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Learning to Trust Students: Incorporating Student-Led Discussions into an Anthropology of Gender Class—Akiko Takeyama (2008)

Professor Takeyama lecturingOverview

An anthropology professor moves from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom by having students prepare daily discussion agendas.


In order to increase student engagement with and understanding of the material in an upper-level Anthropology of Gender Course, I decided to incorporate student-led discussions into daily classes. My plan was to allow the students the opportunity to talk with each other instead of just with me and also to find ways of making the course material more meaningful for them on a personal level. The course revision also included a service learning component and a group website-building project.


I broke the course into three main components, all designed to give students chances to demonstrate their learning on a number of levels: student-led discussions, a two-part midterm exam, and the service-learning/website-building project, which was meant to develop analytical and collaborative skills. Using a Lesson Planning program, I posted the students’ discussion agendas, in addition to relevant Youtube clips, on Blackboard so that all the students would be more prepared for discussions. Students also kept a blog related to their service learning and their group website on Blackboard.

Student Work

In general, the student-led discussion format benefited students in multiple ways: students were generally more prepared for discussion, since they had the full agenda laid out on Blackboard ahead of time, and students began having discussions primarily among each other instead of just with me, which led to the material in general becoming more meaningful for them. The service-learning/website-building project had mixed results, often dependent on whether or not the service learning site provided opportunity for students to observe gender dynamics in action.


Having students lead discussions had a dual benefit of making the material more personally meaningful and increasing the likelihood that the students would talk to each other instead of just to me. In the future, though, I will have students post their own materials to Blackboard and find their own Youtube clips, in order to decrease my workload and increase the relevancy of the material for them. Also, I no longer plan to make the service learning project a required course component, as too many sites prevented students from finding material for their final projects. Overall, though, I am pleased with the outcome of this course revision.

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Professor Takeyama demonstrating a concept on the boardBackground

Course and project history
The course, Anthropology of Gender: Female, Male and Beyond (ANTH/WS 389), is a core social science course in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. It also fulfills the non-western culture requirement and junior/senior hours required for graduation. In Fall 2008, 13 students enrolled in ANTH 389 (two sophomores, three juniors, and eight seniors) and 15 in WS 389 (one sophomore, six juniors, and eight seniors). The majority were juniors and seniors. Their majors varied from Anthropology and Women’s Studies to Mathematics, Psychology, History, Journalism, and Social Welfare. Another interesting dimension was the students’ gender ratio: there were 27 female students and only one male student in the Fall 2008 section. There were also two non-traditional students. This student dynamic proved to be both valuable and challenging for the course. It was valuable to have diverse perspectives from students who had different disciplinary and social backgrounds, as well as personal experiences and opinions. At the same time, it was challenging to teach the materials to some of those who had taken multiple women’s studies courses yet few anthropology courses, or vise versa, and to others who were not familiar with either the discipline or the program. In the beginning, I struggled with supporting the needs of various students, but I gradually figured out that the advanced students and other ones have dialogue among themselves through the class discussions. In this way, I was more or less a discussion moderator who helped enhance student-student dialogues and develop their own understanding and critical thinking. By the same token, I also learned from the students’ discussions.

By the time this portfolio is published I will have taught the course in five semesters: Fall 2007, Spring 2008, Fall 2008, Summer 2009 and Fall 2009. I will be focusing on the Fall 2008 incarnation in what follows. This course is in high demand, and so far it always has a waiting list. Thus, this cross-listed and high demand course is one of the courses I want to develop further to assess my progress in teaching career and show it as part of my promotion and tenure file.

Let me briefly sketch the course trajectory. In Fall 2007 I, as a new teacher, made a common mistake of assigning many pages of complex readings, some of which would have been suitable for graduate courses, out of a fear of not covering the subject matter enough and an overestimation of junior/senior level courses. Soon I learned that assigning too much reading and covering so many different aspects/concepts without effectively linking them to each other did not necessarily help students learn social complexity and problems and accumulate knowledge about them. From that experience, I reduced the reading materials to the bare bones for Spring 2008 and used PowerPoint presentations in my class lectures. I found that this was much too reductive and that I needed to make the course more challenging and to actively involve students in their learning processes rather than allow them to be a passive audience for my lectures. Although I attempted to incorporate in-class discussions, students’ evaluations indicated that the discussion was more or less between the instructor and the students rather than a student-student dialogue.

