This year I’m participating in the HASTAC Scholars program organized by Duke University and UC Irvine. It is an online forum for scholars to discuss ideas and share resources related to the intersection of the humanities, arts, sciences and technology. We are organized into working groups and posting on various HASTAC blogs and online forums.
One of the HASTAC groups has created the “Pedagogy Project,” which will be publicized by the #FutureEd folks. They are organizing a collection of blog posts on teaching and the HASTAC Scholars have all been invited to contribute material. So, here’s my contribution!
I try to find way to incorporate student-generated content into my classes whenever possible. The idea is to improve student learning by creating an environment that encourages them to be active learners who see their own lives and interests reflected in class content.
There are a wide variety of ways to approach this, from your standard student-presentations on independent research projects to fully democratized student-led courses on the other. Over the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with techniques in the middle of the spectrum that incorporate student generated content but still give me room to “curate” their ideas.
Different classes require different kinds of models for incorporating student ideas. I’ve listed some of what I’ve been doing below. These are all specific to student-generated classroom content. They do not cover ways to increase student participation in classroom processes such as grading, assignment design, peer-review of papers, or discussion.
CLASSICAL & CONTEMPORARY SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY: Theory courses are challenging. They assign dense, abstract readings that most students struggle to understand. In these courses, I assigned students the task of supplying me with a constant stream of media sources related to the class content. The idea was to 1) give students a formal way to practice applying sociological theory to the world around them by asking them to choose and submit a media item that exemplifies that week’s theories, and 2) to help me generate interesting, relevant classroom content that speaks to their age group.
Students sign up to submit a media piece once during the quarter. For pedagogical purposes it would be great to have them do it more often, but to keep my grading manageable I limited it to one piece per student. This means that when I sit down to put together my lesson plans at the beginning of the week, I have 5-8 one page papers that I can skim for ideas. Each mini-paper presents a media item, describes the strengths and weaknesses of using that week’s key theory to analyze it, and suggests how to use the media item in class. This has resulted in classes in which we use The Simpsons to help students understand Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation or alienation; news coverage of a police surveillance tower at an Occupy rally to understand Foucault’s idea of the panopticon; and YouTube “haul videos” to understand Herbert Marcuse’s critique of consumer society.
When we analyze the media items, I push students not only to think about what aspects of the piece fit the theory in question, but also to think about the ways the theory does not fit the media piece. This helps the students learn to assess the limits and potential weaknesses of each theory, which is usually challenging for them.
WOMEN & WORK: I have two small extra-credit assignments designed to help me incorporate student-generated content in this class. Students can sign up to submit a song and/or a news item with a one page mini-paper that describes how it relates to the key concepts in that week’s readings. When I am putting together my lesson plans at the beginning of the week, I read that week’s mini-papers and select one song and one news item to share at the beginning of each class. The song plays as students are coming in to class and getting settled, while the news items are shared after class has begun.
Playing songs as students are coming in has a number of benefits. First, it makes it easier to start class on time with little disruption from late or chatty students. Students arrive earlier than usual so as not to miss the song, and when it ends they are quiet and ready to start class. Second, it gives us a fun way to expand the reach of our reading beyond the classroom and out into the pop culture in which they are immersed in day-to-day life. Third, having them help choose the songs means that the songs are much more current than they would be if I picked them all myself. For example, we’ve screened the 2005 song suggested by a student for our day on sex work I’m ‘n Luv (Wit a Stripper), as well as my own contribution from 1971, Gonna Be an Engineer. After the song finishes, the person who proposed using it says a few words about why s/he chose it. Then, we might have a brief class discussion about the song and/or refer back to it for more analysis later in the class.
In all of these assignments, I make the final decisions about what student ideas to share with the rest of the class. This helps me do quality control to ensure that the only media pieces, songs or news items shared with the entire class are a close fit for that week’s content and will aid, not hinder, student understanding. When some of the unchosen items are a also a good fit for the class content, I often briefly reference them at the beginning of the class without making them a focal point of the class session. This gives the students a sense of how widely the theories in question can be applied, and helps bring our readings alive.