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Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground

My relationship to my profession—teaching comparative literature, religious studies and philosophy at an elite liberal arts college, DePauw University—is ambivalent. I adore my students, I adore teaching, but I can’t shake the feeling that the kind of institution I’m teaching in perpetuates an enormously broken and unjust system.  I can’t shake the feeling that, for all the talk of “student-centeredness” in higher education, our students are given relatively little attention with regard to how their learning relates to them.  I can’t shake the feeling that it’s still a top-down system that prevails in the midst of all this talk.  And I can’t shake the feeling that, if only we as educators would collectively imagine new possibilities for what a classroom could look like, from the moment a child enters kindergarten and continuing through college, we could reverse the course of this injustice and start to repair the brokenness.  We can imagine a model that thoroughly and energetically disrupts the top-down, that really does place students at the center of the learning process.

In my head, this is not a re-imagining that costs a lot of money.  In fact, it costs very little.  The main investment is substantial, though, if entirely human: it begins with a basic love and respect for students and their minds, a basic sense that students want to learn, want to hold themselves to their own high expectations, a belief that students themselves hold the tools for their own learning, and a conviction that teaching is about bringing out the best that is inside of them.  

Kumbaya, right?  But think about it. How many classrooms have you yourself experienced that operated on these principles?  How many times, as a student, did you walk into a classroom and feel completely at ease and supported in expressing yourself?  How many times did you feel connected to and in control of your own learning?  How many times were you truly excited and energized by the things you were learning in your classes? How many times was the love of learning—not just for its own sake, but because the learning mattered—intentionally placed at the center of your educational experience?

My own memories of school, from start to finish, are laden with anxiety and a good bit of dread, the feeling of being dwarfed by a mammoth and impersonal system.  I do not remember having the room and space to discover, to really explore, the real-world implications and consequences of the material we were covering. I don’t remember being encouraged to try out new ways of thinking or to create something entirely new. I remember, instead, the persistent command (both explicit and implicit) to fit my thoughts into a set of existing categories, and the feeling of falling short when none of those categories quite captured what I was thinking. I remember, with few exceptions, the classroom feeling like a punitive space—a space where there were wrong answers and where those wrong answers meant losing access to tangible rewards and to a host of intangibles, not least of which was the teacher’s admiration. Pink Floyd’s faceless-students-in-the-meat-grinder, anyone?  That’s a little how it felt, minus the British accent.

Of course, there have been teachers in my life who have had an extraordinary impact on me and to whom I am deeply grateful for the ways they guided me and helped to shape my path. I suppose I’ve stayed in school my entire life, despite the psychological and near-physical discomfort of the thing, because of these teachers who managed to bring color and flourish to what otherwise felt like an unwelcoming space.  The teachers who were able to communicate their joy of their subject matter and their confidence that this subject matter was necessary for a life well lived. And more than that, the ones who were able to cut through the noise of a system that poses so many barriers for the teachers who want nothing more than to make an impact, the ones who weren’t beaten down and just going through the motions. Those teachers inspired and inspire me, and I feel an obligation to them to call attention to the brokenness of a system that they (in hindsight, heroically) were able to navigate, but should not have had to.


This isn’t meant to be an expose, but I think it’s important to acknowledge at the outset that many of the strategies you will see outlined here contributed to an extremely painful and disillusioning reckoning with my institution and profession, and that many of the reflections are in direct response to that reckoning.  In 2013, I came up for promotion to full professor to find myself caught in a maelstrom of unanticipated defensiveness and outright hostility to my student-centered teaching practices. There were many things said, but the two that have stuck with me most forcefully were the accusations that I am “too student-centered” in my teaching and that I “suffer from the false consciousness that [I] am on the same level as [my] students.” I have wrestled with what these accusations mean for the role my colleagues expect me to fulfil, what they mean concerning the reigning perception of what we—as professors—are here for, what they reveal about faculty perceptions of our students’ value.  It worked out in the end, after a very long and sordid mess (if by worked out, I mean I got promoted), but I have essentially been in a kind of exile ever since.  Since the fiasco, I have doubled down on these student-centered practices, honing and revising them in response to student feedback and to my own sense of what can work better.  I have found with each passing semester that these practices have reenergized my classes and have led to student work that is of the highest quality that I have seen in twenty-seven years of teaching:  work that is engaged, relevant, deeply connected to the source material and entirely driven by students’ passions and life pursuits.  My classes feel more meaningful, the sense of community more vibrant, our collective understanding of the material more profound.

But I don’t really want to be in exile.  I believe strongly that the kind of teaching that I practice and that I advocate for is a collective endeavor.  I believe that the liberal arts model can be well-suited as a site for the kind of repair I’m talking about:  at its heart is the key value of interdisciplinarity, the pursuit of making connections across fields of knowledge, the assumption that a given subject is enriched and deepened through multiple lenses and perspectives. This basic approach aligns (or can and should align, in my view) philosophically with the so-called “Four C’s,” (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication), a buzz-term in educational practices, to be sure, but also a deeply useful prescription for learning in the 21st century and call to action to the ivory tower to become relevant.

