Most colleges are organized as a collection of academic silos. Many challenging problems facing society, though, are multifaceted. In this episode, Leigh Allison Wilson joins us to discuss the use of common problem pedagogy, an approach that allows students to address a problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives.
Leigh is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Program and Activities Center at SUNY-Oswego. She is also the author of two collections of stories, one of which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, Grand Street, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Leigh teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego. In addition to the Flannery O’Connor award, she has received the Saltonstall Award for Creative Nonfiction, and a Pulitzer nomination by William Morrow for her collection Wind. Leigh is a Michener Fellow of the Copernicus Society and is a Henry Hoyns fellow of the University of Virginia.
- Digital Oz
- The Grand Challenges Project: Fresh Water for All
- Metcalf, Carson (2014). “Graphic Flash Explodes with Student Creativity.” The Oswegonian. 11/20/14
- Wilson, L. A. (2008). From the Bottom Up. University of Georgia Press.
- Wilson, L.A. (1989). Wind Stories. William Morrow and Co
- “An Interval of Supernatural Insight,” Out of Stock, December 2017 http://www.out-of-stock.net/portfolio/an-interval-of-supernatural-insight-by-leigh-allison-wilson/
- “The Dog House Association Rules,” New Flash Fiction, Issue 3, Spring 2015 http://newflashfiction.com/leigh-allison-wilson/
- “The Ledger,” wigleaf, November 2014 http://wigleaf.com/201411ledger.htm
John: Most colleges are organized as a collection of academic silos. Many challenging problems facing society, though, are multifaceted. In this episode, we explore common problem pedagogy, an approach that allows students to address a problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives.
Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Leigh Allison Wilson. She is the author of two collections of stories, one of which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, Grand Street, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego. In addition to the Flannery O’Connor award, she has received the Saltonstall Award for Creative Nonfiction, and a Pulitzer nomination by William Morrow for her collection Wind. She is a Michener Fellow of the Copernicus Society and is a Henry Hoyns fellow of the University of Virginia.
Rebecca: Welcome, Leigh.
John: Welcome, Leigh.
Leigh: Thank you, John. It’s very nice of you to have me
Rebecca: Today, our teas are:
John: Ginger peach green tea.
Leigh: Mine is Constant Comment, a southern favorite.
Rebecca: …which Leigh brought for me to try, so that’s what I’m drinking, too.
So, Leigh you helped organize a number of community-based projects that bring faculty together across campus. What got you involved in this kind of work in the first place?
Leigh: Well, you know what? If I went back to the roots of it all, I have to say Amy Bartell in the art department. I have a flash fiction class that is my advanced writing class, and one semester she just suddenly said: “Why don’t your students write a very short piece? My students can illustrate it, and we’ll frame both things and put them side-by-side… and then we’ll have a show.” …which was so much fun, but it wasn’t just fun, it was my first taste of having a collaborative common problem project. Because, it turned out to be a common problem. We didn’t know it… we thought we were just writing our fiction… or, I thought they were just gonna be writing their fiction. But we’ve discovered that if there was going to be an illustrator paying attention to it… all of a sudden, it got more serious. The game got more serious. There was an audience who was really going to be checking it out, and there was also an audience that was going to be looking at the illustration and looking at their work at the same time, and all of a sudden the students were much more professional about their attitudes to their work. So, that’s the beginning of it. That was called Graphic Flash… and we’re still doing it, but now it’s expanded into a film class that’s taking the stories and making short films out of it… and a music class that’s taking the short films and scoring them… and ‘cause now I like working with local partners… local high schools have been making movie posters.
Leigh: …for the stories. So, that expanded… and because of that expansion, I started getting interested in – not just common projects that involved a common problem – but also collaborative projects in general… and the ease with which they could be expanded… which I think is one big factor in project-based learning.
Rebecca: The first big project was the Smart Neighbors project which is still ongoing.
Leigh: What happened was… I was doing Smart Neighbors and there was a notice from the Provost office and there was a call for participants in a SUNY wide grant. They wanted four SUNY schools to be involved in a common problem pedagogy grant… and at the time they were trying to get a Teagle grant which is an ExxonMobil grant. But the point of the Teagle grant was to get humanities to work with another discipline, usually a professional discipline, so that’s why it began in that way. I wrote in and SUNY Cortland and Oneonta and Plattsburgh were all involved in it. We all have different projects going on but ours became the Smart Neighbors project.
