If These Walls Could Talk
A Recent Grad (and Our Video Camera) Give You an Inside Look at a Day in the Life of a Classroom
Fleck. In my four years as an undergrad, I’d made the trek to its glass doors frequently, for everything from Film and Fiction II to campus newspaper budget meetings and at least a few roundtable discussions with speakers I’ll likely remember for the rest of my life. I know its poster-strewn walls well and call its third-floor lobby, which offers the best view of Austin you’ll find anywhere, one of my all-time favorite places. But until Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, I had never had a class or meeting inside Fleck 106. This is what I found.
7:45 I show up earlier than I ever have to a class, more excited about being back in a classroom than embarrassed at sitting alone. I take a seat, far back right, near the window. Directly outside are big trees — the kind that they don’t have at most workplaces — and a grassy lawn that leads down to Congress Avenue. I’ve missed this hill.
7:55 All the brave souls who would dare take an 8 a.m. class are here. Varner pulls up the schedule on the projector, as well as a song on YouTube, the customary “come into my classroom; I don’t bite” song that professors often play to ease their students into class. It’s “Shepherd’s Clock” by some band called Hikes. Mostly instrumental indie rock. A quick Google search confirms my suspicion that it is an Austin-bred band. She lets it play until class starts.
7:58 “Those of you who are here early: Make sure you have your textbook, and sign up for one of the four speech presentation dates on the board,” says Varner. One small stampede later, only one name is scribbled next to the first sign-up date. Everyone else has opted for more preparation time and crammed their names into the remaining three slots.
8:00 The background music is turned off; another day in academia officially begins. Varner’s “Good morning” is greeted with mumbles, the customary sound of college students before 9:30 a.m. Two are wearing Hilltopper shirts; otherwise, the classroom is a mix of athletic gear, polos, dresses, a baseball shirt, rolled-up khakis, white sneakers and one pair of socks in flip-flops.
8:05 “If I haven’t learned something new after your informative speech, you have failed,” says Varner. An obvious fact, but it still seems harsh. I wonder if that’s the coddled millennial in me.
8:16–8:30 Chatter from the students, who have formed four- or five-person groups to discuss and finalize their picks for their speeches. Topics include everything from rain forests and the environment to body piercing and tattoos. Not everyone is talking, but no one is asleep.
8:22 All of the iced coffees have been consumed. The few with hot coffees — in my book, the winners — are still sipping.
8:30 Varner calls attention to the front of the room and starts asking, maybe even interrogating, the students, making sure their topics are well thought out and that their upcoming informative speeches won’t, in her words, “fail.” Banned books, radio identification systems, brain mapping and the FDIC all pass. She tells the girl who selected veganism that she is doubtful she will learn anything new from her speech; apparently, someone covers the topic every semester. Varner is clearly most enthusiastic about someone who proposes doing a speech on marriage in Saudi Arabia: “Good for you all! That’s what I love about St. Edward’s. We are global citizens. Fantastic.”
9:06 Varner: “If you say ‘you guys’ after this class, I will deny that I was ever your teacher.”
9:22 “We’re going to debate the Social Security Act today. It’s going to be fun,” Borasky tells me as I introduce myself, shortly before class begins. The name sounds familiar so I text my college roommate, a Social Work major, to see if this was one of her professors.
9:26 “Anyone going to ACL [Austin City Limits] this weekend? I’m staying as far away from downtown as I can,” says Borasky.
9:33 Two people come in late. One has a jug of coffee. I’m guessing 20, maybe 22 ounces. Impressive. The other carries a coffee mug with her.
9:35 In a five-minute intro, Borasky has breezed through the Great Depression, Keynesian economics and the role of the federal government. “What else do you think needs to be discussed?” Students throw out forced pensions, the longevity of the program as a whole, retirement age and baby boomers, among other things.
9:41 Students have to pick a state and whether they are a Democrat or a Republican for the debate. To start the debate, which is supposed to be argued as though it were 1935, Borasky pretends to be President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introducing the Social Security Act to Congress. It’s a lot of dramatic hand waving and a cartoonishly deep voice.
9:45 The debate floor is set. Students don’t wait to jump in.
