On the first day of Fundamentals of Public Speaking at Austin Community College and at the University of Texas, Maegan Stephens’ students vote on their syllabus. “This is not my class, it is our class; therefore, this should not be my syllabus, it should be ours,” Stephens delivers. Stephens, who is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Language Studies in the Department of Communications at the University of Texas, explains that her statement and her student-designed syllabus, is meant to rally students who “have little patience for an authoritative lecturer.”
This idea might seem odd coming from the professor. However, Stephens’ approach is geared towards what many education writers call the “petulant” millennial student. Millennials seem to think that their classroom lecturer is a salesperson delivering a product, and that a class is something they must buy into. A lot of professors have responded by banning laptops, cell phones, and tablets in the classroom. But by letting students decide policies and class content, Stephens encourages them to take a more interactive role in their education.
Stephens began using this approach in 2010 when her and colleague Danee Pye (daneepye.com) crafted the activity, and Stephens has since instituted student-created syllabi in classes at Austin Community College and at the McCombs School of Business at UT. Stephens and Pye have co-authored presentations about their classroom experience at the National Communication Association Conference and have co-written a paper entitled, “Addressing the Petulant Demand: Building Student/Teacher Relations via Collaborative Classroom Design.” ACCLAIM took a few minutes with Stephens to discuss her teaching philosophy and her results.
ACCLAIM: Can you describe the first day of class and the voting process?
MS: I give them a ballot of issues to vote on, including the content of the speeches they will give, how they will be graded, and class policies on cell phone use and on attendance. I also ask them if they would prefer to spend class time doing activities, watching speeches, hearing me lecture, or a combination. Certain aspects of the university curriculum maintain set, such as the textbook, the requirement of two examinations, and that students give four speeches covering informational, persuasive, special occasion subjects, and one other topic of their choice. But the day-to day-class content can be modified to student preference.
ACCLAIM: How do the students respond?
MS: While initially they seem hesitant and unresponsive, they leave after the first day of class full of energy, excitement, and smiles. They get really involved.
ACCLAIM: How have the votes turned out?
MS: Most classes have voted to allow texting. But my students have requested more assignments and more examinations than the college actually requires. My fall class voted that there should be eight graded speeches, as opposed to the standard four.
ACCLAIM: What’s it like to allow texting in your classroom?
MS: I allow texting in my classroom because I believe that real life demands that students learn how to be functional multitaskers, rather than put the devices away completely. It doesn’t distract me, and I don’t find it threatening. I do ask that they put away their phones when other students are speaking, though.
ACCLAIM: Could you describe your teaching style and the content of the class?
MS: I teach the students that it is most important to know and to structure their content before they work on their delivery. I never lecture for more than twenty minutes at a time, and almost every class is participatory. Sometimes we watch speeches on YouTube and critique them for aspects such as relevancy to the audience, gestures, tone, and organization. I would say that my teaching style is an “interactive democracy.”
ACCLAIM: How did you come up with the idea to build a class this way? Have you read about any other professors using a similar model?
MS: The idea came from a professor my co-author had as an undergraduate who did something similar. But it was also a response to rampant concerns within higher education that today’s students are entitled. A colleague and I thought that if we don’t include students, we’d be missing an opportunity to get them to participate. By allowing them to collaborate with us on a syllabus, we thought we could give them a sense of responsibility.
ACCLAIM: Have you faced any criticism from colleagues? What problems have you encountered?
MS: When my colleague and I gave the talk at the National Communications Association, we handed out a flyer that asked, “Would you consider doing this?” The flyer also suggested ways to create collaboration in the classroom. One attendee challenged us that we were creating a “fake democracy,” since we were dictating the terms of the vote. I have also heard arguments that the technology (e.g., allowing texting in class) is too distracting to others. I just haven’t found that to be the case in the last four years.
Sometimes there are logistical concerns for me. Last semester, I taught two sections of the course, and the results of the two votes were completely different.
ACCLAIM: What is your experience regarding how this changes the professor and student dynamic?
MS: I try to ask as more as more of a moderator and facilitator than as a lecturer. This kind of interaction, advances the aspects of debate and speaking oriented pedagogy on day one. It is not so much about flipping the classroom as it is about reversing the authority and changing the professor student dynamic, and encouraging my students to take more responsibility for their classroom. There’s a greater sense of reciprocity. The students hold up their end of the bargain, since there are clear expectations and clear standards. At the end of the semester, I have had multiple students state in their course reviews, “We knew Maegan cared about our voice.”
For more about Maegan, check out her blog!