Listening to Students: What Have We Learned?

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We needed some snap-crackle-and-pop at our house, so we rewatched Burn After Reading, the hilariously absurd Coen Brothers romp, which reminded me why Frances McDormand remains one of my favorite screen actors.

I bring up this film because of the final scene, which takes place in a standard-issue government office after a crime investigation has been botched several different comedic ways. Behind the desk, flanked by flag and carved eagle, the CIA superior, played by a stone-faced J.K. Simmons, asks an underling, “What’d we learn, Palmer?”  While the answer is comic gold (I won’t spoil it for you here), it did remind me of the value of inviting students to reflect on what they have learned, especially now that many of our semesters are drawing to a close. We can learn so much by asking what they will carry forward into other classes and other parts of their lives. And this year, as we face unique learning experiences brought on by the pandemic, I have found their reflections have a particular poignancy.

For example, in one class, students launched the “What have we learned” discussion by thanking other students for their compassion all semester. Students confirmed that nodding heads, encouraging smiles, props in the Zoom chat (^^YES^^ , ^THIS!^) all helped them feel heard and supported. Other students spoke about the way a single word, such as “intersectionality” or “privilege,” can open up a world of analysis that changes the way they see everything from the Oscars to daily conversations. Several students weighed in on the words and phrases we vowed to retire because of their anti-analytical bent, such as “crazy” or “senseless,” as I described in my last post.

A few students described teaching family, friends, and co-workers the skills of Rogerian argumentation, learned in our class, which guide us to prioritize empathy, to validate others’ feelings (even if we disagree with a perspective), and to seek common ground where we can, as I wrote about here. The satisfying discovery that these skills can improve conversations far beyond the classroom earned nods and “applause” reactions from the rest of the class.

I hope other instructors will share what they hear from students, as we all sum up our learning experiences at this unique moment in history. I was touched by Susan Bernstein’s latest post about “breaking silence” with students, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s invitation to do so with “all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision.”  Bernstein concludes, “The students’ writing is still in process.”  For me, that sentiment applies more broadly, as we remind ourselves that we are all still “in process,” learning together how to improve a world in urgent need of compassion, empathy, analysis, and informed proposals for change. 

When we say we teach writing, that hardly captures the depth and purpose of our work, nor the impact we can have as we practice, together, the habits of being that have the potential to heal our world.


Image Credit: Photo of From Inquiry to Academic Writing taken by the author

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.