Sunday, December 6, 2009

an aside about Hampshire

I was recently asked why I teach at Hampshire College and what, in my opinion, makes it unique. This question comes my way so frequently from so many different sources that I thought it was worthy of a public response.

The answer to these questions is the same for me. I teach at Hampshire because of its unique qualities. In fact, I teach at all because of Hampshire's unique qualities. Let me elaborate on a few of these.

At Hampshire I can teach what I want, when I want.

The autonomy I have in devising my own curriculum is incredible. This flexibility at once acknowledges the dynamic nature of academic fields, entrusts me with the responsibility of running my own program, and gives students the opportunity to take fresh, timely courses in contrast with the typically rigid offerings at other institutions. Since I've been at Hampshire I've created twelve different courses and co-created two. For a decade of teaching, that's a lot of experimentation.

Narrative evaluations are immeasurably better academic tools than grades.

Yes they require a fair amount of work, however, reading even a single narrative evaluation of a student's progress in a course will teach you more about a student's individual strengths and weaknesses than an entire transcript from a grade-based institution. A grade is like a black hole, smashing things like effort, creativity, attendance, thoroughness, class participation and other factors of performance into a singularity that's impossible to disentangle. As a student, if you receive a low grade, the lesson is, "do better." Boy that's really giving students their money's worth! A well-written narrative evaluation will actually break down areas for improvement and offer suggestions for future learning opportunities that might offer those opportunities.

Hampshire's academic program, from a lack of departments to student-proposed concentrations and senior thesis projects, is interdisciplinary at its core.

There's a story I've told many times about my own senior thesis woes in college that perhaps explains why this point is so important to me. I wanted to study the computer graphic synthesis of fire, but when I went in search of a faculty adviser, I was rejected by everyone. The physics faculty who I had studied with for years said the project wasn't rooted enough in physics. The computer scientists said it wasn't enough computer science. I think I also spoke with a chemistry professor who had the same response.

Dividing the academic world into independent chunks and requiring students and faculty to work within those chunks unnecessarily marginalizes areas of intellectual inquiry that may span the chunks. It wasn't until I went to the MIT Media Lab that I found an intellectual home that understood this. I still remember my first day, when Stephen Benton told all of us new arrivals that, if they continued running the lab well, we wouldn't find jobs after graduating. Translation: their success hinged on remaining ahead of the curve, working with ideas in ways others had never considered. Thus their graduates wouldn't fit easily into the world's existing categories.

After my extremely positive experience at MIT, I promised myself I would never again be a part of an organization that didn't value cross-discipline studies the way that I did. I cannot stress this enough: until I was 21, I felt like I didn't fit anywhere. I was into movies and computers and comics and sports and physics and a few other things too, but not any one enough to make a profession out of it and push the others out of my life. So far I've been lucky enough to have been able to keep that promise: MIT was followed by Rhythm & Hues Studios, then Pixar, and now Hampshire and Bit Films (yes, at Bit Films we wholly embrace the discipline-crosser).

This history returns to my consciousness term after term at Hampshire. Students come to my office looking for support in their cross-disciplinary academic pursuits. I am so pleased that I can say yes to them and have the structures of the institution backing me up. It goes beyond the students, too, of course: I feel supported in my own scholarly pursuits, which have taken many forms since I arrived at Hampshire.

Although there are more, I will stop with just these three reasons for now. I would like to return to my screenwriting, or programming, or perhaps researching my new spring course on interaction design. Then I'll be heading to campus to watch and celebrate the wildly diverse work completed by the students in my Animation Workshop class this term. As you can see, it is an easy day for me to recognize and reflect upon the value of Hampshire.

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