Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Cluster Class Redux

In Faculty, Teaching on January 28, 2014 at 4:01 pm


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

We have run the cluster course, History 112 – The West in the World / Anthropology 101 – Local Cultures, Global Issues, for four years. Our first clusterers (C1) are seniors, and we’ve just submitted the grades for the most recent batch (C4). We would like to share a few reflections from our time teaching the cluster, and clarify what we think the value of these sorts of classes have for a college moving towards a learning paradigm.

First it is necessary to dispel the myth as to what a cluster can, and cannot, accomplish. Clusters are not a magic formula for transforming incoming freshmen into contemplative students in 14 weeks. When we started this project, we naively believed that somehow the cluster would transform the students into mini-philosophers. We envisioned more nuanced answers on midterms and finals, and students making novel connections between history and anthropology. This isn’t what happened. Students did make connections, but they weren’t as awe-inspiring or as interesting as we had hoped. The C1 grades for the midterms and finals weren’t appreciably better than in our non-cluster HS 112 and AN 101 classes. The students were not “smarter” by the end of the semester. After our first time out, we were a tad disappointed by what we saw as mediocre gains in academic output. But over the course of teaching C2-C4, what we’ve come to realize is the cluster can only be modestly measured for academic success at the end of the semester. Where the real transformation has occurred is immediately in the social context of the course, and over the next three years of the clusterers’ education.

The social dynamic has become the most immediate success of the cluster. Within the first couple of weeks of the semester the students are so comfortable with each other they are giving each other nicknames, openly challenging each other, and speaking up to offer support to a classmate when he or she offers a suggestion to the professor. Many of them have become friends, and even study buddies. They tweet to each other things from class; they Instagram moments from discussions. The History Department and the Anthropology Program have not designed learning outcomes to evaluate the social aspect of the course, so we cannot make any claims that the social dynamics of the cluster are what lead to later academic success. But for us the level of comfort the students have with each other allows us to discuss and at least broach subjects that may be difficult to engage in less comfortable contexts. What this suggests to us is that comfort does not mean shying away from difficult and ugly topics; it instead indicates something important about the particular culture of our students. They have a tendency to avoid conflict, a habitus of politesse, that works against our ability to delve into the “what do you really think?” level of engagement. The comfort of knowing your interlocutors, with whom you can respectfully disagree and also openly challenge, has turned our classrooms into a place where we are constantly surprised by what they teach us. And students have told us that they are more comfortable speaking up in classes beyond the cluster, since they had a positive experience “testing their voice” so to speak, in the first semester of their college career.

In reflection, the value of the cluster may really be one of those areas that is “hard to measure” in some standardized way, or at least in the limited fashion we assess the outputs of higher education. We are currently considering ways to evaluate the success of our particular cluster, and we look forward to engaging our C1 in a discussion concerning how the experience in the cluster impacted the rest of the college experience. We are excited to share what we learn with our colleagues who are also teaching cluster classes, or considering this format for their own disciplines.


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