While it’s easy to talk about the bad side of our education systems, I think it’s worth talking about some of the ways that classes can be awesome and empowering.
I’ve been lucky enough to have had some great classes in my post-secondary education – sometimes thanks to professors, sometimes thanks to classmates, sometimes thanks to the material. What’s really striking to me is how different those classes are from the classes I hate attending. It’s like they’re barely part of the same process – the only similarity is that they both take place in a classroom.
So what makes for an excellent class?
A prof that respects students
It’s brutally obvious when a prof doesn’t give a crap about what students have to contribute to a course. These are the profs who stand at the front and lecture, with no interest in class discussion and no effort to make the material accessible. The approach, at its worst, is sink or swim – figure it out without my help, or don’t figure it out at all.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are profs who don’t just want to teach students, but also want to learn from them. These are professors who ask questions that aren’t about the facts of the material, but instead are about opinions, interpretations, or understandings. They facilitate class discussions and encourage engagement; they love to hear about creative approaches; and if they hear an argument they haven’t thought of before, they hear it out rather than dismissing it out of hand.
These professors teach students like people, rather than – in the actual words of an actual university administrator at an actual school I attended – “income generating units”. Amazingly, I’d rather learn from someone who respects me than from someone who treats me and my classmates like a waste of time.
A prof that makes learning accessible
You know that prof who seems to have no ability to control class discussion? Where students will just interrupt the lecture, spout irrelevancies, and give wrong answers, while the prof’s response is to just sit back and watch?
That sucks. Not just because it’s a waste of everyone else’s time, but because it makes the material less accessible even for the people who want to be there. People who aren’t interested in jumping into aggressive discussions are frustrated when the conversation strays so far off topic that they might as well be in another class. It’s harder to focus on the material when class structure gets thrown to the wind whenever that dude at the back wants to bring up his irrelevant job experience that he thinks makes him an expert.
A class requires leadership on the part of the instructor, because in the vast majority of circumstances, students in a classroom environment can’t teach themselves as effectively on their own. Without that leadership, it becomes a fight for students to wade through the mess of the classroom proceedings to get at the knowledge the material contains. It’s exhausting, and miserable, and makes the whole class an unpleasant place to be.
One of my favourite classes from last fall was a class with a brutally dense textbook, tough material, and a prof who stood at the front of the room and lectured without stopping for an hour and a half. I skipped classes out of boredom and – I’ll be honest – I was that student professors hate, sitting in the back of the class screwing around on Facebook.
I was lucky enough to be taking the class with a few other highly motivated friends who were just as bewildered by the material as I was. After a few classes, we sat down and reviewed our notes to make sure we’d actually understood the lecture. Before the exam, we had some epic group study sessions where we went through the cases – some 200 of which we had to memorize before the closed-book final exam – to make sure we understood and remembered them.
Some of the only cases I remember from fall semester were in that class, because it seems that turning the main point of the case into a terrible pun and giggling over it with friends is sometimes the best way to learn.
Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make a class empowering. As much as we like to talk broad theory about critically approaching normative material, sometimes the real activism comes from professors who take the time to listen and classmates who help you learn.
With only three items, my list of what makes for an excellent class is hardly exhaustive. If y’all have any other examples of ways that profs or classmates made a class unexpectedly excellent, shout it out in the comments!