29 January 2014

How to Teach Your Students Not to Kill People

It's not really like this.
Whenever people start talking about "competency-based outcomes" in higher ed, I think about Randy.  A couple of years ago, he and I shared a lab table in an anatomy and physiology class.  Both of us were the oldest participants in the class, 40-somethings working through life changes, but there our experiences diverged.  Where I was a college literature instructor filling in gaps in my science background and contemplating a shift from one professional career to another, Randy was going through the college for the first time, having come to a dead end in his job as a locksmith. During a lull Randy got to griping (as college students will) about the general education courses required for his degree, which he saw largely as a waste of time.  “I’m interested in the classes that will keep me from killing people,” he said. 

I didn’t do a particularly good job of persuading Randy that his required humanities courses would, also, fulfill that function, but I’m convinced that they can.  A life can depend on a health care provider’s ability to think flexibly: to understand what’s not being said as well as what is, to cope with unanticipated contingencies, to quickly take on board new forms of information, to reconcile incompatible expectations, to understand nuances, to communicate complicated facts; to recognize and work around the ways that gender, race, ethnicity, class complicate interactions between patients and providers.  These are skills that the humanities disciplines can teach.   

But how often does that actually happen? 
Randy described a class on multicultural literature, which he'd taken only because it fit his schedule and filled a requirement.  He'd been asked to write about his experiences with other races, and as far as he was concerned, as a white boy from a small rural town in Illinois, he didn't have any.  He ran down the clock on the class, got a grade compatible with acceptance to the nursing program, and emerged from it with the narrow conviction that perhaps knowledge of other cultures could  prevent him from offering a Muslim patient a ham sandwich or a Jehovah’s witness a blood transfusion, and unclear on what the point of anything else might have been.

Randy's a motivated student, and he's going to be the kind of engaged and conscientious nurse any patient would want, with or without the humanities.  Bless the nontraditional student!  There's a lot to be said for the role of life experience in forming excellent healthcare providers.  Still, ever since I've found myself re-committed though to my first career in higher ed, I've been trying to take Randy's challenge seriously: to think about their classroom practices in terms of the critical skills that students are acquiring.  This classroom discussion, that reading, those paper assignments: is each one building the skills that, somewhere down the road, can prevent these students from killing someone?  Will students walk away from this class aware of how it made their thinking more supple and insightful?  

It’s a discussion worth having—perhaps the most important discussion worth having about the humanities at the moment—but it’s a discussion that takes place either in settings far away from any actual classroom, where bureaucrats try to solve the problems of higher education, or at the interstices of higher education.
  • when adjuncts in shared offices compare notes about  a class exercise that went well, about how best to draw quiet students into the conversation, about better ways to get students to recognize the flaws in their writing. 
  • when faculty explore the nuts-and-bolts ways of harnessing digital technology to the teaching of humanities (see any of the "Places for Pedagogy on the Internet" links at the right. It is unfortunate that, while people working as adjuncts have been at the forefront of a lot of work in digital humanities--it all the multiple valences of that term--and the innovative use of digital media, a lot of adjuncts simply don't have the time to stay abreast of this literature and little professional incentive or opportunity to do so).

But are the experiences, habits of mind, and socialization that we value as part of the humanities classroom the sole province of the humanities? At the same community college where I took my class with Randy, I also spent time in the library during the interval between the class I was taking and its required lab. The study groups I saw affirmed my belief in the transformative power of higher education: cornrows, John Deere caps, headscarves bent together over the periodic table, quizzing each other on cardiac function, puzzling through problem sets. Students were working together across race/class/ethnic/gender lines not because they'd been taught to, but because their class work had been designed in a way that made it inescapable.

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