Learning is about more than textbooks

Last week my political science professor assigned a challenging task for the class to consider over the weekend: He asked we evaluate the idea of “teaching.” He wanted us to look back upon our experience at Vassar and make sense of the “contract” in place between student and professor.

A student steps into a college course on day one with several expectations. First, they expect the professor to be competent and knowledgeable of the subject at hand. They know much more than we, as students, can fathom and have devised an organized plan (a syllabus) to guide us through understanding their knowledge and wisdom. Students will be dependent on readings that seamlessly connect to one another and often inspire rich discussion. Upon reading assignment after assignment, the student inch closer to the ultimate goal of a cohesive understanding of the course’s subject. Scribbled red ink etched across examinations and papers will ensure the professor is making an effort to help improve the student’s understanding of the material and serve as a mark of progress. At the end of the course students then will fill out evaluations in hopes the professor reads and recognizes their comments of admiration, as well as comments and suggestions on how to improve the course as a whole.

There’s something happening here at Vassar that is challenging the norm of traditional teaching. Many of Vassar’s professors are taking on the courageous challenge of reshaping the pace and structure of the college course from its cliché roots. What we as students are both realizing and experiencing here at Vassar is a resistance to what we define as the safe and typical route to learning.

I’m also beginning to recognize the moments in which I truly learned. It has never been directly through the readings or through my ability to sift through the heavy density of a textbook. It was when I had opened up as a student; when I allowed myself to develop relationships and discussion in the classroom, that learning percolated.

I vividly remember the first time I learned at this college. I was sitting in Sanders Classroom 013 on a Sunday night. It was about 9:30 p.m. and the room was nearly filled. The entire class was performing rap assignments for our freshman writing seminar, “Hip Hop in Critical Citizenship.” Some students had invited their friends interested in seeing this creative assignment first-hand, so the classroom had become nearly full of excited onlookers. Students with no rapping experience began to “spit” stories of their hometowns, high school days and the inspirations they had from their favorite rappers. The assignment, according to the professor, was for us was to simply “describe home.”

It wasn’t the actual raps and personal stories that inspired me. The educational experience came when I realized the power of writing, and the strength of creative tone and speech; that a powerful rapper can represent a powerful writer and person. I was learning how to step outside my comfort zone, work with others in a very unorthodox style of group work. Students engaged the novice rappers and their stories with thoughtful questions following each performance, as grades were dependent on how effective one could incorporate a critical approach into their responses to other’s work..

Any uninformed person looking into that room would have seen students making a futile attempt at rap. However, what they would fail to be failing to understand is the process at work and the message behind that process because they did not see or experience the initial struggles or obstacles we had with the assignment. We did not know how to engage personal anecdote, the birth of a sub culture through the influence of hip hop muesic and theories of critical race theorists to convert it into a Sunday night rap performance.

This style of learning was so different, so engaging, so magical. What I’m trying to convey here is that teaching is not merely a relationship dependent on the professor communicating to a student—there is also a huge obligation on the student to open up and be able to recognize the opportunities for learning outside of the textbook and how students can benefit from it.

Once a student can realize that the beauty and effectiveness of teaching is in relationships between professors and students as well as from moments like mine in Sanders they are finally beginning to learn. Though I myself have missed many opportunities to learn, and I continue to try to open my mind to the subtle opportunities of learning in my college life.

We can learn so much from each other, from our friends and our professors. We can also uncover a better understanding of things from the events that have occurred in our lives, such as the race war within terrorism in the wake of the unfathomable actions of the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston. Take recent headlines, which obsesses over the government and police officer’s ability to chase down and capture terrorists within our home, and reach back into recent history to find the story of Pat Tillman, who died 9 years ago this past Monday as a result of friendly fire, and how little coverage was given regarding the investigation. If we really want to learn more and engage critically we must create a dialogue between the two events and evaluate the media’s handling of them both. Learning is within every moment of our lives and every step we take as young college students. We need to open our minds and allow for the process to happen; to break the social contract between professor and teacher—that’s where the magic starts to happen.


—Harrison Remler ‘14 is a Political Science Major.

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