I have never had a “bad” class. I have found certain classes to be more difficult than others, at first, that is, until I find out how best to relate to a specific group of students. I firmly believe that if educators pick and choose which classes were “good” and which are “bad,” they forsake an invaluable tool, that is, their own performance, the one variable in the pedagogical process that they have absolute control of. To consign any difficulty in communicating with students, to the attitude of the students, is to ignore the all-important factor in the equation, their own performance.
My classes oftentimes cover controversial topics. Discussion and debate are great, but sometimes things can get quite heated. If things get too intense, I ask the students to direct the comments to the class as a whole, not to the person they are opposed to. And any invective, or cursing, is strictly forbidden. If a particular point of view on any topic is in the minority, and especially if students try to shout it down, that minority point of view is given extra time to speak. Students are always encouraged to speak their mind on anything. I also tell them that they can play devil’s advocate and pick a position that they do not necessarily believe in. Very often students say, “Now, what do you think, Professor?” I always tell them that the class is their time to express themselves, and if they want to know what I think, stay after class and we can talk.
I have real office hours, at least four hours each week. Students who appear at the allotted time are given my full and attention to discuss the class materials, their career plans, current events or whatever they would like. Unless it is a private matter, there is no need to wait if someone is already in the office. Everyone is invited to come in and join what usually turns out to be a roundtable discussion. On my walk in the evenings after class, to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I invariably stop and have dinner at the African restaurant at 26th Street and Seventh Avenue. I rarely dine alone. One or two students, and at times a half a dozen or more, join me in a repast enlivened by light-hearted, vigorous discussions.
On average, I write a dozen or so detailed recommendations for graduate school each year. And I make it a point to keep in touch with alumni, many of whom return years later to apprise current students of their ongoing careers and the world beyond Baruch. Some were my students more than 30 years ago. I have taught students whose parents were in my class before the student was born. Every other year my family hosts a barbecue and party for past and former students.
I carefully prepare for each class, making careful note beforehand of the particular points I intend to raise. However, instead of lecturing, I ask a series of open ended questions to cover each topic, and I am not averse to taking detours into side issues that our deliberations uncover. I usually give three tests in each class, and though I preview and outline the material to be covered before each exam, substantive discussion of the reading materials only takes place after the students have been tested. Thus, there is always a robust discussion because they have all read and studied the material. Customarily a volunteer panel of students sits in front of the class and spends about 15 minutes or so discussing the material amongst themselves before the audience that is the class. Afterwards we open things up to questions from the floor. These sessions are quite illuminating, not only to the students, but to myself as well. Very often I incorporate the points raised, and the insights revealed ,in subsequent offerings of the same class.
Several of my students have written books that I assisted them with, and wrote prefatory notes for, and which I sometimes assign as texts. A key component of every class is the term project in which students work on teams of from 3 to 6 to intensively investigate a given topic. Towards the end of the term each team makes a joint presentation to the class usually with the aid of a power point slide show. This not only encourages teamwork, it also cultivates speaking, leadership and organizational skills. Baruch being one of the most diverse colleges in the country, the interchange amongst students is invaluable.
We also explore this diversity with a Cultural Exchange Day at the beginning of the term in which each student brings in an item from their home culture ( e.g. a flag, poster, music, food, traditional garb, etc.) and explains it to the class, in an interactive format in which most of the desks are moved to the side and students roam about the roam with their notebooks conversing with each other. In another session at the beginning of the term, we take the class to the school library, where the more than 100 flags, representing the nations from which the study body is drawn, are on display. As we move across the gallery, we stop under each student’s flag and the student provides two or three facts about their home country. Also, each term I take each class on a walk around the Baruch neighborhood pointing out many of the historic sites in our environs. A weekend outing to a museum or a playhouse is also a staple.
We try to minimize anxiety about grades by giving them the opportunity to revise each of the three short papers each student must complete for each class. I believe that pedagogy is a major element of my career as a professor and that college should not be solely devoted to “learning the facts.” It affords a unique opportunity for young people to explore their creativity, develop their interpersonal skills, learn about others and sharpen the critical thinking and their understanding of the world in a manner that will improve their lives, their community and the institution that nurtures them right before they embark on their career paths.
( Arthur Lewin, 11/4/20 )