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Student Agency Matters (Especially Right Now)

A student asked me over the summer (via an online session, of course) what I thought of the university’s plan to do face-to-face classes. I had a pretty ready answer; I’d already formulated my answer for a survey of non-tenure faculty that one of my excellent colleagues was conducting to make our voices heard. I answered that I understand that university administrators are having to make hard decisions, and I certainly don’t envy them that, but I really wish that students were consulted in more meaningful ways throughout the decision-making processes.

One of the biggest hurdles in course prep is that we often haven’t met our students yet, so it’s very hard to prepare a course that fits their needs and interests and meets them where they are. Imagine if you were in charge of planning a wedding for a couple you had never met, but only had prior experience with other couples to go on. You could make some educated guesses, but it won’t be tailored to the couple and you might make some major blunders in the process. Like weddings, education works best when it’s carefully tailored to the backgrounds and needs of the people at the center: here, the students.

Students who feel no agency over their education tend to do poorly. I’m sure we all can think of that one class we just completely checked out (or even an entire year or more) because we felt like the teacher didn’t care about them or the material wasn’t relevant or useful to us. As teachers, it’s partly our job to give students meaningful choices in their education, so that they have agency. That is, instead of seeing students as subjects over which we rule, we need to see them as partners who themselves understand parts of the situation that we don’t and can help us fill in those gaps.

This matters even more right now, when not only is the utility of our courses in our students’ overall programs at stake (as it always is), but also the very health and safety of our students.

To that end, I’m advocating that students get a lot of choice in their educations right now. Of course, they have some agency at a very final level: they can choose to leave the school entirely if they don’t feel safe with the school’s plan. But many students don’t really perceive that agency on their own behalf, or, in many cases, they don’t see that as an option for other reasons: they don’t want to lose their scholarships, they have family reasons why it has to be that school right now, they don’t want to lose their visas, or whatever other reasons they may have that hold them in place in their programs, sink or swim. And as instructors, we don’t always see those reasons, so we can’t even fully anticipate them.

But as instructors, as we always have been able to do, we can build meaningful choices into our curricula and cede as much power as possible to the students while still being able to steer the class toward its goals. This requires, for many of us, a shift in how we think about the relationship between teachers and students.

For college instructors, we need to remember that, with a few exceptions, our students are adults. They have legal, moral, and social authority over themselves, and thus absolutely have the right to decide if they are willing to take the risks that our university plans may subject them to. Likewise, they must in our classes be treated as adults, with full agency over themselves. We are not somehow better or more intelligent than they are because we have advanced degrees; we’re simply more education and in a position of authority. We must not forget that.

For instructors at K-12 levels, we need to remember that our students, while minors, are still intelligent and autonomous human beings, appropriate to their age. Children are able to understand consequences and make meaningful decisions by the ages that we put them in schools. They need to be treated as such. The rules are different right now than they have been for most of every student’s life. This is confusing and frustrating and can make children, as with adults, feel helpless. I can’t think of a better way to get a child to lose interest in school than to make them feel helpless, unheard, and powerless. So we need to make consequences and choices clear, and give them meaningful decisions in their educations: let them choose their projects, let them choose their masks, let them choose their classroom layouts, whatever it takes.

But I’m going to mostly address how to do this with adults because that’s what I know best, as I teach adults for a living. There’s a lot of options in a college classroom for providing meaningful choices, and thus agency, to students. Even more so as our universities flail for models that accommodate both a pandemic and their unyielding traditions. Of course, many people will advocate for contract grading here, and if that’s something you want to try, please do! And I always advocate for letting students choose their own topics wherever possible (if only because it makes reading their work so much more interesting).

But it may be possible to do even more right now. If you’re doing “Hyflex,” where you meet with students in smaller groups in person and do most of the course work online, you should consider letting students choose which groups they want to be in and why; perhaps theme the groups? If you’re doing online, consider being asynchronous, and offer multiple ways to present content: provide a video and a written instruction sheet, for instance.

The meaningful choices that you can make available depend wholly on the goals of the course. As you prepare for the most uncertain semester probably you’ve ever had, consider relinquishing some control in structured ways. Our temptation right now is going to be to try to exert control in some way, whatever way we possibly can, to try to plan for every eventuality and always hold onto whatever certainty we can.

I advise doing the opposite. Let the students fill in some of the spaces; you don’t need to micromanage. Structure and scaffold, yes, but not micromanage. Let go of some of that control and authority and give it to students where you can. It will give them the agency they need to make the most of this coming semester.

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