What does it mean to say something is a “teachable moment”? I’ve been thinking about that question as the committee I chair, the Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History, has focused its attention this semester on developing recommendations about the Log mural depicting Ephraim Williams and “King Hendrick” Theyanoguin (and other English and Mohawk figures), making military plans before they were ambushed at the Battle of Lake George in September 1755.
Should we strive to create a “teachable moment” out of this mural? In the end, I’m not so sure. And I have the students on our committee to thank for making me pause and wonder.
As most in the community know, after the College renovated and reopened the Log, some people raised concerns about the way Mohawks were represented in this decorative piece of art and around the deep irony that such a prominent depiction occupied in a student space when, historically, the College has enrolled so few Native American students. In November, President Adam Falk announced that he decided both to cover the mural and appoint our committee, charged with both working through the question of the Log mural and developing principles to help guide the College when questions about other public decorations emerged. We began meeting in earnest in January.
Knowing there was a lot of confusion about what concerns were raised by the mural, we on the committee began planning for a campus conversation about it. It seemed like a “teachable moment” – a phrase I heard over and over as I talked with people about how to engage or reengage the community’s interest in the mural. We on the committee all thought we should host a forum, but what would that look like? We needed a panel, we imagined at first, that included people with expertise who could help students understand the mural. Would those be “experts” from the outside, I wondered? Our own faculty? Whatever. No doubt, there would be some teaching in that “teachable moment,” along with, we hoped, good discussion.
I’ll digress for a moment and note that if you Google “teachable moment”… well, don’t Google “teachable moment!” It may make you never want to hear the phrase “teachable moment” in a college setting ever again, as it’s rooted in elementary education, connected to helping young children learn about their actions and behavior. Parenting advice these days is also full of talk about “teachable moments” and about seizing those moments in everything from life’s unavoidable challenges to just dumb mistakes kids make. The takeaway for educators and parents alike: Every moment has potentially some larger lesson or value you can instill in it for your children and pupils.
Beyond the fact that it’s exhausting to create endless “teachable moments” as a parent, and most kids wise up to the whole business by the time they’re tweens, what’s the problem here? Talk about the “teachable moment” typically hinges on how and when the person in authority (the teacher, the parent) intervenes or doesn’t intervene to offer insight. Often, too, the “teachable moment” has the end of the lesson plan already determined. But on Sunday night, when the forum on the Log mural took place, I saw something very different than a “teachable moment.”
The students on the committee had taken over the planning for the forum weeks before and had long since ditched the idea of a panel of experts. They took all the initiative for structuring the conversation, and using the rubric of Sunday night “Storytime” at the College, they decided they would each tell a very different “story” about the mural. Some were more personal than others, some more critical, some more narrative, some more analytical. They researched and looked at images; talked to professors and staff; wrote out their stories; shared their ideas and talked with and listened to each other. I can imagine the process wasn’t always easy for them. But they created a conversation that then allowed those who attended to expand on their observations and ideas. This, in turn, allowed us to learn a great deal as a committee.
Doesn’t this just describe a “teachable moment”?! Such a glib phrase actually got turned on its head in Sunday’s forum. Students, not teachers, were in charge of the event, and while teaching and learning certainly happened, the forum also offered individuals a place simply to reflect together on the questions raised by the mural. The lesson plan was not predetermined by anyone. As we on the committee eventually turn from the Log mural to looking at other spaces and decorations on campus, my great hope is that we can bring the kinds of fresh approaches the students used this past Sunday to help engage the community in the visible forms the College’s history has taken on campus.
Karen Merrill is the chair of the history department and Frederick Rudolph ’42 – Class of 1965 Professor of American Culture.