As summer ends, professors across the country are gearing up for a new academic year: refurbishing old syllabuses, reviewing some alternate readings, perhaps adding service learning or a new assessment tool to their courses. I’m designing one entirely new seminar, plus working with colleagues to rethink our team-taught intro class. It all requires time and energy, and has to be done. But the best thing I do to improve students’ work in my courses is far simpler.
I will learn and use their names. It’s easy, and it works.
Using those names in class is uniquely powerful. As Dale Carnegie said, “Remember that a man’s [sic] name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.” (Of course we know today that this is true for a woman too.) A student who hears his name suddenly becomes completely alert; one who hears herself quoted (“As Hannah said, Machiavelli was just trying to be realistic”) will be replaying those words in her head, over and over, for at least a week.
I used to learn names by taking the class list and scribbling descriptions, and for a time I would videotape students actually speaking their names, then review the tape every morning over my Cheerios. My current technique, at least for larger classes, is flashcards. The first day I line up the students alphabetically (they’ll already be smiling at each other, with a nice excuse for meeting), then take their pictures one by one, bantering like a novice fashion photographer (“Excellent!” “You look sharp,” “Nice t-shirt,” “Great smile,” and so on).
After being photographed, the students write their preferred first and last name, with phonetic guides if needed, on a pressure-sensitive file label, a sheet of which lies on the desk. At the end of the day, I deliver the pictures to a one-hour development kiosk, and by morning have a full deck of photos, each with a name stuck on the back. Before each class meeting I spend a few minutes going through the deck again, memorizing the names. Whenever I pick up a new tidbit about a student I’ll write it on the back: “Plays lacrosse,” “Civil War buff,” “always wears these glasses,” “from Vermont.” The names take maybe four class meetings to learn; last fall, when I had 82 students in two courses, it required about two weeks in total.
And the technique, or at least its principle of individualized recognition, is scalable. With smaller classes (say, 29 students or less), you can make up nameplates – just a folded paper card will work, with names on the front. Within a few days not only will you know their names, the students will also know everyone else’s – a nice side benefit, and very helpful in seminars. With larger classes, learning the names certainly takes more work -- although a dean of students I once knew was famous for knowing and using the names of all 700 or so students at his college, from the day they matriculated. It’s impressive if you do learn so many; even if you can’t, your teaching assistants can learn students’ names in their sections. Or even without knowing any names, a lecturer who pays attention can spot a puzzled student and say, “Do you have a question?” It is possible to connect well, with even a large class.
Why is knowing someone’s name or acknowledging them individually so important? Any person’s name is emotionally loaded to that person, and has the power to pull him or her into whatever is going on. By putting that person at the center of attention, naming takes only a moment from you – but for them, it is deeply affecting, and lasts.
But more than that, calling a student by name opens the door to a more personal connection, inviting the student to see the professor (and professors generally) as a human being, maybe a role model or even a kind of friend. In the 10-year longitudinal study that Chris Takacs and I did of a cohort of students moving through college (for our book How College Works), students who found congenial advisers, or even full-fledged mentors, were more likely to stay in school, to learn more, and to enjoy the entire experience.
Several years ago I saw Jon Stewart, the television show host, deliver a marvelous 74-minute stand-up comedy routine for an audience of 5,000 people, apparently with no notes whatsoever. Stewart worked the crowd, picking up on what we liked, playing off of a few local references, sensing groups in the audience who responded differently, asking questions, riding the laughs but knowing when to quiet our responses. He connected with us; he made us part of the show. It was exciting and memorable.
I’m no Jon Stewart, nor a match for that dean of students. But once about 20 years ago I had a social psychology class of 144 students. Armed with the freshman facebook (small “f,” remember that?) photos and some scribbled hints, I worked on their names for a couple of weeks. Then one day I came into class and started pointing at each student, slowly speaking his or her name. Some were easy, others took a moment; still others I skipped, to return to when I remembered or had eliminated possibilities. As I progressed around the room, students became increasingly focused on what I was doing, smiling and laughing at who was remembered, and who took a minute. Eventually I got to the last few, the people at the outer edge of my mnemonic ability. When I declared that last name – correctly -- the entire class hesitated, and then erupted in a long, sustained round of applause. Some cheers were thrown in.
And the course went well.
Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, ofHow College Works(Harvard University Press).
Regular readers of the higher education press have had occasion to learn a great deal about digital developments and online initiatives in higher education. We have heard both about and from those for whom this world is still terra relatively incognita. And, increasingly, we are hearing both about and from those commonly considered to be to be “digital natives” –- the term “native” conveying the idea of their either having been born to the culture in question or being so adapted to it that they might as well have been.
When we think of digital natives, we tend to think of students. But lest we think that things are easy for them, let us bear in mind their problems. Notably, they share the general difficulty of reputation management or what we might consider the adverse consequences of throwing privacy away with both hands when communicating on the internet. More to the point in the world of higher education, many suffer from the unequal distribution of online skills most relevant to academic success –- yet another factor in the extreme socioeconomic inequality that afflicts our nation’s system of higher education.
But let us turn our attention to the faculty, and first to those relatively unschooled in new information technologies. At the extreme, there are those who view the whole business with fear and loathing. We must find ways to persuade them that such an attitude is unworthy of anyone who has chosen education as a vocation and that they would do well to investigate this new world with an explorer’s eye –- not uncritically, to be sure, given the hype surrounding it –- in order to reach informed positions about both the virtues and the limitations of new information technologies.
Others are more receptive, but also rather lost. They are fine with what Jose Bowen calls “teaching naked” (i.e., keeping technology out of the classroom itself), since they have been doing it all their working lives, but are unable to manage the other major part of the program (that is, selecting items to hang in a virtual closet for their students to try on and wear to good effect, so that they come to class well-prepared to make the most of the time together with one another and their instructor). What these faculty members need is the right kind of support: relevant, well-timed, and pedagogically effective –- something far less widely available than it should be.
Digitally adept faculty have challenges of their own, some of which are old problems in new forms. There is, for example, the question of how available to be to their students, which has taken on a new dimension in an age in which channels of communication proliferate and constant connectedness is expected.
And then there is the question of how much of themselves faculty members should reveal to students. How much of their non-academic activities or thoughts should they share by not blocking access online or perhaps even by adding students to some groups otherwise composed of friends?
