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Summary of 10/21/05 Discussion
with Anne Flor-Stagnato and Shayna Israel
"What are the contracts between teachers and students at Bryn Mawr?"

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Rebecca Baglini (Linguistics), Jody Cohen (Education), Anne Dalke (English), Eva De Angelis, Anne Flor-Stagnato (Comp Lit), Natsu Fukui, Paul Grobstein (Biology), Barbara Hall (Education), Thea Hutchinson, Shayna Israel (Economics/Sociology), Li-Huan Lai, Jess Mausner, Connie Shriver, Kate Stein, Winnie Tang (East Asian Studies).

Anne and Shayna asked us to think about students' and teachers' expectations of one another. Do the study groups and workshops offered for math majors, for instance, suggest that there is a disconnect between what teachers are offering, and students are receiving? If social interactions outside class are as valuable (or more) than the classes themselves, what are grades signaling? Not levels of intelligence, but rather "how well we conform to the system"? Are students getting good grades by acting as "tape recorders," spitting out, in slightly altered forms, what teachers have said? Maybe these students don't know how to learn? Maybe some teachers don't know how to teach?

What are the unspoken contracts which guide our classroom interactions? What are the expectations that students and teachers have for themselves, and for each other? It was suggested that "teachers here think they should not have to make you want to learn"; they don't think it's in their contract to "try and interest their students." There was disagreement about whether this was a good thing: shouldn't teachers try to include students from all different backgrounds, rather than assuming an intrinsic motivation? Should teachers pressure students, and raise their expectations for their performance? Or should students be "on their own"? Is it up to you how much you put into a class?

What does it mean to be engaged? To know what is going on, and be able to participate? To be given the necessary background, in a class you've never taken before? To feel, in one's body, that the onus/direction/catalyst of the class has shifted from the instructor to the group?

Is anything "given," in a classroom? What kind of dynamic do you have a right to expect? Should teachers be all-knowing, or should they guide their students with questions that lead them to make their own conclusions? Are they required to make the theoretical more concrete?

Participants described several classes in which the expectations of students and teachers were not congruent: a teacher who repeatedly "returns to the text" when the students want "real world" applications; a teacher who expects class members to conduct their own discussion, when the students need him to organize and guide the conversation between majors in different disciplines; a teacher who reads his lectures ("it's rare to see his own thinking"), and so fails to respond to students' questions; a seminar which is not offering practical guidance in how to write a senior thesis.

Some students seem to be looking for more explicit direction, others for less. Can we assume a level of professionalism here, where you can approach your professor in an open culture of critique, and expect her to be responsive to your concerns? Can we require professors to request mid-term course evaluations? Does disguide.com actually alter the way professors teach, or just steer those who wouldn't like a certain style away from it?

It was suggested that we had "two separate questions" on the table: useful feedback (on small, negotiable issues) which might be heard and responded to in the course of a semester, and broader questions of pedagogical intent, which can not be expected to change quickly. Are such issues really categorically non-negotiable? Can't students help teachers change how they think? To help them "get out of a rut"? Are there teachers who will be changed by things students do? Yes--but not always on a short-term basis. And do some students prefer the banking method? Yes.

We closed our discussion by agreeing to take on some classes as case studies; our first "case" will be Paul's class in "Neurobiology and Behavior." We intend to invite members of the student curriculum committee, the honor board, and the mediation group to join us in this and future discussions.

In the interim, the discussion is warmly invited to continue on the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning." We will meet again on November 4, when Janet Rhi will tell her "Stories about Teaching English in Rural Poland."

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