Students designing classes, you say?

Last semester, inspired by Caleb McDaniel and Tim Burke‘s student-designed courses, I let students design the content of my Death in the Digital Age course.  Then I wrote a post about it for EdSurge. Here, a few months later, is the text of that post.

Last semester, I ceded control of class to my students. I didn’t just give them room to speak. I asked them to design the syllabus, the assignments and even the grading rubrics.

As the semester progressed, these students gained experience forging connections among different interdisciplinary fields. By selecting the topics that the class would explore, they built confidence in their own expertise and embraced the uncertainty of using new digital tools to communicate their work.

Why Give Students the Reins?

“But!”—my colleagues asked—“Didn’t the students hate the deconstruction of faculty expertise? How could they be trusted to do rigorous work if they were designing assignments? Wouldn’t they just do the minimum required?”

The class I was teaching, Death in the Digital Age, was totally new for me. It was prompted by my own research questions about the relationships between death, data and ghosts, and a desire to read deeply beyond my own expertise. To explore these big and often complex questions, the class would have to encompass recent developments in science and technology studies, medical humanities, biology, sociology and anthropology, as well as my own fields of digital studies and history. The students enrolled in the class came with interests as diverse as these fields, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to anticipate all (or even most) of the intersections between the themes of the class and students’ own fields of study.

I also wanted to see what kind of digital historical projects students would produce when prompted to bring together disparate data points about an individual as a kind of “resurrection.” In order for these projects to work, this class would have to surmount a pedagogical problem common to digital humanities courses: Digital projects feel scary in ways that traditional papers do not. Many students know how to write papers. They are, understandably, much less comfortable with digital assignments (e.g., digital archives, interactive exhibits or games-as-scholarship), new tools (e.g., Omeka, Twine or d3.js) and new forms (e.g., hacks, glitches or directed play).

I wanted the class structure to help students manage their (productive) discomfort with new tools, while also introducing them to the new (and possibly discomforting) field of death in the digital age. I faced the prospect of discomfort building upon discomfort, with no productivity in sight. Taking my cue from Rice Associate Professor Caleb McDaniel’s work on student-driven classrooms, I decided guard against the possibility that this class would leave students feeling unmoored by giving them control over the conceptual boundaries of the course.

I broke the class into three parts: (1) Building the course, (2) Theorizing digital death and (3) Digital resurrection. The bulk of the first few weeks was devoted to thinking about how to build digital humanist communities, design digital assignments, and support (without co-opting) student agency. I asked students to list topics they wanted to see covered in the course. As a class we then discussed, and decided on, the themes we wanted to pursue together. Some, such as the advent of digital memorials to the dead, were ones that I had expected. Others, such as the phenomenon of digital memorials for fictional characters, were ones I had not. I asked students to bring in expertise from their own majors and classes, and I provided expertise in the form of finding readings that fit the topics suggested.

Having students shape the content of the course worked well, but I wanted to go farther—I also wanted them to feel like they had agency in terms of their intellectual output. So I asked them to look at digital projects that they liked, and to come up with a set of best practices for digital scholarship. These collaborative best practices became the beginnings of their midterm assignment.

As a group, the class decided that the best digital work was relevant to contemporary politics, publicly oriented and collaborative. I suggested various tools they might use to build such a project, but they ultimately settled on Tumblr, which fell within their digital vernacular but was outside of mine. The resulting assignment collected and contextualized artifacts of digital death, and brought them together in conversation with one another. (For instance, the students drew inspiration from the Queering Slavery Working Group project, which uses Tumblr to aggregate “histories of intimacy, sex and sexuality during the period of Atlantic slavery.”)

The semester progressed. The students seemed to get comfortable with the idea of a course that they were complicit in. Their final was a fairly broad prompt: Digitally resurrect someone from Davidson’s past. Before starting the students had to construct two documents. The first was an assignment for themselves, written from the perspective of the professor. Then they developed a grading rubric, “hacked” from a rubric I use to grade student papers. Each assignment and rubric was different. Students would be assessed according to the individual standards they set.

Positive Results

Some students were initially uncomfortable with the idea of a professor abdicating responsibility, but the class did not implode and students did not rebel. In the end, they liked that the course we all participated in was unique—it will never be taught in just this way, with just these readings, topics and assignments ever again. This uniqueness made the students feel as if we were all working toward some intellectual end together, rather than feeling like they were working toward some unknowable standard I was setting.

In contrast to other digital studies classes, there also seemed to be less resistance to learning new tools and technologies. In part, I think, this was because the students felt free to choose tools that suited their projects, rather than being expected to master a tool that they would never use again.

One student used Instagram to recreate the movements of a former Davidson employee through the space of the town and college in order to argue that people who have worked for institutions should be remembered for more than their service. Another student used Timeline JS to recreate the final days of Fred Martin Hobbs, a student at the college who died trying to save a classmate from drowning. In both cases, students felt empowered to select the stories they wanted to tell. Rather than feeling compelled to demonstrate proficiency in a particular tool, and finding a narrative that was easy to convey, students mindfully chose tools that helped them to tell particular stories.

Would I Cede Control Again?

Yes. However, this is not a model that works for all (or even most) classes. The combination of a relatively unknown topic, with a relatively underdeveloped literature, and a lot of new technologies worked to create circumstances that seemed to require teaching in a way that made students feel more secure about their control of and place in the class. Student control of the classroom might not work so well for classes in more established fields, and certainly would be less effective in classes with more familiar assignments.

The whole class was not smooth sailing—at times students and I disagreed about the direction the class would take, and clashed over differing opinions about the right tool for a particular narrative job. Despite these moments of friction, I found that the work that students created felt more thoughtful than that submitted in other digital studies classes I’ve taught. Students were able to articulate why different digital methods afforded the telling of stories in particular ways, and developed critical perspectives on the study of death in the digital age. The benefits far outweighed the frustrations (for me at least) and structuring a class with student agency at the core is certainly an experiment I’ll try again.

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