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Turning Student Discontent Into Deliberation

Turning Student Discontent Into Deliberation
April 3, 2008

During the last few years, my interests as a writing teacher and American Studies scholar have turned to the relationship between rhetoric and democratic practices and, in particular, to how I might use deliberative democracy techniques -- problem-solving strategies based on public consensus building rather than debate, partisanship, and polarization -- for teaching writing and critical thinking. These disciplinary and pedagogical interests came bundled with closely related concerns about how to better involve my students in the life of the university and in the civic affairs of Michigan State University’s neighbor, the local state capitol. I wanted to find ways, in short, for students to develop their public voices. Deeper down, I was also looking to renew my energies as a teacher and ratchet up the relevance of the humanities classroom by trying to connect the usual and venerable fare of the humanities-- principles, ideas, and critical reflection -- to the crucible of lived community problems where ordinary citizens conduct the extraordinary work of democratic citizenship.

Little did I realize that this interest in deliberation as a teaching resource would completely alter my experience of the classroom and profoundly disrupt my role and self-image as a teacher/scholar.

I began with modest experiments connecting the rhetorical and critical thinking requirements of Michigan State's general education writing course to deliberative problem solving techniques. My students, or example, studied the rhetorical processes of deliberation, examined the history of deliberative practice, and tried out deliberative arguments based on local civic and campus issues. We also conducted in-class forums based on the particular methodology of public deliberation and grass-roots problem solving practiced in hundreds of National Issues Forums taking place across the country. National Issues Forums are structured public forums about often-contested social issues that have national impact and local resonance -- for example, immigration reform and alcohol use and abuse. Perspectives on a given topic and a rhetorical framework for deliberation are laid out in issue booklets prepared by Public Agenda and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Each book presents three (sometimes four) perspectives on resolving an issue.

These early and partial efforts in my classes gave way to more sustained experiments when my colleague Eric Fretz and I designed a pair of closely related experimental writing courses in the general education sequence that would provide students with opportunities to study techniques of deliberation and to practice both public dialogue and public problem solving throughout the entire semester. These two courses were not team taught in the traditional sense. Eric was scheduled to teach a writing section with a focus on "Race and Ethnicity," and I was assigned a "Public Life in America" class with a special emphasis on education and youth issues. We each designed our own syllabus, although there was a good deal of overlapping of required texts, learning strategies, and writing assignments.

Our classes incorporated three active learning components -- a fairly traditional service experience for our students, a collaboration of both classes on a public forum on youth violence, and student-moderated deliberative study circles in class -- that we designed to link the academic issues of the separate courses, foster a strong learning community between our classes and among our students, and practice democratic skills of deliberation, collaboration, and participation. The experience of moderating a small study circle would give even the most reticent of our students the chance to practice habits of deliberation such as critical listening, asking leading questions, generating and sustaining discussion, staying neutral, and leading a group toward consensus.

Eric and I also tried to weave a deliberative pedagogy into just about every facet of the classes. Students practiced public dialogue and public problem solving at the very beginning of the semester by conducting in-class forums on topics that resonated, sometimes in discordant ways, in the public arena in our state and our university at the time, including the future of affirmative action and the quality of public education. In an effort to find out how far I could push deliberative practices into the life of the classroom, my students even framed and deliberated a class attendance policy.

Next, students gained important insights into public problems related to youth issues through question and answer sessions with invited guests (including a judge and a local police officer) and by working and learning in community settings with a number of community partners, including several Neighborhood Network Centers located in Lansing.

Our students then collaborated in small teams to research, organize, and host the public forum on “Violent Kids: Can We Change the Trend?” Students designed and drafted a discussion guide for forum participants along with worksheets and instructions for moderator assistants. They self-selected into committees that worked on timetables and deadlines for various stages of forum organization, communications, publicity, and background research on such things as children’s television, media violence, and effects of video games. After the forum, one of the work groups assembled and organized all of the forum work from each project team into a comprehensive portfolio. Eric and I drafted and circulated to all of our students an extensive portfolio assessment and evaluation memo that critically addressed the contribution of each work group -- all of which led to a deliberation we had not anticipated.

Our students were generally ruffled by our C+ evaluation of the portfolio, primarily because the grade was assigned to each student and counted for a portion of everyone's final grade. We took advantage of our students' dissatisfaction and invited them to put together a small deliberative forum to take a closer look at the evaluation memo and to present point-by-point arguments in favor of a higher grade. A small student work group agreed to frame the issue and prepare three choices for deliberation. Another work group took responsibility for moderating the joint-class forum, another for “post-forum reflections,” etc.

Here is the discussion guide they prepared:

Choice 1: The NIF Forum collaborative grade of C+ is fair and equitable. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper’s evaluation memo is thorough, well argued, and reasonable. While some students may nit-pick with details, overall the judgment is sound and the conclusions are justified. All the students in [each class] clearly knew well in advance that the forum work would be evaluated with a common grade. Sure, some students may have worked harder than others. But to insure the integrity and honesty of the forum project as an exercise in democracy and public life, students must be willing to accept the common grade.

