Dr Ellie Mackin is an ancient historian who thinks (too?) deeply about how ancient Greek people actually lived their religion in practice. Her PhD, from King’s College London, looked at Underworld Gods and this is the subject of her two concurrent monograph projects. She is a Teaching Fellow in Ancient History at the University of Leicester, where she subjects her students to radical pedagogy and sometimes regular lectures. She posts research, research planning, and pedagogy videos on YouTube, tweets @elliemackin, blogs, and runs the #AcademicKindness gift circle.
Recently, an anonymous (American) academic tweeted that potty-training twins was harder than anything their students might be going through, and so they should be able to get to class on time.1 There were many (excellent) responses about students who overcome significant adversity to get their degrees – from single parenthood to chronic illness and every intersection thereof. As someone who finished their PhD as a single parent with a chronic illness. I am not only empathetic to this intersection, but it has indelibly shaped my approach to students and teaching, and as a result of this I actively try and do that is by breaking down the hierarchy that is inherent in the classroom.
It might seem like a natural thing – after all, there’s a lot to say for active learning, for students taking control of the classroom, for being learning partners with your students. But students often aren’t ready for that, and it can be problematic.
To start with, students come to us with the classroom hierarchy embedded within their learning framework. Although students are warned that university learning will be different to school, it still can shock students when particular lecturers ask them to be more actively involved than they are used to (and perhaps even more than expected in other courses). This is where we, as academics and learning guides, need to support and encourage students and lay out exactly what we expect them to do and why. (I won’t go over this because David Gooblar already has over at Chronicle Vitae). But how does this work in practice? I tried to completely dehierarchise a second-year ancient history class of 26 students last term and results were mixed.
Over the course of 10 weeks to move the class from a teacher-led, lecture and seminar format to student-let workshop format (I talked more about this in a vlog). At the time I wasn’t calling it ‘dehierarchising’, but I was actively trying to subvert the hierarchy of my class.
From the feedback, some students loved the class, the freedom, and the way the class ‘transformed’ over the course of the ten weeks. Some students absolutely hated it. One student said they would never take a class taught by me again. I did a lot of things wrong, including not giving enough support to the students and not adequately explaining why I was doing things. I don’t want to call out the fact that I am young and a woman, but I do rather suspect that if I had been a figure that attracted more inherent authority things might have been different.
The How and Why
One of the big ‘why’s that I want to get out of the way first is this: I don’t like standing in front of a class and talking for two hours (or even one hour!), and I don’t think it does the material justice.
The second, and more important, is that students can learn the background details through reading and self-directed study, and it’s a better use of our time if we explore the evidence and supporting material (that is the ancient or primary sources and the scholarship) together in detail. I found that students were particularly resistant to having to search out primary source material to discuss in class – even when they could have simply followed the footnotes in the background sources I had provided them with.
What Didn’t Work
Straightforwardly, I didn’t sell it. If you’re going to get rid of the teacher-student hierarchy then, by definition, the students need to be actively involved in establishing an equitable classroom. Some of
mine definitely were not – some of them would have preferred a lecture-seminar style class. Moving forward, I will reintegrate the ‘lecture’ into a course like this, just a bit differently.
The gradual move from instructor-led in week one to wholly student-led by week ten didn’t work. I initially thought it would ‘ease’ them into the increased demands of peer-to-peer active learning, but it didn’t at all. I believe that it would have been better to throw them into the deep end from the start.
The difference in student contribution between Week One and Week Ten was incredible – and certainly they’d come further in their ability to both quickly parse the ancient material and to discuss it in depth than any other upper-level course I’ve taught. Along with that, the students who were really on board with the approach progressed the fastest. Progression was in understanding the material, being able to critically read both the ancient material and scholarship and their ability to link what they were doing in this class to other classes.
Right now I’m putting together a third-year course using an active dehierarchised model from the beginning. Rather than confusing students by gradually moving from instructor-led to student-led (as well intentioned as this was), the system will be established in week one. Lectures will occur in the final 15-20 minutes of class and will give the outline for the following week, along with clear expectations of what will be required of them (and me) for that week. So, in a sense, I think that achieving a dehierarchised classroom will need a set period of time that reinforces the teacher-student hierarchy.
In every class, it’s important to read your students, to get to know them and the demands on their lives (it is not necessary to go into intimate detail, but a general picture is important). Some classes may not benefit from a dehierarchised class, and it shouldn’t be forced. After all, students are the most important thing in class design, not flashy pedagogy.
1 I don’t want to include the tweet itself because I don’t particularly want to give it any more than it – and its anonymous writer- have already had.
Note from the Editors: This is the final entry of the first session of the ‘Academic Practice’ series of guest blogs. Thank you to all of our guest authors who have given us their thoughts, perspective, and especially their time. We will be beginning a new session of this series in September. If you’re interested in contributing an entry, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch on Twitter @Britnavalhist