Scrap the Syllabus: In This Batten Course, Students Take the Lead

Tackling everything from the death penalty to affordable housing, the students in Virginia Politics and Policy don’t just participate in the course—they design it themselves.

The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond
The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

Earlier this month, the Virginia General Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty. That decision was especially exciting for one University of Virginia student in particular. On the day of the bill’s approval, Henry Frost felt overcome with emotion. “I was ecstatic,” he says. “I sent a message to my family. I sent a message to my girlfriend. They were all thrilled.”

Frost, a master’s degree candidate at the Batten School, says his interest in death penalty abolition began when he was growing up in Massachusetts: His grandmother advocated for ending the policy there, back before it was formally abolished in 1984. “She showed me that the systems we rely on don’t always get it right,” he says.

But it was a course called Virginia Politics and Policy, taught by Batten professor Andy Pennock, that allowed Frost to fully immerse himself in the topic. Students who sign up for the class expecting traditional lectures, or even just instructor-guided discussions, are in for a shock. The course is highly unusual. 

“The schedule on the syllabus literally just says TBD,” explains Pennock, who has been teaching the class since 2017. “That’s because the course schedule—in other words, what we do on any given day—is totally determined by the students.”

Pennock designed the class through UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence, using a model called “open inquiry.” Student learning, rather than the professor’s knowledge, takes center stage in open inquiry classes. In Virginia Politics and Policy, Pennock asks his students to choose policy problems facing the commonwealth that they’d like to see solved. Then, the class works together to both determine relevant readings and invite guests to speak on the issues they’ve selected. 

Students and professors alike can find the model intimidating. When students choose what to learn, they inevitably land on topics the instructor doesn’t know as much about; Pennock says he’s let go of being the expert in the room. Class participants can also feel a little uneasy about the lack of guidance at first. 

“I tell them, ‘I’m here to support you. But when you’re a professional, there’s not going to be a syllabus,’” Pennock says.

In last semester’s class, Frost and Sean Bielawski, another master of public policy student at Batten, chose the death penalty as their topic. Frost says the policy’s connection to racism was one of the most striking findings from their reading: Ninety-six percent of reviews have found it to be discriminatory. While some apologists argue that the policy could be implemented fairly if it were reworked, Frost says he’s not convinced. 

“The death penalty definitely doesn't exist in a vacuum,” he says. “It exists in the context of a system that is racially unjust. It’s impossible to turn the death penalty into something that's fair when it is sitting within a criminal justice system that doesn’t allow for it to be.”

Pennock says the six students in this semester’s intimate group decided early on that they wanted to make equity “a main ingredient” of the course, rather than “just something to sprinkle on top.” Hannah Adams, who is working toward a dual master’s degree in public policy and public health, and Katie Platz, a PhD candidate at the UVA School of Nursing, chose equity in telehealth policy as their topic. Master of public policy students Morgan Smith and Lucas Kenley looked at affordable housing—specifically, community land trusts, which allow more people to become homeowners by selling them only the house, not the land beneath it.

A wide range of speakers visited the class to offer their opinions on these issues and to share their policy expertise. But something surprising happened after a visit from the editor of the Virginia Mercury, an online newspaper that covers federal and state policy. Up until then, the class had been operating under the assumption that their culminating assignment would be a final paper. 

“Then the students said to me, ‘Why are we going to write final papers that are going to just sit on your hard drive? We've now seen the power of the media here. What if we shifted?’” Pennock says.

The class set a new goal: Write op-eds about their chosen topics and try to place them in newspapers. It was a totally different kind of challenge, one that required them to write in a more straightforward way than they were accustomed to. The students worked in shared Google Docs, continually revising, commenting, and checking each other’s work. “If you read enough research articles, you start using jargon without realizing it,” Platz says. “It helped me conceptualize what I believed in very simple language.”

In the end, all of the students succeeded in placing their op-eds. “Being able to publish in a newspaper was incredibly gratifying,” says Smith. “It’s not like submitting a paper where you turn it in and basically never see it again.” While Platz, Adams, Smith, and Kenley published their pieces in the Virginia Mercury, Frost and Bielawski opted for The Roanoke Times, hoping to reach a broader audience. Frost says they aimed to make the argument for abolishing the death penalty as acccessible and bipartisan as possible, making sure to “just point to the facts.”

“We wanted it to be a piece of advocacy that was also based in informing people,” he explains. “I think there’s a lot of data about the death penalty that people don’t know.”

Just over a month after their op-ed ran, the Virginia House and Senate approved the death penalty’s abolition. Frost was excited to contribute to the conversation, and to share the good news of the bill’s approval with the people he loved. But he emphasizes that the thrill he felt had less to do with his personal pride in being involved and more to do with the significance of the event itself—and with how the decision, combined with what he learned in Pennock’s course, showed him the power of state government. 

“States are the laboratories of democracy,” he says. 

For Pennock, this is one of the course’s main goals. “I want the students to value the work that the state government does, because it’s such important work,” he says. He adds that while he could teach Virginia Politics and Policy as a “normal course,” he doesn’t think he would see the same results; asking students to participate in designing their own education allows for a much more intimate understanding of their own potential role in the landmark decisions that shape our society. 

In the capstone course Pennock leads this semester, which includes several students from last semester’s class, he made a brief announcement on the day the news about the death penalty broke. While Frost and Bielawski hadn’t played a huge role in the decision, he noted, they had done something vital to our political process: “They stuck a little rock on the snowball tumbling down the hill toward getting this policy changed."

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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