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Summary of 4/21/06 Discussion
with Linda Caruso-Haviland and Gail Hemmeter

"A Case Study of Teaching/Learning at Bryn Mawr:
"College Seminar I: Performance and Self"

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Linda Caruso-Haviland (Dance), Jody Cohen (Education), Anne Dalke (English and Gender Studies), Paul Grobstein (Center for Science in Society), Lu Mei He (English), Gail Hemmeter (English and Writing Services), Trecia Pottinger (Alum), and Mary Riggio (Clinical Psychology).

Gail and Linda began with a threat of delivering a "dramatic reading" of all the e-mails they wrote one another about the course--as an indication of "how much dialogue" and "flurry" they brought to the planning of the class. Their dialogue was full of very funny /serious /problem-solving and "what do we do next" questions. Such conversations were what they both "liked best about the old cluster model of CSems." They could "run to one another and ask, 'what am I going to do with this?'" It was "like being back in school, continuing to learn these things."

The original plan for the CSem program was to bring together faculty from different fields of specialization to construct non-departmental courses, centered around large important questions that people think about from a variety of different perspectives. Originally, all the CSems were team-constructed. This was a controversial aspect of the program; a lot of faculty prefer to construct courses by themselves: it's less time-consuming, you can chose what you know well, and have the flexibility to make changes as you go along, without needing to check in with others. It's scary to give up your own material (and comfort), to "give up what you love best" in order to take on some one else's favorite texts, to make room for their ideas. It's frightening to have to learn to do things you don't know how to do. Another problem has been that many of the CSems are not taught by continuing faculty, who know one another and can work together. Adjuncts bring "good things" to the College: "something not in the BMC groove." But there is a cost, also.

However, "those who hung with it" actually think this is the best part of the course. Gail and Linda "really like the collaborative move in teaching." During the semester, they met every Thursday for lunch to plan and discuss shared approaches to the texts. Linda is interested in performance, and Gail's dissertation was on dramatic literature, so there "was some shared understanding," and a common interest in text and dance. Much of the material in the course was visual (including the highly recommended film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Each teacher still found some portions of the course particularly difficult. "How to look @ dance films analytically," for instance, was very challenging for Gail.

This is a "risky kind of teaching, but rewarding." It can also be confusing for students in the classroom. Gail and Linda were constantly reminding themselves that "these are first-semester students, used to having information presented for them to take in, digest and spit back." These students were used to having disciplines taught very separately, not in the more synthetic approach in which material from different sources is brought to bear on a big question, like "how is the self performed?" It was difficult for students to tease out specific ideas and perspectives around the texts, but the practice of doing so helped them understand how these things are integrated, rather than "existing in separate universes." Gail and Linda offered lots of reassurance: "we'll come back to this idea, it will make sense later on." The construction of the course "wasn't linear"; material was continually incorporated and reincorporated. Students were "holding a lot in their heads, without neat divisions to keep everything straight." But the process became easier as the semester went on.

Another big change from their students' previous ways of learning was the amount of material they were expected to take in. The shift in pacing from high school to college, which is always great, is compounded in a jointly designed course. High school students are used to a class that works exhaustively through all the material assigned. For the first time, in the College Seminar, they were presented with texts that were said to be very important, "even if the class doesn't spend two weeks on each of them." All this was "wierd, strange and uncomfortable" to first-year students, who had no way to figure out which texts were going to have the most impact. (bell hooks and Judy Butler came up a lot over the course of the semester.)

Gail and Linda praised the quality of the students in their cluster: "We lucked out." In fact, many student evaluations say, "I lucked out, unlike all my friends, who hate their CSems..." Gail, who reads all the evaluations, testified that a high percentage of students are happy with their CSems. So why is there a myth that most people are not satisfied with the College Seminar program? Perhaps the "mythology of difficulty" arises from the experience of discomfort which most students in the course share--and which most eventually work through.

Some of the students in the room described their own CSem experiences. Some of the most successful courses, which explore a topic from a variety of different disciplines, aren't successful in addressing writing from a "multidisciplinary approach." "Certain styles of writing, emphasized in each field, are not reconcilable." (Not to mention the quirks of individual professors' preferences!) Some of the less successful courses are "too contextualized and too narrow," emphasizing facts and events from an historical perspective (for instance), with the result that discussion is limited, and students lack the freedom to explore alternative modes of understanding.

Gail and Linda were asked whether their CSem experiences changed the way they approached upper-level courses. Both are very experienced teachers; both think that CSem cluster teaching contributes to the continual improvement in their teaching of writing. The challenge was posed of "not fetishizing the text," and of teaching fewer texts, in order to "leave space to see what happens" in the course (also a strikingly different mode than high school learning). One way that Gail and Linda went about "breaking down the hierarchy which values texts over dance" was to have their students do performance @ the end of the course, and to prepare for it by doing in-class movement exercises. (Gail: "That was scary for me. I was used to doing 'reader's theater,' standing up and reading the text expressively. But this was a whole new level: learning how to embody an idea in an action or facial expression.") This was another area where the two teachers could "really help one another."

