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Making Connections

by Nancy MacLean
Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, History Department, Northwestern University

In this essay I want to describe what I think makes my teaching work--when it does. My remarks offer no new approaches, no strategies for honing important skills, and not even any fun gimmicks to experiment with. Instead, I will make the case for a simple proposition that will probably strike most readers as exceedingly obvious (although I hope to show that there's more to it than meets the eye): effective teaching--for me, at least--depends on making connections, above all on building relationships with and among students that help to create a genuine sense of community and collaboration in the classroom.

It's easiest to begin thinking about those connections by describing what's happening when things go right. We all know what a "good" class feels like: students are excited, leaning forward, and all pushing to get into the discussion; the discussion becomes cumulative as students refer back to each others' earlier points, whether to amplify on or differentiate from them; there is both laughter and passion in their talk; we find ourselves invigorated not only by their energy, but also by how they saw things in our materials that we didn't even know were there. This is connection and collaboration at its best: we're all working, we're all learning, we're all engaged.

Naturally, the difficult part is figuring out how to create these sorts of connected and engaged classes. Kenneth Bruffee's Collaborative Learning, a stimulating book aimed at college and university teachers, offers some excellent suggestions on this subject. Bruffee begins from the premise, grounded in today's work-world, that "effective interdependence... may be the most important lesson students should be asked to learn." Yet they cannot build this skill in most courses, which are still taught in the conventional teaching-as-telling way. Bruffee goes on to offer strategies of change based on the model of small group collaborative work.

In the process, he makes some important points about what knowledge is, how it develops, and how we can advance these processes in our teaching styles. Rather than take knowledge to be simply "an entity that we transfer from one head to another," Bruffee argues for a different model: "Collaborative learning assumes instead that knowledge is a consensus among the members of a community of knowledgeable peers--something people construct by talking together and reaching agreement" (3). This is something that almost all of us take for granted in our scholarship--yet the implications of which we often fail to apply to our teaching. What's exciting to me about this model is the way it re-frames what we do in such a way as to make clearer what our core task is.

We are, in effect, inviting our students to join new "knowledge communities" run by different principles than the ones to which they now belong; our task, then, is a "reacculturative" one. This will happen most easily, most effectively, and most lastingly, not when we are the center of attention, but rather when we work indirectly to create the conditions--the work groups and the tasks--that enable students to work out issues with each other. Conversing together on a common problem, students begin to make the discipline's norms their own in the course of negotiating what they think they know. What we need, urges Bruffee, is "structured conversation among students" (4,9); the aim of this conversation, of this "translation community" as he evocatively puts it, is to help the students become "fluent" in the language of the knowledge community that is our discipline or field.

While in this translation community, students are leaving behind their other languages and developing their facility with ours (75). I really like this idea. When my classes work well, this is exactly what happens: students start to teach each other.

My own teaching practice incorporates these principles in a variety of ways. First off, I seek to break down the sense that we're all strangers by paying a lot of attention to classroom dynamics. I make sure to learn students' names within the first 2-3 weeks. I have been amazed again and again at how much difference this simple gesture makes to my students--at how much more engaged they, in turn, become. Then, in seminars and sections, I try to get them to learn and to use each others' names, by having them put out name cards in the first weeks of class and urging everyone to refer to each other by name. This is not silly: if the project is to create a community of mutual respect, trust, and engagement, it just won't work in a roomful of atomized and alienated strangers. For this reason, too, I push my office hours hard; I let them know that I need to know them to do my part well, and for the course as a whole to work.

