We’re at the half-way point of the semester. Mid-term grades are in. One of my classes handed in their “required” paper, while the other class has begun their presentations. I have some thoughts about how each class is going and how I will be doing this class next semester.
I have to admit that I was really choked up by the news of Steve Jobs’ death last night when I got on twitter just as the news was breaking. Which I was reading on my iPhone. And then I got on my MacBook (the last old-school white one I’ll ever own) to read tributes, reactions, and watch the Fail Whale tell me that Twitter was over-capacity as we all took to social media to collectively mourn Jobs.
I can’t compose a proper eulogy for Steve Jobs. There’s too much to say, too many capable of saying it better than I ever could.It’s one thing to miss someone, to feel a void when they’re gone. It’s another to do something with their legacy, to honor them through your actions.Steve devoted his professional life to giving us (you, me and a billion other people) the most powerful device ever available to an ordinary person. Everything in our world is different because of the device you’re reading this on.What are we going to do with it?
I’m in the process of re-reading Cathy Davidson’s excellent book, Now You See It (here’s my initial review). My Freshman Writing classes are done with Fahrenheit 451, and we’re moving on to a more optimistic view of the future. This is (obviously) the first time I’m teaching this book, and it’s going to be a challenge to come up with assignments both large and small to engage the students with the work. Not because it’s a difficult book to engage with, but because it’s new, and as Cathy Davidson points out, the new is hard.
As a follow up to my last post on encouraging play, and the subsequent #FYCchat, I’m thinking about the groups in my peer-driven learning class that have been the most “creative” in their project ideas. One of the worries that was expressed during the chat on Wednesday was that when we encourage creativity and play, it looks too much to the outside observer that we’re not “doing” or accomplishing anything. Or, that we’re wasting time.
Today, with my Peer-Driven Learning class that is less self-motivated than the other, we went to the library. The class decided that we were going to get our “required essay” out of the way first. The required essay needs to be “an analytical essay that connects multiple texts across disciplines” (to quote our Gen. Ed. Student Learning Outcomes requirement). We are still working on the broad topic of “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class” and we’ve been brainstorming ideas as to what to write about. But, the essay requires multiple sources from across disciplines, and I knew that this wasn’t going to happen without some help.
This week, one of my peer-driven classes was finishing up their project proposals. They will be responsible for teaching two classes, which includes presenting a project that they will then hand in (this is a writing class, so they have to hand in something that is written). As I was going around the class, listening as their brainstorms were beginning to coalesce into a more solid proposal, I kept hearing something that troubled me: powerpoint. Four our of the five groups were planning to use powerpoint in their lessons.
- The Johnny Cash Project, recently featured in a Google Chrome commercial, but originating from SXSW.
- NFB Interactive, from the National Film Board of Canada. Innovative and interactive visual projects. Welcome to Pine Point, about a Canadian mining town that no longer exists is stunning and moving.
- Kyra D. Gaunt is a TED Fellow and in one of her classes, the students put together a book on race and race relations. She has written extensively about how higher education needs to change and that students need to take ownership of their educations.
- Here is a completely mind-blowing model for how to teach college writing by David Perry.
I received an interesting set of questions in the comments on my last peer-learning post:
I’ve read Cathy’s piece in the Chronicle of HE. I hate to be a bit of a wet blanket but having had some experience of designing, leading and being part of peer driven teaching and having been an early member of the so-called ‘anti-university’ set up in London in the late ’60s– I have a few questions that I’d need to know in order to determine if this is an idea that can be realistically applied and allow students to graduate with some kind of marketable qualification (however and whoever determines the ‘market’).The type of class isn’t clear. Are they postgrads/post-experience/mature/straight from secondary school? Are they doing an elective or is it a compulsory class?Will their grade make a difference to their degree and does the degree have to meet any institutional or external (eg professional/regulatory body accreditation criteria)?In fact, what does the grade signify? Is it simply a metaphorical ‘fig leaf’ to cover your back or is it a rigorous measure of the learning and self-instruction?