There were some problems with the course. Some of the students found some of the material emotionally and intellectually difficult. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for instance, which is "all done in music," and "not very explicit," was confusing and disturbing in its ambiguity, in its questioning of the gender binary, in its confrontation of homosexuality. "It's one thing to read about such issues, and another thing to see them." Some of the students were also upset by their viewing of M. Butterfly, in which a man performs a female role in China, though not all of them expressed their discomfort. Did the general exuberance of students who loved it silence those who might have been disturbed? There were "pockets of mystery" remaining the analysis of what happened in the class. For instance, the students were at first "reluctant to buy into Judith Butler," but her work eventually became a constant text all the way through the course.

Is there any way of institutionalizing the productive collaboration of Gail and Linda? How can the college structure support colleagues working with others with whom they have--or can develop--the sort of ease they had with one another? Some faculty report that they "did not enjoy teaching in a cluster," found that they were "wasting their own and their students' time, when not teaching in the area of their expertise." Can we "reintroduce the program" in a way that "respects that position"? Can we reintroduce it with "a broadened notion of what works as a good introductory college course"? (Think Montessori method: "feel and see the alphabet.") We need to introduce our students to multiple ways of experiencing, understanding, analyzing and incorporating the material into their lives. We have got to learn how to re-distribute the value of how we take in and respond to material. We can't get rid of the well-written paper, but we need to expand into other avenues of learning, teaching and responding as well.

In what ways did the performative bent of the course "feed the writing"? In reconceptualizing writing as a kind of performance, as a way of entering into dialogue with others, writing for them, talking to others while sounding like yourself. "Writing as a public act" was a continued emphasis of the course. The course also explored some of the more subtle ways of analyzing material you can get from listening, looking, moving. The attempt was not to give students "a sense of being disciplined" (that is, not to have them write papers within a range of different disciplines, but rather) to help them make each paper "good and clear, so that anyone could read it," to write a paper with a "sense of themselves inside it."

Because of the way students are trained in high school, they expect, in college, to be "leaping forward toward disciplinary education." To encounter "non-disciplinary work" in their first college seminar is thus a surprise (and predictable complaints about having a biology professor--for instance--as a writing teacher inevitably follow). A number of the above observations "go together":

  • the failure of the cluster concept among CSem faculty
  • the difficulty of first-year students' imagining a relation between different disciplines
  • the shared difficulty of teachers and students in "imagining a form of writing that is not discipline-specific."
A cause for this cluster of problems might be that our students, in high school, "are being taught by the people we ourselves educated." We have developed a pattern of intellectual activity that feeds back into the earlier stages of the educational system. We created--and continue to re-create--a disciplinary focus. If we are serious about programs which encourage students to recognize a form of intellectual activity and writing that are not discipline-specific, it's incumbent on us to represent those values throughout our curriculum. An essential component of that representation is the notion that writing and intellectual work in general are performative: done in order to get a reaction back from others, a reaction that one learns from. It needs to be a transactional process. But our faculty is reluctant to engage in the transactional process, either with students or with one another.

Each found her co-teacher to be "a real presence"; "even when she wasn't in the classroom with me, I was always quoting her." We can model this interaction. One way of doing so is to give up the idea of being an authority in any given field. When we assume such an authority, we are misleading the students. We need to make room for "multiple authorities" in the conversation. Perhaps the bio teachers should teach English, the English teachers bio. A new collaboration with Lansdowne Friend School was described: strengthening their science curriculum might simply involve helping teachers see that "the essence of science is to look at situations, ask questions, make observations... which in turn lead to new questions" (etc. etc.) "All it takes to do good science teaching is (visibly) to be a good inquirer." The classroom task is not to convey a particular expertise, but to model a process of inquiry. "At this level, nobody has to be an expert."

Are there "ways you could scaffold this" so it works on the institutional level? "CSem was the scaffold." The CSem program "took a crack at changing the focus of how education is done here, and it ran into strong opposition." "Let's put it out there again as an option." "If we are really serious about having people share the classroom, the current perspective about allotting teaching credits, and valuing co-teaching, has to be re-thought; then that re-thinking has to be incorporated into reappointment and tenure decisions (otherwise, junior and senior faculty will be unwilling to participate in the program). Committees on Appointments and Priorities should explicitly affirm the notion that two people creating together in the classroom at the same time is a positive feature. "We need to put our money there."

Faculty here is also "very iffy" on the matter of giving students help with their writing. There are different kinds of writing, inside and outside of disciplines. There is considerable disagreement about whether there is a kind of writing that is discipline-independent. An explicit decision needs to be made on this matter: the task is either to write well in upper-division courses (a choice that plays into the problem we are trying to overcome), or to develop a "style of writing that encourages conversation among people." The objective of the CSem Program should be conveying a basic understanding of how one writes well, a writing that facilitates interdisciplinary conversation; writing for specialists should come later.

What are faculty told about the interactive process? Perhaps their resistance to collaborative work is akin to that of students (which we discussed in an earlier case study). Faculty doesn't like group work; most humanists have no experience--and no inclination--to be collaborative on intellectual product. Their disinclination "loops back" to the students. Are we hiring the sort of faculty who would be willing to work collaboratively? Other colleges have done this; perhaps we are confused about who we are, and--accordingly--who we are seeking to hire. Faculty also want to protect their own time; that may be a different issue.

This conversation has continued in the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning. Please contact Jody if you have thoughts about ways to continue this series in person in the fall.

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