Rebecca: Please describe what that is for those that don’t know?
Leigh: Basically I have always….Well, I love Oswego as a town, and I’ve loved living here and I’ve always wanted to do something that could give back. But, I’m a creative writer and, short of putting it as a setting in a lot of short stories… which I have done… that’s not really giving back… I have always worried since I’ve been here about the economic difficulties facing any new business. This is a stat from a few years ago, but one statistic is that a new business in Oswego has a lifespan of about 13 months… and that’s a terrible statistic. I don’t think it’s true anymore… I think there are great changes going on in town now… but, I wanted to do something with the town. My concept for Smart Neighbors was to have a lot of different disciplines collaborate in the promotion of a downtown independent business. It was a simple concept, because I didn’t have elaborate blueprints for what they should be doing or what we should be doing. I had no elaborate plans for what each individual discipline should be doing. It should be promoting the business. Period. ….and that’s sort of continued to be how it is. People take it as they can imagine it… and so a lot of very imaginative things have come out of that… the things that are not traditionally considered promotional materials… which, in fact, really are promotional materials.
John: What are some examples?
Leigh: A literary citizenship class that Donna Steiner is working with, because they’re mostly creative writers, they tend to do digital essays… but they’re digital essays that often have a fanciful story involved in them. So, if it’s a bookstore… one digital essay took a book that the bookstore was selling… talked about the author ….did graphics about the plot of it… and then ended up back at the bookstore… and so you basically you were interested in the book… and then it began to talk about how the imagination could be served by the bookstore. Another one in the same class followed someone who bought a book to their home, took film clips and photographs of the person sitting where they liked to read with all of their books around them… and just talking about what it meant to be able to walk downtown and buy a book and take it home and start reading it. So, that was a nice little piece too. …but not things that you necessarily are expecting, or what an advertising agency would have put out.
John: …and how have the businesses responded to this? Have they been using these materials in their marketing?
Leigh: They have. One of the things that is a centerpiece is the banner… and the art students… the photography students have been at the heart of that… and all of the businesses end up displaying it. There are huge banners… they fill a whole wall… but all of the businesses have been using the banners. They love those… Also, every business nowadays… and this is one thing that we’ve been working with the businesses on… having an online presence… but that’s one of the reasons there’s so many digital projects involved. Because we want the businesses to be able to use them online. So, the digital essays do get used online as part of their presentation to the public.
John: …and how have the students reacted to doing something where their work is going to be more public? They’re not just submitting something read by their instructor and their peers, but it actually may have an impact on some business in the community.
Leigh: The impacts on our students are the impacts that I think they’ve found across the country when dealing with applied learning, civic engagement, volunteerism… well, basically best practices in general…. but, number one (this is the thing that I’m most proud of) is that the students leave that program, even though it’s one assignment in one course (for most of them… it’s not the whole course) but they leave having experienced that assignment with a sort of sense of social responsibility that I don’t think they had before… or a notion of philanthropy. One of the things I tell them…. All of the classes (this year we had 11 classes from different disciplines) and we all meet at the beginning of the semester in Marano Auditorium… and one thing I told them this year is that we think of social responsibility as as one thing and philanthropy as another thing… but really, I think, what we should be doing in these places we love (like I love Oswego) is actually contributing our talents… not just our money… but we should be spending our money locally too – but but also contributing our talents – to these businesses… even if we’re a business owner contributing to another person’s business is something that I think we’re obliged to do too – because the local success really is our own success… and we tend to think of businesses as competitive, but I think that’s a mistake. I think smarter neighbors…
John: …hence the name…
Leigh: …work together in these collaborative ways.
Rebecca: What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned from doing some of these projects?
Leigh: Well, I should tell more of what the students got out of it, but…
Leigh: I think, other than just that sense of social responsibility and what notions of philanthropy, they leave knowing much more clearly what they know and have learned in their disciplines… meta-knowledge of what they’re capable of… which is huge for our creative writers. Because, I don’t think they’re clear on the fact that… they know they’re probably not going to immediately get the Pulitzer, but what can they do with this? …and it’s important for them to to learn that…. that they can write for multiple audiences in multiple ways. But, they also learn what other disciplines know and can do… which they haven’t thought about that deeply. It’s a mystery to them what, for instance, the marketing students do. They market things… maybe it’s advertising… something like that… but then they see them come in and actually take the business that they’ve been working with and figure out a plan for them… and how the college itself can be moved into that plan… and suddenly: “Oh, I can work with that…” and they start thinking of digital essays they could work with… and imaginary stories that take that marketing plan and actually enact it with characters (which they’re good at imagining)… And professional skills… just getting somewhere on time… being late or on time to a class seems less important, but if the interview that you needed to have… and you’re late for and you can’t now have it… that makes an impact forever. You tend to be on time for an interview… and they do have to interview the local partners. Preparations… They get there. Nobody’s going to be telling them what to do. They have to figure out what they need to know, and they need to find it out. So, they need to plan before they get there. I personally am very happy with my students learning what it means to write for a particular audience, as opposed to whoever they want to. It’s very good for them to try to please a certain person with a certain product.
