"Does This Count as an Occasion?"
Engaging Students in the Culture of the Campus
[as published in Atlantic Universities' Teaching Showcase 1999: Proceedings. Ed. Roger Moore and Denise Nevo. Halifax: Mount St. Vincent University, Spring 2000. 123-129.]
For the past five years, I've been involved with an innovative, 18-credit interdisciplinary first year learning community, The Aquinas Programme. Further information about this programme -- much more than I can offer here -- is available on the St. Thomas Web site (references below); what is most relevant for the present purpose is that the basic motive for setting up the programme was to provide a more effective way of ensuring that first year students get as much support as possible in becoming members of the academic community -- that is, participants in the intellectual and social life of the mind which you can find, if you look for it, instantiated on the campus.
The programme entails creating small cohorts of students -- up to 36 -- who are all enrolled together in three of their five first-year courses. The particular section I've been involved in is called "Truth in Society." It has involved, in various configurations, a collaborative, writing-based investigation of the problem of how people come to believe the things they do. The five teachers who have at various times participated in "Truth" have sometimes taught the course as one seamless 18-credit interdisciplinary module, and sometimes as three free-standing but interlinked courses. However structured, the student spends 25 hours a week -- in some years, all of every Tuesday and Thursday, and eight or ten hours beyond that -- working on various aspects of this course. During the current year, for some of the time they're in separate discipline-based introductory courses, and for some they're involved in a collaborative investigation of a particular specific historical instance or issue, chosen by the class, in which people's beliefs were challenged or changed. Foci of investigation have included the Salem witch trials, the media coverage of the Gulf War, the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, the Scopes trial. But there are other tasks, all intended to help the students become active and engaged members of the academic or intellectual community. In our section, most of these assignments are writing-based.
What I want to focus on here is one of these tasks, which we invented at the outset of the programme and which has -- in my view, at any rate -- been one of its most successful innovations. One of the things students are required to do is to write about a minimum number of local public "Occasions" -- mostly these are on-campus lectures, performances (readings and plays), gallery openings, concerts, etc. In order for the Occasion to "count" toward the course requirements a student needs to make sure (perhaps by persuasion, sometimes by written persuasion, via, for example, an email to the course distribution list) that a minimum number of other people (this number has varied from year to year, depending in part on the size of our cohort) attend -- and that they write and post a public reflection about the occasion; she then also needs to read the other people's reflections and write a response to at least one of them. And all of this has to be done within a set time frame -- we have usually said three class sessions after the event for the original reflection, another two for a response. The most recent explanation of this process is on line as part of the ongoing current English course in Truth in Society. It says, in part:
As with much about the course, you'll have a good deal of choice about specifically what to do, but there'll be a framework of requirements -- in this case, that will mean you're required to attend and write six events each term. Sometimes such outside "Occasions" will be coordinated with topics addressed in the course, but not always. I think it's more important to help you connect with the cultural life of the campus than to restrict activities to those which are directly relevant to what we happen to be doing in class. In an important sense, the Aquinas Program is designed to help you become a participating member of the "academic community," and engagement with the activities of the culture around us is part of what we think is involved in that. We'll explain more about this as the course proceeds. [ Main Prompt; the current version of the explanation is here.]
One is that the students choose and organize their own Occasions -- within a defined range of things that might "count," of course: no pubs, no hockey, no commercial movies. Loosely, it's almost definable as public occasions they wouldn't go to otherwise. It is important that someone in the class has to take the initiative, and people who decide they'd like something to count have to persuade others to go. This, I believe, changes underlying attitudes toward the event in significant ways. When you have made this sort of investment in an Occasion, it seems likely -- and our experience suggests -- you're likely to be more open to it if it's challenging or unexpected in some way.
Further, the written reflections on Occasions, like much of the other writing the students do in the course, are public documents in a way not much student writing usually is. At the beginning of the course they are written on sheets of paper and posted on the bulletin board in the classroom (because the section comprises three flexibly scheduled courses and the room is reserved for this course all day Tuesday and Thursday, students have time to browse through the documents and post their responses). How ever, at some point, usually late in the fall term, the venue for the reflections and responses is moved to a World Wide Web based discussion program, and the process of composing reflections and reading and responding to those of others moved to the computer lab or to students' home computers. The program we currently use is called HyperNews; it displays the postings in an outline format so that students can see at a glance what topics have been begun and who has responded to which, and can read postings s imply by clicking on them. In this it is somewhat like the actual cork bulletin board in the classroom, though less tedious to maintain and much easier to read, avoiding both individual handwriting and the difficulties of arranging them at convenient heights on the wall.
