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Title

All the World’s a Classroom

World making outside the college composition classroom.

March 5, 2020
 
 

Sritama Chatterjee is a second-year Ph.D. student in the department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. You can find her on Twitter @SritamaBarna.

Last semester, when I started teaching composition courses in the U.S. for the first time, one of my primary goals was to cultivate a pedagogy of thinking about composition as a form of world making. The basic principle of world making is that, as scholars and pedagogues, we need to be attuned to the materialities of space and time that any form of composition opens up. Such learning need not only happen within the formal institutional space of the classroom but could rely on the entire world. Part of the reason why I adopted world making as part of my pedagogical approach is because world making entails a necessary reinvestigation and re-seeing of the worlds that we are already embedded in and approaching it as narratives. For instance, last semester when I took my students to an exhibit on graphic medicine, the exhibit was located beside a silent reading space of the library at the medical school. One of the things that I wanted my students to be cognizant of is how the space is narrativized as a graphic medicine exhibit and undergoes transformation from its erstwhile form. (Many of my students were premed students so they had been to this place before.)

While deciding where I would take my students, one of the fundamental things that I kept in mind is how a visit would reframe the notion of world making for my students in ways that the texts in the syllabus would not and how it would interrupt their rhythm of the class, because world making, in my formulation, is also taking stock of the fact that time is also a narrative. Keeping this philosophy of world making and the world as a classroom in mind, last semester I decided to take my students out to the graphic medicine exhibit that was happening at the University of Pittsburgh (albeit, another institutional space). This article contains a few suggestions that instructors could keep in mind while deciding to take their students out of the formal classroom -- it could be a museum, a visit to a nearby factory, or a poetry-reading event, because any attempt of practicing a pedagogy of world making entails being sensitive to its logistical necessities, and that’s what this article is primarily concerned about.

Start early: While constructing your syllabus, it is a good idea to keep an eye out on what special lectures, exhibits and events are happening in your town and university so that you can then build it into the syllabus from the beginning. This will save you the hassle later in the semester of trying to fit in something in an already hectic schedule of classes. If authorization or permission is involved for being able to take students outside the classroom, starting early would help you to avoid any last-minute problems.

Visit the place yourself first: It is imperative that you visit the place first to understand the logistics of travel and how your students might benefit from it. Is the place safe? Is it ADA compliant? Is the space too small? This is especially important if you need to divide students into groups. In my case, the graphic medicine exhibit where I took my students was located in a building that I had never visited. So I am glad that I went before the actual visit to figure out things, because I had a difficult time locating the exhibit and was lost for a good amount of time before I found my way out. Furthermore, when I went to the exhibit, I noticed that the space could not accommodate more than five to six students at a time. It implied that I had to strategically plan my 50-minute class time and plan for transition time between groups and coordinate with the groups which would wait outside. I also observed that the exhibit had several interactive elements such as art supplies that students could use to paint from templates; a self-guided, online lesson on the exhibit; and graphic medicine books to browse. Therefore, my lesson plan/prompts were structured around these various elements in the exhibit.

Decide where to position it: In my experience, visits outside the classroom are often more effective if paired up with a reading/course theme. For instance, when I took my students out to the graphic medicine exhibit, we were reading a chapter by Alison Bechdel titled “The Ordinary Devoted Mother” that specifically dealt with themes of the exhibit: coming to terms with one’s illness and the bureaucracy of the medical system. One of the things that I keep in mind while choosing a reading to accompany a visit is how the reading corroborates, amplifies or extends the arguments of the subject of our visit. Therefore it was easier for me to make them see the connections that exist between the text and the world, how they are often constituted by each other.

Let your students know: If you already have a visit planned, communicate it early to your students so that they can prepare themselves early. This is especially important if you are planning to take them out far from university campus. Be clear about your expectations: Is the visit optional or compulsory? How is the visit relevant to the course? Are the students expected to do an assignment on the visit? What are the logistics of travel and accommodation (if applicable)? When are they expected to report? Announce it in the class as well as have it documented in email. Should you need student volunteers during the visit for coordination, let them know so that they can sign up in advance.

Design worksheets/note-taking prompts: While you can allow your students space to explore the place as they would want to, it might be helpful to have a few guiding questions for note taking to ensure that they don’t feel suddenly overwhelmed. When I designed my set of questions for the visit -- found here -- I had a combination of questions that pertained directly to the exhibit as well as asked broader questions that included: How is viewing comics in a larger frame/exhibit different from reading on the pages of a book/laptop in a classroom and home? The overall objective was to make them see the materialities of composition in a way that is beyond the words on a page and to think more carefully about multimodal composition and curation.

During the visit: At the time of the visit, my personal approach was to let students watch and absorb the exhibit in their own individual ways as much as possible without getting into their way. Sometimes I drew their attention to particular elements of the exhibit, but it was meant to be suggestive and not directive. You could possibly combine different models or approaches during such visits, especially when you have someone available to guide you through what is available.

Prepare for the unexpected: No matter how much you prepare for such a visit, you should be prepared for the unexpected. For instance, I was told that no permission was required for bringing my students to the graphic medicine exhibit, and that I could bring them in during my scheduled class time. I felt that it was my responsibility to inform the curators that I was coming with a group of students. However, when I went, I found that another instructor, whom I thankfully knew well, had also come at the same time with her students. There was no way so many students could go in at the same time, because the exhibit did not have much space. Fortunately, both of us managed to work our way around and came up with plans on the spot to ensure that visits of both the classes went smoothly.

Follow up in class: When you meet in the classroom next time, make sure that you allow ample time to students to process and reflect about this experience. For instance, I made them do a freewrite about their experience and then put them into groups of three for discussion before we came together as a class to understand how their learning of the text in class was enhanced by the visit or not.

Considering that students seemed to enjoy the visit a lot, I have decided to plan more such visits for my students in coming semesters.

Have you taken your students outside the classroom? What guided your thinking and what strategies did you adopt? Tell us more in the comments below.

Image Credit: Sritama Chatterjee

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