Why we do assignments – Generative Art at UNCSA and introduction to emerging tech

I’m always a bit torn when I’m in a position where I’m designing a course and looking towards creating specific assignments that students must complete. There is a sense in which creating a fully delineated, constructed course denies much of the work I’ve done and my own experience. I think that

  • Learning and knowledge building are contextual
  • Different people come to their knowledge constructing differently
  • No two communities ever go at the same pace
  • No one assignment or list of assignments will ever produce the same results (except by accident)

So when I look at the assignments that we included in the Intro to emerging tech course at the UofM I’m always thinking ‘maybe we could have done more of this or that’ and… while the syllabus is in a wiki, I kinda think that we should probably keep the one we started with, as we stated that we would do that. The biggest reason that I can be comfortable with it, is the REASON why I assign assignments in my courses.

In the long history of education I think we’ve lost our initial reasons for doing some of the things we do. The assignment and the essay have reified themselves into ends in their own right and have lost many of the initial reasoning for them. An essay, for instance, has become a proving ground, a place where a professor/educator can ‘verify’ whether or not a given student has correctly understood the work that they are covering in a course. They are correcting the ‘works cited page’ and the ‘thesis’ in order to ensure that those are being done correctly, but often broken down too far and never united in a vision of academic motion. If we should be doing essay’s at all, it should be to prepare for the practical application of the essay to life. Whether that ‘practical’ explanation is the publication of papers in academic journals or the submission to a creative writing magazine… they can be practical… but I’ve yet to meet a first year university student that understands this. We teach things in pieces, without recognizing the whole. The other reason, of course, is to develop the literacies that are necessary for the writing of that essay.

When i assign any assignment, I’m hoping to do a couple of things. I’m offering, first and foremost, a practical application for the exploration that we are doing in any given course. I want students to explore literacies, for instance, by trying to do something they have never done before. The product of that exploration, the actual, say, podcast, is not nearly as important as the exploration of their own strengths and challenges that goes on during that assignment. In order to capture this, I like to offering challenging assignments and heartily encourage my students to work together to try and come up with solutions… and especially encourage them to post their challenges and learning to some kind of sharing space (forum, blog etc…) so that others can see their learning happening. If twenty different people expose their learning process, people get the sense of the variety of challenges that people run into, the variety of strategies and then, if like me you often teach teachers, have a better sense of the challenges that their own students will face.

I’m fortunate in the course, in having a ‘pass/fail’ system for grading. I can, hopefully, give students a sense of the responsibility they have for both their own learning and for exposing that learnign process to their peers without having to track each individual step and judge them against a rubric that I’ve made up. This is the heart of the kind of teaching that I try to do. The challenge, and the comming together that can happen at points of challenge, are on of the key strategies that I use to try to create a community of learning in my ‘courses’. The challenge, as one of my colleagues suggested to me a few months ago, is that doing this online with people who don’t feel the same transparency to the internet that I do, can be a bit challenging.

One of the great f2f examples of how I would love to be able to teach all the time came across my screen this week when I ran into Dean Wilcox and Bob King’s excellent generative art course at the University of North Carolina School or the Arts. I sent those folks and email and they sent me a link to their course website. I’m sure that teaching this kind of art presents it’s own struggles, but man, that course looks compelling. Their blog and their wiki show the same struggles that I was talking about in this post… and their solution is quite a nice one. This is what the next few weeks entail

Thursday, Feb 10: Discuss: Third Project.
Tuesday, Feb 12: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, Feb 17: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the forth project.
Tuesday, Feb 19: Present: Forth Project.
Thursday, Feb 24: Discuss: Forth Project.
Tuesday, Feb. 26: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, March 3: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the fifth project.
Tuesday March 5: Present: Fifth Project.
Thursday March 10: Present: Fifth Project.
Final Exam: Thursday, March 12 – 9:00 am-11:00 am.
Note: Syllabus subject to change.

I particularly like the ‘note’ at the bottom of the page. If you are looking at this thinking that ‘oh, they’re just doing art stuff’ I challenge you to do the reading that were ‘determined’ for the week of the blog post i read.

With the five readings for today, for example, (non-dualism, Taoism, chaos theory, ‘Pataphysics, and rhizome – which amounted to Eastern spirituality, science, avant-garde, and post-structuralism)

They are trying to make the reading relevant to the groups of students they are working with, making a curriculum as contextual as they can, and working their way to actually responding to the needs of their students. I encourage you to wander over and watch the videos of the student projects. It is far more difficult to teach this way, but, i think, it is the future of really good teaching. You really do need to be what George Siemens would call an expert (a person who has had ’10 years’ of direct experience in a subject) in order to teach this way. It requires experience as an educator, and experience in the field. It may, actually, be the future of university learning as a whole.

There’s a prediction for ya 😛