A3Writer: Control over the Classroom and the Story
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Monday, August 6, 2012

Control over the Classroom and the Story

     Before each semester, professors across the world set out at an arduous task. We revise our syllabi policies. We build on experience, seeing what works and what doesn't work. What has been exploited, and what encourages learning. The resulting changes often feel like legal contracts with many clauses and restrictions.
      I don't like it.
      Not only does it take a toll on me trying to figure out a way to wrangle the policies in a way that works, but prevents undesirable behavior, it creates an totalitarian air to the classroom and the policies. While I understand that young children often need the discipline and structure rules provide, I teach adults. I know from experience and my own heritage that such rules and discipline can often provoke the wrong response. I have some of the famed "Missouri Stubborn" stock in me, so in the face of such rules and restrictions, the impulse is to rebel.
      Moreover, these rules feel oppressive and prevent a lot of participation by certain members of the class, who see no point in contributing since the class is handed down from the professor, and their views do not matter.
      I've been thinking long and hard about these ideas; I've gradually been moving towards more student autonomy, to encouraging them to act and do for themselves. So now I'm prepared to do what I'm sure many professors would consider the unthinkable.
      I'm giving up control.
      I'm going to put classroom policies in the hands of the students. They will be responsible for setting them. I feel it's the only way to truly give them ownership of their education. I hope it will bring them together and show them they can freely express their ideas, and that people will recognize and pay attention to those ideas.
      I'm excited and terrified. I have no idea how it will turn out. This will either be one of the greatest successes or colossal failures.
      Stories are the same way. Stories come best when they're not forced. Writer's block is what happens when I try to force the story too much. Sure, there's always grinding, just churning out those bits that need to be there, but by easing up on the reins, the story is able to go where it must.


Anonymous said...

You're crazy! Twenty year olds are far from being adults. They have a rosy view of the world that will be crushed within the first few years of graduation.

If I had go back and do it all over again, I'd put an economic value on each class that I took. How much money will the knowledge I take away from this class give me in the future? I would then spend the most amount of time on the classes with the biggest possible returns.

Now, learning to write effectively is super important. But one thing that I felt was left out of my writing classes when I was in school was writing persuasively.

Think about your query letters. You're ultimately trying to persuade someone to give your book a chance. In the business world, a lot of writing is trying to effectively persuade someone to do something. This is one of those skills that I would suggest adding to your lessons.

Of course, when I was in my 20s, I didn't know better. I wouldn't know to ask for this. It took years of experience to figure it out.

And that's where your plans ultimately hits a brick wall. These kids don't know what skills they need when they graduate, so they don't know what to ask you to teach them.

However, I do think your idea would work great in a graduate level class with more mature adults.

A3Writer said...

I admit, it's risky. However, I do have a plan. I'm not simply going to go with no policies. The first week of the class will be a discussion about what the policies will be. When there are agreed-upon policies, I write it up, and then hold them to it.

It's not entirely unprecedented, either. Ira Shor gave me the idea in his book Empowering Education, and he reported a good amount of success in what he called "democratizing the classroom."

But it's still risky. At the same time, iron fists don't work. It's time to try something radical.

When it comes to persuasion (argument in academia), that's 90% of my courses. To be able to make a point and support it with logic and evidence is the form of writing everyone else needs. A query letter, in purpose, is no different from a cover letter. I'm fully on board with this necessary skill (in fact I've been trying to launch a military campaign against other instructors to get them to focus on it as well).

And I think you're right about the 20 year-olds. To paraphrase Shaw, "education is wasted on the young." My older students generally do better because, like you, they know the value of the skills I'm trying to teach. They've looked ahead at what they need, and they want it more.

Still, there are exceptions. I remember a particularly bright 15 year-old who knew exactly what he wanted, and was open to the value of it.

Will I hit a brick wall? Quite possibly. But it's an experiment, and I have to try. I refuse to throw up my hands in defeat. And if it fails, I'll even come back here and report the spectacular fashion it failed. But I will learn something from this.