Monday, August 11, 2008

The museum is not a classroom

(This post is one I wrote for Museum Blogging, a blog where I occasionally post musings aimed at museum professionals, and particularly museum educators. I thought this post, however, might have resonance for many readers of The Clutter Museum, so I'm sharing it here.)

This blog has gone too long without any new posts. It's not that I haven't been thinking about museums--far from it. But I have been thinking about museums from outside museums, from affiliated--or potentially affiliated--institutions rather than as a practitioner within the museum field.

In my ideal job, I would muse about museums all day long, tinkering in the intersections of exhibits and education, of theory and visits. And I'm very fortunate in that for part of each week for part of the year, I get to teach a history and theory class in a graduate museum studies program. Even better--this year, I'm overseeing the master's theses, so I get to witness a dozen and a half students--some of them with lots of museum experience, some of them with a bit less--emerge into the profession, their first big academic project under their belts.

The rest of my time, I occupy myself as a teaching consultant at my local university--meaning I help faculty be more thoughtful about their teaching of undergraduates. My days could easily degenerate into a series of canned workshops on grading tests, using the university's course management system, or lecturing. Such workshops typically draw few people. And at a university with thousands of instructors, it gets pretty disheartening when only three people show up to a workshop.

Instead, at our teaching resources center, we're taking a different approach. While it is important that faculty know how to write a test (how else can you assess students in a course of 750?), it's also important that they see one another as resources. Instead of weekly workshops, then, we're trying something different. Here's a sampling:

Every Friday during the academic year, between 15 and 30 faculty come to hear their peers talk about innovative strategies they're trying out in their classrooms. An ecologist recently spoke about how he's using technological tools to make his 500-student course feel smaller. A geologist talked of how she records four-minute-long videos revisiting a key concept from her lecture, then posts the videos on YouTube. A physician talked of how he uses online simulations in the continuing education of doctors throughout the state.

We publish a monthly newsletter, The Electronic Envelope, that brings faculty up-to-date with not only what we're doing at the teaching resources center, but also alerts them to the hot issues in pedagogical discussions today. Many of our faculty are very much caught up in research agendas, and they don't have time to keep up with the latest and greatest in undergraduate instructional practice. So we write short articles--almost like blog posts--on such issues as reading among Gen Y students, digital literacies of students and faculty, and strategies for improving visual literacy.

We offer quarterly More Thoughtful Teaching (MTT) symposia, each comprising three hours of presentations, workshops, and conversations. Each MTT takes a different form and supports a different strand of undergraduate instructional practice. Our most recent MTT focused, for example, on fear and anxiety among faculty and students. We had the director of the university's student mental health center give a talk on student mental health, and then over lunch we sat at themed tables to discuss anxieties we and our students feel over such subjects as technology, copyright and intellectual property, and this passage anatomy and cell biology Professor Tom Marino of Temple University wrote in 2000:

“I knew why I liked the safe humanistic classroom now. It was the classroom I have always wanted but was afraid to try. Yes, I too was afraid, and fear was not only part of my students’ classroom it was part of my classroom too. So what could I do and how was I going to do it?

I was going to make my classroom a safe place. A place where students did not just learn about the facts but also learned about each other and the implications of the facts they were learning. It was important no for me to begin to create a place where my students felt free to explore and grow along with experiencing the subject they were studying. In my safe, humanistic classroom, my students will be learning as much about themselves and their relationship to the subject and their colleagues as they are about science facts. We will all be working together to learn.”

Why am I telling you all this? What does this have to do with museums?

Plenty. All of our activities are aimed at helping faculty interact with and help one another. We put forward questions--and the opportunity to ask questions--and listen and moderate as faculty answer those questions in ways that make sense to them depending on their disciplines and where they are in their careers. We're providing a "third space"--not the home, not the classroom or lab or office--where faculty can exchange ideas about teaching--where they can learn to take risks that will likely improve their instruction. If we can reach even 100 faculty members each year--and we are in contact with far more instructors than that--we can impact the lives of thousands of undergraduates, as well as graduate students who have these faculty as mentors.

