Seeking “the Gray”: Further Thoughts on Teaching in a Time of Crisis

grey prismby Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

In a blog post earlier this semester, I offered some thoughts on the important distinction between reaction and response when teaching in times of crisis.  Since then, the need for response (versus reaction) has only grown stronger.  We’ve had continuing protests (on campus, in the St. Louis region, and across the nation), and we’ve seen more evidence that informed dialogue and deep reflection are needed at all levels of our society if social injustice is to be ameliorated.

While there are many ways we in higher ed might and do serve the causes of social justice, I have heard a number of faculty ask, “But what can I do? In my classes and my work with students?”  The questions are more acute from those who teach courses that do not, in their content, seem directly related to the issues at hand.  But I believe we’re all striving to teach habits of mind, in addition to content.  And all of us have an opportunity (and a responsibility) to foster particular habits of mind that can prepare our students to work toward justice.  One “habit of mind” stands out as especially useful – and, indeed, essential – in the current crisis is the active seeking of “the gray.”

So many of the voices we hear in conversations around race and class and privilege seem to want the issues to be black and/or white.  But many of us believe that the only way to real progress is a consideration of the “gray” – those murky, messy spaces where either/or propositions or easy cause/effect arguments fail to account for the multiple truths inherent in any complex situation.

While it can be difficult to help students cultivate this habit of mind, we have an imperative to do so.  We can get there by teaching students three important early habits:

1 | Suspending judgment: All courses can teach this lesson, whether the “judgment” being suspended is about weighty social issues or just about the specific content of a course.  Here’s one way to do that…

How: At the beginning of the semester, ask students to write down their assumptions, fears, expectations about the course and its content, or about specific topics that will be covered in the course.  Students might consider their own preconceived notions about how difficult or interesting the course will be, things they’ve heard other students say about it, expectations they have about whether they will be strong in particular areas, etc. Then, ask students explicitly to try to set aside those views and to commit to full engagement in the course.  At the end of the semester, ask students to revisit those earlier assumptions and to reflect on the ways in which those early judgments were or were not well-founded; discuss these things in a last class period or in an online discussion.  This kind of activity will model for students the importance of suspending judgment; it also will signal your willingness to hear their critique and views, but after those views are informed by evidence from their own experience.

2 | Seeking multiple perspectives: It’s one thing to talk about “diversity” and another to be committed to the work of actively seeking multiple perspectives.  Most courses have an opportunity to cultivate students’ appreciation for diverse perspectives, whether those perspectives are about cultural topics or just different methods for solving the same problem.

How: Present the class with a complex problem to be discussed / solved in groups.  Before students begin working, ask them to talk in their groups about who among them has specific expertise or skill that may help with tackling the problem.  Ask them to identify their majors or their specific areas of research or study (or other areas of expertise, such as particular job skills or hobbies or service experience), so they can see the different approaches or methods for problem solving that are represented in their group.  Before they begin working, invite them to list all the possible approaches, types of evidence, or formulas that may be relevant.  While they may do many of these things intuitively, there can be value in explicitly foregrounding the need for many different ways of thinking.

3 | Listening deeply: So often, the kind of listening students do in classrooms is listening for – listening for the “right” answers or the “best” solutions or for one student to stop speaking so they can jump in or get credit.  One important skill to cultivate is that of listening with – with attention, with purpose.  Here’s one way we might begin to cultivate this skill explicitly…

How: During a lecture, ask students to put down their pens or stop typing for a set period of time.  Tell them their goal is not to take notes but to really listen, both to the content of what you’re saying and to how you’re saying it.  They should focus on the relationships or connections between ideas that you’re conveying, not on memorizing facts.  After you lecture for 10-15 minutes, stop and ask students to restate what they heard; ask them to try to articulate what was most important in the lecture, what connections they heard.  As they report out, invite them to consider how they knew these were the important lessons.  Then, give them an opportunity to jot down notes and to ask additional questions for clarification.

It’s uncomfortable to live in the gray.  We have to hold multiple perspectives in our heads at once.  We have to listen to seemingly contradictory views and look for truths in both.  We have to be willing to see our own complicity, our own limitations of experience or knowledge, our own privilege.  Ultimately, we aggressively have to seek dialogue, rather than debate.  The steps above are just a few ways we can begin to help students cultivate the habits of mind needed to transform society.  If SLU is about the pursuit of truth, and if that pursuit is messy, living in the “gray” is an essential element of the education we’re striving to provide.

Have other ideas about how teachers can empower students to seek the gray?  Please share them in the Comments section of this blog.

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