Embracing the principle of integrative learning, members of the Geneseo community weave disparate strands of knowledge and experience into a strong new fabric.
By Merrill Douglas
Watch a video about the philosophy curriculum that’s related.
In college, you choose a major. In the wider world, you never just have one focus.
You might be a software engineer who plays jazz piano, leads a scout troop or calls on knowledge gained in chemistry courses in a campaign for environmental justice. You’re more powerful, and your life grows richer, when you connect the different things you learn and do, and you put those connections to work.
That’s the theory behind integrative learning, an educational movement that Geneseo has placed at the heart of its enterprise. The concept is so important that in August 2018, Geneseo created a new center devoted to the approach. The Center for Integrative Learning (CIL) supports cross-disciplinary work in progress on campus and seeks new boundary-breaking opportunities.
Integrative learning occurs on three levels, says Stacey Robertson, Geneseo’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.
“First, it’s making connections between different types of experiences and knowledge. Second, it is taking that knowledge and transferring it to a new situation — for example, taking what you learn in your physics class and applying it to a project in your philosophy club.” Finally, it involves reflection — thinking, talking and/or writing about the connections you’ve discovered and the difference those connections made, and, hopefully, using that reflection in positive ways for the community.
This approach to learning wasn’t born at Geneseo.
“The American Association for Colleges and Universities has been doing workshops on integrative learning for several years,” Robertson says. Geneseo and CIL apply the concept in meaningful ways that challenge students and create new opportunities for faculty.
Integrative learning takes many forms at Geneseo. For example, it influences how the College thinks about education. It shapes the way Geneseo hires, to create truly comprehensive academic programs with opportunities to problem solve and collaborate. And it encourages faculty to teach in ways that help students broaden their knowledge and skills, setting them up for successful careers, meaningful lives and community contribution.
HOW WE THINK
Geneseo created the CIL to establish formally something that faculty, staff and students were already doing on their own — crossing disciplinary lines to work together, says Lytton Smith, associate professor of English and creative writing and the CIL’s director.
“The center exists to harness and foster that exciting synthetic work, and to enable more students and faculty to participate in it,” says Smith.
One role of the CIL is to support courses that draw on several academic disciplines and faculty from different departments. In spring 2019, for instance, the center sponsored a course called The Art of Steve Prince, offered by Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Beth McCoy and taught with help from faculty from eight academic and administrative departments.
“Students studied the work of contemporary artist Steve Prince, whose pieces engage a number of things, including the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, the role of spirituality and the history of line drawing,” Smith says. “They studied that work from the perspective of philosophy, history, urban studies, creative writing, sculpture and mathematics.”
This fall, the CIL is sponsoring The Green Quotient course, an exploration of ecological and sustainability issues for students. (See story on page 20.) “It is presented in modules taught by faculty from political science, economics, biology and Native American studies, among others,” Smith says.
The CIL helps inspire such courses by convening faculty, students and staff whose paths wouldn’t normally cross, so they can share ideas and brainstorm, Smith says. Along with its academic focus, the CIL also runs many boundary-crossing programs that engage students and faculty in community projects locally, regionally and around the world. One of these is the student ambassadorships program, which awards $3,500 grants to students who design and execute projects meant to make a lasting change in a community. Ambassador projects in 2019 include studying primary education in Iceland that helps eliminate gender roles, and developing workshops for first-generation Nepalese children in Queens, N.Y., to learn about college culture and career pathways.
HOW WE HIRE
Another example of integrative learning at Geneseo is “cluster hiring.” Consider the four faculty — in anthropology, history, languages and literature, and political science and international relations — who share an interest in Latin America and were all hired in 2014. Later joined by another anthropologist, members of the Latin American studies cluster meet regularly to discuss course content, help each other with research and plan special events.
These collaborative efforts promote integrative learning by encouraging faculty to share ideas and resources, says Melanie Medeiros, associate professor of anthropology. Cluster hiring also encourages, for instance, a student who learns about Latin America in an anthropology class to then learn more about the region by studying its literature. “It gives students multiple perspectives outside of a disciplinary box,” she says.
So far, the Latin American studies cluster’s biggest event has been the Cuba at the Crossroads event on campus in 2017.
“This was an international symposium with American, British and Cuban scholars talking about contemporary Cuba and the future of Cuba,” says Medeiros. The cluster has also organized film screenings and guest lectures and inaugurated an annual Day of the Dead celebration, where students created traditional Mexican altars to honor the departed.
Medeiros recently collaborated with Karleen West, associate professor of political science and international relations, and other faculty to expand Geneseo’s Latin American studies minor into Latin American and Caribbean studies. For students interested in Latin America — or any topic one might study through multiple lenses — cluster hiring creates a critical mass of faculty who can offer information and support, Medeiros says. “Having all of us arrive at one time sent a message to students that Latin American studies is an area of study. There are people they can talk to, plenty of classes they can take — classes that weren’t even offered before.”
