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Integrative Learning Pathways at Bard College: Connecting Core Experiences
In the early stages of working with the concept of integrative learning under the auspices of the Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning Teagle grant, our team quickly recognized that a number of integrative learning practices were already in place at Bard College. Perhaps most important among these is Bard’s set of core experiences, all of which incorporate or are defined by integrative learning practices, and all of which are required of all students and involve almost the entire faculty at least at some point in the process. Given this rich environment, we were struck by the lack of awareness about integrative learning and by the extent to which the concept is unknown or misunderstood on campus. Integrative learning practices had emerged over time either organically, by virtue of individual faculty initiative, or from the top down—from an administrator who wished to develop a particular aspect of the curriculum. Given that our goal was—and remains—to develop both integrative learning and faculty leadership, we realized that the most effective approach to the Bard situation would be to work with the set of core experiences that involve almost the entire college.
Even though this approach is tied to Bard’s particular set of core experiences, the possibility that integrative learning can be found in existing practices, and then teased out or foregrounded, offers other institutions an elegant and economical approach to building a more integrated curriculum and a more informed and engaged faculty. In other words, all changes do not need to involve re-thinking the curriculum from the top down, but may come from change generated in smaller, more incremental ways.
The Bard Core Experiences
All Bard students engage in five fundamentally important core experiences during their undergraduate career:
(1) Three weeks before the academic year begins, first-year students arrive to take Language and Thinking, an intensive course in textual analysis and writing. Central to this program is a series of lectures, performances, and workshops designed to resonate with the material students encounter in class.
(2) Once the regular semester begins, first-year students begin the first of two semesters of First Year Seminar, a course centered on close reading and discussion of canonical texts. Students participate in two symposia in which they present work they have prepared with a group of faculty mentors to the public.
(3) In January, first-year students spend about three weeks on campus engaged in Citizen Science, a program designed to involve students in the practice of science through intense focus on a particular problem (currently infectious disease). Additionally, the entire first-year class is involved at that time in a civic engagement project in which they teach science literacy in local K–12 schools.
(4) Second-semester sophomores participate in “Moderation,” a transitional process by which Bard students enter their chosen field of study. Students are required to write two short papers (one retrospective, one prospective) reflecting on their academic career and choice of major and post-graduation plans, as well as prepare an academic paper (the topic of which is selected by the individual program), a performance, or an exhibition. Students then meet with a board of three faculty members to discuss their past work and plans for the future.
(5) The capstone experience, the senior project, takes place over the full senior year. Depending on the discipline, the senior project is an academic paper about 60–150 pages in length, or a performance or exhibition.
These core experiences are both forms of integrative learning in themselves, and incorporate forms of integrative learning. Thus, the core experiences offer a rich and underutilized opportunity to be more intentional about integrative learning and to connect the practices of integrative learning. We believed that by using a portfolio to connect the five core experiences on campus, we could strengthen the student experience and raise faculty awareness about the concept of integrative learning. We imagined a developmentally driven series of assignments, each of which would function as a link in a chain to those experiences preceding and following it. The assignments would require students to reflect on their academic and personal growth at each stage of the five core experiences, and would function cumulatively. Seniors, for example, would have the opportunity to look back on four years of reflective assignments and measure the extent to which they had been transformed; administrators and faculty could use the portfolio for assessment purposes.
Once we committed to working with our core experiences, we began developing future plans for a portfolio that will provide a deeper and more integrated four-year arc for students, and simultaneously will generate a conversation among the faculty about integrative learning. Any faculty member involved in one of the core experiences (and that would be the majority at Bard) will necessarily be involved in a discussion of integrative learning. Given Bard’s culture, we believe that this level of faculty involvement will generate more interest in integrative learning and lead to individual faculty initiatives. Even though the portfolio is not yet in place, a number of conversations about integrative learning have begun to occur, both at the level of faculty to faculty and at the level of programs. Additionally, early discussions about the portfolio with faculty and staff have generated interest from the staff of the writing center, which has led to a discussion about workshops involving faculty in reflective writing practices. From our experience, it seems evident that one way to generate faculty interest in, and therefore engagement with, integrative learning is relatively simple: develop ways to encourage conversations about the subject to take place.
In response to our suggestions, the directors of each first-year experience (Language and Thinking, First Year Seminar, and Citizen Science) now work together to devise a series of prompts, each of which links their program to the others and emphasizes the continuity of the core. These assignments should help students connect their experiences; therefore they are distinct from writing assignments that students normally complete in class.
