Diversity in Academe 2013

Diverse Students Go Digital

Illustration by Pui Yan Fong

June 09, 2013

It's early on a Thursday afternoon, and I'm preparing to teach two interdisciplinary humanities courses. I'll spend the next three hours working closely with about 50 undergraduates, and I need to get my ducks in a row. When I started my teaching career, more than two decades ago, this last-minute prep might have entailed reviewing handwritten lecture notes or scrawling something profound on the chalkboard. Today, however, I'm hunkered down at a state-of-the-art podium that will allow me to engage my students in ways I couldn't have imagined in the early 1990s.

For my first course, which examines how justice and equality are portrayed in narratives about urban America, I cue up an episode of David Simon's HBO drama The Wire. To enable a free-flowing online conversation as we watch together, I sign into my Twitter account and offer some preliminary comments in our hashtag, #wire275. (Once class starts, I will project the feed on the screen next to the episode.)

We've been reading Jay-Z's memoir, Decoded, and I also intend to show students the video for his trenchant song "Minority Report," which addresses the social and political ramifications of Hurricane Katrina. So I search for the video on YouTube.

For my second course of the day—on remix and appropriation—I locate our Facebook page, where I've posted several videos relating to the day's readings on appropriations of classical music (in disco) and opera (in postpunk avant-garde music). One song evokes the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's "St. John's Night on Bare Mountain." I find a version on Spotify, the online music-streaming service, and place it in our class playlist. I also want to show students where the song was remade—in, of all places, the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. I find the appropriate clip on YouTube.

You might think that I am a technophile who immersed himself in the study of popular culture while matriculating in some trendy graduate program. The truth is more prosaic. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and American history, and I've published four conventional scholarly books on law and religion. In many ways, I'm about as old-fashioned as they come.

I came to innovative teaching through my work with at-risk undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Through my appointment in the division of diversity, equity, and educational achievement, I teach, mentor, and advise a diverse array of low-income, first-generation college students. They are remarkable young men and women—children of refugees, aspiring hip-hop and spoken-word artists (drawn to the university through our unique First Wave program), sons and daughters of working-class parents who never had the resources to attend college themselves.

These students don't lack intellectual acumen. But they sometimes fail to become fully engaged in their coursework. The results are lamentable, both for the students themselves and for our institution as a whole. Their GPAs lag. They shuffle majors. They push back graduation dates, or they drop out.

It's easy to lay the blame for these failures squarely on the students. Critics might contend that they stumble because they shouldn't have been admitted in the first place; lacking adequate academic preparation or sufficient discipline, they are doomed to failure. But my work has led to me to a different conclusion: Students become disengaged because too many of their courses are boring.

Take lectures. This staple of college instruction hasn't changed much since I was a college freshman, almost 30 years ago. Yet, as the work of Harvard University's Eric Mazur and myriad others has shown, the "sage on the stage" model never has worked very well. Most students who sit passively in class, take notes, and then cram for exams don't master the material in any meaningful way.

The shortcomings of lecture courses are only magnified by the antiquated teaching and learning spaces in which they occur. Many college classrooms are so bleak and uncomfortable that students seem defeated and deflated almost as soon as they walk through the door. And the ancient seats and tables in many classrooms are configured in ways that make active-learning activities, such as group problem solving and discussion, impossible.

Several years ago, I forged a partnership on our campus among the diversity division, the Integrated Liberal Studies Program, and the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning (WisCEL), which has created several impressive technology-enhanced, collaboration-friendly learning spaces, to help change teaching in ways that would encourage active learning and foster a sense of inclusion.

The first part of this process involved creating courses that were relevant to students' experiences as citizens in a diverse society. "The Wire course," as it's known around campus, explores how a convergence of factors—race, poverty, public policy, criminal justice—influences justice and equality in American life. The course is not just a theoretical overview of those two ideas but rather a practical tour of how they are reconfigured on the streets by ordinary people. The goal is to provide a full and nuanced portrayal that challenges students to rethink some of their core assumptions about American public life.

The remix course traces some of the long and contested history of appropriation in the Western tradition. "Remix" is a term most often associated with music, and about half of the course focuses on the work of artists ranging from Bartok and Stravinsky to Public Enemy and Girl Talk. But we also examine how inherently combinatorial practices have contributed to innovations in literature, film, visual arts, and architecture, as well as shaped patterns of development in biology and technology. (Ours may be the only course on campus that covers Emerson, Robert Rauschenberg, Chuck D, and Stephen Jay Gould.)

Next I reoriented my teaching, curbing lectures and giving students a greater role in discussions of course materials. The WisCEL space used for both courses facilitates student interaction, with mobile tables and chairs and ready access to technology. And I picked texts that are both intellectually meaty and engaging. (Among my favorites is Paul Butler's masterly Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice.)

My use of Twitter in the Wire course might be my greatest break with pedagogical convention. Whatever its faults, Twitter allows my students to respond quickly and freely to this provocative drama about the complex interactions between police and drug dealers in Baltimore. Their spontaneous tweets form the foundation of a conversation in class once we're done viewing a particular episode. I also use our hashtag for posting material that might be relevant for exams. For our midterm this semester, students worked in groups to produce components of a study guide. They took pictures of the results and then posted them with the hashtag, where everyone had access to them.

Not all of these innovations have been completely successful, and there are legitimate questions about how effective such methods might be over the long term. Just because something is trendy doesn't mean that it works.

Still, experimenting with curriculum and pedagogy can yield enormous benefits. In the world of The Wire, characters often say that a particular behavior is "all in the game"—meaning that it's to be expected, and respected, in their milieu. For the sake of students, I hope we can get to the point where collaborative innovation is considered "all in the game" of enhancing learning for all undergraduates.

Shawn Francis Peters is a lecturer in the Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.