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September 27, 2004
'Walking the walk' on creativity in freshman seminar
BY hal jacobs
Last summer, theater studies Chair Leslie Taylor, music Associate Professor Steve Everett, dance Associate Professor Lori Teague and visual arts Senior Lecturer Katherine Mitchell began drawing up plans for a unique, collaborative venture that would involve a bit of courage and derring-do, if it could be pulled off at all.
The project called for a huge collaboration among the performing and visual arts. But that wasn’t the most challenging part, as artists from theater, music, dance and the visual arts often find themselves drawing inspiration, both directly and indirectly, from each other’s work.
The tricky part would be introducing this world of interdisciplinarity to Emory College freshmen before they have learned even one discipline, let alone made friends and found their way around campus. On top of that, the faculty needed to find a place in the course atlas that could handle such an innovative curricular approach from four disciplines combined under one roof.
But thanks to the efforts of many individuals, the project is now up and running. It goes by the name of “Freshman Seminar: Creativity and Collaboration.”
The course is an ambitious plan not only to “stretch the ears” of students, as Everett wrote in his syllabus, but also to stretch the resourcefulness of the college in engaging arts students early on in their academic careers.
Senior Associate Dean Rosemary Magee first raised the idea of a multidisciplinary arts course on creativity at a meeting of the Arts Steering Committee more than two years ago. At the time, the committee was discussing ways to encourage a greater spirit of collaboration in preparation for the Schwartz Center opening.
Taylor loved the idea of a joint class on creativity and expanded it to include collaboration. One of the first things she did was to invite fellow committee members Mitchell, Teague and Everett to form a partnership. Together, they applied to the Center for Teaching and Curriculum for a summer grant to develop new classes, as well as cover the costs of guest lecturers and supplies. Taylor modestly describes herself as “the default person in terms of planning meetings, asking for money, etc.”
“This is really an important curricular innovation,” Magee said. “It’s an opportunity for students to immediately understand the importance of collaboration and also the centrality of creativity to academic life. This course in the arts can be a foundation for subsequent work.”
Once the ideas for the course were developed, Joanne Brzinski, associate dean for undergraduate education in the college and organizer of the freshman seminars, played a key role in handling the logistics of cross-listing the class. That’s where things got tricky.
“We had no idea how many students would be interested,” said Brzinksi, “or if they would be evenly divided between the four fields that were offering seminars.”
For instance, Nathaniel Green showed up for class the first day expecting to join the music section. But after the four professors gathered the students (a total of 48 between the four sections) and asked them to try something new (as well as help create evenly divided sections), Green opted for visual arts. A month later, he’s satisfied that he made the right choice.
“The course has kind of energized me into thinking of a sketchbook as something that’s part of my everyday life,” Green said.
Anushka Gupta opted for the music section, where she has discovered new kinds of sounds and recording techniques. “All my other classes are more theoretical,” said Gupta. “This is different—and fun.”
Early this semester, the instructors are meeting separately with their assigned classes of about 12 students each. Occasionally, the classes gather together, as they did recently for a guest presentation by minimalist painter Edda Renouf and composer Alain Middleton, who shared their thoughts and experiences from more than three decades of collaboration.
After midterms, each section will swap places to learn more about what students from other areas are doing. By the end of the semester, each student will have played synthesizers in Everett’s music studio, emoted in Taylor’s theater lab, glided through Teague’s dance space and sketched in Mitchell’s visual arts studio. For their final project, they will team up into “pods,” one student from each section, to collaborate on a joint performance piece.
The Creativity and Collaboration freshman seminar is one of more than 50 courses stressing experiential and experimental work from which freshmen could choose this fall (another popular choice is MATH 190: “Games, Sports and Gambling”).
About 100 freshmen seminars are offered each year. The program began in 1999 with the goal of giving first-year students an early taste of what a liberal-arts education is all about—that is, interactive, small-group, academic experiences.
Magee believes the Creativity and Collaboration seminar will broaden the view of its participants in several ways. “No matter what major and minor our seminar students eventually select—whether it is chemistry, business, French or the arts, their view of innovation and collaboration has been broadened,” Magee said. “In the future, they will have a better appreciation of the valuable research that takes place on stages and in studios.”