Many of us have been in a contemplative mood of late: a few games and practices have been rained out, several AP exams are behind us, and the ceremonies of the spring are gearing up. The first generation of Freshman Seminars is nearly over, and I find myself pausing this week to do my best Paul Gauguin impression by asking myself where we have been and where we are going. Just as we have asked the freshmen to reflect on which lessons have stayed with them over the course of the first year, I have done my best to carve out time to think back on my own “freshman” year at Loomis Chaffee and in the Norton Center. Some stray thoughts on a warm spring night:
-Flexibility matters. Even when discussing high-minded concepts such as moral courage, privilege, democracy, and sustainability, we must do our fair share of listening, we must resist the urge to pontificate, and we must make every effort to provide our students with windows and mirrors, even if that requires us to leave the comfort of our intellectual homes every now and then.
-The past matters. From the Founders’ time to the classes that took place this afternoon in Founders Hall, this school has offered countless examples of lives lived for our best selves and others. I have been inspired time and time again by my colleagues’ sustained and unassuming commitment to this charge. We wrote in this space last October that this way of teaching and learning is in this school’s DNA. By mid-May it is even more obvious.
-The person matters. Before this year I had taught only juniors, seniors, and undergraduates. One of the real joys of my involvement in the center has been the opportunity to teach and to get to know freshmen. Many of them are just now figuring out what kind of people they want to be, and they are brutally honest when they encounter ideas or problems that run counter to that personal development. Yet, for all that conviction and ostensible certainty, they are almost always willing to make space for the possibility that an issue that may be a total snoozefest for them could be the greatest thing ever for the kid to their left or right. Their comfort with the patchwork nature of community has made the seminar’s strong moments stronger and weak moments more manageable.
-The whole person matters. It has been an ongoing relief for students and instructors alike that our freshman seminar runs without formal grades or assessments. In my short time in the classroom I have found that grading can threaten those exciting and near sacred moments when students light up with some intellectual breakthrough, wrinkle their brows with concern, or walk away inspired to take action. This course has taken time to make those moments more possible, though they remain all too rare and unpredictable. In the space between it has been a pleasure to recognize a few more names on the NEO playbill, to ask around about a student’s prospects at the track league championships, to learn about the newest iPhone games, and to see where the rubber hits the road with all of these noble philosophical concepts we adults throw around. It is no revelation that our students are more than the sum of their GPAs, but it is refreshing nonetheless to guide them along outside of the purely academic context.
-The online person matters. Because of @smacclintic’s unashamed evangelizing I recently converted and joined the camp meeting known as Twitter. Though every tweet and re-tweet is scripted—perhaps dully—to reflect my current thinking on teaching and learning history, I am conscious of the fact that most users of Twitter and other social media write much more freely (and less dully?). There’s no changing that, really, but we can still reflect on that approach and its effect on the way we live our non-virtual lives. Or, as this article argues, can it be useful to introduce to our students a “definition of digital citizenship?”
-The anonymous person matters. As several convocation speakers have pointed out and as recent news from Bangladesh has sadly confirmed, we are compelled to consider how our actions and attitudes affect others whose membership in our communities, however defined, is not always immediately or conveniently evident. The test of our bystanderism in today’s world is not necessarily only our willingness to take action to defend a neighbor or even a stranger in distress, but also our capacity to imagine someone else’s difficulty or need, to empathize with them, and to change, drastically or not, the habits and perceived needs that we have developed.
As we prepare ourselves for the blur of our final month in session, I hope to keep these simple matters in mind. -EJL