“EVERYTHING IS RELEVANT”: OPENING SPACE
For me, teaching begins by opening a space for ideas, opinions, care, and motivation. This psychodynamic educational approach takes into account student motivation, desire, and intent (Cohler, 1989). To tap in, I allow students to concentrate on areas of their interest, allowing them to grow as scholars and individuals as they direct their own areas of research and scholarship. To make this philosophy real takes interest, empathy, care, and active demonstration of respect for students.
Many of my academic mentors take such an approach. For example, a writing professor, Dr. Barry Sanders, at Pitzer College, respected my interest in writing, helping me cultivate a writer's voice. I had gone to a prep school before this, viewing writing as a drudgery, my papers returned full of red comments after every edit. During a class on world literature, Sanders passed back a paper of mine without an iota of red ink. He noted that I must love writing and would work with me on it. We would fix the typos later, but for now I should just keep on writing. It was the first time anyone had ever suggested I was good at writing—and I have never stopped. That use of a strengths-based approach (Saleebey, 1996) changed my writing and teaching. It taught me to see the whole person, not just a few errors on a page. And if I cannot see that person, I need to look harder at his or her life, as well as the challenges faced in the labyrinth of the modern metropolis. That would be my job as a teacher.
Sanders explains his approach: “You have to love young people to be a great teacher.” Care and respect are cornerstones of his approach. “Everybody, rich and poor, majority and minority, incarcerated or on the outside, they want to be respected, they want to be taken seriously, and they want to be loved” (Pitzer Participant, 2005).
Sanders' insight was that everything students bring up is relevant. In a class on Chaucer, we talked sports, the history of laughter, and comedy performances by Lenny Bruce. It was all relevant. Here, the professor taught us to think expansively, connecting ideas and questions, narratives and philosophy into an ever-flowing history of ideas—a vast culture tale in which we all took part in the panorama. Sanders listened with a keen empathy and model of engagement I later recognized as a cornerstone of effective pedagogy (Cohler, 1989).
As a teacher, I combine several of these described educational approaches, with a practical application of a low-threshold practice method aimed at reducing barriers to care and connection, meeting those in the classroom where they are at as people, parents, workers, activists, and, most important, students. Meeting them where they are at means actually respecting and caring to learn what they bring to the table so student and professor can collaborate and make the time spent together productive and meaningful. If education combines these spaces for dialogue and conversation, then learning is usually not far behind (Cohler, 1989; Habermas, 1981).
The steps of cultivating interest and participation from students take countless forms. It begins with a respect for a diverse range of perspectives, providing reading materials from a cross section of subject viewpoints, incorporating differing race, class, and gender points of view when compiling course readings. Yet, it also means listening for the telling silences in the room as well as the boisterous responses. Faced with questions about grief or abuse, the room often goes silent, whereas questions about sexting and pop culture often follow with a fully engaged classwide discussion. Each is telling. In each class, we build on active listening as well as presentation of student ideas and papers, creating a dialogue between educator and student, student and student.
This kind of attunement was the cornerstone of my dissertation advisor Irwin Epstein's (1987) teaching. He was a master of acknowledging student anxiety, addressing needs, and creating spaces for laughter and critical engagement at the same time. A student of Richard Cloward and Robert Merton, he did not care what questions I was asking in my research as long they were framed in thoughtful ways with sound methods (Shepard, 2011). The point was to tap into my own motivation as a student and scholar. Respect for student engagement and concern is a cornerstone of the process. Conversely, I have tried to maintain a similar perspective in each of my classes, as my mentors Irwin Epstein, Bert Cohler, and Barry Sanders did in theirs. I reflect on their lessons in countless ways. At various times, each told me stories of those who impacted them. Bert Cohler recalled his work with Bruno Bettleheim and Heinz Kohut. Irwin Epstein (2005) recalled the positive and negative impacts of his work with Richard Cloward and Robert Merton, recalling the stories of their efforts together. We all need essential others, who help us grow (Galatzer-Levy & Cohler, 1993; Shepard, 2015). Their honest recollections helped demonstrate this, pointing to the importance of self-reflection among educators. The process of learning these strategies impacts cohorts of students generationally.