The Moderation process, we thought, could be strengthened by sharpening the questions given to the students as they prepare their short retrospective and prospective essays. The senior project experience/portfolio should be an assignment asking the student to reflect on the process of researching and writing or creating the senior project. All senior projects are reviewed by a three-member faculty board, which offers another opportunity for the faculty to be involved in a discussion of a student’s portfolio as it nears completion.
Engaging the Faculty
Last spring, we presented our plan to create the portfolio to a number of faculty members, including, most importantly (and formally), the four directors of the first-year experience, and the Blended Learning Committee. It quickly became apparent in conversations with the directors of the first-year experiences that they were onboard—important “early adopters” whose engagement was crucial to our plan.
The Blended Learning Committee comprise about ten faculty and staff commissioned by the dean of the college to create a white paper about blended learning at Bard, and it is in this context that we presented the portfolio. The committee was receptive to our portfolio plan, and gave us advice about portfolio programs we might adopt once we move forward. Additionally, simply by virtue of explaining the portfolio to the committee, we increased the number of faculty at Bard who are now conversant with integrative learning.
Before the start of the fall 2013 semester, we talked to the entire fall First Year Seminar faculty (roughly thirty-one people) about the portfolio project at their semester orientation workshop. In this meeting the faculty review their plans for the semester, which include looking over the common syllabus, planning the symposia, and preparing for the first few weeks of class. Our aim was to initiate the portfolio in First Year Seminar, and to ease it in over the course of the next year by engaging Citizen Science and Language and Thinking. We explained the concept of integrative learning, and emphasized that one of the key aspects of the portfolio in this context is the importance it places on reflective writing since our main goal is to help the students develop a sense of the relationships between the discrete experiences. Faculty members, some of whom had worked with this type of writing before, were receptive to the concept and developed a portfolio for use in their classroom.
In addition to formal discussions with the first-year directors and the Blended Learning Committee, we have talked more informally with a number of faculty members about the portfolio plan. This more informal discussion has generated interest among the faculty about integrative learning—specifically, how Bard might be more deliberate about the practice. This emphasizes the extent to which cultural change might be generated by creating discourse.
Progress and Problems
At different moments we have encountered problems, the biggest of which was determining the type of portfolio that would be best for Bard. Currently, a variety of portfolio platforms are available, ranging from simple to complex. We considered whether it might be worth adopting a sophisticated platform that would allow students to curate their own portfolios, but ultimately decided to stay with our original idea to use a basic blog program or cloud-based service. We recognized that our relatively straightforward and inexpensive plan was easy to implement, distinctive, and would have much greater personal meaning for the students. We are convinced that the portfolio gains its value because it is driven by students’ reflections on their experiences at a specific moment—by their progression through the series of events that shapes their four-year arc. It is therefore distinct from many portfolios, which are intended to function as archives or presentation tools.
Another problem we have struggled with is how to develop sufficiently high stakes so that the students will be invested in the portfolio. A number of people who have been engaged with portfolios at other institutions have noted that the portfolio fails if students see it as a series of assignments, merely to be completed or checked off. Keeping their experiences in mind, we will choose the prompts with extra care and solicit input from students as to whether the questions motivate them. Some of this work is currently under way.
We also encountered difficulties in our discussion with the First Year Seminar faculty, who raised concerns about students’ privacy and access to the portfolio. We decided that a simple resolution would be to make the portfolios available only to those faculty and administrators who have ordinarily had access to these materials. Even though the discussion raised a few red flags about the portfolio, about fifteen faculty members agreed to do a “test” portfolio in their class. This pilot program was launched in fall 2014 with a limited number of students.
Our efforts to implement the portfolio are facilitated by the centrality of the core experiences to Bard. Both the students’ and the faculty members’ time is shaped by these five processes. We believe that we made the right decision to work with what we already have—to bolster and more clearly define one of the institution’s strengths in terms of integrative learning. We are also helped by the fact that faculty recognize that although the core experiences are important, they can be reinvigorated. As they take up such a tremendous amount of faculty time and energy, it is crucial that they fulfill their intended purpose.
Susan Merriam is an associate professor of art history; Eric Trudel is an associate professor of French and chair of the Division of Languages and Literature; Simeen Sattar is a professor of chemical physics; Maria Sachiko Cecire is an assistant professor of literature and the director of Experimental Humanities; Michelle Murray is an assistant professor of political studies—all at Bard College.