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Boy, girl, boy, girl | Harmony in the Tropics | Students take over the classroom... | Best books


Students take over the classroom
and learning takes over their lives
by Barbara Melville

This spring an Honors Forum course called “Citizen Studentship” allowed—in fact, insisted—that students choose for themselves what to study and how. The course began as an experiment in alternative pedagogy, but for its participants it turned into the learning experience of a lifetime.

Monday, 10:10 a.m. Eleven students arrive promptly at class. No sign of the professor, Steve Pearlman, but no one notices. Reporting and arguing with startling gusto, students discuss the results of the thirteen-page survey they conducted to document the relationship between drug and alcohol use and academic performance at Skidmore, which they will present in a documentary film at Academic Festival—in less than two weeks. They make a list of footage still to be shot: classes, sports, party scenes, kids saying, “I bust my ass, and other kids party and do just as well,” and kids saying, “I do just enough work to get the grade.”

10:35 a.m. Pearlman enters quietly as Burton Shepherd ’05 is proposing a thesis for the video: “How can students be motivated to really learn?” Administrative crackdowns and tougher grading won’t create motivation, he says, “so we toss it back to the students: It’s their responsibility. We have shots of kids saying the light goes on when they get into their major, and faculty talking about helping students find a joy in learning that they didn’t know existed.”

But before it can be prescreened on Saturday, “we’ll need heavy-duty editing Wednesday and Thursday nights,” says Molly Appel ’05, the elected class leader.
“I can do it from 6 to 8.”
“Put me down for 8 to 10.”

11:07 a.m. They’re so intent that it’s a surprise when Pearlman interrupts them with “We are over time.”

The shared energy, the initiative—it’s exactly what students were looking for when they signed up for this class. Word had trickled out about its predecessor: another Pearlman course called “College Upside Down,” whose 2002 cohort proposed a program of alternative education that called for shared residence and a serial course load of short, intensive courses. “Citizen Studentship” aims to capture the eagerness of incoming students who believe that “going from high school to college will be life-changing,” says Aaron Tester ’06. “We’re ready for that, and if some classes turn out to be just like high school only with more work, we’re disappointed. Just ‘getting by’ saps the power of passion.”

“As long as students rely on a faculty authority figure to direct the course, they won’t take it on for themselves,” explains Pearlman, who has also offered experimental courses like “Subversive Thinking” and “We’re Doing What?” Elizabeth Ingber ’05 recalls, “On the first day, Pearlman came in and said, ‘I’ll be back in a week. Figure it out for yourselves.’” He left a syllabus assigning a “meaningful and collegiate project to be presented at Academic Festival” plus weekly essays and readings ranging from Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael to Noam Chomsky’s “Miseducation.”

“Is there anything wrong with structured learning?” Ingber wondered plaintively after a couple of weeks. “I am experiencing a strange longing for it. My classmates have proven themselves forthcoming and open…but we have accomplished nothing tangible.”

“Everything that seemed easy turned out to have a challenge behind it,” admits Tester. For instance, simply to run their teacherless class, they sampled a gamut of governance styles: strictly egalitarian consensus, appointed leadership, and finally consensus again with Appel elected as facilitator. In trying to choose what to study, Tester says, “we struggled to get just one idea. We tore lots of ideas apart and beat them up from nine different directions. We learned that you can do that with any idea, no matter how good. Finally, we decided the documentary was a good idea with a few holes in it, so let’s work with it.”

They got minimal guidance from Pearlman, whose role was to “throw wrenches and play devil’s advocate until they’re pulling their hair out,” he says with a grin. “They get so emotionally invested in sports and clubs and relationships—why not in school? School should get under their skin and engage them in ways that involve their full humanity.” It did. Even as they argued, floundered, and fumed with frustration, they were bonding emotionally and intellectually, something the students consider a major learning factor. “They couldn’t function at all as a group until they knew each other,” observes Julia Pistell ’05, one of the course’s two teaching assistants and a “College Upside Down” veteran. “Once a good group dynamic was established, they were able to use everyone’s skills to capacity, to function better and faster. And they’re so much more motivated.”

fter two stalled months, they became truly “student-driven”: they shot forty hours of video, learned statistics to analyze their survey results, debated educational philosophy, and tackled the technology of video editing. They met (for uncounted extra hours) outside the classroom, where reticent members grew comfortable enough to speak up more freely. Through hundreds of e-mails, they developed “their own form of pidgin English,” notes Pearlman. “Their messages have become incomprehensible to me.”

The real test of their mission and mettle did not come at Academic Festival, where the group delivered their findings with aplomb and screened their Studious Addictions before a large, and riveted, audience of students, ad­ministrators, and faculty members. No, the real test came the night before, when their computer’s hard drive crashed, taking the entire documentary down with it—and nobody panicked. In fact, Ian Williamson ’06 told the audience, “When we thought last night that we might have nothing to present today, I realized, ‘I don’t care.’” This class was all about process, not product: “Over the past semester, we learned how to think, to interpret, to find resources and use them, and to work together on many different levels.” Shepherd marveled, “I worked my ass off on this project and I didn’t care what grade I got!” (For the record, their grades—all self-assigned—ranged from several C-pluses to a couple of B-pluses.)

The “Studentship” and “Upside Down” veterans now yearn to apply their learning experiences across the curriculum. A spinoff independent-study group will test that possibility next semester in a discipline-specific class like math or chemistry. Also in the works is a Scribner Village academic theme house, where like-minded learners will live, eat, and study together and, as Appel predicts happily, “will invite faculty in for tea and intellectual conversation.”

For some of the converts, the dream is to offer “Citizen Studentship” in an alternative-learning track open to all Skidmore students. Can it be done? “When I first heard the saying ‘Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world—indeed they’re the only ones that can’—I didn’t really believe it,” Tester says. “Until now.”

Barbara Melville enjoyed her highly traditional education but wishes a few of her courses had been more upside down.