Whose education is it?

As has often been the case when I’ve dived into my digital archives for purposes of this blog, I’d forgotten almost everything about the paper below (presented at the 2012 “Crossroads in Cultural Studies” conference in Paris). If you’d asked me 24 hours ago, I suspect the only thing I would have remembered about it at all was how guilty I felt because (as is often the case) I finished writing it at the last minute and (this, rather than the late finish, is the part I felt guilty about) as a result I had not sent a copy in advance to the respondent for the panel. And since said respondent was Meaghan Morris, the guilt was extra strong.

Whose Education Is It?: Experiments in Classroom Democracy

What I want to do today is to tell you a story. It is, I think, the kind of story that cultural studies doesn’t tell as often as it should. For one thing, it’s a story about pedagogy. Not pedagogical theory or large-scale abstractions about educational systems, but pedagogy and the “nuts and bolts” level of syllabi, classroom exercises, and the day-to-day practices of teaching at the university level. For another things, it’s a story about failure. Not the failures of the state or institutions or the proverbial “other side,” but my own failures. This is not a triumphalist story of “truth with a capital T” winning the day, nor is it a more classic cultural studies story of morally righteous struggle that fails to bring justice and utopia to the world, yet perseveres anyway. No, this is a story of a classroom experiment of my own that failed. Not once. Not twice. But on seven separate occasions. As I suspect many of us often tell our students, failure can be a valuable, instructive experience in its own right. Hopefully, the story of my failure can help us learn something worthwhile about the “nuts and bolts” practices of critical pedagogy, and about the educational systems in which so many of us work.

Before I get to the story proper, though, I need to make two caveats. First, I work and teach in the US, and some — maybe even most — of the story I want to tell is inevitably shaped by the peculiarities of US educational systems. I suspect that at least some of my story will resonate with pedagogical circumstances elsewhere around the globe, but I’d be remiss — especially at Crossroads — not to acknowledge the parochial nature of some of my concerns. Second, it’s also possible that, even within the limited confines of the US, my failed experiment may say more about my own shortcomings as a teacher than it does about critical pedagogy or the US educational system more broadly. Again, I think there are potential resonances here for other people and other classrooms, but I could be wrong about that.

This is the story of something that I call “the hackable syllabus”: an experiment in critical pedagogy that arose out of a graduate seminar on Critical Pedagogy that I taught in the summer of 2003. One of the recurring themes of that seminar — and one of the major tenets of critical pedagogy as a school of thought — is that students should have a significant measure of control over their own education. Ideally, this means more than just allowing students to offer their own interpretations of the course material, and more than just giving them the freedom to speak up (and speak back) in the classroom: it also means giving them the right and the ability to exert control over both the conditions and the content of their education. In particular, it means giving them control over the syllabus. As the seminar in question progressed, I realized that, despite the participatory openness that had long characterized my teaching, I had never been as true to this underlying philosophy of ceding control to my students as I might have been. And so I undertook an experiment to try and fix that oversight, by giving undergraduate students in a handful of my courses the power to transform almost any and every aspect of the syllabus that they cared to.

This is not as simple a concept to put into practice as it may sound. I realized early on that, paradoxically, creating a syllabus that my students could control required me to ADD rules to my existing syllabus — lots of them — rather than simply taking rules away, since I needed to provide them with a functional mechanism by which they could effectively change the syllabus. Similarly, I needed to give my students at least a semi-functional syllabus — one filled with readings and assignments — from which to begin their transformative efforts. Put simply, given the constraints of the standard US semester — a mere 48 classroom hours stretched out over a 4-month period — I knew that there was simply not enough time for even the most brilliant and motivated group of students to build an entire syllabus of their own from scratch and then go on to complete the course created by that syllabus. This recognition should have been my first clue that my experiment would ultimately fail, as I was asking my students to accomplish an enormous task for which they were poorly prepared. Still, I pressed forward.

