Town Hall Meeting, December 7, 2017 (Summary)

The GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning convened a Town Hall Meeting, led by Jocelyn McWhirter, Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College, on the topic of Teaching a Student Body from a Variety of Backgrounds.  The event took place on December 7, 2017 and was attended by some 30 faculty members. 

Watch the recorded video dialogue of the session at this link.  Below are some key points from the discussion. 

On Cultural Difference

In framing the discussion, Jocelyn McWhirter describes the different levels of familiarity that incoming students bring to our colleges.  While the lexicon of words and phrases common to higher education is familiar to faculty, students often find that vocabulary to be foreign and even foreboding. 

The discussion reveals that there are significant cultural differences between our students and ourselves as faculty members.  The issue should not be framed in terms of student deficiencies or preparedness for college.  As educators, we must ask, to how can help students gain familiarity with the values of liberal arts education?  How can help them assimilate the values we affirm while also recognizing the cultural capital they bring to the academy?

The academy is a culture in which there is a hierarchy and a power dynamic.  As faculty members, we invite students into this domain and encourage them to participate and explore, at the same time we exemplify the presence of ranks and status in ways that students may find threatening.  Students naturally seek to know from faculty the terms by which they will be judged.

Being Transparent

A key theme from the discussion is the need for faculty members to be transparent with students in explaining the curriculum and methods of teaching a course.  Professors can benefit greatly from encouraging students to reflect on their learning as the course proceeds.  At intervals prior to formal course evaluation at the end of the semester, a teacher can ask of students which parts of the course did most to help their learning (which is different from asking what they liked most).  Asking students to reflect on their own learning provides professors with valuable feedback into the impact of different pedagogies on their students’ learning.

Often the most concerted efforts made to help students become more familiar with the values of the academy occur in the first year of study – in freshman seminars.  Such attempts to reach out and support students’ assimilation of liberal arts values often diminish in the later years as upper-level courses become more centered in the methods, data, and language of particular disciplines.  Faculty members, as well as student affairs professionals, need to continue to engage students in gaining familiarity with the learning environment of a liberal arts college.

Supporting students in becoming more attuned to the liberal arts environment does not mean lowering expectations or doing the work students themselves must do.  Part of what students must learn is that success in college comes through hard work. 

Strategies for Helping Students Gain Cultural Capital

The Town Hall closes by providing some examples of how to build a learning environment that affirms the values of the academy while also empowering students to learn from the example of other cohorts of students, including students in higher class years who have worked hard and are learning to assimilate and apply values of liberal arts. 

Town Hall Meeting: https://vimeo.com/246690007

This summary does not give expression to many compelling points that participants offered in this Town Hall Meeting.  We encourage you to watch the full video recording of this meeting at this link

The discussion of this topic has continued past the close of the Town Hall Meeting in e-mail reflections that some participants have sent.  These further reflections appear at this link

We encourage your thoughts on the topic of Teaching a Student Body from a Variety of Backgrounds by sending your reflections to the co-directors of the GLCA Consortium for Teaching and Learning:

Gregory Wegner:  wegner@glca.org

Steven Volk:  steven.volk@oberlin.edu

Written by