What does “Learning in Common” Mean?

Welcome to Learning in Common.  You can view video of this welcome below, on YouTube, or by reading the text below the embedded video link.

This is a website for students in my classes at Knox College. I’ve put it together to make my goals as your professor transparent, to suggest to you how we’ll relate to each other this term, and to provide you with resources and creative space.

One vision of how the professor-student relationship should work is called Sage on the Stage. There, the professor is the expert and talks at length about what he knows (this is an idea that was most popular some time ago when professors were usually male). Students view the Sage from a distance – he is remote and aloof and physically elevated from them, standing while they sit, or sometimes speaking from an actual raised platform. Students are passive learners – they absorb what the Sage says, and restate the Sage’s perspective in quizzes, exams, and papers. They add what the Sage thinks to their own thoughts on the subject, but the Sage’s thought is supposed to carry the most weight.

I strive not to be a Sage on the Stage. I do legitimately know some stuff. I trained for a long time to be your professor. I’ve read widely in American history (and some in Latin American history), written a book on marriage and divorce in Dakota and Ojibwe country in the early nineteenth century, and published on effective pedagogy in history classrooms. I’ve also been a teacher for twenty-three years.

But I believe these things qualify me to be a guide, not a Sage. I pick readings and plan classroom activities to give you the opportunity to think for yourself. I want you to not only absorb information but to be able to apply it to your understanding of the past, to the way you think about the present, and to your conception of yourself. I also believe we work best when we see each other as collaborators instead of competitors – when we work together, rather than against one another. This means I will often ask you to crowdsource your understanding of the issue at hand by sharing your perspective with other class members. I will very rarely tell you what the “right answer” is, because there are rarely single, correct answers. There are often multiple answers and, more importantly, multiple questions for us to pose of the past. I can learn from you, as well as you learning from me.

I will never ask you to remember a particular date, or spit dates back at me as a way of assessing whether you’re learning. Instead, I’m interested in you developing historical thinking skills. These skills are transferable – you will need them outside of college as much as within it; they will help you navigate our increasingly complex world. Historical thinking skills include the ability to pose complicated questions about the past (and some simple ones too), to find credible sources of information, to weigh the usefulness of those sources, to synthesize what you’ve learned, and to communicate that learning clearly to other people. You will also need digital skills to pilot your way through our globally-connected world, so we will work together to create digital spaces that meet our needs, deploying tools like Hypothesis, Slack, Omeka, and WordPress as we go. You’ll learn how to wrestle with databases and to become a critical contributor to, and consumer of, the internet.

We will form an intentional community. We’re coming together to collectively learn more about a particular subject in the past and to consider what that means for our present. It’s important for us to be welcoming to one another, and to take risks together – that’s how trust is built. It’s also incumbent upon us to respect each other, and we’ll talk more about what that means in the first week of class.

Yet learning is about more than words on a page, or ideas in a classroom. To learn you need to have basic security – a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in, food to eat. If you’re having trouble with any of those things, please talk to me and to the Dean of Students. Together we can work to make sure those needs are met. In addition, you will be emotional learners in this classroom as well as intellectual learners, quite simply because that’s how every human learns. Don’t leave your emotions at the door. They’re important and valid and I welcome them. If you feel like you do not have emotional stability, talk to me and the Counseling Center on campus. We’ll help you find a path to feeling secure.

Lastly, you can read more about who I am at this link. If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments of that post, stop me after class, come to my office hours (during which my only job is to meet with you and listen to you and give you whatever assistance I can), or make an appointment to see me. You can also email me at cdenial@knox.edu.