College classes are funny. Each school offers a variety of them, offering choice and diversity from which students select the sections that meet three critical criteria, in this order of priority: 1) the course meets the requirements of their degree program, 2) the course is available when they are, and 3) the course sounds interesting to them. It surprises me when I see students examining a list of course offerings, choosing to go with a class that’s on the list of options rather than one that’s on their list of interests. Rather than tapping into what our students actually care about, we dictate to them what they should want to learn.

That whole setup seems a bit stifling to me, going against cultural suggestions to live one’s dreams, follow one’s calling, or find one’s element. We create classes that we care about and hope students will take them because of a shared interest. How much more would students engage with courses if their interests the centerpiece, boosted by our expertise?

Changing the Focus

This semester, I hope to find out.

I started class today by asking what students cared about. I’ve asked in the past things like, “What do you want out of life?” At my current school, an answer of “to make six figures” is commonplace and accepted without reaction. I started to develop an image of students on my campus as young, selfish people driven by money, not passion. That perception troubled me, making me worry that pessimism was taking over my outlook.

One semester, I tried to have my classes work with Janine DeBaise’s. Janine teaches writing courses at SUNY ESF—their Environmental Sciences & Forestry college. To say her students arrive with consistent, shared passions is, from my perspective at a general liberal-arts school, an understatement. The differences between our student bodies became evident to us and the students, and we quickly lost our ability to keep our classes in sync (or even mutually interested in each other’s work).

This semester, I’m trying again. I’m fighting against my growing pessimism and working to focus student efforts on problems that are bigger than their paychecks. On Day One, I asked questions to set the tone of big-picture issues. Overall, I asked, “What do you care about?” But because that’s a super-broad question, I broke it down into other ways of looking at the issue, asking for…

  • a really important topic that you’re passionate about
  • something that everyone should be more aware of, think more carefully about, or take action on
  • the most critical issue in today’s society
  • a cause you’d most eagerly join or get behind
  • something you’d like to accomplish in 3½ months regarding each of your interests
  • an audience who needs to hear about these issues

A Promising Start

That seemed to do the trick. Students shared their ideas with one another and formed larger groups that then tried to find common interests. In each of my two classes today, I ended with two broad issues of general concern to which all present nodded their consent. These issues, with luck, will form the basis of our work and thinking.

And you know what? They’re broad, selfless, and socially relevant. I’m proud of what today’s conversations led to, and my pessimism was completely suppressed. I’m starting to wonder what created the difference a while back with the profit-minded students. Do this semester’s students have a broader perspective? Did I phrase the question more meaningfully to tap into something bigger than themselves?

In any case, here’s what we’ll be working on:

  • combatting the pervasive belief that violence is an answer to problems, including bombings and mass shootings
  • questioning the effects of power on a person’s behavior and thinking, particularly in political arenas
  • cultural communication and connections, including racism, educational opportunities, and parenting
  • ethical issues, including sports controversies, terrorist activities, and animal/environmental rights

My two initial reactions to these topics give me a great deal of hope. First, these are exciting issues and questions, and the work we do related to them will likely feel meaningful and provocative. Second, I’m by no means an active expert in any of these conversations, so I’ll have to be on watch for new ideas, and I’ll be relying on students to bring their own contributions to the table.

These topics that they chose feel very real, very relevant, and very timely to me. I’m excited for this semester, and I look forward to seeing whatever kind of work we can create.

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