Reflection by Russ:


For me, the bottom line is that teaching in the Truth in Society Section of the Aquinas Program in 1994-95 was the most engrossing and gratifying teaching experience of my 32-year career. There were two primary areas in which this was true.

One was the day-to-day collaboration with two committed, energetic and resourceful teachers who brought their own perspectives and values to bear on virtually every decision we made all year long. The consequence of this for me was that I found myself thinking through everything about my own teaching -- the nature of my assumptions about learning and how it happens, my values about what it's important for undergraduates to learn, my habitual expectations for my students and myself, my practices about scheduling and assignments, my standards -- in a consciously reflective and radically productive way. From the long, intense initial planning meetings, a year before the course actually began, to the last-minute changes in prompts that might see John and me at 8:20, editing a document whose last changes from Thom had been posted five hours earlier, and which was to be handed out at 8:30, virtually everything was achieved by informed consensus among the three teachers.

The other primary gratification was the opportunity the program gave me to come to know the students and observe their learning in a way that I had never experienced before. Although many of the elements of the program -- the regular e-mail contact, the casual atmosphere in class meetings -- had always characterized my classes, this was different. Partly this was because I saw the students in different contexts -- not only in formal classes, but in the context of the course and out of a classroom atmosphere -- sitting around in EC 120, for instance, at a time when there were no meetings scheduled, or at the library. This led, it seems to more regular contact, on email and outside the context of the course altogether.

It is also true that the Aquinas program has as one of its stated and conscious objectives the socialization of the students into academic society, and because of this I was more conscious of their adjustments to St. Thomas and to the culture of the campus than I normally would be. If you see a group of students for 3 hours a week and in a scheduled class, you see much less of their lives and their values than if you regularly attend poetry readings and plays with them, solve computer problems together, respond to their problems and share their triumphs.

As a way of reflecting in more depth, let me consider how I think we did in relation to some of the specific aims we held for ourselves and for the students, and which we outlined in our report. We said we wanted, for instance:

Here, it's clear that we succeeded. We learned a great deal about how much structure, and what kinds, is required to create a situation in which students will actively explore ideas. We already knew, of course, that it will not work simply to allow them the opportunity for such exploration: the situation needs to be carefully engineered. Students -- even the best ones; perhaps particularly the best ones -- come equipped with a strong tendency to treat educational experiences as tasks to be completed as quickly and efficiently as possible. One of our most common experiences during the year turned out to be attempts to slow students down, and get them to take the time to explore ideas, read widely, reflect, and revise their own thinking and writing.

For example, some clearly didn't see the point of the READLOGS exercise, and didn't make the connection with the move to the focal topics of the second term. So they chose what to read without much consideration or exploration, read doggedly, and reflected superficially. This is perhaps partly a function of our own failure to make the situation clear enough, but a great deal of the difficulty in doing so comes from the students' firm expectation that readings will be assigned and will have narrowly and specifically focused purposes. The notion that one might read not in order to get an assignment done, but simply to follow and flesh out one's interests, or encounter new experiences and ideas, seemed to be foreign to almost all of them. Reading the final program evaluations makes it clear that in spite of our repeated and energetic attempts to make the purpose of everything we were doing clear, many students didn't see why certain things were being done, and thus found themselves in the position of going through the motions because the professor said to. This is not a complaint about their preparation or attitudes, but rather an acknowledgement that this is the case and needs to be considered in designing such situations in future. I'm not sure I see an easy way to make this clearer, but I know that I wasn't aware of the difficulty until too late. In this particular case, I might try to make this explicit earlier, perhaps by instituting more formal or structured discussions of the READLOG files as they accumulated.

We also learned that only some students (and not always the ones we would have predicted) responded well to the definition of the workload which we hoped would help them organize their time. This was a concern throughout the year: there was a tendency for students to think of the program as one course out of three rather than three courses out of five, and because usually the other courses offered traditional time-structuring strategies such as term papers and examination, students often, it seemed to me, spent less time working on the Aquinas program than I thought appropriate (and less than they reported in the Aquinas Committee's survey of first year students). I continue to believe, however, that in general students enrolled in Truth in Society spent more time on academic work on average than students enrolled in five separate courses. In any case, it's worth thinking about even more ways of providing structure to support student work. The beginning- and end-of-day meetings and the injunction that students should expect to be putting about 25 hours a week of work into the program both did function to help them organize their time (as did the specific tasks laid out in the printed prompts), but more could be done. The danger, of course, is that the tasks will come to be seen as entirely structured by the teachers, and thus "ownership" will be proportionately reduced. There is a tightrope to be walked between erring on either side of this problem.

This leads me to another of our aims:

There is no doubt that we succeeded in taking the teacher out of the center of the discourse of the class. One thing that clearly helped was the simple fact that there were three teachers (our report says, "Equally important was the fact that there were three collaborating teachers in the group: it was impossible for one person to become the center of the discourse or the locus of power. Negotiations were almost all public"). Even in a more or less conventional full-group discussion in the classroom, where one teacher might be the focus of the discussion, two others were commonly elsewhere in the room, monitoring the shape of the discussion, occasionally asking questions, indicating students with something to say, and so forth. Everyone's aware of the typical failing of full-class discussions: they become a separate set of one-on-one discussions between individual students and the teacher. This couldn't happen in this case, and it was much easier to move to a situation where students addressed their discourse to each other. Evidence that we succeeded in this is to be found in the kinds of writing students characteristically did: almost without exception, by the second term students were writing texts to and for each other, rather than display texts designed to impress the teacher.

