This fall I will be teaching rhetoric at the University of Iowa. As it will be my first time back in the classroom in two years, I’ve been working hard to prepare — reading books and essays on rhetoric, deciding on readings, and thinking about assignments, assessments, and in-class activities. I am almost childishly excited to be teaching again, and so I’ve thrown myself into preparation; I am determined to get it right.
But as I prepare, one question keeps jumping out at me, stubbornly refusing to go away: How do I balance my desire to integrate student-centered learning practices with my almost pathological need to have every last bit of the course planned out and thought through?
Most of my pedagogy research has suggested that we as faculty should be looking for ways to give students a real sense of ownership in the classroom. One of our goals should be to create an atmosphere that leaves space for students take an active role in their own learning. How, then, do we design a course before even meeting our students? Isn’t there a danger in showing up to the first day of class with a syllabus that shows the whole course planned out? By doing so, aren't we clearly communicating to the students that the instructor is in charge, that if you know what’s good for you, you’ll follow these rules?
I worry about sending that message, even though I also believe there’s room to acknowledge that college instructors are qualified to, yes, instruct. We do have expertise and experience that can help students attain their goals. But many of the ways in which we operate at the front of a classroom serve to keep students in a subservient position, passively awaiting the teacher’s instruction and mindlessly doing what they think we want them to do.
An example: I’ve learned, through painful experience, that when giving students essay prompts, it's best to lay out in fine detail the manner in which they are to complete an assignment. I don’t want there to be any confusion as to the font size, line spacing, word count, paragraph format, and subject matter required. I nip potential misconceptions in the bud with mini-lessons on argument, thesis statements, evidence marshalling, and other elements of a good essay. All of those elements are important. And of course I’ve found that when I don’t make those details explicit, I receive papers that veer off course in maddening ways.
But doesn’t that litany of regulations send the message to students that we are in charge, and they are merely our loyal subjects? Should we be surprised that they aren’t invested in their work when we tell them — by our actions — that their role is to fill in the few blanks that we’ve left them?
Chris Friend, an assistant professor of English at Saint Leo College in Florida and managing editor of the digital journal Hybrid Pedagogy, has been writing about these issues recently, both for that journal and on his personal blog. In a number of posts, Friend has detailed his efforts to surrender some of the control that instructors typically wield over students, in the interest of fostering creativity, flexibility, and self-direction. He worries that, even when he gives class time over to student discussion, most of the time he finds himself guiding the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. “A class discussion where the teacher pre-determines the outcome,” Friend writes, “is just a lecture in disguise, dressed up to feel student-centered while still being instructor-directed.” Similarly, he’s grown suspicious that his emphasis on explicitly telling students how they should complete their assignments has made him into a mere functionary, checking essays for whether they fulfilled the seemingly arbitrary requirements.
In his courses, Friend writes, he has been backing off in an attempt to allow students the freedom to find their own path to their learning goals. For example, he's been making a point of staying silent during class discussions. Instead, he will spend the class time posting notes from the students' own comments into a document that is projected onto the screen behind him. Thus, he acts as the class facilitator and secretary, rather than its benevolent dictator.
I don’t want to oversimplify Friend’s very interesting work, but what I’ve taken from his posts is that the best way to foster freedom in the classroom is to emphasize why a class does what it does rather than how. If we can foreground our classroom goals, going out of our way to meticulously explain what we're hoping students will learn, we can feel more comfortable allowing students much more leeway in figuring out how to reach those goals on their own.
So I'm going to spend some time this summer thinking more intently about my goals for my courses. What do I hope students will achieve? What's the point of the assignments I give out? How can I clearly and directly communicate these goals to my students? And how can I create space for students to figure out for themselves how to reach those goals? It's my hope that if I can explicitly lay out the reasoning behind our activities as a class, I'll be able to back off more, and allow students the freedom to find their own roads to where I'd like them to end up. The task of finding those roads is an education itself.