Student-created courses, in which students take charge of learning experiences and organize their own syllabi and seminars, have joined the menu of options on several college campuses. With technology providing new ways of delivering content, and self-directed learning becoming more popular, it is no surprise that colleges are responding by incorporating student-designed learning experiences into the academic mix. While some of these courses can be taken for credit, others are offered just for the sake of learning. Either way, those involved say it gives students an opportunity to share their passion for and knowledge of subjects outside the traditional curriculum.
“Students have a chance to fill in perceived gaps in the standard univer-sity curriculum,” said McKenna Freese, one of the student co-directors of Cavalier Education, a student-initiated course program at the University of Virginia (U.Va.). “It thus provides one more avenue for students to actively participate in the life and governance of the university.”
U.Va. takes pride in its longstanding tradition and commitment to stu-dent self-governance. Students can initiate courses by proposing classes that go through a formal approval process or by recommending Flash sem-inars, which are single-event discussions of one topic.
The impetus began about five years ago when Emily Ewell, then presi-dent of the U.Va. Engineering Student Council, came up with an idea for a credit course that would allow students to hear different professors speak each week on a variety of subjects. As a university guide, she had taken a class that features several renowned professors and wanted to give other students the same opportunity. With the help of some friends, Ewell gath-ered recommendations about professors with whom students wished they could take a course and then invited each of those faculty members to par-ticipate in one class module during the semester.
“The idea was to try to get U.Va.’s best professors together and let them showcase themselves to a diverse group of students,” she said when the course was launched.
The course, which featured professors from the sciences to humanities, was designated LASE 360 because it showed students 360 degrees of the uni-versity. After going through the approval process, the class was offered for registration and filled up with 100 students. The course still runs today.
Since then, students have kept the momentum going and continued the tradition of designing their own courses. This year, some 18 propos-als were submitted for review and approval. According to Marian Anderfuren, director of U.Va.’s media relations, proposals are fairly lengthy and must be completed with the guidance of a professor. They also must include a course descrip-tion, curriculum, budget and assigned readings. All proposals are then reviewed by two deans in the College of Arts & Sciences.
“The credits for these classes are not considered academic credits but are counted as nonacademic cred-its, much like a phys ed class,” said Anderfuren.
Courses offered last semester included “American Conservatism in the Twentieth Century,” “Living Art History: An Introduction to Art Business and Contemporary Art Markets” and “The West Wing: Where Hollywood Fantasy and Reality Collide.”
The student-initiated courses now run under the banner of Cavalier Education and are coordinated by Freese and Hannah Beller under the auspices of the Academic Affairs Committee of the Student Council. As co-directors, their responsibilities include fielding questions by e-mail, reviewing applications, coordinating with the deans and working with the Teaching Resource Center.
As Freese explains, once a class is approved, it is run entirely by the student-initiators, not the faculty sponsors.
“Either the student-initiators teach it themselves, or they organize a series of faculty lectures from various professors,” she said. “For example, one class brought in a series of psychology professors to talk about their research. Courses might integrate aspects of both of those options.”
This semester, Freese says, there are eight “fantastic” courses being taught by 13 undergraduate student-teachers. Among them are “Inspiration, Muse and Genesis,” “Advocacy and the Judicial System” and “Introduction to Cryptology.”
Cavalier Education has just inaugurated the Pedagogy Seminar, a two-hour, biweekly course that student-teachers attend to investigate and improve their own teaching skills.
“Aside from enhancing their teaching experience, the seminar also provides an opportunity for the student-teachers to receive one credit for teaching the course, whereas in the past this was not possible,” she said.
Freese says the Cavalier Education program requires students to make a serious commitment when proposing a course. The process of designing a syllabus, getting faculty support and estimating a budget is one that requires careful thought and planning. But allowing students to step into this arena meets two important goals: that of enriching the education expe-rience and ensuring the university’s principle of student self-governance.
“We feel the notion of students taking charge of their education to the point of actually creating and teaching their own classes is an extension of the ideal, honored at the university, of student self-governance,” she said. “It is one that allows them to truly govern their own education.
Learning in a Flash
But U.Va. student-created courses are moving beyond traditional struc-ture and taking advantage of new technology. This year has brought the cre-ation of Flash seminars, in which faculty and students come together outside the classroom for discussions on topics beyond the normal course content.