Despite the disaster in discussion, I surprisingly found that students really enjoyed their group project of building a website through Blackboard’s Wiki based on their library research. In the beginning, students seemed reluctant to try a new application. Once they learned the basics, they surprised me in how creative they could be in presenting their research materials both visually and intellectually. They commented that building their own websites was something both new and stimulating to them. They also stressed that the project allowed them to interact with other group members very closely and that they enjoyed the interactive learning process, as well as their creative final projects. From both my mistake and students’ interactive creativity, I was convinced that I could trust my students’ abilities in comprehension, interaction, and creativity. I started to think of having them summarize and criticize assigned readings, come up with their own discussion agendas and questions, and lead in-class discussions. I also started to pursue a way to make the website-building project more interactive and also more grounded in their out-of-class experiences.

In order to redesign the Anthropology of Gender course and enhance my practice in teaching, I attended an IDS (Instructional Development Support) workshop and the Best Practices Institute by the CTE (Center for Teaching Excellence) during the Summer of 2008. Through the intensive multiple-day workshops, I learned the so-called “backward design” method—setting a course goal and objectives and then identifying what kinds of skills students need and what kinds of course activities best suit the course objectives. I also benefited from informative discussions to develop more integrated course assignments and in-class activities that would encourage students to be actively involve in their learning. Those assignments included student-driven discussions, service-learning programs, and group based website building. I also learned how to technically improve the course structure by rearranging the Blackboard sites and using SoftChalk’s Lesson Builder program to help students better prepare for class meetings and bridge their academic learning and “real life” situations.

I “backwardly” designed the Anthropology of Gender course in Fall 2008 and assigned discussion leading, service learning, and website building so that students could bridge what they learned in class, that is, analytical and critical thinking, and their firsthand experience at the service learning sites. As a discussion leader, each student provided a discussion agenda in advance, led an in-class discussion, and wrote a postscript to the instructor. Specifically, students provided me with a summary and critique of the reading, an analysis of a chosen quote with their comments, and discussion questions. Using this I created a lesson plan with the Lesson Builder program and put it on Blackboard. This method helped students build a conceptual framework even before they physically entered the classroom and helped them be better prepared for the discussions. Leaders also e-mailed me a self-reflexive postscript to address what they learned from the discussion and what kinds of further questions occurred to them. I gave them individual feedback and encouraged them to bring up further questions and thoughts to future class discussions. These multiple steps enabled dynamic discussion activity, student-to-student in-class interaction, and student-instructor individual exchange.

The service learning program combined students’ in-class learning and its application to the real world, and showcased their findings in innovative ways. I asked students to keep a blog entry on their service learning experience and its relevance to the course materials through Blackboard’s Blog. They also formed a group among those who conducted their service learning at the same site and built their website with Blackboard’s Wiki (website building) program. While the students originally were reluctant to learn new technical skills, they became highly self-motivated to create their own sites where they could creatively express how they could apply analytical tools to community settings. Thus, Anthropology of Gender (Fall 2008) ultimately met my goals: improvements in my teaching and students’ active learning. Students overall evaluated the course and my instruction positively. One student commented, “I just can’t describe how much it means to have a teacher that expresses interest in your (as student’s) studies, encouraging them to perform to their highest potential.”

Course goals and how I pursued them
By employing gender as an analytical lens, the goal for this course focuses on enabling students to analyze and think critically about how gender is culturally constructed and enmeshed with sexual, racial, ethnic, class, generational, regional, and geopolitical differences and inequalities. More specifically, students explore how masculinity and femininity are constructed, experienced, and negotiated through the mass media, socialization processes, the capitalist system, and transnational flow of commodity, image, and cultural concepts such as gender and sexual identities. Thus, I wanted students to develop their analytical lens and also a sensitive understanding of people’s lived experiences instead of assuming gender as a static identity category or masculinity/femininity as a top-down social determinism. In other words, the goal of the course is to combine an analytical tool and actual people’s experiences so as to understand social complexity, ambivalence, and contradictions that discursively feed back to social and geopolitical inequalities.

Why is it necessary for students to achieve these goals? Because the gap between academic theory and people’s lived experience often separates scholars from the mainstream audience and academic learning from everyday lives. Theoretical projection on empirical data overlooks complex social reality, whereas everyday experience and social norms tend to be taken for granted and invisible. It is crucial to fill this gap and become an activist by:

  1. combining concrete case studies with in-depth theoretical inquiry;
  2. critically analyzing the complex intersections that crisscross the everyday life; and
  3. bridging the academic and the non-academic audience.

