There is an increasing emphasis in higher education on promoting student voice and engagement, positioning students as partners in the teaching and learning process. There are multiple projects underway across the University in this respect. In this post, Dr Meryl Kenny, describes one such project: the student-staff co-creation of the pre-Honours course Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World, as part of the University of Edinburgh-EUSA Gender Initiative…
Understanding Gender ran for the first time in 2016-17, open to pre-Honours students from across the University, and intended to provide an accessible introduction to the study of gender from an inter-disciplinary social science perspective. Crucially, it was also co-created with students –through the course Social and Political Science in Practice, an SPS framework for Honours students to undertake faculty-student collaboration on research, teaching or public engagement. I piloted this framework for the first time in 2015-16, with a group of twelve final year undergraduate students from SPS and PPLS. The majority of SPS in Practice was run by these students, through group work where they identified topics core to the Understanding Gender course, and then piloted and tested themed learning resources and activities. A full overview of the structure, assessment and outputs of the SPS in Practice course is available here, in a University Senate presentation delivered by myself and former SPS in Practice student James Bryson (MA Politics).
Curriculum Co-Creation: Benefits
SPS in Practice students reported positive views of their experiences in developing the Understanding Gender course – highlighting how the process had (re)invigorated and renewed their enthusiasm and engagement with the learning process. They particularly enjoyed engaging with pedagogical literature – particularly feminist pedagogy – and in doing so, felt they were able to gain a different perspective and understanding of their own learning.
Feedback from SPS in Practice also emphasized the significance of collectively contributing to something valuable to the University, highlighting the importance of being entrusted with responsibilities with real-life consequences. Students positively referenced their sense of ownership over the course, as well as the benefits of being part of a ‘project with a purpose’, rather than simply doing ‘coursework for the sake of assessment’.
Curriculum Co-Creation: Challenges
Engaging students in curriculum development can be both empowering and disempowering. The process of creating a course like Understanding Gender involves vertical and horizontal relationships across the University with multiple stakeholders – this means that students are not always operating as equal partners in what is a much wider process.
Participatory approaches also risk placing an uncritical value on ‘student voice’, or unquestioningly reifying student views. Some students may feel more equipped than others to negotiate these kinds of collaborative partnerships and communicate their ideas, whilst others may struggle to share ownership of these kinds of projects. A feminist pedagogical approach reminds us to ask: Whose voices do we hear? And where are the silences and margins?
The final potential challenge is that of resources and incentives – SPS in Practice was a time-intensive model of teaching, even on a small scale. This has costs, particularly within a wider HE climate which privileges research and publication over teaching recognition; in which students are viewed as ‘consumers’; and where rising student numbers mean that these kinds of close interactions are more difficult to establish. Non-hierarchical relationships with students may also pose a disproportionate burden on particular types of staff – particularly women, who face gendered expectations of caring and pastoral roles, as well as added work demands from students.
Ultimately, the Understanding Gender experience was one that both students and staff found rewarding, with a significant institutional contribution made in terms of new knowledge and co-created curricula. Indeed, our SPS in Practice students (though now graduated) continue to contribute to the course – returning to speak about their experiences in the opening lecture of Understanding Gender each year, as well as sitting in on lectures and tutorials when they are able to throughout the semester.