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Integrating Democratic Education at Stonehill
“If you could teach any class, what would you want to teach?” As a sophomore at Stonehill College, I was surprised when my Introduction to Sociology professor asked me this question during office hours after a class discussion about why students don’t take action on campus. As I pondered his question, my mind raced through potential class topics: yoga and mindfulness, sustainability and simple living, humanitarian aid and development. The possibilities were endless.
During this conversation, Professor Christopher Wetzel and I reflected on the lack of engagement we saw on campus. He was dissatisfied with lackluster classroom discussions, and I was disappointed by my peers’ unwillingness to attend campus events. Although students had passions, they did not have meaningful channels through which to express themselves. Thus, we strategized ways to incite more active learning. As a student who craves intellectual stimulation through creative learning processes and a professor who cares deeply about fostering collaborative and academically rigorous learning environments, we teamed up to create an interdisciplinary program that would empower students to take ownership of their educations: Integrating Democratic Education At Stonehill (IDEAS).
A small, private liberal arts institution, Stonehill offers students opportunities to become effective leaders, global citizens, and agents of change through extracurricular activities, study abroad programs, and other experiences that reflect an institutional commitment to service and social justice. Students also form strong collaborative relationships with faculty members by working as research partners and teaching assistants. IDEAS is an outlet for students to further develop their identities as leaders and change agents by designing and facilitating classes attended by their peers. Students from all class years and academic backgrounds participate as instructors and pupils, investing in their learning by working collaboratively and thinking critically, practicing classroom leadership, and creatively synthesizing knowledge and practical experiences.
Since the inaugural semester in spring 2013, students have offered one-credit IDEAS classes (held once a week for two and a half hours) on topics such as baseball statistics, the chemistry of baking, environmental activism, exercise and health, and mystic ritual. In order to make the program accessible to students, classes typically meet on weekends or in the evenings. Students apply to become IDEAS instructors by submitting proposals for class topics. In addition to facilitating classes, instructors participate in a four-credit pedagogy seminar where they meet once a week to deepen their understanding of democratic education, shape the direction of the program, and share useful teaching practices. During the inaugural semester, I cofacilitated this pedagogy seminar with Chris Wetzel.
My experience as an interdisciplinary studies major empowered me to help create the IDEAS program. In order to design my own major, I had to think intentionally about what I wanted out of my education while strategically piecing together courses from six different disciplines. Paving my own academic path allowed me to take full advantage of Stonehill’s liberal arts curriculum in a way that propelled me toward my goal of working in international development. Like my major, the creation of IDEAS required creativity and strategic thinking. I appreciated the opportunity to develop a partnership with a professor who believed in my ability to make decisions and valued my input. The administration’s support for the program showed me that the institution’s leadership valued student–faculty partnerships and trusted the program’s potential to enhance students’ learning experiences.
My participation in the IDEAS program has profoundly affected my educational and professional trajectory. Currently, I am living in rural Tanzania, working with a group of women who have started a food processing business to enhance their food and income security. I am constantly reminded of democratic education principles as we work together to test new products, expand to bigger markets, and develop our skills through business trainings and other opportunities. By exposing me to different ways of both teaching and learning, the IDEAS program also inspired me to want to become a professor, ideally in an interdisciplinary program focused on international development. Democratic education will be at the core of my teaching philosophy, where it will serve as the platform for idea sharing, student-to-student and student-to-faculty collaboration, and active educational engagement.
Hailey Chalhoub is a 2013 graduate of Stonehill College.