Faculty examine classroom dynamic, culture

What defines the culture of a Williams classroom? To what extent does a universal “Williams student” exist in this classroom and how does that student influence its culture? Two weeks ago, faculty and students discussed these questions at a Claiming Williams forum on the “Culture of the Williams Classroom,” led by Karen Swann, professor of English. Although taking the time to examine classroom behavior may seem a luxury on such a busy campus, faculty at the College frequently assess and reflect upon how students shape the discussions held in their classes, and have continued the discussions provoked by the classroom forum.

Analysis of – and, in many cases, dissatisfaction with – the culture of a Williams classroom is not a new mode of thought among professors. “One reason I wanted to do the classroom forum was that I was on the Committee on Diversity and Community back in 1995, when we undertook a study of classroom culture,” Swann said. The study involved interviewing students and faculty and writing a report examining a “typical Williams classroom and its tensions.”

An overarching finding was that classroom discussions were stilted by students’ extreme politeness. “Almost all agreed that it’s important to be aware and respectful of others in conversations about difficult subjects, but many felt that a form of Williams civility seemed to mute or suppress differences of opinion, making it hard for participants in a discussion to say what they thought,” the report read. It offered suggestions for improving the classroom dynamic, including drawing attention to the importance of the classroom culture through regular faculty and student workshops.

“There was no official administrative response to the report’s recommendations,” Swann said. The report, which was sent to committees, administrators and department chairs, among other members of the College community, did generate interest for a few years, resulting in innovations such as a Winter Study course examining the Williams classroom, a weekly radio call-in talk show and a semester course called “The Philosophy and Politics of Higher Education in the U.S.”

But interest in the report faded. Fourteen years later, many professors still see the same issues in their own classrooms. Although interpretations differ, many professors agree that the Williams classroom is imbued with a sense of heavy conscientiousness, leading to well thought-out – perhaps too thought-out and thus too few – student comments in discussions. This characteristic especially catches the attention of some new faculty, who have memories of teaching at other colleges fresh in their minds.

“Students act almost as if they’re at a job interview,” said Travis Gosa, professor of Africana studies, who attended the classroom culture forum. Gosa came to the College from Johns Hopkins University at the beginning of this year and has done research in sociology and education. “They often pause and really think through what they’re about to say,” he said. “They’re aware of how they are presenting themselves.”

Gosa believes that although some degree of preparedness is necessary for a good discussion, the high level of comment premeditation he often sees can be detrimental to the classroom dynamic. “There’s too much emphasis on how comments and opinions will be received by peers and by me,” he said. At Johns Hopkins, where Gosa taught seminar courses, “the professor is like a coach on the sideline, guiding but letting the players play. Students are willing to express controversial opinions,” he said. “I feel like Williams students have an unwillingness to be wrong, to take the long, inconvenient path towards knowledge.”

Gosa believes that the “hurry to get to the right answer” can be partly attributed to the hours students spend each day involved in extracurricular activities. The typical Williams student “plays three instruments, is on two sports teams and just got back from traveling abroad in 14 countries,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to really think through issues [discussed in class]. Some students don’t have enough leisure time to grapple with the complexities, which is an important part of being a student.”

Leslie Brown, a history professor who attended the forum and came to the College this year from Washington University, doesn’t think that extracurricular commitments cause more than occasional logistical problems, but has noticed a heightened sense of student politeness. However, she doesn’t see that conscientiousness as unfavorable. “There is a special culture of civilities here,” she said. “I had heard that Williams students are serious, dedicated and with an intellectual bent, and it’s true. People will pursue topics for the pure joy of learning. They take time to engage in a topic, finish the reading as opposed to skimming over it, rise to the challenge.”

While she agrees with Gosa that students are conscious about how they present themselves to professors, she views that characteristic in a more positive light. “Students care what faculty thinks and are willing to give to the faculty,” she said. “I think that’s a great reason to work hard.”