Many of us have worked with students on civic or political projects –- though not, one hopes, simply imposing our own views upon them. Many of us have already extended our relationship into more personal areas when students have come to us with problems or crises of one sort or another and we have played the role of caring, older adviser. We have enjoyed relatively casual lunches, dinners, kaffeeklatsches with them that have included discussion of a variety of topics, from tastes in food to anecdotes about beloved pets. The question for digital natives goes beyond these kinds of interaction: To what extent should students be allowed in on the channels and kinds of communications that are regularly –- in some cases, relentlessly and obsessively –- shared with friends?
Not all of this, to be sure, is under a faculty member’s control. Possibilities for what sociologists call “role segregation” hinge on an ability to keep the audiences for different roles apart from one another –- hardly something to be counted on in these digital times. But leaving aside the question of how much online information can be kept from students, how much of it should be kept from them?
Will students be better-served, as some faculty members seem to believe, if they see ongoing evidence that their teachers are people with full lives aside from their faculty roles? Should students be recipients of the kinds of texts and tweets that faculty members may be in the habit of sending to friends about movies, shopping, etc.? Given how distracting and boring some of this may be even to friends, one might well wonder. Some students will perhaps get a thrill out of being in a professor’s “loop” on such matters, but do we need to further clutter their lives with trivia? This is an area in which they hardly need additional help.
To put this issue in a wider context: In her 1970 book Culture and Commitment, anthropologist Margaret Mead drew a distinction among three different types of culture: “postfigurative”, in which the young learn from those who have come before; “cofigurative”, in which both adults and children learn a significant amount from their peers; and “prefigurative”, in which adults are in the position of needing to learn much from their children. Not surprisingly, Mead saw us as heading in a clearly prefigurative direction –- and that years before the era of parents and grandparents sitting helplessly in front of computer screens waiting for a little child to lead them.
Without adopting Mead’s specific views on these cultural types, we can find her categories an invitation to thinking about the teaching and learning relationship among the generations. For example, should we just happily leap into prefigurativeness?
Or, to put it in old colonialist terms, should we “go native”? Colonial types saw this as a danger, a giving up of the responsibilities of civilization –- not unlike the way the Internet-phobic see embracing the online world. The repentant colonizers who did decide to “go native”, motivated either by escapism or by a profound love and respect for those they lived and worked with, sometimes ended up with views as limited by their adopted culture (what is called “secondary ethnocentrism”) as were limited by their original one. This aside from the fact that attempts to go native are not always successful and may even seem ridiculous to the real folks.
Perhaps it is helpful to think of ourselves first as anthropologists. We certainly need to understand the world in which we ply our trade, not only so that we can do our work, but also because we are generally possessed of intellectual curiosity and have chosen our vocation because we like working in a community. We believe that we have much to learn from the people we study and, at the same time, know that we can see at least some things more clearly because we have the eyes of outsiders.
But we are also missionaries, since we feel we have something of value to share –- to share, to be sure, not simply to impose. What might that something be?
In the most basic sense, it is the ability to focus, to pay attention, take time to learn, looking back at least as often as looking forward. Most of our students live in a noisy world of ongoing virtual connectedness, relentless activity, nonstop polytasking (how tired are we of the word “multitasking”?). Like the rest of us, they suffer from the fact that too much information is the equivalent of too little. Like the rest of us, they live in a world in which innovation is not simply admired, but fetishized.
So, even as we avail ourselves of the educational benefits of new information technologies, we might think of complementing this with a Slow Teaching movement, not unlike the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 with the goal of preserving all that was delicious and nutritious in traditional cuisine. We have such traditions to share with our students even as we become more knowledgeable about the world in which they move.
Our students and junior colleagues don’t need us to be them; they need us to be us. Or, as Oscar Wilde so engagingly put it: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.
It’s the start of the spring semester and I walk across campus to my first Beginning Bagpipe class, wondering if I can learn to play an instrument that is so important to my university’s Scottish heritage -- our pipe and drum band plays at every major event. It was the undergraduate pipers who had talked me into taking this class while I was chatting with them before our December commencement.
As soon as I get to class, I realize I am the student professors abhor. I look around and every undergraduate — all 23 of them — has the required book and practice chanter (on which beginners learn to pipe). I have never taken college-level applied music, but rather than finding out what was expected before class or checking the bookstore, I felt like my part was just to show up. How many of our freshman students feel like their responsibility is simply getting themselves to class?
The professor takes attendance; “Julie Wollman,” he calls out, just like I am any other student. I think for a desperate moment that maybe I can take the class undercover, but they all know who I am and I clearly did not come to class prepared. I have no pen to take notes on the syllabus — important information about assignments, the required Facebook page, and upcoming classes. I have not gone to the bookstore. I hadn’t even considered that I should come to class with the necessary materials or that there would be a book. Like the stereotypical undergraduate, all I brought was my iPhone. I find myself silently voicing a phrase that my younger daughter used frequently, as a teenager, in new situations: “How was I supposed to know...?”
“How was I supposed to know?” In the 25 years since I was a doctoral student, I have rarely had a learning experience — a professional development seminar, a conference, a retreat — where I wasn’t provided with everything I needed before and during the experience or told ahead of time exactly what to bring and even what attire would be appropriate. It strikes me that this direction is much like what our students experience in high school. Why, then, are we so troubled by first-year students who need far more guidance than we think is appropriate for a college student?
Fortunately, the professor is patient and experienced and he has us all playing a simple scale on the chanter before the first class ends. I also learn that each week one beginner will be called up to the front of the circle of chairs and music stands and be asked to play the day’s lesson. Potentially having to be “in the center” and embarrassing myself makes me practice as much as possible during the week before the second class, but I really don’t know if I’m doing it right. Tackling something brand-new makes me feel terribly inept, but we regularly encourage our first-year students to explore new fields without acknowledging the inevitable stress.
Fortunately my professor places each beginner with a more experienced undergraduate mentor; we are to meet weekly in between classes. I have always doubted the value of study groups, but on Sunday I trudge through the snow to the Music Building where I meet my student mentor in one of the second-floor practice rooms — a place on campus I would never otherwise venture to, but I came to understand our music students pretty much live there. Neil, my peer mentor, spends an hour with me, patiently and gently correcting, praising, joking and instructing. All week it has been so hard to get the breathing right, never mind the fingering, but by the time I finish with Neil I feel much better. “Maybe I can do this?” Without Neil’s encouragement and help every week throughout the semester I would have felt incompetent and out-of-place in class, and would have learned far less from my professor. For novices there is great value in building skill and confidence outside of class through peer mentoring and instruction.
