Sharon D. Raynor, Assistant Professor of English and Foreign Languages, Johnson C. Smith University
As both an administrator and professor in the humanities at a small, private liberal arts Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in North Carolina, I am often forced to consider what I do within my classroom and re-consider if my current teaching pedagogy is always appropriate for my ever-changing students. My movement from the third largest, predominantly white university in the state to my current university gave me a new perspective on student culture and how this evolves from environment (geographical and cultural), parenting, economics, and motivation. The student culture at the large university consisted of working middle-class to rich and wealthy students whose parents “told” them that they would attend college, regardless of their own desire to be there, and receive the education that comes with the territory. At my current HBCU, the student culture consists of students who desperately either want or need to escape their current situation or circumstances to attend college, without regard to actually receiving the education that comes along with it. Regardless of circumstance, it seems for the millennial student, the concept of “going to college” becomes a catch-phrase without consequence, and as teachers, traditional or otherwise, we sometimes demand that our students understand that with education comes great responsibility, and sometimes great consequence. Sometimes we use our transgressions as the means for our teaching philosophies and strategies. The root of my teaching philosophy stems from my parents and those few teachers who were willing to serve my educational needs, as their student.
My teaching pedagogy often evolves from the student composition in my classes. As a part of my own growth and development, I must keep myself ‘in the know’ about how and why my students are changing, and as an educator, I must be willing to change and grow to meet the needs of the millennial students. Teaching to transgress can simply mean having the ability to teach through all obstacles and barriers (race, gender, class) to properly facilitate learning in an engaged environment. Teaching to transgress, from a more scholarly perspective, according to cultural critic bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom means:
To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin (13).
So why do the millennial students present such a challenge for both administrators and professors? Perhaps because we are teaching during a revolutionary time, which challenges us to be revolutionaries; to facilitate change to the point that the Millennial Student believes us to be on the cusp of resistance. They must be challenged to think beyond their own lives and preconceived ideals of the society in which they live, so we become responsible for shaping their educational perceptions of learning during this revolutionary time. “Teachers who care, who serve their students, are usually at odds with the environment wherein we teach. Service as a form of political resistance is vital because it is a practice of giving that eschews the notion of reward. The satisfaction is in the act of giving itself, of creating the context where students can learn freely. The teacher who serves continually affirms by his or her practice that educating students is really the primary agenda, not self-aggrandizement or assertion of personal power” (hooks, Teaching Community 15). I must be willing to teach the millennial student in spite of all obstacles. They must see me as a part of their own student culture, constantly evolving with them.
Advocating that educators “teach to transgress” is more of a charge to my colleagues within the academy (both professors and administrators) to begin thinking about and considering an innovative shift in our current teaching and learning pedagogy that embraces this new and challenging student culture. bell hooks continues, “educators who challenge themselves to teach beyond the classroom setting, to move into the world sharing knowledge, learn a diversity of styles to convey information. This is one of the most valuable skills any teacher can acquire. Through vigilant practice we learn to use the language that can speak to the heart of the matter in whatever teaching setting we may find ourselves in” (Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope 43). How do we learn as our students learn and convince them to share what they know with us? How do we become scholarly teachers (?) when our students seem distracted and disengaged in the classroom? How we establish a community of understanding and respect when the students only seem fascinated with themselves? The answers to these questions, in respect to the evolution of the millennial student, lie within establishing a sense of understanding and community within the classroom, becoming a scholarly teacher, and ‘teaching to transgress.’ Considering all the factors that make our current students the millennial generation (disrespectful, self-absorbed, attention-deficit-disordered, smart, self-assured, powerhouses), they are still teachable and we are still responsible, at least, for their education. hooks continues:
Teachers who fear getting close to students may objectify them to maintain the valued objectivity. They may choose to think of students as empty vessels into which they are pouring knowledge, vessels without opinions, thoughts, personal problems and so forth. Denying the emotional presence and wholeness of students may help professors who are unable to connect focus more on the task of sharing information, facts, data, their interpretations, with no regard for listening to and hearing from students. It makes the classroom a setting where optimal learning cannot and will not occur (129).
