The human at the whiteboard

Anne Marie Merline, University Honors Program,
Anne Marie Merline, University Honors Program,

It happens every year. In anticipation of an initial column entry for the Collegian, and without being in front of the whiteboard for 15 weeks, I wondered what I was going to write about. Luckily, this year it took a couple of weeks for me and the opinion editor to set the column up, so here I am. I teach a first-semester seminar on my favorite topic: The ideas and expressions of community. By the end of the first day, I could not wait until the second class.

I am following a blog called “Teaching Naked,” written by José Antonio Bowen, which is about teaching without the use of technology. The blog entry that I read just before classes started encouraged teachers not to do the usual and to not read the syllabus to the students during the first class session. Going through the syllabus on the first day is an easy thing to do. As an instructor, one spends the entire summer writing and re-hashing the syllabus, tossing and turning at night, and deliberating with great angst on a daily basis.

Except I didn’t. No, I waited until the week before class before trying to update the syllabus, which means I was not ready to “put it to bed,” as the idiom goes, for the first week of class. I decided to take the author’s advice and “just say no” to the status quo, and spend the time doing something else. I, of course, did some “busy work,” but did not even print the syllabus that first day. Instead of me boring the students with the bottom line, I asked each student to head to the white board and to write down a word or phrase that came to their mind when they hear the word “community.” I sat at the back of the classroom and asked the students to comment on a word or phrase that caught their attention.

After a comment or two, in both sections, we become knee-high in the midst of a discussion about community — just what I was angling for. In my 12:30 section, a student raised his hand for a chance to contribute to the conversation. His comment starts with “I am sure this is not going to be a popular thing to say, but…” and bam, the class starts into a conversation about the current population of college students and the history of feminism.

I love these exhausting conversations I call “teaching moments,” where the discussion goes someplace I had no idea it would go. During this first class session, the conversation wound around the history of patriarchy, women’s choices, higher education and how we are gendered as a result of American socialization. I was blown away. I immediately wanted to throw out the syllabus, speech and writing requirements included, and have a conversation like this everyday without the syllabus at all.

My point? I love teaching here at CSU. My students energize me, they challenge me and they encourage me to do the best I can do in the classroom. This semester is our opportunity to learn and to grow in a way that was not possible before because of a new and unique aggregation of classmates.

Take advantage of all of the people that you will meet, and all of the things that you are privileged to study. I look forward to learning with all of you.

Anne Marie Merline is a faculty member in the University Honors Program. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com