At the beginning of a new course, students typically receive a syllabus with clearly delineated assignments. While students may conduct independent research for a presentation or essay, the bulk of the material tends to be predetermined. “Selecting course content is traditionally the role of the instructor and his/her pedagogic intent,” notes Blair Davis
, assistant professor of Media and Cinema Studies
here in the College of Communication. “Students typically have little say, if any, into what textbooks are assigned, or what films or other media examples are used in class to illustrate course theories and ideas.” After all, the professor is the established expert in the room.
Nonetheless, Davis recently became interested in reshaping that paradigm. In particular, he wondered whether his preconceived lectures and discussion questions might actually be limiting his students’ ability to draw connections and make inferences. “When we have a set list of factors that students should be contemplating about any given text that we teach, we risk stifling the ability of a student to arrive at an independent insight about the text,” he explains. So during the last academic year, Davis began introducing self-selected learning options in two of his courses.
The undergraduate course focused on B-movies, which Davis found easily adaptable to his revamped approach. “When you’re teaching film courses, you typically want to show the most representative and well-respected examples,” he notes. “But with B-movies, that’s not always the case. There are many examples that are equally representative of the phenomenon or of some aspect of the genre.” Consequently, Davis was able to grant decision-making powers to his students during certain weeks. Davis would contextualize the movies up for discussion beforehand and then allow students to vote on which film would be screened.
Offering students more control over course content seemed to increase their sense of commitment to the class. Jef Burnham (CMN MA ’13), who took Topics in Cinema/Media History: B-Movies with Davis in fall 2012, lamented that his preferred choice was never selected by the majority, but acknowledged that the process was fruitful for others. “As evidenced in our group discussions and in conversations with other students outside of class, voting for a particular film resulted in students having a greater investment in the experience. They were more passionate about it,” he says.
From Davis’ perspective, the spirited conversation that accompanied each debate offered opportunities for students to develop critical thinking and persuasive reasoning skills. “In my graduate class, students must shape a convincing argument among themselves as to which choice they agree upon, and on what scholarly grounds,” he explains. “My hope is that they will reflect upon the larger process of how we study historical and industrial phenomenon through individual media texts, as well as the range of pedagogic values found in each choice and how it affects their immediate learning experience.” In simpler terms, Davis describes this process as a way to motivate his class: “Offering students a choice of films makes them more responsible for finding something to say about it in our discussions and assignments, because they chose it.”
At the same time, Davis discovered that this hands-on approach to curriculum generation had a positive effect on his teaching methods. “Since I never knew exactly what we would be watching or discussing, it kept things fresh and challenging. It pushed me a little further,” he says, adding that the students rarely chose the film he previously would have selected on their behalf. While Davis cautions that he wouldn’t base an entire course around student selection, he asserts that when it’s used strategically, it can be an effective tool in a professor’s arsenal. “The value it has brought to the way my students engage with the course material has proven to be worth the effort and flexibility this approach requires,” he affirms. “It has been a rewarding experience so far.”