Choice 2: Working groups that excelled deserve a better grade than C+. On the other hand, the evaluation memo suggests that other working groups may deserve less than a C+. The working groups should be evaluated on a group-by-group basis. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper should grade each group according to the arguments made in the separate committee sections of the evaluation memo. This grading procedure is ideal because it takes into consideration both collaborative work and individual effort. It is also more fair. The downside: all the work groups knew from the outset that the portfolio would be graded collaboratively. Is it OK to change that policy after the fact?

Choice 3: The common grade for the NIF forum work should be higher. The evaluation memo grade is simply too low. Granted, the points are well argued. No one claims Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper are being overly unfair. However, the forum was hard work for all students. It took up almost a third of the course work. It was a successful public deliberation. The portfolio, measured by even the toughest standards, was an excellent piece of work. No one disputes these points. Professor Fretz and Professor Cooper need to raise the grade, and the class will accept without question the higher common grade.

We were generally pleased that our students had gained enough understanding, experience, and confidence in democratic deliberation to bring it to bear on a controversy and a complaint that hit closer to home. By registering their objections in a democratic fashion and by seeing their objections taken seriously, our students navigated one of the most critical thresholds of democratic life: "We have a problem; we need to talk about it." Eric and I were convincingly swayed by Choice 3, and we raised the common grade to a B.

Our students’ turnabout confronted us with turnabouts of our own brought on by new roles and practices that deliberation introduced into the classroom.

Eric and I discovered that learning strategies that promote public work through deliberative pedagogy offer teachers rewards and fresh perspectives as well as posing difficult challenges. No longer the "sage on the stage," teachers become facilitators, "guides on the side," and, in many ways, co-learners with students -- and co-workers, too. We no longer directed from the sidelines or articulated abstractions behind a podium. We found ourselves doing work right alongside our students.

As our roles shifted, we had to give up some expectations about what should happen in a college classroom. In the process, we found new ways of thinking about those questions that all of us in higher education ponder: Where does the learning take place? How can I steepen the learning curve? What do I want my students to take away with them? Through practicing democracy in the classroom, we are able to answer these questions in different and more interesting ways than we could have in a more traditional classroom setting. Students learned disciplinary knowledge (in this case, writing rhetorical arguments, thinking critically, connecting written argument to concrete public problem solving) through experience and practice. In addition, they began to experiment with ways of operating and effecting change in the public sphere of the classroom itself.

For our part, we learned that the role of professor is both bigger and smaller than the ones articulated by traditions and expectations of our academic disciplines. Our most challenging and prosaic role, for example, was that of project manager. We helped our students anticipate snags, identify community and university resources, solve problems, develop networking skills, and lay out efficient workflows -- skills we felt were basic to the toolkit of citizenship. We also fetched envelopes and department letterhead, provided campus contacts to facilitate logistics for the forum, arranged for the use of printers, fax machines, office phones and computers.

For me, a striking and lasting consequence of adopting and adapting to a deliberative pedagogy was that I no longer considered myself a "teacher" in the conventional sense in which my colleagues understood, practiced, and peer-reviewed the role. Rather, I became an architect of my students’ learning experiences or maybe a midwife of their practices to become better writers and more-active citizens -- or, perhaps more to the point, I became something like a forum moderator. In a public forum, successful deliberation is often inversely related to the visibility and presence -- indeed, the knowledge and issue expertise -- of the moderator. The same applies to a teacher in a deliberative classroom: You spend a great deal of creative intellectual energy listening to students and learning to get out of their way so that they can take ownership of the subject, in the same way that forum participants must "own" an issue.

That fundamental role shift totally changed my experience of the writing classroom, from mundane matters like the physical arrangement of desks and the venues where learning takes place to epistemological underpinnings, ethical practices and boundaries, not to mention problematic relationships with more traditionally-minded colleagues who felt that I was cutting my students too much slack. In the annual department review, one of my colleagues criticized me, for example, for comments repeated on several narrative evaluations from students that "it was like the students were teaching the class." In the future, obviously, I need to do a better job of articulating a philosophy of deliberative pedagogy so my colleagues can translate statements like that as observations of practice and not criticisms of my teaching style.

The deliberative pedagogy that we employed demands a great deal of preparation and planning, but at the same time requires spontaneity and flexibility -- and a certain degree of uncertainty. Our students’ learning experiences encompassed complex and interlocking community groups, constituencies, organizations, and several offices and units at my university. Grounded in multiple learning partnerships, action research, and real world contexts, learning became a dynamic social process -- emergent, messy, edgy, relational, sometimes inconclusive, occasionally (not often) painful and confused, frequently full of entanglements, and always, I hope, challenging. I found myself constantly pushing the class to a point of agitation, churn, and controlled chaos because that was where the real learning took place -- at that threshold where students became present in, and took ownership of, their own learning experience.

Bio

David D. Cooper is professor of writing, rhetoric, and American cultures at Michigan State University. He is director of the College of Arts and Letters’ Public Humanities Collaborative and university senior outreach and engagement fellow. Cooper explores deliberative democracy and pedagogy in more detail in a chapter in Deliberation and the Work of Higher Education, forthcoming from the Charles Kettering Foundation.

 

 

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