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Why My Students Design the Syllabus #fight4edu

Why My Students Design the Syllabus #fight4edu

For the last decade, some part of every class I've taught has been left wide open so that students take the lead in designing the course.  Students come into a course knowing so much more than professors (and other students) ever know they know.  Giving them openings to share that knowledge with one another increases, exponentially, what everyone learns, what everyone contributes, and the thoughtfulness with which everyone--including and perhaps especially the professor--approaches the enterprise of learning, of designing a course, of thinking through what a course actually is and should be. 

In a decade of giving over some part of course design to students--at every level from introductory undergraduates to dissertation students and at every kind of institution--students have never failed to make the course better, deeper, more challenging, and more meaningful by their own engagement with the fundamentals of designing their own learning.  Imagine that!  It's exactly what we would anticipate for all the ways we learn outside of class, isn't it? 

You can read  more about the theory, practice, methods, and details of this process in the blog "Towards a Pedagogy for Everyone (Not Just the "Oppressed") .   In "American Literature, American Learning," we built off an assignment pioneered by Futures Initiative professors Kandice Chuh and Sujatha Fernandes in their Fall 2015 course "Encountering Cuba."  I developed a syllabus for the first half of the course and at midterm turned the class over to the students where they designed the last half of the class.  

The graduate students in "American Literature, American Learning"  all posted their syllabi to our public course blog so that now everyone can see how ten different students, each having read and discussed and interacted with the same materials for the first half of the class, then take the course in ten very different directions (and yet also have some interesting areas of overlap and interconnection too).  It's a fascinating look at what goes on behind the normally closed processes of teaching, the "ur" or "foundations" of thinking about a course, to use terms by used by different students in their syllabi.  

Here are ten versions of the course currently and officially known as "American Literature, American Learning"

In some deep way, they all embody the principles of their student-created Class Constitution  We worked on that collaborative exercise in communicating shared principles as a "warm up" for creating a syllabus together.

Now that all the syllabi are posted, the students are reading and commenting on one another's syllabi.  Their generosity and openness to other points of view are a model for any teacher or, indeed, for any of us in any situation where opinions differ. 

Writing a syllabus, posting it, and then reading and commenting on the other syllabi constitute this week's assignment in the course.  What an experience!  I do not think it is possible to engage this purposefully in an encounter with a subject matter without thinking through all the possibilities of that subject matter, without wondering "what if" about each choice one makes.  When one then encounters the choices one's colleagues make, one has to ask the question all over again.   "What if?" or "what else?    Key questions in education and in life.

Tonight the students will work with some templates and with giant post-it notes and a google doc and will come up and with markers and post its and you-name-it and will, collectively, discuss and compromise and come up with a course for the rest of the term that is both reasonable (respect for the lived lives of students is, to my mind, a major and often forgotten aspect of higher education) and visionary, challenging, inspiring, and exciting.   

I wish I could be there--but it would not be the same experience if I were.  An undergraduate student, 17 years old, admonished me over a decade ago, that I could not challenge students to create student-led syllabi if I were in the room.  The dynamic is simply different when the prof is there.  It's unavoidable. 

So, like you, I will eagerly await to see what these ten remarkable individuals post tonight, what assignments they have for my reading (and theirs) for next week.  

This form of pedagogy is a journey, an adventure, it is deep, and it is not just about what happens in the classroom but on developing a range of skills of research, independent thinking, contingent and practical thinking, visionary imagination, creativity, project management, individual and critical thinking, leadership, collaboration, cooperation, design thinking, and delivering a complete--even if imperfect, even if not what everyone desires in that Platonic world of self--and representative and fair course in which each member of the class feels somehow an engaged participant.  

It's a model of participatory, student-centered, engaged, democratic learning. 

It is utopian and optimistic, practical and realistic.  We've been doing reading and exercises and talking and thinking about this--theoretically and practically--for half a semester.  And the syllabi the student have posted are fabulous, really thoughtful and individual. 

Everyone has something meaningful and relevant and original to contribute. 

How you take all that rich possibility and now work it into six class periods that are "doable" and yet add up to something much more inspiring and enriching than the simply "doable" is their task tonight.  

They have given one another so much to work with by their seriousness and dedication. 

It's a model for learning.  It's a model for society.  It's a model for equitable and just leadership.  It's a model for social change, for being an actor in the world.  It's a model for democracy. 





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