Photo of University Hall
Creative Research Center

“A Day in the Life” – The Research Academy for University Learning @ Montclair State University – Fourth Annual Teaching & Learning Showcase/Symposium – by Neil Baldwin

Posted in: Director's Essay

Student reading book in front of library stacks

At nine a.m., at the top of the first sheet of yellow legal pad, I scrawled this note: “Think about Personal resonance — what crosses my mind during this day.” I had once again agreed to the request of my colleagues Cigdem Talgar and Julie Dalley to serve as rapporteur for the ambitious RAUL Symposium/Showcase. I resolved as I took my seat in the cavernous lecture hall that I could not be in more than one place at a time, that I was not going to preach to the choir, and that the best way to serve readers who were not at the multitude of events and sessions would be to try to capture the ambiance and spirit of the day, rather than the particulars.

So — a ‘shout-out’ to all of the presenters with thanks for your inspiration, discipline, perseverance and devotion to the field.

I first attended Ecoliteracy and Sustainable Pedagogy because I was seeking a new voice, and had not heard of Michael Lees, a charismatic self-described specialist-practitioner-scholar in “Contemplative Religions, Buddhist Studies, Indigenous Life Ways, Ecoliteracy & Sustainable Education” whose proposal had come in over the transom. The new voice was certainly present in the rhythmic, hypnotic and young/timeless Oglala Lakota song he sang to start, accompanying himself on a hand-drum. It was a song, Michael said, “sending out a voice…calling out to the different nations…[declaring that] I am here as a human being…saying what it means to be a human being on this planet…”

I alighted upon the irony that while native peoples base their entire worldview on that very fact — that the world must be seen in one view – here we were at a big University struggling with how to integrate “interdisciplinarity” into an educational system parceled into multiple divisions.

The second song Michael sang was, he told us, about the necessity to “pause and look up at the sky and remember the bigger picture…What does it mean for me to engage with the world?” As educators, we must ask ourselves this question daily as we stand in front of the classroom: just what it means to take on the responsibility to engage with such a diverse, demanding range of young people. What do we hope and dream for them, and for ourselves, at the other side of the semester?

Michael’s third song was from the Apache tradition, another hypnotic circling around the eternal truth of a holistic universe and the imperative to remind ourselves that each and everything in nature is connected to each and every other thing. Synergy: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Our speaker declared that today’s students suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.” The remark was greeted with knowing laughter.

Michael kindly sent The Creative Research Center some useful links to a selection of the diverse subjects covered in his talk: Ecoliteracy, Ecology, Earth Charter, Global Nomads Group, Red Hawk Native American Arts Council, The Journal of Sustainability Education, Ecophilosophy & Deep Ecology, Peace Education, and Educational Psychology Interactive.

The session that followed exemplified what was to become a day of juxtapositions making bizarre sense in the context of the myriad of problems (“challenges,” to use the current euphemism) facing higher education in America. The conference planners deserve kudos for constructing such a diverse assemblage. Felice Frankel from the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at MIT was skyped in so that she could talk us through Virtual Strategies for Research Presentations, her display of digital Nikon lens science photography, framed and designed and lit and focused to “command attention” first and foremost, as the prerequisite for putting any pedagogical message across. The minutiae of nature – and even smaller essences – were attended to and glorified. It did not matter if at first one did not know what a “hydrophobic surface” was. “I need to show the morphology of a thing,” Frankel said. “I do not want my viewer to be distracted by technique.”

Her oft-repeated disclaimer was “I am not an artist.” Her introductory explanations to awe-inspiring and seemingly-impossible images were prefaced by the words, “All I did was…” or “It was very simple to…” or “you don’t need expensive equipment to do this.” I wrote on my pad, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The supersonic switch from Apache organic nature songs in the oral tradition over to high-tech electron microscopy of neural fibers in technicolor had the desired effect – on me anyway: intellectual vertigo, and the realization that the world of specialized knowledge cannot be the province of the few.

