Faculty members often fight for their freedom. This is especially urgent and important when civil liberties are limited or under attack. Working for an American university in the Middle East, I am well aware of attempts to silence dissenting voices and enforce conformity in Arab countries and the United States.
Professors anywhere like to demand the maximum autonomy in their teaching and research. Many of us would love to choose our own path in how we contribute to knowledge and the world. We like to pick our means of dissemination (whether paper or podcast) and oppose any censorship of what we say and write. Committed to the value of diversity, we should respect and cherish a variety of forms and thought.
Yet how often do we give our students the same freedoms we claim for ourselves? Do we allow them to create anything from a poem to an essay to a visual artwork in a course—and with any message? I have tried to do so while teaching history at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar since 2013—and have so far gotten away with it.
I tell my students that I provide the content, but they select the skills they want to develop. In a course on European history, for instance, they will learn about the usual revolutions: the Scientific, the Industrial, the French Revolution, et cetera. I attempt to familiarize them with current academic debates through material produced by leading scholars. However, they can decide what to make of these topics.
If a student wants to become a filmmaker, she could write a screenplay set in eighteenth-century France. If another pursues a degree in painting and printmaking, he can create an image reflecting on the legacy of a particular turning point in history. Each student can focus on what they want to get better at: whether writing or drawing or another activity. In the process, they make up their own mind about the past.
The Problem of Grading Fairly
Do I allow one student to write a poem and another to craft an essay for the same assignment? Yes. But can I even attempt to grade fairly, if one submits a movie script and another a painting? Are these media incommensurable? Probably yes. It is certainly impossible to create a unified rubric across all visual and textual genres. The allocation of points or percentages to a piece of work thus risks being arbitrary.