You Don’t Know Your Students. This Professor Hopes to Change That.
By Jeffrey Young. Originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education
It’s near midnight on a Friday at Kansas State University, and an associate professor of anthropology is out with his students, sneaking onto the rooftop of a campus building — or at least trying to.
A security guard is right on their heels — announced by the jingle of keys in his pocket. So one of the students starts talking loudly about his homework, and the guard loses interest and peels off. Relieved, the students and their professor look for another building to climb.
The professor is Michael Wesch, and that scene comes from his new podcast, “Life 101.” It’s an unusual project. After years as an award-winning teacher, Mr. Wesch felt that he had lost that sense of what students were going through as they walked into his large introductory classes, and that made it harder for him to connect and be an effective teacher.
But he’s an anthropologist, and understanding unfamiliar cultures is his specialty. So he decided to focus his economic-research skills on campus life and become a participant-observer of his students.
For his first episode he did essentially the same homework he was asking his anthropology students to do that week, documenting a weekend night. He asked his students to be his guide, and a rooftop is just one of the dramatic places they take him.
Hello and welcome to The Chronicle’s Re:Learning Podcast, a look at the future of education. I’m Jeff Young. This week I talked with Mr. Wesch about what he learned from that night out with his students, about teaching, and about the meaning of college.
Listen to the full audio. Below is an edited and adapted transcript of the podcast.
Q. We’re talking today with Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, and creator of a new podcast called “Life 101.” Thanks for joining us.
A. Yeah, thanks. It’s great to be here.
Q. First of all, I want to say to our listeners, I think you should maybe even pause this right now, but come back after that and listen to the first episode because it is really this journey that has these emotional arcs and these characters, and it’s all happening one night between, what it is, midnight and 2 a.m.-ish?
A. It expanded out to 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., ultimately.
Q. OK. Certainly the time where a lot of professors are usually not tuning in. So there’s students’ lives, and maybe that’s for good and for bad. I did want to say, first off, like where you said you got some proposals from students when you went to your class, which is a large class on your campus, and said, “I’m going to do this assignment too. I’m going to go see the campus at these hours. You guys, I need some tour guides.” Tell me the three proposals that you ended up doing that you’re going on.
A. The proposals were to climb buildings, to get to rooftops, and so on; go to a frat party; and then go to the college bar district and go dancing. I think they all just viewed it as a lot of fun. The fraternity party, frat security is serious stuff, and they don’t just let anybody in.
Q. What do you mean? Describe that.
A. There is a list. Then you come to the door, and you have to make sure that you’re on the list. Then once you’re inside, if you don’t look quite right, they’ll ask you over and over again who are you, what are you doing here, and of course me, I look like I’m 40.
Q. Fair enough. You are.
A. The only people who didn’t ask me were people who’d had me in class, and they were more just like, “Woohoo,” like they’re so excited. I think it helps us that I’m a popular professor on campus, so that when people did recognize me, they were excited to see me. A lot of them knew me.
Q. You’re not a stranger.
A. I’m not a stranger.
Q. In fact, people were taking selfies with you at this frat party?
A. Yeah. I mean, there is like a line for selfies at one point, which is just kind of embarrassing. Yeah, it was really hard, actually, to then just experience the night. Because I think the common experience is to feel anonymous in the situation. I think students go in, and they just feel like overwhelmed by how they’re just one in a big sea of people. I didn’t have that experience at all, and I kind of regretted that. I wished that I could be a little bit more anonymous just to have that experience.
Q. We’ve talked before, and you’ve been somebody who has done a lot of interesting things with multimedia and teaching over the years. How did you come to do this particular project?
A. I came into being a professor thinking with really high goals. I had these really high goals of just inspiring everybody and getting them to feel the same sort of inspiration that I felt as a college student. I was kind of disappointed early on. I was teaching these really big classes, and there’s a lot of dead eyes and a lot of glazed-over looks in the room. That led me to experiment. I started experimenting, and I was rewarded for my experimentation. Within three years I was awarded the U.S. Professor of the Year for some of these experiments I’d done.
So from the outside I think everything looked like it was going really well. But in the classroom, even though these experiments kind of looked great and they seemed to have some great impact, I still was facing the glaze. On a day-to-day basis, I still looked out in the audience, and I’d see people sleeping, people gaming the assignments just to get by. I kept trying more and more things. The funny thing was that I felt like I was doing worse over time, that my assignments were connecting less and less with the students. My lectures were connecting less and less.
I think part of this was just age. I was getting older. When I first started teaching, I was in my late 20s and I was pretty easy to relate to students at that time and know what they were up to and what they were going through. But by the time I was approaching 40, there was definitely a generation gap. There were things that mystified me about my students, and frustrated me, and I just couldn’t figure it out.