Still, I’m really nervous about going to the second class, afraid I’ll be the only one who isn’t any good. I’m not taking it for credit or a grade, but the thought actually crosses my mind that I should skip class; after all, I can offer a good excuse. I am shocked to realize that, 36 years after I started my freshman year of college, being in a simple but challenging class well out of my comfort zone, I am again looking for excuses to miss class. So I go, despite my fear. Before class, waiting for the professor to arrive, I chat with my classmates about how hard it is to breathe right and make a sound come out and I feel less alone in my incompetence.
The professor gives us a full song to play in class number two, even though we haven’t even learned to play the scale well. “What is he thinking??” I know it’s not just me who is challenged because I am no worse than the student he brings to the center of the circle to demonstrate the lesson. I actually feel better after class because I’m not noticeably worse than the other beginners (how perverse to delight in others’ incompetence), but I’m certain they must find it easier than I do. Still, I can now attempt to play a real song! It is a genuine relief to learn that others are challenged by the class, too, and I wonder if we need to spend more time reinforcing for freshmen that they are not alone in finding new skills difficult but that there is a reason we push them to apply the skill early on.
I’ve made it to the third week and I know I’m practicing as much as any student but when I’m in class it’s hard to perform. I know what to do and I’ve done it at home and in the practice room, but I can’t do it right in front of the professor. I wonder if this will be like the experience of reading professional journals as a beginning graduate student — it’s like a foreign language and then one day it just clicks and you feel like an “insider.” It’s not clicking today, though: my professor gives us a harder song this week, much harder. As a teacher, I understand what he’s trying to do. As a student, I think he’s crazy. When I try to practice it later I just can’t do it.
My younger daughter — a real freshman — calls to tell me about struggling with her physics homework and being afraid to go to class because she thinks she’s the only one who will have had trouble with the work. “I know. That’s how I feel about my class, too. The homework is too hard. I can’t do it and he might ask me to play the song in class.” She laughs and reassures me that I’ll be fine.
Trying to be supportive, a colleague notes that the professor wouldn’t fail the president but, just be sure, she suggests I take the class on a pass-fail basis. I think seriously for a few minutes about whether it’s too late to drop the class before I realize that I’m not really registered for it and what kind of a message would that send to the 23 undergraduates in the class? I continue to struggle through the new song but I need help and I’m losing any flicker of confidence I may have had. It would be so much easier to just give it up now and stop pretending I can learn this.
Again, when we meet later in the week, my student mentor saves the day, saying the song I have battled all week was too much for week three and our professor won’t expect us to know it. Instead he photocopies and goes through various scales with me and this soothes my wounded self-confidence. I leave this meeting grateful for the help and moral support and for the fact that I have a “friend” in class, even as I worry that he’s probably mortified that I am his assigned partner.
During weeks four and five I have to travel for meetings in Washington, Harrisburg and then, a few days later, Florida to meet with donors. I have been excused from class but I pack my chanter and practice daily, amazed that I’m not evicted from hotels. On the trip to Florida I’m with my husband and an advancement colleague and they laugh incessantly as I practice in the car while we crisscross the state between donor visits, but I find the extended practice time helps me a lot so I ignore the laughter and press ahead.
Because of these trips I miss two classes and I’m worried about falling behind. But I meet with my mentor on the one day I’m home between trips and then again when I get back and these focused one-hour meetings prove extremely helpful as Neil reviews what I missed and keeps me moving ahead. He builds my confidence and, hopefully, in some small way I am building his confidence as a teacher. He adjusts to my challenges and is responsive and supportive and always tries to get me one step ahead of the class. He wisely pushes me to not stop but continue to soldier through when I make a mistake. I’m still worried about going back for week six but can’t imagine how worried I’d be without Neil’s help. At the same time, I’m eager to go back because the professor is relaxed and funny but also serious and attentive to each individual. He realizes when we are confused and switches gears to explain or demonstrate in a different way or change the lesson plan entirely. How many of us appreciate the need to adapt to our students’ needs or risk losing them forever after they have missed a class or two?
Near the end of week five I realize that I no longer have trouble with the breathing and that my fingers don’t cramp up any more when I play. Why is it I know how to do things while practicing but then make mistakes in class? In class on Monday I realize that while I can play the notes I need work on the timing, and Neil tries to help with several different strategies. This is another hurdle, like the breathing, that I just need to work through by practicing. And now, when I have developed a little faith that I can learn this instrument, Neil ups the ante and is paying a little more attention to my fingering technique so I don’t develop bad habits. Progress requires meeting a student where she is and gradually increasing the expectations.
I practice Tuesday but count on lots of time Wednesday through Friday since I have to travel to Harrisburg with a colleague who is driving, so I will practice in the car. It is not until we have been in the car for over an hour that I realize I forgot my chanter. What a sinking feeling. “I’ll fall behind. I’ll never catch up... .” I am disgusted with myself. At the same time, I feel genuine sympathy for student-athletes, performers, and others who travel frequently and have to remember everything and keep up with classes while on the road.
I am reunited with my chanter on Saturday morning and practice extra over the weekend so that I don’t humiliate myself in class. I meet with Neil on Sunday and he starts me on the next song, just when I’m finally catching on to the last one! Oh, yeah, that’s right — I believe in always stretching students by moving them toward the next challenge. But I don’t want challenge; I want the sweet, elusive taste of mastery.
I’ve made it to the halfway point and I am lucky to meet with Neil on Wednesday before I leave for a brief vacation. First thing I pack is my chanter. I love practicing looking out onto the beach and notice that being relaxed and unhurried compared to my usual routine improves my playing. I even try to play Amazing Grace for fun. Neil has been encouraging me to try playing new songs for fun, but is it fun when you can’t do it? When I’m relaxed and have time, I actually enjoy it. How can we help our students overcome their stress and achieve this kind of freedom to learn?
