Chuck Tryon is not alone in feeling that a wide gulf sometimes separates him from his students. Many undergrads at Fayetteville State University, a historically black college, are first generation, former military, or working adults. That wasn't his experience in college. And graduate school, he says, frequently fails to prepare future instructors to teach in diverse classrooms.
So when his English department decided to revamp a required composition course to help students learn the type of writing that could help them on the job, he created an unusual assignment, one he hoped would also open a window on how his students view their educational experience.
He asked students to write a proposal to modify either his course or the "educational mission" of Fayetteville State. Their ideas have been enlightening, he says, and have fostered conversations around such topics as putting students in charge of some classroom lectures, mental health, and financial literacy.
"The project has humanized my students in a way that's been really powerful for me," says Tryon, a professor. "I've been able to recognize how their reactions to their classes have been shaped by their experiences, their challenges, their goals."
The project helped him realize that he needed to break down the process of college writing, since for some, this is the first exposure to higher education in their family. His class, which follows an introductory course, is more rigorous than the one they've already taken, because it places more emphasis on research and argumentation.
That means explaining the benefits of revision; distinguishing between plagiarism and citation; and discussing the professional benefits of a well-written, well-researched argument. "It's grounded in the humanities," he says of his coursework. "But it's helping them fit into the format of workplace requirements."
As for the students' proposals, he says, they're illuminating. For one, his students have noticed his tendency to get a bit lazy as the semester progresses, when he may run out of classroom activities and revert to lecturing. He finds it intriguing that some have suggested asking students to present course materials, instead of the professor, and that they want to take a more active role in class.
His students have also been frank about the difficulties they face in adjusting to college, which has led to vibrant classroom conversations when they present their proposals. A student who suggested adding more explicit discussion in a freshman seminar about the transition to college, he says, was honest about her anxieties, leading other students to talk about their own challenges. And a number of his students have proposed adding a financial-literacy course. That has led to discussions about student-loan debt and having to work several jobs to get through college.
One proposal led to real change. A commuter student pointed out that current campus tutoring services favor residential students. And since students can earn extra credit by seeking out supplemental instruction, that creates an inequity.
The student suggested the college create supplemental materials to put on its content-management system so that it could be accessed remotely. She was also a freshman representative on the student academic council, where she pitched the idea in December, he says. She reported back to the class that the college plans to carry out her idea in the spring.
"The real benefit, to me," Tryon says, "is that they can see that when they write effectively and make arguments, they can effect change."
Tryon points out several aspects of the assignment that he thinks make it work. First, it's the last writing assignment of the semester. Students are able to be more direct, he says, "once I've earned their trust."
Second, he walks a fine line between encouraging their imagination and being realistic. So, for example, he tells them to avoid proposals that have to do with parking and food — which are not academic and unlikely to be easily solved. And he explains that other constraints, like state regulations and accreditation policies, may limit what can be changed, like class-attendance policies, for example. He also prompts them to do their own research on the issues, by reviewing the university catalog or syllabi from other classes.
Students don't always get a chance to engage in this kind of reflective learning, which can be effective, according to the most recent
National Survey of Student Engagement
. Roughly half of freshmen and 60 percent of seniors said they had "often" or "very often" connected their learning to societal issues, like their education.
– by Beth McMurtrie, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education