Every year, we enthusiastically welcome incoming students to the academy. I teach at a large research university with a strong and proud commitment to teaching undergraduates. For those of us in professional roles, belonging to the academy means something rich. It includes discussions in hallways and offices as we chew on new ideas; learning and dissecting the work of those who came before us; and asking tough questions as we look to the future. For our students, this introduction happens in the classroom, where we take ideas, generate hypotheses, test them, look at findings and creatively apply them to problems.
For my students, they enter a lecture hall filled with 200 other nervous new students. We move through the term and almost always, about halfway in, someone tentatively raises a hand and asks a question that is tangential to what we are covering. Here are a couple examples from my first year Biology course: As we are covering Mendelian genetics, “I read something about epigenetics somewhere. What is that?” As we are covering natural selection, “I saw a thing about the social system in bees. How did that evolve?”
Let’s pause this scene. What these brave students are doing is not just asking about bees or epigenetics. These students are asking to be part of something bigger, part of the academy. This question is important. I have many well-meaning colleagues who push questions like these to after class or office hours. Or maybe they recommend a resource. In doing so, they lose the richest part.
Here’s what’s going through my mind in that moment: “Aha. There it is.” They are tentatively exploring their place here. How can I help them belong? “Ugh. I don’t know anything about bees.” “This is worth a time out.” And, more frequently and sadly, “I don’t have time for this. I won’t get today’s content covered.” The class is silent, watching how I will reply. Is their brave peer going to be accepted or rebuffed? They lean in.
What I say next matters. Here’s how this scene might continue: “Hey, can you share that movie or article with us? Email it to me and I’ll post it on the online learning platform. (And P.S. I don’t know anything about bees.)” And then to the rest of the class, “Everyone read/watch this and come in with questions.” This buys me a little bit of time. I frantically dig into the genetic system behind bees and altruistic behavior. I still don’t know enough, but we lurch forward, anyway. Sometimes, as in the bee case, this ultimately becomes a week’s worth of our curriculum. We veer off into interesting tangents on the evolution of behavior in general. Often, this ends up being a substantial and integral part of the course—what they remember years later, not because of the content, but because they have been welcomed into this place. What we did together invited them to become full-fledged member of the academic community.
But here’s my problem. Over the past several years, there’s been a well-intentioned push to tightly coordinate our first-year curriculum. In some courses, we are down to using the same worksheets in all sections. The trend toward common exams is growing. I understand the reasoning behind some of this. A common curriculum may more uniformly prepare students for second year courses. It makes it easier for faculty to helicopter into a course for one term. It eases student concern when they compare notes with each other. (However, I will interject that those compared notes make for better conversations if different things are happening in different sections. “Hey, what are you doing in Biology?” becomes a chance to explain a totally different concept to a peer.) In my institution (and elsewhere), automation and efficiency don’t feature highly in innovation or in research. Why should we expect that they would be best for teaching and learning? And that drives us back to point: “I don’t have time for this tangential question.”
In the spirit of what the academy stands for, and what higher education means, adhering to a tightly planned and coordinated curriculum cannot become the strongest driving force. We need to make time for that brave student question about a tangential topic, because it’s so much more than a query about a bit of content that’s of potential interest. That question has layers that run deep. They are asking for permission to be a part of what we do here. They take our responses seriously.
Letting go of the curriculum requires trust that rigor will remain, that the concepts taught will prepare students for future courses, and that exams will be challenging. As teachers, we must recognize that it takes courage to hit the pause button, responding with enthusiasm even when we can’t answer the student’s direct question. Students will respect that; and it’s not those answers that matter anyway. It’s the answer to the deeper question that matters: “Can I be a part of this?” As for me, I plan to keep pausing, welcoming those questions that aren’t really about today’s topic.
Celeste Leander, PhD, is a faculty member in the Department of Botany at the University of British Columbia.