William & Mary

Koloski: Teaching as conversation

I'd like to say a few words about conversation, particularly the conversations we have with our students. KoloskiI'm not referring here to the casual conversations we have with freshmen advisees the first time they come in or with students we bump into at the Daily Grind. I'm talking about teaching and learning as a conversation.

Just today, I was talking with a student who was having trouble writing a paper. She was paralyzed by what she didn't know, and she felt that unless she could be certain of her credentials as an expert, she didn't have anything worthwhile to say. I told her what I've told myself many times in the course of preparing conference papers, a book manuscript and lectures for class: "Your task is to join the conversation. We're engaged in a conversation here, in class and on paper, about how and why this particular source (we were talking about the East Central European revolutions of 1989) can help us understand what happened in the past and why we should care about it. You don't need to be the expert. You simply need to speak up and join the conversation."

There are times when we play the expert, as we stand up in front of a class and deliver a lecture. But there are also plenty of times when we converse with students, when we engage in a dialogue about what matters and why, whether the "what matters" is something we're discussing in class, a paper topic, which grad school to attend or whether to spend a semester studying in Poland. I think it's then, when we drop the "expert" role and really engage our students one-on-one, that most of the teaching and learning take place—or, perhaps, that the best teaching and learning take place. Ideally, we're not just telling students what we know and what we think they need to hear. We're encouraging them to practice the best way to learn and to keep learning for the rest of their lives—not by amassing material but by thinking and talking about what really matters and why.

I don't know that we want to spread the word that William and Mary is paying its faculty to have conversations—and possibly even giving them awards for doing so. But I do know that when it comes to teaching and learning, conversation is one of the secrets to our success.