Discourses to replace A&S cluster courses

Michelle Heiman

Students pursuing an undergraduate degree in the College of Arts and Sciences are required to complete a junior or senior level “cluster course,” which is included in the nine credit hours of general education requirements in the studies of humanities and fine arts.

Cluster courses, which are taught by two or more instructors from two or more disciplines, are designed to give students a more comprehensive understanding of a topic.

“Cluster courses are meant to counteract a tendency of requirements to make students very narrow,” said Anthony Shiu, associate professor of English and chair of the College of Arts and Sciences Curriculum Committee. “We don’t want faculty/students to be sealed into their disciplines, but rather, we want them to be engaged in fruitful dialogue with other disciplines.”

Shiu said the entire University is in the process of moving to new general education requirements, in which cluster courses will be phased out.

“In the new general education model, there are three ‘discourses’ that students across the University must fulfill,” Shiu said. “Those discourses will have anchor courses, which are team-taught, interdisciplinary courses that function like cluster courses did. I think they have an added benefit with the name ‘discourse,’ because they stress writing, speech and civic engagement or public service.”

By contrast, cluster courses have been specific to the College of Arts and Sciences, and one discipline must be from a department within the humanities.

Under the new model, there are no such requirements, and all the schools and colleges are involved. Shiu gave the example that the Bloch School could work with the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design (AUP+D).

“It creates an opportunity for exciting courses that speak to people’s individual majors and interests,” Shiu said.

Becky Bergman, director of A&S Advising, said most students have found cluster courses interesting, but demanding.

“[Students] like the tag-team teaching,” she said. “In the almost 13 years I’ve worked in A&S Advising, I have gotten very little negative feedback from students after they have taken a cluster course.”

Dr. Frances Connelly, professor of Art and Art History, is currently teaching a cluster course called “Making the Modern in France.”

The course examines artistic developments in France from 1860 to 1914 through the lenses of dance, art history and French literature.

“In any given class, we might discuss Degas’ paintings of the ballet and all the backstage goings-on, then have a live demonstration of the kinds of ballet movements that were used at that time,” Connelly said.

“The next class might discuss a short story by Flaubert about Salome, then look at the femme fatale imagery of the time, followed by a guest lecture on the scandalous 1905 opera production by Strauss.”

Connelly said she is learning from her colleagues, Sabrina Madison-Cannon from the Conservatory and Gayle Levy from the French Department.

“It’s important to point out that cluster courses don’t just have faculty from different disciplines; they have students from an even wider range of disciplines. This makes for great questions and student projects, and particularly interesting discussions in class,” Connelly said.

“Cluster courses ask you to focus on interconnections and disparities. Taking different perspectives and diverse kinds of information and finding ways to make sense of them is a very useful thing to do.”

Professors can approach one another and discuss planning a cluster course to overlap their areas of study. Associate Professor of German Larson Powell is currently teaching a German Studies cluster course with Dr. Andrew Bergerson, which overlaps German and History.

Powell and Bergerson are close colleagues and planned the course’s content over the summer.

“The fact that we both have broad interests means that we are more interested to doing this kind of work,” Powell said. “So the cluster course has been kind of natural for us.”

Two professors teaching one class can often confuse or frustrate students if the course is not effectively organized, but Powell said he and Bergerson put a lot of preparation into each class period.

“There are hours of preparation that go into each class,” Powell said. “I like to have a really good structure in place for the class at the beginning, and then we can improvise around that structure. It’s really important to have a good structure there so students know what we are doing and what their expectations are. Otherwise, it can get very frustrating [for students].”

When planning content for the German Studies course, Powell said it was “a little bit like the greatest hits. There are certain things you have to include in the Top 40.”

In the past, Powell taught a cluster course with Dr. Michelle Boisseau that overlapped German and English, and focused on poetry and its translation.

Powell said he also spoke with Dr. Brenda Bethman, director of the Women’s Center, about teaching a cluster course together because of her extensive knowledge about German literature and women’s studies.

Preparing an organized cluster course can take a long time.

“It can take anywhere from a couple of months to half a year,” Powell said. “Politicians think we only work when we’re in the classroom, but most of the work we do is on our own time.”

For more information about the new curriculum direction for General Education requirements, see http://info.umkc.edu/genedoversight/documents/ for the February 2012 report from the General Education Oversight Committee to the Faculty Senate. The model chosen is Model 2, with anchor courses, capstone courses and platform courses.

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