Friday, May 10, 2013

Ceding Control

Once when I was in graduate school, a very self-assured faculty member argued that all of the instructor’s work for a course took place before the term started. If the instructor designed the syllabus correctly, then all he had to do once the class started was to sit in the back of the room and let the students have at the material.

I have never been so relaxed as to abdicate control of my classroom once the semester started, but I took seriously the charge that a substantial portion of teaching occurs before the students show up. I write very long syllabi that tell me and the students what we will be doing on any given day of the semester. This approach dovetails well with two aspects of my temperament that shape my work habits. First, I have a tendency to be a control freak. Second, inspired by this most brilliant comic strip sequence ever written, I like to set up future Amanda to thank past Amanda for being so thorough in her preparations. Given the franticness that characterizes most semesters, it is really helpful to have left a really thorough breadcrumb trail for me to pick up rather than have to think up what happens next on the spot.

Two decades down the road, though, I wonder if I should have taken that faculty member’s pronouncements so seriously. (Perhaps another clue was that he was shortly after denied tenure, and his final proposed course effectively flipped the bird at his colleagues. The posted description of the course on the history of serial killers advised students that they should be prepared to travel to prisons and conduct lengthy interviews with convicted criminals. Even if that wasn’t going to scare away all prospective students and leave him without teaching responsibilities for the quarter, there was no way that a dozen students could have gotten access to such prisoners in the space of ten weeks.)

I am in the midst of reading T. Mills Kelly’s inspiring and stimulating Teaching History in the Digital Age. My head is swimming with all the ways I want to use this book to structure next spring’s graduate seminar in digital history, but it also is such a powerful reminder that I am effectively a novice in this area. Not only is there a lot I have not thought or read about in the field of digital history, but there is a ton of stuff I do not know how to do. How do I set up a Wiki or an RSS feed? How do I make a group blog? I don’t even know how our university’s digital course software makes for course discussions (although I do know how to upload a document to it for future reference). In order to make the class a success, I have to rely not only on past Amanda, but also on future students, who will bring to the class their expertise, experiences, interests, and skills.

And, I just cannot structure every last minute of the class down to the last minute. In planning the course I must balance providing enough structure and content to make the course work in a coherent and meaningful fashion with providing enough space for all of us to discover together what it is we need to know and then figure it out.

I do know now that there are some things I want to build into the course. Many of them depend on my ability to let someone else’s expertise take over, and they all depend on not programming the course to the last minute.
  • There are some tools and terms that we will need to understand as they come up. I want to build in “Tech Timeouts” where someone who has accumulated some knowledge shares that with the class. I am compiling a list of things that I think are essential, but I am sure others will come up over the semester. I would like to have students sign up for presentations in advance using a Google Docs spreadsheet. It also occurs to me that students should not just present on these tools, but they should also provide their classmates with documentation for future reference. The spreadsheet can help track what form of documentation they left, and where.
  • One student who is planning on taking the course told me that he hopes I “will REQUIRE us to set up individual blogs and Twitter accounts, encouraging much of the course discussion to take place online.” I agree with the sentiment of that idea, but I also the class to discuss which digital platforms are appropriate for which kinds of discussions. Thus I think what I will do is require students to hold some of the course discussion out on the Internet—whether with a blog, a twitter account, a Facebook group, the course D2L site (which I really must learn how to operate), or shared Google docs—and then have some collective reflection on those choices. This will require, however, some central way of letting the collective know where to find that discussion and alerting us to new contributions. At this point, I suspect a shared Google doc class page might be the way to handle this.
  • I would also like to experiment with collective note-taking with a course Google doc page. Why and how do students take notes and how can they best share them with classmates?
  • At this point I am planning a completely open ended final project. I will ask the students to propose an appropriate final project for a graduate seminar in digital history, execute it, and then write a process paper about the choices they made and what they learned. Again, this involves ceding control to the students.
  • Finally (for today), I started wondering how to share the fruits of our learning with the rest of the world, or at least with my department. Should we have a poster session about those final projects and hold an exhibition (or post them on the department’s walls)? Should we create a website that contains the projects? Perhaps I will have to let the class decide.

Which takes me back to where I started. I am nervous about this approach to teaching. Being a person who takes her responsibilities as a teacher seriously, how do I persuade myself that I am executing my own responsibilities if what I am doing is setting up an opportunity to turn everything over to the students?