The keynote speaker, introduced eloquently by Cigdem Talgar and by MSU Provost Willard Gingerich, was Susan Ambrose, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, and Professor of Education, Northeastern University, and co-author of the best-selling book How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010), widely praised for integrating fundamental research in the cognitive sciences to practical application in the classroom. An energetic woman constantly in motion and proudly microphone-less, Dr. Ambrose led the appreciative crowd through a brisk graphic succession of principles aimed at making the classroom into an environment in which students will engage and learn. “However, to do this,” she told us, “the teacher must understand what the students bring into the room in the first place…We must understand students as complex beings,” she said. “They are the novices and we are the experts, and one of the pitfalls of expertise is the dangerous assumption that the students understand what we are saying.”

Reflecting upon her words now, I realize how deceptively-simple Dr. Ambrose’s talk was at the time of its iteration, as opposed to how complex and profound in retrospect. [Hmmm…another cognitive exercise…” emotion recollected in tranquility?”] Sitting in the sanctuary of my study at home on a Saturday morning surrounded by dozens of papers waiting to be graded, I do not conceptualize my current “course load” as three classes or nine credit-hours. No — I think of my course-load this semester as sixty-five students. The other day I actually said this to one of my classes, and there was a palpable murmur of agreement. These are individuals. Each person possesses his and her story within, and each discrete story must be coped with from moment to moment in the context of an entire room of people gathered, arbitrarily, twice a week for one hour and fifteen minutes each time — with the (ostensible) purpose of “covering” a syllabus in a given term. [Now that is the proper example of a true challenge!] Dr. Ambrose’s talk touched me at this pragmatic and affective level; judging from the rapt expressions on the faces of the attendees as I looked around the dining room I was not the only one to feel this way.

Dr. Ambrose’s rousing conclusion only made me resolve more — even now, when there are only two days left of classes! — to improve my technique, to seek, as she called it, “progressive refinement,” and to recognize that no matter how many years we have been at this job, “it’s never good enough.”

Onward — to another juxtaposition in this RAUL day of epistemological contrasts that served to reinforce each other in amazing ways. We were privileged to have a scholarly visitor from The University of Cyprus, Prof. Zacharias C. Zacharia, take us through Examining the Learning Experiences of Students in Physical versus Virtual Laboratory Experimentation. Within five minutes, after having witnessed an experiment in electrical circuitry take place before my eyes onscreen, complete with battery, wiring, voltage flow, and the ‘eureka’ illumination of a virtual light bulb, I found myself questioning the “versus” in Dr. Zacharia’s title.

Rather, I thought, “why not?!” — everything else is going virtual — why not the lab? Our speaker’s rather transparent dialectic to help power his argument only served to align the virtual lab with the foregone conclusion that we are in the midst of a universal tsunami/migration of all analog things. Last night I was reading the current issue of The New York Observer and there was a fascinatingly apt article in the Arts section on the increasing use of Instagram as a vehicle through which to sell artwork in the secondary market. Dealers are mocking this “crass” vehicle with one hand and espousing it with the other.

Dr. Zacharia’s metaphors were in the end redemptive. We desire what he called “active touch” in the laboratory as a place where, at least until recently, “physical manipulation is preferred,” and where virtual practice has, again, at least until recently, been stigmatized as “surrogate.” Likewise over on my side of the quad: I was recently criticized for proposing that the weighty, $95+ textbook that had been the standard tome for one of our introductory survey classes for over a decade be ditched in favor of a series of Web sites I had carefully curated and researched which, in-depth and exhaustive detail, could step in at no cost and offer much freer navigation and variety to student and instructor alike.

Scientists tell us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; current practice in all fields tells me that for every “way we’ve always done it” there is an equal and, what’s more, possibly richer way awaiting us in the digital realm. MOOCs as the panacea for our educational system are the one gargantuan exception right now, for me — but that is the subject of another essay.

The digital realm does not care whether I want to integrate it into my life as a teacher or not. It already lives there.

Finally — to the undoubtedly crowning event [is that the right word for it?] which cannot be properly described, and therefore in aid of which I am thrilled to provide these fertile, explicatory and highly-entertaining links. I just checked my email, and it is amazing but true that my first contact with artist Anuj Vaidya was on February 21, 2013, shortly after he arrived on the Montclair State University campus to begin his artist-in-residency opus, Hand Spun Tales: At the Crossroads of Sustainability in Art and Science. (I had known and worked closely with Anuj’s brother, Prof. Ashwin Vaidya, for several years as a colleague and collaborator with the CRC.)