After spring break I’m excited to go back to class — I missed it. But Monday morning I forget my chanter and book and don’t have time to turn back and get them before my first meeting. I realize how easy it is to forget materials for class even with the best intentions. The difference for me is that I live on the edge of campus and can get what I left behind if necessary. For commuter students that’s not possible. Again, I am humbled and ashamed that I have ever assumed a student who came to class unprepared just doesn’t care.
The professor has selected several of the songs we composed for homework to use as examples in class and I see that one of the three written on the board is mine. I am uncertain. Will it be used as a good example or a bad one? For once when he asks someone to come up to the front and play this song I cannot avert my eyes, bow my head, and hope he doesn’t notice me. No one else offers to come forward, and it is my song, after all. So up I go and play in front of the class for the first time this semester. I actually learn a lot from this class, which is focused on typical bagpipe music composition. This bit of music theory helps me think about how the songs we’re playing are composed and why and makes reading the music more predictable. Theory really does guide practice and can be helpful to a beginner.
Soon after spring break the course evaluation is administered. I can’t fill one out because I am not registered for the class, but I wish I could. I have so much appreciation for what the professor is doing to push, cajole, and trick us all into doing what we thought we couldn’t.
New this week — playing together. Of course, that’s what pipe band is all about! Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I can’t keep up. “I just need to play a little slower.” I realize later, I just need to practice more so I can play a little faster. I talk to Neil about this challenge and he starts having me play more with him when we meet. Still, I really lost any confidence I had after trying to play with others in class. I realize that what happens in class really impacts how students feel about their ability to succeed. Just a couple of moments of uncertainty or “failure” can shape a student’s approach to class for the rest of the week.
At the same time, I finally feel like I blend into class and can sit with different peers. People are friendly. The importance of this is not lost on me as I think about our freshmen who never make friends or feel like they belong and end up dropping out early in their college careers.
When we meet, Neil introduces me to his new electronic bagpipe that sounds like the real thing. He lets me play it a few times and I love it — I know the fingering and don’t have to worry about breathing, and it actually sounds like I’m playing a real bagpipe. I can do this! I wonder if too often we fail to provide students with the sense of accomplishment necessary to tackle the challenges of another semester ahead; this may be a fundamental reason for attrition.
It’s the night before our last class — the very last day of the spring semester — and I am busy finishing up my reflective journal for the semester, thinking about the “final exam” tomorrow, and wondering why I waited until evening to start working on the final journal entries?! Maybe because it has been such a busy couple of weeks with the usual whirlwind of end-of-semester events, projects, never-ceasing emails to answer. Maybe because as much as I want the semester to end I’m going to miss class and the forced break from my daily work that comes with having to practice. I wonder what my fellow students are doing and if they too left things until the last minute because other responsibilities crowded out bagpipe homework. Becoming a freshman again has helped me understand them in a new way and has taught me so much about their experience that I’ve decided to teach a freshman seminar in the fall.
Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
For over a century, colleges and universities have asked this question with varying levels of interest and commitment. Some have also asked questions more foundational.
Can teaching be taught? Or are some teachers just born with “the gift” -- an inherent ability to connect with young people and inspire learning? Should we devote resources to training teachers? Or should we simply encourage public policies that identify undergraduates who already posses the knack for teaching?
President Obama has ordered his administration to take up similar questions. Recognizing that “recruiting, preparing, developing and supporting great teachers has a direct impact on the learning and success of America’s students,” the Department of Education will issue new rules this summer for programs that train teachers.
Unlike the emerging debate over the Common Core, however, this pivotal moment to shape what gets valued in classroom instruction will draw limited attention. A relatively small subset of policy makers, K-12 interest groups, and schools of education will wrangle over the new guidelines.
And a stakeholder once central to these discussions, faculty members in colleges of liberal arts and sciences, will again be missing from an important democratic conversation.
This renewed attention to teacher preparation is, nonetheless, significant. As the White House explained, “There is no more important factor in successful schools than having a great teacher in every classroom.”
Until now, the President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have pursued this goal indirectly as part of a multi-faceted, bi-partisan education reform agenda that garners support from key business interests. Obama administration policies have encouraged competition, promoted merit pay, challenged tenure practices, demanded tougher performance measures, and required teachers to prove their instruction is tied to “college and career readiness” goals.
After years of qualified support, some schools of education and teacher unions are pushing back against this accountability agenda. Many will likely object to any proposed guidelines that retroactively connect student test scores to the preparation their teachers received years earlier. But these stakeholders will offer few significant alternatives to address the enduring criticism that the teaching profession draws from lower performing college graduates and benefits little from a surfeit of undemanding credentialing programs.
By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal.
Rather than standing on the sidelines as these debates are resurrected this summer, faculty members in the arts, sciences and humanities should offer expert testimony. Federal policy on teacher quality directly impacts the quality of students enrolling in our institutions of higher education and ultimately shapes whether the best college graduates consider teaching as a viable and meaningful career.
We can draw some lessons from the past.
When number-crunching industrialists tried to impose new purposes and teaching practices on the late 19th-century high school, the most vocal opposition came from professors of literature, history, mathematics, philosophy, physics, biology, and art. This liberal arts defense of teaching was loudest in the Midwest.
As early as 1879, University of Michigan President James B. Angell reminded institutions of higher education of their crucial role “apprising the public that teaching is itself an art.” Michigan faculty, with appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, spent the remainder of the century visiting schools, experimenting with new courses, and identifying a modest place for “pedagogics” in the curriculum.
More significantly, these scholars joined peers at Northwestern, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, and elsewhere to actively champion state credentialing policies that elevated the importance of preparing teachers with subject-matter expertise. On campus, this broad-based faculty effort led to conferences on teaching, new faculty-alumni networks, and the formation of clubs that openly discussed how this subject matter might best be taught.
But over time this tight connection between the liberal arts and teacher preparation practices fractured. As historians ranging from Frederick Rudolph to Larry Cuban have shown, the 20th-century university became distracted by new purposes and research imperatives. The emergent field of “Teacher Education” soon separated itself from the liberal arts by promoting an increasingly technical conception of teaching. New credentialing expectations were established, not through campuswide collaboration, but by specialists who believed educational science could isolate and measure the constituent parts of good teaching. By World War I, semi-autonomous departments of education had effectively replaced the chairs of pedagogy that were once positioned firmly within the arts and sciences.