There are many stories like mine in higher education, unfortunately, but these stories of institutional resistance to student-centered learning stand in sharp contrast to the work of national organizations like the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and The Futures Initiative, organizations that are dedicated to interrogating institutional barriers to access and justice and to promoting learning environments that place the lived experience of students at the center of the learning process. The AAC&U describes liberal education (to be distinguished from liberal arts education, which can be a vehicle for this kind of learning but places more emphasis on specific disciplines) in this way:

"Liberal education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change.  It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.  A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility as well as transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings."

The AAC&U goes on to describe the what, how, and where of 21st Century liberal education, as it has evolved from the 20th Century:

What:  intellectual and personal development; a necessity for all students; essential for success in a global economy and for informed citizenship

How:  through studies that emphasize the essential learning outcomes across the entire educational continuum—from school through college—at progressively higher levels of achievement

Where:  all schools, community colleges, colleges and universities, as well as across all fields of study

AAC&U’s description is couched in terms of recommendations; it is aspirational, a vision for a learning model that has transitioned from its prior incarnation as one that served as “an option for the fortunate,” “viewed as non-vocational” and limited to “liberal arts colleges or colleges of arts and sciences in larger institutions” to “a necessity for all students” and “essential for success in a global economy.” I share this vision and aspirational sense, the sense that there is nothing given or eternal about educational models, this sense that, to be most effective and meaningful, these models need to evolve and adapt. The key shift marking this evolution is the recognition that liberal education should be available to all students, and that the essential learning outcomes (really, habits of mind) are cultivated “across the entire educational curriculum.”

It’s this piece, recognizing the continuum between primary and secondary education and higher education, that resonates perhaps most strongly with me, as a teacher’s kid and as an educator who has always approached my own college classroom more like a primary or secondary school teacher than a professor, or perhaps better, who has always approached my own students as kids who have never lost the joy of learning.  My task has always been, in my view, to do whatever I can to spark and hold my students’ interest, to get them to feel connected to the subject matter (and I’m the first to admit that the way I embrace this task often looks downright kooky to some of my more stoic colleagues). I am an avid proponent of the premise that learning should be fun, that it should be challenging, always be pulling us this way and that, demanding its own shape and taking us places we didn’t expect to go.   There isn’t much room for this kind of learning in the midst of the high-stakes testing culture that has accosted our public schools and of which many of our students are products. Many of our students have persisted through a system that privileges test scores and that increasingly pushes them earlier and earlier into “college and career readiness,” prescribing outcomes for productivity and a set of values that the students may not have identified as valuable for themselves.  A system that prizes conformity over creativity and that views students as datapoints and cogs in a wheel, that makes students second-guess their own assumptions and does little to actively connect the material to their lives, that too often reiterates a power structure with an all-knowing gatekeeper at the helm, crafting knowledge as something that is bestowed and dictating the specific ways this knowledge is parceled out and tested.  A system that regards wonder, curiosity, creativity, innovation as somehow secondary to learning, when these are precisely the drivers of learning.

Cue Pink Floyd, again. 

The good news is that our students are remarkably resilient and resistant to these attempts on the part of the high-stakes testing culture to beat the intuition and joy of learning out of them.  Our students retain their curiosity, wonder and creativity despite the persistent, systemic, message that their worth can be quantified.  Despite this, they come to us with a cheerfulness and a hunger to make their learning meaningful, to make a difference in the world.  And we owe it to them to fashion a system in which they can thrive, not despite but because of the intentional structures we put into place to nurture this hunger.

In 2010, a friend, knowing how deeply my hero worship extends to Dave Eggers, directed me to his TED Wish, “Once Upon a School.”  In his talk, Dave takes his audience through his journey to establish 826 Valencia (the pilot organization that gave way to 826 National, the stated goal of which is “to encourage the exploration of endless possibility through the power of writing”).  826, as he describes it, was spurred on by his desire to bring his writer friends and teacher friends together into a mutually enriching space for kids, and in response to the persistent refrain from his teacher friends that what kids most need, and the thing that the high-stakes testing culture most prohibits, is one-on-one attention, the chance to be heard.  At the end of the talk, Dave announces his wish:

“I wish that you—you personally and every creative individual and organization you know—will find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area and that you’ll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of transformative partnerships and profound leaps forward.” 