Service-leaning is one of the ways to reconcile this gap.

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Students talking in classImplementation

To achieve the course goals, this course expected the following three things of students:

  • Build a friendly and open-minded classroom environment where students openly express their thoughts and opinions, respect other students’ point of views, and self-reflexively reexamine their presumptions of gender and sexuality in their own societies and cultures;
  • Engage in service learning work as a way to link academic learning with their out-of-class experiences in the setting of community service;
  • Build a group website based on in-class discussions and their service learning work to showcase development of their analytical skills, critical thinking of gender issues on the ground, and leadership in their volunteer work.

To guide students toward these goals and assess how well they have achieved them, I assigned the following activities and assignments:

Discussion for Interactive learning

Attendance and participation 15%

Leading discussion 15%

Midterm Exams for development of critical thinking and logical argument

  • 2 Exams (15% x 2) 30%

Service-learning for application of analytical tools and collaborative presentation

  • Service learning (service work and blog entry) 20%
  • Group project (website building, presentation, and peer review) 20%
  • Self-reflexive essay

1) Discussion
Discussion (both active participation and leading discussion) was designed to encourage students to have dialogues among themselves rather than simply with the instructor. Students were expected to demonstrate that they had understood the main arguments about the assigned readings and thought about them. Their participation was graded based on quality, that is, whether they critically addressed their points, along with other important discussions in class and course materials, rather than asserted them as mere opinion.

In order to help students’ preparation for the in-class discussion, I provided discussion agendas, including reading guides and discussion questions, in advance through Blackboard. I simply compiled the agendas that the discussion leaders, who assigned for the week, provided to me. Discussion leaders were asked to lead an in-class discussion on the day they signed up for. To assist comprehension of the assigned material and creation of the reading guide and discussion questions, I provided a reading note template that guided the student to grasp the main arguments, link with other readings we covered, and come up with their own critical evaluation of the argument/discussion. A minimum of four reading guide questions was requested: both empirical facts in the reading(s) and theoretical arguments of the author. Discussion agenda consisted of:

  • reading guide questions,
  • brief summary of the main argument (1-2 paragraphs),
  • criticism,
  • linkage with other class discussions/materials we had covered,
  • one quote from the reading, along with insightful comment(s) or question(s), and
  • discussion questions (at least three non yes/no-answer questions).

In class, discussion leaders presented what they liked and disliked about the readings and why, and also explained how they could connect the readings with personal experience or important public events and issues before they opened up the discussion based on their discussion agenda. After the class, leaders were asked to e-mail me one or two paragraphs reflecting on the discussion and addressing what went well with the discussion and what didn’t, how they could have done better, what they learned from the discussion, and what further questions occurred to them. Once I received the postscript, I gave a grade for the discussion leading, along with a brief comment on the student’s performance.

2) Midterm exams
The exams were not designed to merely summarize class materials, lecture, and discussions. Students were expected to critically review what was covered in the course and develop their own critical thoughts and analyses. A take-home essay exam was a three to four page written essay. Exam questions, along with the grading guidelines, were distributed in class one week prior to the deadline. Without consultation in advance or an official document shown as a reasonable excuse, late submission was penalized 10% for each day late. The grading guidelines were as follows:

  • Is this paper thoughtfully, analytically, and logically developed?
  • Does the author use relevant course materials and discussions effectively to support his/her main argument?
  • Is the paper presented in an organized manner (introduction, body, and conclusion)?
  • Does this paper address all questions and issues raised?
  • Is the paper submitted in a professional manner (i.e., no spelling, typographical, and grammatical errors, accurate and coherent citation format, stapled, etc.)?

A second, in-class exam was cumulative and consisted of two forms of questions: description of key concepts and short essay questions, both of which required providing specific samples (e.g., names of author, book, article, or film shown in class). Five description questions appeared on the exam and one short essay question; students needed to answer out of three questions provided. For students’ preparation, I provided a study guide in a week advance.

