The following is an excerpt from The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning.*
Teaching as Abstract Art: Neil’s Undergraduate and Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar.
“Art and Organism” (A&O) is a seminar about the “biology of art and aesthetic experience.” In this course, I make extensive use of abstraction in its central sense of selective emphasis on what is most important, often penetrating below the surface of raw stimuli to progressively deeper layers of meaning. For I agree with Gorky, “Abstraction… is the emancipation of the mind, it liberates us from the slavery of facts” (as cited in Barcio, 2016).
I believe that the more deeply one goes, the more likely shared meaning can be found, and when that sense is shared in class we can reexamine older ideas and share our understanding of new ones as a group. The depth I seek for us all is emotional as well as scholarly. I believe learning in such an environment is more enduring and ultimately [potentially] transformative. In this way, new content becomes part of our personal fabric, and all subsequent things are seen in its light.
We begin this journey when I introduce myself by creating a personal mind-map (a spontaneous and intuitive graphic organizer) on the board. I then ask students to create their own during that first class. They are to represent themselves graphically—key turning points in life, interests, family background, etc. I collect them and return them later with brief comments to let them know I am interested in them.
During class I can see myself transitioning from “sage on the stage” to “guide from the side”-like interactions with students (e.g., King, 1993). Disciplinary content often includes obscure but highly relevant terms and ideas that are deployed in the service of course content and student-centered concerns. It is intended that the novelty of the terms avoids traditional baggage of meaning and could enable new frameworks for familiar experiences. Much like Coleridge said of Wordsworth, I wanted to arouse them from the lethargy of customary approaches to the world. I seek to push student understanding of the connectedness of knowledge and ideas from memorized surrogates for understanding and platitude to living reality.
Student responsibilities are straightforward. At the beginning of each class session, I ask students to orally check in with anything that is on their minds they are willing to share. The focus on course content begins each session with students creating mind-maps related to a key concept that will be of focus during that session (e.g., science or brain). Arguably this is each student’s personal definition of that topic and it becomes quickly clear that the same idea means something different to each of us. And, especially when the key concept is a familiar construct, the mindmaps often surprise students. They find layers of meaning and begin to appreciate that different levels have different values for meeting our needs.
The most important assignments are written post-class reflections in which they are to emphasize what they consider stood out from that session. These reflections are handed in, and I respond to each student via email as soon as possible after class. In my response, I request further elaboration, including how their comments might be connected to something else that I suggest they explore, such as a short reading or TED talk or podcast. Often, they initiate a brief discussion related to what they learned during their subsequent check-ins. If someone does not share, I question them about the connections they discovered.
My assessment of student performance is shared by personal, narrative feedback. It occurs in an egalitarian context: when I identify an idea, I urge them to help me find more resources that speak to it, just as I will provide new resources to them to help enlarge or extend ideas. While listening to check-ins and assessing responses to my suggested additional resources, I note the level of attention that students are investing. I try to give written feedback at all times (almost always positive) but do not assign a specific letter grade for students’ work. Term papers are evaluated but not graded.
After our first experiences with mind-maps, I urge students to tentatively select a personally meaningful idea or experiences or concern that could be the nucleus of a term project. These projects are to be presented as a summary of their explorations and discoveries prior to the end of the semester. On one occasion, I asked each student what theme of several discussed might provide them with a general direction. One woman said in an indifferent manner, “nothing!” My response was, “okay—nothing it is!” She was embarrassed but then I pointed out the critical position of “nothing” in art (e.g., negative space) and science (e.g., vacuum). My point was that every idea is connected if only we have the patience to follow some very circuitous paths, but that the unexpected things we learn along the way may well be worth it.
*excerpted from: The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice in Higher Education. Katherine H. Greenberg, Brian K. Sohn, Neil B. Greenberg, Howard R. Pollio, Sandra P. Thomas, and John T. Smith (Routledge Research in Higher Education). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. Chapter 8, pp 153-154