Courtesy of Cornell University

November 15, 2023

SCHWARZ | How We Learn from Our Students

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Some of my colleagues and even my own students are surprised when I say that I learn from my students every day.  

I was told when I first thought about being a professor that high school and elementary school teachers teach a subject to students, and college professors teach the subject and are not so alert to the makeup of the audience. But nothing could be further from the truth.

To be an effective university classroom professor, one needs to know one’s student audience as much as possible, namely who is being addressed, how much they can be expected to know prior to each day’s class and how they will benefit from what you are saying and how. By watching their expressions and listening to questions and discussion, you can measure the efficacy of your teaching that day.

Teaching is a collaborative activity; put another way, teaching is a shared learning experience between my students and me. During every class session something surprising happens, even if I am teaching texts I have taught for years. Often stirred by students’ oral reports and comments, I discover relationships within a text that I have never seen before.

On the first day of class I usually tell what is, perhaps, an apocryphal story of how the legendary jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane, hired for his band a young bassist named Reggie Workman. When Workman was at first intimidated by Coltrane’s presence, Coltrane told him: “I can’t do it alone. I play the saxophone; you play the bass. If I did not think that you were a great bassist, you would not be here.” Over the ensuing years, Workman became recognized as a world-class bassist.

Let us think about how teaching is a similarly transactional relationship where students become part of a purposeful group. Perhaps the most important quality we convey to students is insatiable curiosity. When we do, they are apt to follow. I also know that the higher I set my standards, the better the students perform. I have been told by countless students that the reason my classes attract some of our best students is that I challenge them in ways that perhaps others do not. On the first day of class, I tell my students they will be judged in part by the acronym APP: attendance, preparation, participation.

Students take pleasure and pride in a class that comes together as a community, something that occurs when faculty and students work together to create positive class dynamics. Establishing a tradition where the other students respond to and even applaud oral seminar reports encourages the students to make such presentations a centerpiece of their term’s work.

If, in these moments of engagement within the classroom, we teach by example to listen carefully and respectfully to the ideas of others and to appreciate the views of others who may be from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, we will have accomplished a great deal in establishing for our students lifetime values and providing an important base for participating in democracy.

I often take student suggestions about when to take an extra day on a text we are reading or on what I could focus more as we go forward. I always leave time for questions which can take me into new areas or remind me what I overlooked or did not properly clarify. In senior seminars and graduate seminars, I somewhat adjust to the group’s interest in what I stress in our discussions, be it narrative structure or thematic issues that interest a particular class.

As professors, we hope our own life experiences help us to become better teachers. With greater emphases on diversity and inclusion, including more first-generation college students, international students, LGBTQ+ and non-binary students,as well as BIPOC students, I am learning daily from the varied lives of our students.

On campus I often engage with students whom I don’t know whether at the residential college where I am a house fellow, the gym or making my way around campus. Recently I was, by chance, walking and talking with three students who were of Egyptian, Sudanese and Nigerian heritage. Because I have  travelled to over a hundred countries in my lifetime, I like to believe that within my limitations I’ve encompassed a complex understanding of the world, and that my travels enable me to have a richer dialogue with students like these than otherwise might be the case.

Much of what I know about what is going on at Cornell I learn from my students, including from the Cornell Daily Sun which I have always urged my colleagues to read. After my students graduate from Cornell, I keep in touch with them and learn about the worlds in which they are living. We often meet when they return to Ithaca, or when I visit their home cities. Often, I meet students who reside, or are visiting New York City, at a major museum.   

Good teachers are flexible enough to adjust expectations to circumstances without sacrificing standards. Thus, drawing a line varies with circumstances, and even the best teachers make mistakes about when and to whom to be more severe than one might with others. Each student is different and the more you know about a student the better you can teach them. At times, we as faculty need to accommodate legitimate personal and family issues and must respond to such issues with sympathy and empathy.

From those who come from a modest background, I have learned the value of perseverance. Students come to Cornell who are less prepared in STEM fields than many of their cohorts, but they adjust with hard work and self-discipline. An English and philosophy major who graduated summa cum laude, and whom I recently advised, worked for publishers more hours a week than she would admit, earning enough to pay for a significant part of her education. I deeply admire students who have overcome obstacles when it comes to achieving a fruitful and successful college education in the face of financial obstacles and family or personal problems. Such students teach me the value of the three R’s: resilience, resourcefulness and resolve.

I learn how others, including the very wealthy, live. Many of the latter are sensitive to economic differences; they know they are fortunate to be able to take advantage of unpaid internships and travel opportunities during summers when less fortunate students need to work. 

But a small group of wealthy students live in such a bubble that they don’t realize, despite being among a wide variety of students, that everyone does not fly off to the Alps for a long ski weekend or pay thousands of dollars to sit with family and friends in the special sections of a Taylor Swift concert or drive expensive cars on campus. Some of these same students have gotten significant help preparing their admission applications. Nor do they know that their insensitivity can be hurtful to less advantaged students, some of whom have discussed with me how this economic discrepancy feels to them.

I invite students to open up about their values, goals and frustrations. Whether to ask personal questions, especially to students in difficulty, is a tricky issue. If we establish a functional relationship with students in our small and even middle-size classes, they may gradually feel comfortable voicing problems that interfere with their learning or give clues to how they can improve their learning. As professors, we can be more effective if we have some context for how students respond and behave. It matters if English is not spoken in the home; if a parent demonstrates emotional shortcomings; if a student’s support structures fail; or if abuse is present in any form. I do ask students about their aspirations, activities, where they are from and — because I know the secondary resources of most major cities and am familiar with a great number of private high schools — what high school they attended.

I have learned from students about sports in which they participate, but about which I know nothing: rowing, equestrian competition, pole-vaulting, heptathlon, polo, field hockey, etc. I ask my students  to tell our class about their participation in music, theatre, dance performances, athletic events, student publications, debating, and science competitions. etc. I often attend their events.

Most of my students know a great deal more than I about popular culture and recommend current TV series or films and music. I would not have watched “Derry Girls” with its stress on Irish life in the 1990s under the British military occupation of Northern Ireland and shaped by the most conservative Catholic Church in Europe.  Nor would I have watched “Sex Education” featuring Maeve, the appealingly resilient character who overcomes every conceivable class and family disadvantage, including a drug addicted mother and brother, as she extricates herself from her fraught situation.

We — teachers and students — are part of something larger than ourselves in that we perpetuate and contribute to an ever-changing tradition of university education at Cornell and beyond. Students learn how to learn, and the most important thing we do is teach them how to learn, including how to speak articulately, write precisely, and think critically. When we do that, they in turn teach us how to learn.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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