Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Day Off

Today I finished my first semester of teaching my first Women's Studies course at the university level. I taught my final class this morning and at the end of class was pleasantly surprised by one of my student's last Attendance Cards. I do not take attendance in my class. I do not even check to see when students arrive---twenty minutes early, five minutes late, the last ten minutes of class. Each student is an adult and is responsible for getting himself out of bed and to class on time if he wants to keep up. I don't have time to worry about that or keep track of them. I'm much more interested in what happens when we're all together in the classroom---that's where the good stuff transpires. So instead of attendance, I do Attendance Cards.

I ask that my students come to class with a 4x6 note card on which they are to write two questions about the reading assignment(s) from the night(s) before class. In class, I encourage them to ask their questions aloud, which leads to some really excellent conversations. Mostly the students ask great questions---which I encourage them to ask in class and which I try to let them know I appreciated after class in a quick email or IM. I find that first and second year college students are so thoroughly trained in the art of passive listening that they often fear the unknown territory of posing a question...aloud (gasp!)---and I'm thinking SPECIFICALLY about young women here, the entire POINT of this course.

Here are some facts from
Columbia's Teaching Center about that mess:

Although women make up a substantial majority of undergraduates and now receive significantly more B.A.s than men, they have not achieved equality in the classroom.

A large body of research has shown that instructors:

  • Call on male students more frequently than female students.
  • Are more likely to remember male students names and to use their name when calling upon students and in attributing ideas advanced in discussion.
  • Ask male students more abstract and tough questions and ask female students more factual questions. Are less likely to elaborate upon points made by female students.
This research has demonstrated that:

  • Male students speak more frequently and longer in class discussions
  • Male students are more likely to blurt out answers without raising their hands or being recognized by the instructor
  • Female students are less likely to take part in class discussions. When they do, these students are more likely to
  • Be interrupted before they complete their response (sometimes by other female students).
  • Make their statements less loudly and at less length.
  • Express their ideas in a more hesitant, tentative, indirect, less assertive, or more polite manner. Examples include phrasing a statement as a question or appending such phrases as "I guess" or "Don't you think" or "I may be wrong."
  • Although women make up a substantial majority of undergraduates and now receive significantly more B.A.s than men, they have not achieved equality in the classroom
I am always am careful to end class on time (even if my students don't adhere to my class beginning and end times). I want them to know I respect their schedules. I noticed after a while that students stopped packing up early because they didn't have to remind me what time it was by doing so. Instead, they now know that I'll let them out as I had promised in the syllabus (10:45). And on some occasions, like today, this final class of the semester, we are all so involved in conversation that no one has stirred to leave. Instead, I look around and the other twenty pairs of eyes are on a student is in the middle of a sentence---no one is concerned with the seconds we've gone overtime.

Usually, with a few minutes left in class, I ask students to write a comment about the class on the back of their Attendance Cards, or a note to me, or a concern or criticism or whatever. I did not specify this year (I'm still learning) that these comments need only be positive or glowing. I am not looking to boost my ego, though some of them think that it is their responsibility to do so. Mostly, I am looking for students' interested and curious comments about class, about themselves, about life. I like to know what they're thinking about. Isn't that the point of college---to think aloud with other humans? Here are a random sampling of a few:

Wouldn't it be great if we started each day with two quick questions about life, love, or whatever on an Attendance Card (yes, we are---should be---daily attending to our lives). If we woke up to Monday rain and an empty coffee bean container--we could ask something like "Lord, why me?" If we woke up to a soft, warm ray of sunshine at the foot of our bed on a Saturday morning and a pot of coffee brewing because we actually remembered for the first time in months to set the timer on the automatic brew panel---and it was actually set accurately (for 7:30AM...not PM), we could write, "Lord, what other wonderful treats will you bring me today?" Or, the questions may be mundane, like "What socks should I wear?" or "What should I make for lunch?" They could be pensive, too, and real on days we wake up from a dream. Like, "Is today the day I will leave this relationship?" or "Can today please be one day when no one dies in the world by the hand of another person?"

Then, at the end of the day, we make a comment. Sometimes we could let others read it---those we love, those we ponder with, those who write questions with us on rainy Monday mornings. Sometimes, we'll keep comments to ourselves---our gratitudes, our forgivenesses, our successes. Sometimes, we'll call our best friends to share with--our suffering, our anger, our frustration. But every day, we have a place to wonder about and a place to confide in. And it couldn't be on an electronic device--it would have to be on a little piece of paper (recycled preferably). That way our queries and ponderings would not be erased, forgotten, deleted, sent off into cyberspace never to be heard from again. But our sorrows, joys, wonderings and insights would all be kept in one little drawer for later inspection. For a boost when we needed it---a reminder that there was a day not so long ago when you were on top of the world, and now you know that feeling can and will return, because it was there once, and so it can be there again. You can see this. Feel it. Touch it. It's real. Or, we may want to briefly return to our sufferings and sorrows---not to wallow in them or be suffocated by them---but simply to notice how far we've come since that moment and to know the power of loving and communicating intimately with ourselves and each other.