3) Service learning
Students were expected to volunteer at least 15 hours throughout the semester and keep a blog entry each time they participated in service learning. Students’ performance was graded based on their supervisor’s evaluation of their work, the quality of their blog entry, and their self-reflexive essay at the end of the course. Students chose one of the pre-selected service learning sites and formed a group of five or so people among those who signed up for the same service-learning site. Once they started their service-leaning, they were expected to keep their blog journal, through which they reported:

  • when and where the student worked and what s/he did;
  • what s/he learned;
  • how his/her learning experience connected with class materials and discussions; and
  • what further thoughts and questions occurred to him/her.

Students were asked to keep in mind some of the central course questions while conducting their service-learning: What does it take to be a man and woman in a given community setting? What kinds of characteristics and gender roles are idealized? How do individuals in the environment reinforce or challenge such an ideal? Having these questions in mind, students also needed to come up with their specific group’s research questions.

Group website project
Based on the course work and service learning experience, I asked students as a group to combine the theoretical/analytical framework they had learned and empirical data they collected in order to build a website through Blackboard Wiki. Website building was one of the ways to encourage students to interact with one another and collaborate to produce a non-traditional group presentation. Thus, website building was not mere reporting. A good group website introduced students’ research topic/theme, site, and methodology to examine their research questions. Creativity and originality in the website building, as well as logical analysis and discussion of data, was required. Students were also asked to link some of the relevant class readings, discussions, and outside literary resources to their discussion and conclusion.

The group project was gradually built toward the website presentation, as well as an oral presentation at the end of the course. As the first step after forming a group, students were asked to submit a hard copy of their group project proposal. In the proposal they needed to address the following things:

  • Names of group members
  • Research topic: What have you as a group chosen to research through the service learning activities? Any topic broadly related to gender, sexuality, masculinity, and femininity should be fine. Tell me something about the topic that you will be working on so that I can understand what you wish to study. Give me as much detail as possible so that I have some context in which to understand your proposed idea.
  • Research questions: What is your focus and what central question(s) will you try to answer? What do you hope to learn from the service learning study and why? Consider a general concept that you can explore and explain through your collected data and materials.
  • Methodology: What kinds of data do you need for your research project and how do you plan to collect it? Think of options such as interviews, participant observation, oral history, group discussion, film analysis, etc. and decide which method(s) work best for your research.
  • Hypothesis: Unless your focus changes substantially, your hypothesis will turn into your thesis statement. A thesis statement is typically a one- or two-sentence condensation of the argument or analysis. A good thesis statement should take a stand or express one main idea that narrows your topic to a specific and manageable one.
  • Bibliography: Please find at least five sources outside the course reading list and list the citation information and the main point(s) of each piece.

I gave feedback on students’ proposals (pdf) so that they could revise them and re-submit two weeks later. Students were asked to submit a revised proposal, along with a project outline and annotated bibliography as follows:

  • Revised group project proposal: How has your group project evolved since you submitted the proposal in September? Please revise your proposal and tell me how you have developed your research project.
  • Project outline: Tell me who is in charge of what kinds of roles in the group project and the timeline toward the completion of the website. Also, explain how you plan to organize your research data and present them on your site. What texts, visual images, audio, etc., do you need?
  • Annotated bibliography: Please add another five outside sources to the existing bibliography and include citation information, the main point(s) of each piece, and how they are relevant to your research. Write one or two-sentence(s) for each source. When you cite website information, you should include the date of access to the site.

Meanwhile, I instructed students how to use the Blackboard Wiki and Blog programs so that they acquired technical skills to conduct their group project. I also had a librarian, who specializes in anthropology, instruct students on how to do library research, collect opinion poll data, access newspaper articles, and so on.

In the last three class meetings, students were asked to present their group projects. Other students, who were not presenting on the day, were supposed to provide peer-review based on their website presentations and give comments and ask questions during the oral presentations. For the oral presentation, each group was assigned 20 minutes: 10 minutes for the project summary and 10 minutes for Q&A. All other students were thus expected to examine each group’s final website presentation before the scheduled presentation dates, and fill out the peer evaluation forms so as to give constructive feedback, comments, and questions to each group.

In the end, students wrote a two- to three-page self-reflexive essay and submitted it with their supervisor’s evaluation form on their service learning work. In the essay, students were asked to address these questions:

  • How have your views on gender changed through the class discussions, service learning, and group project? What did you learn that you didn’t know through these activities?
  • If your friend, who has not thought of gender and doesn’t know what it means to be a man or a woman, asks you what is gender, how would you answer the question and advise him/her how to study gender?
  • Please evaluate your work in the service learning and contribution to your group project, indicating what kinds of rewards and challenges you have had in your project. Also, please evaluate your group members’ contribution to the project, and describe how the group could have done better.

