Thursday, May 18, 2017

May 18, 2017: Spring 2017 Reflections: Contemporary Issues in Adult Learning

[As the Spring 2017 semester comes to a conclusion, a series of classroom reflections, this time focused on new things I tried in my courses. I’d love to hear your Spring reflections in comments!]
On how my most recent ALFA class evolved, and why I’m glad it did.
This spring marked the ninth course I’ve taught in the Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program. As the many posts at that second hyperlink reflect, I’ve tried to balance my eight prior ALFA courses between two main focal points: more historical classes, focused in one way or another on “Expanding Our Collective Memories” (the title of my first ALFA class, way back in spring 2012) of American history and identity; and more literary ones, focused on short shared works (usually short stories, occasionally poems) that we’ve analyzed together. While the literary texts in those latter courses have often come from our own era, we’ve tended to keep our conversations about them grounded closely in the details and specifics of the texts themselves, meaning that in neither of these types of prior ALFA classes have we talked at any length about current events or 21st century issues. But last fall, when I sat down to propose my ALFA class for this spring, the time felt right and important to change that trend, and so I proposed a course entitled “Inspiring Contemporary Voices.”
As that title suggests, my initial plan for the course was that we would focus on the voices themselves—talking at length about interesting, complicated, and of course inspiring individual writers or figures (one per week for the course’s five weeks). As of this January preview post, that was still the plan, but I was having a good deal of trouble settling on the five focal individuals. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that that trouble might well be a feature rather than a bug of such a course in our moment: that we’re in an era when we’re confronted by a staggeringly wide variety of complex and often dark and frightening issues and problems; and that trying to find inspiring individual voices or authors in any sort of vacuum in such a period is both highly difficult and, frankly, feels disingenuous and silly. So I took a step back and recalibrated, creating a syllabus where each week focused on a particular such issue (the environment, science, and climate change in week three, for example) and where for each I brought in a number of different authors and voices to help us talk about that issue (a group of pieces from the collection Coming of Age at the End of Nature for that third week, along with videos featuring Bill McKibben and 500 Women Scientists among others).
I’m really glad that the course shifted in this way, and would highlight a couple particularly salient effects of the change. For one thing, I was able to include many more voices, including some I hadn’t been considering at all in the initial iteration: Zareena Grewal and Qasim Rashid in a week on Muslim Americans; and John Scalzi and Holly Genovese in a week on poverty and class in America, to cite two further examples. While some of their individual pieces were far from sunnily optimistic (with good reason), the collective effect of engaging with these groups of authors and figures was most definitely inspiring. And just as inspiring was a second main effect of the shift: that it allowed all twenty of the course’s students to add their voices and experiences into the conversations far more fully than might have been the case if we’d been focused more closely on individual authors and texts. What we ended up doing each week, that is, was brainstorming many different sides to these contemporary issues and problems, as well as distinct possible responses through which we might be able to counter and push beyond them. I’m not saying we solved global warming, exactly (well, not at all), but we most definitely modeled the kinds of informed, engaged, thoughtful, multi-vocal collective conversations through which we can at the very least begin to confront such crises. Inspiring indeed.
Last Spring reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections you’d share?

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