Changing the Culture

There’s one idea I keep encountering in the reading I do about teaching that has been sticking with me.  It’s probably one of the more difficult aspects, of teaching, I think, but also one of the most important.  A variety of writers talk about changing the culture of a classroom (or, really, the classroom) and how to go about doing so.

What they mean by that is that the professor should be intentional about creating the community or culture she wishes to see.  Thus, if she wants a good deal of discussion, she should talk to the students about why discussion is important, then arrange the class in such a way that students are essentially forced (or strongly encouraged, I suppose) into talking.  If she wants to encourage work outside of the classroom, she has to arrange the class in such a way to make that happen and talk to the students about why that work matters.

Most of us simply assume students know why we do what we do, and we hope they’ll go along with what we plan on doing for the class.  Then, when we ask questions and no one responds, we get frustrated with the students (and, sometimes, with teaching, in general).  We expect students to behave the way we would behave (at this point in our lives, I should add, as we were often as bad as or worse than our students, if we’re honest).

For example, I try to encourage discussion in my classes.  When I put students into groups and make people speak randomly, I’m trying to create a culture where everyone knows I expect them to talk and where they feel comfortable doing so.  In some classes, I use posts that they put online the night before/morning of class and call on them to contribute.  At times, these approaches encourage students to speak more freely than they would otherwise.  However, I haven’t done a good job of talking about why I think discussion matters, so I’m not sure I’ve created a culture as much as simply forced students to participate (which is still good, but could be better).

I’ve also begun to wonder about this idea as it relates to a department or university.  How does one, especially a faculty member, change the culture in the wider academic setting.  Unlike our classrooms, where we largely have control and voice, we often don’t when it comes to our departments and beyond.  If one is in a department that doesn’t value teaching, for example (thankfully, not my department), the question of if and how one can change that culture is rather important (at least to someone who values teaching).

Certainly, one can raise the issue again and again, even bringing in examples of good teaching and celebrating it wherever it appears, even if one has no official capacity to do so.  One can also band together with others who want to see the culture changed and work with them to try to change the conversation.  Clearly, such an approach is much more challenging, but just as worthwhile.

In both cases, we need to speak often about what we value and why.  We cannot simply assume that students know why we ask them to do what we do, nor can we assume faculty share our culture, even though we are in the same profession.  If we want to see the classes and departments and universities we want, we need to work intentionally to create them.



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