Instructions Not Provided

When I taught my first class, I had that sinking feeling that everyone else had somehow gotten an instruction manual while I was left to drift on my own, awash in a sea of skeptical students. I had a similar reaction when I became a parent: where are the damn instructions? I don’t know what to do. Someone could get hurt here! Alas, as all you parents out there can testify, there is no instruction manual–and the books that present themselves as such are WRONG. We are left to figure things out for ourselves.


I think our students often feel the same way when they come to us. If you think about it, we academics operate under a set of assumptions that we’ve internalized to the point where we aren’t even conscious of them much of the time. Our students, however, are newcomers to this cultural terrain. What kind of maps are we providing them? What are our assumptions about what they know? And, perhaps most importantly, do they share our understanding of why they are at our university? We can talk until we’re blue in the face about the value of the Liberal Arts, of a Core Curriculum, of Critical Thinking or Vocation or whatever, but if our students don’t know what to expect (or what we expect from them), we aren’t helping them approach that understanding.

Even though we don’t mean to, then, we sometimes short-change some of our students. Indeed, perhaps we do the same to ourselves. How often do we critically reflect on our course design? Or our teaching practice? Are we embedding structures or assumptions in our teaching that privilege some students over others? Are we sure that what we require from our students is really getting them toward our course’s goals? This week’s links offer some food for thought as we consider these types of questions. There’s nothing wrong with “checking our privilege,” and ensuring that our classes are a level playing field for all of our students.

Dan Berrett’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the “Unwritten Rules of College” is a great example of how faculty (with the assistance of your friendly neighborhood Teaching and Learning Center!) can work through some of these questions to the benefit of their students. Incidentally, you might recognize some of the rationale behind this article’s “transparent teaching” movement as remarkably similar to the work many of us did in the Course Design Institute this summer.

Sabrina Stevens has compiled an excellent resource page, built from Twitter and other social media/blog posts, on identifying and “unpacking privilege.” Privilege, Stevens warns, can blind us to important realities our students might face and potentially make us adversaries instead of allies. There are some useful materials here for both our own professional development and classroom use.

You’ve heard the cliche that “actions speak louder than words.” That can be true when it comes to body language in the classroom, Suggests Jennifer Gonzales on the “Cult of Pedagogy” blog. In a podcast with Gonzales and educational consultant Jack Shrawder, the two discuss ways in which teachers’ nonverbal communication can shape our classroom and our course.

If you find these types of questions and issues challenging, interesting, mysterious, novel, or something in between, the CETL staff extends a special invitation for you to join us in our next Conversations on Teaching, where we’ll take a deeper look at student motivation and the structures of power and privilege in the higher ed classroom. We’ll be gathering on Wednesday, October 14, at 4:00 in Rasmussen 217. Come be a part of our discussion of these deeply important issues!

Looking for resources? Ideas? Help?

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