David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Pedagogy Unbound: Filling in the Blanks

Full 11132013 pedagogyunbound

Pedagogy Unbound, the website I launched in August, operates on a simple assumption: If you want to know how best to teach a class, ask a teacher. The people who stand before students every day, who think about how best to reach those students from the first draft of a syllabus to the comments written on completed final exams, are storehouses of practical knowledge about pedagogy.

The site takes that idea online. What once might have been a few teachers swapping helpful tips with each other around a department water cooler can now become a conversation between teachers—adjuncts, full professors, and all the faculty in between—across many disciplines and from around the world. Teachers can submit brief descriptions of practical pedagogical strategies that have worked for them in the classroom; I’ve tried to make it easy for other teachers to browse and discover those strategies when they need them. Are you seeking ways to get your students to talk? We’ve got you covered. Looking to improve your students’ writing skills? Here are some good ideas. Worried about plagiarism? Step right this way.

Pedagogy Unbound is a work in progress, and it’s still growing: There are about 50 teaching tips on the site now. As it grows, as more teachers share their techniques, I hope the site becomes a valuable library for college teachers everywhere. I already find it valuable, and I’m encouraged by the feedback I’ve received from many others.

Although Pedagogy Unbound relies entirely on teachers’ knowledge, my favorite tips are those that downplay the teacher’s expertise within the classroom, move away from the “information transfer” classroom model we may remember from our own student days, and encourage students to take a more active role in the classroom experience. For the most part, the tips teachers have submitted provide possible answers to this challenging question: How can I get my students to buy in to the course objectives?

I’ll be writing in this space twice a month, each time highlighting a different tip that has made its way to the site. Most of those, I predict, will be geared in some way toward enabling active learning.

Today I’d like to discuss a strategy that I tried in my own classroom last spring, in a survey of American literature. It comes from Chris Walsh, an assistant professor of English at Boston University, and he calls it the “Blank Syllabus”. No, it does not involve handing out blank sheets of paper at the start of the semester. Rather, Walsh advocates letting students select some of the course readings.

Here’s how it worked in my class. The textbook we used was a big anthology of readings (the Norton Anthology of American Literature), and I decided that, for each class, the students would read both prose (either a short story or a portion of a longer narrative) and poetry. I picked the prose readings and listed them on the syllabus, but I left blank spaces next to each class period for a poem or poems to be determined by the students. The class was small—only 17 students—so I was able to ask each of them to choose a reading for one day of class. Those of you with larger classes can have students select and then vote on the readings that will be included on the syllabus.

On the first day of class, after distributing the syllabus and introducing the students to the course, I explained the concept of the blank syllabus. The first assignment, due three weeks later, would be an essay in which each student, having picked a poem from the anthology to include on the syllabus, would make a case for why students should study this poem. On the day a student’s poetry selection was slated for class discussion, that student would lead things off by recounting her argument.

The strategy had a number of benefits. First, it got my students to actually look at the anthology. Instead of reading only the pieces that I assigned, they spent the first few weeks of the term browsing through the book, reading unfamiliar poems, looking for one that appealed to them.

Second, it got them thinking about the value of the literature we were studying. Why read one poem instead of another? Why read poetry at all? Instead of a reading list dictated from on high (these are the most important texts), it became a reading list produced by everyone in the class (which are the most important texts?).

This brings us to the third benefit: The blank syllabus showed students that they are crucial players in the class’s dynamic and outcomes. It signaled to them, right from the start, that I see them as partners in their education. It helped instill in them an increased sense of responsibility towards the coursework, the instructor, and not least of all, their classmates.

Mine is hardly a scientific study, but I had a lot of success with this approach. I can’t say whether having a hand in choosing the course readings made the students feel more empowered. But there’s no question that the blank syllabus led them to engage better with those readings and each other than my previous classes. The students were much more enthusiastic about reading poetry—always a challenge, I find—and the open-mindedness and curiosity with which they approached their peers’ choices was great to witness. I think they found that they have a lot to learn from each other; that’s something that teachers might find, too.

David Gooblar is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth, published by Continuum in 2011. He lives in Iowa City and teaches literature and writing at Mount Mercy University and Augustana College. Find him on Twitter at @dgooblar.

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