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Summary of 3/18/05 Discussion:
What do we want to change about Bryn Mawr as a teaching and learning environment?

We began with introductions, and with the suggestion that the serious problems of the world might well be addressed via education at Bryn Mawr. Reference was made to a recent Peer Mentoring Workshop. Discussion opened with two questions

  • whether students prefer to be active (rather than passive) learners and
  • whether Bryn Mawr supports such learning.
It was suggested that "lecture environments were not ideal," that there is a "lot of one-way teaching," that many faculty "do not know how to facilitate discussions effectively." Contrai-wise, it was suggested that lectures can provide rich resources for learning, and that classes which are not guided by a professor's agenda end up relying "too much" on student discussion. This happens more in the humanities than in the sciences. There was considerable discussion of science education in particular; there seemed an assumption, among humanists, that science could only be taught a certain way, to certain sorts of learners, and that many students "resort to other areas" because they "can't deal with traditional science teaching strategies." Science majors do need to master certain skill sets, but there are many ways to learn them. There must be a balance between depth and breath--or might we focus instead on "uncovering" a field's way of thinking, its analytic skills and ways of learning, without attempting to cover all the content?

It was agreed that "active learning" was less a description of particular pedagogical techniques than an "attitude" that says, "I am invested in learning. It's about me generating output, getting involved in experiential learning." An active learner takes ownership of her own decisions, and chooses to do extra work because she's interested in it. But many students don't know why they are at Bryn Mawr; they are "getting grades and missing the education." The recent proposal at plenary to devote Martin Luther King Day to service, rather than to the first day of classes, was met with the response that we are "students first, activists second." But internships and praxis placements, which involve "going outside to bring more learning in," are themselves acts of learning.

Professors "want teaching to be transformational; do students want learning to be the same?" There was discussion about our "receptiveness to change," and about the significance of content and assessment (does a neglect of either end up compromising the kinds and amount of information that need to be transferred?). How much are we willing to consider different perspectives? It was claimed that, "to want transformation," we need to "rely on places we haven't been," and be "willing to go to places culturally different from our own." What about the need for education "related to one's own life"? Can "experience be a conversation stopper," a way of marking those places one is not willing to go exploring?

There was also much discussion about our obligations to others in the classroom: are you just here for yourself, or to contribute to a community of learners? (How "selfish" is it to be silent?) How responsible are we to one another, how much should we shoulder the burden of participation for the whole? How can we negotiate an education that gives us a freedom to reference what interests us, without giving up our responsibility to others? Doesn't this happen de facto, as a common courtesy, at least in major classes, if not in required ones?

Why force people to do what they don't want to do (that is, to take courses they don't want to take)? Because "going for interest is an issue"; doing so can limit the extent of a student's education. How can students be encouraged to enter other perspectives, those which counter their own "axes of identity"? There was lively discussion about the possibility of a multicultural requirement: Many courses deal with matters of diversity, but identifying some of them as "multicultural" will ensure that those topics are addressed. Might this be a way of institutionalizing, in the curriculum, the good work done in the Winter Tri-Co Institute? Might it draw on the long experience at the Graduate School of Social Work in the required course on cultural diversity? How might faculty be helped to take an institutional responsibility for such courses?

Why is there such an emphasis on departmental requirements, at a liberal arts college like this one? Might students be helped to take classes outside their major, and guided to relate them to their major work? How can we spark relations between departments? How much are current courses "imposing on the learning," how suffocating are they? How might syllabi be designed as "miraculous agendas" in which students can both draw on their own experience and be "taken beyond where they have been?" An exploratory syllabus needs "lots of open space." A "syllabus is one thing; how it is taught is another"--and that varies widely among the faculty. Emergent pedagogy was recommended: the process of redesigning courses based on feedback from the students. A course should not be constrained by the syllabus, but responsive to students' needs and interests.

We agreed to meet again, 3:30-5 p.m. on Friday, April 15, in the Multicultural Center, to discuss further how we can increase multicultural education at Bryn Mawr--and to what ends? Conversation is encouraged to continue, in the interim, in the on-line forum.

Return to Bryn Mawr as a Learning/Teaching Environment: A Conversation.

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