Thursday, March 9, 2017

March 9, 2017: AmericanStudies Events: Why We Teach at BOLLI

[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to take part in a number of interesting AmericanStudies conversations, each hosted by a unique and significant organization or space. So this week I wanted to follow up those events with some further thoughts and reflections, leading up to a weekend post looking ahead to the NeMLA Convention later this month!]
On what’s unique about Brandeis’ adult learning program, and what I’ve already learned from it.
As I hope every post about my courses in Fitchburg State’s Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program has reflected, I’ve been continually inspired by my work with those courses and students. That includes very practical effects, such as the fact that the topic for my third book emerged directly out of the first such ALFA course I had the chance to teach. But my courses have also offered more overarching professional and philosophical inspirations, on many levels that I would sum up in a two-fold way: as a reminder of the true value of public scholarly work, of sharing my understandings of American literature, history, and culture with others; and as a concurrent and just as crucial reminder of how much I can and do learn from my fellow Americans as part of those conversations. Bottom line, I have loved each and every ALFA course, and so have begun to seek out opportunities to teach in our adult learning programs as well. So far I’ve made connections with two: the Worcester Institute of Senior Education at Assumption College (WISE); and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institution at Brandeis University (BOLLI). Late last year, as part of those burgeoning connections, I had the chance to attend BOLLI’s holiday luncheon for its instructors, an event dedicated to conversations about why we teach (in an adult learning program as well as overall).
What struck me most about BOLLI’s adult learning program was a fundamental distinction in how the program defines its courses and instructors: the courses are known as study groups, and the instructors as study group leaders (SGLs). These are far from just semantic differences: BOLLI sees the classes as communal investigations into a shared topic or question, with the SGL providing some core materials and starting points but with all the participants occupying equal roles in that process of investigation, reading, and discussion. As I learned from the SGL testimonies at the luncheon, in some cases that means that the SGL is presenting materials on which he or she is an expert—but, again, is doing so not to then lecture about them, but rather to participate in communal conversations about those materials. And in just as many cases, it seems, the SGL is taking this opportunity to explore a topic that is relatively (or even entirely) new to him or herself, and thus the course becomes an even more fully communal investigation into that subject. Regardless of which end of that spectrum a particular course occupies, what I heard clearly and consistently from each and every SGL at the luncheon was that the courses and conversations are intended to be genuinely educational, profoundly perspective-changing, for every participant, SGLs and students alike.
I haven’t had a chance to teach a BOLLI course yet; because of when I made the initial connection, this coming fall will be my first opportunity, and of course I’ll keep you posted. But just attending that luncheon, learning more about the program’s emphasis and perspective, and hearing the testimonies of those past and present SGLs, I was struck with particular force by a different side of an idea I’ve long espoused: that public scholarship and teaching are two sides of the same coin (I wrote as much in the intro to my Chinese Exclusion Act book, a project again based directly on an ALFA experience). I still believe that, indeed feel it is more true than ever in our current moment; but what ALFA has consistently taught me, and what this BOLLI event and emphasis did even more overtly, is that we public scholars—we teachers—need to see ourselves as participants in these conversations, ones with as much to learn from them as we have to bring to them (which is, to be clear, a great deal). To note that truly multi-directional and transactional nature of both teaching and public scholarship is not, I don’t believe, in any way to abandon our role, but it is to reframe it: to see ourselves as helping get conversations going, of bringing materials and questions to those discussions, and of thus facilitating truly communal and civic engagements with our topics and themes. Lofty ambitions to be sure, but ones well worth aiming for, as BOLLI has both reminded and modeled for me.
Last reflection tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this conversation? Conversations or events you’d share?

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