Blog Post

Going with the flow

(crossposted from Attention Surplus)

I was about ten minutes late to my "Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective" class today. I'm doing a study group off-campus with some students who got fascinated by Marx last semester, and because of the way my brain works around time and presence, I lingered too long. From long experience I know I can minimize the consequences of this as long as I deliver robust value in the time remaining, even turning the ethos of the class from a quantitative time-served model to a qualitative work-accomplished model. So although I prefer not to be late, I'm not fretful about it.

The last time I was late, I mentioned that since the class is discovery and discussion oriented, there was in principle no need to wait for me and they could just go ahead and start. I mentioned that my ideal class was one in which the students seized control of their own learning and made the authority position of the teacher obsolete. That little speech is meant to create a fermenting contrast, but it does not usually work any immediate transformation - the habits of passivity are very deep.

But! When I walked into class today, one of the students who hardly ever says anything was presenting information and making an argument from the section of the text we're working through that his study group was leading discussion on. (The text, btw, is Reilly, Kaufman, and Bodino's Racism: A Global Reader.) I sat down quietly and the conversation continued for twenty minutes without any input from me. As we had discussed in setting up the order of march, members of other groups regularly chimed in with connections to their own sections of the text. Broadly speaking, they were trying to make sense of the dynamics of 'internal Othering', and how groups that were tolerated or even absorbed in one context could be stigmatized and oppressed in another. Eventually they reinvented frame analysis together, and I broke my silence to tell them so.

I am so happy and proud about this group. It certainly matters that there is a focused, disciplined, and motivated knot of military students; I suspect they were the catalysts of self-starting. But all of the students (about 15 today) were engaged when I came in; none of them much noted my entry, or shifted their attention to me as if the class would 'really start' now. It probably helped that I just sat down with them and did not make a show of moving to 'the front'. It probably helped that this was the second run of our discussion format. It probably helped that we had brainstormed and concocted the discussion format together, with them getting the last word on how we would do it. It probably helped that the format engaged all of them by making the 'leading' group prompters rather than presenters, and explicitly encouraging connections to all of their centers of expertise.

Would this have happened if I was on time? Obviously not in exactly this way; I think my absence was a productive accelerant. This is a place where INUS conditions apply, which is fun because they reinvented those today, too.



One day last semester, I was working with students in the library; a task that ran past the end of the class period.  I sent word with one of the students in my next class that they should begin their presentations without me.  They did and everything went well even though I arrived over a half hour late for class.

The next week, I was delayed in my office (for no good reason) and arrived about two minutes late for class.  The team that was presenting had already shut the door and was showing a video clip.  If you arrive late to class, the rule is that you wait in the hall until someone motions you in.  I waited in the hall.  When the video clip finished, one of the presenters motioned that it was OK for me to enter the room.

The things that you mentioned as having “probably helped” probably helped.   Students can’t take over on the first day or first week.  Without your coaching, your students likely could never be as engaged as they were without you.   But part of our job as faculty is to help students develop their skills so that they ultimately do not need us.  


Thanks, Steven! I actually wonder when students could take over, that is, at what point the master-pupil relationship becomes an active hindrance to learning. In another thread you ask whether learning is natural and I think clearly it is, for unremarkable evolutionary reasons; so much so that for us to be dealing with students who need to be cajoled to learn speaks to a long process of active disabling and discouragement of curiousity. And we can see how that happens all around us, in the serial location of ignorance in the student and expertise in the teacher, in the physical arrangement of our classrooms, in the emphasis on uptake of dogmatic knowledge rather than the process of investigation. And of course if the students are 'needy', we must be 'needed'.

I think in principle the quicker we get ourselves out of the way, or at least become senior partners in learning community, the better. In practice the disabling has worked so well that there's still reorientation work for us to do. But if street kids in India can figure out how to use a computer and teach themselves genetics from it, maybe not even so much of that.