A Sense of Relief

Now that it’s been well over a month since my last post, it’s hard to know how to sum up all the things that have happened.  I’ll start at the conclusion: Thursday was the last day of my IF course.  All 15 of our first-year seminars are invited to participate in what we call “Extravaganza” – the classes get together and make presentations about what they learned over the course of the semester.  Mostly the classes put on skits, and not all classes participate.  Mine did, thankfully.  They didn’t receive a grade for it, but I asked them whether there was anything they would like to do to show others what we did in Art: I Know It When I See It.  Each of my two small groups, which have been together all semester, put together a slide show with music.  I left it up to the groups to manage the project.  One group did quite well (they didn’t tell me there were any problems) and the other group struggled.  The struggle arose because one enthusiastic person took on most of the tasks, since she had energy and was excited about the project, and predictably, others took a back seat, out of laziness for some, and for others, to stay out of the excited student’s way.  I intervened with 5 days to go, and identified a few tasks that still needed completing before the presentation.  They stepped up and took them on, and the project was finished (however, the student who had all the energy still called it “my slideshow” when she presented it – she was clearly feeling possessive and resentful).

The good news about my students’ presentations is that they went off very well, and were well-received.  They included a large number of artworks that we’ve discussed over the course of the semester, and one slideshow included a floating cartoonized version of my head floating around, with my jaw opening and shutting nutcracker-style while a computerized voice recited, “But is it art? But is it art?”  That drew a big laugh, especially from my colleagues.  What really made me feel good about the end was that I think that the IF process really helped my students do group work better.  It wasn’t great, but compared to some of my colleagues, it was quite successful.  Three colleagues I spoke to had planned to have their classes make presentations, but jettisoned the idea in the end.  All three are excellent teachers, but in one case the students had mutinied against the professor the previous week, refusing to do any more group work since they couldn’t get along, and in another case the professor dissolved the groups after two students ended up getting physically violent with each other (something I haven’t seen here at our all-women campus).  So it might just be that the personalities of my students meshed better, but I attribute part of the success to good preparation through the IF process.

The floating-cartoon head also illustrates a change in my class.  I realized sometime in early November that I was thinking so hard about how the course was going and how to get them to facilitate, and how to help them manage their own work, that I never relaxed in the classroom.  This is different from how I typically work.  Usually I build more of a rapport with the students in the classroom, but it wasn’t happening with my IF class.  They were stressed out, since I had given them some very difficult readings, and difficult writing assignments.  Some rose to the challenge (at least partly), but others more or less checked out, and probably put me in the category of hard professor you can’t understand.  What also made it difficult is that I wanted to teach them some philosophy, but they hadn’t signed up for a philosophy course, per se.  They signed up for a course on art.

So the last month was spent with more small group discussions with easier material.  I focused on the value of arts education.  They read a Psychology Today piece by Michelle & Robert Root-Bernstein on teaching creativity to scientists through art, a report about an art teacher who uses art as therapy for troubled high school students, and I assigned a TED talks online video on creativity by Sir Ken Robinson.  The material was much more accessible, and they did a better job with discussions in November.  One piece of the course I jettisoned was facilitated discussions with middle school students.  As my student assistant put it – “our students are so insecure and unsure of their skills middle schoolers will eat them alive”.  So rather than set them up for sure failure, I dropped a part of the course I had hoped would be very educational for them.  Instead, I added some classes where we did a blind chocolate tasting (to talk about aesthetic judgments and whether they are based on anything objective), we had a music-listening session, we visited a museum, and I took them out for dessert to a nice restaurant.  All these things helped loosen everyone up, and improved the course.  I kept their main, and very difficult, writing assignment, which I helped them through by commenting on several drafts for each person.

The end of one of the student slideshows sort of summed up their experience in my course: “We talked about art a lot.  We still don’t know what it is…in fact, we know less than when we started this course.  But we learned what kind of chocolate we like…and we learned to facilitate.”

