The Backbone of the Barnard Classroom
It was late afternoon on August 28. My eyes stung from the tears that were shed after saying goodbye to my family earlier that afternoon, and my knee was excitedly (or nervously?) bouncing as I awaited the commencement of my undergraduate experience at Barnard. I sat on a plastic chair in Riverside Church, surrounded by strangers who would soon become my classmates and friends. President Beilock gracefully walked up to the podium, and addressed, for the first time, the Class of 2021.
Her speech touched on topics that filled me with pride to be a Barnard student, though many of the points she made are now escaping me as I write this. However, she did say something, rather she said a word, that became stuck in my head. Like a true Barnard student filled with insatiable curiosity, I have never stopped thinking about the word President Beilock said on that August afternoon.
Pedagogy. It’s a word I had never heard before that day. It’s a word so rarely used in traditional high schools, but so deeply entrenched in the nature of liberal arts colleges. It’s a word that defines the academic experiences that Barnard will give you, the memories you will make, the things you will learn.
Pedagogy. It’s about how you will learn and how you will think. It’s about how your academic environment will shape the way you exchange and develop knowledge.
Pedagogy. It’s at the heart of the academic experience here at Barnard College.
Take, for example, Reacting to the Past. Reacting to the Past is a game-based history class where students embody different historical figures and “travel back in time” to gain a better understanding of the complicated roles their characters played in shaping world history. The Reacting to the Past curriculum was first developed in the 1990s by Dr. Mark Carnes, a history professor at Barnard. It is now utilized at hundreds of colleges and universities worldwide!
During my first year at Barnard, I had the opportunity to take Reacting to the Past with Dr. Carnes. In our first game, “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BCE,” I played a Periclean democrat named Theozotides. Supported by classical readings from that moment in history, including Plato's Republic, our 18-student class spent six weeks giving speeches, writing legislation, and participating in the Athenian Assembly. Clad in a toga, I (…or should I say Theozotides?…) worked with the Periclean faction to push for social welfare policy, indict Socrates (my apologies to the Socratic faction, which was none too pleased when we found Socrates to be guilty), and address the ongoing threat of the Thirty Tyrants. The game infamously ended in an independent member of the Athenian Assembly attempting to overthrow the Athenian democracy, a number of democrats chasing after him, and a dice roll determining the fate of the city-state. Luckily, democracy prevailed!
Now, Reacting to the Past isn’t for everyone. It requires a strong historical imagination, a penchant for public speaking, and a love for the theatrics of history (i.e. “making history come to life”). There are many other examples of the ways in which Barnard classes employ different pedagogies to enhance student thinking.
Case-in-point two: Science in the City. Like many of the classes in Barnard’s education department, Science in the City is a course that sees the value in hands-on, interactive learning. In order to understand education and educational systems, students must be immersed in school environments, must engage with teachers and students, and must bridge the gap between work in the classroom and experiences in the field. Thus, classes like Science in the City equate K-12 school environments to “scientific fields” that are capable of being studied, observed, and tested. It’s a class that investigates the unknown “science of learning” through the known “science of learning.” Mind-boggling, right?
Students in Science in the City learn how to develop more progressive pedagogies for urban science education. They become student-teachers and complete fieldwork at local NYC schools. They write lesson plans, develop lab activities, organize a field trip to the Natural History Museum, and teach science in a way that makes their own students see science in their every-day lives. Then, students meet in a seminar-style environment to discuss their experiences in the classroom, review video footage of their teaching style, and reflect on how pedagogies can make science more palpable to their students’ educational futures. In essence, it’s a class with a unique pedagogy that teaches students how to create unique pedagogies!
Science in the City sees students commuting as far as Brooklyn or the Bronx in order to complete their fieldwork. But what if I told you that Barnard offers classes where students *really* get to travel away from Manhattan? And no, I’m not talking about study abroad programs in Paris or Beijing or Rio. Rather, I’m talking about packing up your bags and doing fieldwork in an often-overlooked (but fun to spell) part of the United States: Mississippi.
The Mississippi Semester is a class that allows students to “explore, hands-on, the ways in which historical, economic, political, and social issues affect communities in Mississippi.” It is one of a handful of Barnard classes (such as The Harlem Semester) that are grounded in community-based, social justice initiatives rather than fundamental academia.
On campus, Mississippi Semester students investigate how economic insecurity disproportionately affects women in Mississippi. During spring break, however, students get to travel to Jackson, Mississippi to work with local non-profits and community organizers, “give faces to the data,” and be part of a pedagogy grounded in hands-on, community-based engagement. They make an important impact by collecting data that non-profits and action funds can use to advocate for better public policy on key issues affecting low-income, single-mother households. Similarly, being part of a hands-on educational experience emboldens Barnard students to become more socially-conscious change agents.
From the Digital Ntozake Shange Project (a Theatre/English/Africana Studies class that explores the digital archives of playwright Ntozake Shange) to EcoChains: An Arctic Crisis (an Environmental Science class that uses card games to illustrate the consequences of climate change), there are so many examples of Barnard classes that move away from the classical university pedagogy by employing innovative teaching and learning styles. Furthermore, Barnard is home to the Center for Engaged Pedagogy, which is now located in our brand-new Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning. The center serves as a forum for dialogue between students and professors, across a wide array of departments and disciplines, in order to help advance the practice of teaching, experience of learning, and strategies for knowledge-production. If you want to learn in an innovative and conscious environment, Barnard is the place for you!
Barnard stands out as a place that truly engages its students. All Barnard classes — even the ones that don’t have their students travel to Mississippi, work as student-teachers, or role-play historical characters — work to create an environment that influences how people produce and exchange knowledge. This idea always floods me with memories of the first time I heard the word “pedagogy.” Over a year later, I attribute many of my academic memories here at Barnard to the unconventional ways I’ve been taught to think outside of the box.
Pedagogies really are the backbone of the Barnard classroom.