While discussion, as a stimulus for thought, provokes further thinking and pursuing different perspectives, the activity alone does not provide the opportunity for students to creatively and critically link several key concepts and develop their own logical arguments in systematic ways.

The two exams (one was a take-home essay and the other was an in-class exam (pdf)) allowed students to review all sorts of in-class activities, including but not limited to lecture, discussion, film-viewing, filling charts, etc., and find a common thread to connect key concepts and questions. For this aim, both exams were designed to require students not to merely summarize what they had learned but to think through the course materials and activities.

While the exams were useful for assessing how much and how deeply students comprehended the course materials and discussions, the exams, as well as the in-class discussions, were still restricted to students’ intellectual development and were mainly based on scholarly works. The service learning activity provided students with an opportunity to have a first-hand experience to observe, interview, and interact with people at the service learning sites they worked for. I chose seven different sites that all were apparently suitable to study gender issues: the Boys & Girls Club, Central Jr. High, Women’s Transitional Care Services (WTCS), the Lawrence Shelter, Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), the Hispano Center, and the Health Care Center. Students were asked to volunteer at least 15 hours at their site and maintain a blog for each time they volunteered, in which they were asked to report:

  • when and where they worked and what they did;
  • what they learned;
  • how their learning experience connected with class materials and discussions; and
  • what further thoughts and questions occurred to them.

Their service learning activity bridged the academic learning and community service as a way to holistically understand the complexity of gender role, identity, and experience which are, as I mentioned above, shaped by larger social forces such as various forms of social inequality, community-building, the capitalist system, and geopolitical hierarchy. Students’ blog entry was designed to help direct them toward their final group project of website building based on their service learning experience.

The final project required group members to come up with research questions, hypothesis, methodology, and bibliography and to build a website around this information. They also needed to intensively discuss how to organize their information, analytical frames, and website. In order to gradually build their skills toward to it, the students were given instruction on how to do library research, and I also provided a short workshop on how to use the Blackboard Blog and Wiki for blog entries and website-building. I also set several steps for the students to build their project step by step as the assignment schedule shows.

Thus, all the assignments were intertwined and designed to develop students’ analytical skills, logical arguments, and creative expression of their critical thoughts. This kind of interconnection was also practiced in the classroom settings. In particular, during the in-class discussions students were supposed to make links among the course readings instead of moving from one reading to another without making effective connections. For example, when we discussed social construction of ideal femininity in the process of a modern nation-state building in socialist and postsocialist China, students were able to make a comparison to a reading about Russia that discussed how feminine beauty was associated with bourgeois class symbol during communist regimes and then was celebrated in postsocialist global consumerism.

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Students having a discussionStudent Work

As I explained, all of the course assignments were interrelated to achieve course objectives and goals, which were to enable students to use gender as an analytical lens to critically examine social differences and inequalities. Students’ work was assessed based on evaluation rubrics, which I provided to the students in advance:

Based on these rubrics, I asked students to familiarize themselves with the grading criteria. Particularly, students’ peer-review was very useful. I gave students the same grading guidelines that I used so that they could become familiar with the guidelines and also use them to evaluate others’ work. As such, the purposes of the peer-evaluation were twofold: 1. to familiarize students with the evaluation criteria (also central ideas toward the course objectives) and 2. to exchange feedback.

Based on students’ performance, I saw some evidence that students improved their understanding and enhanced their active learning in and outside classroom settings. My previous efforts to have more engaging discussion-centered classroom experiences tended to fail, because I ended up generating discussions and starting a dialogue between the instructor and students rather than among students themselves. However, with the use of a Lesson Building program to provide discussion agendas in advance, students were able to prepare for the in-class discussions better; in addition, having a student facilitator helped to generate more student-student dialogue than in previous semesters. (For more information, see this high quality discussion agenda and lower-quality agenda.) In turn, it created a great learning environment in which advanced students shared their knowledge with less advanced ones and students with different sociocultural backgrounds shared their stories with other students. In other words, I was able to avoid the trap of the instructor asking factual questions just to make sure students understood the main points and could instead expand the discussion and develop ideas from there.

