NewsweekLogo-1 [Converted]Recently, I mentioned to a friend that I had been appointed Director of my university’s undergraduate core curriculum. “The WHOLE THING?” she asked. Yup. The whole enchilada. Little ol’ me. Am I scared shitless? Fo sho. Am I energized? Yeah, some of that too. I want to share some partially formed thoughts here about my goals for the program. What I’d really like, though, is YOUR thoughts. What are you doing at your universities? What do you think about what we’re up to at Willy P? Read about our program, and share your questions, suggestions and/or critiques. Let’s collaborate to make some quality undergraduate programs, people!

So, we used to have a rather old fashioned, distribution requirements kind of General Education program. The kind that students wanted to “get out of the way” so that they could take the classes they really wanted. Then, there was a big revolution about four years ago. The new program, the University Core Curriculum, is genuinely innovative and has the potential for inspiring some truly well-educated citizens of a functioning democracy (should Congress ever decide to live up to our expectations, that is). Here’s a link to the home page so you can check it out. In brief, there are six thematic threads:

  • Personal Well-Being (which can include physical education classes as well as topics like Ethical Well Being and Financial Well Being)
  • Expression
  • Ways of Knowing (which is subdivided into Philosophical Perspectives, Historical Perspectives, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Scientific Perspectives, and Quantitative Thinking)
  • Diversity and Justice
  • Community and Civic Engagement
  • Global Awareness.

Faculty can propose all sorts of unique course offerings in each of the areas, and courses can use content that’s integrated into both majors and minors in the Departments. Truthfully, it’s a bottom-up, faculty-driven program that has some pretty incredible potential.

As I’m gearing up to be the Tsar of this thing, I’ve been revisiting a whole variety of readings, training, experiences, and imaginings in the pedagogical arena. Unlike most art historians, I have a Masters Degree in Education in addition to my PhD. The strategies and techniques that I learned doing that second degree were designed for children in elementary school, but I’m continually amazed at how well they serve me when I teach undergraduates.

In particular, there’s an incredible method called the Reggio Emilia approach. It’s similar to Montessori in that the curriculum is largely student-driven, but Reggio Emilia also emphasizes creativity and beauty in amazing ways. In both types of classrooms, students learn about things that engage them, they have a fair amount of freedom within limits, and they have a chance to PLAY. Although this is most definitely NOT what I experienced teaching elementary school in the South Bronx, it provides a lofty goal for teachers who genuinely want to develop deep learning and critical thinking at an early age.

What’s on my mind lately is the parallel between that moment of childhood education and the period when most students attend college. In the first, children transition from infancy/toddlerhood to childhood, while in the second, most traditional students transition from adolescence into something resembling adulthood. Even non-traditional students, who might be initiating an undergraduate degree at a more advanced age or taking longer to complete it, will most likely experience a shift in maturity and understanding about themselves and their role in the world. At least that’s the goal of a liberal arts education, no?

HSSConferencePosterLast week, I attended an amazing lecture at a WPU conference called Whose University? The keynote speaker, Andrew Delbanco has recently written a book called College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Delbanco spoke about the importance of developing critical thinking through things like peer-to-peer learning. As a literary type, he frequently referred to Herman Melville, who apparently described the four years that he spent on a whaling ship as akin to a college education. For Melville, that period allowed him to develop his literacy, acquire new skills, experience a genuine encounter with diversity, and spend a substantial amount of time in contemplation. For Delbanco—and for me—those are some of the functions of college that still remain relevant. My favorite quotation from the lecture: “The college classroom is a rehearsal space for democracy.”

Not only was Delbanco’s talk inspirational, but it also reminded me of another amazing lecture on our campus a few years back. That time, it was Doug Thomas, whose book (co-authored by John Seely Brown) is called A New Culture of Learning. In their short, very readable volume, Thomas and Brown provide some great insights into ways that we can reinvigorate our undergraduate classrooms. They discuss the value of a shared experience, the need for creativity and student-driven curricula, and (surprise!) room for PLAY.

