Duncan Dobbelmann on pop-up courses

4 October 2017

An excerpt from an article on pop-up courses by Duncan Dobbelmann, adviser to the President of Bennington College, in The Chronicle of Higher Education dated 25th May 2017 :

A mechanism for proposal and approval was quickly put in place: Any student, faculty member, or staff member could propose a pop-up course to a faculty member, who could agree to teach it at his or her discretion. The proposal would then be brought to the curriculum committee, which would assess it in the context of the curriculum for the term. If approved, the pop-up would be entered into the curriculum (a live document) and broadcast to students. In the spring of 2015 we offered five pop-up courses, among them "The Ferguson Report," "Nepal: Before and After the Earthquake," "Measles and the (Sometimes Unnatural) History of Outbreaks," and "Am I Charlie?" (about the Charlie Hebdo attacks). As expected, each saw a healthy enrollment, as have the pop-ups offered since then. But such brief — and often intense — courses about events taking place in real time are not the usual fare for either faculty members or students. These pop-ups are neither simply shortened courses nor intensives. They cannot be approached primarily in terms of content coverage and discipline-specific skills mastery. Often the subject either is not fully understood or is actively contested (or both) while still unfolding before the eyes of students with varied personal and academic backgrounds. The instructor her or himself may have a vigorous interest but not the accustomed mastery of the subject. How does one teach, and how does one assess, in this context? The course’s very immediacy, its proximity to our lives, offers the answer: It demands teaching and learning that embraces central, cross-disciplinary skills such as research, analysis, collaboration, and creativity. The development of these skills is much more heavily emphasized than are fixed outcomes. In this way, pop-up courses can both enact and model a deep, thoughtful, and active engagement with the world.