Cluster hiring also makes it easier to offer opportunities outside the classroom. Say, for example, one of Medeiros’ students wanted to spend an upcoming semester doing an internship in Latin America. “I might say, ‘I’m going to be on leave, but maybe Dr. West in political science can supervise your internship,’” she says.
A newly hired global studies cluster arrived at Geneseo in fall 2019. The global studies cluster crosses interests of many departments, complements the College’s longtime commitment to study abroad and promotes diversity and inclusion on campus, says Glenn Geiser-Getz, vice provost for academic affairs.
HOW WE TEACH
Integrative learning has made an impact as well on instructional strategy at Geneseo.
One example is the course on speculative fiction that McCoy taught in fall 2018, covering The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. Those books portray a world in which some people can control seismic forces, and society subjugates those people to exploit their abilities. “The author uses the language of geology — volcanoes, forms of rocks and minerals, and earthquakes — to create an analogy for the experiences of oppressed peoples throughout time, but particularly the oppressions that black people have experienced,” McCoy says.
To help students fully understand this literary device, McCoy had the class meet with three Geneseo geologists: Scott Giorgis, professor of geological sciences; Dori Farthing, associate professor and chair of geological sciences; and Meg Reitz, a geologist who is also associate director of student life for educational initiatives. These scientists helped students understand the geological features and climate phenomena described in the books, so students would be better equipped to interpret them.
Those conversations gave students a stronger foundation for literary analysis, says McCoy. “We can’t just trust our own interpretations. We have to cross-check them with other sources and people who are experts in the field.”
Students’ questions covered topics such as the gravitational attraction between Earth and the moon, the concept of social sustainability and the meanings of various geological terms, says José Romero ’22, who took McCoy’s class. “Knowing that geologists were going to come in gave us an opportunity, if we didn’t understand a portion of the book, to ask how we could phrase our questions,” he says. “How could we avoid Google searching and ask questions directly of a person who has studied this field for many years?”
Visiting an English class where students were trying to think and talk about geology and natural processes was extremely valuable, Giorgis says. “I found it interesting to try and understand their perspective and square it with what I know and how I think.”
Another course at Geneseo blends English and science in a different way. NeuWrite: Collaborative Science Writing pairs creative writing majors with science majors who conduct research on campus. Each team collaborates on a piece of creative writing that is informed by the student researcher’s work, grounded in good science and designed for a general audience. The goal is to communicate science in creative and inviting ways.
The course is modeled on an international program started at Columbia University, in which professional scientists and writers team up to develop novel strategies for communicating science. Smith co-teaches NeuWrite with Olympia Nicodemi, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics. As campus coordinator for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship program, Nicodemi has long coached student applicants who need to write about science for both specialist and non-specialist readers.
Students in NeuWrite read science essays from publications such as the New York Times and The New Yorker, study the craft of science writing and practice interviewing skills. Each student scientist develops an essay to explain his or her work to the student writer, who in turn writes a creative piece. Along the way, the class holds workshops to critique work in progress.
The science students learn to communicate with people who don’t share their particular knowledge and vocabularies, Nicodemi says. “The STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] students have made comments such as, ‘I never knew what I didn’t know about my discipline — the background, the truly important parts, how to convey the big and little picture to other people.’ The creative writers learn what it’s like to learn science, write about science and then to convey it in accurate, creative and engaging ways.”
Yet another focus of integrative learning is Geneseo’s collection of Living-Learning Communities (LLCs), residence halls for students who share interests in wellness, the arts, science, global culture, writing or other areas. In fall 2019, several LLCs will offer one-credit courses taught inside the residences by Geneseo faculty. Those courses are Freshman Arts Experience (Arts Community); Natural History and Sustainability (Eco House); An Introduction to Publishing (Writers House); The Meaning of Being a Global Citizen (Global House); and Investigating, Questioning and Practicing Wellness: What Is a Flourishing Life? (Wellness Communities).
Such courses help connect the College’s academic and co-curricular experiences, says Reitz, who oversees the initiative. “Students don’t always understand the educational skills, knowledge and background they develop when they become engaged outside the classroom,” she explains. “They need faculty members to help make that connection for them, that when they do something fun and interesting, it also has an academic benefit.”
Whether in the residence hall, the classroom or the broader community, Geneseo’s students, faculty and staff are finding more ways all the time to blend different kinds of learning. “It’s a recognition that we live in a complicated, integrated world,” says Robertson.
In such a world, people need to bring all of themselves — their varied interests, their multidimensional perspectives, their broad capabilities — to the challenges faced by all. The emphasis on integrative learning at Geneseo should give graduates a strong head start.