According to a July Pew Research study, nearly 60 percent of Republicans and right-leaning Independents believe that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. In comparison, that percentage is about 20 percent among Democrats and left-leaning Independents.
Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me. In my experience teaching at various colleges and universities in the Twin Cities during the past 20 years, it has become clear that personal beliefs often are elephants in the (class)room. Countless times, students have told me they were reassured to be taught by a Christian faculty member. Some of my colleagues and I have agonized for years over how transparently to let our personal views be known, both in terms of what we emphasize in our courses and in how we express our opinions to students.
Interviews with seasoned faculty members
This semester, I am on sabbatical, a time for working on projects for which I don’t normally have the time. Because I wanted to better understand some of these dynamics, I decided to interview a dozen seasoned faculty members, in various academic departments, at teaching colleges and universities across the Twin Cities. In a climate of increasing demands for faculty research, the focus of these interviews was a subject I fear we often don’t discuss enough: teaching and learning in higher education. I have even observed a few teachers. Ultimately, I was interested in how faculty desire that their students develop during college and university, and how those desires come through in what transpires in the classroom.
To those who are skeptical or worried about what students are learning, and what kinds of people are influencing our youth: I wish you could have been a fly on the wall during these interviews. Of course, this group is not representative of all faculty. I hand-selected my interviewees, based on whom I most wanted to learn from and imitate. Nonetheless, my biggest takeaway from these interviews is this: Our local colleges and universities are filled with some of the best of the best of our community – bright, thoughtful, caring, and dedicated faculty who sincerely want all the best for their students.
More specifically, I found four common faculty desires for students. Probably not surprisingly, the first relates to knowledge. Faculty hope their students better understand various course-related topics because of their time at college and university. The second – and actually the most commonly mentioned desire in my interviews – concerns the importance of critical thinking. Faculty want students to learn how to acquire and discern good information, think in complex ways given a complex world, and appreciate how we know what we know from different angles. A third desire is more personal. Faculty often mention their wishes for students to identify and develop a passion, grow in capacities for self-understanding and self-reflection, and connect with a motivation to learn more throughout their lifetimes. Finally, faculty desire for their students to learn to direct at least some of their energies outward, developing empathy and compassion toward others, and contributing to a better world.
Little to fear, much that gives hope
It would be interesting to know which of these desires for higher education – if any – people find objectionable or unworthy. To me, these four faculty desires all encourage both job preparation and personal growth, which themselves are mutually intertwined. They all seem to reflect an important aspect of human thriving. Perhaps bias can enter into their pursuit, but the faculty I interviewed generally were aware of these biases and thought considerably about how to handle them, to be able to help students become the best versions of themselves.
In the end, education may be one of the few “silver bullets” for improving our individual and collective futures. Pulling back the curtain on what happens during college and university may reveal little to be scared about and much that brings us hope.
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