Rebecca: Because it’s usually an audience that they wouldn’t have picked or imagined on their own.
Leigh: That’s right… that’s right. …and my point would be that, even when they’re writing their Great American Novel, they should be expanding their notion of what audiences they’re hitting, instead of just “this is what I want to read.” They need to think about what their vision of the world is and how to can pull as many people into it as possible. I just think it’s memorable to them. I think it’s life-changing to them to work, however briefly, donating their time to a place at least for a while they’re calling home.
Leigh: But, I think they’re things that the faculty learned too… not just the students, there are faculty outcomes, I think, as well. My whole idea in Smart Neighbors was to just get faculty’s feet wet with one assignment in one class… and if you can do that… once they see the effect on students… because, that’s one thing I really do believe about the faculty here… they really are committed teachers. Now sometimes you worry about how time-consuming is it going to be to work with another class as other disciplines… how time-consuming is this or that? Because we’re already putting a huge amount of time into our teaching. So, it seemed smart to get faculty accustomed, or introduced to, collaborative, or civic engagement, or applied learning kinds of pedagogy in the easiest possible way. So, one assignment… and not an assignment that necessarily requires interactions with a lot of other faculty to figure out how to do it. Now, I will say, for Smart Neighbors anyway, the faculty do have to connect with the local partners. But, they don’t necessarily have to figure out what everybody’s doing in all of the classes to make it work. They have their piece of the puzzle and they’re contributing it.
John: How many classes work with a particular business? Are there multiple businesses that they’re working with? or is it just one business each year?
Leigh: Well, it’s grown. The first year, we had four classes and they were working on the bookstore. The River’s End Bookstore.
Leigh: Tell me your question again.
Rebecca: Really asking whether or not there is more than one community partner at any given time.
Leigh: Yes. I think what you’re asking is a good question because, once you get to a certain number of people… of courses… not people, but courses… you’re overwhelming a local partner and we got to that quickly last year. We worked with a candy store (and I think there were seven different classes involved) and an unbelievable generosity of time from that owner… but it was clear that we were gonna have to figure out other ways of doing this. So, last year we did the Farmers Market, which worked out, We had eleven courses involved too – and that worked out much better because there are multiple farmers bringing their goods to the Farmers Market and there are they’re in different groups with different farms. So that worked out a little bit better. Also, because the Chamber of Commerce is ultimately responsible for the Farmers Market, we were able to do some projects just for the Chamber. For instance, they needed a new logo and we sort of pulled that into the Smart Neighbors project as well. So, I’m trying to define what we’re doing a little wider. …and you’re right, have more local partners…. if we’re gonna have this many continue.
John: It sounds like it’s grown really quickly.
Leigh: It really has… and I will just say again I think the faculty discovered that there’s a certain ease of practice in getting used to this… and once you see the students and the effect on the students, then I think you’re hooked. And the reason it’s grown is that the courses who have done it in the past continue to do it; they want to keep doing it. And that is how I got the idea for Grand Challenges.
Rebecca: That seems like a nice segue right into it, right?
Rebecca: So, we’re launching the Grand Challenges. Can you talk a little bit about what the Grand Challenges are and what the goals are?
