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The Culmination of Their Learning

At the end of the semester, my students have the opportunity to make a presentation to the rest of the first year seminars, as a means of sharing what they have learned in the course.  We call this event “Extravaganza”, and it is held in a large lecture hall.  Last year, the two separate discussion groups in my class each put together a short slideshow of images, played with music.  The project was optional, and ungraded.  It ended up being a test of how well-managed the groups were, since I gave them very little direction.  I only asked that everyone contribute, and they create something that reflected the overall content of the course.  Unlike some of the other seminars last year, these groups completed the task, so in part it was a success.  The product was reasonably good, though it reflected the way they shared, or more accurately, failed to share, the workload.  Each slideshow was primarily the work of a single person, who chose images that she found interesting, and many of which were brand new works that we never even discussed in class.

So this year I decided to make the project a required assignment, and direct it a bit more.  Since our class only has 7-10 minutes of presentation time, I gave them the option of doing two separate presentations, or combining their work into one, full class presetation.  They opted for the latter.  I facilitated the planning session last week, and they settled on the idea of making a film, consisting of interviews with various people around campus, asking them what they think art is, and what makes someone an artist.  They are also going to share some of the specific works we’ve discussed in class, and ask the interviewees whether they consider them works of art.  I facilitated a planning session for them last week, and helped them generate a list of jobs that will need to be completed, volunteers to fill those jobs, lists of artworks they want to include, people they want to interview, and a timeline of when it will all be completed.  The planning went well, except two members of class were absent, and they were assigned the jobs of general coordinator/manager and interview scheduler. 

One of the interesting results in planning the event was that a particular proposal was ultimately rejected.  This proposal was that they end the presentation by sharing several of the conceptions of art they developed in their group discussions (in IF-speak:  share their policy possiblities).  This idea was rejected as “too boring” since no one “would want to listen to our wordy definitions”.  It’s a bit of a shame, really, that they lack confidence in the possible conceptions of art they developed.  They are much more confident raising the questions about art that they’ve struggled with throughout the semester, but don’t feel that their possible answers are worth sharing.  They instead want to end the presentation by playing a short piece of avant-garde music and asking the audience whether they consider it art, then describing the way it was produced by the artist, and asking them whether that information changes their opinion about whether it’s art.  I pointed out to them that in doing this they will be facilitating a mini-discussion with the audience, which strikes me as quite appropriate, given the format of the course.  This came as a surprise to them.  I guess they don’t think about themselves as facilitators yet.

Yesterday I found out that only 3 out of the 12 students had done any work yet, so with three days to go until the presentation, I gave a little speech today about free riders and how to know if you are one (though not in precisely those terms).  Fortunately, my little speech had a good effect – at least 4 of the students who were free-riding stepped up and took on some of the jobs.  I’ll know in a few days if they successfully got it together.  The good news is that many of them are enthusiastic about the project, even the ones who fail to follow through once we leave the classroom.  It reminds me that it’s worth giving them opportunities to do creative projects once in a while, even though it’s not my area of expertise.

One thing this has illustrated to me is how fragile group cohesion can be.  Just a week ago, they were working on producing their final group reports, and I didn’t hear any complaints about particular students failing to make their revisions or contribute to the report.  So it seemed that the two groups, at least, were sticking together.  One problem might have been allowing them to work together as a whole class.  While the class members know each other somewhat, since there are only 12 students in the class, the two groups didn’t interact in class very often.  So perhaps the dynamic just wasn’t there, and there are several motivated students in one group, and fewer in the other.  Also, now that it is the last week of classes, it might be that they are overwhelmed by other assignments that are due, and simply prioritize this final class project below some of their other work.  Or, as a final possibility, it might be that writing a paper is a familiar academic exercise, and they know it is important and know they are expected to do it.  Putting on a presentation for other first-year students, especially one they get to design themselves, might feel like less of a serious obligation to them.  Whatever the reason, this year the Extravaganza project has turned out to be a test of group cohesiveness yet again.  I’m looking forward to the results (I think!)

Michael 

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