Friday, February 15, 2013

Winter Term Roundtable Notes

            On February 6 we hosted our first Teaching Roundtable of the semester.  The roundtable focused on Winter Term, specifically three related aspects of designing and proposing a course:
            Proposing a Course That Works (for you and your students)
            Sustaining Student Engagement In and Beyond the Classroom
            Exploring Experimental Pedagogies
We also discussed the issues of Independent Studies for Winter Term – the promises of these kinds of experiences and the potential pitfalls to try and avoid. The roundtable was led by three members of the Winter Term subcommittee: Anne Harris (Art & Art History), Jeff Hansen (Chemistry), and Kate Knaul (Winter Term Office).
            So what makes a good Winter Term course on campus?  Well, it’s tough to say.  But Anne Harris began by suggesting that people consider teaching their “guilty pleasure.”  What are you passionate about?  Art? Movies? Rock and Roll? Baking? Baseball? Start there and then build a critical frame around the topic – something you can use to deepen the exploration with the students.  We all have interests, experiences, and abilities outside of our academic training and Winter Term is a great place to engage these in an academic setting.  Courses on cooking, songwriting, cycling, and dancing are examples of topics that faculty have taught in recent Winter Term courses.  This approach can truly help invigorate your teaching and your excitement about student interaction.
            But how far outside of your training should you go?  Really as far as you feel comfortable going.  Obviously, you don’t want to try something in which you have no real experience or avid interest.  But you should not feel constrained by your training.  One way to consider addressing this concern is to bring your professional expertise to bear on the topic you wish to teach.  Jeff Hansen offered that he brings his role as a chemist to his course on cooking.  Another approach is to rely on your own experience outside of your professional identity.  
            No matter the topic, though, student engagement is key.  Try to imagine a course that will not only attract students but keep them engaged (both in and outside of the classroom).  How to do this?  First, avoid repetition.  Why do the same thing every day?  For instance, a course on the “Films of Alfred Hitchcock” might seem like an obvious treat for students.  But a steady diet of films every day can become monotonous for even the most ardent fan. Instead, find opportunities to change things up.  Perhaps find ways to get away from campus, even for a short trip.  Try different activities that connect to the topic.  You can also engage students more fully and avoid repetition by seeking out connections either to other courses on campus or the community.  Kate Knaul offered the idea that the Winter Term Office can help you forge these connections to people teaching courses connected by theme or topic, or by making connections to some community partners. 
            Another way to more fully engage students is to consider co-teaching or enlisting the help of more advanced students as Teaching Assistants.  Co-teaching opens up an array of new possibilities as each person brings their own approach to bear on the subject.  It’s easy to fall into a repetitive pattern when teaching on your own.  But co-teaching allows us to bounce ideas off other people who might challenge us in ways we’ve not considered before.  Additionally, using teaching assistants helps to bridge the gap between students and faculty and offers the students more chances for meaningful interactions with instructors.  Typically, this is useful if you’ve taught the course before and can pull in a teaching assistant who took that earlier course.  They are well acquainted with the material and can bring a different perspective to your own approach to the subject.  
            A third way to build student engagement is by trying out different pedagogical strategies.  As shown by this site at Carleton College (, there is a wide array of pedagogical strategies available that range in scope from an entire course to a minor assignment, all with an eye toward engaging our students in new and, hopefully, meaningful ways.  For example, “Reacting to the Past”” ( is a pedagogy that relies on role-playing games to help students understand the contingency of historical events.  The goal is to engage the students in a “game” situation in which they portray real historical actors working through a crucial moment.  Such pedagogy might be a perfect fit for a three-week Winter Term experience.        
            Finally, as all of the panelists (and many in attendance at the roundtable) suggested, don’t be afraid to give the students a lot of work during Winter Term.  They don’t have other classes and so they do have time to engage more fully and meaningfully than they might otherwise.  It’s an opportunity rather than an obligation.  And as long as the work feels meaningful and attached to experience, the students are likely to engage with it.
            But, still, we can’t do everything in a short course such as this.  So there are some things to watch out for.  First and foremost, it’s best to avoid trying to recreate a semester-long course in the Winter Term framework.  There’s just not enough time.  The panelists suggested that Winter Term courses succeed when content is wrapped up with experience.  Don’t make content coverage the point.  Maybe craft a narrower focus than you normally would, but go deeper.  A second pitfall to avoid is the problem of the paper.  Students should write during Winter Term, but it might not be the best strategy to include a full-length research or analytical paper in the list of assignments.  The students just don’t have enough time to prepare for, research, and write the paper.  Shorter writing assignments connected to particular experiences might work more effectively.  For instance, Jeff Hansen said that his students prepare a menu for his cooking class in which they must write about the chemistry involved in the recipes for the dishes.  The writing tests their knowledge of the material but connects it to the experience of making the food.
            The panel also discussed the issues of independent studies as part of the Winter Term experience.  It was noted that this Winter Term saw 80 independent study projects, a number that the committee found surprisingly large and which raised some concerns about quality.  The result is that independent study projects for Winter Term will likely come under greater scrutiny.  So, the committee along with some of the attendees offered some suggestions for dealing with requests from students for independent study projects.
            First, make sure that there is a clear critical framework for the project.  Many students use the independent study option as a way to justify a trip (or vacation) that they are already planning to take and want to get credit for.  The result is that many of the projects are difficult to imagine in terms of a truly useful and challenging critical framework.  Plus, given the aforementioned impetus for many of these projects, the students are sometimes resistant to building a comprehensive reading list or project idea.  The committee encouraged faculty members to demand more of the students in this regard.  Work with the student to articulate the framework for the project.  If the student is unwilling, then it is perfectly OK to decline the project.
            It is also fine to decline on the grounds that the faculty member might not be the best fit for the project.  Often our students approach a faculty member they know rather than the person who is the best for the project.  While most faculty members are adept at bringing a critical framework to a wide array of subjects, it’s probably more beneficial to the student to seek out a faculty member with some expertise or true interest in the topic.  Finding such a faculty member will likely lead to a more meaningful academic experience for the student but also will help the student expand their comfort zone within the university by getting to know some different faculty members.
            Despite the examples of less successful or meaningful projects, there are plenty of examples of truly engaging and challenging independent Winter Term projects.  Done the right way, the experience can be wonderful and it is a great option for our students who really want to try something on their own.  But it is important that the independent study option not morph into a category for retrofitting travel opportunities.
            The workshop concluded with a reminder that Winter Term remains a great chance for faculty and students alike to experiment and innovate – to have experiences that are not necessarily available during the course of the regular semester.  But it shouldn’t be the only place that these experiences take place or that these innovations happen.  Rather Winter Term can be a chance to try things out that then find their way into everyday pedagogy.

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