Gail Newman, professor of German and comparative literature, also attended Swann’s forum and said she has seen classroom reticence throughout her 25 years of teaching at the College. “There’s no question that Williams students in the classroom are more reserved than at other places,” she said. She believes that location is a main contributing factor, that perhaps being surrounded by mountains isn’t conducive to every aspect of learning. “The College is isolated, and there’s no opportunity for anonymity,” she said. “If you reveal yourself, there’s literally nowhere to go where that’s not potentially coming back at you.”

Gosa agreed. “There’s no anonymity – if you say the wrong thing in class about blacks, women, an author’s thesis, there’s concern that it will follow you,” he said. “I’ve heard students say that the only time they’re not presenting themselves to the world is when they’re asleep.”

Some discussed the possibility that years of schooling may have stamped a particular manner of discussion into students’ minds. “Kids internalize very early that there’s a notion that the way you should talk in class is by demonstrating proficiency,” Newman said. Professors, after spending their lives succeeding in the lands of academia, have also learned to act in specific ways in the classroom. “We have all been trained to know the answer or die,” she said. “But there are ways to discuss and be open-ended but nonetheless rigorous.”

Of course, not every Williams classroom sees highly self-conscious, limited discussions. Newman admires her younger colleagues for their innovative approaches to facilitating discussion. “I love watching them and talking to them because it refreshes my own pedagogy,” she said. In the past few years, she added, new faculty members are coming from a variety of programs and a diversity of types of previous schools, leading to “a more accepting pedagogy.”

“There is a definite Williams way, [characterized by] a lack of anonymity,” she said. “But that core of the Williams way is getting elaborated in new ways.”

Richard So, professor of comparative literature, who came to the College this year from Columbia University, did not find constrained discussion to be a problem in his first semester courses, particularly in his seminar called “U.S. and China: Foreign Cultural Relations.” While he agreed that “the standard Williams student is extremely prepared, refined and savvy” and comes to class with a sense of professionalism, those characteristics helped, not hindered, his classes. “In general, I feel like the discussions were open, and we talked about all sorts of sensitive subjects,” he said. “There were always elements of reservations, but my students were quite comfortable speaking their minds without barriers.”

He noted that perhaps his young age created similar cultural reference points to those of students, and the size of the class – 11 students – encouraged students to be less inhibited in speaking. Additionally, So included innovative teaching techniques such as assigning a student to lead discussion each day instead of him and holding outside-of-class three-student tutorial meetings to critique formal papers. “It’s possible that in the first four to five weeks, conversation was more stilted, but unless I was not able to see students who were still anxious – a real community did form,” he said. “It was less of a formal classroom and more of what a true seminar should be, where students didn’t see me as the authority figure.”

Vincent Schleitwiler, professor of English, also came to the College this year and hasn’t seen many problems with the classroom culture. He agreed that “students take classroom discussion very seriously and tend to think very carefully before they speak up.” However, “the level of participation in discussion classes is exceptional,” he said. “While I’ve found that students need to be encouraged to express disagreement with each other or with the ideas presented in course readings, it hasn’t been too difficult to make that happen.”

So finds the campus culture to be “so strong that everyone has the same way of being a student … but there are 100 ways of being a student,” he said. “There aren’t that many eccentric students who ignore social aspects to do exactly what they want to do,” he added. “Students here are intellectually passionate but also success-oriented and risk-averse. They’d rather write a solid paper that they know they’d get an A minus on than take a risk and write one they could get an A or a C on.” He believes that if students reflect upon these issues and become more aware of their behavior, it will be easier to change.

Newman agreed that the classroom dynamic can change if students become aware of their behavior in discussions and actively learn new skills, including posing questions instead of offering an answer and thinking in terms of “to what extent” and “how” instead of “why.” Academia emphasizes the importance of writing well, but “we don’t have speaking as a critical skill,” she said.

Additionally, students must be brave in order to share radical ideas in discussion. “Choosing to speak or not to speak is a complicated decision – I’ve become more humble about not knowing what students are thinking,” Newman said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned about students is that there’s a lot more than there seems to be on the surface of the classroom,” noting that this is sometimes stifled in the classroom setting. “When you talk to students individually, the faceting – how intelligent, multi-layered and intellectually creative they are – is unbelievable. Faculty get frustrated because we want to get to know people through class discussion.”