May 13, 2010
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
The e-mail was short and decidedly sweet: “I just wanted you to know I graduated and got my degree. Thanks for all of your help.”
I searched my memory to recall this former student, one who rolled into class a little scraggly with that “just out of bed” look. I learned not to judge students by attire or level of physical dishevelment. This student actively participated in my Thursday morning Intro to Political Science class at the Community College of Vermont. His knowledge of current events and well-written essays were impressive. Only later would he explain that his academic career at a selective liberal arts college was derailed — by alcohol. CCV, he hoped, would serve as his ticket for re-admission to the school he was asked to leave.
Teaching at a college with small class sizes allows me to get to know my students as learners and people. Fifteen students enrolled in my course this semester. We sat around a table, discussing political concepts. The intimacy of our space left little room for texting, sleeping or being otherwise disengaged. We were not distanced by a lecture hall, video screen or legions of teaching assistants. An acquaintance who teaches Biology at a state university had 200 students and 15 undergraduate teaching assistants this semester. I’m impressed by the numbers and fully recognize it’s not for me.
My goals as an instructor include fostering a sense of community while challenging students to develop crucial reading, writing, public speaking and critical thinking skills. Traditional readings and lectures are complemented by theater, poetry, film, music and art interpretation activities.
Some students shine in their writing. Others may sparkle in an oral presentation. One student strummed a ukulele while making the case for alternative energy. Another served beef bourguignon and an Abenaki sweet potato soup while delivering a presentation on the “politics of food.”
When studying totalitarianism, students viewed an informal “gallery of totalitarian art” posted in our classroom. They served as docents, applying textbook learning to tease out political messages embedded in images from Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia. We explored the concept of war via poetry, sitting in a circle while reciting Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Frost verses inspired by The Great War. Our study of utopian systems of Plato and Francis Bacon concluded with students creating and acting out commercials enticing others to join their “perfect” worlds.
Political science courses require vast amounts of reading and writing. I tell students up front I’m picky, extremely picky, about writing. Weekly papers are assessed based on structure, grammar, punctuation and the distillation of one’s unique thoughts in response to readings. Synopses are boring. Genuine, well-articulated reactions to writings by William F. Buckley, Machiavelli and Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrate deeper understanding. I encourage strong writers — and I’ve seen many — to commit to paper their best, most-polished work. Students who struggle with writing receive specific, supportive feedback on how to structure, edit and strengthen their pieces. It’s particularly satisfying to see a student with limited skills realize considerable strides over the course of a semester. I set high expectations. To do otherwise would be a disservice to my students.
Most of the students I encounter juggle jobs with homework. Some work full time and/or raise children as single parents. A few struggle with mental illness. One lived in her car for several weeks. Immigrants — from places like Bosnia, Moldova and Mongolia — painstakingly complete homework with dictionaries at their side.
There’s a point in the semester — typically around week 12 — when someone “falls out of the canoe.” He or she simply drops out of class without a word. As deadlines mount, some students give in to overwhelming pressure.
Witnessing this phenomenon too many times, I’ve since instituted a practice that, I hope, helps keep folks gliding along in our communal canoe. I invite students to silently ponder the following questions: “What is your ambition?” “What is your dream?” There is often a difference between the two. I advise them to write their answers inside their front notebook covers. Pursuing one’s ambitions and dreams often requires delayed gratification. For those who might give up, I gently remind them that someone is always waiting in the wings, ready to take their place.
I teach at CCV because I love the diversity of the students I encounter. I am privileged to work with young — and not so young — people investing the time, money and hard work required to realize their educational goals. Some will fall out of the canoe. A few will swim back, climb in and paddle to their intended destination. If that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is.