How can we make an honest attempt to relate to our students in a way that will encourage them to become better students and to begin to care about their learning environment? I give my students a little bit of myself. In other words, I share portions of my life with them to let them know that I was, at one time in my life, in their positions. I often start this little revelation with a question about socio-economic class because students often make harsh assumptions about their professors. They safely assume that we were born into a certain socio-economic class because of our material possessions, our decision to obtain a terminal degree, and perhaps how we dress and where we live. They have a hard time believing that their college professors could have been born and raised as the working poor on a small farm in rural North Carolina. At this point, my simple life starts to intrigue those who once considered me aloof and unapproachable. Once the questions begin, I must be willing to provide some honest answers so the students feel that I am helping them create a safe, learning environment. At this moment, I can begin to tell my story my own evolution within their culture has begun. They often ask about my journey from a life that, from the surface, seems to have had so little to a life that appears to have it all. I can then begin to talk to them about endurance, perseverance and the ability to defy all obstacles.
I begin my story by sharing the choice that my parents presented to me: either go to college and get an education or stay here and work on this farm (forever)! How easy my decision became as the word “forever” echoed continuously and loudly in my ears. So my story continues. Students often asked when did I know that I wanted to be an English teacher and this gives me the opportunity to tell them how teachers can be both obstacles and motivators. I was educated in environments in which I was usually the “only one;” whether it was the only female, the only black, or the only poor one. I had to learn to learn in spite of my environment. I learned this lesson as early as high school. I suspected that I was a good writer when my tenth grade English teacher accused me of plagiarizing a book report in front of all of my classmates. Even at that young age, I knew enough to be offended by this teacher who made an earnest attempt to make me feel smaller and blacker than what I already felt. Her accusation motivated me to continue to write well and read every book that I could possibly get my hands on, even the ones that she claimed were inappropriate for female students. She, must I say, tried to be an obstacle but to no avail. By my senior year in high school, I met a teacher who would light a fire in my soul that still burns for the passion of the written word. I experienced a euphoric high every time I diagramed a sentence perfectly and he proudly announced it to the entire class and then asked me to help my classmates. I remember simply amazing myself and my teacher with the proper way I could dissect even the hardest sentence in the proper manner as the words and broken, slanted lines covered an entire sheet of paper. I was amazed at the fluidity and power of words. This poor, alien-like, wild-child was finally good at something. At that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up; an English teacher. I remember this teacher who gave me a small piece of himself and allowed me to wonder off and explore my own possibilities. He was willing to serve. He helped me transgress. When he looked at me, he saw beyond the “only one” syndrome and allowed me to learn from him.
My college career continued in this manner because my family could not afford to send any of the five children to college, so I went to the cheapest public institution in the state because low tuition meant lower student loans. I had five Black professors (one female, four male) throughout my undergraduate and graduate school days. One who gladly served as a mentor and guide along with the other many white, male professors in my discipline. I felt proud and surrounded by love. “Love in the classroom prepares teachers and students to open our minds and hearts. It is the foundation on which every learning community can be created. Teachers need not fear that practicing love in the classroom will lead to favoritism. Love will always move us away from domination in all its forms. Love will always challenge and change us. This is the heart of the matter” (hooks 137). Just as this new generation of students often times feel displaced and alienated, I can remember blazing that trail for them, at the time, feeling the exact same way. I remember what worked for me, and I know that this can work for the Millennial Student as well. Teaching with compassion, love, and respect for our discipline and our students is the first step to bringing these under-represented students into our world.
In my current teaching environment in which students of color feel at a great disadvantage, sometimes their hope lies within that one individual who can show them a different path. I have to be willing to serve their needs when they need advice, encouragement or to know that I was once in their shoes. I am now a Generation X’er, one of the lost generation, teaching the Millennial Student. According to Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach:
As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom n which the threads are tried, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching, tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require. (quoted in Hooks, Teaching Community 19)
It is magical when students can see a little bit of themselves in their teachers. Their motivations shift; their conversations mature; and their priorities change. As an educator, who wholeheartedly believes that there is something sacred about my vocation, my main priority is to make a difference in a student’s life. For me, this must be a positive difference. I have never regretted my educational track and the decisions that I made about graduate school, my mentors, or my career choices because my main objective was to achieve an overall goal that would allow me to obtain both my degree and an education. These are the lessons that I must pass on to the Millennial Generation to advance and encourage their student culture.
Hooks, Bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003.
-. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York: Routledge, 1994.