This history is relevant today and helps explain a century-long cycle of diminished instruction in American education. Without a professional core of teachers who are versed in the humanities and steeped in the great questions of science, schools are especially vulnerable to forces that reduce teaching to a series of discrete measurable acts. Yet the more teaching is dissected, the less attractive the profession becomes for graduates who might otherwise consider it a viable and meaningful career option.
More directly, these reductionist policy trends obscure something that humanists care deeply about -- the enduring beauty of teaching and learning. As one outgoing pedagogy chair lamented in 1900, “the attempt to mechanize instruction is part of the monstrous error that free minds can be coerced; it has really the same root as religious persecution.”
By remaining largely silent for so long, colleges of liberal arts and sciences have contributed to these developments. By pushing big questions about K-12 teaching to the margins and assigning them solely to education specialists, institutions of higher education became complicit in trends that continue to make public education more separate and more unequal.
This silence has had a disproportionately negative impact in poorer urban communities. The type of liberally educated teacher who once commonly taught in economically diverse public schools now migrates toward private institutions or to affluent suburbs. Meanwhile, policies that emphasize vocational “readiness” — at the expense of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking — communicate a dispiriting message of doubt to disadvantaged students who might benefit most from these educational virtues.
This same policy landscape discourages bright, service-minded college graduates from considering teaching as a meaningful lifelong pursuit. Even Teach for America, which has notably placed thousands of teachers in urban classrooms, is increasingly viewed as a steppingstone or worse. Many of its more insightful and talented recruits quickly leave teaching for careers that more readily reward their capacity for independent thought and imagination.
This vocational pattern has drawn far too little attention. And, not coincidentally, a profession that once mitigated inequality now increasingly reflects it.
What can we do to push back against these trends?
First and foremost, professors in the liberal arts need to get back into public school classrooms. Visiting schools and even observing our own former students teaching is not difficult to arrange. Even these modest experiences could profoundly alter our understanding of how much choice, accountability, and testing have shifted the instructional landscape since our own high school days.
Secondly, colleges of the liberal arts need to do more in staking a claim to teacher education and, like our 19th-century predecessors, invite teachers, principals, and superintendents to campus for open conversations about what we all value when hiring teachers.
Third, we can accept that these bridge-building activities can produce expertise and authority. With this new legitimacy -- armed with insight on the ways professional expectations can dehumanize teaching -- we can demand a seat at the table the next time local, state, or federal policy makers meet to make consequential decisions.
Our current ignorance of classroom practice leaves us vulnerable to a powerful media message that repeatedly demeans teachers. Time spent in schools disrupts this narrative and could remind us what masterful teachers continue to do.
They teach for understanding. They encourage and support students with the knowledge that learning can be uneven, contradictory, and even frustrating. They demand deeper thinking, applaud passion, reward accuracy, tap curiosity, and otherwise help students discover the inherent human need to solve problems and experience beauty.
Such noble learning pursuits have long been the domain of the liberal arts and humanities. These fields best reward our creativity, connect us to others, and offer standards for excellence. And they also show us how to handle ambiguity, face disappointment, and recover from failure.
As such, there is a growing understanding that the arts and humanities may offer teachers the most important instruction our children need to address a future only they can imagine.
In this light, we need not agree on whether good teachers are born or made. But if we want committed teachers who ask big questions, model open inquiry, and honor a young person’s mind, college faculty in the liberal arts will need to speak up and properly accept their historical role as teacher educators.
A generation of college students is ready think more holistically about preparatory programs that, like teaching, can be interesting, dynamic, demanding, and meaningful. And they will need a big campus to discover why teaching is, by any good measure, a career worthy of their thinking.
Stephen Mucher teaches history at Bard College and directs the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program in Los Angeles.
the lyf so short, the crafte so long to lerne
--Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Parliament of Fowls”
Let’s begin with the Ivy League-educated Barack Obama: “But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree… I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.” Apparently what was good enough for him is no longer good enough for factory workers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (where he delivered that speech — though, to be fair, he did go on to apologize for the remarks).
And, of course, President Obama is not the only public figure who has the liberal arts in their sights. Governor Patrick McCrory of North Carolina made it clear that if he had his way the State of North Carolina would fund only the sort of education he deemed practical: "If you want to take gender studies that's fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job." His Republican colleague in Florida, Rick Scott, was equally blunt: "If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so." (All quotations are from Inside Higher Ed.)
The liberal arts are taking it on the chin and, since they were on their knees anyway, they have been an easy target. Over and over the voices raised against the liberal arts (and the humanities wing of them in particular) complain that they leave their students ill-prepared for gainful employment; that focusing on the liberal arts prevents students from studying the subjects they and the nation truly need developed; that they are for the idle wealthy (a particularly sharp-edged version of these arguments is available at the blog of the American Enterprise Institute, “Harvard, We Have a Problem: Too Many Liberal Arts Majors”).
Apparently, people have been listening. The evidence has been clear for some years that the liberal arts and especially the humanities side of them are fading from the cultural scene of 21st-century America. One study found that, since 1990, 39 percent of colleges identified as liberal arts colleges have vanished. Another study found that humanities majors now constitute fewer than 10 percent of all college majors in the U.S.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, so why should the liberal arts? “All things must pass,” George Harrison sang all those years ago, and even Shakespeare, that centerpiece of many a liberal arts curriculum, in one of the sonnets that seemed to claim immortality for poetry, recognized that his art is term-limited, concluding his wonderful Sonnet 18 with this couplet qualifying the shelf life of art: “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, / so long lives this and this gives life to thee.” There will come a time, that couplet acknowledges, when no men breathe and there will be no eyes to see. To everything there is a season and perhaps the season of the liberal arts has turned.
So if the liberal arts are sinking into enervated senescence, are passing the way of all the generations, I would like to linger for a few moments looking back over my life to muse on why I have spent the last four decades deep in the liberal arts, that is, on why the liberal arts mattered. Not that my life has been all that interesting (or, at least, not that my life would be interesting to anyone else), but the liberal arts are all that interesting and I would like to gesture toward that interest by way of my experience, as a way to suggest what we may all too soon be missing.