Michael Gettings


Discussions, Round Two

Since my last post, several things have happened.  My students finished their first round of discussions, so everyone has tried their hand at facilitating.  It went reasonably well, although I’m changing some small things to make the next round better.  I also had the benefit of a campus visit by Jeff Prudhomme, and he and I were able to have lunch together and talk about how my class is going.  Since I’m teaching in our First-Year Seminar program and I shared some IF information with the director of the program, he thought it would be useful for all faculty in the program to hear from Jeff.  As Jeff is just a 4 hour drive away, and he was kind enough to accept our offer, he came for a brief visit.

One of the things I realized is that the readings I’ve been assigning my class have been far too difficult for them to understand.  In a lecture-based course, I would have had more time to explain a lot of the readings to them, but I chose instead to let them grapple with the texts in their own discussions.  This was too much for them.  Jeff suggested that I provide them with material they can more easily digest.  Since my course fulfills a university research requirement, I have to take them to the library to learn how to search databases, create bibliographies, and more.  So I took them one day last week to search for new material to read in the coming weeks.  Our next topic is the Value of the Arts in Education.  Since I know little about this topic, I figured they could find sources and I can sort through them and select the better ones for class readings.  They split into pairs, and they looked for newspaper, magazine or journal articles about the value of the arts in primary, secondary or higher education.  They are turning in their annotated bibliographies today, so I’m curious to see what sources they’ve come up with.  Certainly they’ll be easier to read than professional journal articles in philosophy!

I’ve also decided to make their small group discussions briefer, and include more full-class discussions each week.  This is so that I can break up the monotony of small group discussions, since they were getting burnt out.  This also means I can pull some activities out of my bag of tricks.  They will read a little David Hume (which I’ll help explain) on the standard of taste, then we’ll have a chocolate tasting and talk about whether judges come to consensus about what is of value in art (or chocolate, as the case may be!).  I’ve done this before with classes, and it’s been fun for them, and they learn something.  I’m also going to have them each submit a piece of music they like, and write a paragraph explaining why they find it aesthetically interesting or valuable.  Then I’ll put the class playlist together, and we’ll discuss how we write about art, and what the role of criticism is.  So a few of these activities, which have been successful in the past, will improve things I hope, giving them more variety.

Their groups have written rough drafts of group reports for our earlier discussions on the question “What is Art?”, and the results are acceptable so far.  Each report is 8-12 pages, and they seem to have done a decent job collaborating on the result.  I’m meeting with each group today to give them feedback and advise them how to best revise the reports.

Well, that’s it for now.  As I’ve gotten very busy I’ve fallen off my weekly posting schedule that I set for myself, but that doesn’t surprise me at this point in the semester!

Michael Gettings

An IF-less session this week….

My students re-grouped this week to work on the school presentation. They rallied into four teams according to their interests: rap song, a skid, a short video, activity to engage the target audience (8th graders!) 

I asked the class to use an IF-like process during this planning session, and designed a form to guide them. The form asked,
(a) what issues/concerns (about the value of college education) will your group address in its program segment?
(b) what approach will your group use in terms of organization?; and
(c) what constraints will your group face to implement this approach?

As soon as they started to work I realized my beautiful plans were a disaster! Forget about facilitation and note-taking, and deciding what concerns to address in the presentation. These freshmen jumped immediately into the production phase — writing a rap song, producing a skid, deciding sequences for the video shots! Forget about the weeks of discussion concerning “the public value of education” and the old summary reports I had asked them to bring printed. They went into production mode armed solely with their conventional wisdom! I spent so much time going from group to group clarifying what they were supposed to do that by the end of class I was exhausted and had no idea of what had been accomplished! 

Since I am still struggling with how to integrate IF into the upcoming class sessions, I sent an email to the students after class informing them of my expectations. For our next class everyone has to identify an issue (related to prior discussions concerning the public value of education); do some research about that issue (so everyone contributes a “reliable” piece of information to the task); and then they will sit to discuss/create a better informed program segment, one that includes at least one contribution from everyone.  Don’t ask me what will happen next time: your guess is as good as mine!