This is how Anuj introduced himself:

I am trying to find students to collaborate with me on a project which will culminate in a multi-media performance on campus at the end of April/early May. Julie Dalley of RAUL suggested that I speak to you as you might be able to offer advice on how to recruit students for this project, and also because the themes that we are exploring would be of interest to you personally and to the CRC. The project is an exploration of sustainable practices in the arts and is a collaboration with the science department. I am working towards a multimedia performance piece to be performed/exhibited on campus around the theme of ‘ecology in mythology’. More specifically, the piece will be a conversation between Sita, Loowit and Gaia – three embodiments of the earth from different mythological traditions (South Asian, Native American and Greek respectively).

In keeping with the ecological theme, the project will be created and exhibited without the use of any electricity – instead, all parts of the project will be human powered: hand-crank mechanisms will power our video and audio recording devices, and bicycles will power the monitors that we screen the films on (both developed by Prof. Ashwin Vaidya and his students in the Physics Department); the background score and text will be performed live by musicians and performers. I would love to have a conversation with you about how to recruit/whom to recruit, in terms of performers, to be part of this project.

A couple of weeks passed, during which Anuj and I remained in contact, and I received this provocative and interesting addendum from him which he had forwarded to the University community:

The project as it is unfurling addresses my current concerns around sustainability in my own artistic production – both in terms of the personal and the ecological – and how much I consume in the production of my films. There are some who have argued that artists are already on the margins as a social group, and therefore do not need to consider this; while others have argued that art is a noble calling and a work of art determines its own limits of production – that any amount of resources are justified in bringing to life an artistic vision. As I inch towards a production of means, especially through this project, questions arise that perhaps you can help me answer: Should artists be concerned with the carbon footprint of their practice?

I soon received this additional request to actually participate in one of Anuj’s avant-garde film works, to which I demurred, respectfully but, in retrospect, with what now seems to be inordinate fear. He wrote as follows:

My project has taken another slightly different turn as it’s been hard working out the schedules of all the participants. So the final piece is going to be a live performance interview – a Diane Sawyer exclusive interview with Miss Piggy (BFA Theatre major Aryana Sedarati will be playing Diane Sawyer and I will be Miss Piggy) to talk about her new celebrity cause – Ecology. The performance will be peppered with video clips (made using the hand-crank cameras). Why Miss Piggy you ask? I have been interested in animal voices – or giving voice to other species through my work – and I want to approach these topics with a sense of humor (humor/satire are a big component of my work).

The focus on the work is still ecology – but I want to take a children’s entertainment format to drive home the point that we as adults are just like children when it comes to questions of ecology – and that we have a lot to learn still about how to responsibly live on this planet – which we share with so many other species. I don’t want my work to be dogmatic – and I think humor is a great way to get folks to enter the work.

Introduced by Prof. Ashwin Vaidya and his longtime research partner, Dr. Mika Munakata, Anuj Vaidya showed us three videos drawing upon the multitude of interlocking themes described in his own words above, so pertinent to the overall theme of the Symposium — for your viewing pleasure, here they are.

[And also here.]

It was a trail unlike any of us in the lecture hall that afternoon had ever followed: From the syllabus of a physics course which began with the premise that neither the professor nor the students knew how it would end; to the construction of a generator from spare parts and a recycled and repurposed bicycle; to the “empowering” of a battery cell at the rate of six hours of pedalling for every minute of usable electricity; to the installation of that homegrown cell into a video camera; to the casting, staging, scripting, acting, directing, and hair and makeup by MSU students of three surreal, instructive and frankly unforgettable videos that must be seen to be believed.

You intrepid readers who are still with me know that the journalistic long form is still alive and well on the Web — and in that spirit and conviction, I offer thanks to The Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair State University for encouraging this kind of expansive institutional discourse and, most importantly, for taking just one day out of our encroached lives to reaffirm the enduring power of multiple platforms both analog and virtual where the pedagogical imagination will live long and prosper.