Am I being too obviously a softy to wonder why we cannot approach our students with some measure of kindness? I would wager that most teachers, when cornered about it, believe teaching to be at least partially an act of nurture. Teachers nurture the growth of the mind, they nurture people into new understanding, out of the shells of not-knowing, and more. Recently, I hired a new instructor who, a tad nervous about taking on 40 students this semester (previously, she’d only taught to a classroom of five), asked me for advice. I looked at her and said: “You’ll be fine. Just be a parent. To forty children. Love them, and let them know you want them to succeed.”
I am too much a softy, I suppose. I mean, listen to me. Love your students? What, buy them toys, dry their tears, bandage their boo-boos? I can hear teachers groaning restlessly, bringing out their vegetables and grumbling for me to get off the stage. Yet, I sort of want to insist: why wouldn’t we start out each new semester thinking first of our students’ delightful potentials, their own (albeit now and then latent) excitement for new knowledge? And how much they need us to coach them toward those things?
Starting in the Spring, I’m offering a total of three redesigned courses. In the world of online education, this means that three whole classes needed to be designed from top to bottom: all the lectures and assignments must be written, the syllabus must be arranged, a schedule put in place, the grade book set up. In addition, there’s a significant amount of navigational content that must be written and encoded. This navigational content takes the place of that moment when a classroom full of students rustle papers and get ready to leave and you shout out above the growing clamor: “Don’t forget, on Tuesday you need to bring your notebooks! And there’s a quiz on Friday! And remember that we have a guest speaker, so show up early on Monday!” The navigational content is pretty much the heart of the course insofar as it tells students what needs to be done, and how to do it.
Each time I have designed or supervised the design of a course, I follow one guiding principle: keep it simple. It should be easy for a student to get from one assignment to the next, or to go from a lecture to the reading material (most of my courses use online – or open – content instead of text books). Learning online can be challenging enough without a student getting muddled in the variety of accidents that can take place on the Internet. Many of the instructors who teach these courses come to enjoy the simplicity of a well-constructed online course, primarily because it saves them from answering dozens of e-mails asking how to submit an assignment, or where the reading is, or how to find the discussion board. But it really isn’t for the instructors that I follow that guiding principle; it’s out of kindness and consideration for the students.
In a course I recently supervised, the instructor presented a grading schema for my approval. He’d assigned various point values to discussions (from five to 50 points), various point values to assignments (anywhere from 30 to 150, with a 75 thrown in for good measure); and the total points possible in the course came to 920. Essentially, the grading schema was indecipherable to his students, and would leave them pretty much at his mercy all semester long. I was reminded of a mechanic telling me my whosits was broken and there would need to be a new valve and pad put in place or else I’d crash my car before I got home. I stared at the grading schema with the same bewilderment and consternation as I might the mechanic. I pictured shrugging and saying, “I guess he must be right,” powerless, surrendering.
I was talking to Jesse Stommel, a superb instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder (whose Queer Literature course made national headlines), about this idea of powerlessness in the classroom. He said what he enjoyed most was sitting on the desk in front of his classroom, swinging his feet back and forth, and asking his students how their days were going, what they thought of the reading, and whether or not they’d seen any good films lately. He said his students should never feel powerless in his classroom because he is only there for them. Students in fact have all the power in the classroom because only they will chose to learn or not to learn; Jesse teaches because he enjoys it, not because he wants to coerce learning. Learning’s never coercive, it’s necessarily cooperative (anyone who’s ever had a teenage learner understands that).
I sometimes hear from instructors in my department with complaints about their students, about how they refuse to learn, how they are argumentative, or sullen, or inattentive, or confused. I know how they feel, of course. Work is work is work, and always there’s going to be something that’s less than happy about it. But then I remember my daughter, whom I home school, and the moments when she’s sullen or upset. I think about how I deal with her when that happens (lovingly, patiently), and wonder if maybe we shouldn’t, indeed, treat each of our students as we might our offspring.
When we open a class to students, we invite them to take chances, to make mistakes (even to fail). Hopefully, we give them an environment where they can stumble safely. Like learning to walk on soft rubber floors. Couldn’t our classrooms be like soft rubber floors? A place where we can tumble and roll and jump and fall together, never worrying about breaking an ankle or striking the wrong pose?