The Power of a Counter-Offer in Life

Over a year ago, I decided to “defect” from academia and various twists and turns in life have led me back to the classroom for a little while longer. This summer I am teaching two cultural anthropology courses at Baruch College-CUNY. Each class has 19 students.

Every semester and every class I teach always has a unique ecology based around some theme that often relates to empowering emerging adults to own their own greatness.

I have begun to think of ecologies more and more in this context because I am interested in the sustainability of ambitious thinking and adulthood.  Social ecology “is defined as the science of the relationships between human populations and communities and their environments.” The relationships between students/teachers in a classroom, the communities in which  an institution is based and the communities students and the teacher represent as well as the urban environment of Baruch College in NYC are but one example of a complex ecology. The classroom alone is one, too.  

College students today, no matter what level–first years or seniors–do not view themselves inside a context of greatness. They are rarely related to, each and every one of them, as great citizens or great human beings and for the most part, as a few of my students confirmed this last week of the summer session, they await permission from their professor to assert any identification with that greatness. It simply never occurs to the members of that ecology to express themselves, transact from one instance to another, as student-as-adult.

Faculty committees from CUNY to Cali universities can alter their curriculum all they want, but if there isn’t a significant shift in student-as-adult, rather this or that student functioning and interacting as an adult, there can never be a revolution in learning in higher education. Not to mention that the cultural or institutional environment itself cannot be altered by a few curricular changes in a course in this or that major or liberal arts requirement.

Without a sea change in the entire ecology, what I sometimes call “a sustainable classroom model” where the true resources are not the books but are the people and their social openness, transparency, connectedness and empowerment, there cannot be any real change or transformation of learning and thinking.

So I constantly engage my students individually and collectively in a conversation for greatness and one mechanism I use is implemented primarily at the end of the semester. It’s introduced during the first days of the course but it’s true power comes at the end of the course.

Based on the premise that there is always 100% of the course left, I require students to do complete work to pass the course. They must complete 100% of the homework no matter what by the end of the class. AND they have an option on all assignments to “counter-offer.”

A counter-offer requires a student to assess:

  1. what would be of value in completing what’s expected of them for a specific assignment and
  2. what would not undercut what I , as the professor, am expecting of them in a way that would not be belittling of their greatness as a student, adult, citizen and human being.

This requires engaging them in a conversation for what it means to be “adult” in their relationship with themselves, the professor and their work. It is not an easy conversation.

An ebook I wrote with a former cultural anthropology course in the Spring of 2010 asked students to write a short essay about “what mattered to you” and it took those 28 students 3-4 weeks to write a 300-600 word essay because no one ever asks them what they thought … about themselves and their lives. This in my mind confirms a hidden and unspoken phenomena in most college classrooms. We are perpetuating a reality of “academic” thought, rather than “real thinking” (yes,  I need to add scare quotes here because it has become an abstractions in most classrooms.

We ended up naming the ebook SPEAK!: The MisEducation of College Students but I remember during the production process, a student asked me what writing about what mattered to them had to do with Baruch College. A good Socratic method of teaching requires that we explore the questions, not find quick answers. I responded, “I don’t  know. What do you think?” Another student piped up, “We’re Baruch College!!” And so the process had truly begun. That ebook has been read by over 7000 times since May of 2010.  In the past is was customary for a student’s final work to be read by one person–the professor–and that it had no reach whatsoever including that feedback from their work was rarely returned to the student before they received their final grade. So in essence any feedback didn’t matter.

These students continue to impact people beyond their classroom and what mattered to them continues to inspire students and readers elsewhere long after they’ve left my classroom.


So here’s what the counter-offer provides students. A chance to negotiate their work inside a commitment they have witnessed me negotiating with them all semester. It asks them to step into my role while creating their own accountability and responsibility.  It asks them to think rather than simply having thoughts.  There is a great talk by former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz for a lecture at West Point that speaks to this:

I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire and declare the job done and move on to the next thing. (Solitude and Leadership)

If you can create a context, a listening for that you may tailor the lessons to your own needs in consultation with the professor, what you find is at first students do not believe it. They rarely remember this is an option. Then as the semester progresses and the gain confidence in relationship to my style and performance as a professor, they have an inkling that it might be possible.

In the last weeks of class, I remind them that they must do complete work with integrity (wholeness not rightness) and complete 100% of their homework AND that there is 100% of the game left. This kicks them into overdrive mode and into the need for requesting a counter-offer.

And that is when student-as-adult begins to show up for themselves. They have to see it as a real need and possibility and then things start popping.

I’ll let you know how it goes this week but I am already seeing them start to thrive from their own need and drive rather than trying to simply meet my expectations.


4 thoughts on “The Power of a Counter-Offer in Life

    1. On vacation so FABULOUS!!! I am not working this summer but am taking a class and moving both my apartment and my classroom so I will feel like a new woman in September :-).

      I am still making strides to be prepared in 2 years when my daughter completes high school in case I am able to find different career opportunities. Making life decisions can be scary as we age. I have made my decisions as they related to my children for 23 years now and to know that in 2 more years I will have more freedom to move about if I choose is exciting. I waffle back and forth between being excited at the prospect of having an ’empty nest’ and being sad that I may be lonely which makes my current job and living in the dorm all the more appealing.

      Maybe we can find some time to connect before the year is out since you are in NY. I was there on Sunday to see A Streetcar Named Desire and the week before to attend the International African Festival in Brooklyn.

      So let me know and we can look at our calendars to find a time that is mutually beneficial.

  1. Kyra, I just did a leadership course with Werner, Kari Granger, Mike Jensen, Steve Zafron and Chip Scouba (Dean of Medical School) at Dartmouth. Have you done the course? If not, lets talk. Werner wants this work in universities. So glad to have you back in NYC. I’m not on Facebook often but when I am, I enjoy your posts! Carolyne

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