I see the influx of first-generation students and an increasingly diversified student body as the most exciting and urgent pedagogical challenges facing higher education today. American secondary school students receive far less public funding for college than ever before. In addition, policies like Common Core have normalized the linking of funding to high-risk standardized testing — traumatizing students with constant assessment while also woefully underpreparing them for college courses. First-generation students are in an even more difficult position than most. According to the National center for Education Statistics, around 40% of students currently enrolled in higher education are the first generation of their family to attend college. The resources that first-generation students bring to college are often undervalued by academic programs in the United States, conversely, the economic and cultural norms of middle- and upper-class students make it easier for them to succeed. While first-generation students confront the uncertainties of a precarious job market along with the social challenges highlighted by the recent focus on campus sexual assault and the systemic racism described by the Black Lives Matter movement, how much can a traditional British Literature course speak to their concerns? Too many times, I have seen Latino/a/x, Japanese, and Indian students struggle through 1,000 pages of British Victorian prose by Charles Dickens only to fail to see themselves in any of his characters.

Our students at Washington State University are passionate about social change, and they enthusiastically undertake difficult assignments and wrestle with complex ideas if they understand their relevance. On the other hand, they also have no patience for professors who don’t listen to them and don’t care about their lives. When I decided to completely overhaul my DTC 375 and DTC 101 courses during the Fall of 2016, I took lessons from Senior Exit Surveys I conducted as “Assessment Coordinator” for the DTC program. Many students wanted more hands-on experiences and less reading. My resulting DTC 375 course on “Media Histories” included readings, but I decided that — unlike my literature courses — DTC courses should not be primarily focused on the act of reading text. Instead, my course included hands-on experiences with Edison phonographs from WSU Library’s special collections, a questionnaire Marshall McLuhan gave students about architecture and education in 1977, and a video file uploaded to YouTube over 1,000 times to demonstrate the impact of video compression on signal quality. I also redesigned the syllabus using recommendations from Anne-Marie Womack’s website The Accessible Syllabus, which urges professors to use images to compliment the written communication of course objectives; and to establish a rhetoric of inclusion, cooperation, and invitation over a style of paternalistic commands or contractual detail. The result was one of the most successful courses I’ve ever taught during my career as a teacher in higher education. One student commented that the history portion of the course should be made even longer: “I loved going and looking at old technology, but expanding on that would be amazing and really useful. Overall such a great professor and class!”