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A Sense of Relief

Now that it’s been well over a month since my last post, it’s hard to know how to sum up all the things that have happened.  I’ll start at the conclusion: Thursday was the last day of my IF course.  All 15 of our first-year seminars are invited to participate in what we call “Extravaganza” – the classes get together and make presentations about what they learned over the course of the semester.  Mostly the classes put on skits, and not all classes participate.  Mine did, thankfully.  They didn’t receive a grade for it, but I asked them whether there was anything they would like to do to show others what we did in Art: I Know It When I See It.  Each of my two small groups, which have been together all semester, put together a slide show with music.  I left it up to the groups to manage the project.  One group did quite well (they didn’t tell me there were any problems) and the other group struggled.  The struggle arose because one enthusiastic person took on most of the tasks, since she had energy and was excited about the project, and predictably, others took a back seat, out of laziness for some, and for others, to stay out of the excited student’s way.  I intervened with 5 days to go, and identified a few tasks that still needed completing before the presentation.  They stepped up and took them on, and the project was finished (however, the student who had all the energy still called it “my slideshow” when she presented it – she was clearly feeling possessive and resentful).

The good news about my students’ presentations is that they went off very well, and were well-received.  They included a large number of artworks that we’ve discussed over the course of the semester, and one slideshow included a floating cartoonized version of my head floating around, with my jaw opening and shutting nutcracker-style while a computerized voice recited, “But is it art? But is it art?”  That drew a big laugh, especially from my colleagues.  What really made me feel good about the end was that I think that the IF process really helped my students do group work better.  It wasn’t great, but compared to some of my colleagues, it was quite successful.  Three colleagues I spoke to had planned to have their classes make presentations, but jettisoned the idea in the end.  All three are excellent teachers, but in one case the students had mutinied against the professor the previous week, refusing to do any more group work since they couldn’t get along, and in another case the professor dissolved the groups after two students ended up getting physically violent with each other (something I haven’t seen here at our all-women campus).  So it might just be that the personalities of my students meshed better, but I attribute part of the success to good preparation through the IF process.

The floating-cartoon head also illustrates a change in my class.  I realized sometime in early November that I was thinking so hard about how the course was going and how to get them to facilitate, and how to help them manage their own work, that I never relaxed in the classroom.  This is different from how I typically work.  Usually I build more of a rapport with the students in the classroom, but it wasn’t happening with my IF class.  They were stressed out, since I had given them some very difficult readings, and difficult writing assignments.  Some rose to the challenge (at least partly), but others more or less checked out, and probably put me in the category of hard professor you can’t understand.  What also made it difficult is that I wanted to teach them some philosophy, but they hadn’t signed up for a philosophy course, per se.  They signed up for a course on art.

So the last month was spent with more small group discussions with easier material.  I focused on the value of arts education.  They read a Psychology Today piece by Michelle & Robert Root-Bernstein on teaching creativity to scientists through art, a report about an art teacher who uses art as therapy for troubled high school students, and I assigned a TED talks online video on creativity by Sir Ken Robinson.  The material was much more accessible, and they did a better job with discussions in November.  One piece of the course I jettisoned was facilitated discussions with middle school students.  As my student assistant put it – “our students are so insecure and unsure of their skills middle schoolers will eat them alive”.  So rather than set them up for sure failure, I dropped a part of the course I had hoped would be very educational for them.  Instead, I added some classes where we did a blind chocolate tasting (to talk about aesthetic judgments and whether they are based on anything objective), we had a music-listening session, we visited a museum, and I took them out for dessert to a nice restaurant.  All these things helped loosen everyone up, and improved the course.  I kept their main, and very difficult, writing assignment, which I helped them through by commenting on several drafts for each person.

The end of one of the student slideshows sort of summed up their experience in my course: “We talked about art a lot.  We still don’t know what it is…in fact, we know less than when we started this course.  But we learned what kind of chocolate we like…and we learned to facilitate.”

Michael Gettings