Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Community Partners in the Classroom

Old joke: a cop pulls Heisenberg over.  Cop: “Sir, did you know you were doing 90?”  Heisenberg: “Great, now I”m lost.”

A comment a professor made this week reminded me of Heisenberg’s rule that the act of observing something changes the thing being observed.  She has her students do presentations in class, and she mentioned that they always do a noticeably better job when she has an external observer from a local business sit in and observe.  The change in audience, even if it’s a single person, generates enough stage fright to motivate the students to raise their game.  

In the capstone course for graduating seniors at DeVry, students had to do presentations to panels of four faculty.  Just adding those three extra professors to the room changed the dynamic palpably.  The extra professors didn’t stay long and didn’t say much; they didn’t have to.  They provided enough of a charge just by their presence that the students took the task more seriously.

This is old news in fields like music, where juried performances are standard fare.  But it strikes me as applicable in far more areas.  

Of course, sometimes guests do more than observe.  Many years ago, I had an American Government class that was sort of struggling.  The students had trouble getting over their knee-jerk skepticism about all things political, and I hadn’t yet learned the importance of unteaching before teaching.  (In hot-button areas like politics, that’s a key skill.)  So we were sort of limping along.  But someone I worked with happened to mention in passing that he was friends with a local telecom lobbyist.  I invited the lobbyist to come in as a guest speaker and talk about lobbying from a lobbyist’s perspective.  He was great -- funny, smooth, slightly bawdy -- and the students came to life.  After that visit, the students really locked in; they saw that I wasn’t just making it up.  The stuff we had been studying mattered enough to some interesting people that it suddenly merited attention.

At the administrative level, when we talk about community partners, it’s usually in the context of organizations.  College A works with Agency B and Company C to help a set of students pick up the skills needed to thrive in a given field, say.  That’s terrific, necessary, and likely to expand in the coming years.  It’s good work, well worth doing, and I’m proud of the role I’ve played in helping some of those partnerships succeed.

That said, though, it’s easy to lose sight of the power of a single external visitor showing up to class and putting the students under a spotlight.  

I read somewhere that there are really only four stories, told over and over again, and that one of them is “a stranger comes to town.”  (Others include “boy meets girl” and “a hero goes on a quest.”  I forget the fourth.)  When a stranger comes to class, the effect can be startling.  The story changes.

But the story doesn’t change only in the class.  It also changes for the visitor.  (With apologies to Nietzsche, when you gaze long into English Comp, English Comp also gazes into you.)  People like to be respected, and to share their opinions.  They’ve been known to take students under their respective wings.  They can offer tips that weren’t entirely intended, but that add real value.  And the relationships that start on an individual or personal level can lead to broader organizational alliances over time.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen colleges do particularly good jobs of working with class visitors on a large scale?