Reclaiming the ‘third classroom’ for a pandemic September

Opinion by Eli M. Cahan
June 11, 2020, 7:51 p.m.

William Leighton once wrote, “through those old streets I wander dreamily; around me Florence sweeps her busy tide of life.” So on Feb. 27, when Stanford suspended study abroad in Florence, one could hardly anticipate the depth of fever dream we were entering — nor how far the “tide of life” would recede. 

Three months after that initial protective measure against COVID-19, few signs of life remain in my graduate dorm. In the lobby, the detritus of life stacks up with each successive student departure: desk lamps, branded thermoses, dried beans, legal textbooks. Meanwhile, the laundry room has become a domestic warzone, as Sunday chores have become life-threatening. Can the virus survive on the doorknob? In the washer? The dryer? The underwear that someone hasn’t retrieved all day? And was that a sneeze, a snicker, a cough down the hallway?

On Mar. 30, classes re-initiated virtually. For all intents and purposes, one thing that has not changed is universities’ ability to deliver content. Content abounds in the digitized lecture hall, between the shared screens, linked articles, interactive polling and breakout sessions. Courses start on time, precious minutes spared from bio-breaks and transportation. “Chalk talks” and “fireside chats” that used to be strictly analog are now stream-able at 2 a.m. at two-times speed. 

Also unchanged is universities’ ability to confer credentials. Graduation will occur. Capital letters will be acquired. Jobs, hopefully, will be offered and accepted.

But the classroom has been “flipped” to its limit. Dissatisfaction with higher education during this time is ubiquitous, despite the windfall of content. Students across the nation are protesting, petitioning and prosecuting their universities.

Why? If higher education is about subject knowledge, network expansion and career advancement — if anything, shouldn’t students be more satisfied now? Six-minute sprints across campus obviated, shouldn’t this medium liberate students to pursue more knowledge, more degrees, more, more, more? Isn’t it more efficient? More optimal?

Apparently not. 

Instead, the pandemic has magnified the importance of the campus, above, below, around and between the lecture halls — perhaps because, as my uncle once counseled me, most of college education occurs in the “classrooms beyond the classroom.” The cafeteria, the quad, the diag, the fraternity, the sorority, the stadium, the dorm — these are the enclaves where syllabi are actualized. If the lecture hall is the “first” classroom (where knowledge is professed) and the seminar room is the “second” classroom (where knowledge is processed), then these spaces constitute the “third” classroom, where knowledge transforms into insight — and action.

David Brooks wrote in “The Road to Character” that “moral improvement occurs … when we come into contact with people we admire and love and … bend our lives to mimic theirs.” These blank spaces of campus are the particle accelerators where backgrounds collide. They are the greenhouses where admiration germinates and love blossoms. They are the laboratories where students bend their own identities and learn to mimic others’. 

The profound sense of loss plaguing students implies these blank spaces are not merely “filler” for “free time,” but ends unto themselves. 

September presents an opportunity for universities to espouse character over content as a guiding principle. By re-envisioning the classroom to include all corners of campus where learning occurs, colleges can promote the moral education students crave and society needs. President Obama stated in a recent commencement that “no generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice … [but] the fight for equality begins with awareness, empathy, passion, even righteous anger … in the real world.” Deliberate steps can reorient campus life around social connection alongside academic achievement — even if campus is virtual.

First, colleges can prioritize group work over individual study. For most, few activities in life require timed, solo performances. The primacy of this tradition sacrifices sacred opportunities for interpersonal skills building. Schools like ours can mandate that group work is included as a grading criterion for every course: whether through in-class assignments, exercises in living laboratories, out-of-class homework, capstone projects. In an age of profound connectedness, instruction of “rugged individualism” should be supplanted by interdependence.

Second, schools can encourage application of theory in social context over its regurgitation on paper. For example, my biostatistics class featured a problem set addressing gender and racial inequities in the Academy Awards. Why theories matter, and how they can be applied are no less important than what the first principles are: theories are only, after all, tools for life. Higher education can train students how to use those tools, rather than merely hoard them. Course development norms can be adopted within universities to ensure that curricula equip students with the initiative, beyond merely the implements, to effect social change.

Third, colleges can promote projects that foster grassroots engagement with flesh-and-blood communities, rather than restricting them to whiteboards on university grounds. Illustratively, my “Designing for Healthcare Justice” seminar has pushed us to engage with parents of developmentally disabled children across California, while my “Civic Workshop” course has encouraged us to collaborate with cafes, dental clinics and automotive repair shops from the Atlantic to the Pacific coastlines. The stories carried forth from these classes are the vessels bringing abstraction into reality. 

Fourth, schools can reverse the encroachment on campuses’ blank spaces. “Flipped” classrooms have colonized organic ones, substituting the development of wisdom with the accumulation of knowledge. Expanding cuts to athletics and restrictions on Greek life, while well-intentioned, should be measured against their impact on the peer-led curricula of university life that shape nights and weekends. On the virtual campus, retaining university life through shared activities, simulcasted performances and other means for connection should likewise be considered a priority. For example, universities could co-design initiatives with student leaders on applications like TikTok, Instagram and HouseParty as much as via Zoom alone to foster campus life. Eradicating the niches associated with these blank spaces from the fragile campus ecosystem only homogenizes campus experience, rather than diversifying it. 

At Stanford, there is a particular urgency to think through how this dimension of education can be preserved and promoted. Recently announced plans by President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell to adopt a hybrid virtual and in-person model on a quarter-by-quarter basis for the time being imply a possibility that — if Zoom-based education continues in strictly the same way — tendencies toward educating for content over character may persist. In contrast, rethinking how higher education can and ought to look (on the virtual medium, and eventually, beyond it) presents an opportunity for Stanford to help the next generations of our country grapple with — and shape — a post-pandemic future.

In a time when solidarity is essential for our very survival, pedagogy steeped in human experience can no longer be seen as a perk of college, but its North Star. Convocation, without invocation and evocation, is no longer enough. 

The medication our country needs above all else — for the current crisis, and all the ones thereafter — is a next generation of humane leaders. Preserving the third classroom is an essential prescription to that end.

Contact Eli Cahan at emcahan ‘at’

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