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Professor Rock Star

May 11, 2012

John Boyer, Virginia Tech

Superstar. Charlatan. Virtuoso. It’s easy to succumb to superlatives when first hearing about a professor who regularly teaches a class so popular that enrollment has gradually climbed to nearly 3,000 students. John Boyer, recently profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education, teaches a “World Regions” class at Virginia Tech that surveys contemporary issues and events around the globe. With his trademark plaid jacket, wacky humor, pop-culture references, and creative use of online media, Boyer seems to have mastered the art of engaging students and getting them interested in global affairs. And he’s clearly having a lot of fun.

Critics say Boyer’s students are more entertained than educated, but the two don’t necessarily conflict, as long as the basic purpose remains clear. Students don’t learn more when they’re bored.

Other critics may say that Boyer’s energetic use of online media reinforces the worst tendencies of our consumer culture, pandering to the easily distracted, image-driven, sound-bite habits of today’s students. But one lively class isn’t going to shorten anyone’s attention span, and maybe a professor who embraces such tendencies will be better able to enlist students in analyzing them.

On his website Boyer explains:

Today’s students have evolved past utilizing traditional lectures, face-to-face office hours, and even email as primary communication devices. Like it or not, this generation of learners is tied into multiple platforms of instantaneous information exchange, and instead of fighting it, I have chosen to embrace this ‘lingua franca’ in order to increase interaction between myself and the students, but just as important, between the students themselves. This 1) increases accessibility of the instructor as a resource, 2) provides multiple avenues for information dissemination, but also 3) builds a ‘course community’ that takes on a life of its own.

During class, Boyer uses one giant screen for his lecture slides and a second screen for student tweets and instant class polls. He also conducts in-class Skype interviews, and last December he scored an interview with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi of Myanmar. Between classes Boyer uses Facebook, Twitter, video podcasts, and online office hours to keep students engaged. He grades students based on points they acquire from a variety of exams, quizzes, and short assignments, and students choose how to accumulate points. If they miss a deadline, students can just pick another assignment, so Boyer doesn’t need to evaluate excuses or arrange extensions. He has one technical assistant and a couple of teaching assistants, but there are no traditional discussion sections. For details, check out Boyer’s website, syllabus, and a podcast from a recent SXSW presentation.

From what I’ve gathered, Boyer’s students learn a lot of basic facts about world affairs, and they get inspired to learn a lot more. They probably don’t have much chance to improve their writing skills, and even the lively interaction between Boyer and his students can’t replace the genuine discussion possible in a small class. Indeed, Boyer is quick to say that he would never want all classes to adopt his format. He has a flamboyant personality, he devotes an enormous amount of time to his class, and not all faculty could or should teach a class like his. But aspects of Boyer’s learner-centered pedagogy also apply to small classes. As part of a diverse pedagogic mix, Boyer’s approach is worth checking out.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    June 13, 2012 2:44 PM

    I definitely agree this form of teaching can be motivating for the entire university system. Being an inspired student in one course does carry over to others (I make this argument from my own experience as a student), which has the potential to create inspiration in those other courses. Students can seem like zombies on campus so it would be nice to see more out of the box instruction like Boyer’s.

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