In 2002, a young gentleman who goes by the stage name of The Streets put out a song called Let’s Push Things Forward. In it, he raps about his belief that the music industry had become stagnant and that it was time to, well, push things forward.
I used to listen to that song on my way to work as a community college professor in outer Brooklyn, NY. Sandwiched between my fellow commuters like a wilted factory ham, I used to dream about the ways that I could push things forward in academia. But pushing things forward in academia is hard. The weight of large classes, intractable bureaucracy, and centuries of tradition weighs heavily on the drive to innovate.
Wayfinding, however, is small, nimble, and new. Innovation happens every day, nurtured by the culture and makeup of the school. It happens in each and every one of my class sessions. I teach Engaging with Information, a class I designed to be flexible and responsive to students’ interest and needs. In that environment, students’ drive to innovate has flourished. I designed the course, but the students are pushing it forward.
At its core, the course is meant to teach students how to consume and create information in critical, analytical, and meaningful ways. We periodically return to guiding, high-level questions like:
- How do modes of production and consumption affect access to information?
- Who is included and who is excluded from information production and consumption?
- What power structures are at play when we engage with information?
- Who do we empower and disempower when we engage with information and how?
As we wrestle with these questions abstractly, we also tackle them in the concrete. We have spent considerable time, for instance, on developing successful strategies to optimize class participation including techniques I’ve named “the esprit d’escalier moment” and “meditative analysis” (I’ll be posting more about those on this blog in the near future). In developing these techniques and rededicating ourselves to them on a regular basis, we strive together to make students feel included and empowered as we engage with information.
Students are also instrumental in developing the curriculum of the class. Perhaps the most illustrative example of this is in the formulation of their final projects. One student has decided to write a short story to explore how people assert ownership over information; another is writing a research paper on how search engines rewire our neural pathways; and one is exploring the oral transmission of information in the field of blacksmithing. Blacksmithing, people! This project in particular shows the promise of stepping back and letting students push things forward. Had I sat and thought and researched and planned for a thousand years I would have never devised a final project that was more fitting for this student in this class at this time.
The work that students are doing in this class to shape their own education shows what’s possible when you loosen the reigns a little bit. Organizing this class around a foundational structure that provides room for innovation has allowed the students and I to truly collaborate and to create a class that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
We’ve taken the initiative; we’re pushing it forward.