The Art of Gathering Applied to the College Classroom

high angle photography of dinner set on table surrounded with padded chairs

“It just feels different in my classes.”

“We are back, but it doesn’t feel like we are back together.

Versions of these sentiments can be heard across college campuses this fall. Students are back in classrooms, or participating in online courses, but the engagement does not feel the same for many of us.

At a time when coming together feels both new and extremely necessary, how can we create more meaningful experiences for our students?

In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, Priya Parker explores gatherings of all types to determine what makes them successful. She argues that we rely too much on the logistics, routines, and conventions of gathering. Instead, we should direct attention towards HOW we gather to create more human-centered experiences.

What lessons can we apply to the college classroom, be it online, in-person, or hybrid?

Have a specific, unique purpose

Parker suggest that the best gatherings have narrow, defined purposes. When we try to be everything to everyone, we lose the magic of an experience.

  • Use purpose as your bouncer. Although we do not have guest lists and cannot control who registers for our courses, we can limit what activities and content are included and what needs to get kicked out. Maybe that fascinating (to us) tangent will only distract students, or perhaps that somewhat-complicated activity is not the best use of time the week before a big paper. We already know we don’t have the space to include everything, so narrowing down our purpose can help us decide when something should be left out.
  • What do you want people to walk away feeling? We focus so much on learning outcomes and what we want students to know or be able to do by the end of our course. But how often does our purpose include how we want them to feel. Do we want them to enjoy literature? To feel confident when they do statistics? How can we structures sessions where these feelings are more likely to occur? For example, if we want students to feel that different perspectives are valued, especially when we disagree, we could structure some early debates about low-stakes disagreements, and make visible how our collective learning has been deepened by opposing thoughts.

Although it may not always be possible to have one specific learning outcome for a class session, especially longer classes or week-long online units, we can try to articulate our goals for the various segments of our class as best we can.

Stir good controversy

Parker argues that memorable gatherings involve “cultivating good heat” and most of our courses involve some level of critical thinking, analysis, perspective taking, and becoming aware of different views and ideas.

However, good controversy doesn’t just happen. Even in a college setting, productive controversy needs to be designed for and given structure.

  • Create a temporary, alternative world – Parker shares ideas about how gatherings can become temporary spaces with rules of theirs own. College courses by their very nature are ideal venues to create a temporary space within which we deeply explore a topic, become a scientist, take on new ways of thinking, or interact in certain ways. But we should take a moment to recognize how this space may need to differ from the world students exist in otherwise.
  • Use pop-up rules – We can develop rules or guidelines with our students about how we are going to interact while we are in this space together. Rules can reveal hidden societal or academic norms and also allow us to approach controversy with the goal of learning, rather than being right. Typically, students themselves will suggest norms such as; ask questions, respect different opinions, and come to class prepared to engage. You can also suggest and co-create norms with students with intentions such as striving to accept that there are many truths, listening to understand, and being present in mind and body.
  • Create a safe, brave space – In a brave space, we engage in challenging dialogue that may be uncomfortable, but aims to minimize harm and promote learning. To get students to trust that this space really exists, we need to actively monitor the adherence to our co-constructed guidelines. Re-posting guidelines, using self-assessment and reflection, and modeling this behavior ourselves are essential to keep this alternate world existing all semester.

Make use of the beginning, middle, and end

The Art of Gathering reminds us that all gatherings have a beginning and end that we typically do not use to our full benefit.

  • Take advantage of the pre-gathering time – Parker argues that gathering begins the moment people know about it, as in, once a student register for your class. We often don’t engage with students until the first day of class, yet this is often the time when students consider dropping a course and could instead be used to motivate them for what is to come. We could post a welcoming and motivating syllabus on a website for students to review before the semester, send a brief email about the course, open up a course shell early, or assign a low-stakes pre-class assignment.
  • Manage the transition into the space – Rather than starting each course/week with announcements and logistics, could we start with something memorable related to our content? We many not have the creative bandwidth to match the Saturday Night Live norm of beginning with a skit, but we can better manage the transition into our temporary space. Some instructors play music or welcome everyone at the door as they enter. Others post a quote or reflective question, record an online video, start class with a short writing prompt, or engage in a mindful moment to mark the transition.
  • Make the best use of the space – People like to feel cozy when gathering. We may not have the ability to change our class settings, but we can create temporary barriers (no one can sit in the last 10 rows) or move furniture around to create a smaller setting within a big room. In online classes we can use videos, small group discussion boards, or new technologies to make our online class ‘space’ feel different. And in our hybrid course settings, we can try our very best to ensure that both the online and the in-person attendees feel like we’ve designed the experience with their presence in mind.
  • Be an active host – during class, our role is to be a host with generous authority. When we gather a unique collection of people together with a common goal, there is tremendous potential. But Parker argues that, “diversity is a potentiality that needs to be activated” (p. 46) and doesn’t just happen. Our role should be to hold everyone accountable to the class guidelines, keep the focus on learning, and use our power as host/teacher to equalize, protect, and connect our guests (students).
  • Close with intention – Finally, we should use the end of each week or class session to mark learning, not just to shout out some announcements while everyone is packing up. According to Parker, a good closing looks both inward (what meaning did we make today, what were our big takeaways, how can we affirm what we did here?) and turns outward (what is the thread to the outside world, how can we carry this learning forward?). Consider reserving the last five minutes of class to hold an intentional closing and cement today’s learning.

Each session with our students is a unique opportunity – it is a gathering of this specific group of people exploring this certain topic at this time and place. Taking some time to consider the best practices of social gatherings can help us make the most of these experiences. By focusing on HOW we gather, we can begin to create more meaningful, memorable experiences for our students.