Peer teaching has been an important part of the Experimental College since 1966, and has consistently been a success for both the students teaching and the students taking classes. Last spring the ExCollege had four student-taught courses ranging from “The Politics of Drug Prohibition,” “Explorations in Western Travel Literature,” and “YouTube: Business and Creative Success” to a very popular course called “Is The Nook a Book?” This course was taught by two seniors, Zanny Allport and Emily Carlin, although peer teaching is not restricted to team-taught classes, nor is it restricted to seniors.
Reflections on Peer Teaching:
ZA: Emily and I first came up with the idea of teaching a course on reading and technology after having many lively, informal conversations about the topic. It was something that interested us and that we actually managed to find quite a lot written about. While reading was a lens that Emily and I, as avid readers, were particularly excited about, if I had to design the course again I may have chosen a different angle, since it seemed like what people were truly interested in was societal effects of technology.
EC: The summer after my freshman year of college I read a book called You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier. It’s an assessment of how digital technology is affecting our lives. That led me to read more books about the relationship between humans and technology. Since then, the way technology affects people as individuals, in relationships and in society has been my primary academic interest.
ZA: Teaching with Emily was overall a great experience. I thought we worked particularly well as a team because we have such different academic backgrounds that offered students two very different angles. We also get along very well, so we rarely encountered any tension when working through minor differences in opinion regarding organizational or pedagogical strategies. I’m very happy that I was teaching with a partner, because it was very nice to have someone to debrief with after each class and talk about which strategies worked well and which didn’t.
EC: I loved the experience of teaching with Zanny. I have immense respect for her as a thinker and a teacher, and so I felt like I was learning all the time just from our conversations about teaching and preparations for class. Also, from a purely practical standpoint, I think I learned a lot about collaboration and communication. Luckily we were already good friends and communicators, so we had that built in, but it drove home the importance of frequent and honest dialogue. I think that the only downside to teaching with another person is that you can enable each other’s inertia, in some ways. What I mean is that if she didn’t reach out to me about creating a lesson plan (or vice versa), it was easier to avoid creating one until the last minute, which wouldn’t have been the case if [I] had been teaching alone.
ZA: In general, teaching was something I’d always been interested in. My experience as a peer teacher through the ExCollege confirmed my interest in pursuing teaching. I think that I have some natural abilities that make me well suited to teaching, like a facility with speaking in front of other people and an ability to facilitate group discussions. Teaching was a great opportunity for me to hone those skills I already had and build new ones, like working closely on a teaching team with someone and lesson planning. I think that the greatest challenge of peer teaching, in particular, was not that it was difficult to maintain the social distance necessary for maintaining a quasi-professional student-teacher dynamic, but that it was difficult [knowing] when to impose our own personal understandings of the material rather than allowing students to gain their own understandings through discussion.
EC: Teaching was great. It was really exciting to share something that I am excited about and believe to be worth thinking about with a group of smart and interested peers. I was surprised by how much I learned, and I think a lot of this had to do with it being peer teaching. One thing that I learned is that less can be more — when we would take our time with activities and discussions, they’d tend to evolve into interesting and involved experiences. This turned out to be a better way to do things than jam-packing the class plan with a bunch of activities. We didn’t do a ton of lecture style classes, but sometimes (especially near the beginning of the semester) we’d have mini lectures on specific topics. I found these really fun, and I learned a lot by putting them together. I already felt pretty comfortable as a public speaker from past experiences, but this reinforced my confidence. I’m sure some of it had to do with getting to know everyone, but by the end of the semester I felt totally comfortable presenting to the group. I’m really happy that I decided to teach a class. It made me want to teach more in the future, and added further fuel to my wanting-to-go-to-grad-school fire.
This article was compiled from end of the semester evaluations written by Zanny Allport and Emily Carlin, alumnae from the class of 2014.