Teaching undergrads through public scholarship assignments (opinion)

Having completed our second full year of pandemic teaching conditions, it’s hard not to notice the various impacts COVID-19 has had on students and instructors alike. In a recent Inside Higher Ed blog post, John Warner advocated for “apply[ing] a pedagogical lens to the structural problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and work[ing] with students to create the maximum possible human connection that is also consistent with lives that are both complicated and, in many cases, have been inextricably altered by the pandemic itself.” I agree with Warner that it would be a missed opportunity to label all of the pedagogical adjustments instructors have made during the last two years “experiments” and to re-adopt teaching practices from the fall of 2019.

Instead, lessons learned from the pandemic are a chance to re-examine the bedrock of university education. Faced with lagging student motivation and instructor burnout during the pandemic, I turned to public scholarship assignments to make an impact in my undergraduate classroom.

In the introduction to her book Public Influence: A Guide to Op-Ed Writing and Social Media Engagement (University of Toronto Press, 2019), Mira Sucharov makes a compelling case for why advanced degree holders should be more involved in shaping public opinion. She contends that “experts have access to information and a depth of understanding useful for addressing an array of problems of interest to the public.” She then goes on to outline strategies for moving away from the 7,000-word peer-reviewed article format required for tenure and toward genres with broader impact and the potential to “strengthen civil society.” A growing number of professors have, indeed, taken up the mantle of public scholarship writing. But what interests me is asking the question “What would happen if, under our guidance, we were to help our undergraduate students become experts and exercise the level of influence Sucharov suggests is the responsibility of more seasoned academics?”

That question, as it intersects with many of the principles Cathy N. Davidson explores in The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, (Basic Books, 2017), became the inspiration behind my pandemic-era public scholarship assignments. Davidson’s book chronicles a variety of innovative teaching practices across higher education environments. While she doesn’t use the phrase “public scholarship” specifically, she describes an example initiative at the University of Virginia to develop “a comprehensive, capstone ‘engagement’ experience that will tie students’ classroom learning to some real-world project, in the hopes of making a public contribution and, in the best of circumstances, making a palpable impact.” Davidson posits that student motivation naturally increases when students conceive of their learning in connection with something outside the four walls of their classroom.

In the UVA case study, increased student motivation stemmed from learning experiences that served the public, much like the public scholarship writing for which Sucharov advocates. A natural extension of Davidson’s and Sucharov’s arguments, then, is that asking students to become experts, to exercise influence in their communities and to make a public contribution that can also help fight COVID-19 fatigue.

I designed a course to test this theory. In the spring of 2022, I taught a French film class, organized around a film festival that was open to the public. For one of their primary assignments, I charged the students with helping run the festival and assessed them on their ability to embody the role of an expert. With my help, they tailored their knowledge to a general audience and shared what they knew in a public scholarship speaking series.

In keeping with my desire to increase student motivation, I also asked students to work in groups based on their intellectual interests. In the back of Davidson’s book, the seventh of “10 Tips for Getting the Most out of your College Experience” is “Form a study group. The best research on college success—whether at a top-10 university or in a remedial class at a community college—indicates that being in a study group is the single most significant way to improve your performance, sustain your motivation, and keep you on track to success.”

By designing the public scholarship assignment as a group project, I hoped to:

  • Give students the chance to troubleshoot in teams. The pandemic had deeply impacted their opportunities to work collaboratively, and teamwork is a crucial skill.
  • Reduce the stress of having to be a lone expert. Because students had the support of fellow group members, each individual could rely on several student colleagues as fail-safes in the event they did not know something.
  • Create flexibility in participation. Students could examine their comfort zones and decide whether to challenge their natural proclivities or to contribute by using a familiar skill set.

The film festival ran for six consecutive weeks and was sponsored by the FACE Foundation’s Albertine Cinémathèque. My students worked together both in and outside class to promote the festival and to become experts on a given film, the period during which it was released, the debates it engaged and the people who created it. At the festival screenings, they introduced the film and prepared audience members to screen a less commonly viewed title among American publics. The students ran the technical side of the screening and took questions from the audience at the film’s conclusion.

Audience participation varied widely from one screening to the next, but I noticed an observable difference in student engagement: knowing that someone in the audience might want access to their expertise and raise a question increased students’ motivation to master the material at hand. I had not yet seen all of the films, so they relied on one another to get all of their bases covered for these events.

These kinds of assignments might be especially beneficial at certain types of institutions. Texas A&M is a large land-grant university, where the very mission of the institution is tied to community engagement. The people who live in the larger Brazos Valley area surrounding the university often rely on campus activities like this film festival for their cultural value and entertainment. Public scholarship assignments with live audience participation may be particularly likely to succeed in college towns like mine. The same could be said of liberal arts colleges in rural settings, where student life is interwoven with the dynamics of the surrounding town, or for students attending universities in urban centers, where students tend to live among family members and to commute to campus. In the latter of these settings, students may wish to invite friends and family to participate in university life, and assignments like these may cultivate broader dialogue about the role of higher education in society.

Naturally, a film festival will not work for most course learning outcomes. Luckily, public scholarship can be conducted in various ways, and the only required ingredient is the sharing of expertise with an audience that does not hold it. Students could publish blogs or op-eds, create a YouTube channel, produce TikTok videos, or host Twitter Q&A sessions.

On the last day of the class, I asked students to share whether or not they had envisioned themselves as experts on the topics they chose. One student, in particular, explained that while she had n’t thought of herself as an expert at the moment, it was clear to her in hindsight that she knew more on the topic than anyone else in the room, including me, her instructor her. The students expressed how embodying the role of the expert had increased their confidence as well as their retention of course material.

It is my sincere hope that the summer will provide students and instructors alike with an opportunity to recover from the last two years and that students will return to college in the fall of 2022 with the same level of motivation that was common to our campuses before the pandemic. Regardless of what challenging new landscape awaits the upcoming academic year, I submit that much can be gained from designing assignments that require students to participate in the exchange of public scholarship.

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