The coronavirus shut down most aspects of normal life this past spring, but efforts to promote and support formative education at Boston College persevered, and flourished, during online classes, according to a BC research team that surveyed nearly 40 faculty, whose expertise ranged from biology to criminal law to theology.
“We asked the deans of all schools to identify faculty who not only overcame the challenges of the exclusively online environment during their second semester remote courses, but who also did particularly impressive work that emphasized formation at BC,” said Stanton E.F. Wortham, the Charles F. Donovan, S.J., Dean of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, who led the team.
While BC faculty are not required to integrate a formative education approach within their courses, many do, explained Wortham, because they realize “it serves a critical role in helping students develop not only intellectually, but also personally, ethically, and spiritually.”
BC, which draws its inspiration for its academic and societal mission from the University’s distinctive religious and intellectual heritage, is committed to leading students on a comprehensive journey of discovery—even in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic that sent most students home and converted in-person classes to a virtual experience, a new venture for most faculty.
“By dismantling the traditional barriers between teacher and student, we collectively learned how to adapt to the online environment. It served as an opportunity to cultivate a connection between the students’ educational experiences and the realities of life, an important component of formation.”
Professor of English Laura Tanner, who teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses, including Studies in Poetry and Trauma and American Literature, was anxious and skeptical about transitioning to online instruction. She was able to overcome her fears due, in part, to a remote-learning strategy based in formative education.
“By dismantling the traditional barriers between teacher and student, we collectively learned how to adapt to the online environment,” said Tanner. “It served as an opportunity to cultivate a connection between the students’ educational experiences and the realities of life, an important component of formation.”
In prior semesters, Tanner had randomly paired her students as “discussion partners,” and asked them to meet in person to discuss a topic such as a reading or set of issues, the results of which would be reported to the class. She feared that the spring semester partnerships would disintegrate with the switch to online learning, but was pleasantly surprised that they continued, often with great intensity—an outcome she attributed to the students’ desire to stay connected during the pandemic.
“These ‘blind dates’ were designed to foster students’ intellectual engagement, a skill I encourage them to carry forward after graduation,” said Tanner. “In my view, student formation is about helping students develop the tools they need to bring their passion for reading, thinking, and learning with them into their adult lives in the same way that they nurture their love life or find friends who share their interests.
“Sustained intellectual relationships are necessary to live fully and meaningfully.”
I strongly believe that every student has an unlimited source of untapped intellectual, social, ethical, and spiritual capacity. To have the chance to help a young person become a fulfilled, purposeful, and caring person is an amazing responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
Economics Professor Can Erbil eschewed the traditional teacher-student power dynamic in his 254-student Principles of Economics class by engaging his undergraduates as “consultants” for effective ways to better involve such a large group online. One suggestion was an “Instagram Live” session that allowed users to stream video and interact in real time; it drew nearly the entire class.
“The team approach has always been a central and essential element of my teaching philosophy, whether I’m conducting the class in-person, online, or hybrid,” said Erbil, who lauded his teaching assistants and BC’s centers for Teaching Excellence and Digital Innovation in Learning. “Formative education takes place in kinship with others, and my team approach tries to create that learning community.”
The political environment of Erbil’s native Turkey, which has suffered through military coups and political and civil instability during the last 40 years, has made him a firm believer and supporter of social justice, a just society, and giving back.
“I strongly believe that every student has an unlimited source of untapped intellectual, social, ethical, and spiritual capacity,” he said. “To have the chance to help a young person become a fulfilled, purposeful, and caring person is an amazing responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
“As faculty, we have an opportunity, as well as an obligation, to show our students that they can and should have a larger purpose in their lives.”
“One of BC’s many strengths is its emphasis on education of the whole person. The Jesuit value of flourishing in turn enriches our collective sense of community at the Law School.”
Steven Koh, the Marianne D. Short and Ray Skowyra Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Law, met with each of his criminal law students early in the semester to deepen his understanding of them as “whole” people, and to help them to know him as more than just an instructor.
