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Produce Thinkers, Not Docile Workers

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It serves me right.

In my last column, I wrote about our troubled educational era: shrinking budgets, adjunctification, threats to tenure, corporate logic everywhere. I sought to remind faculty of our abiding power to shape the university: Even if the political battles can sometimes seem hopelessly difficult, the classroom — our domain — still exists as a space where we can bring our educational ideals into being.

Of course, no sooner did I write that column than the University of Iowa, where I’ve just finished my second week of teaching, hired J. Bruce Harreld, a former IBM and Kraft Foods executive with no academic leadership experience, to be president of the university. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. It’s the Iowa Board of Regents — the nine-member supervisory body appointed by the state’s governor — that hired Harreld. The university just has to take him.

I admit, it’s a lot more difficult to be happy with the power to shape the classroom environment when the man signing your checks was appointed even though 98 percent of the university’s faculty found him unqualified. But it was never my point that we should be content to be masters of our little domain while institutions crumble around us. Rather, I want to explore how we can use our power as teachers to help make our institutions more open, more egalitarian, and more focused on real learning. As Cathy Davidson recently counseled in a blog post at HASTAC, “rather than feeling overwhelmed and oppressed by the unfairness of the world, be an activist in the realm where you have control.”

Davidson, a professor and scholar of technology and pedagogy at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, has been writing a series of posts on the ins and outs of creating a more democratic and student-centered classroom. She argues that the classroom is “one of the least egalitarian spaces on the planet” but that there are changes that we can make — on our own, right now — that can help our institutions become more just for students and instructors alike. Her writing is worth reading in full, but I thought I’d highlight her work in this space, if only to cheer myself up. Reading Davidson makes me believe that the classroom has radical potential, that it can be a real force for institutional change.

Broadly, Davidson offers suggestions on how to move our courses away from what she calls “credential-centered learning” toward student-centered learning. She wants us to do away with a model of education in which students are evaluated by how well they meet the professor-dictated criteria. Instead, we need to make student learning the goal of everything we do. The best way to do that, Davidson argues, is by helping students understand why they should be learning what you want them to be learning, and having them take the lead in achieving their learning goals.

Davidson asks us to think about the elements of our courses that we absolutely have to control: Does your department require you to assign a certain textbook? Will the course be a failure if it doesn’t cover certain topics? Is the course a prerequisite for other classes, and thus needs to leave students with particular skills? Work hard to come up with the bare minimum of what you need to dictate to the students.

On everything else, she writes, let the students decide. The more control you relinquish — in selecting readings, organizing the calendar, designing assignments — the more the students will see the course as theirs, and will commit in a way that makes deep learning much more likely.

Also important is bringing the course into the public sphere. Davidson has her students work on collaborative projects that are eventually published for the world to see. That simple change in audience — from the professor to the general public — makes a huge difference in how students see their classwork, Davidson argues. “When students need to stand by their work in a public way, it reinforces that the work is about them — not about pleasing you, doing what you want.” Students have to think deeply about what they want to put out in the world with their name attached. Instead of teaching compliance and discipline, this approach teaches creativity, ingenuity, and self-reliance.

Most of all, Davidson’s work suggests, we should look for ways to empower our students. An essential outcome of the student-centered classroom is that students believe in themselves and their own abilities. The powerlessness we feel in the face of all the forces arrayed against us is felt by our students, too. I know you’ve seen it: Most of our students know how hard it is going to be for them to live the lives they want to live in this era of economic inequality. By making the classroom a space where students can wield power, we offer training in self-confidence, self-respect, and respect for others.

The whole logic of neo-liberal education — that it is only useful if it leads to a degree which leads to a “good” job — is undermined when we help students figure out how to learn in a way that is personally meaningful to them. If we can inspire them to pursue knowledge because they want to, we lay the groundwork for lives spent in pursuit of yet more knowledge, more responsibility, more meaningful experience. Every student who comes out of our classrooms better equipped to live a life of curiosity, generosity, independent thinking, and self-respect is a thorn in the side of those attempting to turn our institutions into factories that produce new generations of docile workers.

Is this enough to counter the many disturbing trends in higher education?

Not by a long shot. So make the necessary changes in your classroom, take steps to improve your institution from the inside, and then, after class, get back to the front lines.

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