Whose Class Is It Anyway?

After quite some time away from blogging, I’d like to make my first post of the new year purely reflective (and one I actually began drafting back in October). This past semester, I had an interesting experience with one of my classes that I’d like to share here, but I want to start by discussing a conversation I had with a colleague of mine at the very start of the semester. She felt the students in one of her classes lacked engagement (something we can all relate to). I made a suggestion, which she in no way was obligated to try, but the forcefulness with which she rejected it really had me thinking. I suggested she simply and directly ask her students two simple questions:

  • Why aren’t you engaged?
  • What can I do to increase that engagement?

I, in absolutely no way, mean to point an accusatory finger at students through these questions. I am suggesting, we open the floor up for students to make suggestions, contributions, and, yes, provide honest criticism and feedback of the course. We take stories, articles, concepts and shove them down our students’ throats; force them to read something we think is fitting for them to write about; don’t take their opinion into consideration at all; and then we ask for performance—and blame them for not being engaged.

Imagine, if you will, that you are asked out to dinner. You are hungry, so you agree. Your date, coincidently, is well-fed.

As you drive with your date, they tell you exactly what turn to take, what speed to go, how to hold the steering wheel (10 and 2). And you are not allowed to object. You have to do as you are told.

Your date picks the restaurant. You are not asked where you would like to eat, what kind of food you like, if you have any particular preference or craving.

At the restaurant, your date orders. For both of you. You aren’t even given a menu. Some consideration might be taken into account for an allergy, but at the end of the day, you eat what is on your plate because your date said so. And you eat it how they say, as well (chew each bite 30 times).

And why? Why are you doing all this? Because your date has more experience at dating than you do.

Oh, and you pay.

This ridiculous concept of a date is our students’ typical classroom experience. And the professors? We’re that asshole date.

Students agree to come to college. To sit in a room with us and learn.

We pick the goal of the course. What needs to be taught…and learned. Not taking into consideration what students feel they need to learn. Because, apparently, 18 years in an education system, taught them nothing about their own level of writing and their own needs. We, strangers, know that.

We also pick the way to get to that goal. Regardless, again, of the fact they might just know how to communicate a thought. They need to forget their route and learn our route. Instead of taking their communication and writing skills and transferring them, we call them an empty vessel, who must learn to communicate a thought our way, by our route.

Then we tell them what text to read. What novel, author…you name it, we pick it. And they eat it. They have no choice.

All because you have a Ph.D. Because you have a Masters. Because someone handed you a piece of chalk and named you “Professor.” Because you’re well-fed in the academic sense and have the right to flaunt your food over the starving college student. And they pay thousands and thousands of dollars for it.

Now, not all professors are like this, and I may be giving you a slight extreme (not by much, unfortunately), but it’s a tough pill to swallow. We call about 20 people into a room, tell them what they need, how they need it, why they need it, and force them fulfill that need in the way we choose. And if they stumble, we, quite literally, call it a failure. If you couldn’t eat that meal your date ordered because it made you gag, because your body was not accustomed to that taste, texture, or both, would that be your failure? Yet, somehow, our students are assessed and judged—as is the purpose of the course and professor. We are required less to help make better writers through feedback, but more to assess the performance of students and their writing.

Now, this post isn’t about assessment—that’s a whole other issue that holds merit on both sides of the argument, and I will hold it for another day. I want to take this opportunity to talk about student ownership of the classroom

This past semester, I tried something new with my Introduction to Writing and Literary Study course at Montclair State University. As expected, I had provided my students with a syllabus, breaking our semester into five units—the first three: reading literature; the last two: letting them roam “free” in their writing (in a way I organized). As is my duty, I picked the texts, assigned the homeworks, outlined the essay questions, etc. With each of the first two units, I did what I always do when assigning any essay, I left an “Open Topic” option—a moment for students to take the class and the essay into their own hands and write whatever they wanted to write about. I always hope more students will pick that option, but more often than not, they always pick one of the “safer” options, one of the topics I provide.

By the third unit, however, I decided to try something a new. The third unit was designed, the readings picked, the homework written, the essay assignment drafted, but I was still driving too much. All of this was me. I was the third unit—and the second unit, and the first unit. They picked the “safer” essay questions because I was the one in those questions, and the entire semester and course was designed around me and what I thought they should know (much like that horrible, controlling date from the start of this blog). So, I trashed the entire third unit. And I asked my students to design it instead. They had to pick the text, guide each class discussion, and decide what they were going to write their essay on (I would provide a list of themes, which they saw occur in the book and talked about in class).

Obviously, they were shocked and uneasy at first, but a little coaxing (and a threat that I would assign Fifty Shades of Grey) had them in full gear. In selecting the text, I gave two criteria: it had to be a novel, written in the past twenty years. I took a seat at the back of the room and told them to decide. It was amazing to watch. Computers came out. Everyone was talking, voting, contributing, suggesting. A student stood of his own volition and started to tally the votes on the board. The entire time, I kept my mouth shut and observed as a room of 19 students put themselves into their syllabus. Made it theirs. Had a stake. Genuinely gave a damn.

Eventually, they decided on Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, and made this unit the best I have taught thus far. Because I didn’t teach it. I let them tell me what they needed, what they wanted to talk about, how they wanted to read the text. They didn’t need me, and while that might be a scary thought, it is exactly what a college classroom should do.

Due their independence, investment, and responsibility in maintaining this unit and this class, 15 out of 19 students held class on a day I was in a different state at a conference. They recorded their discussion, which was an honor to listen to and which, unfortunately, I cannot post here (although my admiration of them has me desperate to do so), and sent it to me. Students, who normally remain quiet while I am in the room, were actively partaking in the conversation. A few students took the “professor” role in the recording, posing questions, making sure everyone’s comment was heard, but there was no one “in charge.” Thus, there was an air of mutual respect and accountability as they engaged in a truly intelligent and thoughtful conversation.

And they weren’t even required to attend that day.

We talk and research and publish about student ownership, yet when do we actually give them the moment to own the room? I’ve tried every semester to make my students feel invested and important and responsible for the course, but not once did I have see the reactions like when I gave them no other alternative but to be invested, important, and responsible for the course. There are 19 students in my classes. And 1 professor. The class belongs to them.

Student ownership can only begin when the professor finally gives it up.

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