In my first year on the tenure track, I have a distinct memory of walking across the campus one day and falling in step with a senior professor who was heading to his class with a couple of grocery bags. I asked him what he was carrying, and he said snacks for his students that day.
"What for?" I asked.
"Oh," he said with a shrug, "no particular reason."
I thought that was a strange response, even a little suspicious. It was near the end of the semester, and I wondered whether he was bringing treats in an effort to bribe students into giving him more-positive evaluations on the last day of class.
In the years that followed, I would occasionally notice other faculty members bringing doughnuts to early morning classes, or leftover candy after Halloween. And I continued to look askance at such practices, suspecting that they were a form of pandering. Why should students need doughnuts or candy in order to learn? The only treats they needed from us were intellectual ones.
Snack-bearing faculty members also seemed to put those of us who did not bring in treats at a disadvantage. All things being equal, if a student had to choose between a course taught by a faculty member who supplied munchies and one who did not, why not choose the one with snacks? I would have.
In that first year on the tenure track, I also cringed a bit whenever I saw faculty members leading an outdoor class with students sitting in a circle on the grass. I never felt comfortable teaching without a blackboard nearby, and those faculty members were the ones responsible for my students always asking, whenever the weather was nice, could we hold class outside today?
I always said no. Classes held outside, in my experience, accomplish half or less of what a class inside can accomplish—too much time spent moving outside, too many distractions, and too few of the normal features of a classroom.
This past fall, however, both of the courses I taught were part of special programs that provided me with a budget for outside events and community-building activities. My English-composition course was part of a new program on the campus that groups freshmen into connected courses to help them form intellectual and social communities; my course is linked to a Spanish III course. My other course, "Life Stories," was a first-year seminar for our honors students, taught in conjunction with another section of the same course.
I am quickly learning, as a new part-time administrator, that you should spend the money you are given, so for both courses I did my best to take advantage of the budget. That meant, in part, doing all of those things that I had once dismissed as pandering, or detracting from the pure learning experiences in my classroom.
The students in our linked English and Spanish courses were treated to a full-course meal of Mexican takeout on the evening we watched Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Students in "Life Stories" enjoyed a fajita bar the next week, before their special evening class to watch Like Water for Chocolate. (As it happens, both of my co-instructors teach Spanish and Latin and American literature and culture).
But the treats were not always quite so elaborate, or even tied to special evening events. The "Life Stories" course met at 10 a.m., so on the day that my students were showing their podcast presentations (an assignment to be described in more detail in my next column), I unapologetically brought in doughnuts, muffins, and orange juice. The English course met at 1 p.m., so we had pizza and appetizers on the day we did peer-review workshops for their midterm papers.
We did not hold class outside, but both courses met in a room connected to a lounge. Students in the afternoon course asked if we could have our final session in the lounge, and we did. We moved the couches and chairs into a circle, and students took turns describing which of the books we had read that semester had the most profound impact on them.
"Life Stories" ended in December, but the freshmen in the linked-courses program are continuing with me this semester in an "Introduction to Literature" course that will include a bus trip to New York City. We also have made plans for a trip to a local art museum and are bringing in a local blues musician and historian to give a lecture/performance to complement the poetry we will be reading.
I also expect to bring in the occasional treat along the way. When the weather warms up, you might even find me sitting with my students outside on the grass some morning. I'm not sure what kind of cuisine to coincide with our screening of the New Zealand film Whale Rider at the end of the semester, but I'll do a little research and come up with something.
Assuming, that is, we have money left in our course budget by then. Although I'm tenured and feel financially stable right now, I'm not quite so committed to these extra treats and activities that I would finance them from the Lang family budget. This semester I'm also teaching the second half of a British-literature survey course, with a full house of 30 students—and no budget—so I won't be springing for high tea while we're racing through the Victorian era.
But the larger question still looms for me. Do these extracurricular treats and activities have a place in my courses? Do they serve a worthwhile purpose? Or are they just a gimmicky way to curry favor from students?
Rather than draw any conclusion yet, let me turn those questions over to you, the readers of The Chronicle. First, though, my 2 cents:
I now think my initial prejudice was misplaced. Bringing in special treats, or organizing an excurricular event outside of class, does build community. I come to that conclusion both philosophically and practically.
Philosophically, I count myself as a constructivist. Truth does not lie waiting for us to discover it; we work together to form it by responding to and studying our environment, sharing our knowledge and building new and better models of the world around us. I believe that understanding of knowledge moves us away from an educational model in which I simply pass along "truth" to my students, and toward a model in which students work together to build their understanding of a subject with the help and guidance of an instructor.
Given that philosophy, it makes sense for students to see their teachers not as talking heads, but as human beings who have a passion and devotion to learning. Sharing meals with students, sitting in a circle under a tree, chatting with them before and after class—all of those things may help students see us, not simply as "experts," but as human beings with whom they can engage to advance their understanding of our disciplines.
More practically, the comments that I heard at some of our extracurricular events, or during the times when we were eating and talking informally, suggested that my students were working and studying together outside of the class. I always encourage students to read one another's drafts, study together, and help each other whenever they can, so I was happy to discover it was actually happening. I have no objective way to measure whether their time together outside of class improved their work in the course in any way, so that's as far as I am willing to go on that point.
But of course, I could be wrong about all of this. That's the No. 1 principle of constructivism, as far as I'm concerned: Always be willing to listen to other possibilities.
So I finish with two questions for you, dear readers. I invite you to comment below and I will follow the discussion.
- Do extracurricular, community-building activities and features have a place in college and university courses?
- And, if they do, and you don't have the money to pay for them, are there other ways to build community in the classroom that don't require a budget?