To see in detail what that looks like, you can go to the archive of these discussions from last year maintained at this Web site; here I can say that it might help to imagine a classical outline form, with the lines at the left margin holding the titles of individual Occasions, and under each, indented one step, a title, author and date of the first reflection, highlighted as a hypertext link. By clicking on the link, one can read the posting.
If anyone has responded to the posting, it will be listed below the relevant reflection, and indented another step, with its own title, author, and date, and again will be a "live" link to the actual text. In this way the shape of, and participants in, whole discussions can be seen at a glance. It's easy, for instance, to see if anyone has responded to your own reflection, and easy, if you choose (and some people do) to respond in turn to that posting.
It is important to remember that the writing produced in this process is not assessed in any way other than a stated requirement that the postings be "substantial and thoughtful" (we have not yet had to enforce this requirement). Students write in a situation where the only response to their text will be instrumental -- it will be a response: that is, it will not be a comment on the merits of their writing or their ideas. Normally, as well, it will not be a comment or response -- or, especially, a grade -- from the teacher.
What are some consequences of this little trick? I've not had time to do the kind of research you might want to do to establish convincing empirical evidence, but here are some things I think I see.
Increased writing fluency. Students rarely write telegraphic value judgments, in part because this is public writing -- in fact, the average length of the postings tends to increase steadily through the first few (and then they get shorter toward the end of the term). But writing done in this kind of situation tends to become more rhetorically engaged, more flexible, more disciplined, and more fluent. This is something I believe very fervently, and I've written about it elsewhere -- see the list of references for some examples -- over the last couple of decades. One of the most moving pieces of student writing I've seen in recent years was a response to Rita Joe's reading. It is available on the Web site. I reprint it here exactly as it appears: it's important to bear in mind that it is very difficult to edit your writing once it's posted, so this, like other writings about Occasions, is very much a first draft.
Increased involvement in campus activities. Students attend events they'd never, ever have attended in other circumstances. Regularly the most common finding of any survey of first year students is that no students not in such a programme ever go to a poetry reading, almost none go to a play, almost none to a public lecture -- and Aquinas students do. Moreover, they regularly report as among the most interesting experiences of their first year that, for instance, they went to hear Ri ta Jo read, or attended a noontime concert by the Gallery Singers in the Black Box Theatre or a production of Dancing at Lughnasa by Theatre St. Thomas.
Larger audiences at poetry readings. The first year of the Aquinas Programme people involved in organizing readings at UNB regularly asked me where all the students were coming from: half the audience at most of the readings was made up of Aquinas students. This is not directly a benefit to the programme, though insofar as it has the effect of encouraging more people to schedule such events, it benefits the cultural life of the campus.
Student discussion about events and ideas. In order to set these Occasions up, people have to persuade other people that things might be interesting. Two years ago a student with a Nietzche fixation persuaded eight or ten others to attend a Philosophy department guest lecture on Nietzche. It was apparently a disaster: even the Nietzche nut didn't understand it -- but it is not at all clear that that made it a loss. One thing people learn is that there are other people who are genuinely and actively interested in these things.
Wider student awareness of intellectual culture. The sort of thing that happened with Nietzche is the worst that can happen; the best is the kind of report you get from students who have never heard -- never even conceived of -- a poetry reading coming away quoting good lines and images in their reflections.
Increased ability to make connections between disparate experiences. This one was a surprise to me, but students often find themselves analyzing a poetry reading from a sociological perspective, or considering the religious implications of a theatre production, or considering the rhetorical strategies of a political address.
And what are the costs? There really aren't many. This takes almost no effort to organize, since the students do most of the work. It doesn't need to be graded -- all you need to do is periodically count up the contributions (and extremely occasionally toss one out because it's utterly and obviously trivial -- actually, I can't remember that ever happening ). And, best of all, you can participate yourself. It gives me an excuse to go to things I might otherwise have skipped because I was grading papers or something.
Further information on the Aquinas Programme may be found through its Web site at http://www.stu.ca/aquinas
Further discussion of some of the ideas, with attention to their implications for writing and literacy development, can be found in these conference papers and publications:
"On the Origin of Genres by Natural Selection: Inventing Genres Online. " Paper, Second International Symposium on Genre, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, January 17, 1998.
"Present at the Evolution: Watching Student Writers Participate in the Development of Genres." Interactive Poster Session, Second International Symposium on Genre, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, January 16-17, 998.
"Speech Genres, Writing Genres, School Genres and Computer Genres." Learning and Teaching Genre, ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. 243-262. Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1994.