Leigh: There’s a line in our strategic plan that that’s my favorite line…. and I think it’s the most memorable line… and it talks about how we, as a community, are going to tackle the Grand Challenges…. find solutions to the Grand Challenges of our time… and I love it… because it’s aspirational for one thing. I really do want to believe that our students and our faculty can tackle the Grand Challenges of our time, and I think we can, frankly… but it’s also that notion of “tackling a challenge” is very project oriented. You get your hands dirty. You figure out something, and then you try to come up with solutions because of it… and, so it appealed to me just in terms of having a common problem. But, those Grand Challenges have to be tackled together. I mean, I don’t think there’s any challenge of any size in the complexity of our world today that can be done by a single person just sitting in their garage thinking. I think almost everything we do in the future is going to have to be collaborative and probably cross-disciplinary in some way. So, it just seemed to me a natural segue from Smart Neighbors to getting the whole campus to work on a single… it’s not really a single issue either…. it’s more… we were talking about this, Rebecca, I imagine the topics for Grand Challenges to be very concrete things, because I think, as academics, we tend toward a more abstract way of looking at things…
Rebecca: …which is particularly hard for our students to get their heads around. They need something tangible.
Leigh: Right, I think so too… and to come up with projects… actual projects that are going to take place in the world with local partners… or involving civic engagement or volunteerism… require a certain concreteness. So, at any rate, the Grand Challenges project was just something I began to think. The notion of having multiple disciplines work on the same thing… it’s just a short step to getting the entire campus to work as much as much together as possible on the same topic… One of the things I didn’t say about Smart Neighbors is that Oswego is already a very collaborative culture… and that we’re very far along in terms of faculty tipping into these kinds of projects very easily…. and I’ve found just talking across campus, the way for instance when I spoke to Faculty Assembly, and the reception there was so astonishing. People aren’t resisting it out of hand. It’s just such a pleasure to work with people who are willing to take on these new things without immediate misgiving. At any rate, as you know, the topic that we’ve that we’re working with this year is fresh water which is concrete, but also can involve a lot of sustainability.
John: …but fluid, too.
Leigh: Very funny, John…
But, one of the things that I like about that particular topic is that you can look out any window on campus and fresh water is exactly what you’re looking at… and that it should matter to us makes sense to me. But, to go back to the teaching culture here, I have found when I talk about this to any group of faculty, immediately ideas are popping. They’re thinking about it. They’re talking about it. They clearly already thought about it. The Grand Challenge doesn’t really even begin until the fall of this year… and I’ve got a list …I brought with me a whole list of like couple of dozen projects that people are already doing right now…. this semester…
John: In preparation?
Leigh: Just because they can. Not only in preparation, just… let’s begin… Why wait till the fall? I’ve spent the last week finalizing touches to a micro grant the Provost office has, thank goodness, very gallantly is going to put some money in a pot to give some grants to people to do these collaborative works. Well, let’s just put it this way… even if you’re just doing an assignment in your class, you can put in for one of these grants. But, I think we’re going to privilege, probably, the collaborative civic engagement projects… or they’ll get the higher money amounts, just because there are more people involved. The administration on campus has just been so supportive. The provost office is doing the micro grants. The Student Affairs has, I can’t talk about it because the contracts haven’t been signed, but they’ve got people who are well-known coming to speak on campus.
John: So, there’s going to be some other programming throughout the college.
Leigh: That’s right. Artswego has a special category for its grants this year that are going to privilege some Grand Challenge proposals.
Rebecca: What I like about that concept is that the learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom on a college campus. It’s happening from multiple perspectives and it’s happening in and out. It’s happening formally and informally.
Leigh: That’s right.
Rebecca: That’s nice that there’s a lot of systems in place to help support that and that idea because, if students are experiencing the topic of water, in a lot of different disciplines on and outside of class right then they’re gonna start seeing how all these things connect together…
Leigh: That’s right.
Rebecca: …and we have general education as a part of our curriculum, as many colleges do, and the students tend to not have any idea how that is relevant or important or what that does for them. and I think this might be a really great way for them to start seeing that all these things are actually connected and it’s important to know different points of view and the different disciplinary perspectives on things… so that there is that idea that we can’t tackle these really big problems…
Leigh: …by ourselves.
Rebecca: …without looking from multiple perspectives.
John: …and faculty are often in their own silos and students see the classes as separate islands that are not connected in any way… and showing that we can look at the same issues broadly from a number of different perspectives might help them form better connections and deepen their learning.
Rebecca: …and even continue to update the curriculum to reflect this change in practice. It’s a move away from silos to things being a little more messy, and so how do you allow for your curriculum to embrace that messiness.
Leigh: I think you’re exactly right, Rebecca. …and I, for one, think the future (it might not be in our generation) but the future really will be a future that doesn’t necessarily have departments… doesn’t necessarily have disciplines separated in this way…. that in fact encourages cross-disciplinary activity. I think the School of Communications, Media and the Arts [SCMA] is already sort of moving toward that. They’re a very collaborative school and work very well… that just in my experience doing these projects, they work very well across campus with any discipline.
