A New Semester, A New Conceptualization of "The Student"

I start teaching again in 3 days. My mind is percolating as usual at the coming confrontation with a brand new semester. This great article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed echoes exactly the way I have felt for a long time about my own design on classroom management and approaching students.  Here's a quote:

Back when students held us in awe, sat willingly for lectures, and assigned us the work of deciding what knowledge was worth knowing, we organized our classes around our disciplines. We chose what knowledge needed to be conveyed to students in what order. Now that our students assign us no more authority than anyone else, show no patience for lectures, and decide what's worth knowing themselves, we need to reorganize our classes. We need to teach as if our students were colleagues from another department. That means determining what our colleagues may already know, building from that shared knowledge, adapting pre-existing analytic skills, then connecting those fledgling skills and knowledge to a deeper understanding of the discipline we love. In other words, we need to approach our classrooms as public intellectuals eager to share our insights graciously with a wide audience of fellow citizens.

Some of the assumptions I like: Instructor and students equalized for the responsibility and productive value of the course, the idea of a joint project (building together) suggests an investigation with a "lead investigator" who suggests the proper courses to take to get more information, and the idea that students already come with knowledge and desire to know more.  Some might seem like simple assumptions, but with some of the teaching I've seen and heard about going on, I don't think they are such simple ideas after all.

The initial insight I'm taking from this essay is that the role of rhetoric has a chance to PR itself into a more essential role at the University. At a time when lots of departments are questioning the value of performance-based courses such as debate, public speaking, group discussion and that all but extinct oral interpretation course, it seems to me that these courses are best suited to serve this particular generation of students and the University as a whole. How? Because these are the courses that teach you that presentation and information are not that distinct, that very often people judge the quality of your thought based upon it's aesthetic, and that good information and good reasons are audience dependent.

Debate specifically, with it's demand for judgment by the audience as to who "Won the debate" is an excellent laboratory exercise for any classroom under the model the article suggests.  Part of the revealing of the intellectual journey is for the instructor to offer up his or her own doubts, dissatisfaction with a position, and alternatives as real struggles, not power point slides.

Debate training, usually reserved for a club team, now has central importance in this model to help prepare the students for classrooms that function this way.  Students must become comfortable with careful examination of ideas and learn how to rhetorically convey respect, appreciation and understanding. These things are not alien to the students by any means, but the appropriate methods of expression might be, given that most of their evaluation is occurring in a disembodied state (computer/internet, like this expression).

Conceiving of a class as a group of public intellectuals also throws up in the air the concept of evaluation and measurement of learning. Doesn't a group such as this have an ethical responsibility to better the community through their investigations? The U.S. public intellectuals of pre-World War Two felt that publishing (emphasis on the public part of that) was essential to their projects. What would a final examination look like if the responsibility to the community were forwarded as an essential outcome from the semester's joint investigation?