There isn’t enough time today for me to describe the hackable syllabus in full. Briefly, though, it contains four kinds of rules: Permanent, Major, Minor, and Evil. As the name suggests, Permanent rules are ones that students are not allowed to change at all. In the spirit of the experiment, I always keep these to a bare minimum, and they are all about fundamental definitions of roles (e.g., who counts as a student, who counts as an instructor) and acknowledging the higher authority of the larger institution (e.g., none of us have the power to violate or override university rules). Everything else about the course, however, is potentially up for grabs. Everything. Students are free to change the reading list, the assignments, the attendance policy, deadlines, and so on, all of which fall under the heading of Major rules, and all of which can be amended, deleted, and/or created by a supermajority (i.e., two-thirds) vote. Meanwhile, Minor rules cover the mechanisms by which rule changes can be proposed and enacted — a democratic process involving public proposals, open debate, and formal voting — and can be amended, deleted, and/or created by a simple majority vote. Lastly, there are Evil rules — which are not labeled as such, but are scattered randomly throughout the Major and Minor rules . . . and, as the name I’m giving them here suggests, these are deliberately cruel, unjust, and outrageous requirements: rules that students presumably want to dispose of entirely. One example: after a given date in the semester, students are required to locate, purchase, and bring to every class meeting a yoga mat of impossible proportions (minimum length, 3.7m) and in official school colors, or else face grade penalties for every infraction. The purpose of the Evil rules — and I always announce this quite explicitly — is to force students to actively take on the task of combing through and revising the syllabus. Without the Evil rules, after all, there’s a very real risk that students will look at the readings and assignments that I’ve already put in place, and then decide that, in spite of being given the power to change any/all of those things, it’s simply not worth their time or energy to do so.

I’ve now used some version of the hackable syllabus seven different times, across three different courses, and two different institutions. On every one of these occasions, students have struggled mightily to change anything. All but one class had repeated difficulties achieving a quorum (e.g., getting at least half the class to cast votes for rule changes). In two cases, classes failed to vote one of the Evil rules out in a timely fashion and actually had to live up to the consequences of those rules. More crucial for my argument here, none of these classes actually tried to change the “real” rules of the course in anything but the most trivial fashion. One class managed to tweak the attendance policy slightly. Another class successfully shifted a few deadlines around by a week or so. But no one ever made an effort to change the reading lists. Students occasionally asked if they could change the formal assignments (or create new ones) . . . but even when I assured them that they could do so (and that I would be delighted if they did), they never attempted to do this either.

Let me illustrate the scope of this failure with two specific examples. In one class, the original vision of the syllabus presented a range of possible assignments, but required the class as a whole to decide on the relative weight for each of those assignments in the final course grade. They opted to make pop quizzes worth nearly 30% of their grade. This should have been a very savvy move on their part, insofar as it potentially turned a classic “stick” used to punish students for failing to do the assigned readings into a very big “carrot”: i.e., a major reward for doing some of the most basic work they would need to do anyway. These quizzes should have been easy grade points for any moderately well-prepared student, but they turned out to be an ongoing disaster instead. The majority of the class failed these quizzes, over and over and over again — and failed them badly. To be clear, it wasn’t entirely surprising that my students misjudged their ability to transform these quizzes into giant stacks of easy grade points . . . but they also NEVER made the adjustments necessary to correct for such poor performances. It’s this last bit that points to one of the fatal flaws in my experiment. Though I reminded (even encouraged) them to do so, early and often, my students never even tried to use the power that the hackable syllabus gave them to reduce the relative importance of quizzes to their overall grade. (They also never elected to change their reading habits, but that’s a failure of a different type altogether.) In the end, they were simply unwilling to use the control over the syllabus that they knew they had so that they could fix a problem that was clearly wrecking most of their grades.