There are differences in the degree to which groups showed that they understood the intellectual goals they achieved. For example, a group of advanced anthropology majors gave a great presentation that contextualized the community setting. Their presentation provided a nuanced understanding of homeless people, particularly homeless men who have been marginalized from society in terms of their financial capability, yet still attempt to maintain their masculine identity by being violent, stubborn, etc. On the other hand, another group that didn’t have good access to their service learning site due to lack of working opportunities and miscommunications was unable to develop their discussions. So, the results varied, depending upon what kinds of access to the service learning sites students had and what kind of cultural sensitivity they had.

Out of the six groups, most did a great job. Two weaker works are the Health Care site and MOPS. The reasons why their projects turned out weak were mainly twofold: 1. access to the site and 2. weakness in group collaboration. The stronger groups tended to be collaborative from the beginning. The combination of accessibility and successful collaboration seemed to determine success of the group projects.

For this portfolio, I’ve analyzed students’ performance on four different elements of the course:

Self-reflexive essay
A good self-reflexive essay addressed how one’s idea on gender has developed in detailed manner. For example, one of the stronger essays (pdf) stated, “Before taking this class, I viewed gender in a two-dimensional way; gender was a very dichotomized notion….But more than just learning new views on gender, I encountered reading [about trans-gendered people in Brazil] that gave a fresh outlook, such as how to look at both femininity and masculinity from a racial and socioeconomic viewpoint, as well as critically examine the underlying reasons for norms and ideals” (1). Compared to this good essay, a weaker essay (pdf) addressed the same point, yet had not contextualized what one meant in detail: “Before I took this class I had never really considered the definition of gender. I took it for granted that there were two genders: male and female. … I learned that I always have to question automatic assumptions. I no longer believe that there are just two genders. I think that gender is a purely social constructed concept. To some extent, I believe that sex is also socially constructed. After all, how does one explain the presence of hermaphrodites in our world? I think the most critical lesson that I learned transcends this class: I must always examine, always question.” This essay really hits the core of the course; however, it is pretty abstract and does not address “how-questions” well. This is something that I need to work on in the future to guide students to know what I expect.

Students’ understanding of gender as a concept
One of the stronger essays stated, “If my friend asked me to define gender…Gender is not simply biologically male or female. Gender is a largely cultured notion and based on society’s implications for men and women. Gender is not binary; it is a spectrum of possibilities ranging from the hyper-masculine to the hyper-feminine and includes everything in between, whether it is stereotypically male and female or not. To me, gender is highly personal and cannot be placed into two distinct groups based on society’s demands” (1-2). Whereas a weaker paper simply put, “I would tell a friend that gender is a fluid, socially constructed concept. I would tell them [sic] to study marginalized groups of people domestically and internationally. My ideas of gender only shifted when I studied groups of people that were outside of my personal experience.” But, the student doesn’t explain how her idea shifted and why it is important to study marginalized groups of people domestically and internationally. These are the things that the course simply covered.

Group project
In their self-reflexive essays, students evaluated their own as well as their group members’ contributions to their group website projects. Good evaluations were concrete, specific, and constructive, and they addressed how often they met as a group (factual information), what they did well, and what they could have done better. A good example stated, “Overall I felt that the group was cohesive in terms of personalities working together. … I think one of our strengths was mostly being able to have very sound observations and were able to highly incorporate the service learning aspect of the project into the website, but I would love to include a broader perspective of gender roles, including the racial outlook and reference more class readings and discussions.” The student essay also provided concrete pictures of individual group members’ works by stating, “Each group member did complete her part; however, some members contributed more to the group than others. Student A took the leadership role and really organized the group and naturally became the one in charge of turning papers in and contacting all the group members. Student B was a very big factor in the group and was always prompt on gathering her individual research information and being available for group meetings. … Student D did not contribute very much to the group until the very end, immediately before the due date.” Thus, the factual information was well integrated into the student’s evaluation of the group project, both in concrete and also abstract manners.

A weak example tended to be vague, general, and not engaging. For example, a student’s self-reflexive essay read, “[Our group project] was almost the definition of a collaborative effort. We did everything together. It was truly a fantastic experience. The only area in which I think we could really have improved was a little bit outside of our control. Our schedules were so busy, that finding the tie to work on the project was tricky. It would have been a more complete project if we could have found the time.” As you can see, the content is very vague and does not specify how the group could have done better if they managed to find more time for the group project. The essay is written to fill the paper space rather than to engage in self-reflexive evaluation.

