Most college classes start with a syllabus drawn up by the professor with a set structure that primarily reflects the set knowledge expected by the discipline. This is the norm–the taken-for-granted way a college course is run. We are to read the canonical texts, and learn the arcane analytical techniques, and thus gain access to the specialized knowledge that only our particular discipline has mastered. It is a form of education and an epistemology with a long and sordid history–the idea that a select few know a highly specialized and powerful form of knowledge, and are then entrusted to pass this along to a select few who will then go on to get access to the privilege and power that comes with that knowledge (and from the connections made through your education with other powerful people).
But we need not accept that as the best way to teach. After all, each class is different. Each group of students has their own particular interests, skills, challenges, history, and group dynamics. And each year, we are faced with new challenges and issues in need of our attention. The question then becomes: do we set up our classes to reflect the traditional power structures and entrenched ways of teaching? or do we set up the class together, in (what do they call it again?) a democratic way? Is that a better way to teach?
The primary purpose of teaching about politics, I would argue, is to critique existing power structures and empower ourselves to create own own social and political realities. At each point in history there is a given order and structure that works to the benefit of some to the detriment of others. It is our work to make ourselves aware of the fact that the world as it is presented to us does not necessarily have to be the way it is. It has not always been this way, it can be different, and in fact it will be different, and we can always do better at counteracting the workings and abuses of power. But setting up a class with a hierarchical power structure (the syllabus as constitutional), does not help. Rather it reflects the way power has been institutionalized within higher education.
This semester in the “Political Methodology and Statistics” class, we’re trying something a little different. We are starting the class with an open structure that allows students to craft a curriculum that hopefully fits best with their particular learning style, goals, and areas of interest. I’ve found in the past that some students take to statistical analysis quite easily, while others clearly struggle with that particular way of understanding the world. Some work better visually, some with words, some with numbers. We will all have to grapple a bit with numbers and quantitative analysis in the class (which is vitally important in a world in which these numbers have become increasingly important). But some will be able to gain this basic competency and statistical literacy, and then work on the skills they are better suited to.
We each have our own skills and aptitudes, and each see the world in a particular way. Education, to a large degree, is about establishing some common standards and expectations of conformity. We establish basic requirements for competence in language, math, public speaking, and so on. But education is not about “producing” something, in the same way that businesses produce commodities. What we are doing here is working with human beings, inspiring them and being inspired by them, learning together, finding our way through the world. And changing that world in the process. So we need to find that balance between providing the skills needed for anyone to be a fully engaged member of society, while at the same time giving students room to create the educational experience that is most useful and meaningful to them.
This makes for a bit of a mess in the classroom. A set order and clear expectations are nice. You don’t have to think about them–just do them. Many students want to know what is expected of them, so they can just do the work, pass the class or get the “A” and go on to get that good-paying job. So having unclear expectations, or having expectations that the students themselves help establish can be unnerving. But civic education involves citizens who have their own values, and whose work is to create the world in which they live. So civic education needs to be structured accordingly.
In this class, students are having to keep a set of notes and reflections on what they are learning in the class, either in the form of a notebook or a blog. These are part of writing their own textbooks in a way. They have choices to make about what kinds of topics they want to research, how they are going to do their research, what kinds of methodologies they will use. There are different tracks in the class they can choose from (either the statistics track or civic arts track). The goal and set of limitations I have set up for the course is that we learn as much as possible and leave better prepared to play our roles as citizens and effective problem-solvers. How we all get there is up to all of us.
We’ll report back at the end of the term on how we’ve done.