The Benefits of Using Students as Guest Speakers

Last year I received a grant to support bringing guest scholars to my class. The idea was to find students with some expertise relevant to my courses and invite them to present in class, thereby giving the class a perspective on the material that I couldn’t provide. The grant enabled me to pay the guest scholars a stipend for their work. I had both the guest scholars and students complete questionnaires after these visits to class.

Here’s the rationale behind the idea. The task of the teaching professor is to educate, but what does that mean? The traditional notion is that education is something done to the students by the professor. The contrary radical notion is that education is something done by students for themselves—the old comparison between the student as container and the student as plant. A middle ground, which seems closer to reality than either of these theoretical positions, is that education is something done both by the professor with the students and by the students with the professor.

The professor in a class typically establishes the structure, proposes the agenda, delivers some significant proportion of the content, and assesses student progress. Students can suggest changes to the structure and agenda, contribute some proportion of the content by means of discussions and choices of topics, and may also participate in assessment. One important goal of this two-way educational process is to enable students to do more for themselves. An opportunity to be a guest scholar offers a way for the student to develop independent scholarship while enriching the course content and learning experiences of a class.

I launched the project with an advertisement distributed via the university email. It yielded one potential guest scholar for the trial run. I interviewed the student and we agreed on a topic and a date. This was a senior undergraduate student in economics, who made a presentation on the concept of guaranteed or basic annual income in my humanities class on utopian literature; the class was studying Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward, in which guaranteed income is a central notion.

In a subsequent semester three other guest scholars were discovered more serendipitously; one in a departmental committee meeting and two others by way of a student introduction. A master’s student in English, writing a thesis on the novels of Philip Roth, came to my short story class to speak about Roth’s early story The Conversion of the Jews. Two acting students in the theatre program came to my 19th century survey class to present a scene from “The Importance of Being Earnest” and afterward to talk with the class about theatrical and literary issues.

Questionnaire responses from the students were overwhelmingly positive in all three cases; they found the presentations interesting and informative with quite a few urging more guest presentations. The students also offered practical suggestions for the guest scholars, such as making better use of the chalkboard. I passed these on as part of the “feedback.” For their part, the guest scholars reported that the experience was challenging and worthwhile, teaching them about aspects of their topics they had not fully considered, such as basic annual income and work incentive, the essential difference between novel and short story, and the expectations of a dramatic audience.

The experience was instructive for me as well. I sometimes forget how ignorant I am, and this was a useful reminder that the teacher cannot be expert on everything—which students know very well anyway. I consider this project successful and think it could be established more formally as a university-wide “guest scholars bureau” from which professors could draw, thereby adding interesting elements to their classes and encouraging the next generation of scholars.

Dr. Alex MacDonald is an associate professor of English at Campion College at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan.

Excerpted from The Guest Scholar Project, May 2009, The Teaching Professor.