I heard this wish precisely when I most needed to hear it, when I was struggling to understand the profound disconnect between my institution and the county in which I live, to come to terms with the stakes of “town-gown” dynamics, the obligations that a wealthy institution of higher learning has to share its resources with and to provide access to a surrounding rural community with an average of 50% of school kids participating in the free and reduced lunch program.  As a person who believes with every bone in her body that democracy can only function if we have a robust public school system, it struck me that I needed to find a way to take on Dave’s charge.  I began a conversation with the folks at 826, attended their 101 workshop intended to help people create organizations that might serve as a vehicle for enacting Dave’s TED wish, brought their generous suggestions back home, where I shared them with numerous teachers, administrators and artists, and founded an organization called The Castle, a “creating community in the public schools” of Putnam County, Indiana. I was (am) deeply inspired by the creative energy and playfulness of 826, by their core values of “one on one attention, complete devotion to student’s work, boundless optimism, possibility and creativity,” and wanted to find a way to inject that energy into the school day, for all kids and teachers, but especially for the kids who feel most checked out, most defeated by the system.  The route we initially took was arts-integration, with the premise being that this would provide multiple entry points for kids into the course content, multiple paths for a-ha moments, and a particularly effective way to draw on the extensive human and cultural resources of DePauw and Putnam County to liven up the curriculum, to make it feel more relevant, meaningful, real.  At the heart of it for me, though, is the necessity for a classroom culture that engages, excites and respects every child. That values subjectivity and autonomy and provides the space for every child to feel connected to and lit up by what they’re learning. I’m proud of the work we’ve done and the ways we’ve been able to serve so many kids, but I want to find a way to provide truly differentiated learning, which is a much taller order on the primary and secondary public school scale, so beholden to standardized tests and the many pressures on teachers that go hand and hand with them, than it is for a private liberal arts college. 

It has become ever clearer to me that, while we work as an organization at the systemic level to create an impactful learning experience that will provide fuel for administrators to push back against the high-stakes testing culture by showing that the tests take care of themselves in the learning environment for which we’re advocating, I can and should be working in my own classroom—because I have the privilege to do so—to put my money where my mouth is, to create the culture of autonomy and relevance that my students crave.  This is what I’ve been doing since 2012, in large part in response to a DePauw student-led series of workshops in The Castle’s first partner school, an elementary school with one class for each grade, K-6.  At the end of two full days of thoroughly energetic workshops on all manner of topics involving animal behavior, diverse habitats, chemical reactions and the scientific basis for music, serving every student in the school and drawing on the state standards for each grade, one of my students said to me, exhausted and beaming:  “Now I know what my learning is for.”  The vision of The Castle changed that day, as did my own understanding of my role in the classroom: namely, to serve as a guide to students as they come to understand viscerally, in their own skin, what their learning is for.

“Complete devotion to students’ work,” as I hear Dave Eggers’ objective, means creating a space where every student is simultaneously autonomous and recognizes his or her connection to the collective endeavor of any given course. In project-based learning circles, the reigning premise is to “start with why.”  Simon Sinek coined the phrase in his TED Talk and subsequent book to describe, in an organizational and leadership sense, the kind of thinking that most motivates people.  In project-based learning, it is the “why” that brings authenticity, intentionality, and, most important, a sense of stakes and purpose to anything that happens in the classroom.  Typically, in project-based learning, the “why”—the problem that needs solved, the inquiry that needs exploration, and the deeper context for that problem and inquiry—is brought to students, by means of the teacher and/or community partners.  The strategies I will go on to explain align deeply with the premises of project-based learning, with the added intention to create as many opportunities as possible for students to generate their own “why” in the classroom and in their work, without sacrificing (and in fact enhancing) rigor.


I have been wrestling with my colleague’s “false consciousness” comment in particular these days, trying to unpack what it could mean, what it could be motivated by, how it might represent the brokenness—as I see it—of an educational system that still favors the top-down.  I first understood it as the product of the fear of giving up gatekeeper status. But now I am acknowledging that, much as I want to live in a world without gatekeepers, there are gatekeepers all around.  I myself am a gatekeeper. I am wrestling with what kind of power I have and how I should be using it and with the cognitive dissonance of my dawning awareness that, as a student, power and authority resonated with me while, as a teacher, I have tried to do whatever I can to dismantle my own power, because it seems to me that that power gets in the way of real learning.  And because I believe that real learning—that creating spaces conducive to learning that feels relevant, embodied, high-stake, meaningful to everyone involved—is a (perhaps the) key to fixing a broken system that has outlived its own utility.

In this group I will describe what this wrestling-with has yielded for me in my own teaching, a concrete set of strategies that I have developed that seem to me best captured under this bulky heading:  a conversant approach to student-generated learning.  Ethereal and academic though it sounds, this approach has provided me with a way to acknowledge and mediate my own gatekeeper status, and, in the process, to help students to articulate their own positions as both gatekeepers and as people seeking entrance. This is not a “how-to” guide.  God forbid.  There is no one-size-fits-all model for teaching or learning.  It is, instead, a series of meditations and reflections drawn from my own experience, shared with the hope of contributing to an ongoing and, in my view, vital conversation about the role, responsibilities and future of higher education.

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