Seizing the Teachable Moment

Colleges should use current events like the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to foster understanding in our students, writes Karen Gross.

October 15, 2018
 
 

As I watched all the events surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, I kept reflecting on how this entire episode would be affecting campuses -- students (those who had been sexually abused or accused of abuse most especially), faculty members, staff members and coaches, among others. And I was pondering how to help educational communities process all that happened in ways that do not fracture them, create resentments and exacerbate incivility.

That is obviously not easy. Emotions are running high, whatever one’s political persuasion. With the upcoming elections, along with memories retained by some of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas showdown decades ago, it is hard to picture how we navigate forward.

There is also no single step campuses can take that will enable healing. And healing will surely not be immediate. But some concrete steps can be taken that will produce positive outcomes. Let me offer one here.

Have you heard of pop-up courses? A growing number of campuses, including Bennington College and Pomona College, are offering such courses, where hot topics become an intensive weekend class for students. They literally pop up, like pop-up stores in malls; they are not on the list of courses for which one can preregister. The offerings change all the time and can provide course credit -- usually one or two credits depending on the seat time.

Current faculty members volunteer to teach these pop-ups, as commonly structured, recognizing that they will not necessarily have deep expertise in the subject. In fact, now is not the time to bring in outsiders to teach these pop-ups, however skilled or knowledgeable they may be. Students and teachers will all be learners, but in a way that is somewhat structured -- with readings, discussions and activities.

The whole idea of pop-ups makes sense to me. We need to make all education responsive to current trends and events and use the opportunities that present themselves -- good and bad -- to foster understanding in our students. After all, we want to educate students who will be the leaders of the future -- in their homes, their workplaces, their communities.

Sure, professors can adapt current semester-long courses to respond to a current event, but not all professors will do that, and not all who do it will do it well. The point of a pop-up is not to close out other institutional opportunities to examine particular issues but rather to serve as a vehicle for reflection.

Many themes would emerge, and many issues would bubble to the top of the top of students’ hearts and minds, if an institution were to flesh out a pop-up course on the Kavanaugh confirmation process. Emotions already are high, and this would not be a risk-free course for obvious reasons. But that’s one of the key reasons for a pop-up approach: to capture energy and guide that power to good ends, not destruction or hate. And one of the benefits of such a course is that it will be short -- which motivates openness without the fear of creating lasting negative impressions.

Suppose a college or university offered a pop-up course titled “The Lessons We Can Learn from the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings.” The idea here is to provide a pathway toward hope. Isn’t that at least one of the purposes of education -- to not allow students to wallow in despair with no tools with which to move forward but to make a difference and help them find a personal comfort zone? Moreover, here’s an important observation: the pop-ups I am suggesting are overtly nonpartisan, geared to developing facts, probing issues and exploring ideas and themes raised by the Kavanaugh hearings.

The lessons are many, including many that are not political. And there might be ways to think about prioritizing the lessons, both big and small.

Consider the lesson about how we ferret out truth, and, even more profoundly, does such a thing as truth exist? No small issue there. Here’s another possible set of lessons:

  • How well do we listen to the stories and experiences of others, whether related to sexual abuse or views on the environment?
  • In our tripartite government of checks and balances, how significant is the Supreme Court in actuality?
  • How have we used rhetorical devices to further our positions in government, in industry, within the academy, within the public sphere?
  • What are the roles of facial expression, tone and gestures on the perceptions of listeners?
  • What psychologically motivates us to diminish the views of others?
  • How does memory work in terms of brain science (that all-important hippocampus), and how does trauma impact memory and attachment?
  • How do we create dialogue on emotionally charged issues -- not just in the context of a Supreme Court appointment but more generally as well, assuming the skills are transportable?

Need I go on?

When it comes to relevant readings, anyone interested in developing a pop-up course can certainly find articles in newspapers of all sorts from different parts of the country as well as op-eds, including one by Anita Hill. They could also show videos of speeches and protests from the actual events. They could refer to the opening statements of Christine Blasey Ford and then Judge (now Justice) Kavanaugh and compare them to opening statements of other Supreme Court nominees. They could look into “Borking” and what occurred with Merrick Garland during his Supreme Court nomination in 2016. Poems and art could be shared, whether created recently or in the past about justice, freedom and trust.

I’m sure readers can picture their own version of a pop-up course. There can be several on a single campus can organize several different ones. Or they could develop courses that combine students and faculty members from neighboring campuses.

My point is that the moment for these courses is now -- while the fires are still burning and the embers still hot. Time is a-wastin’. A teachable moment is a-wastin’. We have hardly a better opportunity than now to help our students, faculty members, staff members, coaches and others in our community to reflect on the world in which we live -- and the world in which we want to our children and children’s children to live.

Bio

Karen Gross is a former college president and senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, she is senior counsel at Finn Partners and the author of both adult and children’s books, including Breakaway Learners, published by Columbia Teachers College Press and Lady Lucy’s Quest series, published by Shires Press.

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