Aaaannnd….WE’RE OFF

Welcome, or welcome back, to another academic year at Grand View! The CETL staff is excited about the coming semester! (We’ll be even more excited when we make it through the week without any Blackboard issues *crosses fingers*.) As usual, faculty return to a campus where much has occurred in the months since we saw our graduates stride across the stage at Hy-Vee Hall. And it hasn’t been just our campus where things have been happening. This past summer saw an intensification of some of the most troubling phenomena our society has been wrestling with for..well, most of our history, but certainly since last fall. The attack from some quarters on higher education continues apace; universities are accused of being irrelevant, incubators of dangerous ideas, or the home of “snowflakes” who can’t handle “the real world.” Foreign and domestic tensions both rise by the day. And most recently, violent white supremacists marching in Charlottesville drove home just how difficult our society finds it to create actual, meaningful community.

One thing that frustrates me about the accusation that college students aren’t ready for “the real world” is that this lazy accusation ignores the fact that most of our students are more aware of what’s happening in “the real world” than their critics are. At Grand View, we know that most of our students work jobs in “the real world” in order to afford their education, often so many hours that it becomes quite difficult to balance those jobs with their academic and extracurricular activities. Our students from underserved areas know quite well how things aren’t necessarily fair in “the real world.” And we, the faculty and staff at Grand View, have a strong commitment and focus on helping our students navigate, and find their place in, “the real world” as soon as they step foot on campus. Daniel Heath Justice, at the University of British Columbia, wrote a powerful essay that speaks to this “snowflake” myth quite well. In particular, his description of his students resonated with me, as it seemed like he was talking about the same students with whom I work here”

I work with students who are juggling two, even three jobs, while trying to maintain good grades, sometimes commuting for hours a day to jobs and school, sometimes caring for children, parents, or disabled family members with little help, sometimes dealing with abusive parents, partners, roommates, neighbours, even landlords. I teach international and first-generation university students who struggle to successfully navigate its opaque social codes and expectations; I work alongside students who have a range of visible and invisible disabilities making their way through indifferent-to-hostile university personnel, physical structures, procedures…one thing I do know. These students not only live in the “real world,” but, too often, they suffer in that world. They go to college or university under overwhelming pressures and make extraordinary sacrifices to succeed in their academic work. For many, it’s about improving job prospects and securing a better life for themselves and their families. Others come to our classes for moments of escape from the terrors of the “real world,” hoping—and yes, even expecting—that they will be treated with dignity.

Justice’s larger argument-that kinder classrooms aren’t some sort of grudging concession to be made but rather simply the right thing to do-is one that I think we’d do well to remember as we teach and learn with our students this semester against such a fraught backdrop.

Race, class, gender, sexual identity-these are all fundamentally important issues for both us and our students. Creating an environment where all of our students feel included and comfortable isn’t just the right thing to do, but in terms of its impact on learning, the optimal thing to do as well. Some good resources are out there to help us navigate these complex and emotional issues as we create inclusive learning environments here in our Grand View Community.

Facing History has aggregated a number of resources and writings on teaching after Charlottesville. Some of them are lesson plans geared toward K-12 instructors, but there are some good blog posts and messages available as well that can inform our practice on the college level.

Many institutions, ours included, are places where students of color encounter an overwhelmingly white faculty and staff. How can we be effective allies for them, rather than simply rebuilding the same barriers that they’ve encountered numerous times already in their educational careers? Two Philadelphia history teachers, Keziah Ridgeway and Charlie McGeehan have some thoughtful and provocative ideas on the matter. They challenge white faculty, for example, to remember that:

Most insidiously, white supremacy also manifests itself in our own minds, whether we are aware of it or not. Working to address this (often referred to as implicit bias) is important for educators regardless of race. For white Americans, confronting white supremacy must go deeper than simply proving we are less racist than our friends and colleagues.

And we must also be mindful that creating an inclusive learning environment goes beyond categories of race. There are a number of facets in people’s identities (ours included); some of them are facets we may not personally be able to relate to, but it is our job to educate ourselves about them in order to do right by our students. Inclusive Pedagogy, then, is about adopting a set of guiding principles more than specific classroom tools. If you’re interested in learning more about Inclusive Pedagogy, watch your email for an invitation to join this year’s Inclusive Teaching Circle.

One of the other debates that’s been swirling around the higher ed world lately is over the intersection of student attention, learning, and technology. The number of hot takes about whether or not laptops are good or bad in the classroom has increased exponentially since the beginning of the year.

Laptops are good! No, they’re bad! Good! Bad!

But it’s worth pointing out that a lot of our assumptions about what students can or cannot do, with or without specific tools, are sometimes rooted in stories that don’t hold up under the weight of the evidence. For example, one of the chief indictments of digital tools has been that it makes student writing worse. But digital media have actually increased the frequency of students’ writing, recent studies have shown:

The most startling discovery Lunsford and Lunsford made had nothing to do with errors or emojis. They found that college students are writing much more and submitting much longer papers than ever. The average college essay in 2006 was more than double the length of the average 1986 paper, which was itself much longer than the average length of papers written earlier in the century. In 1917, student papers averaged 162 words; in 1930, the average was 231 words. By 1986, the average grew to 422 words. And just 20 years later, in 2006, it jumped to 1,038 words. Why are 21st-century college students writing so much more? Computers allow students to write faster. (Other advances in writing technology may explain the upticks between 1917, 1930, and 1986. Ballpoint pens and manual and electric typewriters allowed students to write faster than inkwells or fountain pens.) […] With each text and Facebook update, students become more familiar with and adept at written expression. Today’s students have more experience with writing, and they practice it more than any group of college students in history.

And, this same study discovers, the frequency of errors in student writing has remained remarkably steady for about a century. The types of errors have changed, but students are not making more of them than previous generations. It’s food for thought as we figure out how to balance integrating technological tools with very real concerns about distraction (which is often, as Melonie Fullick points out, actually boredom that is serving as a “mask for something else”).

As we move further into the semester, CETL will have resources and posts about these topics, as well as a range of others that bear upon the work we do with and among our students this year. Here’s to a great start to the academic year!

Have a question? Need some assistance? Want to talk teaching and learning? Come by the CETL, or contact us for assistance. Let us know how we can be of service!

Finally, Saturday was National Dog Day, and there were very good dogs all over the country who were recognized for their service.


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