It all really did begin for me in a lecture hall in the old Main Building at New York University, on the east side of Washington Square Park. Dingy, drafty, somewhat grimy, windows smeared with the grease of years of students within and exhaust and smoke without. Wooden seats scarred and discolored and often cracked. The course was “Primitive Oral Heroic Poetry,” and the professor was the late Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. The reading list included Gilgamesh, Homer, The Book of Dede Korkut, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, Bantu warrior poetry and Beowulf. It was the Anglo-Saxon poem that prompted the performance that determined my life. Professor Bessinger had been describing the poetics of the Anglo-Saxon verse and especially the power of the alliteration that is a central feature of that verse, when he paused in his lecture to dwell on the strength of the linked words, to suggest to us that alliteration could still be a powerful tool in the hands of a master poet. And he proceeded to recite, to intone really, from memory a section of Tennyson’s In Memoriam that concludes with a particularly thrilling use of alliteration:
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasped no more —
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
Bessinger had a magnificent deep baritone and he spoke those lines as if they were coming from the center of his being — modulating and pausing and letting the emotional sense of the words linger out the vowels across the metronomic pressure of the metric pulse, coming to those last consonants with a devastating finality that rendered perfectly the desolation Tennyson’s words evoke.
At that moment I determined that I wanted that experience, that I wanted to live in words so deeply that they would become so a part of me that I could summon them immediately and without premeditation. I wanted to know a poem so well that it would be with me whenever I wanted or needed it. And it was precisely because those words of Tennyson’s in the voice of Bessinger so feelingly captured the experience of grief — the world going on outside the grieving consciousness of the bereft does seem “ghastly” — those words so beautifully rendered the individual experience and thereby provided a kind of general access that any and all could share, that those words did that much was what I intuited, what I felt in my marrow, at that moment in the silence of the stunned classroom (at least in my memory all of us sitting in that faded lecture hall shared the sense of awe in the presence of a poem coming to life in the air). Although I had not yet experienced the sort of grief out of which Tennyson’s poem grew, I knew then that it had a shape and a sound and that when that sort of grief did descend on me I would recognize it.
I had been infatuated with certain poems before, mostly poetry I had seen mentioned by my heroes (the Beatles and Bob Dylan particularly): Ginsberg, Whitman, Blake were the main ones. And late in Richard Nixon’s first term I came across “The Hollow Men” and thought it spoke directly to the world being mangled in plain view. But Bessinger’s summoning of the spirit of Tennyson’s poem in the mingled air of that Main Building lecture hall determined for me the course of my life, determined that for the next 40 years (and, no doubt, for the years remaining to me and my memory and mind), poetry, stories, plays — Literature (with the upper-case to designate my reverence for "the best words in the best order") would be the central obsession of my consciousness.
So what has this obsession given me? I am not wealthy, though my family and I live far better than most of the people with whom we share the planet. But wealth was never my object. All the bromides that are generally marshaled on behalf of the liberal arts clamor for attention here. Critical thinking; tolerance; flexibility of mind; problem-solving; and the rest of them that sound so vacuous up against the voices we heard at the beginning of this essay. Yes, I suppose, I do think more critically than I would have had I never taken English and philosophy and political science and psychology … all those classes that constituted my undergraduate liberal arts education. I am certainly more aware and tolerant of differing views. I am certainly more aware of different cultures and different times and places and peoples from the people, places and times among which I have lived. And it must be admitted that whatever critical thinking and tolerance and recognition I have been able to practice have been practiced, have been honed, have become habitual to my way of being and those habits were planted in those long-ago classrooms on the edge of Washington Square Park.
But those habits aren’t why I have remained immersed in the world of words and ideas. And those habits, thankful as I am to have them, are not what kept me in those classrooms in the first place and are not what have kept me in their long, long stretching, encompassing aura since. The real reason is pleasure. The pleasure of having my mind tickled into action by the vibrations of words sprung into patterns “where more is meant than meets the ear.” The pleasure of having within my reach congeries of words that render a life, that render living, more completely and more profoundly and more compassionately than hours of my groping for my own formulations could ever hope to achieve. I can’t tell you how often, confronted by a student, a colleague, an adult acquaintance whose ways of being in the world have clearly been marred by something in the past, how often in such moments Larkin’s supremely packed line has come to mind: "an only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never." I’m not sure how English speakers have managed for all the centuries of our language without that line.
Unaware of what President Obama would discourage years later, I did take an art history class once. After four decades I’m not sure how much I remember beyond a detail here and there. Our textbook was Gardner’s — or was it Hansen? It was red and large (as large as the Riverside Shakespeare that I also had to haul around that semester — that I do remember). Did I learn critical thinking in that class? Among the defenses mounted on behalf of art history in response to Obama’s dismissal was the usual: Art history teaches critical thinking. Among the details I do remember from that course is that I learned how to look at paintings from the 15th century, one painting in particular. That course taught me really to see Bellini’s "San Francisco nel deserto." And I was fortunate that I lived in the city where the Frick sits and so Bellini’s painting was available in all its magnificence whenever I could make my way to the Upper West Side (with a student ID, the suggested entrance fee was minimal if not waived).
I learned that beyond the shimmering magic of the light and shade and nuances of light and shade Bellini deploys across the canvas, and beyond the minute detail of the natural world surrounding the enraptured saint, beyond or really within all of that splendor the painting speaks in a series of languages that course taught me to hear, as it were. The rabbit poking its head out of the lower corner of the canvas, the donkey standing patiently, the long-legged shore bird, the cracked rock, all of these perfectly captured natural objects carry meaning in a register beyond the surface register of accurate detail. And that course taught me to look for those kinds of meaning. That course deepened my experience of that painting and, as a consequence, of all painting.
This is, I suppose, critical thinking. Once you begin to see linear and atmospheric perspective and chiaroscuro and all the technical arsenal whose names I’ve forgotten but whose presence I’ll never forget … once you learn to see you can look and see a great deal more than what immediately meets the eye. If that is what the art historians mean by critical thinking, they should declare it. Because it is valuable precisely because it deepens one’s pleasure in the world we share. And that is what the liberal arts do. They are life-affirming, life-enriching, indeed, life-enabling forms of human engagement with the world (in addition, of course, to their indispensable value as preparation for any number of successful career tracks). Especially at this time in the history of our culture, we must champion the liberal arts as modes of being, really, in the world that have the power to transform those who are fortunate enough to experience them into more articulate, more thoughtful, more comprehensively human citizens. The liberal arts provide an education for life.
