semester: skipping class, not getting the textbook, not engaging with you or their peers. It’s hard for us to keep tabs on our students, and we’re not their parents or counselors. But we are someone they see on a regular basis, and we shouldn’t underestimate how powerful our attention and compassion can be.

It behooves us, I think, to be cognizant of the transition issues that students (especially, but not exclusively, our first-year students) might be grappling with and to consider what our role might be in helping them address those issues. I have found Vanderbilt University’s collection of resources on teaching first-year students an invaluable resource in this area. On the institutional level, Lee Skallerup Bessette has a thoughtful treatment of the larger questions involved in her article, “‘College Readiness’ versus ‘Ready for College’.” Her emphasis on “being informed” and the importance of collaboration affirms the ways in which this campus is working on these issues with and among our students.

A recently-published book called Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College also addresses transition issues with an important insight: “Students don’t just start college and then finish it. They start and then re-start college many times” In particular, choices such as declaring a major are fraught with larger considerations that we on the faculty and staff end sometimes miss. I was particularly intrigued by the observation that “[i]n large part, the investment that students have in the process of choosing a major has more to do with the messages (often subtle and unspoken) that colleges send students than with the students themselves. Majors are important to students, in large measure, because we tell them they are.” The way we model the culture of higher education for our students has more impact than we realize. If you’re intrigued by these observations, there’s a really good review of the book and a discussion of its methodology here.

What does this mean for our classrooms? The answer lies in the idea of student-centered pedagogy. There are a number of specific ways to center student learning in our classes, but the overall emphasis is the same regardless of specific pedagogical method. Student-centered learning involves truly mastering material, as opposed to our merely credentialing them for having completed a set number of tasks. It involves scaffolding and active learning, as opposed to merely dispensing knowledge to passive students. It touches deeply on Grand View’s own mission in its emphasis on learning as a communal endeavor and on students being “engaged, equipped, and empowered” as active agents in their own education. Probably the best systematic introduction and overview of student-centered pedagogy is by Cathy Davidson of the HASTAC program and Futures Initiative at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Start with part one of her step-by-step guide here; there are ten posts in what I think is a remarkably perceptive and helpful series.

Speaking of ways to center student learning in our classes, the first Conversations on Teaching workshop of the semester embraces that very subject! You don’t need to overhaul your entire pedagogy to increase the student-centeredness of your classes; there are small changes you can easily make which will pay off in much larger dividends in the long run. In this workshop on “Small Teaching, Big Changes,” we’ll discuss what some of those might look like, engage with the research that informs the concept, and come up with strategies that you can implement in your next class, should you choose. We’ll meet in the CETL (Rasmussen 208) on Monday, September 12, at 4:00 PM. Tasty snacks will be provided. Yum. We look forward to seeing you then!

Have a question? Need some help? Want to talk teaching and learning (and we approach this with the broadest possible definition)? Contact CETL here.

Finally, the beginning of the semester may be hard, but is it “puppy-trying-to-shop-for-groceries” hard? Hang in there!


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