ThomasBrownCoverAs Thomas and Brown say, “The new culture of learning is based on three principles: (1) The old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world, (2) New media forms are making peer-to-peer learning easier and more natural, (3) Peer-to-peer learning is amplified by emerging technologies that shape the collective nature of participation with those new media.” (authors’ emphases, Thomas & Brown, p. 50)

They expand on those three principles to arrive at the following suggestions for tweaking our pedagogy to meet twenty-first century students’ needs:

  • Encourage peer-to-peer learning: In the contemporary world, vast stores of information are available over the Internet, and whether we like it or not, that reality has changed the way authority and the transfer of knowledge function in our classrooms. As faculty, our job is becoming less focused on delivering information and more focused on teaching students to sort through the morass of data and opinions that they encounter daily. As Thomas and Brown write, “In the new culture of learning, people learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunity.” (Thomas&Brown, p. 50)
  • Embrace the new reality of learning within the Collective: With the advent of digital media, we are increasingly able to contribute to global conversations in immediate and meaningful ways (e.g this blog). What is most important about the collective, for Thomas and Brown, is its participatory nature. As they write, “A collective is very different from an ordinary community. Where communities can be passive (though not all of them are by any means), collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. (emphasis mine) Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.” (Thomas & Brown, p.52)
  • Play: Thomas and Brown cite that old familiar medievalist, Johan Huizinga, whose argument in Homo Ludens they paraphrase as  “… play is not merely central to the human experience, it is part of all that is meaningful to human culture.” They continue, saying, “Much of what makes play powerful as a tool for learning is our ability to engage in experimentation.” (Thomas/Brown, p. 97)

In other words, both early childhood and higher education specialists are considering the inestimable value of social learning, creativity, space for thought, and play. For readers who are also following the activities of the BABEL Working Group, you’ll recognize some of these topics as central to their core beliefs. In fact, play is one of the major threads in the upcoming conference in Santa Barbara. Submit an abstract, and come play at the beach with us next fall!

These are also some of the things that I want to encourage the faculty at WPU to consider when proposing new courses for our core curriculum. If we really take these ideas seriously, I think we might actually have a shot at developing some critical thinkers who can be educated citizens. And, dare I say it? Maybe we could find some childlike enthusiasm for learning in their somewhere. Along with Thomas, Brown, and Delbanco, I believe that a fusion of experimentation and shared information is what generates true learning, in an open, collaborative, and playful classroom. What do you think?

21 Responses to “College”

  1. Asa Mittman November 18, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    This is very interesting. My main question is around the peer-to-peer learning. How do folks manage this when students bring such divergent levels of commitment — not skills or knowledge, which I can manage — but commitment to the course and the process and their own learning? I floated the an open peer review for a course, on the model of the current Postmedieval review, and the best students looked ready to kill me, since they know (or at least, assume, and with good evidence) that some of their classmates will invest minimally in the process. I would really like to try something like this, so I’d love ideas about how to make it work. Maybe I should read one of these books?

    • Maggie Williams November 19, 2013 at 9:50 am #

      First of all, yes, you should read the Thomas/Brown for sure. I haven’t actually read the Delbanco yet. Just saw him speak.

      On the issue of peer-to-peer and lack of prep and/or motivation: I think we need to reframe our versions of peer-to-peer scenarios. I’m honestly not sure exactly how that should look, but I do know that the traditional group project situation can lead to huge problems. One thing that has worked for me is starting off with a visual prompt and giving students a few minutes to sketch and write before we start whatever discussion we’re doing. I also think about pairings before class (when I have time that is) so that I’m matching students up who I think will work well together. Sometimes that means putting 2 unmotivated students together on the assumption that I will be a stronger presence in that group. Just some additional thoughts…

      • Asa Mittman November 19, 2013 at 10:41 am #

        Ok, just ordered a copy! Maybe we should do an e-forum on the book, see if we can think of ways of putting their ideas (or ideas inspired by reading their book, one way or the other) into practice in our art history courses.

        • Maggie Williams November 20, 2013 at 9:25 am #

          That’s a great idea, Asa. Angie Segler did that cool reading group over the summer, I think using google chat maybe? Let’s ask her how she made that happen.

          I also wanted to add that Jennifer Borland and I did a great peer-to-peer kind of experience the other day. Our classes happened to be reading each other’s articles on the same day, so we met over google chat and the students had a chance to talk together. It was really cool!

          • Asa Mittman November 20, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

            Yeah, let’s do it!

            Very cool on the google chat use, too. I brought in the author of one of the readings from my monster course that way, and think I should have done it with more of them. Maybe I’ll tap some of y’all for my medieval course next semester….


  2. Alexa Sand November 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    I passed this on to the colleague in charge of Gen Ed at USU (an early modernist historian, as it happens) because I think what you’re saying about co-learning is so important. Like Asa, I sometimes (often) struggle with student engagement and in fact this semester I’ve had a particularly hard group to engage in my upper-level medieval course. But I just led a session on group learning as a way of building in research experiences to undergraduate courses at a Council for Undergraduate Research Institute, and the discussion there was incredibly rich in models for student engagement. I’ve just proposed an expanded version of this session (it’s participatory, not stand-and-deliver) for the CUR National Conference in June 2014 in Washington DC and I encourage anyone who is interested to contact me ( about participating… and about joining CUR, which is a great organization. The theme of the conference is “Research for Everyone,” which is really representative of the democratic spirit of CUR, as well as of the Material Collective.

