Teaching Thursday: Using a Building for Unstructured Teaching

This semester I’m teaching two very different classes to a similar (and somewhat overlapping) group of students. The student response to the two different classes is pretty different and I think I have a grasp as to why (although one can never entirely isolate the variables!) and I’m not sure that it’s entirely “fixable,” but it is at least intriguing enough to me to warrant a little blog post.

As a bit of preface, I have always benefited from structure. When structure is absent, I tend to create it. I’m a creature of routines, self-imposed deadlines, and arbitrary, but deeply held goals. Academically, I always sought out structured educational environments and gravitated toward languages which required daily discipline and history which conducted a syncopated rhythm of writing and reading. I have generally tried to bring this sense of structure to my classes, but over the past decade or so of teaching, I’ve found that, in some cases, my love of structure has produced a kind of compliance culture among students who see the structure less as an opportunity to systematically explore a topic and more as a series of tasks to be completed for points and, ultimately, a grade. As a result, I’ve gradually backed off from some of the more structured aspects of classes and now even build open days into my classes so that we have more flexibility to approach a challenging concept or skill or just get a breather. 

This semester, I’m teaching a three-credit honors class on the UND budget and guiding students through the complexities of a large institution with a large budget to get them to understand where various decisions and structures impact their lives. I’ve tried to balance the need for structure and the need for more conversational and exploratory time in the class. Over the semester, though, I’ve probably tipped the balance more toward structure lately. The results have been a bit predictable as the class has slowly slid into a kind of sleepy malaise as the students look to me to frame the next challenge. This isn’t bad, but as we have six weeks left to the semester and the larger project of completing a small book on the budget for students is going to require creativity, energy, and independence. I hope I haven’t stifled that.

Some of the same students are taking another, one-credit, class focused on documenting two buildings associated with Wesley College on UND’s campus and what we’ve called the “Wesley College Documentation Project.” This class is completely unstructured. Aside from causing me some late-night anxiety and following a loose set of practices – for example, we’re systematic in how we document the modern spaces and objects left behind in the building – but the goals of the activity remain pretty open ended. What’s remarkable is that the students are more engaged and enthusiastic.

Of course, the class isn’t even bound by the structure of the classroom, much less the tyranny of the contractual syllabus or a set of well (and narrowly) defined education outcomes. In fact, the class is much more like play than my typical classes. The time in the abandoned buildings is filled with music, laughter, as well as pondering, serious conversations, and unanswered questions. While this isn’t a profound observation, I wonder whether students don’t actually get more out of such an open-ended, play-oriented class.  

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