By Shiladitya Sen
Over the last few years, I have been experimenting with involving students in the decisions that I make about various elements of my courses. It was, for me, a natural progression from the fact that my class discussions are always heavily mediated by the ideas and interests that students bring to the table. Thus far, my experiences indicate that involving students significantly increases their engagement in the course, conveys the fact that the classroom is a shared space where they have a responsibility to contribute, and makes students much more understanding—and appreciative—of the ways in which the course is designed to cater to their needs while holding them to the required academic standards. Here are a few ways that I have done so, across multiple courses.
My most substantial use of student input in syllabus/reading decisions was in the two World Literature courses that I taught in the English department in the Spring and Fall of 2015. I was certain that I was not going to teach any texts written in the USA or the UK, and that all our readings would be non-English texts, but beyond that I had a gigantic list of possibilities. So, I decided to get the students involved in the decision. After initial introductions and having explained the parameters for the course, I gave students a list of texts broken into six groups (e.g. The Ancient/Classical World; Medieval Europe; Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century). I then had them each pick one text from each group, write the list on a sheet of paper, and give it to me. To facilitate the decisions, I shared a little about the texts and had them look up information online before choosing. Once I had their choices, I simply chose the six texts that got the most votes, added a seventh to round out the list, and we had our readings for the semester.
Since I was asking for input on readings, I decided to run with it and asked students to provide their input on issues such as the weightage assigned to the essays for the course (two shorter ones and a longer end-of-semester paper), how to handle presentations, whether they wanted the option to do informal responses, the weightage of the participation grade, etc. Students responded very energetically, discussing the benefits and negatives of the various options in detail before coming up with their choices. Again, I went with the student decisions, adding minor tweaks as needed to aid the functioning of the course.
Unsurprisingly, allowing students to provide such input did not, in any way, harm the quality and rigor of the course. Instead, it simply gave them a say in the material that they would read, and set the parameter for the sort of collaborative, engaged work that we did all semester. The fact that it also allowed me to go, at times, “Hey – you lot chose this reading! If you don’t like it, blame your buddies!”, was a minor, if amusing, bonus. Pointing out, as we moved through the semester, how they had made intelligent decision with picking texts that flowed well into each other and allowed us to develop strong thematic analyses, probably helped them not bemoan their choices too much.
While I have not involved students in syllabi decisions to the same degree in our First-Year Writing courses, I do still draw on their interests and opinions where possible. In the first week of 106, I ask students to suggest poems, short stories and plays that they are interested in reading (or, for that matter, absolutely hate) and promise to work in any that I can. Usually only one or two of our texts come from their suggestions, but even that is enough to convey to students that their opinions matter to the course. In 105 this semester, since I have focused our course on American Myths, I asked students to list five things each which they associate with the USA, and as we move through the semester, I have connected our readings and discussions to the points that they brought up. I also asked students, on a couple of occasions, to send me articles or videos that connected to the subject that we were discussing the next week, and then used their submissions during our class discussions.
I also solicit student input on issues to do with scheduling. For example, since I allow unlimited rewrites in my 105 and 106 courses, I always discuss with students how long they should have for rewrites, up to what point in the semester I will accept rewrites, and at which point I will accept rewrites for grading but no longer provide feedback on them. With the essays, I ask them how long they need for drafts and how that best dovetails with the rewrite options. While most of the decisions are my own, asking students for opinions and catering to them as possible substantially improves student attitudes, since they not only feel that their input matters but also realize the reasons behind the course scheduling. For example, I virtually never get a complaint about how long essays take to be returned or how much time they have available to work on a draft—because students realize how the timings are designed to facilitate their best work while providing me the time I need to provide detailed feedback and support.
In keeping with the above, I regularly make use of student input in class discussions. Not only are the plans for each day designed to facilitate student engagement, but I will sometimes heavily revise my plans on the fly if students provide input that can be profitably used. For example, only last week, the class discussion in my 105 courses was focused on effective revision and argumentation in the final essay, which students are now revising for the portfolio. I was engaged in placing emphasis on how students should draw out the connections between their individual area of focus and relevant issues around it that we have discussed all semester. Fifteen minutes into the class, one of my students (who was evidently checking an email on his phone) interrupted to ask, “Wait – there is really a sex toy bingo happening in the student center today?” Multiple students laughed or looked confused or responded to the comment. I promptly took his comment—and their responses—as a starting point and deviated to a discussion of why he was surprised and why they responded as they did. Students responded animatedly and, over the next forty-five or so minutes, we embarked on a sustained discussion that tied together issues of power, gender, advertising, the male gaze, pornography, social norms, conceptions of shame/decency, sex education, body image—and, of course, sex toys. By the end of the class, we had modeled how students can take a specific, narrow topic and connect it to larger cultural issues, and multiple students told me—after class and via email later—that they had got new ideas for additions to make to their papers during revision. Some told me that it was the best discussion we had all semester—and all because I threw out my plans for the day and ran with what students gave me.
In short, I find that soliciting and utilizing student input in most areas of the class, including areas that are traditionally considered solely the purview of the instructor, is extremely effective pedagogically. Now I just have to be prepared for whatever they throw at me in class tomorrow!