Anything made possible

By Kiara Mikita, PhD

“Let them do anything they want for their final projects.”

“I’m sorry? Did you just say anything?”

“Yes. Anything.”

I met this “anything” suggestion with dumbfounded silence.

This is a snippet of a conversation that I had that forever changed the way that I approach teaching and learning. My silence was met with this explanation: “You’ve already assigned a mid-term paper, and you’re also assigning a take-home final. The final could leave your students with assignment fatigue. Your course sounds really creative. Instead of a take-home written exam, why don’t you let the students decide how best to demonstrate their learning in a final project of their choosing?”

I was a little breathless, and now I wonder if that breathlessness wasn’t some inexplicable foreshadowing of the transformative events to come.

This let-them-do-anything-they-want idea was part of a telephone discussion that I had with Lin Yu, a Learning and Instructional Designer at the TI, days before I was to post my course syllabus on D2L. Lin and Haboun Bair (another fantastic Learning and Instructional Designer) had worked closely with me as I mapped out my fourth-year sociology course, Talk About Sexual Assault, after taking their Course Design workshop. They had already given me enormously helpful suggestions, like creating a course trailer.

Um, Yeah, But How Do I Assess Anything?

“This idea sounds incredible, Lin, but it seems totally impractical in terms of grading. How do I fairly mark a video, for example, alongside a poster?”

“Have the students help determine the grading rubric. For example, you determine the core criteria, say five of the eight components, and have the students develop the remaining three criteria, specific to the kind of project they’re doing. If they are creating a video and think that great videos consist of seamless editing and crisp sound, then that’s the grading criteria they will construct and the kind of work they will produce. If they think a great poster is bold and bright with clear headings and succinct content, that’s how they’ll grade themselves and that’s what they’ll do.”

It sounds ridiculous, maybe, but I was shaking a bit as Lin and I spoke. I loved her suggestion and the infinite possibilities that it opened up, but I had so many reservations, also because of those infinite possibilities. This course was very personal to me for a number of reasons. With its substantive focus on sexual assault, it was/is a very topical course that centered upon a sensitive subject. There aren’t other courses being offered about it, so I wanted to do it especially well. It’s a course that is heavily informed by work that I used in my doctoral research – work that I knew was relatively nuanced and specific in its focus on the minutiae of talk. How could students demonstrate their learning about talk – about language – without being asked to write about it?? Would a much broader, anything-goes decision like this help or hamper student learning? What if it hampered students’ learning? What would learning even look like in this boundless space? What if this was too much creative space for students to work in and they floundered because I couldn’t manage it?

Anything but Assignment Fatigue

I understood Lin’s argument about assignment fatigue. (Why hadn’t I thought of that? Wasn’t grad school all about papers, papers, papers, and wasn’t that fatiguing?! Wasn’t I also fatigued by reading papers??) I had no examples to look to, to say, “Yes! That’s what successful final projects look like when anything goes! I can do that!” I’m a researcher. I’m used to researching things – which often means looking at examples of what’s been done to help decide what to do next.

 In retrospect, I am certain that if I had more time to think about it, I would have talked myself out of doing anything but a take-home final. But I wanted to post the syllabus as soon as possible, so I took a deep breath and whispered, “Okay. Let’s do it. I have no idea how this will turn out, but let’s do it.”

This was the best decision as a teacher and learner that I have ever made. Never in my history in either role have I seen students work more tirelessly with such dedication, never have I seen more incredibly engaging representations of learning, and never have I learned so much from students – about the limitlessness of creativity, of community, and of the depths of learning. I still get goosebumps when I look at their work, and I look at it often. And anyone who knows me knows that I cannot say enough about these students and what they created.

Anything…is Incredible

In this two-month long spring course, after having worked through the equivalent of a phonebook of graduate-level readings, the students in this course produced final projects with content and polish that reflect learning I would never have dared dream possible. These “anything-goes” final projects included a 40-page graphic novel called “Consenting Penguins: How (Not to) Date Rape” that was water coloured, by hand, by a student who very insightfully troubled the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (see the first image, below). Another project included a cocktail recipe called “Sa Faute” featuring “victim-blaming vodka” (a brand with the slogan, “your choices, your problem”) featured in a newspaper article about a butcher, stabbed by a surgeon, that tellingly parodied journalistic writing about men’s sexual violence against women, and that used the “editorial” section of the paper to instruct readers about the problems in the writing. Still other students constructed a (still operating) blog on tumblr, called “Knowledge is Power” that critically analyzed news coverage of sexual assault, things said by a friend of the “Stanford Swimmer” rapist, Brock Turner, and the language used by Justice Horkins (the judge in the Ghomeshi trial). Still another student performed a passionate spoken word presentation, complete with important visuals that he designed himself (see the second and third images below), or the very playful makeup tutorial about judge Robin Camp done by two other students that instructs viewers about how to produce, in language, a thick “foundation of disbelief” and concealer that “covers up your culpability.” I haven’t even described a third of the class’s work yet.

Rather than gushing about these students for days (trust me, I could), the take home lesson for me was this: in the same way that these motivated students harnessed the limitlessness of creativity to demonstrate the abundance of their learning, my ongoing challenge as an educator is now to be as creative as these students showed themselves to be in my pursuit of active and innovative ways to unleash (rather than confine) students’ expressions of their learning. This is because I discovered that sometimes, when anything goes, what happens ends up being bigger and better than anything I could ever dream up.

(What I’ve represented here is my recollection of the conversation and how it went. In reality, Lin was likely far more articulate, and I was likely far less).

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