Archive for May 14th, 2008

Posted by: Serena | 14th May, 2008

Madcap Scheme (beta)

Faculty Academy is over but, unsurprisingly, I’m having a hard time just lying down and going to sleep after all of that. So I thought maybe I’d blog it out. Ha. Like that’ll help.

I could talk about the normal issues central to any academic conference; the battle professors face when trying to connect with students, what role technology plays in this, the evolving relationships between pupil and instructor. You know, the usual. But the things that really caught my mind all stemmed from slightly less formal exchanges. Steve Greenlaw and I (later joined by Vidya) had an interesting back channel conversation on Twitter today about the way students are viewed by much of academia. It all started with this observation from Steve:

“I think it’s part of the academic culture that undergraduates don’t do real world. It’s not true, but the mythology is a hurdle.”

I just sat and looked at that for a while. What did he mean? Of course professors take students seriously. Isn’t that a basic requirement of teaching? Apparently not. Soon we were discussing ways to dispel this myth. Who’s at fault here? Instructors who fail to showcase exceptional student work? Students who are afraid to share what they’ve done? Yes. (And thanks again, Gene Roche, for adding that vital dose of reality to the way I view academia.)

How can we change this? Steve thinks that faculty who are “supporting real undergraduate work” need to share that, and students should be able to look at their own work as academically significant. So far so good, but (as with most important things) it’s much harder to put this into practice. Do you think that–even if the supportive professors are showing their students’ best work to colleagues–the rest of academia is going to sit up and listen? Chances are, the ones paying attention are already in the choir. (Oh no, metaphor number one. The first thing that happens when you spend too much time listening to presentations and keynote speeches is that metaphors kind-of just build up around you until they soak into your skin, and then you’re stuck spouting awkward metaphors for the next week and a half.)

But I want to sing with that guy on the street. And the cashier in the grocery store. And mangy stray cats! Why can’t they be part of my choir? Why can’t we knock some sense into that stuffy geology professor who thinks that “serious undergraduate student” is an oxymoron? Forget about persuading this guy to adopt new technologies in his classroom. If he’s not viewing his students as scholars, then he’s not even going to be concerned about truly connecting with them.

Jim, UMW blogs is doing a fantastic job of showcasing student work, and I really hope that it’s managed to reach some of those professors. Patrick, your organizational system for the blogs is going to help students discover each other’s work. These are great, and probably reach even more people than we think they do. But what if a student doesn’t take the time to look? What if a professor just doesn’t care enough to find out what other instructors are doing? I have a proposal. Having just realized that I have a proposal, I’m afraid it’s not going to be very well developed at this stage, but here goes:

We already have an online environment in which to showcase student work. What we don’t have is a physical one. Now, I know that each department has their symposiums at the end of the academic year to show off what students have been doing. But there’s not much publicity for them, or even inter-departmental exchange. I want student work where I can see it, experience it, interact with it. I want to be able to go to UMW blogs on my computer and browse through different student blogs, but also to watch a student talk about the work that’s been done, and ask questions. I want to engage in every kind of conversation.

My theory is this: make student creation and inspiration inescapable.

We already have a great online space for this. Let’s create a real-life space and merge them. A campus-wide student symposium would be a perfect catalyst for this unification.


1) Every department should be involved. Every student and professor should know about it.

2) Week-long. Even a student with the craziest schedule will still be able to attend a few presentations.

3) Inside and outside of the classroom. Students choose their own spaces. Ball Circle? Sure. Combs 139? Absolutely. The steps of GW? Of course. (Gardner, we can all be neo-hippies!) The beauty of this is that wherever you go on campus, there will be something new to see and experience

4) Students can present whatever academic work they choose. However, a strong emphasis will be placed on selecting work that represents the most fun they’ve had in classes all semester. Because–let’s face it–a mashup about Jaws and the Russian Revolution is going to be more interesting than a PowerPoint summary of statistical variations in Antarctic annual rainfall. Bottom line: if students are visibly passionate about what they’ve done, then there’s a much greater chance that other students will also be interested.

As for professors, I’m sure there will be (at first) mixed feelings about student work that is less traditional in nature. But maybe if they give it a chance and watch a couple of student presentations, they’ll realize that everything students share–whether a musical composition, improv sketch, or academic paper–reflects a deep and enduring enthusiasm for learning. And maybe that’s the extra push that everyone needs.

5) Collaboration with other students is encouraged. Music majors and English majors combining a song with a short story.

6) Photos, podcasts, video streams, etc. allow students and faculty to easily bridge that gap between the virtual and physical.

7) Finally, I’d rather call this a ‘festival’ than a symposium. It’s a celebration, not a conference.

And the result? Physics majors reading poetry by creative writing students about Greek philosophers mentioned in a business major’s blog. Wouldn’t that be something? And who knows… maybe that old, grumpy geology professor will learn a little from his students.

Am I being naive? Maybe. Can we do this? Or maybe this is the more appropriate question: Are we ready to do this?