Maria Villar

What Next?

After reading Maria’s recent post about what she will do next with her IF class now that they are not in their original groups, I realize that I feel I’m at a bit of a crossroads with my class as well.  Tomorrow is our last small group discussion on the question “What is Art?”, and I’m expecting that they’ll consolidate and revise their possible responses tomorrow.  In the end each group came up with 5 or 6 possibilities, although they still haven’t clarified the possibilities very well.  I’m hoping they’ll make progress tomorrow, since once they get to the point of writing their report as a group, they will find it hard to finish without clarity in their group.

Interestingly, one of the hardest things I found was getting them to come up with different possibilities.  They had a strong tendency to try to make every possibility exactly correct, meaning that they kept revising the possibilities in line with what they (in the end) think is the right answer.  So the possibilities kept converging, even when I insisted that it’s important to keep them distinct.  At one point one group member was insisting that artworks are physical objects, and another group member insisted that performances are artworks, but not physical.  They began engaging in a debate which was partially antagonistic, partially an attempt to clarify each others’ position.  I stepped in and told the group that this is a great opportunity to practice “yes, and” – one possibility can capture the notion of artworks as physical objects, and another can capture the idea that artworks include (or are) performances.  Yet even when I got that explicit about “yes, and”, they resisted trying it.  It’s not that they wanted to disagree exactly, but instead they wanted to work on getting The Correct Answer.  It’s been hard for me to get them to appreciate that there may be more than one acceptable answer.

Along similar lines, one of the groups showed up ill-prepared on Thursday, and one of the participants opened up her laptop to look at their last summary, which was posted on Blackboard.  After sharing the relevant content from the summary, she left her laptop open, and on her lap.  I watched to see how the facilitator would handle it, but she didn’t say anything.  I could see the student with the laptop start to websurf (I was sitting behind her), and not really engage with the group.  Then, in the middle of the group discussion, she began quoting a Wikipedia article on Art – explaining how “art” is defined by Wikipedia.  Without me saying anything, one of the other group members remarked that Wikipedia is unreliable, and that they (the group members) have a better understanding of art than Wikipedia.  So score one for the group having faith in their abilities!

So now I’m trying to plan the next phase of my course, which has really been shaken up.  I need more downtime and fun in the classroom, since I’ve been working them really hard for the last three weeks.  I decided to start our next round of discussions on a more concrete and tractable question, but one that still focuses on art, since that is the topic for the course.  So I’m going to ask them to talk about the value of art in society.  I plan on beginning next week with them talking about the place of art in public education, and why it is important.  Since they have all had experience with art in school, they’ll likely have something to say about this question, and Hollins has strong programs in the arts, so they’ve chosen a liberal arts college with strong visual art, creative writing, dance and theatre departments.    I’m even considering having them complete a project that would ask them to play the role of a school superintendent and look at how to design a budget for a school curriculum, including how to decide how many resources go to the arts.  If anyone has ideas about how to design such a project or resources I can use, I’d love to hear about them.

My goal now is to focus on how to ensure the discussion can be more accessible to the students. I’ve acknowledged to them that I’ve given them a difficult task, one that’s more difficult than I had imagined it would be.  So hopefully the next round of discussions will go a lot more smoothly.

One final lesson I’m learning:  I have to spend a lot of time teaching things other than the content of the course.  I believe that the discussion process works best with some structure, and the IF model, with a facilitator helping guide the discussion, is a good structure.  But it means that I have to teach facilitation as a skill, which is very time-consuming and difficult, especially since I haven’t done it before.  It also means that organizing and managing the groups takes a lot of work on my part, especially since I’m teaching first-year students, who need more hand-holding.  I e-mail facilitators for each class two days before they facilitate to help them prepare, and explain the goals for the coming discussion.  Then I also arrange meetings with facilitators individually after class, and I have them fill out self-assessments, and write up my evaluations of their facilitation.  It’s worth it, but it’s also necessary to make the groups work better I think. And hopefully soon they’ll get to a point when they are more self-sufficient.  I’m looking forward to that day.

