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Educating Higher: A Call to Action at AAC&U’s 2016 Annual Meeting

In an inspiring Opening Night Forum, “Educating Higher: Toward an Equitable, Innovative Future for Higher Education,” Ernest L. Boyer Award recipient Cathy N. Davidson evoked Boyer’s vision for building student-centered classrooms while issuing a gentle but insistent call for us, the educators, to not limit the student-centered practices and structures we design to classrooms alone. Davidson illuminated a “mismatch between our students’ aspirations and the legacy structures of formal education,” between “our aspiration to help students find their passions” and a “legacy designed to prepare assembly line workers.” As she reminded us, we are still teaching in nineteenth century classrooms. But how, she asked, does our nineteenth century classroom prepare us for the merged world in which we live now, which fits in a computer that fits in the palm of our hand? The answer: “We must create new structures that put equity and engagement at the core.”

Davidson presented Eight Ways to Structure the Classroom for Equity and Engagement. These eight deceptively simple approaches were summarized as follows:

  1. Structure Active Participation (Demonstrated in this session as think-pair-share)
  2. Ask Students to Create a Class Constitution (What I personally refer to as “shared expectations” that are determined in collaboration with the students)
  3. Practice Digital Literacy
  4. Everyone: Raise Your Hand (Inspired by Professor Samuel Delany; see and watch this)
  5. Turn Endings into Beginnings (By having students jot down questions and ideas at the end of class that you work into the beginning of the next class)
  6. Find Ways to Count What You Value (And involve students in the discussion of what is valued in the classroom)
  7. Contribute to Public Knowledge (“I never require students to turn in a paper that I am the only person who will ever read,” Davidson said. “There must always be an audience beyond the teacher and a purpose beyond a grade.”)
  8. End with Asking Students to Write a Mission Statement

Professor Davidson encouraged us to think about the ways we can ask students to contribute what we may not even know they might contribute and to challenge them to set the bar higher than we, the instructors, would. She also reminded us that many of us in the professoriate were straight-A students and that it is hard for us to not think like straight-A students. We have been enculturated through traditions that date more than 150 years into the past, but her methods of structuring the classroom for equity and engagement are not only about deconstructing 150 years of tradition, they are also about deconstructing the identity of the “professor.”

And, almost as a side note, Professor Davidson suggested we consider how these forms of engagement may provide structure for committee meetings and other academic convenings. As she said this, I couldn’t help but be reminded how often we are expected to sit passively in meetings while some well-meaning individual trudges slide-by-slide through a PowerPoint presentation. The lure of PowerPoint is strong in the lives of both administrators and faculty, and though most of us know by now that passive learning environments are not equitable and inclusive, we still habitually fall back on those old stand-and-deliver tactics for information sharing. As Professor Davidson eluded, most of us didn’t learn in active learning environments or engaged classrooms, so it’s no wonder that the sage-on-the-stage model lives on. The question I’m asking tonight, and continuously in my work as a faculty developer, is how will we effectively integrate equitable and engaging structures for learning into our classrooms if we have not experienced and practiced those structures in other environments? Perhaps we can find opportunities to practice engaged instructional techniques outside the classroom, and what better opportunity than the frequent curriculum and committee meetings that are part of academic life?

Davidson insisted that “You can’t counter structural inequality with goodwill.” As nearly 87 percent of full-time tenured professors are white and 60 percent are male, it will be a long time before the professoriate represents the population of students who are enrolling at our institutions. We must change the classroom dynamic now, and, for the students’ benefit and ours, and while we’re at it, let’s integrate structures of equity and engagement into all aspects of academic life, including committee meetings and conference presentations too!

Lott Hill is the executive director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence, Columbia College Chicago.