9:53 The best Congressional imitation comes from a girl with dyed hair, tattoos and high-top Chuck Taylors. She starts each of her rebuttals with, “As my colleague said,” and references laws, economic theory or political ideals every time she speaks.
10:02 Someone who had avoided talking suddenly drops a whole lot of knowledge about the WPA [Works Progress Administration], the private sector and the numbers behind it all.
10:06 There is one girl left to talk. She’s flipping through her textbook.
10:11 She speaks! The last person to join in the debate insists that “hope” has to play a role and offers relatively liberal idealism.
10:20 “Anyone remember the words to the preamble?” asks Borasky. A “Republican” from the back nails it — and also explains that it’s from Schoolhouse Rock.
10:22 I’ve almost finished my coffee. A Jo’s Americano. I spent a good portion of my meal plan on these my freshman year. Nostalgia washes over.
10:36 “That’s why I have Scottie dogs — because FDR had them, too,” Borasky says, as she finishes showing the class a YouTube video of a 1936 FDR speech called, “I Welcome Their Hatred.”
10:46 No lingering tensions from the political debate. Republicans and Democrats walk out together.
10:52 I finally get a chance to talk to Borasky after three other students bombard her with comments and questions about the class. My old roommate texted me halfway through class and has asked me to say hello and share the story about how she was able to see Pope Francis last week in Washington, D.C., Borasky is clearly delighted to hear my former roommate’s name, but she already knows the story I’m going to tell her. Another student had shown some of the Facebook pictures to her last week.
11:11 It takes me a while to figure out that this is a supplementary class for American Experience, a social problems and term paper–based course that all sophomores at St. Edward’s have to take. This class is set aside for students whose first language is something other than English.
11:16 They all speak Arabic, minus one student from Angola who speaks Portuguese. Interns are previous students of the class and circle the room to help.
11:36 I’ve finished my coffee.
11:38 Leavell talks about how important the Writing Center is. It’s headed by one of my favorite professors. I make a note to stop by after class on my reunion tour of campus.
11:49 In an exercise about contrasting expectations with reality, the interns share stories about how, before coming to the United States, they thought New York City was violent because of things like popular crime and murder shows. Another says she thought that she would face a lot of racism and discrimination because she wears a hijab. “But the people of Austin are very friendly,” she adds.
12:15 End of class. Overall, it was a very quiet hour. I have a feeling several of the students were uncomfortable with my presence and had concerns about their comments being distributed outside of Fleck 106.
12:30 The next class is about bilingual pedagogy, one of those classes that is so obviously practical for real life, but which you never think about actually existing. It’s by far the smallest class of the day. Only four students. All women. They pull two of the tables together and gather around as if they were sharing a meal. I don’t speak Spanish, so much is lost on me during this class.
12:45 I wonder if these students have had this professor before — not unheard of at St. Edward’s. They’re all very relaxed with each other and remind me of old neighborhood friends, catching up casually in someone’s kitchen. From what I can tell, they’re debriefing on an event they went to, the Tomás Rivera Award 20th Anniversary Celebration in San Marcos. They all laugh about some mischievous marker-stealing kid I gather they encountered at the event. I’m still not fluent in Spanish.
12:55 Now they’re going around the table sharing scrapbooks, which Hernández calls “I Live Here” books. I catch mentions of paddleboarding, Home Slice Pizza, Zilker Park, the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, Idaho, Austin, St. Edward’s, Enchanted Rock and HEB.
1:21 As a lover of narrative studies and literacy theory, I love the current debate: What topics are too difficult to teach? What role do stories and fiction play in education? “Have y’all read Pete and Pickles?” one student asks the others.
1:25 What sociocultural movements aren’t currently included in education? “You hear about Brown vs. Board of Education, and the black civil rights movement, but some things you never hear about. I never thought about the Mexican-American civil rights movement until I came to St. Edward’s,” says a student. Same for me!
1:43 Class is over so Hernández asks one of the students about her club soccer game. She recaps the match in Spanish, so I can’t share the details. I think they lost. My Spanish has not improved over the last hour and 15 minutes.
1:52 Hiebert puts on her “come into my classroom; I don’t bite” song from an iTunes “SEU Class” playlist. The song playing is a classical North Indian tune.
