Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

Category: Teaching

What my students taught me this week

We the PeopleAt a political science conference last January, another professor and I started talking about civic education and civic engagement among our students. This is something I’ve read about a bit, but it’s not something I’ve honestly made all that much of an effort to incorporate into my classes before.

I’d trace the lack of effort in this regard back to two things: First, political scientists often argue that they are teaching their students the theories of our discipline, which help our students develop critical minds and a reliance on empirical evidence. The prevailing wisdom of our discipline is that teaching students how to become competent citizens isn’t our job. Second, while I certainly make an impassioned plea each semester on the importance of voting, I haven’t before felt the emphatic need to encourage active engagement with government before.

But … well. Things are different in 2017, aren’t they?

So over the summer, I piloted a semester-long project in my online American Government course. (Aside: I’m a fan of a semester-long project; I’ve incorporated one into almost every course I’ve taken, as a way to focus the week-to-week material on a larger theme.) This Civic Engagement Project asks students to (1) identify who represents them in government at the national, state, and local levels, (2) research the broad strokes of each representative’s background, and (3) make an effort to reach out to each representative with a question or statement of policy preference. They then reflect on how this project changed the way they think about government and the strength of citizen voices on what government does.

To be honest, I expected the impact of this project on students to be neutral, at best. It was easy to imagine college students finding this project a hassle, tedious, and uninspiring.

Thankfully, though, the summer students surprised me. In their final reflections, they repeatedly wrote about how the mission of this project became evermore clear to them as they worked through the levels of government. One had coffee with her city council representative. Another decided to intern for her senator in DC next summer. And in perhaps the most fulfilling moment I’d had as a teacher in a long, long time, one wrote in the final reflection paper:

Since the completion of this semester-long project, I have formed a new sense of self in my community. I feel more connected to my country, and I can only imagine how empowered I could feel if I continue to be active. My learning experience was much greater than I expected initially. Not only did I grow as a citizen and learn new information, but I was able to better understand the material I was studying. Having a place for real-world application expanded my knowledge. My attitude towards government has changed, in that I do think some representatives do value my thought and opinions. Despite this change in attitude, I still believe there is an overall political agenda that takes precedence over things citizens are concerned about. I think it takes a loud, persistent voice to head and acknowledge. The best place to start with real change is probably my local community. Without Washington and high politics being involved, I think the chances of change are higher. Even though I believe that I, alone, am not enough to influence a decision or create true change, I still hold value to being an active and informed citizen. I stand a little taller when I am out in public knowing that I have played a small role in keeping my community flowing. I have encouraged my friends to become interested and involved; because if we want a government by the people, we mustn’t forget that WE are the people. I strongly recommend this assignment be kept in the course in the future. It makes the textbook material easier to comprehend and it brings empowerment.

This fall, I’ve kept the same basic structure, with one major change: I’m now also asking students to attend a public meeting or event with one of their elected representatives — be that city council, school board, a town hall meeting, a hearing or session of a legislative body, etc.

I’m very curious to see how students in a regular (fall) semester react to this project, but I can tell you that in the first two weeks of classes, my students have taught me an enormously important lesson: Knowing how to identify your elected officials is hard.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t spent literally hours over the last two weeks explaining the difference between US senators from Tennessee and Tennessee state senators. Or explaining that local governments have both city and county representatives / councils / commissions. Or helping students understand that while Paul Ryan is a member of the national government, he’s not their representative. And so on.

I’ve been politically attentive long enough to find these questions easy to answer. You want me to tell you who represents me? Before Trump was elected president, I could name my national representatives, and I knew one person who represented me locally, but I was completely ignorant of my state legislators. But I at least knew HOW to find out who they were.

My students have taught me that this is a privilege, and it’s not one that many of our peers share.

When my friends lament how politically unaware others are, or how complacent Americans have become, or how ignorant voters in this country are, they are operating from an assumption that Americans know HOW to engage with government and simply choose not to. My students have taught me that we’re all wrong. We know most Americans don’t know who represents them at the various levels of government, but we assume that they could find out. And we’re wrong.

Incredibly, the first part of this semester-long project — namely, identifying the people who represent you … just finding their names! — is the single hardest part of the whole damn project. Let that sink in. Just finding out who is advocating on your behalf is harder than researching their background, contacting them, or going to a meeting at which they preside.

