Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Notes Toward a Pedagogy of Presence

Last week my youngest daughter and I had the opportunity to help prepare and serve a meal at a local Catholic Worker House.  The meal was delivered to the 200 or so waiting people over a counter, behind which the volunteers worked in assembly-line fashion to fill plates with ham, potatoes, vegetables, salad, bread, and a brownie.  So as each plate came down the line, I plopped some salad on it and my daughter added a piece of bread and a brownie; from there I handed it to a server who passed it along to the folks in line.  Although this process only lasted forty-five minutes at most, it was intense; with so many hungry people standing in a long line stretching around the room, you wanted to get the plates filled and passed out as quickly as possible.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of concentrating intently on my task, vaguely aware that we were doing something good but mostly focused on getting salad on the plates and keeping an eye on my daughter, a man broke the invisible barrier that separated the volunteers from the recipients of our charity.

"Hey, thank you," he said, speaking loudly and directly across the counter to us.  "I really appreciate what you guys are doing. Without folks like you, there wouldn't be . . . "

And then he trailed off, hustled along by the volunteer server and the crush of people in line behind him.  I paused and stood there listening for just a moment, clump of salad in my (sanitary-gloved) hand.  A wave of something that felt like shame passed over me. This man wanted--and deserved--more than a plate of food.  He wanted to acknowledge the transaction between us: that we had prepared food for him, and that he was grateful for it.  But more deeply it struck me that what he wanted with his meal was a moment of human connection.  That seemed as important to him as the meal.  After he passed I made more of an effort to look up from my task and observe the people in line, and I was surprised to note how many of them were watching us, waiting to make eye contact, and say a word or two of thanks.  And I realized how many people had passed before me already and seen nothing but the top of my head and a plate of food.

In January I will be leading a group of students at my college on a service trip to Ecuador, but we won't be handing out plates of food or building houses or digging wells.  Instead, we will be engaged in what our campus ministry coordinator calls the "ministry of presence."  Our job will be to meet people in the neighborhood, at hospitals, and schools, and sit with them and play games and share meals and hear their stories--and let them hear ours.  We will be present to them.  In service to that end, we'll be severed from our usual ties to the world: no phones, no internet, no contact with our families back home.  By choice and by constraint, we will be present to each other and to our neighbors in the slums of Guayaquil.

As I have been preparing for this trip, and learning about the ministry of presence, it has occurred to me that I had been neglecting that dimension of service when I was handing out meals with my daughter.  I was providing food but was not really present to the people in that line--at least until after the man broke the barrier between us and called me into his presence.  Ever since that day I have been experimenting with trying to make myself more present to the people in my life--to my children, my spouse, and even the people I encounter every day in the coffee shop where I write.  And while I can't measure this concretely in any way, life seems a little more joyful to me.  We are laughing and speaking more than usual at our family dinner table.  I have had a bunch of good conversations recently with people I with whom I once might have exchanged only a passing greeting.

And all of this, finally, has led me to reflect upon the extent to which we should think more about the pedagogy of presence in higher education--on the value that comes from humans being present to one another in moments of learning.  I wholeheartedly embrace the general swing in higher education toward better articulating and measuring learning outcomes.  We didn't do anything like this for a very long time, and we need it.  But in the last year or two, the more I read the literature on learning outcomes and assessment, the more I feel like it misses something fundamental--something that can perhaps never be measured completely, but that books like How College Works seem to articulate: that personal relationships are what students document as the most profound and memorable aspects of their college experience.

I wonder now how much I have been really present in my classrooms over the past fifteen years, how often I have been focused on the material, on the passing of the hour, on a meeting I had later that day.  I wonder how much our plans for the future of higher education account for the value of presence in the lives of our students.  I wonder how we make ourselves more present in online environments, but also how we do so in face-to-face classrooms--and even in the feedback we give to students on their work.  I wonder how often we hand out plates of knowledge without offering that human connection.  And I wonder whether students are sitting out there in the seats, while we stand at the front of the room talking, and watching for us to step into their presence.  

I have no answers for any of these questions, which is why I titled this blog post "Notes Toward a Pedagogy of Presence," and why I've written it here rather than following my usual path--namely, attempting to publish every thought that pops into my head.  I hope my time in Ecuador, and my continued reflections on the ministry of presence and its role in my life, will help me return from sabbatical next year with a better understanding of how to engage in a pedagogy of presence for my students--and I welcome your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.