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Unexpected Hurdles

This week in my IF-supported course, I struggled with getting my small groups underway.  Our class took a day-long trip to Washington, DC last weekend, and we toured the National Gallery of Art, and several other Smithsonian museums.  It was a whirlwind tour, but the students had a good experience, and I played museum docent for a few hours.

I split my class of twelve into two groups of six each, and I used Sue & Jack’s Team Membership Survey tool  from the Guidebook for Student-Centered Classroom Discussions, along with my own grasp of the various personalities of the students.  I’ve been trying to get the groups to work on their responses to our broad question “What is Art?”.  The responses so far are quite vague and poorly formulated.  I had intended the responses to be akin to theories of art – a lofty goal, as it turns out.  Right now what they’ve produced are ideas from “Everything is art” to “Art has to have meaning, and meaning can be just about anything” to “art is the expression of an emotion or idea, or the product of that expression”.  So yesterday I gave them the somewhat more concrete task of first listing all the works they have studied or seen that challenge conventional notions of art (what I call the “gray area cases”), then pretend they are on a grants committee for the NEA, and they have to determine which works are art, and so receive NEA grant funding, and which ones aren’t.  I asked them to look at the list of their responses to the question “what is art?” and ask about each response “does this response help us decide whether these works are works of art?”  If the response doesn’t help them decide which works are art and which aren’t, how can they revise the responses to make them more informative?  I told the facilitators to not get hung up on getting a perfect response – the task is to generate possible responses, not necessarily correct ones.  I also had them read an article that defends one theory of art – the Institutional Theory.  I held that up as a paradigm of theorizing, but noted that the theory has its own problems.

When they struggled with the task for 15 minutes or so, I asked each group to number the responses, then index each gray area artwork, by putting the number of each response next to it, if that response counted the work as a work of art.  Guess what?  Every response said every work was a work of art.  I pointed out to them that this means that they haven’t come up with 7 or 8 different responses, but all the responses are functionally the same.  Lights went on.  Since I’m working with theory, not necessarily policy, I was trying to get them to see that if you have 8 policies which all give you the same result in all test cases, you really only have one policy.  They ran out of time, but are eager to start over on Tuesday and try to revise the possible responses to differentiate them better.  Thank goodness.  The peer mentor assigned to my class regularly gives me looks during the small group discussions.  She is doing her best to not jump in and create order out of the chaos.

The facilitation is going reasonably well, although I can see that the baseline skills of these first-year students isn’t what I’d like it to be.  They have a hard time thinking about ideas other than their own.  Some have a hard time listening, and often the small group gets taken over by whichever student has the strongest personality.  The quieter people haven’t facilitated all that well, and some have told me they never want to do it again.  But I’m meeting with them after each session, giving tips and words of encouragement, and everyone sees the value in eventually learning how to facilitate well.  Next week my peer mentor and I are going to each facilitate a small group for 10 minutes, to model how it’s done.  I realize that at 18 (and even 17!) years old, these students just aren’t at the level to really have the confidence to step in and facilitate.  But I remain convinced that they can learn to do it.

I’ve had to jettison parts of my syllabus already in the interest of making discussion work in my classroom.   While I had planned on having half the class meetings in a lecture+discussion format, it’s turned into 2/3 IF-discussion pretty quickly.  And there are so many things to teach them that I’ve scaled back the readings, and some of the discussion of the readings.  Whether this is the right decision, I don’t know.

Finally, two colleagues at Hollins have asked me what the flip charts and easels are for, and when I described what I was doing in class, they were interested.  I’ve received two invitations to present to faculty groups, and I gave an impromptu 10-minute summary of IF discussion in my classroom to a group of 15 faculty teaching our first-year seminars.  We also have a leadership certificate program, and, given that I’m teaching facilitation as a style of leadership, I applied for my course to count towards the certificate in leadership studies.  The director of that program has asked me to present to a group of faculty who teach in that program, and talk about facilitation as leadership.  I’m trying to keep expectations low, and let them know that I claim no expertise!  Perhaps when my IF course is done, I’ll present something to the group in Spring 2010, and bring one or two of my students with me to discuss how facilitation looks from a student perspective.  We’ll see.  Already I’m well over-committed and I don’t know enough yet about what I’m doing or how it works best, so I’m trying to hold everyone at bay.  But it’s nice to know that there’s interest on our campus from some faculty.

Michael Gettings