The Flash seminar takes its name from the phenomena of flash mobs, in which groups of people assemble suddenly in a public place for a brief time for a spontaneous event. The mobs are organized using cell phones, text messaging and social-networking sites such as Facebook. Flash mobs in various cities have gathered to stage spontaneous pillow fights, choral performances and political protests. U.Va. students have taken the concept, added more structure, and provided an opportunity for students and facul-ty to share knowledge in a more informal setting. The seminars are announced one to two weeks ahead of time and are open to students, fac-ulty and community members.
Laura Nelson, a 22-year-old fourth-year political and social thought major and one of the driving forces behind the Flash seminars, explained how the idea was born.
“Some of us [students] were sitting around and having conversations about U.Va. and the whole academic experience,” she said. “We began to talk about how the spaces we learn in do not have to be compartmental-ized, that learning can take place outside the classroom. We started think-ing about doing something creative and inventive, and that was when the possibility of Flash seminars came about.”
Nelson then went to work on making the concept a reality. She said the process involved creating a fairly simple technological infrastructure. A website and e-mail components were created to support the publicity and sign-up aspects of Flash seminars.
Last fall was the first semester for Flash seminars. Topics included: “Liberal Arts in the Era of Late Capitalism,” “Can Buildings be Carbon Neutral, and Should They?” and “There is Much to be Angry About: Are We an Apathetic Generation?”
“The faculty can teach on any subject that excites them,” said Nelson. “We want to get people to learn and discuss things.”
Topics for the current semester were developed using the same impromptu process and included offbeat topics such as “Could a Poem or a Song Save a Life?” and “Unpacking Kill Bill.”
Nelson says the courses fill up fast. So fast, in fact, that sometimes there is a waiting list for one of the 15 or 25 slots available for each seminar.
“We keep enrollments down because that’s what makes the experi-ence special,” said Nelson. “The University of Virginia is a public college, and it’s hard to find a class that is smaller than 40, so we deliberately keep it small.”
Faculty members have been enthusiastic about participating. It gives them an opportunity to teach about a topic of personal interest to an audience of diverse students who come together to listen and learn, rather than get a grade or earn credits toward their degree.
The students take part, says Nelson, because the seminars give them exposure to top faculty members who are often from outside their major and a chance to engage with fellow students interested in vigorous discus-sions. Sometimes participants include other faculty members who are eager to enjoy the expertise of their colleagues. All in all, it is a very stimu-lating atmosphere.
“There’s an intellectual energy in the seminar,” said Nelson. “Something happens when you get all of these smart and curious people from different disciplines in a room.”
Dr. Rafael C. Alvarado, professor and associate director of SHANTI (Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives), is typical of those faculty members who have conducted a Flash seminar. Alvarado teaches and lectures on the anthropology and ethnography of computing.
“I got involved in the Flash seminar at the request of one of my stu-dents,” he said. “I came up with the topic based on a lecture on Big Data I gave for the course which my student found interesting. I also wanted to develop the topic into an article.”
Alvarado’s seminar was titled “Is the Superorganic Made of Silicon?: Rethinking the Culture Concept in the Internet Age.” That might sound a little intimidating to those who don’t speak the language of technology, but it is based on Alvarado’s scholarship on the computer as “core metaphor, con-tested tool, and central artifact in the investigation of postmodern culture.”
“One of the most profound historical consequences of the Internet has been the emergence of the cultural datasphere,” he explained. “Each day, millions of Web users unwittingly contribute masses of information about human behavior and taste to the databases of Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Amazon and other sites. These data suggest the possibility of a new kind of social science in which the concept of culture is both revital-ized and challenged.”
Alvardo considers the notion of the “cultural datasphere” as having sig-nificance as an object of anthropological study.
“My research question is to determine the relationship between the concretization of culture and culture itself,” he said. “Among my concerns is to find out if it is empowering or alienating, transformative or destructive to being human.”
Alvardo plans to spin off the results of his seminar conversation into the development of an anthropology course, “The Internet is Another Country,” to be taught next fall. He said the Flash seminar was an exam-ple of how humanities courses should be taught – as student-generated conversations around a topic initially presented by the professor. There was no PowerPoint or any other technological device, he said, just a great discussion.
“The students were amazing, showing genuine interest and keen insight into the topics,” he said. “One area we ended up in was discussing the relationship between memory and narrative, and the effects of database culture (a side effect of the Web) on selfhood, given the close connection between self and memory.”
That outcome is no surprise to Nelson, who says that students and fac-ulty often come away with the feeling that a certain “spark” permeates the seminars.
“Students write thank-you notes to the professors and will often say the seminar was one of the most provocative and interesting things they have experienced at U.Va.,” she said.