“One of BC’s many strengths is its emphasis on education of the whole person,” said Koh. “The Jesuit value of flourishing in turn enriches our collective sense of community at the Law School.”
When his class transitioned online, he intentionally connected his students’ respective interests and backgrounds gleaned from the one-on-one sessions to the daily course material, an approach Koh believed added dynamism to a potentially impersonal electronic teaching experience.
“One student told me that his passion for criminal justice stemmed from the killing of his cousin in the Bronx, when they were both children,” said Koh. “He saw a prosecutor during the criminal trial, and thought ‘That’s a job I’d like to do.’ I doubt I would’ve learned that about my student in the course of our everyday classroom discussion.”
Relationships are at the heart of formative education, and these relationships are more than just vehicles for gaining knowledge. . .Formative education is not just about information, but transformation.
Belle Liang, a professor in Counseling, Developmental & Educational Psychology at the Lynch School, whose research focuses on mentoring in adolescence and young adulthood, intentionally develops her courses with formation at the forefront.
“Relationships are at the heart of formative education, and these relationships are more than just vehicles for gaining knowledge,” said Liang, whose Applied Psychology Practicum: Pathways to Purposeful Work and Life course engaged her students in a peer-tiered program via Zoom called “Mentor On”—co-developed with her 15-year-old son—in which BC students mentored high school students, who in turn guided middle and elementary school pupils.
Once her course transitioned to exclusive virtual learning, Liang revised her students’ final project topic to “A Day in the Life of COVID-19,” which challenged them to develop an intervention based on the integration of empirical psychological research on natural disasters, combined with adversity and crises in their own daily experiences coping with the pandemic, an exercise she characterized as empowering.
“Formative education is not just about information, but transformation,” said Liang, whose mentoring relationship with an academic advisor in graduate school produced the roots of her belief in formation.
“As a first-generation doctoral student from an immigrant family, I had so many insecurities as a 20-year-old entering graduate school,” she said. “But this advisor invested in me beyond the call of duty; I felt valued and seen as a whole person. Because she took the time to closely observe and listen to me, she knew my skills, strengths, and values, and provided me with spot-on guidance and feedback that ‘grew me’ as a psychologist and person.
“Along with equipping our students with academic understanding, our goal is inspiring our students to apply their learning by meeting a need in the world, in a way that only they can.”
Student formation is not only a process by which a person actively evolves over the course of four years, but because of this conscious undertaking, it also possesses the lifelong benefit of remodeling the person.
An undergraduate class in Cancer Biology, and the scientific forensics of what occurs when genetic changes interfere with orderly cell growth, would seem an unlikely and surprising place for formative education to surface.
But, explained Associate Professor of the Practice Danielle Taghian, “one of the most meaningful and formative experiences from the spring semester was a classmate’s talk on her battle with pediatric cancer. As she recounted her humanistic and biological journey, I knew she would affect her peers in an emotional and meaningful way, resulting in a transformative experience for each student. Knowing another student’s journey—a person who could be them—allows students to put context and perspective to their own lives, and unconsciously forces them to look inward.
“Student formation is not only a process by which a person actively evolves over the course of four years, but because of this conscious undertaking, it also possesses the lifelong benefit of remodeling the person.”
Incorporation of the arts proved freeing for all of us. It expanded our theological sensibilities and offered an experience of balancing intellect and affect that was truly transformative.
Initially apprehensive about the online format, School of Theology and Ministry Professor of the Practice Colleen M. Griffith discovered considerable room for creativity, likening the planning for her graduate-level Seminar in Practical Theology Zoom class to choreographing a dance routine.
Taking a step in that direction, she invited students to explore examples of contemporary artists who, in their estimation, offered theological commentary through their art. Zoom offered the ideal platform for an enthusiastic and liberating exchange of visual art, music, and video, she said.
“Incorporation of the arts proved freeing for all of us. It expanded our theological sensibilities and offered an experience of balancing intellect and affect that was truly transformative.”
Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | September 2020