I’m trying something a little different with my grad class this year. We have a really big cohort and we’ve bumped our course caps up to 15 and that’s what I have and it’s a lot. A lot of grading and name-remembering, maybe, but also–what an opportunity!–a lot of brain power in the room.
I’m trying to turn big enrolment into a feature, not a bug. I’m experimented with, if you will, a kind of parallel processing or distributed cognition at the very foundation of the course, right up to the top.
I’m making the students do the bulk of the work–designing the syllabus, choosing the readings, teaching–and pedagogically, I think it’s the right thing to do.
Here’s what I’m trying. The course is on selfies, which is the book I’m deep in writing right now. So I know the crap out of all of this. I could teach this in my sleep–but I don’t want to teach in my sleep. Instead, I am making the students create the course as we go. They’re not experts on this material, and this is the best way I can think of to make them so. On the first day I made some handouts with different options on it, and had them discuss and debate, in pairs, then fours, the half the room, then all together until we had reached a consensus on whether we would run the course like a survey, or as case studies–we had to really think it through, not just what, but why. They decided case studies and then we had to debate to consensus on which three of five possible cases we wanted to focus on. My job then was to create a frame for the rest of the semester, to distribute the work and attention.
The next two weeks were foundations in theory and method, ideas that are going to be our North Star for the rest of the term, where I assigned the material and organized the classes. I also created five groups, and for each case study (lasting either two or three weeks of class) assigned groups to specific tasks related to the very methodologies I use to produce these cases in my research: finding and sharing context from secondary literature, intensive browsing across possible primary texts, picking representative or exemplary texts for analysis, producing a persuasive interpretation / argument, and linking the case to the broader work of the course. Starting next week, it’s the students who are going to have to figure out what we’re going to read, what theory is going to be relevant, which hashtags or instagram accounts are most useful to consider, what it all means. Already they’re asking great questions: who are the major theorists of art photography? Or, I know how to find primary materials for fine art photography, but how do I find and decide what vernacular photography to use? Yeah, those are basic research questions. I already know the answers but the goal of the course is not really for me to perform my own scholarly excellence–it’s for students to develop their own skills and excellence.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what grad students need from their courses. I think they need a lot more skills training, in the basic skills of the degree and the profession. I did a bit last night on how to read like a researcher, and how to create a lesson plan. Someone came up to me afterwards to tell me, excitedly, how that was most important bit about class. I’m teaching them how to start from literally nothing: “this is a course about selfies, and we are grounding in auto/biography studies, surface reading, new media studies, and photography studies” and figure out how to say something valuable and humane about why some images get banned from Facebook and some don’t. This is a skill that PhD students really need if they’re going to write dissertations. This is a skill that MA students need if they want to join a professional workforce and move beyond the entry level. Self-efficacy develops when we are presented with malformed problems and have to figure out how to bring some order to that chaos. They’re learning about how to find the important works on a topic they start off with very little knowledge on. They’re learning how to read a ton of primary material fast, looking for patterns. They’re learning how to link these patterns to broader cultural and theoretical contexts. And they’re learning how to frame all that work to be useful to all of us in a classroom setting.
I expect I’m going to have a LOT of meetings with students about this. That’s exciting: working one on one, or group on one, with students who have urgent and concrete scholarly problems they’re trying to solve, that have real stakes.
So far, I’m loving the results. Next week is when the plan fully launches. It might be a little bumpy until we all figure it out, but I am really looking forward to seeing how we all grow.