Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Learning as an Act of Love

Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay

“…I don’t want to be an accuser …I want to be an advocate for whatever I find is healthy or good. I think people don’t change very much when all they have is a finger pointed at them. I think the only way people change is in relation to somebody who loves them.”

Fred Rogers, quoted by Laskas, 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a good neighbor, and what part neighborliness plays in the life of the university. This past semester I had the privilege of walking alongside a group of new students at our university. The course I taught is one that all new students take as a part of their core liberal arts requirement, and the idea is to spend time together wrestling with big ideas and big questions and different ways of knowing. We want our students to struggle and think and begin to own their own learning.

The theme for our particular course was: What does it mean to be a good neighbor? I chose this theme because I see how students are struggling to know how to live in a world that is so full of divisive rhetoric while also entering into a university whose mission is to love and serve the world. They don’t see a lot of examples on the national stage of love, mercy, and service. Being the mother of two college aged students, I know that these students are asking themselves questions like: What does it mean to actually live in love and service in our world today? How does this play out in political conversations with those with whom I both agree and disagree? What does it mean for my life at work? How does the concept of love and service influence the way I live my life as a college student? 

And so my class and I waded into this theme of being a good neighbor, with a primary reading being I think You’re Wrong, but I’m Listening, (Silvers & Holland, 2019) about how to have political conversations with grace. The course reading and viewing list was filled with readings like the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible along with work from Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Parker Palmer, and Fred Rogers. 

Connection is a central tenet of learning. Learning is not just an act of the mind. It is also an act of the heart and of identity. Our students encounter new information and questions in the context of the self. In Teaching to Transgress (1994), bell hooks writes, “School was the place of ecstasy—pleasure and danger. To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone” (p. 3). Parker Palmer echoes this view in The Courage to Teach (1998/2007), discussing the fear of both teachers and students of encountering ideas and perspectives that challenge strongly held beliefs and perspectives of our own.

So how then do we live into the discomfort of learning? How do we help our students face that fear and learn from those who have different ideas or perspectives from their own? Love, guided by practice of hospitality, is a powerful component of creating an environment that builds the type of community that allows for real connection to explore and learn together. hooks (1994) talks about what she called “engaged pedagogy.” One of hooks’ top priorities in her work is allowing each voice within the community to be heard. Welcoming and respecting and even inviting differing student voices allows the practice of freedom for the learning community. In particular, hooks advocates for hearing the voices of those students who may be reluctant to speak, those whose voices have been marginalized through systematic racism, sexism, and so forth. In the same way, Palmer proposes that a connected learning community can engage in “thinking the world together” by approaching the many paradoxes we face when we encounter differences of beliefs and lived experiences through “embrace(ing) a view of the world in which opposites are joined, so that we can see the world clearly and see it whole.” (Palmer, 1998/2007; pg. 69). 

This is no easy task, and when faculty are truly committed to nurturing this kind of community, there will be moments of discomfort. Embracing the idea that connection is vital for true learning allows the classroom to become a collaborative space of learning, one that values the ideas and voice of each member. To truly engage with students in this collaboration requires love, so that we look at the members of our learning community with hearts that are open to learning about and from one another, even in the midst of the fear of letting go of some of our own preconceptions, even through the discomfort.  

For some ideas on how to support students in responding to fear of learning effectively, see my article, When Students are Afraid of Learning in the Teaching Professor or my blog post in the Creativity:edu series titled Learning as the Demogorgon.

References

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress : Education as the practice of freedom. New York : Routledge, 1994.

Laskas, J.M. (2019). The Mister Rogers No One Saw, The New York Times Magazine, November 24, 2019. 

Palmer, Parker J. (2007). The courage to teach : exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, Calif. :Jossey-Bass. (Original work published 1998)

Silvers, B.A. & Holland, S.S. (2019). I think you’re wrong but I’m listening: A guide to grace-filled political conversations. Thorndike.

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