Radical Learning through the Certificate in Writing, Communication, and Design

Our proposed Certificate in Writing, Communication, and Design is the first attempt to coalesce a design community at Georgetown, and recognizes at least three important undercurrents in higher education that are radically shifting:

1. alternative forms of scholarship
2. learning outside the classroom
3. new learning environments

First, by putting Writing, Communication, and Design together we are acknowledging that they all share common underlying processes and purposes. To say it succinctly, they are all about the creation of intentioned artifacts that embody arguments. Traditionally, we would look at the kinds of methods and evidence used in the humanities and the sciences and see their obvious differences. Our certificate, I believe, focuses on the similarities. Culturing bacteria in a petri dish to provide evidence of a scientific theory is a rhetorical-material practice in the same way that putting images together in a film might be, or marks on paper, or electrons in a machine. These intentioned artifacts all embody argumentation and points of view which have often remained tacit. Our certificate acknowledges our dedication to teaching the common underlying thought processes and work practices involved in these activities as a fundamental part of a liberal arts education, abstracted out from any particular domain or discipline. More simply, learning how to DO things, or material competency is an essential and missing part of a general education.

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The second idea, which naturally follows from the first, is that these skills are best learned on a project-by-project basis outside of the assigned work and topical matter of the classroom, and therefore removed from many of the expectations that come along with it. The Future(s) defines this certificate as a way to “de-couple” instruction and seat-time, meaning that learning is based on how competent and proficient a student is at doing something rather than how much time they “officially” spend doing it. This acknowledges that everyone learns at a different pace and allows for student engagement in a project at time-scales that would not make any sense in a semester-based system. A student may master a proficiency in a month, another over a year or longer. It doesn’t really matter, it’s the mastery that counts. One side-effect of this is that it allows for more authentic projects that need time to develop in stages. Projects that need time to mature through mentorship, collaboration, feedback and failure. The ability to work on projects like this ingrains the work-style and habits-of-mind associated with “Active Learning” and are much closer to what is expected of students when they enter the real world.

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I know this is my own particular tick, but I take the ideas of “seat-time” and “active learning” very literally. Our certificate encourages active forms of production, best done when one is moving about and physically engaged with material things in the external world and not abstractions. This is something that engineers and designers, and frankly most branches of science take for granted, but has somehow gotten stripped out of the humanities as a skillset even though the production of texts is a material practice itself. Students need to do field work, they need to tinker, they need to get out of their seats and do things. I secretly believe that this is the hidden reason students report that their most engaging educational experiences happen outside the classroom. The “studio” requirement in our certificate solves this problem. Studio is not a time or place to sit and absorb what is going on around you—it is a time to get up and create the things that are going on around you. It is a place where students bring the outside world and their interests with them, as content. It is a time when students can direct their own learning. All our certificate does, in my opinion, is acknowledge that this is learning after all, and that students deserve credit for doing it. That’s not such a radical idea.

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