Sunday, September 11, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: I'm No Cathy Davidson

I received an interesting set of questions in the comments on my last peer-learning post: 
I've read Cathy's piece in the Chronicle of HE. I hate to be a bit of a wet blanket but having had some experience of designing, leading and being part of peer driven teaching and having been an early member of the so-called 'anti-university' set up in London in the late '60s-- I have a few questions that I'd need to know in order to determine if this is an idea that can be realistically applied and allow students to graduate with some kind of marketable qualification (however and whoever determines the 'market').The type of class isn't clear. Are they postgrads/post-experience/mature/straight from secondary school? Are they doing an elective or is it a compulsory class?Will their grade make a difference to their degree and does the degree have to meet any institutional or external (eg professional/regulatory body accreditation criteria)?In fact, what does the grade signify? Is it simply a metaphorical 'fig leaf' to cover your back or is it a rigorous measure of the learning and self-instruction?
I've been wanting to do a post since the beginning outlining all of the ways my peer-driven class is different from Cathy Davidson's classes.  I could point "anonymous" to my previous posts on my peer-driven classes that outline more carefully what the purpose of the class is, etc. But, just to reiterate, the class that I am reformulating as being peer-driven in ENG 200 or Writing II. This is a required course for all students, regardless of major. They have already taken ENG 100 or traditional freshman composition. Our student learning outcomes are essentially to have students read primary sources from across disciplines, discuss, and write about them. We have a choice of two almost identical textbooks to assign to them, and a list of required assignments, both large and small. At the end of the day, if the students are using the textbook as a guide, they will be fulfilling the requirements of the course. Most of my colleagues that I've told that I am letting the students decide what they want to read from the textbook have shrugged their shoulders; any readings from the book will be challenging and stimulating.

There are some very important differences, of course, between my course and Cathy Davidson's course. While Cathy Davidson seems to have had a weekly schedule that students followed (more or less), my class has been shaped exclusively by my textbook, which we would never be able to get all the way through. Both my classes are completely different in terms of our assignments and week-to-week layout. One class is much more "traditional"; the students have picked the readings, but we are working on them together, as a class. The other class has broken off into groups and will be teaching their own two-class unit, complete with a project based on their readings/lesson. It's early, but each class is having some good results.

My students didn't "chose" to take me, specifically, for this course. Sure, there are a handful who had me last year, but most of the students selected my sections of ENG 200 because it fit their schedule. They certainly had no idea that I was going to turn the tables on them. I have a higher cap in my class (18 students sounds like a dream) and no TA. I don't have tenure, and I am teaching three other classes on top of the two peer-driven courses. Our college has a high number of first-generation college students, as well as a poor graduation rate and low ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The majority come from our service area, which is largely poor and rural. If one of my classes is less ready to embrace peer-driven learning, I can't say I'm terribly surprised. Actually, that one of the classes so readily embraced the format is perhaps more surprising.

I don't have a ton of experience being an "innovative educator" nor does what I write about or do in my classroom cause our PR office to have palpitations. Thanks to Cathy Davidson, turning your class over to your students isn't met with hang-wringing and fainting (seriously, read the first chapter of Now You See It to see how much negative national press Cathy Davidson has inspired). Or, thanks to the fact that I toil away at an out-of-the-way university insulates me from any notice. I'd say it's a bit of both. I help create one of the most exciting and innovative (to me at least) academic programs/organizations (HASTAC), so I'm starting from behind, so to speak, compared to Cathy Davidson. I'm still learning to let go and embrace all of this.

My job, as I understand it, is to help students become better writers but also more independent learners. I want them to becomes 4-year-olds again, where the world was exciting and new and they wanted to learn about everything. I want them to learn how to create a community, to support one another in their education, and just think differently about anything I can. I want to help them think more critically about their world and how they fit into it. These are my goals regardless of how I teach, but I think teaching this way will be more successful. Even if the rest of their educations are "by the book" both literally and figuratively, I hope they will take what they have learning in my class beyond university.

Is it sustainable for every single program on campus? I don't know. I'm not as optimistic as Cathy Davidson, although I'm getting there. I've said time and time again that it's my own failure of imagination that I cannot think about how to do my class or university differently. But I know I am doing something right as my class buzzes with excitement and begin to come up with their own innovative and creative ways of looking at their readings and the issues they bring up. I can't measure that.

I'm not sure if I want to.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really interested by your conclusion, Lee: "I can't measure [classes "buzzing with excitement]. I'm not sure I'd want to."

    Like you, I'm experimenting with peer-driven curricula. Both of us are departing from Davidson's model: your students are f2f and non-elite; mine are in a hybrid setting and elite.

    I think both of us will benefit, Lee, from measuring results even if it's self-reporting solicited every three weeks or so. Given Cathy's passionate skepticism of rubrics that value quantification at the expense of narrative or other forms of qualitative assessment, I think she'd support diversifying what "counts" even if the conditions of assessment can't be replicated scientifically (or, more accurately, quasi-scientifically).

    You and I are asking students to stretch beyond their comfort zones and hoping the experience will deliver results that augment their learning in ways traditional teaching can't. In my own case, I'd love to believe I could race right out of the gate--zoom over my own learning curve. But that's not possible if you're making something new. For this reason I believe in gauging my own assessments (of engagement, process, and product) right along side those created by students. You and I are gathering data, Lee, but not systematically. People may scoff at that. But it's still 6 blind men describing different parts of the elephant. I resist assessment rubrics that would try to quantify learning before we've discovered the new shapes our pedagogy can make.

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