One of the most difficult aspects of removing ourselves from the center of the discourse was a consequence of our commitment not to plan and structure the whole year in detail in advance (and thus not to need to intervene regularly in the process), but rather to respond to the situation and the students. Such responses could easily have the consequence of putting the teachers right back into the center, and thus needed to be done very carefully. We did not always succeed.

This was, in my own view, one of the most clearly successful aspects of the course. In general, students made authentic choices, had real occasions for writing, participated in the direction of the course in effective ways, and were generally aware that this was the case.

This was achieved at a cost, however: improvisation is a labor-intensive activity. Often the course prompts were composed and edited in a process that stretched from one class meeting to a meeting of the three teachers at the end of the next day (all of us had 3:30 classes on Monday and Wednesday, which meant that there was a convenient meeting time just before 5:00), often around the computer keyboard, to an electronic swapping of texts, draft, suggestions and emendations which lasted on into the night and resumed at six in the morning, with printout occurring minutes before the next day's 8:30 meeting. Although this was a powerful process and one through which I at least learned a great deal, it demanded a commitment of time and energy which went well beyond what I would normally invest in planning or conducting a course.

The evaluation process was, predictably, the aspect of the program the students were least satisfied with. This in itself is not a reason for changing it, as any attempt to restructure or rethink evaluation processes is going to cause great discomfort among students used to accepting the conventional models. But I think all three of us teaching also felt continuing discomfort with the process as it worked out. One change that I think might be made is that the process of "colleague acknowledgements" should be made ongoing -- something that happens frequently, rather than at three specified times during the year. Further, students should have an automatic mechanism for giving them feedback on their base mark (this could be done by putting a read-only spreadsheet in the P: drive) and on their colleague acknowledgements (perhaps this could also be entered on the spreadsheet every two weeks). More generally, I remain committed to the goal of demystifying the grading process and involving the students intimately and effectively in it, and I believe that this course came as close as I've come to achieving that goal.

We mentioned in the main report our ambivalence about the fact that high school record was a pretty fair predictor of success in Truth in Society. It's clear, as well, reading the program evaluation comments, that there were a number of students who, in spite of our best efforts, felt second-class and marginalized in the course. This is not to say that they wouldn't have felt that way in a conventional course; but I had hoped that such students would, more often than they seem to have, feel empowered and welcomed by this new situation. I believe that some of the "marginal" students did feel this, and I know of cases where students "found themselves" in the Truth in Society learning community, and achieved learning that I do not believe could have been achieved in a conventional first year program. Still, I think there is room for more attention to the students who come to St. Thomas without much experience of academic success. One of the ways this could be done would be by more explicitly structuring individual contact -- setting up regular, scheduled meetings, for instance, with students for whom e-mail is not an effective substitute for that face-to-face contact, or for whom casual conversation in the library or the computer lab or between meetings in the classroom isn't an option.

Here, perhaps the central strategy we used (beyond the simple fact that the students were part of a small group of 36 students for most of their schedule) was the "Occasions" process. It seems to me this worked as well as anything could to achieve this, even though there clearly were students who treated it as just another class assignment, and a few who resented the "demands on their time." The overwhelming majority, I think it's clear, experienced the process as giving them a motive to engage themselves with the campus -- to attend the theatre, poetry readings, lectures, and so forth, and to do so in a reflective way (since they had to write and read with others about their experience). In any situation, in or out of the Aquinas Program, I believe this would be a powerful tool for achieving engagement with the campus (and for helping students become familiar with the computer network and with the way in which written language can function as dialogue).

The "Occasions" process was, of course, only part of our larger goal to help students in the following ways:

As it happened, however, I think it was, perhaps the most important, for many of the students at least.

Disciplinary "content" is a continuing worry for me. I'm concerned that some of the assumptions people will make about what students might have read in a first year English course will be unwarranted (this is also true of the standalone English 1-200 sections I have taught in recent years, but to a lesser extent). While it is true that I feel comfortable with the extent to which most of the aims outlined in the English department's official statement of goals for the first year course will have been met, it remains true that I did not find a way to introduce many "literary" (as traditionally defined) texts into the students' reading, and I think that next time I would explicitly do that, by making the selection of works of poetry, fiction and drama part of the requirement of the reading section of the course. In general, in fact, I think it wouldn't be difficult to build a clearer framework within which to select readings. Just as we selected a list of magazines people could read during the READLOG section of the course, we could also specify genres in which people need to choose readings without abdicating the commitment to helping students have extensive experience of making their own choices.

The extent to which we succeeded in these ambitious aims -- in some sense, of course, they add up to a sort of definition of what a liberal education is about, and it's probably foolhardy to posit them as aims for a one-year program -- isn't clear, and can't be, I submit, for some years. If we can persist with our intention to conduct research on this program we might be in a position to begin assessing our success here about the time these students graduate. To some extent, we can begin to get some indications of the possibility of success here by reading student reflections on the program, but it is always possible even that those students who directly discuss this sort of thing will actually be echoing what they've been told about our aims rather than reporting effective and lasting change in their own attitudes and assumptions. Convincing evidence -- like any evidence of the impact of authentic educational change -- will be hard to come by. In some sense, we always need to trust the instincts and experience of individual teachers. My own instincts tell me that this was a powerful and energizing educational experience for me, for the other teachers, and, most important, for a substantial number of the students.


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