• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


On Fear and Peer-Driven Learning

Confronting the "what if's" and our own insecurities. 

December 3, 2014

(March was apparently a dark time for me. I have a bunch of unpublished blog posts in my folder that I have just rediscovered. I didn’t feel like publishing anything at that time, so I’m dusting them off this week and finally putting them here where they belong.)

This semester, I’m doing all my classes in some form of peer-driven learning or another. On top of my usual peer-driven Writing II classes, I am also doing a peer-driven Introduction to World Literature course and an Interdisciplinary Honors course covering the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In both classes, we are working together to curate the content for the course, but we’re spending the first few weeks of the semester doing research to ensure that we are making informed choices.

The semester is still young, but I’m really happy with the enthusiasm with which the students have embraced the approach. I’ve been talking about the process with a few of my friends who are also professors at my institution. There are a number of issues that they raise about how I’m teaching my course: coverage, capacity, and expertise.

For the coverage questions, I counter with two arguments: as long as the Student-Learning Outcomes are being met, then why is it important that we try to read ALL THE THINGS, knowing full well that it is impossible anyway. How can one even try to teach all of World Literature, from the origins to about 1650 in 15 weeks? Or all of the Renaissance AND the Enlightenment? Whatever I decide will be just a fraction, a small piece, and woefully incomplete. Why not invite the students in on seeing just how incomplete this process really is, while also equipping them with the critical thinking skills needed to be able to curate and evaluate? And, as I have consistently found, the students actually do the reading, and do it much more closely and carefully, if they have had a hand in deciding what we read. I’d rather they read fewer things and actually read them, rather than all of us pretending they’ve read the laundry list of texts I’ve assigned in the name of “coverage”.

The capacity question, to me, is closely related to the idea of coverage. There is this assumption that our students don’t have the capacity to choose for themselves, that somehow they’ll choose the path of least resistance, or choose the “easiest” texts. This is where I step in; I craft the class in order to make sure that the students are not only equipped to make the choices, but I also challenge them to push themselves. I give them guidelines, instead of strict edicts. The majority of them rise to the challenge, and while the results can be imperfect, they provide an opportunity to keep learning. We talk about media literacy, but rarely do we give students an opportunity to meaningfully choose for themselves, and to feel the consequences of the choices. I want them not only to learn about World Literature, I want them to learn about learning, and learn about how to critically make choices.

But finally, the question is always asked of me, what if they choose texts you’re not familiar with? Then, I respond, I get to learn right along with them. As an adjunct and contingent faculty member, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to teach in my area of expertise. I have wrestled with the self-doubt that comes with standing in front of a class when I’ve had to teach a book or a topic that it’s completely outside of my area, despite my attempts to “get up to speed” in my course preparation. Inevitably, I end up saying, at least once, I don’t know. I’ve finally learned to embrace that position, taking the time to show my students that there are gaps in my own knowledge, and that there will always be gaps. Not knowing, however, is not an excuse for not learning. So I work to learn right along with them. I know how to learn, and I know a thing or two about research and reading literature. So, I now view my “expertise” differently.

This won’t work for every class, I know, but for what we’re trying to accomplish in the classes I teach, it is amazing to see the students engaged and excited about learning. What more can an educator ask for?


Back to Top