Collaboration in the classroom

Last fall, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pam Stefanuca, Director of Academic Technology and Instruction at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and talk about how I encourage collaboration in class. She’s just published the interview on her website, and listening to it after all these months led me to reflect on some collaborative strategies I used this semester in Art Matters, a first year foundation course at MICA that emphasizes art historical methodologies and writing skills. I felt the two that I outline below were productive in-class assignments that engaged the students in active processing of the material, in addition to fostering collaboration.

The first was a writing workshop where my goals were to prepare students for their first formal writing assignment and to familiarize them with the rubric I’d use to evaluate their work. I set up a shared class folder on Google Drive, which we used throughout the semester for similar activities. During our workshop, the students worked in groups of 4 to write descriptions of a video game called Journey** (actually, they focused on describing the promotional trailer since not everyone was familiar with the game). Each group presented their descriptions to the entire class, and then evaluated the other groups’ work based on my rubric. We ended the class sharing the “grades” they had assigned one another and reviewing how they had evaluated each criteria on the rubric. After class, I added detailed comments and suggestions on each of the descriptions in our shared folder, and had the students use these as a resource when they started work on their upcoming assignment.

The second collaboration grew from the fact that many of my students are drawing and illustration majors. The goal of this session was to familiarize students with formalist methodologies in art history.  I had assigned the introduction to Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History as one of the required readings, and students were to bring to class a list of key points, which we discussed before breaking into groups of 4 students. Each group was then assigned the task of rewriting Wölfflin’s introduction as a graphic novel, and I was amazed by the results.  Aside from the quality of the images (everyone should be so lucky as to teach art students), they were talking with each other about the main ideas of the text and how to synthesize them into a visual format. Because of time constraints, the students chose to upload images of their work to share via our class folder on Google Drive, and I assigned a reflection assignment for them to review and critique each others’ versions of the text. This final step was important because it provided students the opportunity to recognize and correct conceptual misunderstandings in some of their peers’ work.

As I say in the MICA interview, collaboration requires a mindshift away from academic notions of proprietary contribution and individual achievement.  I’ve found in-class activities to be a good way to foster collaboration because they evolve from group discussion toward a clear collective effort to accomplish the learning goals for that day. Building collaboration skills through such low-stakes assignments can be a first step toward integrating collaborative learning throughout a course.

**The class had “chosen” this video game among other student submissions as an art object that most challenged traditional ideas about what art is (one of the first assignments in the class). We returned to the game several time as the focus of collaborative work that paralleled course assignments that students were required to do individually during the semester.

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Crowdsourcing Contemporary Art (Part 1): A class in progress

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This semester, I was slated to teach a 200-level course on “Contemporary Art,” a topic I’ve taught in numerous iterations over the past 10 years.  Most recently I’d taught the class in Spring 2012 as “Art Since 1960.”  Although the students enjoyed it and it achieved the stated learning objectives, I was frustrated in my struggle to convey the complexity of the subject through a traditional lecture based structure.  That experience motivated me to completely redesign the course and my teaching strategies. 

I have now adopted a crowdsourcing model of collaborative research, content development, and study for the class.  I wanted to approach the topic in a way that would be more inclusive of students’ interests and existing areas of knowledge. Crowdsourcing attempts to reduce the inherent subjectivity of any survey class where the professor determines content based on academic knowledge, areas of interests, and scholarly expertise.  Moreover, I hoped it would capitalize on the varied backgrounds of the students usually drawn to the class, especially those with different aesthetic tastes, in disciplines outside art history, and from other cultures.   

Crowdsourcing also allows students to engage meaningfully with a wide range of art historical research techniques and resources. Instead of listening to lectures on slides or reading texts that I’ve chosen, students will collaborate in their effort to find, evaluate, and share useful information on our common topic of study. The pedagogical goal of this approach is for students to develop their own ideas and understanding about contemporary art, based on the connections, observations, and insights they discover through our active research and shared dialogue.

Instead of waiting to see what happens, and then detailing an analysis of any successes–and/or failures, I’ve decided to post some reflections as the course plays out this semester.  This parallels the students’ requirement to maintain a journal recording their own ideas, thoughts, and frustrations about both our topic and method of study.  Over the next few weeks, the students will be choosing topics for study and developing a reading list for the class.  Although the class content will be student-driven, my next post will explain the theoretical and logistical frameworks I’ve established to provide necessary scaffolding to get them started.