Pivotal Moments

An interview with Scott Mattingly, Associate Dean of Academic Life at DeSales University about a new course he developed called “Pivotal Moments: Fulfilling Your Potential in Times of Change,” which was featured in a recent Teaching newsletter published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott taught a pilot version of the course as a one-credit elective this past spring. The interview has been edited for this blog.

Tell us a little bit about the course and how it came into existence. 

I am part of a group at DeSales University that has been charged with facilitating a faculty-driven process for revising our general education curriculum. As that process has unfolded, we have come to believe that we need a capstone course and we are interested in giving students an opportunity to bring together the entirety of their experience, inside and outside the classroom. And the mission of our institution emphasizes more than just job preparation; the importance of holistic well-being, thriving rather than just surviving – those are also important components of a DeSales education. So another aspect to this capstone is that we want to give students a chance to reflect on their identity and purpose – the existential, big questions. So that’s where I started, where we started.

I was pondering that in the back of my mind and then we had these twin pandemics in 2020 with the killing of George Floyd and obviously COVID-19. And I found myself thinking that our students need a way to process what is happening. They are going to do that as part of their social networks and there are probably some courses where it might come up, and maybe some opportunities for programming that students could optionally choose to attend where these things might come up, but I felt like there needed to be something a little more intentional, a little more structured, something that involved the faculty in guiding students through that process.

And then I had this “Eureka!” moment where [I realized that] maybe these can be part of the same thing. When I landed on the phrase “pivotal moments,” it unlocked a lot. “Pivotal moments” can encapsulate the societal pivotal moments like the twin pandemics but also it captures that there are more personal, individual pivotal moments that heavily influence the trajectory of our lives. I put together the course in order to help students process those pivotal moments, and to use them as moments of reflection, as opportunities to step back and pause and ask those questions such as Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing? What should I be doing in order to move forward? Should I change my path in some way or add some nuance to my path, see it through a different lens, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean a significant change of direction.  

I put together the course in order to help students process those pivotal moments, and to use them as moments of reflection, to ask questions such as Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing? What should I be doing in order to move forward?

Tell us more about your thinking behind the course design. 

Going into this course, I spent a lot of time thinking about inclusive teaching practices, about how to structure the course so that students felt comfortable being their authentic selves… within the classroom community but also with what they were willing to share with me in their more private, personal written reflections. I spent a lot of time thinking about that.

The course is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Asao Inoue’s concept of labor-based grading, which is essentially a form of a grading contract…. That is very much driven by a focus on inclusivity and equity, and so the course was heavily influenced in how the assignments were written, how they were structured, how they were graded. And the material, obviously, when you are talking about vocation, about meaning and purpose – these things are highly subjective and there are no right or wrong answers. And so I wanted to honor that and make it so that they didn’t have to conform to some instructor’s expectations about what right or wrong was, they could truly speak to what they thought, in their own way. That was really important for this course, for students to engage authentically, as themselves.

Click here for open access to Asao Inoue’s Labor-based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, The WAC Clearinghouse (2019).

It sounds like the course was well received by the students. What made it successful? What would you do differently next time around?

The success of this course is heavily reliant on the students buying into it. The urgency that they felt around these particular pivotal moments contributed to their buying in. And I also think that course design was very important in helping students buy in and engage. But I also think that the maturity that they brought to it [the course was comprised of entirely juniors and seniors]. … The students exhibited compassion towards one other… These are topics that could polarize people. The students approached it compassionately, respectfully. {At one particularly emotional moment} students started sharing their phone numbers with each other…. So it was those three things: the course design; the urgency, a heightened sense of emotion, the sort of “in your face” nature of these pivotal moments; and then the third piece, their maturity in buying into that. I think that all helped the students engage meaningfully.

I’d like to cut a few assignments that ended up being redundant and, to replace those, convert some in-class activities to assignments done outside class. That would give us more time for in-class dialogues since the students had a lot to share, and I want to make sure there’s ample space for that form of learning and engagement.