I don’t think I’m just being idiosyncratically pessimistic to worry about the future of the liberal arts in our culture. And I find myself, as this worry settles itself in my mind, looking back. I have spent what I consider to be many profitable hours reading over the lectures and notes of Thomas Frederick Crane (first professor of romance languages and first dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University, where I work), particularly those thoughts of his he committed to paper concerning the college he helped found. And among the aspects of Crane’s reflections I would hope to carry forward into the uncertain future spreading before us are those virtues, values, habits of mind … whatever we call them … those qualities of a liberal arts education I think have been at the core. Perhaps others would name them differently, but here is what I name them: curiosity, generosity, diligence, care, patience — above all, patience. Patience is what Crane meant when he said that a liberal arts education is “a process that for better or for worse will continue as long as our lives, and any scheme of collegiate education will be a dismal failure which does not implant the seeds of later fruitage.”
As I was working on this, I finished rereading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Rereading it constitutes one of the great reading experiences of my life. Beyond its own nearly unfathomable wonder, reading it in the context of writing this and of what this essay gestures toward in the world around us has given the novel an added poignancy for me. It is a novel whose central actions, if actions they can be called, are two: some 390 pages into the novel, a woman, the lady of the title, notices another woman and man in a room, not doing anything, just in the room and the composition the man and the woman make in how they sit and stand carries a profound meaning for the observing woman. Later that woman, goaded into thought by her observation of the other woman and man, will spend an entire night and James will spend an entire chapter describing her night and all she does through that night is to sit in a room thinking while the candles gutter toward dawn, “she leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes; and for a long time, far into the night and still further, she sat in the still drawing-room, given up to her meditation."
That is from the third sentence of the chapter and she does not move from that chair for another 13 pages. Would any novelist, any writer, any film-maker or television producer, would any artist now venture to devote a substantial portion of her or his work to a woman sitting still and thinking? Would any such artist have that prolonged session of sweet, silent thought count as the central action of her work? For that matter, would any of us actually sit in a room in stillness and silence and darkness for hours on end given up to the wandering meditation of our minds? James is thought of as a novelist who adheres to reality, but is such a reality possible for us?
The qualities of the liberally educated that T. F. Crane believed in and that the education he helped create here at Cornell inculcate were, above all, qualities of curiosity and patience, circumspection and attention, what I gather some now call mindfulness, a useful word in my taking of it to mean: having your mind at full play in its engagement with the world. No form of education yet devised is better at bringing the mind to the fullness of its capacities than the education offered in the liberal arts. Without the patience instilled by immersing oneself in the mind-stretching range of the liberal arts, we are reduced to jittering appendages to the plastic devices in our hands, dried leaves scattering to the whims of market and fashion, addicts to money and status and consumption. Without the liberal arts how will we ever in our information saturated and buzzing stimulated overloaded reality actually sit still long enough to hear our own minds at work?
David N. DeVries is associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University.
Some will immediately say this is nothing more than a semantics debate. No different than if we were discussing the contrasting meanings of, say, “soda” and “pop.”
When we use the word “pedagogy” as a catchall for all teaching methods, of course, no one is talking about little children, but we rarely stop and specifically consider what this word means and its relationship with other words.
Pedagogy: the methods and practice of teaching children.
Andragogy: the methods and practice of teaching adults.
So the question becomes: at what point is a student no longer a child, but an adult? There is no hard-and-fast rule, but for our purposes here, any college student is an adult.
Andragogy, a concept dating to the 1960s and Malcolm Knowles, is important because it recognizes that adult learners are different and that these differences are extremely important. And its importance, as a body of knowledge and approach in and of itself, is profound and vastly under-recognized.
Andragogy -- adult learning theory -- stresses that adults:
Are more independent than children when it comes to learning.
Are capable of critical thinking (unlike some children) but are still interested in the “correct answer."
Learn more slowly but just as effectively because they have more life experience and deeply ingrained stereotypes and ideas.
Must be given respect as adults and for their life experience or lack of experience.
Need classrooms that embrace active learning, including hands-on activities.
Learn material that is relevant for their needs.
Are driven less by grades (performance goal orientation) and more by understanding (mastery goal orientation).
Going back to the question of when students become adults, in some ways it does not matter per se. All learners learn best when many of the core elements of andragogy are followed. All students — whether 5, 15 or 55 — deserve respect, need room for their prior experiences, and need lessons to be relevant. That said, the idea of andragogy exists on a sliding spectrum of sorts. Whether a student is 18 or 85, he/she will enter the classroom with experience, for example, but this experience will vary based on age, interests, background, etc.
This is also where some understanding of basic human growth and development theories (e.g., Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, Piaget’s stages of cognitive development) can help professors build classrooms that are comfortable across the board. Students in their 30s will tend to have very different biologically driven needs, hopes, and fears than students in their 60s.
When students are not allowed opportunities for their feelings, especially about particularly sensitive topics or topics to which they have been vastly miseducated or undereducated, learning stops. (Please see my comments about the trigger warning or objectionable material warning and student feelings here.) Additionally, we know that for learners of any age it is very hard, even physiologically impossible without extreme dedication, to “unlearn” what have been “core truths,” whether the topic is basic physics or the causes of the Civil War.
This said, pedagogy is still important because children do learn differently and have different needs. Most notably, children need some more guidance. Likewise, children — depending on their age and experience (back to the sliding spectrum) — are physiologically not always capable of performing advanced math or demonstrating critical thinking. This is not at all to sanction the “banking method” — where teachers only lecture, metaphorically dumping information into students’ brains and then students regurgitate that information verbatim on assessments — of education that has sometimes been all too common: Active learning and student-centered learning is always best.
One note on learning styles, too: adults do tend to think they have a learning style — visual, kinesthetic, auditory — that enables them to learn more effectively. While I have read much more about andragogy than learning styles, there is some research that suggests learning styles are actually a myth. They have relevance because we give them relevance, but actually it is roughly equally possible for learning to happen visually or kinesthetically, for example, and furthermore, that ALL learners learn best when all learning styles are used. Going back to Bloom’s Taxonomy: learning that involves interactive thinking, hearing, reading, writing, touching, and creating results in the most effective learning, and naturally, much of this will requires independent learning and initiative by an adult student.
