Building Community in Core Courses


The need for new forms of online and hybrid learning poses a significant challenge to normal forms of community-building within the university. At the same time, a shared core, the bedrock of the Fordham curriculum, provides a crucial foundation allowing students, faculty, and staff to connect with each other beyond the classroom--we might be reading the same texts, or listening to the same piece of music. Our proposals aim to emphasize and strengthen the communal nature of the core within the flexible hybrid model.

Compassion is key for our classroom environments. Compassion entails making sure students are not overwhelmed by your course, which represents one among other important concerns they may be facing. Compassion toward students might entail flexibility in choice and deadlines for assignments, a minimum standard of competence, more time in class devoted to class dynamics rather than content delivery. Compassion to others starts with compassion toward oneself: in these challenging circumstances, we need to be patient with ourselves (less is more) just as we are patient with our students. 

The shared core, and hybrid forms of learning, offer the possibility of making new connections between often separate constituencies, particularly faculty who are teaching the different sections of the same core class and for students in different sections of the same core class. New hybrid modes also invite faculty to rethink the structure of their relationships with students within the context of a single section, as well as the relationships between students. 

Taking advantage of the disruptions of the moment, these proposals seek to advance our commitment to anti-racist teaching, which calls us to question the idea of “communities.” A good, succinct discussion of the term “community” is here, an MLA website devoted to digital pedagogy; and a longer discussion devoted to learning communities can be found here.

Our recommendations are animated by a longer and broader commitment to social justice as a goal of a Jesuit education. In this, we acknowledge that we are often on the same footing as students as we seek to remake ourselves in the process of transforming the Fordham community. 
We structure our recommendations along three axes:

  • Community-Building Across Sections;
  • Community-Building in the Classroom;
  • Questioning/Transforming Communities.

Community-Building Across Sections: Faculty
Faculty who are teaching different sections of the same core course might seek to:

  • Unify the syllabus so that a single syllabus is the basis for multiple sections;
  • Elect to use a single textbook across sections;
  • Elect to have readings shared across sections dealing with race/privilege;
  • Integrate a contemporary debate about race and privilege in which the discipline is engaged in the course;
  • Invite speaker/s to benefit to all students in the course;
  • Develop a collective approach to teaching new material, especially with a view to including questions of racial and social justice.

We are mindful of the tremendous new burdens the flexible hybrid model entails for faculty members. Shared content may lighten the individual load, by:

  • The creation of curricular units by one or two faculty members that can then be shared across sections;
  • Assessments developed by a few faculty that can be used across sections;
  • Department-level planning of a set of co-curricular activities that involve many sections.

Community-Building Across Sections: Students
Cross-section engagement can extend from faculty to students, but opportunities need to be built into the course design. Some models for cross-section student engagement are:

  • Zoom drop-in study/review/concept-building sessions led by faculty members for any student in the larger course;
  • Zoom drop-in speaking sessions (as with foreign languages) led by faculty members for any student in the larger course;
  • Cross-section activities or projects based on common course content. Examples include:
    • Activities based on a lecture, film, or cultural event attended across sections (e.g., students interview students from other sections about the event);
    • Projects that ask students across sections to compare/contrast approaches to the same content. 

To date, Blackboard is not designed for cross-section communication. We need to address the technological challenges for students (as well as faculty) to identify and communicate with each other across sections, including for out-of-class synchronous discussions between students.
Community-Building in the Classroom: Passive to Active Learning
Since core classes are often the first ones freshmen take, these have the added obligation of teaching (often passive) high-school students how to be (more proactive) college students. The smaller size of core classes allows us to know our students and to shape them into active learners, a challenge made more difficult in a virtual environment. Some good general practices might include:

  • Build trust through regular communication and responsiveness;
  • Have students create learning contracts;
  • Introduce community-written norms about Zoom conduct;
  • Build-in time to consider progress towards class outcomes;
  • In synchronous class sessions, consider making student work (presentations/papers/debates), student questions, and refinement of skills the focus;
  • Incorporate student-designed assessments;
  • Build-in an end-of-semester assignment where students are asked to propose new materials for future iterations of the course;
  • Involve students in deciding the learning outcomes for the course.

Community-Building in the Classroom: Inclusivity
The smaller size of core classes also allows us to foster inclusive communities within our (perhaps virtual) classrooms. By “inclusive,” we mean giving all students equal access to class materials and discussion, and equal opportunities to participate. (Some of our recommendations may overlap with those of the “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Activism, and Social Justice” sub-committee.) We must be mindful that students may not have reliable access to technology, and planning for that is part of inclusivity.

  • Post exams in advance, or offer a wide window for completion;
  • Consider including more lower-stakes assessments so students can feel confident in their progress in the course;
  • Offer a basket of assessments that students can complete at their own pace;
  • Devise and communicate learning outcomes that address how our students will “think differently” as a result of participating in the course. How will those changes affect their thinking and behavior in the classroom community? In the Fordham Community? In the greater communities in which students will participate as Fordham graduates?
  • Be attentive to the different forms microaggressions might take in an online hybrid environment. See resources from the University of Washington here.

Community-Building in the Classroom: Student Experience 
Many of us recognize that the student experience of the virtual classroom is distinct from that of the traditional classroom. To gauge and improve student experience, and to adjust the course accordingly:

  • Offer opportunities for students to reflect on and share their experiences of the course (whether intrinsically, for example, relative to course content/delivery, etc.; or extrinsically, for example, the course’s relationship to other courses and/or broader social issues);
  • Consider setting time aside at the beginning or end of class for free discussion - small talk unrelated to the course (talk about where they’re from, what they like/don’t like about online learning or the latest reading), icebreakers, etc.;
  • Invite students to share what they have learned from the day’s course at the end of class time or at the beginning of the following class (e.g., split them into groups for activities like think-pair-share or the muddiest point);
  • Invite student assessment of the course throughout the semester;
  • Consider having majors review course content and delivery to assess the course from a student perspective;
  • Encourage students to work collaboratively; for example: in breakout rooms to formulate answers to discussion questions, or as a team for group projects;
  • When feasible and appropriate, invite students to suggest activities that make use of social media;
  • Consider interview-like activities that ask students from your section to contact students from other sections of the same course. For example, on a topic common to all sections or to share impressions of a course-wide activity.

Questioning/Transforming Communities
An essential part of community-building should also involve questioning those communities that already exist; how, where, and in what conditions they are formed; and how they might be transformed through sustained inquiry and engagement. Fostering that inquiry within core classes may invite us to:

  • Foreground the way knowledge of the discipline has been the product of certain communities from specific times and places; 
  • Consider questions of access and how they impact the discipline;
  • Create assignments that ask students to interrogate bias within the discipline. This might include, for example, discussions of how the class textbook addresses or fails to address questions of race and gender;
  • Be explicit about how you design course content, including your decisions about:
    • Including readings/research by Black scholars;
    • Choosing a textbook and readings;
    • Preparing students for material that may be offensive or marginalizing;
    • Preparing to have difficult discussions in your classes. See resources here: Georgetown’s Teaching Commons.