Monday, December 21, 2015

Newly schooled

At semester's end, what have I learned? People always say you learn as much from teaching as your students do, but in a seminar setting I think sometimes the seminar leader makes off like a bandit. For the first year seminar which just ended, it's a little hard to say who got/gave more.

There's a good reason for this: the last three weeks of the class were given over to the students, each of whom was charged with facilitating a "model seminar" on a timely topic of their choice. This means that the last class I "taught" was before Thanksgiving. (And even that one I didn't actually teach; the topic was Sekou Sundiata's "research to performance" method and discussion was led by one of his students.) And the point throughout the semester had been that The New School has always been an asylum run by the inmates, defying received notions of what's worth knowing and how to teach it to engage the challenges of each new day - and throwing ideas of professorial authority to the winds in the process. Remember that discussion about who's best positioned to know what folks need to know today, where faculty weren't even considered?!

I've told you a little about the topics of the model seminars, and the picture of what's worth knowing they implied. But I hadn't at that point received the students' final work, a 5-7 page reflection on the process.
Most of these have been extraordinarily thoughtful, and confirmed that this was a good way to wrap up the semester. Students fretted about their own seminars, told how they'd kept to or departed from their plans, how their classmates had or had not said what they thought they would, and what they'd admired in other students' seminars. Many had never thought about leading a seminar - or about what's actually happening in a seminar discussion - before. Some described paying a new kind of attention to what was going on in in all their classes; all, I dare say, now know what it means to say that a seminar is co-created by everyone present, and will be more engaged in their classes in future. Learning by doing! We've got seminar learning down cold!

Or do we? I have to say I was struck (and a little nonplussed) at just how much discussion the students included in their 20 minute plans, and how little time they devoted to sharing new information with their fellows. Only half assigned material in preparation for their session (I'd told them they could assign up to 5 pages of reading, 10 minutes of video or 15 minutes of a writing assignment), and perhaps knew better than to assume the class had done it. In the seminars themselves a few had minimal powerpoints, only one used the board, none had informational handouts. Instead we had many activities asking everyone to do something (define art, complete a sentence, correct a grammatically questionable sentence, draw something) and share it with the class, and lots of discussion of open-ended questions. I worried that I had gone too far in extolling the wonders of seminar learning, as if everything worth knowing would emerge spontaneously and completely from a discussion even if nobody in the discussion knew much about the topic at hand.

But then it was my turn to learn. Reading the students' reflective accounts of the choices they had made in setting up their model seminars, I found out what was really going on. Engaging the class in enjoyable discussion was the aim, "teaching" secondary if not indeed rejected. They had not forgotten about content. These days you can find most content in seconds from your smart phone once you know about it and know why it's interesting - and if you're not interested, you won't remember what people have told you anyway! They were striving for what you can't get online: encountering the variety of their classmates' perspectives, and the multifaceted view of things which emerged when these diverse points of view interacted with each other.

L, one of the students (her topic was Fluxus, an anti/art movement which emerged out of John Cage's lectures at The New School), described what was going on with great eloquence:

The topic of a seminar is like the foundation layer of a house. It plays a large role in determining how smoothly the seminar goes and how well it works. Obviously, some topics open up a lot more conversation than others. To me, a seminar should be less about getting out facts to the people who are participating, and more about getting to hear what everyone thinks on the subject. So perhaps the walls of the “seminar house” would be the people involved and what they contribute. To be a true, well-functioning seminar, intriguing conversation must happen. Conversation amongst the group is such a key part of this type of learning process. I suppose that the roof would be me, the leader, making sure that the seminar is contained and does not stray too far from the topic. The person running the seminar must also try to be sure that everyone is getting something out of it, something that can be difficult. Finally, the paint on the walls of the house, the furniture inside, the fence around the house, all the aesthetic details, are the visuals used during a seminar to help relay information. I say this because in no way should the visual of the seminar be the focal point or the most important thing, even in a topic about visual art.

My notion of a seminar - a round table with a text at the center - suddenly seems very, well, old school. Thanks, class, for all you've taught me, and for the hope you give me for the ever-new New School!

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