Blog Post

Reflection: A Precarious Student Turns Into a Precarious Professor



So, some background on your favorite criminologist*. When I was in college, I was not exactly the ideal student. I displayed excellent writing skills, participated in a lot of different clubs, tackled difficult subjects head on, and continually improved my ability to look critically at a variety of issues, seeing the logic or rationale behind arguments that I might have thought ridiculous at first glance. But I was also constantly late in getting to class, I couldn’t afford much in the way of resources, and needed assignment extensions throughout my last year. If it hadn’t been for a bit of luck and a lot of support from family, friends, and my understanding professors, I may very well have failed out of college. In some of these respects, I still have issues.

In short, I was what Rajiv Jhangiani would call a “precarious student“. I was someone who did not, who COULD not afford to make college coursework a top priority, much less his first. I won’t go into too much detail, suffice it to say I’ve been dealing with elder care giving, institutional screw-ups of the financial persuasion, and/or inconvenient timing with a variety of health issues (not always my own) since I was eleven years old. And as of next semester, I’m also slated to start teaching an undergraduate course.

I am not a tenure-track professor, I am not a paid instructor, I’m not even an adjunct faculty member, I am a doctoral student who will be teaching Peace and Violence. Not the most precarious position, but hardly what I’d call secure. Nevertheless, I carry a moral duty to help students avoid the institutional obstacles which blocked myself and my peers in college.** That starts with my classroom and how we, that is, the students and I, operate it. As part of my efforts to implement a critical pedagogy which I define as “teaching and learning as a shared interaction to challenge the preconceived knowledge and perceptions leading to individual empowerment and social change” as well as an open pedagogy which allows us (again, students and I) to counter structural obstacles, I submit several excerpts from my initial syllabus for my upcoming Peace and Violence class for scrutiny and feedback. These excerpts reflect my current strategies to challenge systemic issues with grading, resource access, and the student-professor power dynamics.

Resource Access


There is no text book for this class. However, as part of this semester’s coursework, I expect you to find and read a book on a relevant topic to this class.  If there is a book you want to read but are having difficulty acquiring, let me know ASAP and I will do what I can. 


Unless otherwise instructed, technology including laptops, tablets, netbooks, and mobile phones are permitted within the classroom. However, phones should be silenced and stored whenever possible unless you can demonstrate that you’re using it to take notes. Refrain from using social media, sending messages, checking the news, reviewing sports standings, or watching videos. If you need to send out a message or make a phone call, be quick and discreet or exit the classroom until you have finished. If you cause a distraction, you will be asked to stop. Twice, and you will be asked to leave.


I do not take attendance, however, if you miss a participatory activity in class it will go down as a zero unless you have an excused absence or promptly contacted me regarding missing the class. In either event, I will have you complete a substitute exercise.


I handle grades in this class a little unusually. I don’t use grades as a punishment.

Rather, you will receive feedback on what you’ve done and what you need to work on. As long as you give an honest effort to meet the course requirements, you will not have an issue. I will give updates bi-weekly and will  ensure that you receive some feedback,.

The only grade that will carry formal weight will be the final grade, which will report whether or not you’ve made this effort and should be allowed to proceed onto higher level courses.

In particular, I look for the following:

-Class Discussion or Participation

-Information Retention

-Meaningful Analysis

-Critical Thinking


During these weeks, you will pick one of a set of designated readings and you will become an “expert” on  it.  Towards the end of class on Monday, you will spend fifteen minutes with the other “experts”. On Wednesday, you will spend half the class in a group where you will discuss the key themes of your reading and hear others do the same. You will then bring these themes together into a meaningful product to share with the rest of the class. Guidelines and suggestions will be given during each session.


While I expect you to be skeptical of assumptions and to find some of the information here shocking, I do not reward disrespect. Be attentive, be quiet and listen when others are speaking, and do not stigmatize others for their ignorance.

I understand that students sometimes have needs which might clash with the rules. I am open to making reasonable accommodations. I can be reached via e-mail or in person during my office hours. If there’s an emergency, let me know ASAP. If you require accommodations or have concerns about a course requirement(s), please feel free to contact me.


The final two weeks of class will be devoted to students discussing what they have learned from this class, how they want to act on that knowledge, and where we want to go in future courses.

Whether you’re a GEDI participant, a colleague of mine, a prospective student, or someone who happened to stumble on this entry, please feel free to offer your own thoughts, concerns, and questions.

* Your favorite criminologist is still in training at the time of this entry.
** I carry many more moral obligations, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on this one.

