Commentary

In the News, and in the Classroom

May 25, 2017

In August 2014, after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., refocused national attention on questions of institutional racism, power, and injustice with a new urgency, colleges and universities were once again confronted with the difficult question of just what role they have in responding to late-breaking events of critical concern.

Educators have typically responded by issuing public statements, writing editorials, organizing teach-ins, encouraging ad hoc conversations, and addressing current events in the classroom. In the case of Ferguson, Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University, took to Twitter, asking her peers to suggest books, films, articles, and artwork that spoke to the situation, which she collected and disseminated in the #FergusonSyllabus.

But colleges, as institutions, can do more. There are times that colleges — especially those dedicated to instilling a social purpose — must offer courses that address unfolding events such as Ferguson with the same attention, skills, and rigor as regularly scheduled courses. Courses that can — and should — be seen as existing on the same continuum of learning.

At my institution, Bennington College, a liberal-arts college that holds student agency and engagement as core values, we felt that we needed to create opportunities for discussion less ad hoc and more sustained than town-hall meetings and teach-ins — something more like our courses themselves. We recalled an idea that had previously been discussed only casually, in one of those wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if moments: pop-up courses. If we could create courses more or less on the spot, as the need arose, then we would have a strong, learning-oriented mechanism ready for such events as Ferguson.

But colleges are not usually the most responsive, adaptive, or flexible institutions. Even at small and relatively nimble Bennington, the logistical problems that pop-up courses posed seemed formidable. Who proposes them? Who teaches them? How are they approved? How many can we offer at once? When can they be offered, given that the curriculum for the term has already been established? Then, too, there were questions about enrollment and faculty workload.

Bennington, however, has a few advantages in this regard. The most important is our open curriculum, which is constructed anew each year under the guidance of a faculty committee accustomed to tackling both pernicious logistical questions (the course grid, for example) and more-conceptual questions, concerning discipline and content (Bennington has no majors and no departments). We also happened to have an existing time slot dedicated to one-credit, three-week courses. (A normal, full-term course is four credits.)

The pop-up idea was discussed and approved by the curriculum committee in the fall of 2014. Pop-ups were defined as one or two credit module-style courses meant to respond to unfolding local, national, or international events or issues.

A mechanism for proposal and approval was quickly put in place: Any student, faculty member, or staff member could propose a pop-up course to a faculty member, who could agree to teach it at his or her discretion. The proposal would then be brought to the curriculum committee, which would assess it in the context of the curriculum for the term. If approved, the pop-up would be entered into the curriculum (a live document) and broadcast to students.

In the spring of 2015 we offered five pop-up courses, among them "The Ferguson Report," "Nepal: Before and After the Earthquake," "Measles and the (Sometimes Unnatural) History of Outbreaks," and "Am I Charlie?" (about the Charlie Hebdo attacks). As expected, each saw a healthy enrollment, as have the pop-ups offered since then.

But such brief — and often intense — courses about events taking place in real time are not the usual fare for either faculty members or students. These pop-ups are neither simply shortened courses nor intensives. They cannot be approached primarily in terms of content coverage and discipline-specific skills mastery. Often the subject either is not fully understood or is actively contested (or both) while still unfolding before the eyes of students with varied personal and academic backgrounds. The instructor her or himself may have a vigorous interest but not the accustomed mastery of the subject.

How does one teach, and how does one assess, in this context? The course’s very immediacy, its proximity to our lives, offers the answer: It demands teaching and learning that embraces central, cross-disciplinary skills such as research, analysis, collaboration, and creativity. The development of these skills is much more heavily emphasized than are fixed outcomes. In this way, pop-up courses can both enact and model a deep, thoughtful, and active engagement with the world.

Duncan Dobbelmann is adviser to the president at Bennington College. He has previously served as associate provost and dean of studies there and as director of the Learning Center at Brooklyn College.