My second example doesn’t actually involve the hackable elements of the syllabus directly, but it does come from one of my hackable syllabus classes . . . and it illustrates very nicely what I believe to be one of the major reasons why the hackable syllabus has never lived up to its potential. Towards the end of one spring semester, I’d given my students a set of readings (Bakhtin, Kipnis) that extolled the potential political value to be found in the temporary inversion of normal power relations. And, in the spirit of these readings, after we took care of the usual start-of-class housekeeping, I told them that we would try to put the ideas that we had read about into practice . . . and that what happened with the rest of the hour was completely up to them. Then I sat down in a corner to watch.

There was a lengthy silence. Some baffled looks. One or two wry smiles. Somebody suggested that they should all just leave . . . but no one actually followed through on that suggestion. Eventually, after 3-4 minutes of awkward collective fumbling about what to do, one of my students got up, went to the front of the room, and started to lead a discussion about the assigned readings for that day. Viewed in one light, this wasn’t a failure at all. My students generated a perfectly respectable discussion that was roughly on a par with what would have happened with me at the front of the room. On the other hand, however, it was an absolute failure of a class session, insofar as my students had been given the opportunity to do whatever they wanted with the hour . . . and they chose to do exactly what I would normally have asked them to do anyway.

If I wanted to, I could temper my framing of these classes as failures in a variety of ways. I could note that, while my students never managed to seize control of the syllabus in the ways I’d hoped they would, most of them nonetheless got something valuable out of the course material. I could take some small solace in the fact that every hackable syllabus course I’ve taught had at least one student in it who genuinely wanted to transform the syllabus radically, but who felt frustrated with the overall group’s struggles to master much more fundamental changes and, as such, never thought it worthwhile to try introducing new readings or new assignments. I could claim some small personal victory in the fact that the hackable syllabus makes it even easier than usual for me to deflect complaints about the course structure. Or I could speculate optimistically that the sort of collective responsibility that I hoped to instill in my students might still manifest itself in a time-delayed fashion weeks, or even years, after the formal course had actually ended.

But, in the end, none of these rationalizations do more than paper over the larger structural issues at stake here. And, in all honesty, those rationalizations (and others like them) probably kept me from radically rethinking the hackable syllabus experiment long before it had flopped for the seventh time. After all, at some basic level, I knew all along that the most practical difficulty I would face in any of my hackable syllabus classes is that I was asking my students to go sharply against the grain of virtually everything that they’ve previously been taught about how their educations should work. They’ve been taught for twenty years or so that success in the classroom is largely a matter of sitting down, shutting up, and doing what they’re told. Memorize these facts and regurgitate them on an exam. Figure out what your instructors want to hear and then tell it to them. Never, ever, ever use the first person singular in your writing. And so on. Expecting them to overcome two decades of such training and to spontaneously see themselves as the primary agents of their own education is simply expecting too much.

Now if this were that classic cultural studies story I promised not to tell — the one where I offer up some sort of noble vision of the undaunted Gramscian whose optimism of the will allows them to keep struggling for a more just world against apparently insurmountable odds — this is where I would conclude with some comments on how I’ve tried to reimagine my hackable syllabus from the ground up so as to force students to take on more responsibility for creating the reading lists and assignments, and how I hope that this new hackable syllabus (version 2.0?) will finally succeed where all the previous versions failed. I could tell that story. Especially since, in many ways, it’s true.

The problem with such an easy closure, however, is that it mirrors the very sort of easy closure that I think many of us look for all the time: in our writing, in our teaching, in our political struggles. We want the happy ending that allows us to move on with a smile . . . but, of course, happy endings don’t ever really happen. To be clear, I don’t say that simply to remind us about the pessimism of the intellect. I’m a firm believer in happiness, after all. It’s endings that I have a problem with. A course ends and, unrealistically, we want our students to walk away as wholly transformed self-actualized people, even though we’ve barely had time to learn their names. A paper ends and, unrealistically, we want all the questions it may have posed to be resolved clearly and neatly. If there’s anything that I feel like I’ve learned — or at least that I’m still trying to learn — from the failure of my hackable syllabi, it’s how to free myself from those expectations of too-neat, too-easy closure.

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