This past spring semester I decided to shake things up a bit in one of my courses by tossing some of my routine (and control over the course), right out of the window. I have always advocated for student responsibility in my classroom — I don’t micromanage them, I don’t take attendance (no, I’ve never had a problem with low attendance in my classes), and I try to build assignments with enough flexibility to allow students to explore their interests. However, this past semester, I did two things in my Sex, Gender, and Society course which involved giving up a significant amount of control in some crucial areas of the course.
The first was the class blog. I have used a class blog for a few years now but so far it had mostly been used to respond to readings for the course and for commenting on other classmates’ posts. This semester, I decided to encourage students to post whatever bit of news, articles, viral videos, blogs, they had come across, that were relevant to gender, and post it to the class blog (they all had posting privileges to the blog). I would then start each class with a discussion of what had been posted on the class blog. What initially started slowly—with students apologizing for posting, thinking they were burdening me and their classmates—quickly took off and turned into a dynamic blog with students spending a significant amount of time on the blog. Of course, the more information that was being posted on the blog, the more time I had to spend discussing what had been posted. But instead of seeing this as going “off-topic”, I realized that these were a perfect opportunity for me to tie current-events/viral happenings, in to their current, past, or future readings for the course in a much more dynamic way. With this approach, the class became much more than simply the readings that were assigned for the day; instead I used the discussion of the blog posts to weave in the main ideas from the readings. It also allowed for more continuity between topics as we found ourselves re-visiting old topics or connecting to future ones. I realized that I now have enough experience to be able to deal with uncertainty and curve balls in the classroom and still be able to tie that to the course content. This is not doable for all courses of course; it helps immensely that this course is about gender.
Ultimately, the most exciting aspect of this blog was that it allowed students to take ownership of their education in a much more significant way than previous versions of this course. I found myself adding new readings to the course simply because of a topic that had come up on the blog. It also allowed the students to develop their own on-line community outside of the time and space allotted for the course. At the end of the semester, almost every single student mentioned the student-controlled blog as one their favorite aspects of the course because it allowed/expected them to be constantly engaged. As one student put it in her end of the semester review of the course, “The blog posts provided a great way for us to begin a conversation before we got to class, and made sure that we were eating, sleeping and breathing Sex, Gender, and Society.”
The second element where I gave up quite a bit of control, was a student group project. For this project, I took out the requirement of a particular format in which their project would be presented. Their only requirements (besides being linked to some aspect of gender) were that it should connect to the campus community in some way and be in a format that can be easily shared with the wider campus community. Although initially, at least a few students were fearful of the lack of structure in this assignment, they all came to embrace the freedom they had with this assignment once the projects were underway. The results of the student projects amazed me (one was even picked up by a few media outlets). The amount of time and commitment students gave to these projects exceeded all my expectations. And the students came to love the process as well as the final product of their group projects.
Now there were still other elements of the course that were more structured, including doing an analytical write up of the project, writing a research paper, and doing a presentation. And while I did not lay out the details of specific projects for each group, I did check-in frequently with each group, and also allotted class time for each group to discuss their projects at each stage and gather feedback from their classmates. But the dynamic of the class changed significantly—and for the better—due to the two major changes described above.
For next year, I’m toying with the idea of only providing a reading list and themes for a particular course on the first day and letting the students design the rest of the course as a class. I’ll let you know how it goes, if I decide to pursue that idea.