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In my 12 years of undergraduate teaching, I’ve never had a freshman verbally attack me for asking my Composition students to bring a hard copy of their writing assignment to a designated writing workshop. That is, until this past fall semester.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the raw hostility that emanated from a student’s multiple emails to me—complete with accompanying emojis—as she took issue with what she saw as flaws in my teaching style, classroom expectations and attitude toward my students. What I intended as a 75-minute workshop aimed at sharpening peer-review and note-taking skills obviously had devolved for this student into an instance of a professor completely out of touch with her students and the realities of a modern classroom.

Why? Why would my request that my students bring a hard copy of their assignment to a writing workshop be interpreted as an attack against this student’s ability to thrive in a college classroom? Indeed, her emails lambasted me—albeit through the relative safety offered by email—for assuming she was incapable of succeeding in Composition. It prompted her to resolutely declare that she would remain on my roster, refusing to drop the class, so that every time I saw her, I would be reminded of her resilience. Wait, what? All I asked was for a hard copy!

After consulting my department chair and a colleague in charge of the writing program, I invited the student to meet with me privately to discuss. Without responding to that email, the student abruptly dropped my class.

I am both disappointed and puzzled by this brief interaction that escalated so rapidly and ended so quickly. I am left wondering, plagued by pedagogical self-doubt, how she could have so grossly misinterpreted my interactions with her as an attack on her intellectual abilities. I have always prided myself on my empathetic and affable approach to my students, seizing upon every professional development opportunity aimed at strengthening, broadening and diversifying my teaching style. Throughout my career, I have sought partnerships with the provost’s office and our institution’s center for teaching excellence to renovate my syllabi, incorporate high-impact practices and construct an active classroom.

My work as a Davis Education Foundation fellow while working at the University of Hartford focused on constructing an inclusive and equitable first-year experience for all students. Books such as James M. Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning hold a prominent place on my bookshelf. I particularly find myself turning to Matthew Parfitt’s Writing in Response as both a textbook and a pedagogical guide, considering his patient and lucid chapter on helping students understand the transition from fact-based high school learning to collegiate inquiry.

Assuredly, I have been trained in active learning since my graduate school days. I trained in teaching first-year writing as a master’s student at the University of Rhode Island under the tutelage of Nedra Reynolds (Portfolio Keeping) and as a Ph.D. candidate at Brandeis University under Dawn Skorczewski (Pursuing Happiness), and both relied on strategies for active, student-led, self-reflective and collaborative teaching.

This workshop, then, in the Composition class that aroused my student’s ire, followed what Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric describes as the three main aims of an active first-year writing experience: student-driven, collaborative and with authority transferred from the professor to the student. Using hard copies of their assignments, pairs of students were asked to annotate their partner’s work and locate key rhetorical elements using a highlighter. After receiving their classmate’s feedback, each student would complete a self-reflection and strategy for revision. That type of activity typifies my classroom: I rarely lecture, preferring group activities that get students physically moving and mentally dexterous.

Scholars like Lang and Parfitt, and institutes like those at Dartmouth and the University of Connecticut, with its multimodal approach to first-year writing, make active learning seem easy, or, at the very least, attainable by any professor who attempts to make it the cornerstone of their teaching philosophy. But as I read through the emails the disgruntled student sent me, I realized that all my pedagogical energy, my zeal for innovation and small teaching, meant nothing to her. The emails took the form of a series of broken messages, ending abruptly and then spilling over into a new one, a form that revealed far more to me regarding the heart of the problem than any of her misspelled words to me could. Once I moved passed her disrespectful tone, I heard her anguish.

My request for a hard copy was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, as they say. Swamped with other responsibilities, both academic and at her outside job, this student could not cope with the added step of printing out her assignment. Although I offered her ways to participate in the workshop using a digital copy of her writing, the fact that I even had to have that conversation with her oozed collegiate privilege and condescension, in her view—proof that I needed to adapt my instructions because she was somehow lacking in her performance. Never was that my intention, and I was blindsided by such an implication.

In my quest to create an active learning space, I had inadvertently created a stressful and negative environment for the student. As evidenced by the number of times I have to reiterate to my students that a traditional course means: 1) they have to attend regularly and 2) Blackboard does not provide a substitute for in-class delivery of course material, many students are unprepared for active classrooms despite all of our efforts as professors and scholars advocating for them.

An article from 2020 offered three predictions for what post-COVID teaching would look like; nowhere does it mention the impact on active learning. According to Rob Curtin, director of higher education at Microsoft, “New remote learning and collaboration technologies, in concert with pedagogy, will be critical to enabling inclusive, personalized and engaging hybrid learning experiences to bring students together beyond simple videoconferencing and recording of lectures.” Sure, perhaps that type of thinking allowed universities to survive the shift to a screen-based education—and indeed, Curtin articulates the same focus on activity and participation inherent to the pedagogy of Parfitt and other proponents of active classrooms. But if we have students transitioning back to in-person, on-site environments, we might have to rethink what the activity behind active classrooms looks like.

I’d like to draw attention to a recent study conducted by Pål Anders Opdal of the Artic University of Norway titled “To Do or To Listen: Student Active Learning vs. the Lecture.” Opdal concludes that “there are different ways to be active. Cognitive activity, according to the inner speech argument, is the constant entertainment (testing) of emergent ideas, understandings, analyses and hypotheses. The value of listening, according to the argument by the same name, and the concurrent value of taking notes, at least partly consist in choosing, i.e., discriminating or judging between what to pay attention to and what not.” For me, as I move into this spring semester, I am going to deploy a new, more nuanced, definition of the active classroom, one that recognizes the necessity of listening—to our students, to each other.

Active classrooms require that students articulate, think critically and innovate on their own. While attractive to professors who value inquiry-based learning, such demands can seem overwhelming to some students—and, in fact, even demanding. Rather than positively endowing students with a self-directed space, active classrooms might instead become one more thing in an overworked student’s life that they have to worry about coping with and controlling.

In retrospect, I think that is what occurred with my hostile student. Coming to class after leaving work, dealing with family issues or handling other obligations leaves some students with little motivation—and mental energy—to assume the management offered by an active classroom, like a workshop. Prepared to listen and occasionally raise their hands, such students experience active classrooms as burdens rather than opportunities.

Without pausing to listen to my hostile student’s anguish, I might not have reflected on my own assumptions about what constitutes activity in an active classroom, and whether or not those assumptions accidentally create student discomfort. I continue to support student-led activities and collaboration in classrooms, but as I design my future workshops, I carry with me the possibility that another student might misinterpret my feedback as insult, my guidance as tyranny. At the very least, I recognize that if I am to make my active classroom succeed, I must continually self-reflect and evaluate my pedagogy, ensuring that activity fosters inclusion for all.

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