I’ve been wanting to do a post since the beginning outlining all of the ways my peer-driven class is different from Cathy Davidson’s classes. I could point “anonymous” to my previous posts on my peer-driven classes that outline more carefully what the purpose of the class is, etc. But, just to reiterate, the class that I am reformulating as being peer-driven in ENG 200 or Writing II. This is a required course for all students, regardless of major. They have already taken ENG 100 or traditional freshman composition. Our student learning outcomes are essentially to have students read primary sources from across disciplines, discuss, and write about them. We have a choice of two almost identical textbooks to assign to them, and a list of required assignments, both large and small. At the end of the day, if the students are using the textbook as a guide, they will be fulfilling the requirements of the course. Most of my colleagues that I’ve told that I am letting the students decide what they want to read from the textbook have shrugged their shoulders; any readings from the book will be challenging and stimulating.
There are some very important differences, of course, between my course and Cathy Davidson’s course. While Cathy Davidson seems to have had a weekly schedule that students followed (more or less), my class has been shaped exclusively by my textbook, which we would never be able to get all the way through. Both my classes are completely different in terms of our assignments and week-to-week layout. One class is much more “traditional”; the students have picked the readings, but we are working on them together, as a class. The other class has broken off into groups and will be teaching their own two-class unit, complete with a project based on their readings/lesson. It’s early, but each class is having some good results.
My students didn’t “chose” to take me, specifically, for this course. Sure, there are a handful who had me last year, but most of the students selected my sections of ENG 200 because it fit their schedule. They certainly had no idea that I was going to turn the tables on them. I have a higher cap in my class (18 students sounds like a dream) and no TA. I don’t have tenure, and I am teaching three other classes on top of the two peer-driven courses. Our college has a high number of first-generation college students, as well as a poor graduation rate and low ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The majority come from our service area, which is largely poor and rural. If one of my classes is less ready to embrace peer-driven learning, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Actually, that one of the classes so readily embraced the format is perhaps more surprising.
I don’t have a ton of experience being an “innovative educator” nor does what I write about or do in my classroom cause our PR office to have palpitations. Thanks to Cathy Davidson, turning your class over to your students isn’t met with hang-wringing and fainting (seriously, read the first chapter of Now You See It to see how much negative national press Cathy Davidson has inspired). Or, thanks to the fact that I toil away at an out-of-the-way university insulates me from any notice. I’d say it’s a bit of both. I help create one of the most exciting and innovative (to me at least) academic programs/organizations (HASTAC), so I’m starting from behind, so to speak, compared to Cathy Davidson. I’m still learning to let go and embrace all of this.
My job, as I understand it, is to help students become better writers but also more independent learners. I want them to becomes 4-year-olds again, where the world was exciting and new and they wanted to learn about everything. I want them to learn how to create a community, to support one another in their education, and just think differently about anything I can. I want to help them think more critically about their world and how they fit into it. These are my goals regardless of how I teach, but I think teaching this way will be more successful. Even if the rest of their educations are “by the book” both literally and figuratively, I hope they will take what they have learning in my class beyond university.
Is it sustainable for every single program on campus? I don’t know. I’m not as optimistic as Cathy Davidson, although I’m getting there. I’ve said time and time again that it’s my own failure of imagination that I cannot think about how to do my class or university differently. But I know I am doing something right as my class buzzes with excitement and begin to come up with their own innovative and creative ways of looking at their readings and the issues they bring up. I can’t measure that.
I’m not sure if I want to.
This week in my peer-driven classes was amazing. We finally put in concrete terms what was going to be expected of them during the semester. We decided what our major and minor assignments would be and how much of their final grade each part would be worth (yes, we decided to go with good, old-fashioned grades, awarded by me. One class pointed out that they didn’t want the responsibility and the other saw it as too time consuming).
