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How a HASTAC Session Inspired Me to Create Class Constitutions: Part 2

colorful sketches of text layouts

To follow up on my promise from last year, I wish to outline my process for creating a class constitution. Having a constitution is a workaround to other's strategies of collaboritively revising syllabi at the opening of a course. For a variety of reasons, my institution asks that faculty post a publicly-accessible syllabus for courses one semester in advance. The process, which was inspired by Danicka Savonick's approach to fostering inclusive discussions, was developed over the past two years at the University of Alabama. My objective with this process is to establish a way for to students have agency and ownership in their learning experiences. I think a constitution contributes to the possibility of having an inclusive classroom, too, as the process is one where I divest some of the powers granted to me as the teacher.

Over the past hour, I did the initial work needed to begin the process again for this semester. Before the course begins, I set up four anonymous surveys within my course LMS. Three surveys are under five questions, and one has ten questions. I am able to keep this process confidential by having all of it take place within the dual-authenticated environment of my institution's LMS, email and documents system. Each survey is available on the first day of class, and is set to be "due" prior to the next class session.

1. Syllabus Survey - The syllabus contains some unusual elements. For example, the first course objective on this syllabus has "create a safe space for learning and sharing ideas," and, "Grading" is named as a "key issue for discussion." I ask the students whether they reviewed these sections and whether they have any questions or concerns.

2. First Day Survey - The questions here asks students questions such as why they decided to sign up for the course, what makes a learning experience worthwhile and what they hope to say about the semester when all is said and done.

3. Preliminary Constitution Survey - To get students thinking about how they want the course to work, they are primed to think about previous learning experiences and then offer their expectations for the course: themselves, the professor and others.

4. Grading Survey - In this longer survey, students are asked to define their expectations of what makes an assignment "satisfactory" from a variety of perspectives: how assignments are formulated, how individuals should respond to assignments, how others should respond, and how outcomes should be evaluated.

The notion of a class constitution plays a central role in the first day of the class. I recognize that I am using my powers as the teacher to institute the process, and invite the group to join via a short writing reflections (which, allows me to bring the first CAT into the class, too).

All of the above information is brought together during my preparation for the next class session, where I present the class with a draft constitution based on their responses. The draft is a document located within my institution's file management system. Students are provided with a secure link that is associated with their institutional email accounts. I create the draft constitution by gathering all of the responses that could be seen as normative proposals for how the course should function. The initial draft is quite long as a result, since I prefer that the group perform the work of collating and revising the text. Each normative proposal is numbered as a potential article in our constitution.

The process of arriving at a final draft is iterative. What follows is a series of anonymous surveys, each due prior to a successive class session. Short-answser survey questions are numbered to correspond with the proposed articles. I then post feedback from these surveys as notes or proposed revisions under the relevant article. There has yet been a request to delete an article. Instead, the group offers suggestions to combine articles and edit others. My hunch is that this process helps establish how in-class discussions proceed, too. What I see is a lot of "yes, and..." collaborative idea-building. These iterations are posted to the LMS course home page via the same secure link.

Each class session involves a review of the constitution's status. After roughly six class sessions across three weeks, the constitution is typically ready to be ratified. A final survey asks the group to vote yes/no to each article. Once there is consensus, we get to celebrate the final version and use it to guide the remainder of the course.

And that, in a nutshell, is the process implemented each term to establish a unique course constitution.

P.S. Here are some example articles from the past two years:

  • Assume each other has the best of intentions. We should be open-minded and respectful of each other’s ideas.
  • In order to listen to others, we should try to limit our distractions in class.
  • Assignments should never be for “busy work.” The should always serve a distinct purpose for the course.
  • If most people do not actively participate, a discussion should be ended.
  • Any field trips are entirely optional. If they happen, they should take place on a Saturday that is not a home-game weekend.

 

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