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First Faculty Innovation Grant awardees tell their stories

  • Trying the wall
    Trying the wall  A visitor to the Prague Quadrennial, described as a "sticky, weird mess of story-telling," pushes her hand into a rubber wall and draws a response from someone on the other side of the exhibit.  Courtesy Matthew Allar
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A trip to a Prague event described as “the World’s Fair meets the Olympics of stage design” and a summer project intended to turn physics into something more intriguing than just math have added texture and meaning to a pair of COLL courses being taught at William & Mary.

Likewise, a professor’s journey to Barnard College to experience how role-playing games might enhance classical studies holds promise for future students in that field.

Recently, Matthew Allar, associate professor of theatre, and Marc Sher, professor of physics, addressed colleagues and students about innovations they are introducing into their teaching as a result of each having received a Faculty Innovation Grant supporting new COLL courses.

Barbette Spaeth, associate professor of classical studies, also participated, outlining how she used her grant to lay the groundwork for a future interdisciplinary course she wants to design employing role-playing to study religion in ancient Corinth.

“These three faculty were our first pioneers,” said Chancellor Professor of Physics Gene Tracy, who is director of the Center for the Liberal Arts. “The CLA Fellows view these as great successes, and look forward to funding more of them this year. They allow us to support faculty who want to try new things in support of the COLL Curriculum, things that don't quite fit anywhere else.”

For Sher, that was putting physics – a math-driven science – into a larger context of politics, personality and the world at large.Marc Sher

For Spaeth, it’s about students learning empathy and having a far deeper understanding of history and classical studies by grappling with the same situations the characters in their classical studies texts encountered.

For Allar, the challenge was getting students naturally focused on traditional definitions of theatrical traditions and practices to look at the broad scope of story-telling potential, no matter the genre or method of presentation.

A student leads the way

Student research was at the core of Sher’s change in his Modern Physics (201) class, a three-hour course that meets weekly for four hours. The last hour had been devoted to basic math needed for future upper-level courses.

When a change occurred and the math tutorial was no longer needed, Sher turned to student Jamie Leach ’17 and tasked him with designing something different for that fourth hour, using CLA funds.

Leach compiled nine documents consisting of three to eight pages each covering topics Sher had never before taught.

Some of the topics:

  • Michelson-Morley – The experiment that showed absolute space and time did not exist.
  • Time travel – The historical development of stories, from H.G. Wells to Back to the Future to Interstellar.
  • Einstein as celebrity – “If you’d asked any average citizen in 1910 to name a physicist they might be able to come up with (Sir Isaac) Newton, but they wouldn’t know anything about him,” Sher said. “Einstein just rocked everything, changed it all. Why?”Albert Einstein, Physics' first rock star
  • Cosmology – Scientific evidence for the very early universe has become overwhelming. What are the social and historical implications?
  • Bohr and Germany – International politics in the 20s and 30s. “There was a real problem in cooperation between German and non-German physicists,” Sher said. “They were excluded from international conferences. Their papers weren’t translated. Germans couldn’t get (into) publications. With this happening, how was it that the biggest breakthroughs in science in the last century all happened within a period of a decade or two?

Leach’s handouts are distributed on Friday and are discussed. On the following Monday, students turn in a brief paper showing that they read the material and know it.Jamie Leach '17

“No chance this would ever be taught otherwise,” Sher said. “It had never been done before. All of this basically happened because of Jamie doing a summer project.

“The students really like it. The comments we get are pretty amazing. It’s completely changed their attitude. They’re so used to ‘OK, physics is math.’ It’s humanized it for them a lot more.”

Experiencing the 'weird mess' that can be story-telling

The Prague Quadrennial, which Allar described as “a sticky weird mess of story-telling,” added unique fodder for his present COLL100 course entitled “The Storytellers Journey.” It’s a theatre class but aimed at a broad range of communication methodology through the lens of story-telling.

“We deal with verbal and non-verbal things,” Allar said. “We deal with image-based things. We deal with film-based things, literature-based things, play scripts, musicals and opera.”