Theories of political science are endlessly fascinating for many of us, no question. But if we want our students to engage in critical thought about how groups of representatives make decisions for the rest of us, we’d better start by ensuring they understand, at a FAR more basic level, how this whole thing works. If we want the American public to trust our institutions, believe that our elected officials work on our behalf, and live a more informed and engaged life, we’d better start by demystifying what feels, to so many of our compatriots, like an impossibly opaque system.

There are those in my discipline who would say that I’m taking a rigorous academic course and making it a civics class, the likes of which they should’ve paid more attention to in eighth grade. Honestly, at this juncture, I’m beyond caring what those critics would say. When learning is centered on making the seemingly opaque more relevant to the life of the learner, long-term impacts are possible. When students understand who is working on their behalf, and start to see those people as … well, people, the salience of everything else we want to teach gets a boost.

I’m eager to see how this semester goes, and be sure that I will let you know. I’m also going back to that political science conference next January to report my findings and hopefully inspire other lofty academics to reshape how they think about what our students do or do not know.

I belong at a community college

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I've ended up where I needed to be -- Douglas Adams

Whenever I pause to think about how fortunate I am to work at a community college, and then probably feel a little bit guilty that I’ve found a place that so thoroughly makes me feel the good feels that come when you do something you genuinely love … I have to remind myself that sometimes we fall into the right place, and other times, we decide to make the place we are the right place. There’s something powerful that happens when you decide to love where you are for all that it does provide you, even if it’s not where you thought you would be.

I feel that way. I never expected to have a full-time job at a community college, teaching section after section of American Government … but you know what? It’s the PERFECT place for me. I love my job. I love my students. I love my work. I love my coworkers. I feel insanely lucky that I get paid to do things that genuinely fill me up.

Today was one of those days. I had the chance to write a letter in support of a student who I admire tremendously. The students I meet in the community college setting are a diverse mix of dual-enrollment high school students, freshmen who have come straight from high school, and adults who are coming back to school after a few years — or even decades, and everything in between — out in the workforce.

This cauldron of diverse experiences means our conversations in class are richer, with more viewpoints represented, people who can share their lived truths in ways that resonate strongly with important themes in the study of government.

So when one of these students hits a bump along the path, I feel so fortunate to be one of the people there to help them move past it. I’ve written impassioned letters on behalf of many students in the past, and I feel a sense of satisfaction after each one, but there is a special kind of wonderful that happens when you can help someone who you know hasn’t had a lot of help in his or her life.

When I interviewed for my job at my current institution, the committee did not ask me the right question to elicit the answer I wanted to give, so I just demanded they let me give it anyway. It is the story of my single most rewarding moment as a teacher, one that still damn near moves me to tears, roughly 12 years later. I was teaching remedial college writing at a community college in Texas; after taking my class, my students were asked to write a persuasive five-paragraph essay, which a team of us would read (anonymously) to assess whether they were ready for college-level writing courses.

I had a student that semester who made significant improvement in her writing. At the beginning of the semester, I remember so clearly her coming to me after class one day and saying, “I don’t understand. I was a straight-A student in high school. How am I behind in college?” (This was the moment I decided No Child Left Behind was BS.) Once she figured out what we were looking for in an essay, she found a formula that worked for her to present her points clearly, forcefully, and proficiently. She used that same formula on her exit test, and both she and I were confident in her success.

And then … a heartbreaking call. The director of our writing program called to say that her essay and another student’s essay were nearly identical, and because the assessment team couldn’t be sure who was the original author, both students would fail. Adrenaline pumping, I asked him if I could provide him with examples of my student’s writing, as I was confident she had followed her formula on this exit essay. Within minutes, I emailed him a scan of her most recent essay.

A few days later, I was on campus, grading essays from other students, and that director came in with the plagiarized essay and the email I’d sent. The structure of the paragraphs (transition words, etc.) were identical. There was absolutely no question that she was its author. The other student eventually confessed to having found my student’s essay on the computer in the testing room, changing a few words, and submitting it as his or hers. Exoneration! Vindication!

But my sense of triumph turned into something far deeper when my student called me on my cell phone. She said, “I have NEVER had ANYONE fight for me like that. You are the first person who has ever believed in me. Thank you.”

………

I was stunned silent.

