Tuesday, March 30, 2010

So Many Teachable Moments

During a period of my childhood, I lived in Canada where my father ran a Canadian subsidiary of an American company. I had the good fortune to go to a private boy’s school which had many customs that would be unthinkable in contemporary American educational institutions. For example, we all wore uniforms; students were not allowed to enter the front doors of any buildings—only the “masters” could; and when a “master” entered a classroom, all students immediately stood as a form of respect. There was a pervading sense of order, stability, predictability.

Fast forward some fifty years for me, one of the laments I hear frequently from faculty who teach beginning college students is descriptions of classroom behavior which can be aptly summarized as “disrespectful”. There are many explanations for this diminished respect for authority, tracing origins to the Vietnam War era when an endless succession of events and culture changes epitomized a decline of respect for established institutions and individuals, from the Presidency, to corporations, the military, the Catholic church, etc.

It is no wonder that college students do not respect academic authority. They have spent 50% more time watching television by the time they reach age 18 than they have in formal school classrooms, and the idiot tube certainly doesn’t teach respect. And most recently, the year in which our newest new students entered college, there have been all sorts of cultural events manifesting this decline of respect and decorum. No wonder they do not behave as we would like them to. Just witness over the past few months:

1. An elected member of Congress interrupting a speech by the President of the United States and calling him a liar;

2. Members of the US House of Representatives applauding verbal taunts from visitors in the gallery;
3. A demonstrator last weekend spitting on an African American Member of the House of Representatives, a celebrated former civil rights activist, who was also the recipient of the “n” word;
4. Another demonstrator calling a gay Member of the House of Representatives by a derogatory term descriptive of his sexual orientation (another freedom some would like to remove from our society);
5. And Tea Party demonstrators in Columbus, Ohio, hurling insults and money on a disabled man as a form for mockery of government provided health care for such individuals in need, this one who also happened to be a Veteran of the Armed Forces.

Yes, this is a period rich with extraordinary opportunities to ask students to join you in reflection on the meaning of respect and its role in the educational process. There are so many examples of disrespectful behavior that we have a veritable feast of teachable moments. Some questions for thought and discussion perhaps:

1. What does respect mean to you?
2. How do you convey that towards others?
3. Whom do you respect, and why?
4. How have being in environments either characterized by a culture of respect, or the opposite, affected your ability to learn in such environments?

These questions recall for me one such teachable moment I had when teaching University 101 at the University of South Carolina.

One class day, I took my students to the student union building to attend a staple of the American college scene, the annual “student activities fair” at which licensed student organizations set up booths to hawk their invitational wares. I asked my students to spend 45 minutes or so, walk around, observe the many opportunities for co-curricular joining. They were told by me to be prepared when they returned to class to share something they had learned.

When we returned to class, I asked them to describe something they had learned. The first student who spoke immediately captured the attention of the class when he said: “I learned that I don’t respect you any more!” I invited him to elaborate and he did: “Before we went to this event I respected you because I thought you were like me, “normal”; but I saw you there standing a long time talking to the students at the gay students’ association table”. Well, there we had it. A wonderful teachable moment, when the subject suddenly shifted from opportunities for joining student organizations, to the meaning of homophobia.

Such opportunities to serve as catalysts for examining the meaning of respect abound for all of us, no matter what we teach, or in what capacity we work with students. Students will not become more respectful until they are taught to be such. As always, we are the agents of change.

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