Teaching and Learning in Public

I’ve just been nominated for a teaching award by my students: it’s lovely to be appreciated.  However, since I finished last semester’s course, I’ve actually been mulling over whether I should change aspects of it and wondering about how best to tweak it for future iterations.  I don’t mean reading lists and seminar topics, which are easy to update and shuffle around. It’s more a question of balance between the assessments and, most significantly, whether to alter their public dimension.  In this course, students blog each week, sharing their insights into the reading and interesting/useful links to other material they’ve found on line.  They also work in teams to create a collaborative online project. Both of these are assessed, and students get feedback in shaping them over the duration of the semester.  I chose to give them free reign, not to edit their writing and to give feedback in private discussions. I wanted them to feel they were contributing to knowledge rather than just consuming it, to think about who might be reading, share with their peers and identify other interested groups online, and play around with formats and style.  I didn’t want to undercut their efforts by critiquing their writing in public comments and forums. On the one hand, I think it was a valuable exercise, encouraging them to take responsibility both for their  learning and their words. I found it gave them confidence and even the most reluctant among them had begun to cultivate a sense of an authorial voice in the process. On the other hand, in practice what it also meant was that they were exposed. Students at this level always make mistakes in their essays: they misread critical material, don’t give accurate citations, write imprecisely, express themselves badly. They are learning. As teachers we expect these mistake and usually we can gently correct them in private. I was asking my students to make these mistakes in public. Was this fair?   The narcissist in me also wondered if it reflected on my teaching: were my miscommunications making their way into their writing? Would people looking at these sites think that their errors were mine?  Could my students learning processes actually damage my reputation as a teacher?

The two alternatives seem to be to either retreat behind a firewall, which surely defeats the purpose, or edit what my students write. While this latter option might make sense in some scenarios, it seems problematic in relation to reflective blogging and adds a whole new level of correction/feedback/work into a curriculum which is already challenging. As I’ve been contemplating, I’ve also come to think that there’s a bigger point here: trust. When I walk into a seminar to meet a group of students for the first time, the main thing on my mind is establishing an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to talk about emerging ideas and half-baked thoughts, to ask questions without worrying if they are silly.  Encouraging my students to write in public is about this same kind of trust, about creating a ‘safe space’ (the sites  indicate the nature of the contributions and the level of the course) in which they can begin to speak out and get involved with public discourse. I’m asking them to trust themselves and to trust that those reading their work will recognize it for what it is and respond in the spirit in which it was posted.  In my experience this kind of trust – a belief in the worth of your own contributions and a belief in the generosity of others – is what makes us feel able to take an active part in society. Fostering it is  important. It’s worth the risk of minor misunderstandings. So next year I’m going to be more explicit in what’s at stake in public writing and I’m going to talk through the process of writing and editing posts more often and more carefully. But I’m not going to do that editing.

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