Rebecca: Go SCMA.
Leigh: I am on the board. It’s because of that that I asked to be on their advisory board, frankly.
Leigh: But, yeah. I think the beauty of the grant, of Grand Challenges, is that we’re already a collaborative school and this just puts the name on it. It puts a focus for that and it’s something I think we really ought to be celebrating here. …and to get back to the administration being supportive, the President from the beginning has been behind this and I think that, really more than anything, has been one reason for this to be a successful rollout.
Rebecca: Are there plans to research or study the outcomes of the initiative to measure what impact doing something like this has on our learning community and/or on the community at large?
Leigh: Well, one of the things that I hope from these micro grants is, because they have to give the proposal at the project proposal… and give what they hope the outcomes will be… and then when they do their final reports, what they think the outcomes really were. I’m hoping that that will be the first step toward being able to assess some of the things going on. It’s more difficult in the general population, One of the things I’m reluctant to do is add a layer that makes people hesitant to get their feet wet with these pedagogies. But, I think, just once this gets going… I think it will become easier and easier to get people to assess for what the outcomes are. To be honest, I think it’s so night and day what the students get out of these best practices that the faculty will want to start assessing and seeing what these outcomes are and what it means in their classroom.
John: In an earlier discussion, you mentioned that your work with the Digital Oz project grew out of your work with the Smart Neighbors project. Could you tell us a little bit about the Digital Oz project and how it relates to your work with Smart Neighbors.
Leigh: Digital Oz is a presentation… online presentation site… for SUNY Oswego students’ digital work.One of the things that occurred to me after doing Smart Neighbors is that these collaborative efforts on campus are here and gone tomorrow …because there’s no place to archive or curate the materials that the students produce… and so Digital Oz has become a space where the collaborative work can actually be presented. The students are doing such amazing work. It’s great that Digital Oz exists so that the students can have some sort of public presentation.
John: Could you describe Digital Oz a little bit for listeners who may not be familiar with it?
Leigh: One of the things that I’ve always liked about Oswego students is that they have authenticity that is almost indescribable… but once you see them tell a story, you feel it instantly… and so I think because our students all have these stories it’d be nice if we had a site that had them tell them. So, we created Digital Oz and it has different categories. One category… the students talk about how they ended up being passionate about what they’re passionate about here (whether it’s their discipline or some sort of co-curricular activity that they do) and what’s the story behind that. How do they become passionate about it? …and there’s some amazing stories there. Students who, for instance, work as EMTs on the ambulance service on campus have some unbelievably touching stories about why they care… about being able to go to somebody and help them. But, there’s another category that’s called “moments that change their lives” …the students lives, and they talk about them in very moving ways as well. But one of the categories, as I said is “Collaborate” and students who have worked together on projects put artifacts that they’ve created for those projects online… and those two are… I guess you don’t realize the range and creativity and professionalism of our student work until you start seeing it put together in the same place…. And Digital Oz, since we’re talking about it… I’ll just say it’s… digitaloz.oswego.edu is the website if you want to look at it. But, it’s a place, I think, high school students look at and find feel like they can have a home here.
John: Excellent, and we will share that link in the show notes.
Leigh: Thank you.
Rebecca: So usually we like to end with, “What are you going to do next?” So, you’ve got this big giant project.
John: It’s still under way…
Rebecca: You’ve got this big giant project. What’s down the road a little bit for you?
Leigh: Well, I really do think that the Grand Challenges is as grand as I’ll probably get.
Because I don’t know how I can get grander.
John: The very Grand Challenge.
Rebecca: Super Grand Challenges.
Leigh: I know… it will be like Mario. But, one of the things… I’m talking to the woman who’s in charge of applied learning at SUNY Central, and I’m gonna talk up the Grand Challenges just because I think it really is a harbinger of what the future is going to be, not only in terms of what you do in collaborative ways, or best practices but also in what it’s going to ultimately mean for what the shape of the university is. So, I guess I’m not going to become a traveling advocate across the campuses across SUNY, but I do think I really do think this is where the future is headed for higher ed. I hope so anyway. I do.
Rebecca: Great. Well, thank you so much for sharing what you’ve been working on, Leigh. I think everyone will continue to be inspired.
John:Thank you. It’s a great series of project.
Leigh: Thanks, you guys.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.