Director's Column: All Students Major in Voice. Educators Need to Listen.

By David Scobey, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice

“I always felt less-than,” Wendy said. “Coming here has helped me find my voice. It helps me move through the world.” She was sitting at a seminar table at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, one of a group of undergraduates telling me about their histories with higher education. A naturalist at a wolf conservation center, Wendy was enrolled in Evergreen’s adult-serving Evening and Weekend Studies (EWS) program, some two decades after her first foray in college. Around the table, other EWS students offered their own accounts of studies, setbacks, and detours. Many echoed Wendy’s feeling of being “less-than,” of embarrassment and even anger about past experiences with higher education. But just as powerful were the expressions of pride in returning to school and appreciation for EWS’s welcoming community. “Coming here has helped me find my voice. It helps me move through the world.”

Wendy’s words affirm something essential about our purposes as educators. It is not only aspiring musicians who major in voice. All students do. Whatever, wherever, and whenever they study, they come to college to find their voice. Voice is freedom, power, and self-direction. It helps them move through the world.

And finding voice is doubly crucial for those who don’t fit the historical norm of the undergraduate: students of color, first-generation students, working-class students, parenting students, immigrants, and working adults like Wendy. Too often, these college-goers encounter a campus where they are unseen and half-heard, where the noise of other voices can leave them with a kind of social laryngitis. Colleges and universities are beginning—just beginning—to realize the urgency of building communities, curricula, and classrooms where all voices are heard and amplified, where all students can find their voice and hear themselves being heard. The essays in this newsletter offer stories of such “voice work” by students, educators, and institutions. Bringing Theory to Practice is committed to supporting it.

Yet I also hear something more in Wendy’s words. For when students find their voice in college, they also find their voice about college. They speak back to us about their learning, their life as students, and their campus experiences, good and bad. “I couldn’t stand the traditional model of college,” another Evergreen student, a veteran government worker named Jesi, recalled about her first stint in college. “Everything was in columns—take these distribution requirements, those disciplines. And learning in columns isn’t how I learned. I’ve always been a worker, and what you find in the workplace is the interdisciplinary model. Everything is connected to everything else.” It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent critique of the familiar failures of general education—or a more pointed call for integrative, interdisciplinary, and experiential learning.

As a whole, it seems to me that higher ed doesn’t listen well to what students have to say about their time in college and their aspirations for it. We gather data about their experiences through valuable instruments like the National Survey of Student Engagement. We tabulate their responses to courses and instructors through (not so valuable) questionnaires on the final day of the semester. A minority of colleges—generally small, liberal arts institutions like Bard or Hampshire—design the undergraduate experience around threshold moments of academic planning and personal stock-taking. But I’d argue that we don’t listen to students, deeply and slowly, about what they have learned, whether they have flourished, or what they believe college should be.

In my ideal academy, this kind of listening would constitute a core element of both the individual student’s experience and the process of educational design. It would be a benchmark of great teaching and learning that every student be able to—and be asked to—voice the kind of critical reflection that I heard from Jesi. It would be a benchmark of institutional practice to integrate student voice in the assessment and ongoing development of the curriculum and the campus community.

Just to be clear: I don’t mean that college should be “design your own major” writ large. I’m not arguing for open curricula or against course mandates. (Indeed I do think that student voice is crucial to the design of any curricular model, from the most flexible to the most highly structured.) I realize that students can become captive to shiny objects or transient fads or intellectual panics, just like faculty and administrators. But I am arguing that we engage them as critical thinkers about—and cocreators of—their education. I’m arguing that when they find their voice, we listen to what they have to say about college.

The history of higher education is filled with episodes when students made their voices heard to great effect. Student agitation ended in loco parentis rules in the 1950s and ’60s. The black freedom, feminist, and other student-led movements resulted in the founding of new academic fields and curricular programs. In the wake of the Ferguson protests and the rise of the Movement for Black Lives, it was a wave of campus mobilizations in 2015 at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and elsewhere that connected demands for equity, inclusion, and student well-being—connections that we emphasize in our work at Bringing Theory to Practice.

But I think that listening to student voice has to go beyond responding to student activism. It ought to be part of the everyday, every-place practice of academics and academic institutions, especially in a time of turmoil and change. In my experience, the results can be powerful. Several years ago, at the New School, I taught a seminar on the recent history of higher education. In an early session, I asked the class to make a video describing how they would redesign college for students like themselves. Garnetta, a former modern dancer, a bartender, and an aspiring therapist, looked into the camera and said this: “What we need is an undergraduate program that gives us the tools and the space to connect our studies, work lives, aspirations, communities, and public value, a program that provides us with emotional support, assistance in academic navigation, healthier relationships between the student body and the administration, and builds student community.” Years before I came to Bringing Theory to Practice, reflecting on her own experience, she had voiced BTtoP’s core values.

It’s a cliché to note that undergraduate education does not consist of the pouring of knowledge from faculty experts into student vessels. College is a relational drama, enacted and improvised (and sometimes undermined) by the interplay of students and educators. Our students are already its cocreators. Let’s draw on their experiences, good and bad and complicated, by helping them find their voice and by listening—systematically, seriously, slowly—to what they have to say.