Learn in peace

Dale Salwak describes how he turns his classroom into a sanctuary where he and his students can focus, safe from the demands and distractions of modern life

September 18, 2014

Each day, as I enter the sanctuary of my classroom and close the door, I leave behind the noise of daily life. I allow tranquillity to settle upon me, as it also settles upon my waiting students, and I embrace the spirit of optimism for what is about to occur.

The idea of the classroom as a sanctuary – as a private place set apart from the pressures of a madly active world – is fundamental to higher education. Without refuge, disquiet in its many forms intrudes upon our thoughts and distractions impede our progress. This safe haven where willing minds come together to contemplate ideas and experience intellectual and spiritual growth is, as the poet Philip Larkin wrote with telling words in a different context, “a serious house on serious earth”.

To help create such a place, I keep distractions to a minimum. Everything about the interior is designed to promote a pleasant, relaxed, but fully focused atmosphere. There is no glittering or empty decoration. My uncluttered lime-green walls lack even a nail to hang a poster or photograph. As I have previously mentioned in these pages, I dim the lighting, creating restful shadows to encourage self-reflection, vulnerability and openness. There is no intrusive glare of a computer screen or hum of a projector: just 30 or more students, a table with lectern, a whiteboard and markers and our treasured space in which reason and imagination can have free play.

To keep focus, I make clear on the first day my intolerance for whispering, texting, squeaking of chairs, eating, late arrivals or other annoyances that would break our rapport. When that door closes it not only shuts out what the American essayist Cynthia Ozick calls the “buzz of the inescapably mundane” but also serves to draw us in and keep us focused on our individual selves as well as the collective work at hand.

Once we’ve begun, if two students continue to talk while I am speaking, then I separate them. “You’ll be happier here,” I say, respectfully, while one student moves to the opposite side of the room. If some conscious or unconscious behaviour – rustling papers, clicking a pen, tapping a toe, snapping gum – starts to be intrusive, I pass a polite note, pointing out that the action may be distracting other students. Should music from someone’s mobile phone interrupt our discussion, I say, “Ah, the angelic choir”, and the class gets the message.

My intention is not to embarrass, certainly not to dominate or frighten, but to create a setting in which we are able to read and think and discuss free from interruption. We are all there to study literature – and art, Saul Bellow reminds us, arrests “attention in the midst of distraction”.

For this reason I never rely on group work. Although some of my colleagues and their students seem to enjoy success with this strategy, and although I can well understand its potential for those who are headed for leadership positions, I have found that segmenting the class into small groups leads to discussions that devolve into small talk dominated by a few, leaving the majority weary and dissipated, and soon everyone’s interest in the assignment trends downhill.

There’s far, far too much group-chatter already in our society and its wasteland of soul-killing conformity. All of us need some time apart

I prefer that my students remain alone in their seats, in a sense creating what, in her memoir Time to be in Earnest, P. D. James called “private islands of solitude”. There, unfettered from others and free to observe and investigate their unripened thoughts and feelings, they have a chance to make some progress towards an ever-deepening familiarity with themselves through the subjects I am discussing. There’s far, far too much group-chatter already in our society and its wasteland of soul-killing conformity. All of us need some time apart.

But the classroom as sanctuary means not only shutting life out; it is also about bringing life in.

Most students I’ve encountered hunger for seriousness. The widely shared stereotype that today’s college students as a group are distracted, discouraged and disgruntled is inaccurate, simplistic and ultimately quite pointless.

The deeper truth is that given the right circumstances, even the least academically inspired will welcome the opportunity to remove themselves from peripheral concerns and participate in discussions that have soul and depth. For some students who come from chaotic, confused homes in which there is no understanding or support for self-fulfilment, the time they spend in class offers the only intellectual stimulation and stability they can know.

Participating in a thoughtful discussion of the splendours of literature, for example, can lead them to a soulful contemplation of their lives and a meaningful picture of the world as it is. For always, always the books we study ultimately turn us inwards as we find reflected in their pages some aspect of our deeper selves.

In such a setting, students can experiment with the secrecies of James Joyce, work their way towards their interpretations of Virginia Woolf and take risks with the canon of Shakespeare – realising that within our four walls they are free to question, to revise their interpretations, even to dismantle old ideas, all without fear of criticism or judgement.

I recall in particular a class session on Dante’s Divine Comedy in which we were exploring word by powerful word the first 25 lines of the introductory Canto. As Dante brilliantly describes, there came a time midway in his life when he awakened to know that he was lost, and that all his goals were empty and meaningless. He calls this moral uncertainty a “dark wood of error” and the realisation of its magnitude produces a moment of great fear, “so bitter it goes nigh to death”. He doesn’t know how he got there, but as he implies, the moment that he knew he was lost was the start of finding his way.

I told my students how later in the text the reader follows the poet on his perilous journey from error to truth, from darkness to light as the spiritual traveller learns to renounce his self-centredness, face up to and overcome the perversities at the core of his soul. Nothing is harder or more important in the whole human condition, I said, than achieving a full sense of who we are, where we are going, what we mean to live and die for. Over the rest of his life, Dante never lost sight of the depth from which he had been lifted, I said.

Suddenly, as I was speaking, I realised that a mantle of silence had settled upon the room. The breathlessness, the electricity, the connection was palpable. Thirty mind streams, each operating independently, had suddenly become one, united by a journey of the soul, and I knew that Dante had struck a chord that would resonate long after those students left my classroom – perhaps, even, for the rest of their lives.

It’s those time-stopping moments shimmering with surprise that I strive for every day. They don’t always occur, of course, but when they do they confirm once again the value of the classroom as sanctuary.

Within that haven students also begin to find the strength that helps them to open up to themselves and others. They “become acquainted” (to use Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase) with their thoughts; they develop confidence in their own judgement and discrimination in their own voices, and they learn to back up their claims with evidence from the text under study. Both critical and creative thinking become habits of mind.

In our sanctuary, rarely do we raise our voices. If we believe that what we are studying is important, and if we believe that we are right, then there is no need for stridency. Loud, aggressive talk might signal passion; in the classroom, however, it can raise questions in the listeners’ minds: “What is the speaker afraid or uncertain of?”

Rather, I encourage my students to emulate my best professors – whose voices of reason, moderation and common sense instilled confidence in earlier generations of students. On the best of days, students emerge feeling renewed and strengthened as if they had just visited a mountain retreat – and so do I.

To some of my colleagues my acute sensitivity to environment may seem obsessive or unreasonable or archaic, and yet in my more than 40 years of teaching, comments have been gratifyingly in favour of this policy. Over and over students have written to say that they welcome an environment in which there is no fooling around, in which the teacher always establishes control of the setting and creates a space in which ideas can flourish.

We live in a tense society. Various forces threaten to pull us apart. Our minds are harassed and perplexed. How can we learn to pull ourselves together? At least part of the answer, I have found, lies in the sanctuary of the classroom, which for the time we are together calms, concentrates, protects and stimulates both student and teacher.

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