Michael Gettings

Syllabus Overhaul

This week is a short week in my IF class, Art: I Know It When I See It.  We had only one class meeting, since it’s fall break, so I had to make the most of it.  First, I’ve already had to overhaul my syllabus – the groups’ progress has been slower than I had anticipated, and I thought that I had already planned for it being slow.  Two factors have exacerbated my troubles in moving the groups along: (1) I’m asking them to do high-level theoretical thinking, which is tough when most of them are used to concrete thinking; and (2) they’re first-year students who have been in a college environment now for exactly one month.  Their question is “what is art?” and I’ve asked them to produce 5-7 possible responses.  I’ve also given them readings, explained the process of coming up with a definition, given them tools to test their responses, and coached them along the way.  Still, each group has nearly one decent response, two responses that might be workable into something decent, and three or four more that they’ll rightfully jettison at some future date.

I began last Tuesday’s discussion groups by facilitating one of the discussions myself, with my student assistant facilitating the other group, which we did for about 10 minutes.  Then we handed facilitation over to the groups’ facilitators.  I thought a bit more modeling was in order, since the students didn’t really seem to be grasping the art of facilitation.  In my individual meetings with facilitators after their discussions, about half of them don’t really get what is expected of them, and half get it, and can be rather self-reflective.  I have them each fill out a self-assessment prior to meeting with me, and I review it and share my own evaluation of their facilitation, emphasizing what they can do next time to improve.  All of them say they understand the value of learning to facilitate, but of course they’re going to tell me that – I’m the professor.

My biggest job now is getting them to the end of this “What is art?” module, and figuring out how to design the next module, which needs a complete overhaul.  I’ll post again when I’ve figured some of that out.

Michael Gettings

Thinking of IF in other ways…

My freshman class continued using the IF process this week, though the focus is shifting. They have begun to discuss what/how to share what they have learned about “the value of higher education” with a younger student audience.  I asked them to think about what they had been discussing in previous sessions and decide (a) which lessons they wished to offer to a class of 8th graders in a nearby urban (and minority-populated) school, and (b) how they wished to approach the presentation. After 40 minutes of small group discussion, the class formed a big circle and each group shared potential lessons and approaches. The full class discussion was very animated, and students started grouping around interests — those who want to work on a skit, compose a rap song, or produce a short video. All this let me wondering, what do I do now? My original IF discussion groups are gone?!!

Before I return to this last question, let me share what I learned about the IF process this last week. First, I learned that providing models of “good” summary reports can make a difference. Last week three groups posted excellent  summaries: they identified key themes & synthesized ideas clearly. It made me think of how similar this process is to creating “study notes” for exams, something we try to teach students enrolled in the Freshman Seminar. I have been pursuing a learning outcome of the course w/o realizing it!  Laura, thanks to your feedback on my last blog I could see this connection. You mentioned that  reports were not learning tools, but rather ways of documenting views/preserving information. I think you are right; they should not be seen as “lessons.”

Last week I also learned that I still have to pay attention to facilitation.  I began my class clarifying expectations and reminding students of what facilitation entailed. I don’t think my “homily” had any effect as I could later observe a couple of students who were not participating and the facilitator(s) ignored them.  I could not meet with the facilitator(s) at the end of class as I  initially intended because the class was engaged in an animated discussion 5 minutes past end time. (Something rare on this campus!) I will be talking with Jack Byrd next week to get advice on this problem.

Pradeep, your words, and Sue’s words (on the phone), also helped me enormously. I may be too caught up with “procedural rules” in my class. Since I am not controlling contents, I am controlling the little that is left — norms! Still, this leads me to the question posed at the end of paragraph one. What role does the IF process play in my class from now on? The students are “done” with exploring “the value of college” and are moving to identifying key lessons & preparing a presentation. Small groups will still be discussing the issues they want to address & ways of presenting them, but the notions of “concerns”-“approaches”-“consequencess” seem less clear, unless I ask them to approach this task using this kind of strategy.  Is this what you have been doing, Pradip? Are you continually encouraging students to approach problems in a 3-stage fashion, or simply telling them they should consider alternative views, to listen and build upon each other’s contribution?

