classrooms · grad school · ideas for change · teaching

A challenging classroom

This semester, I am trying something new with my graduate class, and something unexpectedly surprising has happened. I’m surprised! It’s unsettling! But it’s what I wanted, maybe!

Let me explain. For the past several years I’ve been teaching graduate “seminars” that featured rooms overstuffed with more than 15 students. Sometimes 16. Sometimes 18. It’s a lot. Not really seminar-y anymore, arguably. But there wasn’t a lot of arguing going on. What was happening was that I was assigning really important reading making interesting links between different domains … and … it … was … landing flat in class. With such a big crowd, we seemed to get into a dynamic, much of the time, where two or three people talked an awful lot, and others seemed to not have done the readings at all. I would launch questions into the room–a room of more than 15 eager bright young minds!–and we would all watch it thud to the ground, flail a bit, and then suffocate.

And then I would mostly lecture, quite a bit, then complain to my friends about having to lecture.

It was grim.

What I figure is, like a crowded New York City subway platform, when someone falls down and needs help, everyone knows there are a lot of people who could help. But then when everyone has that thought, no one actually helps.

So this year I wanted to ease the crowding on the platform, to reduce the idea that since everyone might answer a question, no one person actually had to.

I made groups of four or five. I assigned each group different readings, reading the other groups weren’t doing. I asked them to tweet primary texts, to add references to our database, to post summaries on our blog, to come to class with a chunk of the lesson plan assigned to them. They were going to teach each other, and I was just going to manage it.


This is our first week in full throttle group work. The summaries were fantastic, the tweeted materials fascinating, the level of preparation excellent. I was amazed.

But what happened in class was this: I tried to teach. We’re all unused to this kind of classroom, and since I screwed up my iPhone timer, I started class by leading a big discussion myself for 45 minutes, when I’d wanted them to discuss it themselves for 20. I kept making the big leaps in response to them, thus undermining the material individual groups had come prepared to write about. I (oh, the fail!) seemed to be quite comfortable sliding right back in to that lecture mode I swore up and down I wanted to get out of.

I asked them, in short, to step up–but I didn’t think about how I would have to step back.


So this is my challenge now. I’ve given them all this responsibility–now I have to let them take it. Maybe I’m not supposed to thread everything together for everyone, since I’ve asked them to come prepared to do that work. Turns out I like my world changing ideas to only change the practices that don’t affect me! I don’t know how to teach like this–but I guess I’m going to learn. It’s scary for me too.

Have you ever completely tipped over your own research or teaching or learning apple cart inadvertently? And how did it turn out?

One thought on “A challenging classroom

  1. Have you read much Paolo Freire? It sounds like you're working towards what he calls a “liberated education”–allowing the students to construct their own meanings, challenging them to think critically, and stepping back from being the the 'all knowing' professor.

    I am an academic librarian, so my experiences teaching are usually “one-shot” sessions, which is really different than a semester-long course. However, I've also been trying to do some of the things you're talking about. Engaging the students more by giving them more responsibility and agency over the classroom time. One of the hardest things is figuring out how to step back, how to stop lecturing, and how to stop worrying about how the students will pick up every single piece of information/concept/knowledge that you want them to. Even (especially) in lecture-style classrooms, students aren't picking up everything you're conveying.

    Freire has published a lot, but recently I've been reading this book by Freire and Ira Shor (A pedagogy for liberation), which is meant specifically for educators. It has some good advice and encouragement for the kind of thing you are trying to do.


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