I have been thinking a lot about student engagement for almost a year now. Last year I was placed on our community college’s Assessment Committee, and I was charged withing helping make and vet the Institutional Student Learning Outcome rubrics. Yes, that sounds like torture, but it was surprisingly illuminating. One area we tried to define and tease out was the area of student engagement.
In order to define stages of student engagement for the rubric, I had to think a lot about when I became engaged in my education. When was that? When did I tune in? When did my education become mine? When did I start to own it, to own my brain, to own my ability to think and speak and write, to own the path of developing myself as an educated individual? When did I get super excited, curious, and engaged in my studies?
I know EXACTLY when. The exact moment.
It was my first semester back at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after a year abroad in Montepellier, France. You might wonder, “How did you not become engaged in France?!” and I did, but that year was really about me developing as an individual, engaging with myself as a young women, and not necessarily as a student. I came home from France, enrolled in the School of Education at UNC to fulfill my scholarship requirements of becoming a certified teacher, and immediately dropped out. I lost the scholarship that paid my entire tuition. I not only lost it, but I had to repay the six semesters of scholarship money that I had already accumulated! And I blame this all on Carol Mavor.
Carol Mavor was my Art History professor, and in the fall of 1995 I took her course Art from 1945 to present. That woman was amazing. She wove together slideshows of art, history, pop culture, music videos, and every/anything interesting into her class. Her act of teaching was performance art. She wore funky dresses, lace-fringed bobby socks, and high heeled Mary Jane shoes. She had a mane of frizzy dark hair that cascaded down her back and an unusual voice which some compared to the voice of Bart Simpson. Her class blew my brain apart. I loved connecting the art from class to the history of the late 20th century to the pop culture I had lived/was living and the theory she introduced me to through class readings. This synthesis of these multiple components thrilled me. I LOVED doing the work for her class. I remember one day, sitting on the brick steps in front of the student center with my then boyfriend Chris, eating a snack before going to work on a paper for her on consumer culture, Barbara Krugar’s book Love for Sale, and the Talking Head’s video “Love for Sale.” I literally could not sit still–I was too excited to go work on that paper! I clearly remember jumping up from where we were sitting, kissing him, and exclaiming something totally corny like, “I have to go work on this! It’s so amazing!” and running off the the library.
And it was from THAT point on that I became engaged in my education. I changed my major from English Education/French to Cultural Studies (interdisciplinary studies)/French. I took courses and studied midwifery(Professors Anne Dunbar & Will Stott)–a topic that still interests me today and guided the way I birthed my children. I took courses on African Americans in Film (Professor Charlene Register) and Black Hip Hop Culture (Professor Michael Eric Dyson) and Body Imaging & Art (Professor elin o’hara slavick) and more with Carol Mavor that provided me with readings and experiences that I have repeatedly used for the 13 years I have been a teacher. I was transformed by their teachings and by my own engagement in the subject matter.
That is when I became an engaged student.
When we talk of student engagement–specifically the measuring and quantifying of it–I think of this experience of mine and how one class and one professor opened the door for me to be engaged in my education. Was it the subject, was it her teaching, was it that I was ready to be opened? I don’t know. But I do know when it happened. I was 21 years old.
When I feel desperate as a teacher/professor and I want my students to be engaged RIGHT NOW, I think of myself as a student. We can’t force student engagement–not on the level of true engagement like I experienced above. It happens only when the stars of coursework, professor, and readiness align. So much of that is out of our control.
Maybe it’s best to stop measuring and just teach.