Photography by Parris Whittingham ©2010 at Kyraocity Works
Nichole: Lucinda would love your thoughts on this one (of course, everyone else can chime in). This post is by a black female professor who tackles the question of the role of liberal arts in higher education by focusing on how/where/when does learning taking place. She cedes some of the control of the classroom to her students and makes them responsible for reflecting on what they have learned over the course of a semester. Gaunt reached this strategy after doing her own reflecting and responding to the bane of most professor's existence, student evaluations. In light of the various assaults on higher education (from budget slashes, to the customer/service provider paradigm, to the developing conventional wisdom that not everyone is meant to go to college), how does Gaunt provide new ways of thinking about the value of learning and its role in preparing young adults for participating in our democracy?
Lucinda: I love Professor Gaunt’s idea that we should relate to college students as adults—as “willing to participate wherever they are mentally, physically, spiritually, psychically in a classroom and in their society.” I would go one step further and say we should be relating to students of any age as active participants in their learning. I can’t take credit for this idea. I’m sure it’s been written about by many educational experts, but there is a great quote attributed to Professor T. Ripaldi—though I can’t verify that—which says it well:
“When we adults think of children, there is a simple truth which we ignore—childhood is not preparation for life: childhood is life. A child is constantly confronted with the nagging question, What are you going to be? Courageous would be the youngster who, looking the adult squarely in the face, would say, I'm not going to be anything, I already am. We adults would be shocked by such an insolent remark, for we have forgotten, if indeed we ever knew, that a child is already a participating and contributing member of society from the time he or she is born. Childhood isn't a time when he or she is molded into a human being who lives life, he or she is a human being who is living life.”
Students—whatever their age—can be partners in their learning. They don’t learn how to engage ideas when we relate to them as empty vessels. They bring something to the table, and Professor Gaunt expresses this well when she says, “[T]here are 600 years of knowledge in a room of 30 students each with forms of knowledge that cannot be replicated in a book.”
I had some great teachers as a student, but I know my life would have been transformed by having teachers engage me in finding out what I thought about what I was taught. This kind of dialogue would have ensured that I not only got facts and information, which I certainly needed, but it also would have fostered stronger, well-honed critical thinking skills in me. This is what I sorely needed.
I am on the other side now, teaching sexual health and writing to teenagers who write sexual health stories to educate their peers. With each new group of students I work with, I am always struck by how they relate to me. They want to please me. This is exactly what Professor Gaunt is talking about when she refers to “students act like what is most important is addressing the teacher or showing off what they learned for me as the instructor.” Students have learned to please the teacher by regurgitating what they’ve been told, but I would rather have them engage ideas and use them in their lives.
I am inspired by how seriously Professor Gaunt takes the liberal arts mission of “producing great citizens, future professionals, and great human beings.” She is asking the hard questions of her students and herself, and I hope her colleagues are listening. Higher education would be transformed if we had more professors like Kyra D. Gaunt.