What Was I Thinking?

In Part II of her series on a president returning to the classroom, Karen Gross offers early reflections on faculty roles and rewards, viral communication, and creating critical thinkers.

March 16, 2009

Note: This is the second in a three-part series on a college president returning to the classroom.


It seemed like a very good idea: re-enter the classroom to remember what education is truly about, to test out some of my hypotheses about our students and to assimilate new ways to provide them with the best educational experience possible. How hard could it be, I surmised.

Very hard is the answer. Much harder than I thought.

When the first installment of this series appeared, some readers commented that teaching takes time -- both actual time (in and out of the classroom) and psychic time. Presidents have busy schedules, with lots of travel and multiple commitments off campus. The current economic situation has heightened the presidential burdens. Just getting updated on the stimulus package and recent amendments to the Higher Education Act is almost a full-time job.

Despite my best efforts to stay ahead of the students and complete the reading and class preparation well in advance, I find it a challenge. I prepare later than I would like (sometimes the night before, or even the day of, class). Before I actually prepare, I am concerned about my impending lack of preparation!

As if the pre-class anxiety were not enough, I have post-class anxiety when I self-reflect on what I could have done better. I blame my lack of preparation for some of the defects I observe in the course, although to be fair, when I was a full-time academic, I assumed similar blame when I had plenty of preparation time. My wonderful husband assures me that whatever I may be sensing in the classroom, the students are still getting a valuable educational experience. SVC’s provost and a department chair, both of whom sat in on one class, agreed.

Despite the challenges, I have learned a great deal thus far. Indeed, in some respects, I have learned more than I anticipated. Some concrete examples:

Student Interaction and Viral Benefits

I knew that, through teaching, I would get to know students in a different way. I now get e-mails from students regarding assignments, as well as occasional visits and hallway chats; nothing novel here but I like the interaction. The retired college president Roger Martin, who recently lectured on the Southern Vermont campus, expressed that one of the joys he had when he enrolled as a first year student on another campus was the opportunity to connect with students – something he had missed as a president. (Martin’s book, Racing Odysseus, is well worth reading.)

What I underestimated were the viral benefits of my teaching: my students talking about the class, “Leadership and the Role of Gender” to other students and to faculty.

In the short span of time since the semester started, people are chatting about my course, particularly some of the “out-of-the-box” exercises we do during class. One exercise involved giving each student a small, battery-operated flashlight at the end of a discussion on different approaches to problem solving.

They were then assigned to work in groups using the flashlight to demonstrate what we had covered in class.

Some students took the flashlights apart and built models of thinking. Another group drew different designs to demonstrate problem-solving strategies by tracing the flashlight. Two groups could not figure out what to do with the flashlight. After discussing what the groups did (or did not do), I shut off the lights (this is an evening class) and all students immediately turned on their flashlights. I could then make the point that, with a common object (a flashlight) in a well-know setting (darkness), we know what to do with the flashlight. But take a familiar object and use it in an unfamiliar place – and the assignment is more difficult. As leaders, I observed, we need to take known skills (hopefully honed in college) and apply them to new, as distinguished from common, situations – and therein rests the skills of true leaders. Across the campus, a wide range of people had heard about the flashlight exercise.

The flashlights had shed light – literally and figuratively.

Faculty Realities Learned First Hand

Through teaching, I have observed some of our internal collegiate processes at work. Some of what we do, well-intentioned to be sure, is hard on faculty. For example: we ask for communication between professors and the athletic department as a way of giving coaches a sense of how all our student-athletes are doing in their classes. This is done via email with an attached form that must be completed and returned to the athletic adviser. When I received the form for a student in my class, I thought about the professors who get many of these forms. (To be honest, I took advantage of my position and had my assistant complete the details after I gave her the basic information.) There is no way a president can appreciate processes in this way, were he or she not teaching.

I had an epiphany recently about faculty adoption of service learning initiatives in the classroom. I appreciate the importance of linking student classroom learning to the larger community; such connections enhance the educative experience on a number of levels and provide an important message about giving back. Yet, six weeks in, I realized I had not formally integrated a service learning component into my own class!

I became poignantly aware of the omission at a service learning conference at which I was giving the keynote address, and an attendee observed that part of the difficulty of service learning is convincing faculty to employ it in their classroom. What benefit there would be, she observed, if there were clear signaling from the top.

This was one of those “yipes” moments when I realized I had missed the opportunity to model an educative approach within my own class. Initially, I decided to remedy that defect immediately. But, as our wise provost observed, a service learning component is not precisely that kind of thing that one just adds into the mix after the fact; it requires much more thought. That said, I am adding a piece to the course this semester where the class and I will take our lessons on leadership into the larger community -- sharing our strategies with some local women’s organizations. Lesson learned: making service learning a true piece of the curriculum requires more than just passive endorsement. It requires not just “talking the talk but walking the walk.”

Meeting the Challenges of Creating Critical Thinkers

Perhaps the biggest insights I have had revolve around how to improve our students’ critical thinking skills. Many people, within our institution and elsewhere, lament that college students are not well prepared, suggesting that they do not have sufficient reading comprehension and analytic skills. It is easy for us to blame this on a lack of preparation in high school. The old saw goes something like: “I teach the material; they just don’t learn it.”

I believe that there is no real purpose in blaming high schools (unless one is planning to return to a high school setting and seek reform there.) Instead, we need to find better ways to teach today’s students.

Until I started teaching this semester, my experience for the past two decades was limited to graduate education. Based on my experience with undergraduates so far, though, I am more firmly convinced that students can develop critical thinking skills.

Finding strategies for enabling students to delve deeper is not easy. It calls for determining, often creatively, how to communicate and share material. I have already tried several strategies, mostly drawn from legal education; some have worked better than others.

In a recent exercise I call “myth rebutting,” students proffered answers to questions that call for data (usually guessing) and then I proffered the actual answers. We then discussed the disparities between what they perceived and reality, probing the rationale (plentiful) for the gaps. In this instance, we discussed why the data revealed such a low number of women leading Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 100 companies, non-profit organizations, and colleges and universities.

What we did next was “call the question,” writing a paragraph, individually and collectively, that sought to provide nuanced and multifaceted answers to why the data were what they were and why the student perceptions failed to mimic reality. What emerged was an approach – a structure – for responding thoughtfully to questions, an approach to thinking more deeply about issues.

We made real progress, and we’ll keep working at it.

I could go on sharing more of the more plentiful lessons learned but it is time to stop writing and prepare for class. Once again, I am not yet prepared.


Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.


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