Can an old dog teach new tricks?
It remains a question whether someone who has taught successfully (as measured by student evaluations and peer assessments) at the undergraduate level can teach students of her/his own age. After all, a skilled kindergarten teacher may be out of place and skill-set in high school science or maybe not. Maybe, the meta-talent of teaching (deep understanding of content, profound comprehension of where students are, the ability to change tone, accent and appeal, the meeting of where students are with the challenge of where they will be after an encounter with the material) rests far above the content and specifics of teaching physical science or English. Maybe, some of us are master teachers, who are not only good in specific classrooms and subjects, we can also think about the process of teaching broadly and deeply. Some gifted teachers may be able to teach almost anything to anyone.
The actual genius and mastery of teaching is in itself a rare thing. Despite fifteen years of college-level teaching, I am nowhere near being that exceptional teacher but if an interest in self-improvement and a commitment to engaging teaching were half the formula, I would be well on my way. To teach the transferability of my teaching chops, I decided to teach a course at our local lifelong program housed at the local university. Typically, these programs are geared to adults sixty years and over and are peer led. No tests, no credit, no stress—just the joy of learning. Courses include history, arts, wellness, creative expression and others as well as travel and special interest groups. My plan was to teach one concept in sociology (the sociological imagination) and have older students apply this to their lives. The sociological imagination suggests that we cannot understand our own lives without understanding the social, historical, political and cultural environments of the time. This concepts fights against our tendency to believe that we are self-made women and men and points us to an examination of generational differences, changes in norms and values, changes in material conditions and much more. The students were challenged to write short autobiographies and then translate these into creative projects, fashioning sociologically informed stories of their lives. The class was to meet for three sessions in early December 2017.
The challenge of the comfort zone
As the time of the class drew near, self-doubt and panic began to set in. Could I take an exercise that worked with undergraduates to a classroom where students ranged from their mid-sixties to their late-eighties? Could I interest students in sociological ideas? Would they be willing to share their observations about their lives in a setting like this? Could I reasonably expect students to create class projects in such a short time? And, could I do this in three weeks of classes that were 90 minutes long? And, most importantly, after teaching undergraduates for such a long time, what made me think I could teach people my own age and above? As I wrote earlier, are those teaching skills really transferable?
I have to admit to suffering a nightmare before each of the first two classes. These were completely typical anxiety dreams, the first about not being able to get to my classroom because the elevator had disappeared and left in its place was a drawbridge that was up. The second involved teaching a classroom full of mustache wearing lumberjacks in a room with twelve doors, all opening in rapid succession. When I followed a noisy marching band to quiet down, I got lost in my own college in the toy department and couldn’t find my classroom again. Completely normal. That I still suffer from these after teaching so long is a topic for another essay. Let’s just stipulate that I did not imagine that teaching students my own age would be a walk in the park.
However, I must say that I very much enjoyed working with older adults. It is a wonderful experience to share the benefits of the learning one has done, as an older teacher and as an older student. Because I have been working with these ideas for so long, I have distilled the essence and promise of them. My version of sociology may be pretty far from versions held by other sociologists. I suppose this is the case for poets, as well. I may oversimplify the ideas that are core to the discipline. But, for me, these concepts and theories are profoundly helpful for people to understand who they are in the world. And, because, older adults have an opportunity to look back and reflect on their lives, the sociological imagination allows us to see both broad strokes of history as well as the contingent natures of our life paths.
Organization of the class
The course met three times. During the first class, we discussed the sociological imagination and the ideas of sociologist, C. Wright Mills. I asked each of the students to tell the class about his/her career and the paths not taken—careers that, in retrospect, they may have pursued had circumstances been different. In a class of sixteen, only one man would have followed the same career path. I also asked the students to identify five historical events that happened during their lifetimes that they believed had the greatest impact on them. With a twenty-year difference between the youngest and oldest student in the class, we readily identified the differences between growing up as a child of the depression and experiencing childhood as a member of the baby boom generation. The impact of these differences could be readily traced to the older students’ life courses. For the second class meeting, students were tasked with writing a three-paragraph autobiography, which they would share with other students in class.
In the second meeting, students exchanged their stories in small groups, where I asked them to identify common themes and differences. Out of these conversations emerged several points of agreement and common understandings. In this class, I offered a number of resources where students could research their histories.
For the third session, students were asked to begin to think about a creative way to tell their life story or to focus on a transformational event. Not all students were prepared to do this assignment. However, a few were and these were insightful expressions. Many students noted that they had never thought about the historical context of their lives; others said this assignment prompted them to begin chronicling their life story for their children and grandchildren. Still, others reported that they began to better understand their life course after doing some research on historical events. Students who took up the challenge of doing the creative project used the metaphor of life as a great unveiling, as a bookshelf with stories to be told and as a spreadsheet with pluses and minuses and large fields of undetermined outcomes. In this final class, I also distributed The Summoned Self by David Brooks, the columnist for the New York Times, an essay that explores the contingency of careers and life plans which I thought would resonate with a number of the students.
In my undergraduate teaching, I always do this assignment along with the students in my class. On one occasion, I create a three dimensional board game with Chutes-and-Ladders-like paths signifying unearned good luck and undeserved bad luck all winding through historical events and personal mileposts. Because I have spent most of the past twenty years as a PhD sociologist, I sometimes imagine that I have already examined every facet of my life worth examining. However, in the assignment, I focused on my year as a VISTA Volunteer and realized for the first time how profound that experience had been. In fact, I ended up dividing my life into Before VISTA and After VISTA. I got to include Parables, little books where events of that year taught me lessons I am still processing and missing photographs where images of people and events that were key are missing from my scrapbooks. This exercise took research—fact checking and memory checking— to make the story complete. I found it incredibly rewarding, despite the fact that I thought I had already covered this territory of my personal autobiography. Having the opportunity to discuss this project in the comfort of a classroom of my peers made all the difference for me.
The next round
With few exceptions, the students recommended that the course be taught again, offered in five or six sessions instead of just three. Most observed that they would continue working on the project they began in class. Students also observed that the course included just enough sociology. I know that from the experience of teaching this course that older students like small group work. They also appreciate a speaker who speaks loudly and clearly and who writes carefully on the board. Some are interested in more reading related to the topic; other less so.
I aim to think more clearly about the learning styles and approaches of the older student. Many have wonderful experiences that would readily be the subject of some compelling story-telling. If in the next round of this course, we can build up sufficient trust among the members of the class, I would like to showcase these stories in a public setting. With two semesters left to teach at my university, I am also more sensitive and aware than ever of the importance of understanding the students in front of me, from their generational membership to their culture to the ways in which the world manifests itself to them. What I most interested in is what I can learn from them in the limited time we have together.