Peer-evaluation of group project
Similarly, concrete and engaging peer-evaluation made a good and constructive one, whereas vague, brief, and distanced evaluation made a weak and less constructive one. A comparison between strong and weak evaluations on the “Lawrence Shelter” group project makes the distinction clear. The student who wrote a strong peer-evaluation examined the group website projects and took into account the presented materials in order to describe the main argument of the project, stating, “[The project shows] gender role expectations in homeless shelters and how the homeless fall into the gendered content. [The project is] important because we need to look at how gender is extended into the society and in lower-class people.” On the other hand, a weaker response was, “The homeless shelter/homelessness have specific gender constructs.” This student did not elaborate to describe how or why the study of gender among homeless people is important to understand gender further.

The strong and weak evaluations have their consistencies in terms of concreteness and engagement to address other evaluation questions, asking students: What are strengths and shortcomings of this project? What does this project make you think of topics we covered in class discussions? For example, a strong response to the latter question on Hispano Center project read, “This project made me think of the Manalansan reading and discussion because parts of the website discussed the topics of cultural citizenship and shifting selves in describing the Latino/a’s experiences of moving to the U.S. from their native country.” Thus, she specifies the reading and also addresses the key concepts such as cultural citizenship and shifting self-identities that we covered in class discussions. However, a weaker response on the same project read, “It adds credence to our assertions.” The response does not answer the question at all. Thus, her response shows that she understood neither the group’s project nor the class materials.

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Professor TakeyamaReflections

One of the most important benefits that came out of this course design was that students began conversing with each other instead of just with me. Since I have not been in the U.S. that long and am of an older generation than my students, my reference points are not always that relevant to them. When they talk about their own experiences among each other, the conversation tends to make a lot more sense to them, and I actually begin learning from them, which I like. It also becomes a much more meaningful conversation compared to courses that use PowerPoint or lectures and focus primarily on memorization of facts. Having students put together the discussion agenda forced them to read the article, digest the information in it and explain their perspective, which combined the reading, experiences, and observations.

There are two main reasons I prefer the more dialectic teaching process: First of all, I think the students in general are learning more and enjoying the process because it has become more meaningful for them. Second, this format actually reduced my preparation load a great deal. I used to come to class with a good summary and important points on top of the overarching discussion questions and comments to discuss in class. Now, since my student do most of this work, my task becomes situating the literature within the larger context of gender studies and asking more of the big picture questions.

One of the biggest challenges I faced with this course set-up was that the quality of the service learning experience was highly variable. Not all the organizations were registered sites and not all were reliable. Some assigned students more mechanical or mundane tasks, such as having students sort mail, fertilize plants, and so on, which did not allow them the chance to observe gender dynamics at work. Some also required up to 40 hours of pre-training. Ultimately, it was very difficult to cultivate all the sites and supervise their quality.

One of the other challenges was the group blog. I honestly didn’t really know how to grade the blog, and it eventually became mostly participation points since it was such a personal journal. It also became too much work for students when combined with 15 hours of service work, the website, and the midterm exam.

I taught the course again this past fall (2009) and have already implemented some changes based on these observations.

  1. I no longer included a service learning component to the course. Students still did the group website-building project, but instead based it on library research, in-depth interviews, and participant observations at the places of their choice. In the future, I may make the service learning component an option in addition to the library research.
  2. When I first redesigned this course I used lesson planning software, which meant that students sent me their documents for the discussion agenda and I posted them to Blackboard. I was also the one finding Youtube videos to connect with readings. As I mentioned above, however, my cultural references were often not relevant to students, and ultimately the work became too much for me. In Fall 2009, instead of using the lesson planning software, students posted their discussion agendas to the Blackboard Wiki tool and found their own Youtube videos to connect with the readings. Students were usually able to find relevant images that I had never thought to look for, and in general the wikis look quite professional.
  3. I incorporated a midterm peer review session for the final project. Previously they had only a final review once they concluded their work. I thought it would be helpful to have a midterm review so they could reflect on what they had learned from their peers for the final project. I also added a final revision to the project so they could revise based on what they had learned.

One of the key things I’ve taken out of this experience is that I now really believe in students’ abilities. The whole reason I used to do everything myself was that I didn’t trust the students to lead a discussion-based class. I worried that they would get basic facts wrong or that the discussion would go in directions I had not anticipated. But now I realize that students are actually pretty responsible, especially when they have to present to their peers. In addition, stronger students are often able to help out weaker students, so everyone benefits.

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