Reconsidering the Term Project: Reflections on a Community of Inquiry and Practice


Erica Morawski



Writing a reflective essay is new to me, but doing something I am not used to seems fitting given the experience I had facilitating a Community of Practice/Inquiry (CoP/I) through Pratt Institute’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) in Spring 2023. This was the CTL’s pilot of the CoP/I format, which gave groups the prerogative to determine their topic and the work they would do, as well as a reprieve from having to produce some sort of deliverable at the end or arrive at a predetermined conclusion. In other words, the idea is that the CoP/I is liberatory in that participants can be fully focused on the work itself, without the stress of meeting certain goals or compromising the work in order to reach a certain conclusion. Titled “Reconsidering the Term Project,” this CoP/I group was intended to be focused on practice, though we found we were focused on both practice and inquiry. As I conceptualized the group, we would be engaged in the practice of implementing the term project in our classes while convening periodically as a group to discuss and interrogate this course component. I did not enter with a narrow research question, but rather with one that was more broadly based on the premise that if the term project is part of our teaching practice, this group would explore and question how the reasoning and rationale behind this assignment informs how we design it.

I was interested in coming together with colleagues to discuss why we include a term project in our courses, how we do it, what students get out of it, different ways of doing it, and other questions of pedagogy. For example, what does it mean to support commendable scholarship in all sorts of topics, especially those that fall outside of the traditional academic realm where there is no neat body of scholarly academic sources available for students to tap into? This is connected to a greater question of how to support students in recognizing and engaging with the shortcomings and problematic nature of traditional narratives, while keeping in mind that moving beyond them is still incredibly challenging in many cases. Though we all have our own interpretation of the current state of the discipline, many in the field of art and design history feel that addressing issues of the canon and traditional narratives is a key concern, as is designing courses that speak to a variety of types of learners that come from increasingly diverse backgrounds. With a student body that is largely made up of art or design majors, we continue to question what skills we wish to teach in the modern digital world. Inevitably at the forefront are issues of information veracity, the impact of biased algorithms, and our recognition of the politics embedded in all research we undertake.

The opportunity to focus on “community” was as appealing to me as attention to “practice” or “inquiry” and informed how I aimed to set up the group. My department, History of Art and Design (HAD), was still offering more online classes compared to other departments, and it still felt as if many of us were looking to connect with one another again. For this reason, I felt strongly about running the CoP/I through in-person meetings. Along those same lines, I defined it as an HAD project. Although I have had so many valuable experiences through the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) in programs with a mix of faculty from a variety of departments, I wanted to build a departmental community through a conversation within our shared discipline. Thus, our group was composed of HAD faculty with a range of experience teaching at Pratt. We taught a variety of different undergraduate and graduate courses, though there was some overlap within the group. While there were a few instances of prior collaboration, most of us had not collaborated on anything with each other and were enthusiastic to do so.

While I facilitated the organization of our meetings, launched conversations with some open-ended questions, and created a space for us to share resources and continue our conversation asynchronously, our space was open for a group decision on organizing our work in a way that felt most useful and comfortable to all. We covered a lot of ground, we did not work linearly, and we often circled back and added on to previously covered terrain. To capture the project, I will cover some of the work we did and topics we explored that, to me, helped define the experience.

 


· Recognizing shared challenges—There was a huge range of challenges, many of them interconnected in some ways. These included: supporting the development of good research skills and practices, managing a project across a semester, encouraging student investment, tackling the thorny issue of the canon, and defining project formats. In thinking through challenges both abstractly and through examples from our own experience, we considered possible alternatives and solutions and reflected upon how these challenges confront us and how we respond to them. It ranged from sharing tips and tricks to more philosophical discussions of the purpose of the term project.

· It is all connected—We quickly started to recognize and articulate that the term project is just one part of the course, which we aim to design holistically. As such, other course components—whether assignments or in-class discussion—are connected. In order to address the range of skills we want to support students in developing in the class, the term project necessarily needs to work in harmony with other course components, addressing some course goals and learning outcomes while leaving others to be worked out in other course components. We also considered how content, or course coverage, can be determined by the nature of the course components. This intersected with another strong throughline in our conversations.

