Rice hosts conference
Nine universities came together at Rice's Dell Butcher Hall for the National Conference on Student-Taught Courses on April 8 and 9, the first conference of its kind. Though all nine universities house a form of student-taught courses, they have formed independently and without much communication between the institutions. The NCSTC was the first chance the universities had to see how other schools developed — or are still developing — a student-taught course program.
"I thought it was really interesting and exciting to see how Rice compared to our peers who are experimenting with similar kinds of programs and, in particular, how we compared with much older programs like Tufts and Oberlin," Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson said. "I was very impressed that I felt like we were favorably aligned with some longstanding and successful programs."
After guests arrived Friday night the bulk of the conference began Saturday morning, with presentations from each university beginning at 9 a.m. A representative from each institution was asked to make a 10-minute presentation about the implementation or structure of his/her university's student-taught program.
Because very limited connection existed between universities as the student-taught programs were beginning, the style and age of programs vary greatly. Tufts University began its Experimental College — their name for the student-taught program that houses a couple of non-student led programs as well — in 1964. James Madison University, on the other hand, will run its first round of pilot student-taught courses this coming fall.
After lunch, Keynote Speaker Robert Lundin, Vice President of University Partnerships at Teach for America, spoke to the attendees about the importance of inspiring change on campus.
"The most interesting or strongest challenge was that he challenged these particular student leaders and staff to create a particular conduit through which change can happen," Brown College Master Steve Cox said. "He gave the impression that he thought we had a greater capacity to effect change."
Martel College junior Tatiana Fofanova said that the speech showed her that student taught courses can be an avenue for change both within Rice and the Houston community.
Following the call for change from Lundin, conference attendees split into four task forces to discuss important issues and facets of student-taught programs: interfacing with administration, publicity and recruiting, course preparation and development and meeting campus needs.
Wiess College Master Mike Gustin said that he was interested in the trend that well-established student-taught programs that were integrated with the administration of a university seemed to typically have a staff member in charge of general operations. Gustin said this person's job is to support student-taught courses in many ways; however, he said that they should not be the ones to publicize them, an issue that would pertain to the task force on publicity and recruiting.
"It would be better to have students advertise because they are more familiar with social media that works," Gustin said.
Gustin, who helped start the STC program in 2007 at Wiess, said that other points of interest for him included the idea of a pedagogy class for student teachers.
"There seem to be two different models," Gustin said. "One is to provide resources for how to better discussion and offer workshops. The other model is: ‘We don't trust you to teach unless you take this course.'"
Fofanova said that she would be in favor of some sort of instruction for student teachers.
"Personally, as a Rice student and an instructor, I would very much appreciate a guiding hand because I kind of just jumped into it without any previous experience," Fofanova said.
Cox said that coming out of the conference, he saw a lot of potential for Rice student-taught programs. He said the Rice program is already solid, but that there needs to be more contact between the administration and students to really put Rice student-taught courses on the map. Fofanova agreed and said there needs to be greater acknowledgement of the program to make it stronger.
"I think [the conference] showed the capacity of students to be able to create and run their own courses in a much more potent way than we've been running them," Fofanova said. "Because we don't have that public interface, we don't have that level of respect."
Brown College seniors Ara Parsekian and Pierre Elias organized the conference using money from the Envision Grant they received this year. Pierre said the idea for the conference came out of frustration with Rice student-taught courses.
"Honestly, we [Ara and I] had done a lot of student-taught course stuff, and I was getting really frustrated with how hard it was to get collective movement or discussion going on our own campus," Elias said. "It literally popped into my head, and I emailed Steve [Cox] and said, ‘What do you think?' It was something unique and different where we could continue to enhance the student-taught courses on our own."
Cox said that the fact that the Envision Grant was there also gave them motivation because it was something to work towards. Once they received the grant, they had just a few months to plan the conference.
"We wrote up the proposal and received confirmation from the Envision Grant in December," Parsekian said. "We started planning in January. We knew that was a little late to do it."
Parsekian said that they did not start contacting other institutions until February. They contacted 13 schools, and eight were able to attend. Elias said the institutions who could not attend lacked strong enough structures to be able to send someone away for the conference or, in cases like California Institute of Technology, had their student-taught program put on hiatus.
The conference hosted 12 out-of-town attendees from the eight institutions, which included Tufts University, James Madison University, Brown University, University of Pittsburgh, University of California Los Angeles, University of California Berkeley and Oberlin College. University of Virginia could not send attendees but did send a recorded dialogue and PowerPoint presentation to the conference. Elias said that, including Rice attendees, there were around 20 to 25 students and faculty.
Now that the conference has ended, Parsekian and Elias are working on the next step of their Envision proposal — a white paper that will outline the findings of the conference. Parsekian said that the document will be drafted at Rice, sent out to the institutions who attended the conference for revision and then brought back to Rice to be polished up and finished.
"In the process, we're going to be corresponding with other Rice volunteers and getting them informed for the conference next year," Parsekian said. "We have a couple people we think can head this up next year."
Gustin said he was really impressed with the conference, but that what happens with the Rice student-taught courses will depend on who gets involved in the future.
"Keeping the freshness and a low barrier of getting involved is important," Gustin said. "It will be a matter of balancing management issues with the excitement of doing something new."
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