A few years ago I did some mild anthropology. I started interviewing students. I opened myself up to daily lunches with students. So every day I would have open lunch and students could come and sit with me and talk. The rule of those conversations, the one rule of those conversations, was that there was no small talk. We just dove right in. I immediately saw that there was a lot more complexity to their lives than I had been aware of. Then, sort of in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “OK, I’m an anthropologist, I know interviews aren’t enough. People say all kinds of things in interviews, and you miss out on a lot of things if you’re not really living it.” I started thinking I really need to dive in somehow.
Q. I suspect that a lot of professors listening might relate to this feeling of talking to the students and not connecting and just being in different places, being at different life stages. Do you think that’s maybe a disconnect that actually is kind of in the way sometimes of teaching for a lot of people?
A. Definitely. I think it’s kind of astonishing to me what’s happened to me just in this little time that I’ve started doing this podcast, and then also kind of going back to when I started these daily lunches, is how different I am as a teacher. My syllabus is different, my assignments are different, but I think even more important, the way I respond to students is different. I used to have kind of like this constant inner anger that I didn’t even recognize, just simmering in the background, and when a student would come and have some excuse for why they didn’t do this or that, or when they would sort of clearly sort of phone in an assignment and not really put any effort into it, my worse judgments would come out. These were all assumptions.
Q. You’re just guessing. You’re guessing based on stereotypes of what the student’s thinking.
A. Exactly, where those stereotypes are so powerful. That’s one of the things I wanted to do in this podcast, is get past those stereotypes. Not just for us as faculty, but I’m trying to … this is a little bit difficult to do, but I’m trying to create the podcast so that students and faculty listen to them. I want to hit both audiences. I hope that students also recognize that the stereotypes aren’t often true. I mean, they have these stereotypes about their own lives or about different segments of college life that I think need to be changed and can be really damaging. There’s a lot of assumptions about that, like most students drink and are looking to hook up, for example. But it turns out most students are not drinking and looking to hook up. I think a lot of students feel pressure to conform to that stereotype, and I think that there’s more going on there.
Q. And it’s a very personal story on your part. The part that I was surprised by was the extent to which you were also looking inward in this podcast and really trying to understand yourself as a professor in the middle of your career. Why do that?
A. I wanted it to be honest, and I want people to realize that I think the best of education happens when we’re all learning, and that learning is a lot more complex than just learning a bunch of stuff. It’s about finding out who you are, what your capacities are, finding stores of courage that you didn’t know you had, trying things you never tried before, crossing boundaries. These are all like really hard to do.
So I wanted to include that because I think that to me what “Life 101” is all about is that we’re all learning, that nobody ever stops figuring this stuff out, this is the big stuff, and each phase of life brings these questions into relief in new ways so that … I really felt like I had this particular part of my life figured out when I was 20. I could go to a party and dance when I was 20. But here I am at 40, and I’m like, “Man, I can’t do it,” like my arms are trapped, somehow.
Q. You mention how professors are good at thinking, and then maybe you’re overthinking the dance.
A. Exactly, yes. I felt like I’ve lived a life of the mind for so long, it’s like I forgot how to dance.
Q. It seems like you see this forgetting how to dance as symbolic, not just you need to be on Dancing With the Stars or something.
A. Exactly. I think it is symbolic. I think dancing is this capacity to get a little bit out of control, to let go, to let life happen, and I have been just the opposite of that for well over a decade, by necessity. This is how you get through graduate school and tenure, you get hyper-organized.
Q. Yeah, and you’re going to make people, the audience, all of us — me too — feel bad about it. Aren’t these the trade-offs as you naturally kind of enter different stages, or do you think something is lost in our thinking somehow?
A. I think a lot is lost in it. And I think what happens then is that we sort of over-intellectualize and over-theorize in a way like how people learn, and then we miss out on how people actually learn.
For example, I think really common-sense notions of what college education is all about tend to be about, let’s say, critical thinking and creative thinking, that kind of thing. Then we pretend like there might be some kind of formula that can be mastered or procedures that can be mastered so that students can think critically or creatively.
The reality is that critical and creative thinking only happen in the lived experience of everyday life, and you have to overcome all kinds of doubt and fear to actually think critically or creatively. There’s all these emotional components to it. They’re not just intellectual. I think we are so intellectual that we forget all that. I think that’s what I really came away with from that night, was that these students understand that.
When they’re climbing buildings and out there dancing and really like risking themselves, they’re risking their identities, sometimes risking their lives, I think they’re doing that because they know that’s what it takes to become the person they want to become. They have to test themselves in real ways, and we make sort of almost like a puppet show out of our tests. We don’t give them real tests. The real tests are what they’re doing out there in their everyday lives.
