I recently commented on the poor attendance at a black history month event on our campus. Last night, however, I had the great honor of introducing one of the original Freedom Riders, Hank Thomas, to a room filled beyond capacity with students, staff/faculty, high school students, and community members. Hank’s rich voice led us through years of civil rights history, rising with indignation and softening with humor over the course of his speech. But the most moving part of the evening was the response from the students, during a question-and-answer session that followed. One African American woman spoke with a ragged voice of her pain at being marginalized on our mostly-white campus. A high school student said that he had done his middle school Civics report on Mr. Thomas and asked to shake his hand. Those who came expecting a history lesson about racism in a distant past (and in the south) came away with an understanding of the very real challenges in the present.
Those of you who organize events understand the joyous relief of hosting a speaker who lives up to your expectations. Nothing is worse than cajoling people into attending an event and watching the speech fall flat. How do some speakers magically connect to a room full of strangers while others (equally prepared and knowledgeable) fall flat?
These are similar to the questions we ask about what makes a great professor. Recent debates in the Chronicle show that we are far from achieving consensus about what constitutes excellent teaching. However, it’s disappointing to see this complex question reduced to a simplistic battle between old-fashioned lecturing and engaged, technologically-enhanced instruction. As one of the “techie” professors highlighted in the debate argued: “It doesn't matter what method you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student.” I firmly believe this to be true; however, we cannot rely on our intuition to judge how effectively we have reached our students. To paraphrase a whole body of research, excellent teaching means nothing without equally excellent student learning. The perspective from the front of the classroom –whether behind the podium, in front of the powerpoint, or even perched cross-legged on a desk – is always radically different from the view of the student sitting in her desk.
Similarly, campus rhetoric and policies on diversity or inclusion mean little unless they allow minority members of our campus to feel truly included. We need to listen hard to what they have to say.
As I reflect on the power of Hank Thomas’s speech last night, I realize that the real power of this event was most evident in the responses of the audience. Their applause, comments, and tears were not only a sign that they had listened to and understood the material presented. Their courage in speaking their own truth, their own hardship, their own daily challenges, was an enactment of the courage Hank Thomas showed years ago.