October 26, 2005

Let the (Grad) Students Take Some of the Teaching Load

I just came upon this post on teaching strategies for a graduate seminar by Anbruch:

This being my third and most successful graduate seminar, I thought I'd write out some of the things that have worked for me this time around.
Frontload the reading. Students can absorb a heavy reading load early in the semester. Being fresh, they are also more enthusiastic about the readings so discussion goes better.
Have the students do the work for you. Well, not in so many words: you set the readings and the agenda, but you assign various student groups to lead the discussion each week. The way I've worked it this semester is like this: the group meets with me for about 30 minutes a week before they lead discussion. I give them talking points, the issues they should bring to the table, and how they might think about organizing the class. But the class itself is more or less theirs. I try to stay out of the way as much as possible, intervening only to get things back on track if things move too far off course.
If you have any inkling of the students in the class, assign your most capable students to lead the initial discussions. The idea is to have those students set the expectations for the other students.
Those are the basics. And there is nothing particularly novel about it. But I've added a few twists this semester and I'll report on how these work out come December.
We're reading intensely for roughly half the semester (seven weeks). Then the seminar will go on hiatus for a month so students can work on their seminar papers. While I think the idea of a hiatus is a good one, and I've thought about it for previous seminars, I've never felt I could risk it. But this semester, my conference schedule required it, so here we are. And so far I'm liking it a lot.
During the third week of the hiatus, I will meet with each student individually for roughly 30 minutes. This meeting has two functions. First, to ensure that the student has been making adequate progress on the paper during the hiatus. Second, to ensure that the student hasn't veered dangerously off-course.
When we reconvene, we will have seminar presentations. Again there's nothing particularly novel about this, but I've structured the seminar presentations as a sort of conference extended across three weeks. Once again, I will place the most capable students first, both because they are likely to be the ones who can pull a paper together most quickly, but also because they will set the tone for the papers to follow.
Finally, I will have the students produce article-length seminar papers.
The point to the seminar is therefore not simply to help the students master a certain body of scholarship, but also to introduce them to writing in the genres that dominate the discipline. In the case of my discipline, this entails delivering written conference papers of a certain length and writing articles. If nothing else, it should prove a good exercise.

There is a lot of appeal in this technique -- obviously not taking it all on yourself is paramount. I remember the grad students running a lot of the classes in this manner when I was in grad school.

I also like the hiatus idea -- breathing room for all. But combining it with the individual meetings is a fantastic addition.

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