Q. What is the plan for the future? How often do you plan on issuing new podcast episodes, because obviously this is a high-quality production? This is not something you put out in an afternoon. What is your plan there?
A. The plan is to try to get one out about every two or three months. They’re all going to be very high quality, like the first one, focused on storytelling, weaving through multiple stories and multiple story lines, multiple characters. That requires a lot of fieldwork, and then a lot of follow-up interviews, a lot of analysis, and then the actual editing itself. It’s a really big process.
But I want to also start inviting more and more people in. On the website we have a section called “share your story,” and there are three levels that people can share at. One is just you have a story you want to tell or an event that you think is interesting or a topic you think is interesting. Just write in to us or call us and just let us know what it is, and then we’ll bring you into the studio and record something and then maybe follow you out into the field, attend the events and so on. That’s a very minimum level of participation.
The second one would be like you have a complete story that you want to tell, and you come into the studio and you tell the story, and then maybe we’ll do some follow-up questions and try to pull out more of that story, and then we’ll produce it.
Then the final level is if students or faculty — anybody’s — interested in producing a podcast about college life, just go ahead and produce it, and we’ll help you. We can even help with equipment. This goes for everybody everywhere. I’m willing to send a good microphone out to somebody who has a great story or a great idea. We will have some online-training pieces to help people learn how to do this. I think in the long run I’d like to see this be like a big network of people all over the world potentially producing stories about a real education and the pursuit of a real education.
Q. It strikes me that that point is really another one of the things that I took away from this podcast — your approach or your call to the listeners that you’ll be a better teacher by actually being more aware and open to having students teach you.
A. Yeah, definitely.
Q. I feel like that goes against — especially at a time where college is not cheap — it goes against the promise of going to Dr. Wesch, a Ph.D.-holding, award-winning teacher, that you know stuff and you’re going to be worth the investment because the students come to you and then you’re going to help them, you’re going to deliver something that’s going to get them their money’s worth. I mean it seems like the message — you’re redefining education in a way?
A. Well, I hope so. That’s definitely a goal of mine, is to undermine common-sense notions of what education is all about in which we kind of, I think all of us, make the mistake constantly of thinking that education is about learning a bunch of stuff. In reality, I think that education, and in particular higher education, is about a transformation of the self. I think what people pay the big money for, what’s worth it, is that transformation.
You can learn a bunch of stuff online for free. But this is a special place. We are trying to create special places where you can go through a total transformation of the self. I think that’s what we really offer, and that’s a collaborative enterprise that extends across all the different activities on a campus, from student life to the students themselves creating their own student lives to intramural activities to the classroom — like everything is a part of that.
I think we all know that, but in our conversations we forget it. That’s why you see in the news you can find Silicon Valley investors talking about how education is outdated, and you’ll hear things like it’s the only institution that has not increased its productivity in 2,400 years. Well, of course not. The world is more complex. It’s actually more difficult to become the kind of person you need to be to succeed in this world, to have a good life.
Of course it’s harder and maybe even takes longer to achieve that. Crafting a self is not something you do on an assembly line, it’s not something that happens quickly. It’s hard work, and it’s different for everybody. I think what we offer on any campus or try to offer is just that space where people can try things out and test themselves in these real ways, not just on the Scantron or multiple-choice exam.
Q. Of course, the flip side of that is, and this is hard to put on the brochure, is that college is a dangerous place, right? Because both emotionally and even with the examples in your podcast of going out climbing up on a roof of a building illicitly, there’s like sometimes real danger for these students just in going off and exploring their identities and doing all the things that they do in a campus.
A. Yeah, and I think that … It’s hard to say this, but the building is really just like a metaphor as well. When people go out on a ledge, I think there are just things that are so much more dangerous and devastating than going out on a ledge of a building on campus. I think almost everybody who really changes, who really becomes a different person in college, will go through a really dark place because they have to confront everything that they thought they were and come out differently on the other side.
That’s just always going to be a dark process. That’s going to be difficult, and it just never stops. It’s like you get, you think you have things figured out, and you reach a state of equilibrium and everything is going fine, but then a new challenge emerges, and you realize, “Oh wait, I don’t have the capacity to do this next thing. There’s something missing.” That’s when you have to go back and test yourself again.
I mean, I think what happens is if you start recognizing that this is what education is really all about, that it’s not just learning a bunch of stuff, then we can actually start intentionally providing some of this. We can recognize the value of mentorship, for example, which is often overlooked. We can recognize the importance of community and connection and all those things that are often overlooked when you’re just thinking about education in the most efficient way possible, like how can we stuff people’s heads with information or procedures or skills as quickly as possible.
Q. I think we’ll leave it at that. I encourage people to check out your podcast and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this today.
A. Yeah, thanks. It’s great to talk to you.