    • Maggie Williams November 19, 2013 at 9:52 am #

      Cool, Alexa! I don’t think I can attend the conference, but I will definitely look into the organization. Would you be willing to share some of the models for student engagement, maybe on the MC Facebook page?

  3. Pat November 19, 2013 at 6:40 am #

    In general, I think that what’s proposed here would work really well with bright, motivated students. Then again, I think traditional lectures also work really well with bright, motivated students.

    In every undergrad class I teach, I feel maybe 40-45% of the students care and embrace the course, 40-45% care enough to do the minimum amount of work necessary to eke out a low B, the rest don’t care at all and fail. I’m not convinced that there’s a significant way to change those latter two groups into the first group. I try new things all the time. Small group work. Blogs. Student led discussion. Student input on the direction of the class. However, peer-to-peer only works if the students aren’t sharing crap. “Play” is fine if its purposeful, but it can only be purposeful if the students care.

    Let me just give one recent example and you can tell me what you make of it. I want my students to learn how to use and to practice using Chicago Manual of Style citations. I show them how to do it. I give them websites with citation generators. The result is 1 out of 10 of my students do this correctly. Then the next time I announce that I will penalize them half a letter grade for failure to comply. This will bump the number up to 50%. What do I do with 50% of my students who even in the face of a half-grade penalty will not follow simple steps to cite their work correctly? In fact, what do I do with the 40% who only do it under duress? If they can’t be counted on to follow simple directions, how can they be entrusted with educating their peers?

    I just can’t shake the feeling that for a majority of the students, I am merely entertaining them. Worse still, I constantly fear I am not pushing the good students hard enough and they certainly aren’t pushing each other. One of my dissertation advisors once acidly told me that anyone can teach the bright, motivated students. I suspect that’s true, but it’s also so much more enjoyable.

    • Maggie Williams November 25, 2013 at 11:48 am #

      Thanks for the comments, Pat. I think a lot of us share your frustration with unmotivated and underprepared students. I also think that there’s a kind of generation gap happening in the sense that K-12 teaching has changed dramatically since most of us were in school. From the day they walk in the door in K they’re doing more collaborative work than we ever did. And, their lives outside the classroom are so jammed with techno-media-overload that most of them tend to have trouble with the focus required for a traditional lecture format.

      I don’t mean to suggest that we should lower our standards to accommodate for those broader cultural and pedagogical changes, but I do think that we’re going to keep hitting brick walls if we don’t change our practice in some ways.

      I suspect that you and I will disagree on many of the solutions, but your example does bring up something interesting for me. I have similar issues with students who simply don’t internalize what I’m teaching, no matter how many ways I approach it (verbally, visually, in writing, etc.). For me, it’s the “how to find stuff on JStor” lesson that makes me feel like I’m talking to a room full of zombies. What I’ve been leaning towards recently is less focus on information and more focus on skills and critical thinking. (Here’s where I expect that you’re starting to disagree…) BUT, hear me out. With the availability of pretty much everything over the internet, I think they can get the information more easily than we ever could. What they need to know is how to interpret and use that information. So, I’ll keep plugging away at the JStor lesson (which usually works better when I let them try it in pairs), and I’ve sort of given up on the citation stuff. I tell them how to figure out Chicago style (if they’re art history majors) and MLA (if they’re not) and then I just take points off for doing it wrong. If they don’t care about those points, I figure that’s on them.

  4. Anne Harris November 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    I love the idea of putting this pedagogy into practice across the board: for faculty members, too! Building collectives, when there are so many on-line collectives and communities and identities, is the challenge. But the benefits are tremendous. What is so inspiring about the proposed curriculum is that it creates a collective around several _missions_ (is that the word I want? fervors, goals, principles, ideals, things-to-fight-for), not just skill sets. It makes me mourn the limited guidance of our GenEd requirements – we have great courses, but no coherence within categories. Onwards – I knew you would make the world a better place!

