Idea Factory: Here, Now

NYC at Night (c)

This semester, I’m giving the students in my course, “Tales of Gotham: New York City in Fiction,” the responsibility of leading the class and teaching each other. In the past, I’ve required students to lead discussion using PowerPoint and contribute to the class blog. On most other days, it was up to me to direct discussion or activity in the class. Students had to write a couple of papers that many perceived as a school chore with little bearing on their real lives.

That all sounds kind of dull and twentieth-centuryish compared to what I’m planning this semester. Students will still blog. They will still lead the discussion (using Prezi). But they’ll be collaborating on projects that aren’t necessarily paper-based. They might make a video. They might do some mapping. Maybe they’ll mash and mix. Use social media. Create videos, podcasts, timelines. Discover new digital tools designed (or maybe not designed) for reading and writing. They will reflect on all this using words, image, sound. I’ll reflect back to them in similar ways. I’m leaving it up to them to figure out what they want to do with the texts we’re reading. This class will be as much an experiment for them as it is for me. We might all be a tad nervous (at least I am) about this shift in classroom dynamics and responsibilities, but I think we will have fun doing this together. For some more details about the course, the syllabus can be accessed on the Course page.

Many insightful people who generously shared their insights online and with me in person have brought me to these current teaching methods. Here are links to several sources that I find encouraging and inspirational:

One thing I did was hack my syllabus (somewhat) after reading and following the links in Jason B. Jones Chronicle article, “Creative Approaches to the Syllabus.”

Cathy Davidson is on the cutting edge of reimagining the college classroom. Her book, Now You See It, bursts with ideas and supplies a discussion of how she came to her approach to education. An important premise of the book is that education still prepares students for a twentieth-century world requiring people to show up at a desk in an office building and pretty much work at a specific task. School is like that: A class in a specific subject occurs at a specific time. Students perform activities for a grade. Teaching students to value their unique strengths and take an interdisciplinary approach to ideas and learning are among the things she writes about. At Duke University, she teaches a course in which students choose many of the texts. Then they lead the discussion and create the content. Students also take responsibility for assessment.

Tanya Sasser‘s blog, Remixing College English, provides much inspiration for me. Sasser, who writes about her successes and challenges in the college writing classroom, is an endless font of ideas. Her most recent post describes her current remedial* composition class. Her students will use the blog format to create a digital newspaper, with a theme of their own choosing, that they work on for the entire semester. This approach, she hopes, will plunge them into writing that will challenge them and is pertinent to their education. It will avoid writing assignments meant to improve writing skills but whose content is essentially pointless.  *Why “remedial”? Why not Composition I? People don’t take Remedial Algebra. They take Algebra I.

Suzie Boss wrote “How to Turn Your Classroom into an Idea Factory” for K-12 educators, but it applies to all teachers. I think students should read it, too. Most educators agree that we need to cultivate students’ abilities to be innovative and creative. They need to learn how to identify and solve problems. Sharing knowledge, often in public ways, with others is also crucial. How do we make all that happen? Boss makes several suggestions. “Welcome authentic questions” from students. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. And not just students with other students, but students with teachers, mentors, and members of the community. Gaining experience with failure and bad ideas is also crucial. Boss offers eight tips in total for “reinventing yesterday’s schools as tomorrow’s idea factories.” However, I’m not waiting until tomorrow. The idea factory is here, right now.


Author: Elizabeth F. Cornell

Elizabeth F. Cornell is the director of communications for Fordham IT, at Fordham University. Formerly, she was a post-doctoral fellow in the English Department at Fordham.

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