Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Cluster Courses

In Faculty, Teaching on October 4, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Cluster Courses: Theory and Practice

By Hillary Haldane, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Nita Prasad, Assistant Professor of History

The History-Anthropology cluster course, which links Nita Prasad’s HS 112, The West and the World, with Hillary Haldane’s AN 101, Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, was in many ways a product of students’ imaginations and insights. Numerous students mentioned that our course material seemed to jibe well, so we decided to formalize the interconnection between the two classes. We wanted to provide a structure that would let students explore and uncover the interrelationships and dependencies between these two classes, one that looks at world history, and the other at world cultures.

We are now in our second semester of teaching the cluster course, and we are still fine tuning it, learning from it, and considering how classroom collaborations can benefit students and instructors alike. The cluster course is composed entirely of first semester freshmen (mostly undeclared), and the student rosters for the two courses are identical. While we are able to remain squarely within our respective fields of expertise as instructors, the group discussions, writing assignments, and exams have been designed to encourage students to identify and articulate the common themes and connections between the two classes. We have also coordinated our syllabi in an effort to underscore the ways in which historical and anthropological inquiry can complement each other.

For instance, while students discuss the Atlantic slave trade and its effect on Latin American society in HS 112, they read ethnographies on Brazilian favelas in AN 101; while they learn about the late nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa in HS 112, they discuss contemporary African cultures and communities in AN 101. We have been consistently pleased with how well the students make the connections between colonial histories and the contemporary circumstances of people living in vastly diverse contexts around the globe. The pairing of historical and anthropological approaches allows students to see and understand how the past affects the present.

One way we are encouraging the students to extend the material beyond the classroom is to build in a co-curricular activity that relates to the course material in anthropology and history, as well as to literature, the arts, and the sciences. This year we have been granted the funds to take the students to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. We are designing a “treasure hunt” assignment for them, where they will be expected to explore the museum, examine the exhibits, and detail why and how they see connections with their first-semester classes. We plan to use this activity as a way of documenting how the students are conceptualizing their core requirements in the first year, and interview them in their senior year to discuss any changes in their thinking and experiences over time.

While this may seem to be working perfectly, we’ve also had some hiccups. We’ve noticed that our students have a hard time moving away from a progressive view of history, and sometimes read the stories of contemporary foraging or subsistence societies as remnants of our human past. But because the students quickly become comfortable with each other–as they see each other twice a day, two times a week–we can have critical conversations with them about how these views got into their heads in the first place, and work on challenging them to consider our human existence from a different worldview.

The key to success in the cluster class is our peer fellow, a senior CAS student who has taken classes with both of us, and who works as a mentor with the first year students. Ashley Marshall, our second peer fellow, meets with the students regularly, discussing the material with them, and is a sounding board for the discussion questions they prepare when it is a group’s turn to run the class. Because Ashley is not an instructor, the students are very forthcoming with her about their struggles with class material, and they are more willing to test out ideas with her before bringing them to class. Ashley also gets an earful of the frustrations and mysteries of making the transition from high school to college, and because she serves as an example of how this can be done successfully, the students take inspiration from her.

Thus the cluster accomplishes many of the living and learning goals we see as integral to the mission of the College of Arts and Sciences—making connections between disciplines and material, learning how participate in, and enjoy, intellectual engagement, debating and discussing contentious or new ideas respectfully, and learning from each other. The students make fast friends in the class, and we’ve heard from our past cohort of students that they have carried many of the skills they honed in the cluster class into their sophomore year classes.

[Editor’s Note–coming soon look for a student perspective on cluster courses]

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