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Interdisciplinary Teaching through Learning Communities: A Perspective from a Part-Time Faculty Member
My first experience of an interdisciplinary learning community came in spring 2011, when I took on a longtime substitution assignment for a full time colleague, Joan Dupre, who was hurt in an accident. This learning community was an English/ speech collaboration between an assistant professor of English and a professor from the speech, communication and theater arts department. These two professors, Barbara Lynch and Dupre, had participated in this SWIG virtual (online) learning community for the previous four semesters and had developed a well-structured and successful project.
SWIG is pedagogy based on asynchronous online learning communities. As such, it is somewhat different from the typical leaning community at Queensborough. According to Susan Madera, a Queensborough academic program specialist, “Learning communities enable one cohort of students to take two or more classes together. The SWIG’s goal is to enhance student learning through interdisciplinary teaching encompassing shared themes, readings, and assignments.”
While SWIG definitely aims to achieve the latter, in its ideal form, SWIG “partners English and basic educational skills courses with an additional content course and creates a shared student-centered space through the technology of Epsilen’s Academic Web platform. Epsilen allows students to electronically archive and share their written, visual, aural compositions, and research with others” (Darcy, Cuomo, and Hope 2010). SWIG is a high-impact strategy that uses reflection on e-portfolios to help move students from prior knowledge, through disciplinary knowledge to deep understanding.
In this SWIG learning community, students in English 101 were asked to create a pop culture autobiography. In speech, they were to use popular culture to characterize the ten decades of the twentieth century. The classes didn’t have students in common and students from each class met in person only twice during the semester. Students from both classes were put into small groups that met on the Epsilen WIKI. Students offered comments and multimedia gifts (images, videos, songs, articles, etc.) designed to help the students from the other class improve their disciplinary knowledge and their final presentations.
Although I had been interested in SWIG for some time, I found working with e-portfolios and the technology surrounding them a bit overwhelming. However, since I was dropped into this learning community in the middle of the semester, I thought it essential to continue the class with a minimum of disruption to the students. This provided a strong incentive for me to learn the technology quickly.
My experience in this situation, which was akin to a mentor/ mentee relationship with Lynch, made taking on a learning community far less daunting. Lynch’s long experience enabled her to have an appreciation for what I would need to know in order to teach this class effectively. “You can give a speech about anything,” she said, “[but] this project and the collaboration gives students a reason to learn.”
Dupre, who returned to her full-time position after her recovery, put it this way: “Learning communities gave me the opportunity to think in ways I haven’t thought before. It got our students thinking in ways they hadn’t thought before, especially about connections between the disciplines.”
However, Dupre notes, getting students to collaborate can be difficult. When it works, it works really well—they get to see the value of teamwork and participate in creating something original with others. Working with another discipline, they can see their own stories in different ways. “They develop a growing awareness of the value of collaboration and audience. Specifically in our SWIG learning community, they see their own stories in a different way because the other class offers them online ’gifts’ such as photos, songs, and quotations that are direct responses to and comments on those stories. The gifts enhance and deepen the students’ understanding of themselves and of their audience.” Dupre also found logistics and coordinating meetings with Lynch to be a challenge. She also noted that with SWIG virtual learning communities it can be hard to oversee the collaboration online. “When assignments are due, it’s hard to keep on top of them and evaluate the quality of the online collaboration. It can be easier when one witnesses this collaboration in a ‘live’ classroom. It can be very disappointing when students don’t do it, or make excuses.”
Lynch showed me the ropes and helped me avoid some of the pitfalls of this type of teaching. For the workgroups, she suggested I have students name each other’s role in the group—for example, one might be the relationship builder, another might be the researcher, another the person who writes up the group’s work. This way group members can appreciate the different competencies each bring to the whole. With the opportunity to teach an already established learning community, I was able to see the material presented from an English perspective through the eyes of a speech teacher. This was very useful because it allowed me to expand the possible approaches to interpreting and analyzing disciplinary material.
ASAP Learning Communties
Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
Implementing learning communities and other engaged forms of learning, however, brings with it numerous challenges and as well as opportunities for students, faculty, and the institution. In fall 2011, I participated in an Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) interdisciplinary learning community at Queensborough. In this learning community, my freshman English course was matched with basic speech, taught by adjunct lecturer Jolene Collins.
ASAP is funded by the Center for Economic Opportunity, which is located in the New York City Mayor’s Office. Its overall goal is to improve graduation rates for those students who test into regular, nonremedial college classes. More specifically, the program aims to ensure a three-year graduation rate of 50 percent or more of participating students. The program is open to any New York residents who are enrolled full time, have no more than fifteen college credits, and who qualify for financial assistance. Key ASAP program features include small class size and a consolidated block schedule for students who have been sorted by major.
The ASAP learning community program is very well funded. With several full-time employees, its human resource infrastructure provides support to faculty and students and compensates them for attending monthly ASAP faculty meetings throughout the semester. ASAP students also are required to meet regularly with their ASAP advisors. Those who fall out of compliance risk being dropped from the program. Financial incentives offered to students included the free use of textbooks and monthly Metrocards for all students in the program. In addition, there are several organized social gatherings where food is served. These elements ensure that each ASAP cohort becomes a close-knit community where students spend ample time together outside class. This is particularly important at QCC, which has no dorms and is a 100 percent commuter school.
