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How to Collaborate with your Students
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Classroom collaboration usually means co-teaching with an instructor, or working closely with another professional such as a librarian, archivist, or technology developer.

Years ago I was deeply influenced by Shoshana Felman’s discussion of classroom dynamics in Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight (1987). More recently I’ve been thinking of the benefits of treating students as classroom collaborators. So often the classroom approached like, for example, the flipped classroom, can still potentially leave the instructor/student hierarchy in place. While I’m not advocating that the students teach themselves, I am interested in changing the power dynamics in the classroom to engage students as both learners and researchers; indeed, as learners who do research, and who integrate both activities. Students learn more effectively when they are engaged, as we all know, and when they have a reason to be invested in the course. But they also learn effectively if their role as producers of knowledge, and not just consumers of knowledge, is integral to course design. Instructors have the opportunity to structure the seminar dynamic, the syllabus, the assignments, and even the classroom layout to encourage collaboration. In my experience, the crucial factor in making student-teacher classroom collaboration work is to be crystal clear about student expectations, assignment methods and standards, and to give as much structured help as possible as a preparation to collaboration. The great benefit of a collaborative classroom is that it becomes a dynamic space of idea exchange and knowledge generation, and the classroom empowers students to take ownership of their work. And, quite frankly, the instructor will also learn. At least, in my last few classes when I put this idea consciously and overtly to use, explicitly to the class, I have had the most positive and rewarding teaching of my 20-year career.

How exactly can student-instructor collaboration happen in the classroom? Here are some ideas taken from both my grad and upper-level poetry classes. Some examples are inspired by digital pedagogy, using out-of-the-box tools like WordPress and Wikispaces. They all encourage the student to make something, what my colleague Jentery Sayers terms “tinkering,” and they value and assess process as well as product.

  1. Create a class post, multi-authored, on Wikipedia, involving every student; watch the subsequent revisions to the post; then reflect on the politics of the wiki and the digital dissemination of knowledge
  2. Construct a class website as a resource to be archived after the course ends, or to be picked up an developed by another class (see for example Scottish Women Poets, built by my Scottish Women Poets class). Include websiste tasks (such as design and layout and promotion) as part of the assignment
  3. Create a class wiki on a platform like Wikispaces and gear assignments around organizing, dividing up and writing posts (for example see my ongoing general editorship of the cross-institutional student-authored wiki Victorian Poetry, Poetics, Contexts)
  4. Ask the students, rather to give a conventional regular presentation, to teach something to the class for 10 minutes based on their material studied for an assignment (I had success with this approach in a class on practical criticism when I asked the students to take it in turns to teach a poem’s form to the class)
  5. Refashion the concept of the syllabus to include student-centred discovery of material (my current grad class, for example, prompts students to go to specific material each week to research periodical poetry, but asks them to bring the poems to the class for discussion, and then to post them in a poetry anthology; this creates the class syllabus; see Popular Victorian Poetry)
  6. Involve students in your research. For example, bring a research problem to class that relates to the course and ask them for feedback (recently I showed my grad Victorian Poetry class copies of poems in Woman’s World, which I was writing about for the NAVSA conference the following week, and which had not produced the poems I had anticipated)
  7. Offer students structured research projects based on original material, such as archival material and rare books, and allow them to craft their own research questions and their own research portfolio (giving them examples of potential outputs, from the traditional research essay to something more innovative like an anthology or an annotated timeline)

Works Cited

Felman, Shoshana, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in the Contemporary Culture (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Sayers, Jentery (2011), ‘Tinkering Classrooms’. Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies, ed. Laura McGrath (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press), Chapter 10. Web. 17 June 2013

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