With the help of one student in particular, I also came to realize that I do have a philosophical bias, which is embedded into the course – that life has meaning. That belief may not resonate with students who have a more nihilistic viewpoint. I need to do more thinking about and preparing for how to make sure those students feel welcome, that this class can be a space for them, too.

What did you use for readings in the course? Looking back now, which stand-out as especially effective? 

The one assigned book was Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. In terms of other readings, it was very much an interdisciplinary focus, somewhat driven by my own personal background, but also relevant to our approach at DeSales and how we approach education. We had classics – Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, C.S. Lewis – and then a lot of more contemporary things alongside them. Academics talking about how to process COVID 19 alongside a blogger talking about their experience as a worker in a grocery store. We had contemporary poets alongside Paul Lawrence Dunbar, processing what was happening in [his] world that happened at that time period that led to how he wrote about racism, and what’s happening today… and what’s happened in between…. [It was] a mix, a mash-up of contemporary, classic, different disciplinary lenses. 

One piece that I loved was the preface to a book by Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell. It worked perfectly for this class because it had to do with how people respond to tragedy, largely as a community – I was so moved by the preface that it felt important {to include}. That was paired with “Dear Students: There is No Afterwards” [published in March 2020]. Also, a piece titled “Camus and the Great Conundrum” written by Steven Garber [published in April 2020]. Howard Thurman’s “The Sound of the Genuine” was paired with an essay “On Being Human: A Salesian View,” which worked particularly well in the context of our institution, but could work well in other contexts, too.

There was one article that I was almost hesitant to use, because it’s long and there is clearly a political bent that comes through which I feared might not resonate as well with some students; but it was just so interesting and timely, and I felt I could be transparent with the class in acknowledging any shortcomings proactively, as I did with some other readings. It’s called “The radical moral implications of luck.” It was a really useful way for us to  consider the concept of privilege and how that might impact our sense of identity and purpose. It gets at issues of bandwidth, and about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. That article led to one of our most interesting in-class dialogues, with students respectfully but passionately challenging one another to think more deeply and consider other perspectives.

Scott talks about the course title

Are there pivotal moments in your own life that you shared with students?

I am pretty open and transparent – for better or worse! In the context of this class, I think that is important. Demonstrating vulnerability [as an instructor] is an important way to help students feel comfortable in demonstrating their own vulnerability. So I am pretty open about the fact that –  I had a daughter who died. And I share that with students – I don’t dwell on it – but I might use it as a brief illustrative point about something. I did it once, intentionally, early on – as a way to put it out there and show them that vulnerability up front, and then I mentioned it again, spontaneously, at one other point. I think it helped with how students comported themselves in the course, opening up. Even if there was something personal that they didn’t share in class, they may have shared it with me in a reflection. I learned some things from students that were very powerful.

What habits of mind or practices are you hoping that they will take from this class and carry into the future in new pivotal moments? What would be the kind of thing that you hope would be a seed that you had planted in this course?

Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Because otherwise you’ll miss the moment. And if you miss the moment, you miss the pivot. And that could have been a defining pivot. I also think the importance of seeking out multiple perspectives from multiple lenses and engaging with intellectual humility and courage in doing that, and openness when doing that – some of the principles of good dialogue come into play there. And then I think on top of that, self-reflection. Some of that is the second half of Buechner’s vocation definition but them to bring it back to the first half and ask, ok what does this mean? We need those pivotal moments to make us do the things that we should be doing, but often don’t – going back and asking those same questions over and over again. Vocation… is not a question we can answer once, it’s a question we have to ask over and over and over. The pivotal moments are where we can’t help but ask them again. Sometimes they’re hard, they are challenging, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are joyful. But either way they compel us to ask those questions that we should be asking probably more often.

Will you get a chance to teach the course again? 

I hope so. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I underestimated how personally edifying it would be for me. I obviously did not set out with that goal in mind. This was done for the benefit of students. But a side-benefit has been how edifying it has been for me. Students have shared incredibly personal stories, and insights stemming from those stories, which has added new nuance to how I view things

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