On Campus

In this class you're the professor

A program at UBC lets students design courses

These 14 business students are so excited about the graphs they’re about to present to their peers that they do rock-paper-scissors to see which group goes first. The guy from the first group is off to a good start, but then freezes chalk in hand when he gets to the fourth variable. Melissa DeLucci pipes in from the front row. “My professor always said that graphing more than three variables at once is only possible with high quality crystal meth.” The class erupts into laughter. This is the rare type of class where everyone appreciates graphing humour. This is also the rare type of classroom where students run the show—with no professor, no exam and almost no rules.

Leadership in Social Enterprise is one of 27 Student Directed Seminars (SDS) offered for full credit this year at the University of British Columbia (UBC). More than 70 students applied for 15 spots in this particular class, which is the brainchild of fifth-year commerce students Paulina Lipska and Fiona McGynn. These students are so passionate about social enterprise — the idea that social causes like fighting homelessness can be tackled with business acumen — that they decided to create their own class. They submitted a syllabus to the SDS Committee in the spring, worked out the kinks with a mentor professor over the summer and then weeded out any potential slackers by asking all 70 applicants to write an essay in early September. Last semester I sat in on a few of their classes to see if they really can handle the responsibility of running a classroom.

When the last graph is up on the board, Lipska turns to the class to suggest that they take an in-class exercise and graph it with real statistics. “Wouldn’t it be cool?” she says. Extra homework? Cool? These students may be enthusiastic, but who’s going to agree to extra homework during midterms?

While there’s no official rule-book for the SDS, coordinators like Lipska are trained to guide their peers to a consensus about things like adding (or, more likely, subtracting) homework. She asks the students to vote. Seven claim to be actually in favour of more homework. Four bravely raise their hands in opposition. Three abstain. Lipska continues to make her case for more homework and then they vote again. Miraculously, without the glare of professors or the potential of bonus marks, they agree to take on the extra homework. When I see them two weeks later, they have actually done their extra homework. Peer pressure is a powerful thing.

The SDS program came to UBC when the student union president at the time, Vivian Hoffman, caught wind of a similar program at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. Hoffman enlisted the help of her favorite sociology professor, Dr. Neil Guppy, who helped guide her through the administrative hurdles she needed to clear to get their experiment approved. Since 1999, it’s grown from four seminars to nearly 30 per year, spanning everything from Topics in Stem Cell Research to Anarchism in Daily Life.

The idea behind SDS may be simple, but it’s certainly not new. Educational theorists like Paulo Freire have long supported the idea that students sharing ideas with students might produce a more democratic society than universities where students are seen as blank canvases to paint on. A component of peer grading is also commonplace in upper level seminars. What’s truly radical about the SDS is that respected institutions like UBC are trusting students to develop their own curriculum and grade each other without supervision while still giving them full credit.

Finding time to meet with Lipska is no small task, but she finally agreed to meet me at a café on campus. On top of the ten to 15 hours per week that she often spends on administering the SDS, she also takes classes like a normal student and runs a charity called Young Women in Business.

Lipska decided to propose an SDS because she knew that there were other students out there who wanted to parlay their commerce degrees into something more rewarding than a sales job. Not only that, the idea of sitting through another case study projected onto a giant screen was enough to make her want to abandon the race before completing her victory lap. When I ask her why regular classes had lost their appeal she throws her head back and laughs like I’m asking something really obvious. “Ha! Someone talking at me for 50 minutes didn’t work for me.” She tempers her answer with something more businesslike. “I learn a lot more by collaborating and sharing ideas.”

Lipska is not the radical overthrow-the-capitalist-overlords type that I expected the SDS to draw. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. (She is, after all, a commerce student.) Lipska even agrees that the typical professor-drawing-on-student-canvas formula works well enough for courses like economics. It’s just that when it comes to ideas which have no right and wrong answers, like social enterprise, doesn’t it make more sense to discuss ideas over a beer in the campus pub than under the glare of fluorescent lights in a lecture hall? Why shouldn’t students get a credit for sharing their ideas? Her class may never take place in the pub, but it is a lot closer to a cheers-filled conversation than a typical fourth-year seminar.

The SDS has also allowed Lipska to do something that rarely happens in the classroom. She made connections with people who are actually doing what she wants to when she graduates — building social enterprises in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. She and McGynn proposed that the final project in their class consist of a real business plan that students develop for a real social enterprise that could use their expertise. Her hope is that every student in the class will finish this semester with new ideas, new contacts and marketable skills.

It’s that kind of innovation in education that makes Dr. Neil Guppy get up in the morning. It’s why the sociology professor has spent years studying education, teaching students sociology and working in administration at UBC. His resume includes Dean of Arts and a short stint as Vice President Academic.

In his office on the table in front of me are bunches of paper arrayed in a precarious pile. On top is a stack of colour thumbnails of students with names and comments beside them. I figure that’s a noble attempt to keep track of how well his students are doing. I note that Dr. Guppy may believe in innovative education, but he still believes in grades.

On the white board behind him, he’s scribbled out words like ‘naïve democracy’ and ‘power reproducing elites.’ It’s his way of conceptualizing how universities determine who gets elected to public office, he says, for a paper he’s writing. “In the U.K., if you go to Oxford, Cambridge or the University of London, you can become Prime Minster. It doesn’t matter what you study. But in the U.S. and Canada  . . .  you go to law school,” he explains. “I’m trying to figure out why that is.” Like Lipska, Dr. Guppy obviously believes in questioning the system, from within the system, of course.