Even if we recognize that adults learn differently from children, by using the umbrella term “pedagogy” for both, we unconsciously tend to view adult learners as “children” who need to be taught by the “expert,” and we miss an entire body of knowledge and research about effectively teaching. I know some professors do not like the idea of being taught how to teach — they say it sounds too much like the training required to teach K-12. I too was somewhat like this when I first started teaching college in 2007.
But, as professors in the classroom, our ultimate goal should be for our adult students to learn, and for learning to occur, we should always be aware of how to teach effectively and stay reasonably up-to-date on findings as they develop.
For further information on andragogy check out this website; Malcolm S. Knowles’s The Adult Learner (now in its seventh edition); and Sharan B. Merriam, et al.’s, Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide.
Andrew Joseph Pegoda is completing his Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston, where he also teaches. He studies race, culture, human rights, and education. He regularly blogs here.
In order for colleges to function as inclusive communities of responsible and respected members, all of their adults must be treated as adults. Yet, many of my faculty colleagues habitually call their undergraduates “kids” by default. They should stop. In addition to usually being false, it is demeaning and it tacitly encourages the immature behaviors we all bemoan.
When undergraduates begin college they immediately receive warnings that high school is over and that they will now be held to adult standards of conduct. Meanwhile, hallways are filled with faculty and students talking about which of their classes have especially “good kids,” “quiet kids” or “lazy kids.” In our speech, undergraduates are demoted back to children — they are infantilized. The resulting mixed messages would confuse anyone. Undergraduates are held to high behavioral standards (“I have zero tolerance for accidental plagiarism. A college student should know better.”). At the same time, they are spoken of as children (“The kid who plagiarized in my class is asking for leniency.”).
In my state and most of the U.S., we formally recognize 18-year-olds’ right to make autonomous choices while also being held accountable for a full set of societal responsibilities. Eighteen-year-old men and women begin college having recently earned the right to sign contracts and take full responsibility for the consequences; those who are U.S. citizens have recently earned the right to vote and the duty to serve as jurors; most of the men have completed their mandatory registration for Selective Service in case a military draft is ever reinstated. These men and women who are undergraduates live with the adult consequences of their adult rights and responsibilities when they get tattoos, decide whether to seek mental health treatment, get married, sign up for credit cards and so on.
What about those still-developing young adult brains? In contrast to the rigid law, developmental psychology research paints a complex picture of how traits gradually develop over time, with features such as “psychosocial maturity” varying substantially from person to person within an age group. Appealing to the developmental psychology literature will not justify the decision to walk into a lecture hall filled with young adults one scarcely knows, each at variable stages of development for a wide array of psychological and behavioral traits, and say, “Quiet down, kids!”
By publicly referring to undergraduates as “kids,” faculty members unwittingly invite childish behaviors. Kids ask their parents to call the instructor about a bad grade. Kids whine that they were not reminded about the homework that was due. Kids giggle when a peer shares an embarrassing personal story during class. Kids make inappropriate jokes to get a laugh from the room. These behaviors then become perceived justifications for continuing to see undergraduates as kids. The vicious cycle perpetuates the behaviors that faculty members wish to prevent. You’ll have to take my word for it, but my undergraduate students do none those childish behaviors. They act like the adults they are. I contend that the key to achieving this is the radically intuitive strategy of treating them like adults.
If there is one thing I have learned from teaching controversial philosophical subjects (e.g., the ethics of health care policy) to undergraduates, it is that a good classroom environment is the product of an explicit and consistently applied ethos. On the first day of class I tell my students that I will treat everyone in the room as adults whose contributions are valued, and that I expect them to do the same. They are not allowed to use the words “kid,” “idiot,” “bleeding heart,” or any other disparaging language to describe each other, as this is incompatible with a classroom that is inclusive of its diverse members. In a recent course evaluation from a senior seminar, a student expressed gratitude that I did not treat the class members as “inferiors.” It upsets me that such a thing bears mentioning. A roughly 22-year-old man or woman was so accustomed to being treated as a child or a second-class citizen that he or she felt obliged to mention it when treated otherwise.
Thinking of and speaking of undergraduates as “kids” can manifest in class policies ill-suited for adults. Perhaps the clearest examples of this are some of the faculty responses to poor undergraduate behavior. There is undeniable appeal in some of my colleagues’ approaches, such as publicly shaming students caught looking at Facebook in class or confiscating any cell phones used for texting during a lecture. However tempting it might be, this is not appropriate behavior between two adults. This is how an adult treats a kid.
If a dean did such things to faculty members during meetings then he or she would rightly be called a tyrant (and would likely have a large collection of cell phones). Strategies responding to an adult’s childish behavior must work within a framework of adult-adult interaction. If students use their cell phones in class then the instructor can easily initiate a brief classwide conversation about the classroom policies and penalties, as well as the reasons for them. An instructor can also speak candidly and politely with an individual student after class ends about any violated policies.
Every adult has moments of childish behavior. It is one thing to criticize an individual adult for a specific childish behavior, but quite another thing to indiscriminately call a whole group of adults “kids.” There are indeed cases where it might be appropriate to refer to an individual student as a “kid” or “child,” much like it occasionally might be appropriate to refer to an individual student as a “jerk.” Faculty members need to privately grumble and blow off steam just like anyone else — call it the Happy Hour Exemption. This does not make it acceptable to use “kid” (or “jerk”) as one’s default term for undergraduates. Even when used as a term of endearment, “kid” still devalues undergraduates as autonomous agents. It is no more appropriate than saying “good boy” to a graduate student who wrote a strong paper, or describing a junior faculty member as a “nice girl.”
Whether they grew up listening to the Everly Brothers or the Jonas Brothers, adults deserve to be spoken of and treated as respected and accountable human beings. Many undergraduates are new adults, and unsurprisingly most are not yet very good at acting like adults. This does not excuse faculty members who casually refer to these men and women as “kids.” In anything, the infantilizing language sends the misleading message that undergraduates are permitted to act like children. Unfortunately, the undergraduate-as-kid mindset is deeply ingrained in campus culture, making change difficult. We even have the audacity to reserve the term “adult learners” for undergraduates over the age of 25. This status quo is unacceptable. The adult men and women in our undergraduate courses deserve better.
Sean A. Valles is assistant professor in the Lyman Briggs College and department of philosophy at Michigan State University.