There is a built-in early alert system for students. Faculty are encouraged to reach out to advisors if students miss just one class, and, in my experience, advisors follow up immediately and discreetly attempt to find out why a student is missing classes. Collins and I were paid to meet one hour per week to discuss any issues regarding the functioning of the learning community, assignments, issues with students, and to plan the remaining classes in the semester.
The spring prior to the semester that our learning community took place, Collins and I were paired up by our respective departmental chairs. We meet once with our faculty coordinator and then alone a few times to discuss our ideas for the learning community. Over the summer we developed and shared our syllabi, discussed a joint assignment, and chose and prepared for a class trip. Each of our syllabi was built around common themes and contained a version of this statement: “This section of Speech 211 is part of a learning community and will focus on music, family, culture, and food. Because this is a learning community, I expect that the work you do in English 101 with Professor Abbott will inform the topic selection, research and overall academic conversation of this course and vice versa.”
Throughout the semester, the two courses mirrored one another. Not only was the thematic course material reinforced in each class, the skills needed to complete tasks were repeated. For example, in English 101 students worked on an informative essay, while simultaneously working on their informative speech for SP211. The structural elements of each class complimented the other and this contributed to the success of this learning community.
The EN101 class culminated in the production of a digital narrative that drew heavily on the skills of speech writing to develop their story board and script. In addition to grading course work, at the end of the course we had students undertake a reflective survey on their experience in the learning community, which we assessed together using the AAC&U VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubric for integrative learning.
The bedrock of our learning community was our relationship. We both had similar ideas for the learning community and were accommodating of the needs of the learning community. In our weekly meetings, we felt able to talk freely about the workings of the learning community and were both very disappointed when scheduling difficulties prevented us from teaching another ASAP learning community together in fall 2012.
Collins and I appreciated the ability to be in close communication with a colleague who grappled with the same challenges. She loved the synthesis of using the same material twice, which “lightened our students’ workload, but deepened their understanding of disciplinary material and allowed them to make connections.”
Our learning community was well planned, organized, and executed, and we drew heavily on ASAP’s ample resources. For example, when I realized that our students were struggling with the reflective nature of my assignment questions, I held an event at QCC’s Writing Center on that topic. The presentation included tips on “following directions,” “understanding the assignment,” and “unpacking a question.” We witnessed considerable growth in our students over the semester, with students taking increased responsibility for their own learning. Reflecting on this teaching experience, Collins noted that, “Because the group bonded thoroughly the cohort became a cohesive self-regulating group. When people were slipping, or when personal stuff happened, they’d know and reach out to each other, to ensure the student stayed in class.”
Some of the challenges we encountered included scheduling time to co-plan. As adjuncts both working other jobs, coordinating face time was difficult. We also had to deal with an initial resistance on students’ part to working with a considerable amount of technology in the two courses. For example, I used Epsilen’s Wiki function and encouraged students to post their digital narratives in their e-portfolios. Collins had students use PowerPoint.
A class trip at the end of the semester to Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan functioned as a culminating experience in the way Kuh suggests a senior study abroad trip functions towards the end of an undergraduate degree. That is, it “provides opportunities [for students] to see how what they are learning works in different settings, on and off campus.” In my English class we read texts which included poems, and the students who went on this excursion saw poetry as something that is relevant. It made the idea of audience more concrete, Both Collins and I emphasized performance and presentation in our classes, either through delivering speeches or presenting their digital stories. At Nuyorican Poets Café our students watched poets perform their poetry, then wrote and performed their own poems to an audience that included their peers, their professor, and the poets and other audience members. (17).
Because of the students’ closeness to us and to each other, Collins noted that the students in the learning community were more vulnerable, more open, and more real. This quality of realness translated into more powerful, expressive, and deep reflections in assignments. As faculty, the more we got to know our students, the more able we were to let them pursue their interests. She noted that “there’s a lot to figure out on our own as teachers, especially both being adjuncts, so it was so great to have another set of eyes.”
My two positive experiences are grounded in the solid relationships my coteachers and I were able to develop. As Kuh stresses in High-Impact Educational Practices, “To engage students at high levels, these practices must be done well” [Kuh’s emphasis] (20). Both ASAP and SWIG have strong institutional support in the form of financial resources and incentives such as stipends and payments for attending the extra meetings needed to ensure the learning community functions well. At Queensborough, faculty are provided with the resources and the faculty development they need to undertake the work of creating a first-rate learning community.
Bromwell, J. E., and Swaner, L. E. 2010. Five High-Impact Practices: Research, Learning Outcomes, Competition and Quality. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Darcy, J., M. H. Cuomo, B. Hope. “ePortfolio Cornerstone Community: Symphonic Reflections on Different Ways of Knowing.” Boston July 2010. Unpublished conference proceedings. AAEEBL Conference Boston 2010.
Dewey, J. 1938. Experience and Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kuh, G. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Scrivener, S. et al. 2008. “A Good Start: Two-Year Effects of a Freshmen Learning Community Program at Kingsborough Community College.” Retrieved from www.mdrc.org.
Stefl-Mabry, J., and B. L. Lynch. 2006. Knowledge Communities: Bringing the Village into the Classroom. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Jillian Abbott is an adjunct lecturer and research associate at Queensborough Community College.