The Classroom as Necessary Community

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Lang and Gannon's books lying face-up on wood tabletop.jpg

I have found necessary community this year in the pedagogical reading groups offered through our University Center for Excellence in Teaching. I was notably inspired by Kevin M. Gannon’s bold book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, which I have written about before. And while I’m still reading James M. Lang’s thought-provoking Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, I have also written about his helpful reminder that “dis-traction” means “to drag something apart.” Taken together, I’ve come to realize that when we hold our students’ attention, we are holding the classroom community together, too.

I’d been feeling like this semester had a pre-pandemic zhuzh to it, but now that midterms are hitting and spring break isn’t yet here, students are noticeably dragging and less engaged in discussion. Christine Cucciarre’s recent “Tiny Teaching Story” about the lingering weight of the pandemic is a sorrowful snapshot of this strange moment.

This past week, all these threads twined together as I attended a webinar by Gannon on “A Pedagogy of Hope During the Time of Monsters,” hosted by IUPUI’s Center for Teaching and Learning. According to Gannon, the “monsters” of today are the anti-democratic and anti-education forces at work in the U.S., but the “hope” comes from remembering that we can inspire agency in our students. Writing classrooms are a good place for that work. Gannon noted that learning is a social act that has both cognitive and affective components. Successful instructors give students opportunities to connect thinking and feeling, and to connect with one another. Those connections, Lang argues, are what hold students’ attention in the classroom.

Similarly, Lang encourages instructors to make time in a class for students to reflect on their deeply-felt core values, citing studies which show that values-affirmation exercises can help students better articulate and access their pro-social beliefs. With both Gannon and Lang in mind, I zhuzhed my usual mid-semester student self-reflection  by asking my students to list their core values in their notes at the start of class. After a few minutes, I asked them to share what they wished to with peers around them.  After some uncertainty, a buzz slowly rose in the room. Students were smiling, nodding heads, affirming one another. After a few more minutes, we listed what they’d been talking about on the board, and students seemed to find the overlap in their values revelatory. Their list included: kindness, truthfulness, generosity, humility, open-mindedness, respect for diversity, honesty (and more). Almost poetically, the sun poked through Indiana’s winter perma-cloud at this moment, flooding our classroom with warmth just as I chalked the last inspirational word. That got a laugh.

With that valued conversation warming the room, I asked students to reflect for me on their progress in the course so far. How are they challenging themselves? What are they happiest with? How are they hoping to grow by the semester’s end? Since I will be handing these reflections back to them at the semester’s end for their summative reflections, I also urged them to write an encouraging note to their future selves. I was initially met with some nervous chuckles, but when I collected the papers, I was touched to see how many students were as kind and encouraging to themselves as they had been in many discussions with one another.

In his talk, Gannon quoted abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba: “Hope is a discipline—an action, a practice.” In those sunshine-washed moments in our classroom this week, that’s what I witnessed. To me, and to my students, I believe, this practice felt necessary.

 

Photo by April Lidinsky (2023)

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.