    • Maggie Williams November 25, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      That’s a great point, Anne, and thanks for the vote of confidence! A big part of my job (as I see it) is motivating faculty to really invest in the program, whether or not they change their individual pedagogical styles. Maybe I can write a follow-up piece sometime next year to tell everyone how that went…

  5. Ben Tilghman November 24, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    This is a wonderful approach, and one that I think would help a lot of students. We’ve been having trouble with our seniors approaching their Methods-Practicum sequence as though they have to gird themselves for battle; they stress themselves out so much that it really impedes their abilities to do good work. I think we need to figure out some ways to help them see this as a playful exercise. It’s fun to remix your interpretations according to different methodological approaches! (At least, *I* think it is…)

    The problem is assessment. Isn’t that always the problem? I think students are wary of playing because they’re too mindful of the stakes. Can they risk their grade on some whimsy, however fruitful it might be? I try to assure my students that I’m assessing process just as much as results, and that an interesting if inconclusive experiment very well could get a better grade than a tired old book-reportish research paper. But, really: how do we grade play? How do we justify saying that Katie played more thoughtfully than Craig?

    • Maggie Williams November 25, 2013 at 11:54 am #

      Good point, Ben. I guess for me, the idea of “play” is more aligned with curiosity and inquiry than anything else. The K-12 folks prioritize what they call “inquiry-based learning” and projects. When they assess, they design a rubric for the expected learning outcomes and then they plan the unit of lesson plans to meet those outcomes. At the end, they have a concrete project of some kind that can be assessed by means of the rubric. They call it backwards planning, which is also a great book, btw: (more K-12 in focus than the other too, though).

      I should also say that my K-12 knowledge is a tad out of date, and there may be all sorts of new ideas out there. But, even if this inquiry stuff is about a decade old now, I think it really works for undergrad programs.

  6. Jennifer Borland December 1, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    I’m late to this discussion, but find it fascinating! I really love those gen ed areas, and that basically any classes that might be proposed can fit into them (ours are so limited that, for instance, Islamic Art doesn’t get either the “I”nternational designation, because it is not modern enough, or the “D”iversity designation, because it isn’t about the U.S., so it just gets the “H”umanities that every single AH course gets)! Anyway…I too wonder about how to get students working together. I have a small class of generally good students this semester for my medieval course, but they are so resistant to even talking in class, much less doing group projects – I clearly need to be more insistent, and figure out ways to build it more into the fabric of the course itself from the beginning, but I’m not particularly motivated to overhaul every syllabus, without knowing if things are going even be better with that overhaul. I’m just not clear on what works best – things that have worked in the past with one class can bomb with a new group of students, etc. I know this is something everyone struggles with, but I think I could really use more specific tips (so yes, I should probably read some of those books you list!). OK, enough rambling…

  7. Asa Mittman December 13, 2013 at 12:23 am #

    Ok, I’ve read the Thomas and Brown, which I found deeply frustrating and unsatisfying. I’m primed and ready to talk all about it. Anywhere, anywhen!

    • maggie williams December 13, 2013 at 8:25 am #

      Interesting! What did you find frustrating and unsatisfying about it?

      • Asa Mittman December 13, 2013 at 9:08 am #

        Maggie — In a word, and without hyperbole, everything! I keep writing out all the things that frustrated me with this book, and then I keep deleting them, since I don’t want to be that snide guy who tries to make himself sound smart by putting down the work of others. In essence, their New Culture of Learning sounds to me like a description of the Current Culture of Learning already well in use, and they do not answer the underlying question, the one that it all rises and falls on: How do we make them CARE more? Turning over the reigns to students sounds great, but what do we do after we’ve handed them over, when they don’t pick them up and drive the class? This is where I often find myself.

        • Maggie Williams December 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

          It’s funny because I think what frustrates you is the echo of your own ideas, whereas to me that’s kind of comforting–knowing that there are like-minded people out there.

          Sorry that the book didn’t give you new ideas to work with! On the motivation/caring tip, I think the idea is that if students are directing the curriculum to some extent, we can move them towards interest in the things that we want them to know by meeting them where they are. Not necessarily a “new” culture, as you say, but perhaps a method worth reminding ourselves of.

          • Asa Mittman December 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

            Yes, that may be it, to a degree. In a sense, I agreed with just about everything in the book, in principle. I guess what I wanted from it was practical suggestions for implementation. There must be another book out there, filled with those.

        • maggie williams December 13, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

          One other thought: I think their idea of the new culture of learning has more to do learning outside of the classroom (i.e. being able to google anything anytime anywhere), which I thought was articulated much more clearly in the lecture I saw than in the book itself.

          • Asa Mittman December 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

            Definitely — and I’d like some help thinking about how to connect their ability to learn outside the class with their work in it.

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