Structuring intellectual collaboration and play

April 8, 2019

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Emily Dolan, headshotEmily Dolan, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of the Humanities, co-teaches the graduate seminar Instruments and Instrumentalities with Professor and James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology Jonathan Sterne of McGill University in which students from both Harvard and McGill (representing a range of disciplines) engage with one another via audio and video conferencing, trips to each campus, online documents, and other tools.

The benefits: Students benefit from diverse perspectives when feedback on their work comes from “two sets of eyes” that don’t always agree, which Dolan thinks is “more like the kinds of interchanges they’ll have in their professional pursuits in academia.” Even greater breadth comes from the students’ own range of disciplines which include music, media studies, and art history. Working across disciplinary boundaries “changes the way we talk,” says Dolan.

The challenges: Creating a learning community from a divergent set of fields at such a great distance presented many technical challenges, but the “creative solutions” which the instructors generated with the help of the Bok Center’s Learning Lab, now feature in all Dolan’s graduate teaching: “I realized these are things I should be doing in seminars anyway, to give more structure while allowing for playfulness and openness.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Ground discussion with structured small groups. Dolan frequently uses small group discussions with undergraduates but had never considered doing so in a graduate seminar. Students were given a few key questions prior to class to answer collaboratively in a Google Doc and then discuss for 15-20 minutes via audioconference in class, often while continuing to take notes within the Doc. This provided a foundation for “more substantive conversations” thereafter, rather than discussions going in lots of directions that are hard to pull back.”
  • Let silence generate new ways of listening. The constraints of digital interchange yielded some unexpected advantages, forcing participants to pay attention and listen in different ways. At the end of the course, students described how important that forced silence was: “it was a dance that had to happen. The instrument of connection forced us to respect ways of using sound or lack of sound.” Given that the course focused largely on the history of listening, “there was a nice mirroring of what we were learning about with how we were learning it through these tools.”
  • Use play to foster open-minded exploration. Dolan believes that her “job in the classroom is to create space for play.” She and Sterne “pushed against over-professionalization” in the seminar, asking students to pick an instrument to focus on unrelated to their dissertation so that they “wouldn’t be too invested.” With each week’s readings, students wrote about their instrument from the perspective of one of the authors, which encouraged more open-ended, evolving analyses. These brief papers then formed the foundation for a longer paper at the end. The creative connections and ideas generated through this process led to many works of publishable quality. “Playful moments don’t mean that serious work isn’t getting done.”

Bottom line: “Taking things apart and seeing how they fit back together” through interdisciplinary exploration and structured online and in-person collaboration are key components to deep learning in Dolan’s graduate seminars.