EDIT (4/16/19): The current syllabus for Peace and Violence can be found here. (Opens in new tab)

19 Responses

  1. Jon, I really appreciate how you are taking things we have learned in this class and immediately incorporating them in to the classes you are scheduled to teach. As a student, I would have been excited by the prospect of choosing my own book to read for the course, but I am curious how you would facilitate that as an instructor. Would you provide a list of suggested suitable texts? How would you gauge the quality of the book a student had selected (particularly if it is a book you have not read)? I just want more information about the feasibility because I am intrigued by incorporating book choice into my classes as well!

    1. Heather,

      Thank you so much for the feedback!

      So, my plan for this particular course is to provide some mandatory readings in the traditional style (articles, encyclopedia entries, relevant videos, etc.) but in addition, to have them read a book with substantial relation to the topic we’re discussing. I would provide some recommendations on the book and on how best to obtain it, but I’d be open to student suggestions for relevant books as well. If it’s a book I’ve not read, I’ll do some digging and read up on it, seeing what others say about it before I give the student an affirmation or recommend a different book.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Thanks so much for your post! I really appreciate that you give an example of how you are planning to specifically apply some of the topics we have covered in the GEDI course this semester. I especially like the idea of allowing students to choose their own book for the course. I believe that if I had been allowed that opportunity as a student that I may have been more invested in really exploring and digesting what was in the material than with a required text. I also resonated with your grading policy. I hope to employ a similar approach when teaching my own courses in the future.

  3. Hi Jon,

    I think in many classes it is quite feasible to allow students to choose some of their own reading. The field of academic textbooks and publications and online material (open or paid) is so vast and diverse that I don’t see why we can not leave it to our student’s judgment to choose something they are actually excited to read and learn about. Thanks for sharing the outline of your syllabus. The pdf one looks amazing !

    1. Arash,

      Agreed wholeheartedly! This was a method used in a joint Sociology/Geography class I took in undergrad. The book I chose ended up being one of the best I’d ever read for a course. And thank you for your compliments on my PDF design!

  4. Hey Jon, great post and kudos to you that are already applying what we have learnt in this class. I really like your approach to text books, grading and feedback part. It is important for new teachers like us to actually incorporate these approaches in the classes we teach. Thanks for sharing this and inspiring us all !

  5. Hi Jon,

    Thank you for sharing your personal and classroom experiences and how they’ve impacted you in developing your pedagogy and syllabus. I love the PDF of the syllabus and how its laid out – is it aesthetically pleasing to look at and the images encompass what your course is targeting. One question I did have was regarding your required texts. I am a huge fan of the no-textbook for a course, but I am slightly curious about how students can pinpoint sources that are accurate and reliable. With the number of different textbooks and journals that exist, how would a student who is unfamiliar with determining what sources to use or read would go about doing so. Would there be any potential guidance from you to help do so? Or would the expectation be for them to determine that themselves?

    1. Hi Minh,

      Thanks for the feedback and the compliments! So, what I’m hoping to do with this course is provide some mandatory readings in the traditional style (articles, encyclopedia entries, relevant videos, etc.) but in addition, to have them read a book with substantial relation to the topic we’re discussing. I would provide some recommendations on the book and on how best to obtain it, but I’d be open to student suggestions for relevant books as well. If it’s a book I’ve not read, I’ll do some digging and read up on it, seeing what others say about it before I give the student an affirmation or recommend a different book. Testing it in this course will help me to tweak and expand it for more course material in future courses.

      Hope that helps!

  6. Thank you for the post, Jon. I really like how you give the students a lot of power and freedom when it comes to the lesson plan. Allowing students to choose their own book definitely helps work around some financial situations. And I really like the section about being open to the students if they need assistance. It seems a lot more personal than some of the official language the university policies sometimes use. I’m sure this will encourage and support your students in a manner similar to your own experience. Great job!

  7. I totally agree with your point of view toward homework assignments and grades. And I like your statements of your teaching rules. I was wondering how these can be implemented in engineering classes where they have to solve problems mathematically.

    1. Setareh,

      Thanks for the feedback! I’m not sure how best to implement them in engineering classes. One place to start might be to work on a mutli-facted, complex problem or series of problems over the course of a semester? For example, for each week of class you might have students submit their solutions one day, provide feedback and return the problems to them, and then spend part of the next class going over the problem together, be it in groups or as a whole class. I’m not sure how well that would work, as I’m woefully ignorant on engineering classrooms, but let me know what you think!

  8. Sounds like a very interesting approach towards an open critical pedagogy! Your openness about required textbooks is appreciable. Maybe suggesting few open-access textbooks initiates this move effectively.

    1. Negn,

      Thanks for the feedback and the suggestion! Open-access text will most likely play a part in at least some of the readings for this course. In future courses, probably even more so. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.