Week 11, or A Classroom Should Be…

The high from last week spilled over into this one: I started out enthusiastic from putting on another successful Lemon Porch Talk, getting my article from the Junto republished on HASTAC.org, and finding out that I would be a HASTAC scholar for the next two years. Despite the feelings of excitement from gaining new Twitter followers and relief from actually finishing all my readings for once, I ended the week on a contemplative note.

I’ve been thinking about classrooms– how they are both sacred and contested, places of refuge but not life rafts. And while it was at first difficult to think of what exactly the magic of a classroom is, I could very quickly discern what it was not. It is not a place where participants interrupt each other, disagree aggressively or otherwise check out all together. It is not a place where hesitant attempts to contribute in discussion are met with snickers or side bar comments. It is not a place where you may take a pejorative or patronizing tone when explaining something that everyone else might not know. While these dynamics are understandable to a degree– excitement causes interruptions and the need to whisper your thought so as not to interrupt the person speaking can be understood– explaining away the problem does not negate the facts.

These dynamics are not conducive to a fruitful classroom environment.

If this is what I do not want my classroom to be, then what do I want it to be?

A Classroom Should Be…

  • A Safe Space; but that does not mean it is always comfortable. As an undergraduate at UVA, one of the first things I learned was that I loved my classrooms. I felt free to learn, make mistakes, and grow. As I took more classes, I realized that even though I loved growing intellectually, it was often uncomfortable. Professor Harold challenged me constantly, Professor Woolfork told me I wasn’t always right, Professor McGrady encouraged me to do the hardest thing I could imagine– because even if I failed, I could say I’d been courageous enough to try. I used to think those professors hated me, but they loved me. They loved me enough to force me out of my comfortable patterns of thought and actions so I would grow. It was tough love, but love nonetheless.
  • Conducive to learning. In order to learn, there is a certain amount of vulnerability one must have, and I believe we must respect and protect students in their moments of vulnerability. We need to make our students feel empowered and encouraged to share, because fear of being wrong is hard enough as it is.
  • A Workspace. In a classroom, learning is a communal process. A good class is one where I not only develop a rapport with the professor but my classmates as well. They become your teammates. One of the best classes I’ve ever taken was Interracialism my first semester in grad school, and the five of us fed off of each other, built off of each other, learned from each other, encouraged each other. It was beautiful, and I wouldn’t have learned as much without my team.
  • A Space for Mistakes. I have made my fair share of mistakes and misinterpretations in the years and years in which I have been a student. I have indeed failed a quiz or two in my lifetime. There have been moments in which I have read every page of an assigned book and got absolutely nothing out of it. (Seriously, it happened just last week.) You won’t understand everything, you won’t ace everything, and you will occasionally follow a train of thought so far in the wrong direction that there’s no coming back. But part of the process is feeling free to go in the wrong direction and fall down a few times.

For a classroom to feel like this, it requires certain degrees of trust and respect that sometimes, admittedly just aren’t there.

Classrooms are hard spaces to “get right” and there’s no formula for it. Particularly since every classroom has a different purpose, a different professor, a different space, and most importantly, a different combination of students. Just one minute difference will change the tone of an entire class. As a scholar whose duty lies in the classroom just as much as it does in my research, I’m making a point now to think through power dynamics of the classroom and decide what I can do to create the kind of environment I would want to learn in.

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