Fuel for Both Students and Educators: Finding Your Intellectual Passion and Community

This semester in my UNIV 1820, UConn Reads First Year Experience course two interrelated themes have emerged as driving forces — finding your passion and finding your community. These are themes to which I feel especially connected today as write from the American College Personnel Association national conference in sunny Tampa, Florida (#ACPA15). After a day-long pre-convention colloquium on assessment and today’s powerful opening reception focusing on social justice and diversity competencies I’m already beginning to feel my usual “conference high.” In this moment I find myself acutely aware of the holistic benefits I take from this time working in an intellectual community with people who share many of my passions, are excited to hear about my work, and whose own ideas stretch me to see new opportunities and perspectives. Not only do I know I will return to campus with new ideas, and potentially a little bit of a tan, but I also know I will return excited about the goals my office has set and putting in the extra effort that goes it takes to realize them.

This returns my thoughts to the classroom. I have the luxury of living with my best feminist pedagogy sounding board, academic peer reviewer, and intellectual partner — who happens to also be my husband, Alex. Last week he and I were sitting in front of a fire in our snowy Connecticut home brainstorming how to best articulate this need for intellectual community and the undergraduates in our spring courses. Saying engagement in class and beyond is a course requirement, something that will help you succeed in school, or a way to build transferable skills just wasn’t enough. And we needed to tailor the discussion to our unique courses and students.

Teaching International Relations, Alex wanted to express the long-term power of engaging political debates in community through political theory. So with no prior explanation he opened the next class with a story of Abu Nasr al-Farabi (a very abridged version of his full name), a colossal figure in classical Islamic thought. who lived in the 9th century. He was born in Damascus, spent most of his life living and writing in Baghdad. And he was arguably the most profound Muslim Aristotelian thinker. Specifically, al-Farabi famously recast Aristotle’s argument that “man is a political animal” as “man is a social animal.” (He made the language gender neutral for al-Farabi, since this isn’t a direct quote. Aristotle’s is, though, so he quoted it as is.)

Aristotle believed that it was only in a political collective that humanity could reach its telos; or, in simpler terms, it’s ultimate end (he believed everything developed towards some ultimate end specific to itself). Without this community, claimed Aristotle, humans were little better than animals. Alex explained to them that al-Farabi largely agreed, but added important nuances, including a discussion about individual needs and desires. For al-Farabi, everyone is intrinsically self-insufficient. We all have wants, needs, and desires that we cannot fulfill on our own. It is only in community then, that humans can help one another realize the wants, needs, and desires of others, and have their fulfilled in kind. Thus, it is only through a community that humans, individually and collectively, attain their full felicity – a concept analogous to virtue for Aristotle.

If nothing else, his approach was a lot more compelling and elegant than “if you don’t read you’ll fail the quizzes,” or “if you don’t engage on campus you’re statistically less likely to have a satisfying, successful college experience.”  But I think this narrative gives us a lot more that can be tailored to any class or group of students. To me it argues that beyond college, in any field, actively contributing to a community is part of realizing your full potential as an individual and as a member of the world. And it’s not something the is lightly put aside. As such, by opting out of intellectual engagement in college, just to earn passing grades and a piece of paper, a student is robbing themselves of a powerful opportunity to embrace the human experience and to learn how to do so long after they graduate.

Taking our conversation as inspiration, last week in FYE I kicked off with a weekly reflection and a discussion circle focused on the values and challenges of learning in community. Because my class is a First Year Experience course I was able to organically address this issue of why students choose to disengage or remain anonymous directly. Students candidly talked through their fears of group work with a dead weight partner, their competing home/work/school obligations, and even concerns about not truly belonging. Those ideas out in the open, we recommitted ourselves to working as a mutually supportive class community before jumping into two days of student-driven intellectual collaboration and peer-to-peer learning.

Day 1: The Omnivore’s Research Notes

After our discussion we pulled out annotated books and reading notes to dig into the meat of the lesson.

  1. Before class each student was assigned one chapter from our course text on which to become an expert. They were tasked with posting notes on this chapter before coming to class. Each post included:
    1. A short summary of main argument/point (2-3 sentences)
    2. The most important ideas/support (2-3)
    3. Pivotal quotes (2)
    4. Why is this important / valuable? (3-5 sentences)
    5. One counter argument (3-5 sentences) You may have to do a little digging and cite a source.
  2. In class the students were broken up into chapter groups based on the three sections of the text. Each group was responsible for synthesizing the information to create one unified section note (30 minutes) and presenting their work to the class (10 minutes for each group).

Instead of lecturing to pull out the important debates I let the students take the lead. It was a lot more fun for both me and the class. And I was pleased that as usual, when they helped me set a high bar for their work they rose to the challenge.

Giant papers with student notes.
Students collaborated in section groups to present on major themes of the book.

Day 2: Interpretive Project Peer Review Workshop (Today!)

Today my stellar FYE Peer Mentor (TA), and McNair Scholar, led a peer review workshop in my absence. Even if I had been on campus I would have sat out of this experience because I believe that this second step of collaborating as scholars without me hovering was an important piece to the growth I’m trying to foster. For this workshop each student was required to bring a rough draft of their individualized project, a student-driven inquiry project that requires them to explore something from the text that connects with an intellectual passion of their own choosing.

Armed with the assignment expectations, basic peer review tips, and a strong sense of the class community, students were supported by the Mentor to collaborate to make sure everyone is ready to feel proud submitting their assignment to me next week. The directions are below:

  1. Break into groups of 3. Take turns reading out loud or showing (in the case of photos or videos) what you brought for a draft then getting feedback from your peers. (Yes, actually reading it out loud is an important strategy to practice. Don’t cheat yourself of the experience, even if it’s scary.) Each person will have about 10 minutes.
  2. Share your weekly reflection thoughts. What is the most important revision you need to make before next week.

I’m happy to say that although I had multiple instructors standing by to take the reins if called upon there was no need. With the leadership of their Peer Mentor they successfully discussed their unique exploration of exciting intellectual journeys relevant to the class and are set to revise over the next week. Of course, a reflection on this experience will be how I kick off the next lesson. It’s my hope that it gave them some confidence in their ability to contribute to and gain from similar experiences, even as first-year students, and that they’ll use that momentum to follow their actively passions in the coming years.

As I told my class, finding a passion and fostering it in community is not only something that you can do as a student. It’s a beautiful, challenging, inspiring part of the human experience. And I’m grateful to be in Florida tonight, as a professional, doing the same kind of work they have been doing in class.

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