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As instructors, we may often think of summer as the ideal time to recharge our pedagogical batteries. However, I have always found myself more inspired to re-examine my teaching (or at least to try some new practices) in the thick of the semester, when I have real students — with their particular quirks and curiosity and challenges — right in front of me. In my conversations with new students nowadays, it is clear that many are struggling to decide if college is “worth it.”
The stakes feel especially high for both instructors and students at the moment, when there’s so much bad news about the slow recovery from learning losses and social disconnections students experienced during the pandemic. The New York Times recently featured a focus group of 12 college students who reflect on pressures they are feeling right now. It’s a sobering read, with students feeling “unheard” and “overworked.” Some responses were positive, but overwhelmingly, the students’ affect is gloomy.
That’s why I’m glad our university teaching center is currently hosting a book group on Kevin M. Gannon’s 2020 Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. Gannon historicizes his call for “a pedagogy of radical hope” in the tradition of 19th century Dutch educational reformer Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig, who was part of the democratizing “folk school” movement. Gannon also draws on insights from Paolo Freire and bell hooks about the liberatory potential of education that might be more familiar to North American instructors. In his book, Gannon proposes concrete practices (and includes useful reflective exercises in each chapter) that are “life-affirming,” flexible, inclusive practices that center student agency. The book is appealingly slim, provocative, and timely if your campus is also engaged in discussions about the value of higher education (in one way or another, aren’t we all?).
On our campus, we try to inspire Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” in our new students, with first year seminars designed to spark excitement and intellectual risk-taking, often bolstered by “ungrading" practices that I have written about in earlier posts. I suspect Gannon would consider our practices examples of a pedagogy of radical hope. Additionally, we work to build community and connections through strategies I describe in my last post, and which Madhu Nadarajah writes about compellingly in this space.
But pedagogical efforts in just one class are not necessarily enough to mitigate the challenges of this overwhelming moment. I was curious to hear my own students’ responses to the New York Times’ focus group’s question, “How does it feel to be a college student today?” So, I asked my first-semester students to write one- or two-word answers anonymously on note cards that our peer mentor collected. The word cloud of their responses is the image on this post, and it is alarming. “Stressful” looms large, as do words like “disconnected,” “overwhelming” and “exhausting.” I take heart from some of the positive words (“exciting,” “safe,” “refreshing”), but look forward to listening to my students as we consider how our classroom, at least, might offer strategies to address some of their negative experiences of college.
I am going to emphasize with my students what Gannon calls the “not-yetness” of learning, a term coined by Amy Collier and Jess Ross to describe the forward-looking pull of transformative education, in contrast to the deficit model (characterized by the grumpy colleague who grouses, “Why can’t students these days write?”). I am heartened to see the word “trying” in my class’s word cloud, as a signal that some students see themselves as people in process, still learning and growing—in response, I plan to share with them my own sense of not-yetness as an instructor, who, after over 30 years in the classroom, continues to try to do better.
Photo by April Lidinsky, 2022
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