Allar said he is asking students to build ongoing dialogues around a variety of events and encounters like Kerouac’s On the Road, Opera in Williamsburg’s Don Giovanni, The Alchemist, even the (recent play) Avenue Q (featuring puppets).Matt Allar

“The concept I’m trying to inject in the course is that it’s not so important what we’re reading, how we’re reading it, viewing it or encountering it, but rather the whole experience of all of that together as one. This synthesized  experience fuels the ongoing conversation within the group.”

Exhibits created by storytellers from around the world were featured in Prague. A Finnish exhibit was nothing more than a rubber wall you were asked to push with your hand. You were unaware that visitors were also on the other side of the wall – until someone stuck their hand back at you, said Allar.

“It becomes a mysterious physical interaction that communicates with each other,” he said. “Such a concept is useful as it forces you to reevaluate how you not only communicate with someone else but are willing to receive information from others.

“The key for me was by experiencing it and documenting it I could come back to our community and introduce that phenomenon to our students. As a result, we are finding ways to have some meaningful experiences on campus with some of our newest and most exciting students.”

Allar’s class recently spent time with John Spike and Aaron deGroft at the Muscarelle Museum of Art discussing the evolving role of curation: not only how a story is being told but also in what context and frame.

“The course wrestles with non-written-based communication,” Allar said. “It’s meant to stimulate conversation, first-person interaction. It’s not limited to written or visual responses. It’s an ongoing dialogue.”

That dialogue is promoted in a variety of ways. Some students write blogs that are cycled back to make sure the conversation continues. Others use video, poetry or music Some express their responses through original artwork.

How to deal with St. Paul

If Spaeth’s goal is fulfilled, in 2017 her students will be living as real characters from the distant past, though able and encouraged to employ their own personality, think their own thoughts. She used role-playing in a prior Roman Religion class, but she wanted to learn more about how to set up role-playing games.

A trip to Barnard College in New York and an introduction to a movement called “Reacting to the Past” enthralled her. It consists of elaborate games in which students are assigned roles that are informed by classical texts that they study. The classes are run entirely by students, who are assigned roles to play out. They do the speaking and talking, which Spaeth said makes it ideal for a future COLL 100 class. A writing component could also be integrated, making it suitable for a COLL 150 course. The professor serves as the Gamemaster and “guide on the side” for the students during the course of the game.Barbette Spaeth

Games can run six or seven weeks, which would offer the opportunity to do two over the course of an entire semester, or just one week, if a shorter one is chosen.

At Barnard, Spaeth even participated in one such game, involving life in Athens in 403 BC. In that scenario, Sparta had decimated the city and you, an Athenian, must decide whether or not to punish those who contributed to Athens’ defeat, restore the Athenian Empire, or rebuild the city’s walls to protect against future attack. Alliances needed to be formed. Delicate, potentially dangerous, negotiations had to be undertaken. Assassinations were a possibility.

There was a man who constantly questioned and undermined prospective plans and the values of the leaders of the state – Socrates. Part of Spaeth’s session was spent putting him on trial. She played one of his supporters, and her “faction” was able to get him acquitted, instead of executed on charges of impiety and endangering the Athenian democracy.

“I’m told that students get into this so completely that they’re doing it constantly,” she said. “They go to dinner and they’re still in their roles. It becomes integral to them. They spend their own free time researching strategies to help their faction win and to advance their own secret goals They play out the scenario in class then the professor talks about what really happened, so it sets the historical record straight.”

Spaeth wants to create her own game, and has been talking to Michael Daise in religious studies about collaborating on a game involving the religions of ancient Corinth, and a major figure of the time, St. Paul.The statue of St. Paul at the Vatican

“Corinth was the melting pot of the entire empire,” she said. “There were Greeks and Romans, Jews, Christians – and St. Paul was put on trial in Corinth before the Roman governor.

“I want to have a game centered on the trial of St. Paul with all of these competing religious groups talking about why Paul is a threat. Is he a threat? If so, to whom? To the Roman state?  To the local Jewish community? To different factions of the nascent ‘Jesus Movement’?  How do we want to treat this person who has now injected himself into the situation?”

What would her students decide? To Spaeth, playing that "game" would be a fascinating – and uniquely instructive – way to find out.