Teaching Outside the Box

SU faculty members find innovative ways to engage students in their subject matter, both in and out of the classroom

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Palermo was struck by this notion while conducting archival research on the Salon outside Paris in the summer of 2007. (World’s fairs and other large-scale exhibitions are part of her academic specialization.) “French women were granted the right to vote in 1944,” she says. “They had worked outside the home during the war and were becoming increasingly educated. They seemed poised to play a more active public role in French society, but the message of the Salon—and the posters—urged them back into the home, where they need not take an interest in the world.

“Ironically, technological progress was leading to the reaffirmation of women’s traditional roles in society. It wasn’t modernizing their condition, just how they did the laundry.”

With this in mind, Palermo worked with Daniel Olivetti, director of the Lore Degenstein Gallery, to open up the university’s collection to her students studying Women in Postwar France. Olivetti was thrilled with the proposal, given his interest in partnering with faculty and students on exhibitions that merge art and scholarship. “It was the ultimate collaboration between faculty and students. How can you get any better than that,” Olivetti says.

The collaboration resulted in a display of about 35 posters, each accompanied by student analysis. The students also developed the exhibition’s organizing concept, chose the posters and color scheme, researched and wrote the exhibition panels in French and English, compiled a visitor’s guide, and placed the posters. In short, they learned how to launch an art exhibition. And they presented oral remarks on opening night.

The project took students out of their comfort zones to teach them about French culture through the lens of art. But this isn’t the first time Palermo has stretched her students in new and exciting ways.

She has brought her personal motto —seek adventure in learning and in life—to her classrooms for years. A prime example is her Advanced Conversation and Phonetics class. When she tackled the class for the first time, she knew that the best way to focus on pronunciation was to give it a purpose. The problem was finding a project that would motivate students to improve pronunciation while developing their discussion and negotiation skills. Her answer: Have them produce a French play. From this revelation sprang a new Susquehanna tradition. The annual play, performed every November, is an original production entirely written, designed, acted and produced by her class. And, yes, it’s all done in French.

It’s an enormous time commitment for the class and for Palermo. So why does she do it? For the same reason she asked students to leave behind the safety net of the known to create an art exhibition from the unknown. “Moving from learning what’s on the page to taking on a project in which you create from something you haven’t learned yet is a huge risk, but at the same time, it’s enormously satisfying,” Palermo says.

 

PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY Tammy Tobin also cooks up some out-of-the-box teaching methods in her class, The Spice of Life. Just as Palermo uses art and theatre in her French classes, Tobin weaves one of the most basic of needs into science instruction.

“The goal of The Spice of Life is to introduce students to the fundamental concepts and techniques of a variety of science disciplines through a somewhat unusual lens—the food they eat,” Tobin says.

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