1:59 “Who is coming with me to the Austin Hindu Temple this Saturday?” she asks. The class is just finishing up a section on Hinduism, so Hiebert is inviting students to meet her Saturday. “You have time before ACL starts if you meet me at 9 a.m.”
2:05 Once I finally get everyone to sign the photo release form, I realize just how many students are in this classroom. I think it’s one of the biggest classes I’ve ever seen at St. Edward’s: about 23 students, split almost evenly between male and female.
2:06 Shiva and Shakti, god and goddess. Transcendence and Immanence of God. A couple more vocabulary words later, and I start to think the class might be hard to follow.
2:10 It’s been years since I’ve studied world religions, and thinking and talking about Eastern traditions is not like riding a bike. The students are on it, though. They respond to questions, offer examples and ask what seem to be thoughtful questions, though I’m not sure because I am officially lost.
2:15 Now they’re moving onto a more specific piece of Hinduism I can understand: Hindu temples. And by understand, I mean that I can have at least a visual understanding of what we’re talking about via the professor’s PowerPoint.
2:21 I am deeply disappointed to learn that I have been pronouncing “Himalayas” wrong: It’s Hi-MAL-ias, not Hima-LAY-as.
2:35 Hiebert shows us the lotus motif in Hindu paintings, buildings, wall designs and tapestries from various centuries. From what I can tell, there is incredible intricacy in Hinduism, so many seemingly small details that add up to a very robust culture and religion.
2:46 I can’t imagine how many pages and pages and pages of notes students in RELS 2303 take. So much vocabulary.
3:01 Puja, meaning Hindu worship, involves being mindful of using all your senses. And, of course, smell and taste are important senses. Making their debut on today’s projector screen: pictures of food.
3:09 “Hindu priests are like techies at a rock concert,” Hiebert says, making the best analogy of the day. She explains that it means they make sure everything goes well technically with a ritual when people come to worship at a temple.
3:13 Class comes to an end. I race off to feed myself.
4:50 I come in a little later than I have been. Two girls are talking about taking some kind of trip — I’m going out on a limb and saying it’s political science–related — to Washington, D.C.
5:04 We start late. It’s my fault. These Political Science students are the most excited I have seen to be on camera. I feel like they’re schmoozing me, trying to say something that will get themselves into what I’m writing. They are called back to attention by Jones, who is lecturing on campaign management in times of crisis.
5:10 Today’s topic is introduced: crafting a campaign message.
5:15 There are 17 students, the majority of whom are men. Still a few daredevil coffee-drinkers, even though it’s past 5 p.m.
5:26 Someone asks Jones about what happens when candidates go rogue. I am intrigued, and Jones actually has an anecdote about it.
5:31 Enter politicians with social media accounts. Twitter has changed everything.
5:32 A passing anecdote from Jones later, and I finally have a good understanding of the particulars of why Romney lost in 2012.
5:47 Breaking news: Clip art is back and now, on Jones’ next slide, includes a figure that looks very much like a political candidate espousing a political message to his voters.
6:09 Jones talks to a few students after class about getting involved in upcoming campaigns.
6:30 Last class of the day. Accounting. Only seven people are in the room, and they’re sitting as far away from one another as possible. I bet this is customary of night classes.
6:35 I have just learned that there are two types of inventory: perpetual and periodic.
6:43 Wang uses selling an iPhone to explain something about inventory, and a few seconds later, a signature iPhone ring goes off.
6:58 Wang admits this can be overwhelming and promises example problems. I’m under no illusion that I won’t still be confused.
7:12 A student nails the answer to what seems to be a really tough question from Wang. But before anyone can start celebrating, Wang says that the methods used for this problem are becoming extinct in 2017 when the rules change. “Changing Tax Rules” sounds like it could be its own class.
8:30 As I leave, I long for the full classroom experience you only get as a student: I have no classmates with whom to dissect and analyze all that was discussed and covered, which I have seen students do today walking out Fleck 106’s door after each class. The one thing missing from my day was the camaraderie you get with your classmates, of being in something together. And even though it’s well past 5 p.m., I could really use that meal plan for another cup of coffee.
Hannah Thornby ’15 is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia.
We tagged along with writer Hannah Thornby to film more than 12 hours and seven classes inside Fleck Hall, Room 106, and condensed the entire day into 32 seconds. See what happens from morning til night.
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