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Teaching as Collaboration

By Carole J. Fuller

Besides bringing daffodils and budding trees, springtime at Smith also brings Collaborations (www.smith.edu/collaborations), a one-day event that demonstrates the quality and excitement of teaching and learning at Smith.

Each year Smith faculty and students work together on a variety of research projects in the humanities, social sciences, performing arts, natural sciences and engineering. On a single day, they present their work on an array of topics -- from comparisons of ancient Athens and small New England towns to the prospects of Indian women politicians -- to the community in an all-day series of scientific posters, presentations, artwork and performances. This year’s Collaborations day, held on Saturday, April 16, coincided with Discovery Weekend for prospective students.

The opportunity to conduct research with a faculty member is a special part of a Smith education. Smith students can pursue an aspect of their major with a breadth and depth that is unusual for undergraduate programs. Ultimately, student work may be published in a peer-reviewed journal, presented at a national conference or used to boster applications for graduate schools and fellowships.

“More independent research is definitely the way teaching is going today,” says Roisin O’Sullivan, assistant professor of economics. “More is expected of students these days, and giving them the chance to initiate a project rather than be a passive receptacle for information is absolutely crucial preparation for the world after college.”

“Faculty at research universities often experience a devaluation of their teaching, and that is not something we encounter at Smith,” notes Patricia DiBartolo ’89, associate professor of psychology. “The balance between research and teaching benefits both the students and faculty, keeping the work fresh and dynamic for both.”
The research projects are not scaled down for student learners. Indeed, faculty report that their students often gain sufficient expertise to converse as peers, and Smith students who present at conferences are frequently mistaken for graduate students.

In addition to the competitive advantage the research experience provides, undergraduates gain an intensive, real-time view of the demands that their prospective careers may make on them -- and, now and then, experience the thrill of real discovery.

“One of the joys of working with undergraduates is that they are not as constrained by dominant ideas in their field,” notes Andrew Rotman, assistant professor of religion and biblical literature. “They think broadly and ask new questions, which makes teaching them interesting and exciting. By the same token, as a mentor and collaborator, I have the opportunity to teach them discipline in research, to challenge their thinking and push them toward a deeper understanding. That’s one of the best rewards that teaching can offer.”

 
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