To be said on the first day of classes: “Whether you like it or not, or believe it or not, when you walk through those doors, you are scholars. Whatever we’re talking about, in whatever field, your ideas are at the cutting edge. I expect nothing less from you and ask that you do the same.”

I stole this move from Erasmus, an early enlightenment thinker in the western middle ages (I think he might have even been a pen pal of Holbein-erasmusMartin Luther). He mostly taught philosophy and theology, and on the first day of classes, when new  students entered the room, he told them they were scholars.

It’s tricky to do this as teachers. Our perceptions reveal much about how we will teach our students and even have implications for how we will let them learn – especially in basic skills courses. Do we believe our students are scholars, thinkers, intellectuals? Do we believe they even belong here?

In one of her essays, Diving In, Mina Shaughnessy writes this tongue-in-cheek colonial metaphor on teacher perceptions towards basic skills students. She says the basic skills teacher tends to go through a series of stages:

When he is assigned a remedial class for the first time, he is GUARDING THE TOWER, protecting the academy from outsiders who don’t belong. Shocked when each new class seems less prepared than the last, he avoids these lower level classes because the unteachable students give him thoughts like, “Would it kill you to write a compound sentence!?” and “What will happen to me if I fail the whole class?”

This teacher, if he sticks at it, might move on to CONVERTING THE NATIVES, when he discovers a few students who show promise, who could make it if they only learned. It is to them that he then directs his brilliantly elegant lectures (i.e. sermons).

But maybe things that seem obvious, and brilliant, and elegant to him, only appear this way because he’s already so familiar with the material. Maybe it’s more opaque to his students. This is when he might start SOUNDING THE DEPTHS, might start creating hypotheses and tracking patterns for how students, despite or because of his lessons, have arrived at a particular error.

In this self reflection, the teacher might even start to consider the possibility that teaching basic skills is not a matter of making the basics simpler but more profound – to both his students and to himself. Here he is now DIVING IN, realizing that he is in fact the student of his students, learning to see their difficulties and brilliance at the same time.

He’s learning how they learn.

For me, every class is different. If I used Shaughnessy’s scale, I think I drift between sounding the depths and actually diving in. Sometimes I only tinker with my curriculum, alter it to pace with my students. But other times I really actually ask, “How do the 30 people in this room learn?” and then I make a whole new class with them. It’s uncomfortable, but wish I did this more often.




4 thoughts on “Scholars

  1. In Sounding the Depths, Shaughnessy says, “. . . how students, despite or because of his lessons, have arrived at a particular error.” I have been thinking a lot about how my students arrive at knowledge despite or because of my lessons. I used to always think “because of,” but I now realize that sometimes it doesn’t make any difference what I do in the classroom. Students learn in the most surprising ways, and my way of teaching only goes so far. I like the sobering thought that students learn without me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do believe basic skills students can handle way more profound material than we assume. When we shift the thinking that’s normally invisible and done at home to the classroom and make it visible–as messy as it can be–we give them instant low stakes assessment and it’s a hell of a lot more fun for everyone.


  3. Hi Benjamin,

    This is fascinating and really sets me in a reflective mood.

    As an aside: my mother has an Ed.D. and is a lecturer at a nearby school. She’s also working on a journal article, but she refuses to call herself a scholar because she considers herself to be more practical than theoretical. (It’s a fun conversation.)


    1. Haha. Well, if we want to get really technical, which I never like to do, the OED says one of the earliest uses of the word was in 1055 by Byrhtferth’s Handboc in Anglia VIII. 308 “Seo ræding pingð þæne scoliere” and this simply referred to a student learning in a school. So I think we’re covered.


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