Features  Liberating the classroom

The Indyclass collective develops a model for more applicable learning

Indyclass was started in the fall of 2008 by a group of students who wanted to change the way our education worked at McGill, and who decided to make this a reality by starting a class that we would run ourselves. We received course credit by applying individually to independent study courses in our departments, but the bulk of the class happened collectively.  In our class sessions – which technically never showed up on the University’s paper trail – we developed a collective syllabus on prisons, our shared topic of interest. Class members took turns choosing readings and facilitating discussiona each week. The result was an empowering space for learning, in which we created a sense of shared responsibility and non-hierarchy. The collective, collaborative set-up made things more unpredictable and ad-hoc, but also more rewarding, because there was a sense of participation and commitment from all of us.

The class was an opportunity to connect ourselves, as students, with groups in Montreal doing prisoner solidarity work. This is different from typical classes at McGill, which prioritize the perspective of the distant, objective analyst. We often read and engage with theories, but seldom with the struggles, movements, and campaigns happening right now, all around us. By starting our own class, we were able to learn what we wanted, in a way that was relevant and connected to our politics and commitments outside of school. This year we have become a working group of QPIRG-McGill, joining them in making more links between students and community groups committed to social and environmental justice.

Collectively organizing a class with a group of like-minded individuals also meant that we could encourage and be supportive of one another, in conscious opposition to the competitive, individualistic academic culture that seems to otherwise prevail at McGill. We all believe that learning should be motivated by engagement, responsibility, and pleasure, not stress, guilt, and deadlines. It was inspiring for us to be able to put this into practice by figuring out new ways of learning, and also new ways of relating to each other in the process. These are lessons and relationships that have carried on well beyond the end of that semester.

Our experience with the class raises some fundamental questions about the organization of the University as we know it. If we can run our own classes as students, do professors always need to have the central authority roles that they currently occupy in most classrooms? What happens to tuition fees once more of our learning is self-directed?  The viability of Indyclass suggests that collective self-organization can and should play a larger role in the general operations of the University.  The implications are perhaps even broader, as we might apply the principle that in education, as in all walks of life, we are most engaged when we are motivated not by deference to authority, but by a sense of responsibility to one another and to ourselves.

If you’re interested in starting an Indyclass, let us know. As a working group of QPIRG-McGill, we’re encouraging students to start their own classes, and supporting them along the way as much as we can. It can take a while to get a group together to organize a class, define the topic, find professors to supervise, and do enough background reading to create an outline of the syllabus. To give enough time for this preparation we suggest starting to talk to friends now about doing a class in the fall semester of 2010, and working on it over the summer so you’re ready to start in September. Good luck, and we hope that you can have as much fun with it as we did.

Cleve Higgins, Shayla Chilliak, and Nat Marshik are all recent graduates of McGill, and Taylor Lewis is finishing her last semester. The Indyclass Collective can be reached at indyclass@gmail.com, and more information is available at indyclass.wordpress.com.