As we begin what will surely be the strangest fall semester in memory, I’ve been thinking about what faculty members can expect when we return to the classroom. I don’t mean whether we’ll be teaching online or in person, but whether the central relationship between instructor and student will be different.
I think it will — and that difference will have everything to do with how our students now view authority after this long, strange, tortuous American summer.
Call it “The Summer of Not My Problem.” The past few months have seen a rapid acceleration of a truly worrying phenomenon: American “leaders” at the federal, state, and local levels washing their hands of responsibility and passing the buck — whether for Covid-19, for racial equity, for violent treatment of peaceful protesters. Closer to home, college administrators — instead of seizing the opportunity this summer to protect students and provide effective online pedagogy — spent countless hours (not to mention dollars) devising strategies for a return to campus that often seemed more like “hygiene theater” meant to raise tuition revenue than anything that would keep students safe.
In short, it’s been a summer of authority without leadership, of nobody at the wheel, of the American experiment being left to run off the road without so much as a guardrail.
Which is why your students may well be different this fall. Some may be newly awakened to societal injustices and more attuned to privilege and racism. Some may be disillusioned with a country that has admitted it can’t — or won’t — take steps to keep its people safe. But more to the point, some students are going to be less tolerant of hot air from people in power. They’re not going to defer to authority simply because it is authority. They’re going to question anyone in a leadership role, whether that person is an elected representative, a parent, a college president — or a professor.
We’ve already seen evidence of that shift. Black students — including Ivy Leaguers, football players, and writing students at a public university — have created informal movements this summer to change longstanding campus practices. They have seized this exceptional moment to hold their institutional leaders to account, and, in many cases, have already met with some success. Uniting such efforts is a refusal to defer to authority.
What does that mean for you as a college instructor?
Be prepared for students to raise questions when you assign them work without an explanation of why it’s important — the “because I said so” school of pedagogy is not going to cut it. You may have to spend more time than usual winning their trust. Assuming that you have it from the get-go will lead only to problems down the line.
How do you win their trust? Show them, from the very first class meeting, that you are working for their interests. Show them that you’ve crafted every aspect of the course specifically because you think it will help them achieve their goals. Don’t assume they see the connection between your course and their future. Show them.
Here are three basic steps you can take to show students they can trust you and to back up your institutionally granted authority with evidence of real leadership.
Let your syllabus be driven by learning goals, rather than coverage. Many instructors still design their course syllabi based on the traditional notion of “coverage” — that is, the professor’s sense that covering a certain set of material is necessary in order to have “done” the subject. But when your course is guided by learning goals — what you want students to achieve, rather than what you think is interesting or even important — students are far more likely to come along for the ride.
How you introduce and describe your course — on the first day of class and on the syllabus — is the first indication students get about what kind of experience they can expect. Come up with four or five major goals — fundamental objectives that you hope students will be able to accomplish by the end of the semester, and let those goals determine how you do the things you do in your course.
Just as important, explicitly link each aspect of the course to your stated goals. For example, when you introduce the big research paper they’ll spend the semester writing, remind students that developing information literacy is one of the course’s core goals. That way, they’ll better understand why you’re asking them to spend so much time vetting sources.
Leave students in no doubt that you’ve created the course for them, to help them learn. Don’t make them guess why you’ve structured it as you have, why you’re asking them to complete assignments, or why parts of the course are as important as you think they are. Make the case for your approach, and show students they have good reason to expect a valuable educational experience.
Don’t stop at your goals; ask for their goals. Students will have their own reasons for taking your course and their own objectives they hope to accomplish by the end of the semester. On the first day of class, I often ask my students to write a page outlining their course goals: what they hope to achieve and what would make the class valuable for them.
Education researchers call that a “goal-setting intervention,” and it’s been shown to increase academic performance and even lead to more equitable academic outcomes. It also can help signal to students that their own goals are important and that the course belongs to them as much as it does to you. If you know what they want out of your course, you can help them achieve it.
Devote some class time to cultivate mutual trust. Find time in the early class sessions to do some community-building — easy activities and exercises that allow students to share who they are and what they are after, and for them to get to know you and your interests and goals. Take that course-goals assignment, and turn it into a class discussion. Ask students about their previous experiences with the course subject. Allow time in class for the personal and the academic to intersect for your students, and look for opportunities to demonstrate that the course will be relevant and valuable to them.
Now is also a good time to analyze your syllabus. Is it compelling, or does it read like a set of legalistic requirements and prohibitions? If you want to convince students you’re working for them, begin by revising your syllabus so it doesn’t sound as if they must submit or face punishment.
But don’t stop at the syllabus. Relationships of the kind that you hope to have with students do not come into being automatically. They’re built. Those relationships happen more naturally in face-to-face teaching, but they can be built in a virtual classroom, too. There’s no shortcut to this work, no magic turn of phrase you can put on your syllabus that will win students over on the first day. Put in the time, and show them you can be trusted.
I cannot tell the future, and I’m not much for predictions. But it feels like a safe bet to say that, if the first eight months of 2020 are any indication, the final third of the year will bring us more unpleasant surprises. If ever there was a time to commit to equitable teaching practices, to make an effort to work with students rather than demand they work for you, and to abandon the adversarial role of class “cop,” now is that time.