Each class is going to be completely different. The first class (the class that is less self-motivated and less vocal) will run in a much more conventional way. We decided to get our “required” paper (the essay that all students must write) out of the way first. In preparation, we will read the section of our textbook on “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class.” We will decide collectively which readings we will do for homework and what sort of discussion questions we should address. Homework in this class will be worth 50% of their final grade, as an incentive to stay on task. Once we have completed this section and the required paper, we will move towards being a little more non-traditional in preparation for a final “project,” which can be done in groups.
The other class more closely to what Cathy Davidson imagines for her next peer-driven class. The students are already in groups (with one exception; the class decided that they wouldn’t force anyone to be in a group, so there is one student working solo), working on different sections of the textbook that they found the most interesting. Each group will come up with a proposal for a two-class lesson plan and project on their section. Once the proposals are approved, they will work on their lesson plan and project. Each group gets two classes to teach/present, with the rest of the class expected to read and participate. Once that is done, we will move on to working on our “required” paper, our final task. This class also decided to put together a rather draconian attendance policy because, as one student put it, how can this class be peer-driven if you’re not here?
I was so proud of my students. They recognized their strengths and their weaknesses, developing a class that met their needs. One class wanted more from me as their instructor, the other class, not so much. While they were intrigued by the idea of contract grading, at the end of the day, this class as a concept was radical enough; it seemed they wanted the familiar comfort of grades, as something to hold on to. I can’t say that I minded; it gives me something to hold on to as well, some remnants of “control.”
I realized that we hadn’t discussed a rubric or “scoring” guide in my second class. This worked out well, as we were going to be discussing rubrics during our weekly #FYCchat. As the chat progressed (check out the archive here), it became clear that we were of two very different minds about rubrics; some of us swore by them, while others shunned them as one more way we limit students’ creativity. I panicked; what had I done? I communicated with the students that we might want to develop a rubric. But clearly this wasn’t a concern of theirs. What if they were going to do one just because I had suggested it? Was I in the process of messing with a good thing?
And then the concept of badges (again from Cathy Davidson) did the rounds on Twitter. Why wasn’t my class using badges? Why were we using grades at all? My panic increased. The students decided, I said, but what if the students really didn’t decide, and they were just doing what was comfortable, or worse, what they thought I wanted them to do. Did I not present the concept well enough for them to feel comfortable with it? Am I still being too traditional, conventional? Was I failing my students? I’m not requiring them to put together a digital project or use social media. Should I? Am I doing enough to push my students outside of their comfort zones?
I could no longer see the success of my class, only all of the ways it could (already) be interpreted as a failure.
My students were able to accept where they were in terms of their comfort level with a peer-driven learning environment. One class needs more guidance than the other. I need to accept that my own level with peer-driven learning as their teacher is also evolving. I need to accept where I am just as much as they have accepted where they are. This is a learning process for all of us. In the same way that I try to provide positive support, encouragement, and patience to my students, I need to do the same for myself.
This will not be perfect. There will always be thing that get left out, left behind, and things that could be done differently. In a peer-driven learning environment, I have to trust that the direction my students have chosen to take is the right one. I also have to trust that I am doing my best as well.
Another way that this class is the most challenging thing I have ever done.
I was desperate to find a way *not* to blog about some very real drama that is hitting one of my Peer-Driven Learning classes. It’s amazing how one bad, poorly-prepared, attention-starved apple can spoil the whole bunch. And now the class has decided to break out into working groups, with the Bad Apple’s group suffering from a horrible case of regression. Unlike the other groups, where learning and discussion is taking place at a fast and furious pace, this group’s other members have regressed back into sullen, defensive silence, the kind that I’m met with in most ordinary classes when asked to participate or do anything at all.
Programming Note: I’ll be taking a break from writing weekly Bad Female Academic posts, mostly because I don’t have anything left to add. That’s probably because I’m teaching again and am trying something completely new, trying to create a course based on peer-driven learning. So instead of Monday posts on gender in academia, you’ll be treated to posts on my ongoing adventure in allowing my students to decide for themselves what we’re going to learn and produce in our class.