Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Today I attended the first of several meetings of the faculty Learning Circle in which I'm taking part this semester, on Parker J. Palmer's and Arthur Zajonc's The heart of higher education: a call to renewal (transforming the academy through collegial conversation), and hot on the heels of this we held the first meeting of the Curricular Sustainability Subgroup of CRTF. The former meeting prepared me well for the latter: big talk and deep thoughts about integrative pedagogy helped inform the reflection my colleagues and I did on the general education programs at several of our peer institutions.

Most such programs differed from ours in one or two fundamental ways: either they comprised significantly fewer required courses (no more than a handful of fundamental classes scattered across the curriculum, generally a few to each major division, and maybe including a writing course or a math requirement) or they placed more stringent demands on the student but offered her a multiplicity of ways of meeting those demands (with copious menus of courses to meet requirements for history, humanities, or "world cultures" requirements).

What could go wrong? Both designs assume students (and faculty!) can pack a great deal of interdisciplinary engagement into a broad array of courses. This assumption seems like a risky one at schools like Wesleyan College (Connecticut), where students must complete only 9 general education courses, 3 from each division, all with different departmental prefixes, and hundreds of courses can count toward the gen ed requirement...wouldn't an optimal interdisciplinary experience require the instructors in all of relevant courses to work in concert to help students realize this experience? Honestly, I'm not sanguine about the ability of an entire faculty to coordinate such a widespread effort.

I wonder, though: if we were to balk at implementing a curriculum like this, would it be out of fear of handing the reins over to our students? Maybe as we contemplate changes to our own ILS program, we should consider that our students may be less risk-averse, more daring, and more willing to try new things than we are: they might not need as much help as we think they do as they muck about in their meaning-making.

In the Learning Circle several of us noted how our students can thrive on the chaos and disorder that ensues when we dare to step away from center stage. Though the exercises we plan for our students might not lead them where we expected them to, they cannot be labeled "failures," so long as they tell us something about ourselves.

I was reminded of a particular meeting of the MATH 280 course I taught a few years back (in Fall 2007, I think?). It was a small section (15 or so students), and full of bold and fearless thinkers. One day toward the end of the semester our conversation meandered from the preplanned course when one student, Quincy, asked a pointed question about modular arithmetic. Rather than finish up the exercises I'd planned for us, we wandered off (all of us, as a class, one student, and then another, and then another, suggesting steps to take) in search of patterns that would help devise solutions to very general equations. The end of class came on quickly (time flies when you're having fun), but not before every one of us in the room (including me) had a far better understanding of modular arithmetic than we'd had half an hour before.

"The Math Department should run a 'fishbowl' course," Quincy said as we walked back to Robinson Hall from our classroom in the basement of Karpen. "At the beginning of the semester, we'd fill a few dozen scraps of paper with brief notes about various topics in mathematics, and at the end of every class someone would pull a scrap at random. Whatever topic was on that scrap would be the basis for the next class discussion, a free-form exploration of that topic."

Though this sort of course would be messy, hard-to-manage, and perhaps occasionally fruitless, to this day I still think it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.

More to come on the Learning Circle and CRTF...and not so long now before this year's CWPA meets up in the wilds of Wildacres, just yards from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

So I was talking to Mike A tonight for the 1st time in a while and, of course the conversation turned to his math class. Thus leading to a longing for great dialogue and creative exploration that we all engaged in during that time. In short, I was missing math UNCA style. I decided to click on Change of Basis and see how things were going. When all of a sudden what to my wondering eye should appear but... okay, no reindeer.
Even better--a wonderful memory of a great time. P- I still think that class would be challenging, wonderful and model exactly the pedagogical concepts for which you have so strongly advocated and which I love. Thanks for the memory. Q :)

John Mairs said...

Sounds like a good basis for a math LSIC...