· Student voices and representation—How does the term project create a space that allows students to develop and voice their own perspective of the world? What role do we play in teaching them the research skills to enhance their voice? We thought about this throughout our conversations, with an ever-present eye to the fact that many of our students do not see themselves in traditional narratives. While we all aim to increase the diversity in the course content we choose, there is only so much we can squeeze into a semester, which means the term project is a fruitful space for students to expand their knowledge beyond shared class content. This also included discussion of student choice in term project topics, and in particular how topics and format are opportunities to think through the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as well as decolonial approaches to the classroom and course content.

· Troubleshooting assignments—In recognizing that we cannot separate the term project from the course, we also talked through other assignments we use in our courses and how they all relate to one another. This was also connected to one of the big questions that I wanted to raise about the pros and cons of the semester-long term project versus a series of smaller assignments, which led us to consider a potential middle ground that could be described as a term project deconstructed. This could be a series of discrete assignments that covered the skills addressed in a term project, but the separation of different components (even if tied together in topic), would hopefully encourage students to take more risks without fear of negative impact on their grade and ensure that students could come back from missteps earlier on in the semester.  

· Micro to macro (or, how one term project in one class connects to the larger curriculum and to students’ learning and growth while at Pratt)—We also reflected more broadly on how the content and assignments students engaged with in our class related to the larger arc of their time at Pratt. This included discussions of expectations at different course levels, development of skills across course levels within our department, how certain types of projects in one class prepare (or not) students for other classes. We also touched on the perennial anxiety we all share of how students can understand the skills they gain in our classes to have value in the real world. We had the opportunity to connect our conversations to big things, like curriculum, which  is not often done in committee work because there is so much tedium that there is little time for work like this.

These bullet points I articulate above emerged in a CoP/I that was focused as much on community as it was on practice or inquiry. While the open framework of our CoP/I did not produce hard data that one can use to speak to its effectiveness or usefulness, it is precisely this open and experimental format that created the space for such an enriching experience. We felt free to explore tangents and the seemingly unrelated as we were not bound to a strict agenda or a deliverable or output at the end. This feeling of having the freedom to explore was liberating, and I have no doubt that the moments when the work seemingly meandered were rich moments of learning.

The space we created to explore the term project was meaningful and was tied to the strong sense of community we built. Collaborators in the group articulated that the space allowed for us to share and compare philosophies and approaches and that the “thoughtful contributions made our meetings exceptional and fruitful.” One participant noted that this “challenged [him] to rethink the issues that [he] had formulated differently before.” Participants also articulated that the openness made it more enriching, allowing it to become an “environment of learning and growth defined by the open exchange of ideas,” challenges, and solutions.

In thinking beyond the space of our meetings and the time of the CoP/I, the full impact of the CoP/I on our teaching is still playing out and will continue to do so through new encounters and conversations prompted by our shared experience. However, in terms of what has happened to date, all of us have adjusted assignments and syllabi to try something new, from small tweaks to big shifts. Moreover, the sense of community that we created has undoubtedly influenced our department culture for the better. Our CoP/I was defined by respect and appreciation across rank and status and time at Pratt. At various moments we all expressed gratitude for one another as well as a desire to “continue the conversation” in the future. The work felt meaningful to us, not just boxes to check or reports to write up. Additionally, participation in the CoP/I seems to have encouraged some to become more involved in department service. I have also seen a positive impact on the way that members have brought their CoP/I experience to departmental work. I do not want to suggest that the CoP/I is the reason for these, but I think that the CoP/I created a community where participants felt supported and confident in ways that extended beyond the group—in this case, back to the department. Finally, an environment of support and mentorship emerged that I was not expecting, but appreciated deeply.

To that end, and as a final note, I have thought about what it might look like to have a department sponsor a CoP/I as opposed to the CTL and have been asked about this. Though it seems a great idea in theory, I am not sure it would work, as it is hard to imagine department sponsorship could come without the expectation of specific outcomes or deliverables, and that would limit the possibilities of the group. However, working outside of our department did create something that we brought back to our department as we use our experience to strengthen and hone our teaching and bring that sense of community—a culture of respect and support—to the department at large.