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by Marlene Cohen, Coordinator of Communication Across the Curriculum 

What we see in our students is always too small a portion.

This week, during the "Learning Our Viewpoints" open student discussion, we listened to a lovely young woman who appears to most people on campus as African American.  She has to keep explaining often, when they talk to her in a language and style she doesn't know.  She is not African American at all; she was raised in Japan with a Japanese mother and Liberian father.  She has to explain often because people here just don't believe she is Japanese.  It doesn't fit their image.

We see information that isn't there; we fail to see information that is present.  As teachers, we should always keep our antennae up for information that may unlock a student to us.

Here is an experience that I never could have predicted:  I teach speech communication, so certainly I've had students unhappy with what I'm asking them to do.  Someone fears giving a speech, and another is very hesitant to share his perceptions interpersonally.  But this was the first time, in 27 years in the classroom, that debate was at odds with a student's core values.

I had a great group of honors students that term; they were interested in many political and social topics, developing arguments with compelling evidence and logic, and doing great research.  One young woman presented strong arguments, when she was prepared.  When she was not prepared, she was angry, and she was hostile ... "I hate doing this," and "What time is this class over?"  It sounded like my worst high school teaching experience ever; it didn't fit with the person I saw to be ambitious and very bright.

I stopped her after class one day to tell her that her negative remarks were harmful to the class atmosphere I was trying to build.  If something about the class was bothering her, I wanted to hear it, one-to-one.  She couldn't talk about it.

I called her at home a few days later.  With some anguish she told me of her very restrictive upbringing.  She was raised in a religious group that said you should talk to outsiders only about the Bible, that you will suffer horribly in the afterlife if you do not become the person you are supposed to be in the eyes of the community, and that college offers a worthless, worldly education.  Her problem with debate class was not that she was afraid to speak, but that developing her own arguments was painfully at odds with all she had been taught.  She was in a terrible personal struggle.  She didn't know what she was getting into when she registered.

She joined students who attended the International Moot Court competition in downtown D.C.  She loved watching law students from around the world arguing their cases so effectively.  She asked me if I thought she could ever be a lawyer.  "Absolutely."

By chance a year later I saw the woman on campus, and she rushed to tell me that she had chosen to continue her education, causing her to cut many of her closest family and personal ties, including her marriage.

I could never have known how difficult a studentís situation was.  I could never have known what my teaching was doing to affect the future of one person.  Each day, I try to think about all that I do not know about those students in front of me.


The Instructional Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 3

Spring 2002