Another, more substantive and content-based strategy for developing that community is to do some kind of work in small groups, beginning in the first or second week of a section or seminar. For example, I might ask students in groups to start by identifying the thesis of an article and its strongest supporting evidence, or by analyzing a primary document. I try to devise assignments that develop skills sequentially in a given class and over the quarter as a whole, from the easier to the most difficult, so that students can acquire both the necessary tools and a sense of achievement before embarking on the hardest work. Also, the group dynamics seem to work best when they tackle tasks that are progressively more challenging. Questions might begin with, in the words of one teacher who works in a similar way, "what do you see?"; they then move on to "what does it mean?"--from the descriptive, in other words, to the analytical and interpretive (for more on this see Frederick, 54). In all these settings, I try to encourage student-to-student intellectual engagement wherever possible--not only in discussions but also in interactive lectures. In my experience, the more they take each other's ideas seriously, the more they will take their own ideas seriously; the more they learn to listen, the more they learn to think.

Now, while trying to foster interaction and collaboration, I also try to keep a focus on individual development. That might mean noticing who is hanging back and looking skeptical, and finding ways to pull them in and get them to articulate their doubts or disagreements. It might mean giving special reinforcement, during class or after, to a shy student who hesitantly offered an idea. But it always means, at minimum, giving feedback that recognizes achievement as well as areas for improvement. One study of learning puts the project well: "Connected teachers," the authors observe, "try to discern the truth inside the students" (Belenky, 223). To try to discern the truth inside the students--in my reading, this phrase means searching for that element (even if it is only a flicker) that is strong and can be built on, and then helping students to begin that building process. I start all my comments on papers or exams with something positive or encouraging (even if I have to really dig to find it). Not because I believe in so-called coddling, but because I understand motivation--most notably, my own. When I hear nothing but criticism, I feel like effort is futile and I shut down. But when I get, say, a reader's report that says this and this are really interesting, but this and this are off, then I'm ready to get to work. It's the same for students.

Students need to feel that we believe in them--that we believe that they can do what we're asking of them--in order to push themselves to perform at the edge of their capacity. If all they hear is disapproval, which makes them feel inadequate and deficient, why bother? Hopefulness, as a fascinating science story in the New York Times reported a few years ago, is itself a more reliable predictor of success in students than any of those measures we usually look towards (Meier, 177). The more hopeful we can make our students about their prospects for growth, the more growth we're likely to see.

So far, I've said a lot about process, but not so much about content, partly because here it's harder to cross disciplinary boundaries. Yet here, too, in subject matter, making connections makes for effective teaching--particularly on the all-important motivating question of why the knowledge matters. On the first day of all of my courses, but especially the lecture courses, I devote some time to the promised "payoff," connecting course themes or required skills to issues or interests likely to be on their minds. Some people might find this crude; I don't. Or rather, I don't care if it is: we're all too busy these days to show interest in something if we can't see why it might matter.

Along the way, I look out for other opportunities to make such connections--to show how the history we're learning matters to their understanding of the world, and how the skills that we're developing can help them in that project. A case in point: in my women's history class last quarter, someone commented in lecture that something reminded her of The Rules. "The what?," I said. "The Rules," she repeated--and by this time many heads were nodding in agreement. My impromptu poll showed that I was among the maybe 15% of the room who'd never heard of this phenomenon. The students quickly brought me up to speed, and by the end of the week a student had given me a copy of this manual, which is subtitled Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. A quick read showed me that it was quite as awful as some said it was--but it was awful in some interesting ways, and it nicely complemented the last unit of the course. So I assigned sections of it to accompany the reading on the syllabus. And it became one of the options on the final take-home essay menu: to provide a historical analysis of this document, drawing on as many course materials as possible, that situated and made sense of it in historical context. Some of the essays that came in were outstanding--so original that they illustrated, for me, the value of reaching for this kind of connection. What I've tried to do is lay out some ideas that I found stimulating and some practices that worked for me. Most of them might well already be second-nature to you. But my aim was not originality. It was to name and pull together some principles of teaching that are so fundamental, to many so obvious, that they are rarely discussed--and therefore easily forgotten when so many other claims are pressing in upon us and demanding our attention. But making connections so as to develop the relationships that sustain learning is fundamental; it's something worth reflecting on and worth discussing.

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