Dr. Guppy agrees with Lipska that students should take the lead in some courses, but by no means in all courses. In fact, he cringes at the possibility of more than 50 student directed seminars per year. With a maximum of 15 students in each, that would mean no more than 750 students could enroll in any given year, a small fraction of UBC’s 37,000 undergrads.

This is when I realize that the SDS is more about tweaking the power structure than overthrowing it. “There is a kind of legitimacy that’s offered to educational institutions and we maintain that with a whole variety of rituals,” he explains. “We talk about having exams, we talk about grading and evaluating and quizzing and assigning. And so far, members of the political elite and the general public say yeah, you seem to be doing a reasonable job.” In other words, universities have earned the public’s trust with the status quo, so let’s not screw it up.

One way the SDS could screw up the reputation universities have acquired is if students continue to give disproportionately high grades to each other in these courses. Dr. Guppy admits that grade inflation is the “Achilles Heel” of the SDS. The average is consistently around 82 per cent, five per cent higher than the typical grade received by fourth-year arts students. That makes the program vulnerable to anyone worried about fair grade comparisons and academic standards. Dr. Guppy doesn’t deny that part of the grade inflation is the result of students going easy on their friends, but he also offers other explanations. “It could just be that students who are attracted [to SDS] have higher grades, or are smarter, or more motivated.” In Lipska’s class, since 75 per cent of applicants were weeded out with an essay, one might expect a lot of As.

Some students are worried for a different reason. Kelsey Friesen is a commerce student with at least as much on her plate as Lipska, including a full-course load, and a teaching assistant job. When I meet with her a week after midterms, she vented about the fact that she still didn’t have clear instructions on how her final grade will be determined. Not only does she want her fellow students to nail down the criteria for the final grade, she also loathes the idea that her peers could give her a lower grade than the “high 80s and low 90s” that she usually gets in her electives. For Friesen, who may apply to law school or an MBA program one day, trusting her grade to the competition is scary.

Michael LaPointe, who coordinated an SDS on the intersection of Shakespeare and Star Trek last fall calls the peer grading system “junk.” LaPointe looks every bit like the spindly misfit one might expect to be propose a class called Shakespeare: The Final Frontier.

The English Department refused to have his course designated as an English credit, he says, in part because they questioned the legitimacy of students grading students. Even though LaPointe was determined to prove them wrong by making his class challenging, his peers still managed to give each other final grades ranging from 75 per cent to 92 per cent. LaPointe thinks the legitimacy of SDS courses could be boosted in the eyes of English Department skeptics if only student coordinators were empowered to do all the marking themselves.

Dr. Guppy is annoyed at that proposition. If facilitators ask to do all the grading themselves, they simply haven’t read their job description right. Student coordinators must sign a contract that explicitly states that “the coordinator’s role is that of a facilitator, not an instructor.” (The bold and italics appear only once in the contract.)  “I guess the bottom line here is we don’t want the coordinators or facilitators to be teachers,” says Dr. Guppy. “And what teachers do is they tend to lecture and mark.”

The blurry line between “instructor” and “coordinator” could be considered a second Achilles Heel of the program; if it’s difficult for student coordinators to resist the urge to grade, it’s even more difficult for student coordinators to resist the urge to lecture. In Shakespeare: The Final Frontier, LaPointe says he quickly realized that the other students expected him to teach the course like a TA would. “It became apparent after the second seminar that most of the students were showing up to watch me do these conceptual acrobatics in front of them,” he recalls. “After that it became more of a lecture based class.

I’m back in Leadership in Social Enterprise trying to find out if it’s even possible for students who know their subject well to resist the urge to take on that forbidden teacher role. I’m reassured that at least Lipska has struck a balance between guiding a discussion and imparting her expertise. She has a vision for their business plan project, but it’s only a rough sketch. Nothing is set in stone. She answers many questions about the project with a question of her own. “What do you guys think?” It’s their project just as much as hers.

Friesen actually wants the coordinators to take a bit more of a lead in the class. “It would be a fantastic class if it there was a bit more teaching by the instructors,” she says. It’s up to the coordinators to explain on the first day of class that they’re not supposed to teach. Perhaps Friesen was expecting something a little more like the seminar she teaches. That Lispka and McGynn are not paid teaching assistants is obviously not getting through to every student.

Perhaps that’s because the other students watch the coordinators do a lot more work in the course than they do themselves. That huge workload makes paying tuition money a sore point for facilitators. (Achilles heel number three, perhaps?) LaPointe thinks it’s unfair that coordinators are paying tuition when they’re taking over the administrative tasks of a teaching assistant for free. He also thinks it’s a bit scandalous that the tuition payments are the same size, even though there are obvious cost savings with no professor in the room. “The fact that [UBC] is getting these rooms full of 15 students and everyone is paying and getting credits out of it is absurd,” says LaPointe.

But the idea of giving a free credit to coordinators or lowering the price of the credits just doesn’t fit with the mantra of the program — that students are equals. Students who think they should be compensated are missing the point, says Dr. Guppy. “What that would do, to me, is set up authority figure and students,” he says.

While he’s admits that the courses cost less to run than most seminars, he says the savings are much less significant than people think. He guesses that the savings from no professor or TA work out to about 25 per cent of the cost, but that’s before all the extra time that the Student Development Office and the professors who oversee the program pitch in currently for free. For there to be any major savings, the SDS would have to grow much larger than the current 27 seminars a year and far beyond the magic number of 50 seminars that he thinks is the maximum size.

That’s the truly ironic fact about the SDS program. Dr. Guppy appears to have found a model to break down power structures at university, but he only thinks it will work if it stays — well — elite.