As many faculty are focusing more intently on our syllabi for the fall--after mulling them over all summer--many people are trying to figure out what to have students DO. Should they write term papers? Five-paragraph essays? Compare and contrast pieces? [The answer is NO.]
There are lots of exciting ways students can engage actively with their learning, both to further their understanding and to convey that understanding. (Writing is for thinking, ideally, not just for following a safe recipe.)
The key is to figure out what the ultimate goals are--really going back to fundamentals--and then start from there.
If students are supposed to draw connections between the course material and the rest of the world, then allowing them freedom to explore is appropriate.
If students should master a particular, real genre, not necessarily a "school genre," then having them understand the conventions of that genre is helpful.
If students are supposed to become expert in a spinoff topic, then giving them free rein is appropriate.
If students are to become lifelong writers who have options about how to best convey their message to particular audiences, then having them figure out what's appropriate in diverse moments prepares them to think it through.
If students are supposed to achieve perfection in academic-style writing, following every arbitrary (it seems that way to students, believe me; I've asked) instruction, then it is asking for corner-cutting, imitation, going through the motions, and dread.
There are lots of colleagues all over the place engaging in, well, engaging assignments. Some fall under the general container of "unessay" (here and here).
Here is a list of what my own students have produced, just in the last year:
Nobody could argue that the authors and creators weren't learning, or that they were not putting in effort.
Some of the work was brilliant, inspired, amazing! Some was a first, brave, risky effort at trying a new format, genre. A football player wrote his first poem since middle school. A doula created a series of paintings depicting different food prohibitions during pregnancy, having interviewed people of different ages and from different countries. A student made a mosaic; another made a cartoon of the ways personhood remains the same and changes over the lifespan. Someone created a food-waste brochure. One student wrote a letter to his younger self. I welcomed this experimentation. I learned a lot, and ENJOYED, what my students were doing. They did too.
Learning, writing, doing don't have to be painful drudgery to be worthwhile.
Comment below with your own ideas, if you like!
Parents of college students: When you see your kids at Thanksgiving, don’t ask them how they are doing (in terms of grades). Ask them what they’ve learned. Ask what they have enjoyed. Ask what is magical, transformative, even useful.
And students: Don’t play for praise. Don’t learn for me.
Sink in, really be there, and forget about your teachers. Forget about me.
Play, learn, climb the log for yourself.
Professor Marjorie Faulstich Orellana of UCLA suggested that there is a “‘Love’ Revolution” underway in education as reaction against the punitive and judgment-drenched testing, measuring, accountability tide. One of the mysterious, frustrating things about teaching in college is that we rarely admit that we do it out of love.
The Proceedings of a conference, Learning In and Out of School: Education Across the Globe, held at the University of Notre Dame's Kellogg Institute for International Studies on May 22-23, 2012, are now available!
This is envisioned as a contribution to broadening the scholarly but also the public conversation about the nature of learning and its relationship to the formal institutions we know as schools. In that sense, posting proceedings is a necessary offering.
We—anthropologists, psychologists, human development and education scholars from as far as Korea and Alaska—met for two full days during a gorgeous spring week just following graduation, with flowers and warmth and the peace of an academic year just completed. We ate wonderful food throughout the day and night, and had many informal conversations along with the formal proceedings. As convener, I aimed to implement my best understanding of how people learn and how they interact by structuring the conference with no papers delivered. This is somewhat like “flipping the classroom”: the independent preliminary work that could be done in advance was done in advance—writing and reading papers and preparing comments on others’ work—and the precious face-to-face time was used for what could only be done that way: discussing, asking, brainstorming, and laughing together.
I found out by accident. One of my students had a job staffing a reception desk. They talk about my class--but don't even bother to let me know. When the students are buzzing with interest in the subject, when they don’t even tell the teacher about their out-of-class conversations—this is worth every moment.
Read it on Huffington Post, or here
There is a drama unfolding even as I write: thirty-five suspects have been indicted in a criminal conspiracy, and only a few of them have surrendered to authorities. They face decades in prison and millions of dollars in fines. The deadline for all to give themselves up is today.
Is this about drugs? Kidnapping? Treason? Securities fraud?
Nothing so alien as that; it is an everyday criminal context: It’s about administrators and teachers changing answers on standardized tests in order to boost their schools’ and districts’ scores
We academics are lucky, in a way: we get a fresh start at least twice a year. We have a new school year in the fall and a New Year in the winter. With this luck, though, comes the requirement to start anew. Old schedules and habits are over; we have to commit ourselves to new ones. Whether we like it or not, we have to start over.
Following peer pressure—something nobody should ever do—I am therefore setting out some of my winter New Year’s resolutions. These are public, and idiosyncratic, so I will probably regret them many times over before I do it again next year. I am already afraid (see number 7) about posting them!
Academic life comes in three forms—teaching, research, and service—and then there is the personal. I’ll skip the exercise, yoga, meditation, clutter-conquering, calling-my-parents, eating-more-kale, bringing-my-own-bags (hey! I already do this one!) resolutions. You can find these everywhere you look. Instead I’ll look at my academic resolutions.
1. Procrastinate and fret less. The plan is to start doing the things I’m putting off—grading, bureaucratic reports, polishing articles, reviews, grading, making decisions about scheduling, responding to complicated emails, and, by the way, did I mention grading? Once I am in the midst of a semester I often find myself constantly worrying about getting responses back to students. Once I start I almost always find it takes less time than I expected. So, in order to get to these things, I just have to begin. Preferably this occurs in an empty room with the Internet disconnected.
2. Plan my daily writing in advance. I already reserve mornings, my most productive time, for writing, but I don’t always get to the writing part. This resolution requires having a concrete plan about what exactly to do. The Pomodoro Technique takes care of this.
3. Work on fewer things at a time. Instead of compiling lists, starting new things—Oh the joy of starting!—and having oodles of unfinished work weighing down my heart, I will keep in mind what two of my productive colleagues have revealed in the last year, as I’ve asked about work habits: (a) Work on one thing at a time. (b) Recognize that the last 10% takes 90% of the effort. So in order to work on fewer things at a time, I will have to finish the half-dozen articles that are on my list, so I can get to the 600-page manuscript that I am especially excited about.
4. Stick to my resolution about taking on only tasks to which I feel I can offer something unique. Keep relying on my “No Committee” (my next-door colleague and friend) when asked about new obligations. Each talk, manuscript review, committee, independent study, conference seems intriguing itself, but they add up to an unmanageable whole.
5. Continue trying innovative approaches to learning, aiming to reach my students where they begin and move them to a new understanding and inspiration, rather than blaming them for not being academically oriented.
6. Remember that my position is one of a certain amount of privilege—in comparison with many other academics, and in comparison with many others in jobs that bring only a livelihood, not a calling, and then with so many without employment at all—and that with that comes obligation.
7. Be brave. Speak the truth, as much as I have evidence for this, even if it is frightening. Stop waiting to write the strong views I hold. It might mean people dislike or dispute what I say, but that is supposed to be the point of public discourse. In that vein, I turn to resolution 8:
8. Blog. I’m starting the New Year able to check this one off right away. But like yoga, exercise, flossing, eating kale, calling my mother, and all the rest, it must be done regularly in order to be effective. And though I give my blogging some thought, I usually let the posts go without stewing too long. They are somewhat risky, but writing helps thinking and responses bring additional clarity.
So now I’ve publicly stated my plans. With the theory that accountability helps, I hit “submit” and enjoy the clean slate that January 1 brings. I wish you a similar hopeful beginning. Happy New Year!