Not Hearing What Students Have to Say

Last week, I wrote about two lists that a professor had her undergraduates put together, one about what students could do to help learning, the other about what instructors could do.  One interesting result was that students wanted professors to respect them, to get to know their names and something about them.  They wanted what most of us want in this life, some sort of recognition of our humanity.

I’ve found, though a series of recent events, that we’re not very good at actually hearing our students.  That’s partly because we’re busy, juggling committee work and service and research and all of the other demands we have that go beyond the classes we teach, and it’s partly because we think we know so much more than they do that we don’t need to listen to them.  We’re the experts, after all, and we get paid to profess.

In this case, though, I’m not talking about what happens in class, but in how we go about the work of the university, whether in our departments or on a global scale.  I’ll give an example, with a certain amount of vagueness to protect the student.  I was at a book discussion about a month or so ago, and we were talking about Miroslav Volf’s book A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.  Volf was coming to our campus, so we were having a variety of ways people could interact with his work.

Essentially, he’s arguing that Christians who live in a pluralistic world (i.e. our world) tend to react in one of two ways: 1) silence or 2) coercion.  He’s arguing that there should be a third way, a way in which Christians can enter into the public discussions without coercion.  Near the end of the discussion, I asked what I thought was an innocent question (which always gets me into trouble):  Aren’t Christian colleges by their nature coercive?  It seems one should not ask this question at a Christian college.

I don’t need to go into detail here beyond the fact that, when I was trying to clarify my point, I quoted a student email I had received the week before that (I thought) fairly clearly illustrated that this student felt coerced.  What bothered me was not that the other faculty disagreed with me, but that they didn’t hear what the student was saying.  They said that they wouldn’t take the student’s comment to mean what I was saying it meant.  Essentially, they didn’t hear what the student was saying at all, as they were too invested in defending who we are.

I have a more positive example.  A few years ago, I suggested to the department that we start an optional Senior Thesis.  We were doing the preparatory work to start it up, and I added a couple of students to the group talking about how we should structure it.  One question we had was whether it should be a one-hour course or a three-hour course.  I was leaning toward the one-hour option, as it would enable students to fit it in their schedules more easily.  A student pointed out, though, that such an approach would encourage students to think of the class as only requiring a few hours of work a week, which would easily lead to their overcommitting.  The class needed to be three hours to make it clear how much work would be involved.  We went with her suggestion, and it has helped that class be successful, while the one-hour approach seems now that it couldn’t have been anything other than a disaster.

We need to hear students when they talk to us, whether in class or out of class.  We have to hear what’s behind what they’re saying when they talk about assignments or their lives, certainly, but, most importantly, we need to respect them enough to hear what they say about our classes and our universities.  Their experiences are so different from ours, but they are the ones that matter most.  If we want to teach them, we first have to hear them.

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