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  • Matthew T. Hora

Reflections on a re-configured syllabus: Co-constructing a learning space w/students

I just wrapped up teaching a brand new course in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at UW-Madison titled, "Cultural and critical approaches to college student employability," and it was one of the best and most unpredictable learning experiences of my life. While the overall structure of the syllabus that I'd lovingly crafted remained mostly intact over the 28 weeks of the course, some critical pieces - such as daily activities, readings, and especially the final project - were jettisoned in favor of an unanticipated set of issues, questions, and insights that the students brought to the classroom.

Aerial view of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus

Ceding authority and control in a small, experimental course

It was an exercise in my relinquishing, over time, the power and control that many educators feel is essential in the classroom, where the instructor is the ultimate and final arbiter of knowledge, the primary authority who controls the content and form of classroom activities and course assessments, and the syllabus is an artifact that sets in stone precisely what the course will entail. In the words of the sociologist Basil Bernstein, I'd begun the semester in January with a commitment to a "strong" framing of the student-teacher relationship where I maintained the locus of control and learning and the syllabus was the guiding artifact, and ended it in May with a newfound respect for a "weak" framing where the students exerted a fair amount of control over contours of the learning space, and the syllabus became a living, evolving document that played second fiddle to what was transpiring in the classroom.

A couple of caveats that make clear that this was an unusual situation which lent itself to such an experiment in pedagogy and control. First, the class only had 4 students - 3 undergraduates on the verge of graduation, and 1 graduate student. A small learning community like this is far more nimble and changeable than a 40 or 400-person class, though I've been in graduate seminars just as cozy that followed the typical recipe of readings > discussion > final term paper. The second caveat is that the focus of the course, which was to delve into the underlying assumptions driving the college student employability discourse, was structured in a way to encourage students to be critical readers and analysts, and the material itself struck close to home in ways that made it highly likely that personal experiences and views would be brought into the classroom. The third is that my background in the learning sciences has exposed me to the principles and benefits of co-constructed learning, and I'm an admirer of those in the critical pedagogy community who are exploring things like "ungrading" and genuine "student-centered instruction." Finally, the course was an experiment, quite possibly a 1-time offering, as my primary job responsibility is research and my teaching mostly non-credit online, which resulted in very little departmental oversight and consequently no internal voices saying, "Don't change the syllabus," "Don't cede control to the students," and, "What will other faculty think?"

The students revolt (with my encouragement)

So what happened? The main re-configuration of the course entailed ditching the final project, which was a beautifully designed (if I do say so myself!) multi-modal project that would demonstrate the student's understanding of a particular instantiation of employability policy. It could be employability metrics being used in quality assurance programs, it could be the skills-lists that dominant media accounts of college skills and employability, or it could be the increasing focus of career services units to the idea of employability. Once the student selected a policy, they were to produce three products by the end of the course: (1) a typical term paper - 20-25 pages of erudition, (2) an op-ed written for a general audience, and (3) an elevator speech version of their paper. All great artifacts that would tell me how much they had learnt about the policy, and also whether they could successfully translate those ideas to various audiences - in effect, it was my attempt to instill one of those "employablity skills" into the course itself - communication that involves translating across diverse audiences.

But as we began discussing the central ideas behind the employability discourse - that skills were essentially commodifiable "bits" of knowledge that students could then unproblematically sell in the labor market in order to get that good first job (i.e., human capital theory, neoliberal discourses) - and that the primary locus of responsibility for acquiring a job was on the individual student alone, made the students increasingly uncomfortable and agitated. Of course, as a critic of employability narratives that make job acquisition an unproblematic process of getting the "right" skills in a "hot" field, I didn't stifle but instead encouraged them as they read authors such as Bills (2004), Moreau and Leathwood (2006), Lin (2002), and Holmes (2011), and classroom discussions began to coalesce around a few central ideas that drew upon their own personal experiences and the readdings:

(1) The employability discourse ignores a myriad of forces that influences someone's ability to get a job, such as structural racism, hiring discrimination, the availability of quality jobs, the cyclic nature of many industries, and so on;

(2) In placing the onus of responsibility on students alone to get and keep a job (see: upskilling and lifelong learning), the employability discourse ignores how other actors - especially employers and the state - also have traditionally played a role in this dynamic via paid workplace training, job security, and the provision of health-care and retirement benefits. Instead, the costs for these things have been transferred to the individual in the form of massive student debt, 401ks and the notion that "you're on your own" as a worker in 2019; and,

(3) The employability discourse takes skills like communication or intercultural competency, and frames them as skills to market to the highest bidder, thereby undermining the role these basic human competencies play in human relationships, social interactions, and especially, in fighting against an intolerant, racist society where cultural tolerance is mocked and denigrated.

This more critical stance on many existing policies and papers on employability reached a peak when a guest speaker came to the class, and proceeded to engage in an hour-long debate about the pros and cons of his own work in the area, with some pointed criticisms of the ways in which his framework may be reproducing aspects of the employability discourse that ultimately may damage students' long-term job prospects and well-being. It was a wonderful, if not at times uncomfortable, display of intellectual debate and disagreement with an authority figure.

Switching from a term paper to a co-authored publication

With these topics recurring throughout the semester, at some point in March someone in the class made an off-hand comment about how cool it would be to write up these ideas as a critique of employability, which then led to some excited (but cautious, on my part) discussion about co-authoring an article. And maybe that could even be one of the assignments in the course, or even (dare we dream?) a replacement for the final project? These conversations took place over the course of a few weeks, and my initial discomfort with the idea of having an assignment that could potentially collapse in failure, be hard (if not impossible) to grade, and could add to my own already over-burdened writing tasks, slowly gave way to the realization that this was a perfect learning opportunity that would combine students' own interests (and thus capitalize on intrinsic motivation), involve learning how to write as a group, and could potentially lead to their having a published paper out in the world.

Deciding to do this had a few implications for the course. First, we ditched the planned final project and instead, planned to have a close-to-final draft of the paper by the end of the semester, followed by a presentation to campus career services professionals. Second, it meant that 3-4 class periods became group writing and work-shopping sessions where we worked on the logic of the argument, phrasing and word-smithing, and figuring out who would write which sections. And third, it put me in the position of being a lead author, and my class being co-authors and thus virtual apprentices to scholarly writing in a group format. As someone who writes quite a bit with co-authors, I knew this would be some work, but didn't anticipate how much I take for granted with myself and my co-authors regarding writing ability, understanding of conventions (like APA compliant citations), and deadlines.

Final reflections and a thank you to my collaborators

But we got through it, and the class did an amazing job presenting their final work to a small audience last week in the School of Education at UW-Madison. We still have a ways to go to get the paper to a polished, submittable format, but we'll get there. Beyond this paper, however, I am so grateful to the students in my course who taught me so much about how the employability framework impacts people (especially young, soon-to-be college graduates) in the real-world, and how a critical perspective isn't just a good intellectual stance to take, but in many ways is also a moral stance. In ceding control of the syllabus and of the classroom itself, I experienced for the first time the magic that can happen in a classroom when learners and the teacher enter into an equitable and collaborative frame of mind, where the final product and conclusions are uncertain, but there is a faith that working and learning together will result in something that is far more valuable than another 25-page term paper that will be graded and quickly forgotten.

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