College developing “extensive” summer programming that captures the “liberal arts feel”

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

As the fall semester comes to a close, discussions regarding expanded summer and winter courses are proliferating.

On Oct. 27, Student Government Association Senator sophomore Gage Mandrell shared a survey gauging student interest in summer and winter courses.

According to the survey summary from SGA Secretary of Academics senior William Fifer, 94.6% of surveyed students said they would like to see more summer and winter courses.

Of the surveyed students, 85.7% believed such courses would help build experiential learning that they missed due to online classes; the majority of survey takers wanted to add distribution courses, special topic courses, laboratory techniques, and hands-on research experiences to summer and winter programming; and some students requested that at least one course per major be offered.

This support for an expanded summer semester is being reflected within the work of a new taskforce which is exploring an “extensive” summer program, as Interim Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Michael Harvey said.

According to Dr. Harvey, the task force, which consists of five faculty members and has input from a student representative, has almost finished the framework for expanded programming beyond the fall/spring semesters. 

While a winter term is not plausible for 2020 due to time constraints, they are discussing an expansion of summer courses for 2021.

Previously, summer courses at Washington College were limited. SelfService identifies few options for summer learning, mostly including research programs and abroad trips.

Dr. Harvey said that while there have been some pilot courses and discussion around summer courses, a summer semester never proliferated because students wanted summer jobs, the break is vital for faculty research, and third-parties use various campus buildings for summer programming.

However, the task force is considering a more extensive summer program which focuses on distribution courses — including general education courses, minor fulfillments, and major fulfillments.

According to Dr. Harvey, these interests can help students who deferred or withdrew for the fall 2020 semester graduate on time, and it can help generate revenue.

As the summer 2021 program is still being discussed, according to Dr. Harvey, the task force is considering a two-term semester.

Both terms would be four weeks long, broken by July 4. The A term would be entirely online while the B term offers some in-person classes.

Dr. Harvey said the advantage of having online courses is that they can be implemented no matter the situation with COVID-19. Faculty will also have taught online for two full semesters at that point, so their online methods will be well-developed. 

However, the in-person term offers more challenges. WC must operate in miniature to feed and house students learning in-person. These operations can be further complicated if the College expands its targeted students.

Dr. Harvey said they are considering targeting not only current WC students but rising high school seniors and undergraduates who deferred from other colleges. 

If high schoolers attend in-person summer courses for AP credit, they especially require residential support and age-appropriate housing.

More questions arise outside of housing and physical care. Regarding the courses, current student interest in distribution courses is beneficial because it allows faculty to reuse pre-existing courses, but they must learn how to consolidate courses that are designed for a 15-week semester into a four-week term.

For a course to be worth four credits, it must have 42 hours of instruction. For a four-week term, that is 10.5 hours a week. Thus, the task force is challenged with deciding how to distribute those hours, so they do not exhaust students and faculty alike.

While this extensive summer program is new territory for the College, they have some examples from which to pull inspiration.

One such course is Assistant Professor of Education Dr. Sarah Clarke-Vivier and Assistant Professor of Art History Dr. Benjamin Tilghman’s “Liberal Arts Learning in the Times of Uncertainty.”

Dr. Clarke-Vivier and Dr. Tilghman’s course was developed in Spring 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and targeted incoming freshmen in order to show them how “the broad-based, interdisciplinary thinking fostered at WC can help us better understand problems we face and envision creative solutions, specifically in the context of a global pandemic,” according to the course description.

The course garnered almost 80 students and featured a plethora of faculty panelists who interacted with them.

Dr. Tilghman said “Liberal Arts Learning” is not a perfect example of how the expanded summer programming will likely appear, because it targeted incoming first-years and was not focused on one discipline, but many of the questions that were answered in its development are reflective of current questions.

Dr. Tilghman said that technical aspects, like instructional time, are important pedagogically. They had to decide how many credits the course was worth, in order to offer students enough instructional hours to engage them. Too few hours cause them to forget the course and check out, but too many can overwhelm and exhaust them.

While part of that gauging is considering personal commitments, such as students with summer jobs or younger siblings, another aspect is how much time that course needs.

Dr. Clarke-Vivier said that she and Dr. Tilghman design their courses by identifying a core question and then working backwards, identifying the components of understanding that question and its “so what” factor.

Their course’s focus on incoming freshmen also provides a model of engaging students who have never been to WC nor taken a college course.

Both Dr. Clarke-Vivier and Dr. Tilghman teach First-Year Seminars, so part of “Liberal Arts Learning” integrated the “how to college” questions present in those courses, such as college-level writing, emailing, synthesizing information, and finding one’s voice on a topic.

But they also faced the challenge of building a community amongst strangers on an online platform.

According to Dr. Clarke-Vivier, part of forming that community is preparing students for the difficulty of interacting with people.

“I think Dr. Tilghman and I did a good job at just naming the discomfort and letting that be ok and valid, and easing students into the process of getting to know each other by just labeling the strangeness of it,” Dr. Clarke-Vivier said.

Another aspect of forming a community was giving the randomized breakout groups a specific task, according to Dr. Tilghman. When they had a certain topic, they had a task to produce. But as the term continued, the students also began recognizing each other from repeated groups, speaking together, joking, and even forming outside hangout groups.

Despite the oddness of the situation and large size of the class, they showed that creating a community is possible in an online, summer course format.

Looking towards summer 2021, some decisions regarding courses cannot be made by the task force, such as cost, but they must consider every aspect of the program, according to Dr. Harvey. 

However, the taskforce is finishing the framework of the program to be introduced to the faculty soon.

As they continue developing courses, Dr. Harvey said their priority is creating courses that speak to WC’s academic values.

“Does it help our students learn better and succeed better? I think the answer is yes. I think it’ll create more flexibility for students to take required courses that they get shut out of. I think it’s going to give students more flexibility to try different things. And I think we will try it at a large scale, and we’ll like it,” Dr. Harvey said. “For me, an absolute priority is to make sure these courses have the same high-interaction, personal interaction, liberal arts critical thinking feel…at the end of the day, it has to feel like that great WC, liberal arts feel.”

Reflecting on their successful summer course, both Dr. Clarke-Vivier and Dr. Tilghman discussed the importance of capturing that “liberal arts feel” in summer courses.

“The classes that are the most successful, that create real experiences and opportunities for meaningful learning ask students to engage with real problems, with complexity, and with issues that bear on the world in which they live,” Dr. Clarke-Vivier said. “The best learning happens when students understand why it matters for them in their lives.”

“The thing that I hope and we try to do in this course is to not let them become too functional, too focused on ‘here’s a way to get some credits out of the way,’ and too practical. Instead, the summer courses need to keep the spirit of collegiality, of teacher-student collaboration, of open-inquiry that WC does so well in its courses as a whole. It needs to make sure that the spirit of WC is also in these summer courses,” Dr. Tilghman said.

Featured Photo caption: After two semesters of innovative online teaching, sparked by COVID-19, Washington College is crafting a larger summer program which hopes to engage current WC students, students who deferred from other colleges, and perhaps rising high school seniors. Elm File Photo.

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