Changing Minds (Including Our Own) in a Writing Classroom

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Hands set in a row on a tree log together.jpgI write this sentence tentatively: This semester, finally, my in-person classrooms have started to hum with a pre-pandemic vibrancy. I bet yours are bouncing back too.

It’s not just that our classroom numbers have started to rebound; more significantly, many students (not all, certainly) have emerged from the pandemic anxiety that seemed to be their default setting, even last fall. I’m making the most of the energy from in-class conversations. I want students to understand how much we can learn from one another in real time, when our body language and tone of voice can move us in unexpected directions. This sometimes means changing our minds about big ideas—and this is not easy. Writing classrooms are a perfect place for instructors to model what this looks like, and show that empathy can make change possible.

Andrea Lunsford’s recent post recognizes the work that writing teachers do “to build an ethos of trust and empathy in their classrooms in order to support respectful listening and openness to learning, even from those with differing perspectives—perhaps especially from those with differing perspectives.” Teaching writing is about teaching critical thinking, about slowing down our judgments and spending time to work out respectfully the significance of different perspectives. Consequently, critical thinking requires humility, recognizing what we don’t yet know, and changing our minds when we learn more. What does this look like in writing classrooms?

My students have been tackling challenging texts: Ibram X Kendi’s work on anti-racism and Robin DiAngelo’s analysis of perceptions of race. In early class conversations, it was clear some students were struggling, understandably, with how these writers’ ideas challenged what they were accustomed to thinking about race as a biological category and success as a matter mainly of personal gumption. You could feel the tension in some conversations as students described contrasting and difficult experiences based on perceptions of their race. I could read in the body language—tightly crossed arms, pressed lips—that this was hard for some students to take in.

So, I redesigned a class period to make generous space for a class brainstorm on why it can be so difficult to change our minds about big ideas.

Students chalked up the board with an instructive list that included:

  • Influence of family (respect for elders);
  • Religion (longtime beliefs, held in faith/feeling rather than logic);
  • Unfamiliarity with a topic;
  • Never considered the consequences/effects of an idea;
  • Not meeting many people with different life experiences; and,
  • Ego (hard to admit when we learn we were wrong).

That final one, ego, is a biggie, and one that Carol Dweck helps us understand with her insights on “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. Education, after all, should change us, and that means recognizing that we need humility if we hope to grow. I have written before about the power of modeling “slow thinking” with our students. This includes being ready to say, “Thank you; I hadn’t thought of that before.” Or even, “I’ll have to think about that some more.” Our classrooms are places students can learn to listen to people with different life experiences, and to practice being open to changing their minds.

However, this practice is reciprocal: students need to see us making those moves, too. When was the last time you changed your mind right in front of your own students? What words do you offer when a student’s perspective moves you in a fresh direction? Your humility, empathy, and enthusiasm for continued growth models skills your students will need their whole lives. February’s Black History Month programming on your campus or in sources such as the New York Times offers an opportunity to practice empathy, humility, and active listening in your writing classroom.

While we all have “student learning outcomes” for our class, what are your “instructor learning outcomes”? I certainly expect that I will change something about my understanding of our shared world, based on what I learn from my students, by the time tulips bloom in Indiana.

 

Photo by Shane Rounce (2018), used under the Unsplash License.

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.