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How one teacher tries to improve Penn State’s sense of community

Penn State students walk by Old Main on the first day of classes on Monday, August 20, 2018.
Penn State students walk by Old Main on the first day of classes on Monday, August 20, 2018. Centre Daily Times, file

I felt really uncomfortable the first time I asked a roomful of students, “What can I do to improve the quality of the learning experience in this class?” Some of the students looked at me warily as if I was asking them a trick question. Their suspicions were understandable.

With another school year starting, it is worth a moment of reflection. Having taught the studio arts to college students for the past 38 years I have noticed a diminishing sense of community, particularly a nurturing one.

What is contributing to this loss of community in academia? There are numerous factors, some more obvious than others, from the incessant use of the internet and social media, which is often a substitute for in-person interactions, to having to continually adapt to ever-increasing procedures and guidelines. Plus, with the significant cost of a college education comes higher expectations for the college experience and assessing whether the time and money invested are merited.

In addition, academic institutions are hierarchal by nature in how they are structured, from the promotion and tenure system for faculty, to the multiple layers of administration. This hierarchy does not foster open and inclusive discussions that encourage a sense of community and welcome everyone from students to staff to have a place at the table.

From my perspective the above factors can be isolating. In a culture consumed with ranking and comparing, it doesn’t take long to begin to question one’s self worth. With a compulsion to prove one’s value comes a motivation to be more efficient and productive with one’s time. Soon many in the academic community, including faculty, staff, and administrators feel like a hamster alone in a cage, desperately running on a spinning wheel trying to go faster and faster. This constant desire to excel doesn’t lend itself to the creation of a cooperative nurturing environment.

In 2010 I created a course titled, “Art and Life: Where they Intersect.” During the third class of the course, students are asked to bring a 2- to 3-page autobiography to read and share with the class. I do the assignment as well. One of the purposes of this assignment is to help the students more fully understand the uniqueness of their own lives and how their experiences might influence their art work.

Time and again this assignment has proven that nothing creates a sense of community faster than sharing and listening to the personal thoughts and feelings of others. For example, a student shared the story of being diagnosed with scoliosis in grade school and the embarrassment that came with constantly having to wear a plastic brace around her torso. Can’t we all relate to being ashamed of something?

The musician Wynton Marsalis says, “The humble improve.” With this message in mind I ask my students what I might do differently to improve the learning experience that we are engaged in. I have found asking questions, listening actively, and not being afraid to share one’s doubts and fears help build a positive sense of community.

My oldest daughter Tori once said, “Dad you are not as good a listener as you think you are!” Her comment certainly gave me pause. Sometimes I ask my students, “Who are the best listeners in your lives?” I wonder how many professors and administrators ask themselves if they ask enough questions and then sincerely listen?

Chris Staley is a Distinguished Professor of Art at Penn State.