John Boyer, “The Plaid Avenger”

Last September, I wrote this about teaching as performance:

I should also point out that performance is no substitute for rigor and quality. Performance in the classroom can encourage enthusiasm about a subject among students, but enthusiasm should not be the most important objective. Performance should be a tool, much like technology, to grab students’ attention in order to teach them something of lasting value.

John Boyer’s class at Virginia Tech presents an interesting take on this idea, as outlined in the Chronicle last week:

Boyer describes his course as an “Intro to the Planet” that brings “the average completely uninformed American” up to speed on world issues. His approach? Decentralize the rigid class format by recreating assessment as a gamelike system in which students earn points for completing assignments of their choosing from many options (1,050 points earns an A, and no tasks, not even exams, are required). Saturate students with Facebook and Twitter updates (some online pop quizzes are announced only on social media). Keep the conversation going with online office hours.

And snag big-name visitors by turning the enormous class into a digital hive that swarms them with requests. Other recent guests have included Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen, whose recent movie focuses on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, and Jason Russell, creator of “Kony 2012,” a viral video about the brutal Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.

As Jennifer Brannock Cox noted in her Chronicle column, also posted last week,

Students today expect us to be entertainers, and while we find the material itself riveting enough (since we have devoted much of our lives and money to its study), many younger students cannot usually muster the same enthusiasm.

I’m not proposing that we dance for our students or even attempt to meet their impossible standards for stimulation. What they want is an opportunity to connect with the professor and the material in a way that is meaningful and applicable to their lives and goals.

The comments section of the Boyer article contains plenty of criticism of the course and the instructor, all of which I won’t rehash here. Two points deserve further mention, however. Boyer’s fall semester course had an enrollment of over 2,600 students, which speaks to his popularity. “Popularity” doesn’t equal rigor, though, and therein lies part of the dilemma. Should a course like this, geared toward first-year students, serve to stimulate students to think about issues and perspectives and create what hopefully will become a lifelong love of global awareness? Or should it engage students with rigorous analysis? To use a Biblical analogy, should this type of course be milk or meat?

The second issue is that there is no possible way for Boyer to engage that many students meaningfully. While he seems to have established a cult-like following, it strikes me as one reminiscent of celebrity followers, who believe that following a celebrity on Twitter or liking their page on Facebook makes them BFFs. Boyer’s case is different, of course, in that the students are actually enrolled in his course, so there is a defined relationship. But, as one commenter pointed out, if those students wanted letters of recommendation, would Boyer be able to say anything individually useful?

There may be a place for courses like Boyer’s, but I see it as a novelty and not the future of academia. Still, I have to admire him: I have always wanted to call a student “dude” and say he was “up in the hizzle.”

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