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Engaging students beyond our walls and outside the class hour

I was chatting with ENGL 338 instructor Fiore Sireci today, and he mentioned his practice of sending students around the city for projects as well as taking them places for his courses. I too enjoy doing this when possible, so I thought I would share some thoughts and resources.

The costs of taking students places are numerous and obvious:

  • it’s logistically challenging,
  • it’s hard (and perhaps unfair) to expect students to meet outside of the class hour,
  • it’s expensive in some cases, and
  • it requires a certain amount of extra work for us already overworked faculty.

But the benefits are great as well: we have a vast range of assets within walking distance; our students often don’t know nearly enough about what’s in our own backyard; and there are museum professionals and other cultural experts champing at the bit to help us bring these resources to our students.

To the question of cost, many faculty don’t realize that there are funds available for so-called “co-curricular” programming. The Presidential Student Engagement Co-curricular Activity Initiative awards small grants on a rolling basis to faculty to enhance courses. I’ve screened a film at night for students and bought pizza with the funds; I’ve even taken students to a scrappy, off-off Broadway production of Brecht, dinner included. Others have been more creative: check out this post from ACERTs site for their projects.

To the question of logistics, consider creating an optional activity (my play was optional but very well-attended, probably due to free dinner!), or cancel a class and offer a make-up assignment for those who can’t attend the event. Fiore has offered 338 students extra credit for attending the Cloisters and submitting a bit of work summing up the trip: that’s a great model as well. Here’s an example of the work that has issues from this latter assignment, posted with the permission of Wu Tang, the author.

Finally, to the question of workload, sure: it can be a bit of extra heavy lifting. But in my experience, especially in the museum world, the educators there are often extremely experienced and gifted and will help plan/run a lesson tailored to your syllabus. One of the high points of my teaching at Hunter came when taking students from an MA course on modernism to the Met on a Friday evening: we had the modern wing nearly to ourselves, and two museum educators had us toting around a dozen stools and gave us a bang-up set of “close looking” exercises tailored to the course content. Regardless of what you teach, I guarantee you there is someone nearby who is dying to roll out the red carpet and work with you to create great lessons.

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