Can you imagine reaching the age of 18 (or greater) and having NEVER have someone fight for you? To feel like nobody has ever believed in you before? It breaks my heart. At the same time, being the person who could do that for her? It is a humbling experience, without a doubt.

These are the stakes we work with at a community college. Some of our students come through our door having been told their entire lives that they aren’t smart enough for school. They don’t know whether they will succeed. Some don’t even try, because if they try and fail, that seems like it would be worse than not trying at all.

But if we can inspire trust, and maybe even a spark of hope, and genuinely BELIEVE in the promise of our students? They can do magical things, and we then get to behold their magic. It’s like that old Henry Ford quote: “If you think you can, or you think you cannot, you are right.” If we believe in our students, and if we can somehow reach them enough to help them believe in themselves, they will be successful. It might not be the vision of success we had, but they will find their own success, their own path.

I’ve worked at public 4-year universities; I  spent a year teaching at a private, liberal arts college. But despite what I might’ve told you a decade ago, I wouldn’t “trade up” from my job at the community college for anything — prestige, money, or a lower teaching load. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got the best job in academia, and I’m grateful, daily, to have earned it. To spend time with my students is to spend time being humbled by their work ethic, grit, and hope.

Synchronicity & current events

The human brain is a magnificent thing. No matter what you’re currently mulling over in your free time, there’s a good chance that it will pop up in other areas of your life in unexpected ways.

And so yesterday, when I was furiously trying to finish my latest book, A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s War with the West, by Luke Harding (a reporter at The Guardian in London), I came across this passage:

A Very Expensive Poison coverThe Kremlin’s aim was to avoid an evidence-led inquiry … and to confuse the public mind. The numerous ‘versions’ of [one man’s] murder … were part of a sophisticated media strategy with its roots in KGB doctrine. … There were multiple explanations. How was one supposed to know which one was actually true?

In fact, the aim is to blur what is true with what is not, to the point that the truth disappears altogether. By noisily asserting something is false, you create a fake counter-reality. In time this constructed sovereign version of events becomes real — at least in the minds of those who are watching. (pp. 386-387)

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that a book about Putin’s efforts to disrupt democratic society in the west would turn up something that was so incredibly relevant yesterday. But then, just a couple of hours later, I was listening to one of my staple podcasts, Slate’s The Gist, and the next episode included an interview with NPR’s On the Media hostess extraordinaire, Brooke Gladstone. She was there to talk about her new book, The Trouble with Reality (which I’ve now ordered). In this episode, she talks about the many ways in which the truth is obscured by the “baubles” the current political climate generates (crowd size, anyone?).

This calls to mind something I’ve found myself sharing with students with alarming frequency in recent years — a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US senator from New York (who, sadly, died in 2003):

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

It’s almost quaint, isn’t it? How cute. How the world has changed.

I think many of us, especially those who have — at one time or another — been drawn to journalism as a career option / opportunity / vocation, want to believe that there is The Truth out there, waiting to be discovered. But unfortunately, we increasingly live in a world where commonly agreed-upon facts are harder to find. When you have someone as cunning as Putin (or as inept as Trump) deliberately trying to obfuscate the truth, and a segment of the mass public who is willing to defend their support of that person to preserve their own cognitive sanity (which I understand — I really do), then the opportunities for mass misinformation run rampant.

And that’s the world in which we now live, I fear.

It’s the world in which I now teach, sadly.

And it makes reasoned, rational, informed discussion nearly impossible.

To wit: Last night, a former student who is (well, was) a Facebook friend sent me a message. I won’t share it with you, but suffice it to say it was (at best) marginally tethered to the truth, a lengthy rant about how Trump can solve all our economic and political problems with a few “common-sense” solutions not even remotely feasible or (in some cases) legal. I sent this person a quick message asking her to leave me off distribution lists for these sorts of messages. She immediately replied: “I tell you what I will delete you and we never have to worry again.”

The world will get no better when we cannot talk across differences; in fact, it will get worse.

When we inhabit bubbles of our own facts, we lose so, so much — compassion, common ground, any hope of resolving differences, and ultimately the very foundation of our small-D democratic (and small-R republican) form of government.

I don’t know how to end this. I do what I do because I have hope, and as an educator I must believe in the power of knowledge to make the world a better place. I keep fighting the good fight (educating my students) and hope my efforts at understanding, compassion, and kindness grease the wheels for true connection.

Carry on, friends.

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