Participant Pedagogy: Rethinking My Courses

The easiest way for me to think about some of the issues in participant pedagogy and how they might work in my classroom, is to first actually think about my classroom. For the past year I have TAed an upper-level, 200 person lecture course on the Second World War. In this course my adviser delivers lectures twice a week and the students read three books (one per test). Attendance is not required, but strongly encouraged  Note: we do not use a textbook, instead the books are either novels or monographs, so you’ll miss essential content if you miss class. It’s pretty much your standard old school approach to teaching. My job generally entails clicking through his powerpoint shows (which I think a for TA made for him) and grading tests. The tests are generally based of of ID terms. We usually have identify 5-7 terms and then write an essay (that blends ID terms and the books). My adviser delivers 90% of the content in his lectures — which are really good and very engaging. Our class does have a Blackboard companion, but it mostly just a forum for announcements.

Since I’ve been aboard as his go-to TA, we’ve added ID lists to the course. The first semester we just posted them in class on the doc-cam. If I student missed class, they had to get them from a peer. We set up a peer-to-peer exchange forum on Blackboard, but never gave the terms to anyone ourselves. Poor classroom technology intervened the second semester, forcing us to post them on Blackboard a day or two after class. My adviser was reluctant at first, but caved. As you might imagine, the grade dramatically improved.

So in my class, participant pedagogy is essentially nonexistent. Because it is fairly comparable to some MOOCs (massive size class, no attendance policy, blackboard component), I think it is valuable to think about how to mix in some participant pedagogies while working within my limitations.* Before I begin, I’ll try to note what I think those limits are: 1. lecture style must stay (b/c of the TA-adviser setting) 2. scheduling and TA workload prevent discussion sections 3. the course is a part of a grades-credit-degree system.

*I’m sure there may be some debate about these limitations, and I welcome them. Right now, however, my approach is thinking about making adaptation that I could potentially use this semester.

So what to do? My first few thoughts were about the ID terms and class notes. I feel like we could open up more dialogue and let students take their learning/evaluation more into their hands if, instead of giving them the terms, they wrote their own lists and posted them to Blackboard a day or two after class. Then once online, as part of the notes exchange, they can narrow them down and present to us a complete list a week prior to the test. Thus, the students are still required to come to class and learn, but instead of being passive receivers they are reflecting on the material as they actively decide and participate in the process of choosing what they’ll be evaluated on. A relationship is established.

Seems pretty simple. And I know my focus is more on the test than the actual ‘learning’ but I think it’s a good beginning place for experimentation. By having student tell us what they think is important about the class, we can shape the class in new ways and perhaps spend more/less time on certain topics. Because of the setting and the culturel of my department and disciple (history), it’s still hard for me to get out of the traditional knowledge-deliverer mindset. Historians pride themselves in being experts. Denying this, in some ways, seems to undermine our critical-training. Yet, no one likes to be told what matters and why. People like to form their own interpretations and opinions. At the end of the day, I think it’s our role as teachers to help put them in setting and given them the information for this process to happen. I hope my proposed tweaks begin to approach this goal.

To be sure, if I were to have my own classe, I’d be more open to other styles of peeragogy. For example, I like the idea of collaborative research for a research methods course. Something built on the idea gathering data and information that the group combines and analyzes. Whether it be in-class or online discussions, a forum of dialogue would allow students to select a topic and begin research. Once they’v begun, then they can continuously ask each other about what each document says (and not say), are there different interpretations, how does it fit in and contribute to an argument. Students can also bring in their varying secondary readings (historiographies) to the table and help situate the small scale project within a variety of current scholarly discussions. In this way, history is done as a group, but the ultimate final product (whether done individually or in groups) may still vary. It’s primary source research meets the graduate seminar.

A few final thoughts: I hope I’ve engaged enough with the topic of hybrid or participant pedagogy. Most of my discussion here has focused on more traditional courses and interests of mine, but I think the value in all of this, for me, is to see how I can adapt and shape my present situation with all the new information. It seems like most of the people in the articles gradually implemented their participant pedagogies. While technology does seem to be lacking in some of my thoughts, it doesn’t have to be absent. Tools of collaboration and sharing abound.

8 thoughts on “Participant Pedagogy: Rethinking My Courses

  1. Chuck Rybak

    Andrew, you should consider connecting with David Voelker on Twitter, which will likely link to his webpage. He is the chair of the History Dept at UW-Green Bay and also heavily involved with SoTL as it relates to history. His recent essay on how to reinvision the teaching of history through survey courses just won a national prize. (Also, a really great guy.) All of that said, his entire pedagogy in history courses is based on participation, or getting the students “doing history.” On Twitter he is @DavidVoelker.

  2. rachaelhanel

    Andrew, I struggle with the same concerns. I teach a large-lecture Intro to Mass Media class at a state university (I think I have about 130 enrolled so far for fall). It’s just me (I’m an adjunct) so I’m pretty free to make adjustments at will. For a couple of semesters I had students submit test questions at the bottom of their weekly reflective journals, and I chose some of them to appear on the test (most were pretty crappy, as you can imagine, or were questions I already would have asked). But still, I hope some students felt a little ownership. I’ve dramatically reduced the amount of time I lecture, instead posting the notes online. I reserve class time for group work and watching/talking about videos. Still, the whole course is pretty heavily dictated by me. I keep thinking about how I can take the best of MOOCs and apply them to this course. I have two weeks to figure it out before school starts! I would be happy making one small change–it’s too late for a complete overhaul for fall at this point.

  3. David Voelker

    Andrew, there is actually a movement afoot among some historians to transcend the “coverage” model of teaching history. You should check out Lendol Calder’s March 2006 Journal of American History article “Uncoverage” as well as the March 2011 article that I co-authored with Joel Sipress (“The End of the History Survey Course”). I also have a website at (still under development) that will address this issue. Best of luck to you.

  4. Pingback: Participant Pedagogy: Rethinking My Courses | Digital Research for Humanities |

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