Similarly, the best museums--through exhibits, outreach, and other educational programs--seek to meet people where they are, and help them take the next steps on their journey toward making their communities a better place. This gets back to the post on museums and civic discourse I wrote back in March. Funding issues aside, many museums are ideally positioned to serve as these "third places" where people can be changed and be inspired to effect change in their communities.

I spent a couple years working for a small science center, first as an educational outreach specialist and then as an exhibition developer. In both roles I was called upon to tailor our exhibits and lessons to meet the needs of classroom teachers--that is, I needed to make explicit in the appendices of our teacher guides exactly which of the state's science standards our programs met for each grade level. The science center's assumption, then, was not only that classroom teachers needed help meeting the standards because they didn't have the temporal financial resources to teach these subjects in their own classrooms (which was true), but also that the state's standards of scientific literacy by grade level made sense.

Such an assumption troubles me. Yes, Americans in particular could benefit from supplemental learning opportunities that boost their scientific and historical literacies. That said, should we let the state dictate the content of our exhibitions and education programs? I'm considerably less interested in making sure that a fourth grader understands the basics of electricity and magnetism and can build a simple compass than I am in getting that fourth grader to think through the hard choices we have to make about the sources--coal, wind, petroleum, solar, geothermal--of the electricity that powers her home. I'm more interested in helping a seventh grader and her parents understand why it's not safe for a huge school bus depot to be sited in their neighborhood--and helping them combat rising rates of asthma among urban children--than I am in having that same girl understand the finer details of how the cardiovascular system functions.

Let the schools teach students to make compasses and diagram bronchioles. Our job as museum professionals is to provide the learning that students frequently can't get in schools because of conservative school boards, high-stakes standardized testing, or for myriad other reasons.

But to get to the community--to those youth and adults most in need of this kind of advocacy and information--museums need to partner with institutions they don't normally court. In my previous post on civic discourse, I mentioned supermarkets as one space for advocacy about foodways. But there are plenty of other spaces as well.

For example, say you're doing an exhibition on AIDS or HIV, and you've seen these stats:

Black people have come to bear the greatest burden of AIDS in America. They represent 54 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases in America, 70 percent of the new cases among American youth are Black, and nearly 67 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases among American women are Black, and 43 percent of the new cases among men are Black. Most importantly, the majority of those still dying from AIDS in America, totaling more than 18,000 last year, were Black.

Why wouldn't you partner with local African American churches as well as correctional facilities where African American men are incarcerated in numbers out of proportion to their representation in the United States? If you work for a science center, you can reach out to churches, even though in the U.S. we tend to see science and faith as oppositional.

Another example: Increasingly, Americans are growing food in community gardens, in abandoned lots, in their backyards, and even in their front yards. After more than five decades of waging war on weeds in their suburban front lawns, citizens are realizing that lawns can be an environmental nightmare. Add to that a dawning realization that our food sources are insecure, and you have an increased interest in urban agriculture. (Did you know there are people farming in the increasingly abandoned Detroit suburbs?) Whether your institution is dedicated to history, art, or science, there are myriad opportunities to connect with local communities around growing food: tours of local suburban homesteads, workshops on how to grow tomatoes--even on an apartment balcony in a hanging basket (and don't forget to give away tomato plants), classes on how to compost, quasi-guerrilla gardening projects in underutilized public or private spaces, or contests to see who can grow the biggest pumpkin or the tallest sunflower in each neighborhood in your city or town. Set up a sustainable garden on your museum grounds, demonstrating how to safely recycle "gray water." Write labels and install educational signage in your town's communal gardens. Showcase how people historically conserved, transported, and used water and food in your region. Hire some local artists and horticulture experts to collaborate on an art garden, where the beauty is in the garden itself but perhaps also in sculptures made from "freecycled" objects.

The earth is dying, our educational systems are in many ways dysfunctional, and Americans' health is declining. Museums can't afford to be apolitical in the face of such challenges. We don't need our exhibit labels to express radical political beliefs, but our actions and partnerships need a radical overhaul.

What museum-community partnerships do you find exciting and inspiring change in their regions?

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