As an Assistant Professor, Brandon Arvesen Draws on his Student Experience

Creative and professional writing Assistant Professor Brandon Arvesen believes that being a bad student helped him become a good teacher.

“I was a really bad college student for my first year,” said Arvesen, who joined the Colby-Sawyer College faculty in 2022 after teaching 12 years in public high school and six at Goucher College. "I was kind of waiting for the education to happen to me and not really connecting that, like, there is no parent here anymore — this is you; you have to make these decisions.”

So when Arvesen works with a student whom others might dismiss as disengaged or disinterested, he remembers his younger self.

“I know what it’s like to be those things, and I know that I wasn’t doing it on purpose,” Arvesen said. “So I usually can recognize those signs in students and try to intervene.”

For Arvesen, intervention means more than simply referring a student to campus resources. It also means connecting with the student on a personal level to explore what they really want from their college experience. Most importantly, Arvesen said, he will have a frank conversation in a warm and safe way, emphasizing that making mistakes along the way is not just okay; it’s actually encouraged. The same philosophy is woven into Arvesen’s overall approach to teaching.

“I want my students to take their writing very seriously,” he said, “but also understand that this is a world full of failures and mistakes, and the most successful students are the students that aren’t afraid to option a wrong answer. And so I try to create a culture in the classroom where being wrong is not just permissible but really encouraged.”

Arvesen said he helps students to recognize the value of writing something and “it kind of falling apart” or analyzing a piece of writing with an interpretation that goes in an unexpected, or even outlandish, direction. He encourages them to avoid simply taking the safe route and, instead, to take risks.

“I try to celebrate those [risks] in the classroom as much as I can,” he said.

The approach can be challenging for students who have come through an educational system that puts emphasis on good grades and correct answers, and Arvesen said he recognizes that building trusting relationships with students allows them to be more comfortable taking risks. He develops his courses with a balance of challenge and support for students.

“I do that to make it a warm experience [for students], but I tell them that is the safety net,” Arvesen said. “Me being approachable is the safety net of the rigor of the course. You’re going to have to work really hard here — and students have complained that I’m a “hard grader” — but the hard grader part: that’s the rigor. That’s the ‘I’m checking where you’re at.’ The safety net is that you can bring that paper and I’ll sit with you for an hour and a half and we’ll go through every comment.”

All of Arvesen’s major assignments have reflective follow-ups that allow students to show what they have learned through the process, and those reflections also earn grades, lessening the impact of taking a writing risk that falls flat.

“If we can find value in failure — or in, you thought you wrote an A paper and it’s a C-minus — then that value is worth so much more to me,” Arvesen said. “It’s really tight, personal relationships with students that depends on trust, and I have to earn that trust with them. Then, hopefully, they buy into my philosophy that you’re going to try and fail and have me there to catch you, and have the school’s resources there to catch you, so that you don’t fail the class. And you actually learn more through that experience than just getting As from me and patting yourself on the back.”

It's an approach with students that takes time and energy, and Arvesen credit’s Colby-Sawyer’s commitment to undergraduate teaching for allowing him to see it through. Though Arvesen is active with his own writing and publication outside the college — he is founding editor of 3cents Magazine, a literary publication that puts poetry, fiction and nonfiction in conversation with each other, and a managing editor at True Magazine, and he is working on a memoir about his father’s life as a professional gambler — his primary focus at the college is on his hands-on approach to teaching.

“That’s the kind of teaching I do at Colby-Sawyer, and it’s really the kind of teaching I can do here because we’re given so much leeway for that individual attention,” he said. “My biggest class ever here has been 25 people and my smallest, right now this semester, is six. And so I get to be with those six students.”

It’s those interactions that Arvesen values most in his work, and he recognizes that he wouldn’t have the same opportunity at an institution that places primary value on faculty research and publication instead of on teaching.

“I’m really excited to have my book come out. I’m really excited every time an issue of those magazines comes out,” Arvesen said. But, he added, it’s the teaching successes that motivate him most. As a former “bad student,” he values the opportunity to help current students take risks, work hard and find their purpose.

“That’s what we’re here to do,” he said. “Teaching is so valued here.”

Colby-Sawyer College has once again been recognized for the quality and dedication of its faculty, earning its second No. 1 ranking in three years in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Undergraduate Teaching category. The Best Undergraduate Teaching ranking, released as part of the report’s 2024 Best Colleges issue, recognizes schools where faculty and administrators have “an unusually strong commitment to undergraduate teaching,” according to U.S. News. Colby-Sawyer earned its first ever No. 1 ranking — in both the category and the overall report — in 2022, and was ranked second in the category last year.