telluride thoughts 1: what i learned from dr. abegunde
This past summer, I had the opportunity to teach a six week long seminar called “The Black Struggle for Freedom,” sponsored by the Telluride Association. The seminar is aimed at gifted high school students who want to immerse themselves in a particular topic. I taught a seminar that was an interdisciplinary exploration of how African Americans fought for their rights.
Telluride summer seminars are co-taught and my partner in crime was Maria Hamilton Abegdune. She’s a very accomplished individual – the first person to receive a Ph.D. in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana, a published poet, a collector and curator of art, a counselor for doctoral students, university administrator, and a health care provider. Even this enumeration is a woefully incomplete account of my colleague. So I want to dedicate the first of my posts about teaching the Telluride seminar to what I learned from my partner in the classroom.
First, Abegunde, as she prefers to be called, has a completely different classroom presence than I do. I do a lot of lecturing in large classes and my small classes tend to be technical, like network analysis. As a result, I am either a “transmitter” of information or I have to be an entertainer, where I try to encourage students to be comfortable in class and not be scared of the material. In contrast, Abegunde has a much more interactive classroom presence. She can have students do close readings of texts while opening up a very personal dialogue. The result is that her classroom is a very emotionally open space that is simultaneously rooted in the slow and laborious task of textual interpretation. That’s very hard to accomplish.
Second, Abegunde is extraordinarily attuned to the emotional contours of the classroom. This turned out to be extremely important since the class was composed of high school students. To give one example, our class met the day after Philando Castile was shot and the class was devastated. In my view, Abegunde helped manage the conversation in ways that allowed people to express their frustration in constructive ways. Not surprisingly, Abegunde is adept at allowing people to fully feel the emotions that emerge and then channeling that in a constructive way.
Third, Abegunde represents a very different intellectual model than I do. As a trained humanist and creative writer, she approaches her teaching in a very “thick description” way. Her class discussions are full of allusions to pop culture, African culture, diaspora culture, literature, and a whole lot more. I am a bit more positivist in my teaching in that I focus on social science theory and method. I think we make for an interesting contrast that shows how you can be intellectual, rigorous, and engaged in two very different ways.
I think that Abegunde’s teaching method emerges from her varied experiences. Her graduate work in the humanities and active poetry career provide her with a rich language for contextualizing reading. At the same time, her work with traumatized populations allows her to fully appreciate the emotional depth of her students and the work they need to do that will help them get the most from the class and their lives. Spending a lot of time with Abegunde has also taught me a lot. As a teacher, I try to more fully understand where my students are emotionally. On an academic level, I am much less hesitant to fully jump into a more humanistic presentation of the material.
Next week: what I learned from the students.