Today in my undergraduate class I planned to cover three separate activities. The first was group work on their projects. The second was a discussion of an article that I handed out. The third was discussion of the readings I had previously assigned and which they had all written about in their journals. The topic of the class was focused on issues of teen sexuality, pregnancy, and parenting.
The readings for this class are some of my favorite for the entire course. Students usually love these readings and this group was no exception, so I was looking forward to a lively and engaged discussion. But at the last minute I had come across this article and thought it would be fun to lead into the readings discussion by getting their reactions to the article. Needless to say, we never made it to the assigned readings.
This group has been "with me" all semester. They are engaged with and turned-on to the class content. Recently I have been noticing a deeper level of analysis in their journal writings and they are quick to point out connections to previous readings and topics. For undergraduate students in my university, this is a rare event.
Today's discussion, which was supposed to last about 15 minutes, took 45 and we only ended because we ran out of time. There was a lot of personal sharing but they managed to stay on track with analyzing the topic as a social issue. There is a fine line with students, I believe, between encouraging discussion/writing/analysis through personal experience and story-telling, over-exposure and shock value. Today felt like we walked the line but ended up on the analytic side.
My field is very applied and practical. Most students coming into it are not used to analyzing social problems. They are more inclined to judge them and the first time we touched on adolescent sexuality this semester that is a lot of what I heard. It was very gratifying to hear them relate their personal experiences in a new context that has been informed by their reading, our previous discussions, and their experiences doing community service (this is a service-learning course).
In one of the assigned readings, the author (a nurse and a poet) discussed the general lack of knowledge she finds women have about their bodies and their sexuality. She argues that this comes from a breakdown in communication: between mothers and daughters specifically but among women generally. Her claim is we no longer learn from the women around us but instead learn from the internet or not at all. This resonated with a lot of the students and part of our discussion today focused on the ways in which we do or do not talk about sex within families.
As more and more students revealed personal aspects of their lives, there was a feeling of delightful surprise, freedom and safety in the room. To some extent, we created what the author had said was lacking. On my way home I thought about what it takes to create that safe space, and to some extent, I believe you need to depart from what is normally taught as appropriate academics.
Earlier in the day one of the students from this class came to visit me during my office hours. She is struggling this semester, both academically and personally, and said she needed to talk with someone about these struggles. Now this student is actually doing fine in my class, so there was actually little reason for her to come and talk to me. However, she said the openness with which we discuss topics in the class led her to think I was the right person for the job. She has approached other professors and been left unsatisfied. As we talked, I realized she really wasn't looking for advice (although I gave her some anyway) so much as to be heard.
I'm not really sure what point I'm trying to make with this post except to say that today, by not being very professorial, I think I was a good professor.