One last question! My original groups have re-organized on the basis of interests for the upcoming presentation. What does this do to the IF process “evaluation”? If I recall well, the idea was to form stable groups and keep them working through the term.  Yet I feel as if my kids are starting a second IF Discussion process, with different  concerns and different peer groups.  Any thoughts on this front?

Maria Villar

What my freshmen think about the IF Process…

This week I asked my freshman class to continue discussing “the public value of higher education.”  I told them to focus on their college experience to present — activities they had attended (required by the University) & courses in general: “What were they learning from these? Why did it matter?”  I also reminded them of the facilitation rules, and distributed/discussed a model for summary reports (grouping ideas under themes). When they broke into groups, I could see most were extremely happy, except for one group.

The groups had about 30 minutes to discuss and I couldn’t keep myself from focusing on the unhappy group. Two of them sat on chairs; the other three on the floor. The facilitator — a very shy, reserved male student up to that point)– was in control of the flip chart and marker.  I overheard a peer asking him to take notes faster, and he replying that he needed more time to (re)write?! ideas.  I did not want to interfere/correct his behavior in the group, and still don’t know what to do!  The guy is so shy that I fear he may totally shut off.  I guess this will be my “problem” group and wonder what I can do to help improve their dynamics.

After  30 minutes of discussion-time I asked students to complete a brief (anonymous) assessment form.  The form was very simple. It  asked if (a) the discussion process helped clarify points, (b) they had contributed to the discussion, (c) everyone had participated, (d) they had read the last summary report (and if so, if it had been helpful for discussion), and, finally, if (e) they wanted to continue using the discussion process. Most questions were close-ended —  students  could ony answer yes, no, somewhat/maybe. The three last questions, however, were open — what was the best & worst part of the discussion process, and why they would keep it or drop it.

I tallied (23) responses and was happy to learn that, overall, they find the process helpful/positive.

  N = 23




Q1 Discussion helped clarify points




Q2 You contributed to the discussion




Q3 Everyone participated




Q4 You learned from the discussion




Q5 You read the summary report




Q6 Summary report help (if read)




Q9 Discussions should be dropped  





Although the group is small, their feedback helps me see  “problems” I wasn’t seeing before:
(a) While most find the discussion experience positive, many are not sure of what they are learning from it. (In some ways they reproduce my own experience at the IF Institute!)  How can I help them gain awareness of the learning going on (if any?)
(b) More than half (said) they read the summary reports, but a minority found them helpful when continuing the discussion. The quality of their reports wasn’t good, granted… but I must confess I  felt the same way in Wisconsin! What is the best way to use Summary Reports? How ot make them part of the follow-up?
(c) I learned that not all students are participating in the group discussions. This probably means I have to do a better job coaching facilitators!  I am still not sure how to evaluate them since I can hardly keep track of five groups! 

The answers to qualitative questions were revealing. Not a single student asked me to drop the discussion process; four students said maybe, but no one completely opposed them. Although this may simply suggests that peers are more fun than lecturers — no news on that front!  — many expressed that they learned much from listening to students with other views!!! On the diversity front, IF seems to get A+++ Several students mentioned that their social skills benefitted from the process: they like being involved/engaged with other students.

When I asked what was the worst part of the discussion process, the most common answer was “talking about the same topic.” The second most common answer was “dealing with silence” or “not knowing what else to discuss.”  Both responses point to the same issue —  freshmen students need more input/direction to expand the discussion scope (unlike us!)

I had invited two colleagues to visit my class during  the last 25-30 minutes to speak about their journey in college and the value of Higher Ed from their perspective. One of them arrived earlier and was surprised to see the groups so actively engaged! She roamed around the room observing them and before leaving told me, “You have to show me what you are doing here! I would like to have a class like this”.

So, what can I say? Despite one unhappy group, this was another happy (IF) week!
Maria Villar