Peer Review, Spring, 2006

Vol. 8, 
No. 2
Peer Review

Teaching and Learning Outside and Inside the Box

The Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry was founded at Ball State University in 2000 to enable faculty to design and implement interdisciplinary, collaborative, project-driven, and community-based immersion seminars for undergraduates. In the center’s six-year history, the faculty and students in each seminar have worked together with community partners to create nationally acclaimed educational products such as museum exhibits, documentary films, theatrical productions, television shows, radio programs, interactive Web sites, digital textbooks, and scholarly publications. Several of these seminars have featured an international component as faculty and students have conducted research in Dublin, London, and Paris and collaborated with faculty and students in Argentina, Australia, and Denmark.

Because a Virginia Ball seminar is their only academic responsibility for an entire semester, both the faculty and students inevitably question the fundamental assumptions of teaching and learning. What is a class? What is an assignment? Who is responsible for teaching? What is the purpose of learning? The complexity of collaboration and the necessity for creative production quickly transform these questions into “we” questions. What are we trying to do? How can we do it more creatively? Who owns our work? How does it compete with similar work? Who should see it? How will we know if it’s any good?

As these questions suggest, teaching and learning at the Virginia Ball Center is a truly creative enterprise that encourages risk and tolerates failure while assuming that everyone will exceed their highest expectations. The collective energy devoted to such work leaves faculty and students exhausted and exhilarated, convinced that they have created something of real significance and certain that they have become the authors of and authorities on their own education.

Reentering the Conventional Classroom

The trouble starts when faculty and students leave this privileged environment and return to conventional college classrooms. The Virginia Ball Center has studied this “reentry” process to understand and help facilitate the strategies faculty and students use to cope with the creative challenge of teaching and learning “back inside the box.”

Reentry is marked, initially, by frustration, disappointment, and nostalgia. Faculty are frustrated by the rigidity of disciplinary boundaries, disappointed by the apparent disengagement of their students, and nostalgic for those wonderful days when everyone was invested in and engaged by an all-consuming creative project. Similarly, students are frustrated by the maze of graduation requirements, disappointed by the seemingly inconsequential work they are expected to produce, and nostalgic for the small group of students whose talent and dedication they learned to admire and trust. But brooding and complaining, while certainly understandable and possibly therapeutic, do not help sustain the creative energy that was unleashed at the Virginia Ball Center. Most former seminar participants make efforts to recapture and build upon those earlier experiences.

Faculty and students try to recapture some of that energy by teaching or taking special courses that offer a similar form of experiential learning. Faculty offer Honors College colloquia and capstone seminars that enable them to teach interdisciplinary material, design creative assignments, extend the learning environment into the community, and select the students with whom they wish to work. Students try to recapture their experience by shopping for such innovative courses and by applying for fellowships, internships, and study abroad opportunities.

But faculty and students cannot avoid the traditional teaching assignments and course requirements that still characterize a large portion of the undergraduate curriculum. The large classes, filled with students of mixed ability and questionable commitment, are designed to build skills and cover content. These classes reward efficiency rather than experimentation. Teachers in such classes are experts dispensing information in an environment they control, and students are novices consuming knowledge. Innovation in such a setting is unsettling for both—teachers cannot give up control without losing credibility and students cannot assume responsibility without confronting ambiguity.

Lobbying for Classroom Innovation

For former Virginia Ball seminar faculty and students, such courses present a creative challenge. Although faculty realize that introducing or lobbying for innovation in such courses invites risk and failure, they are eager to experiment. Some faculty break large lecture classes up into smaller groups, assigning each group responsibility for developing and teaching a portion of the syllabus and inviting the rest of the class to assess their achievement. Faculty also enfranchise students by asking them to present lectures, design assignments, and evaluate examinations on certain topics. And all former Virginia Ball faculty find ways to invite community experts to talk to their students and arrange for their students to present their work in some kind of public forum.

Former Virginia Ball students lobby for and set extraordinarily high standards for collaborative work. If given a choice, these students create groups whose members have demonstrated talent, cooperative personalities, and a strong work ethic. And if they are assigned to a group with obvious slackers, they assume responsibility for explaining the ground rules and establishing expectations. Everyone must contribute. The disinterested will not be able to slide by on the work of others. In classes where some students lack commitment and skill, former Virginia Ball students often volunteer to serve as tutors, collaborating with teachers to provide motivation and supplemental instruction.

These faculty and student initiatives, although admirable and engaging, rarely match the productivity achieved at the Virginia Ball Center. A class that meets three times a week for an hour and must compete for the attention of faculty who are teaching other classes and serving on various committees and students who are taking four other classes and working at various part-time jobs cannot achieve the creativity of a seminar that focuses student and faculty attention on one project all day, every day, for a whole semester. Furthermore, students in conventional college classes have been conditioned by years of test-driven curricula, repackaged instruction, and minimal expectations. Despite everyone’s best intentions, group presentations, student lectures, and other creative assignments often seem perfunctory in conventional college classrooms, mimicking the middling performances of former teachers and fellow students.

Nevertheless, many former Virginia Ball faculty and students remain true believers. They have worked hard to integrate the distinctive features of the Virginia Ball experience—interdisciplinary study, collaborative learning, creative production, and community engagement—into the university curriculum. As a result of their efforts on various task forces and committees, the university’s new strategic plan includes a commitment to experiential learning; the new core curriculum embraces the concept of immersion seminars; the new women’s studies program is based on a rigorous examination of integrative learning; the new telecommunications curriculum enables students to collaborate in the creation of digital products that have won national awards; and the new Business Fellows program has teamed faculty and students from different disciplines to solve problems for businesses and organizations in more than twenty-five communities across the state.

Working Outside and Inside the Box

Such changes suggest that by working outside the box and then working back inside the box, Virginia Ball faculty and students have helped the university promote a creative culture that encourages faculty to pursue innovative teaching, inspires students to learn through creative inquiry, and prompts administrators to explore corporate and community connections. But despite these transformations within Ball State University’s culture, many Virginia Ball faculty and students still feel compelled to find another box. Faculty have changed career paths, reshaped their professional identities, and acquired external funding to support entrepreneurial endeavors outside the university, such as theatrical productions, documentary films, and book projects. Similarly, after graduation, students from various Virginia Ball seminars have found other like-minded young professionals in strange cities and formed production companies, design teams, and educational partnerships.

These responses to life after the Virginia Ball Center reveal what faculty and students have learned about the creative process. It has a rhythm. It has pulses and pauses. No one can run on the high octane provided by the Virginia Ball Center forever without burning out. Everyone must discover that the natural rhythm of teaching, learning, and living requires some balance. Virginia Ball faculty and students have learned how to experiment inside traditional structures and how to search for new ventures outside the university. They have learned that there is a time for concentration and creation and a time for restoration and reflection. Reentry, in the final analysis, is about teaching and learning the value of these stressed and unstressed moments.

Joseph F. Trimmer is the director of the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry at Ball State University.

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