York University’s “Doing Culture” Course
York University’s Department of Humanities recently revamped an upper level course entitled Doing Culture: Narratives of Cultural Production to combine classroom work and a community-based research project. The revamp was funded by York’s Academic Innovation Fund, which has invested over $9 million since 2010 to support the development or update of courses in the areas of e-learning and experiential education. The course is offered through York’s Culture and Expression program.
A two-semester course, the first semester takes place in the classroom and online. Students learn about key cultural theories, narrative-based research techniques, research design, project management, professional and oral communication, and techniques of visual presentation. Students also receive instruction from career services staff on topics such as finding a job in their field and resumé writing. The first semester culminates in the development of a research project proposal, which is submitted to the university ethics board for approval.
In the second semester, students are put into groups of four and paired with an arts and culture organization (e.g., museum, art gallery, theatre company) in the Toronto area. Partner organizations are selected based on students’ interests, schedules, and availability. Students conduct a research project that fulfills the needs of their partner organization. At the end of the course, students present their research projects to their classmates and project partners.
After completing their projects, students see culture as something people do for a career, rather than just a theoretical framework or approach. Course coordinator Dr. Carolyn Steele notes that many students are interested in careers in the cultural sector, but are discouraged from pursuing a career in this sector due to perceptions of limited career opportunities or because career paths are not obvious.
After completing the course, however, students are more aware of the pragmatic challenges of running a business or having a career in the cultural sector—for example, marketing shows and products to the public or determining the audience for an event or product. Student research projects address topics that not-for-profits are often unable to examine in depth due to limited resources. Project findings are used by partner organizations for research grants, marketing, and planning.
Students report feeling more engaged with their community at the end of the course. As part of their work with partner organizations, students gain professional experience. For example, they learn how to send a professional e-mail and must think about how to dress professionally. They also begin developing a professional network. The format of the final project—a report rather than the essay typical of SS H courses—gives students experience in writing in a different format and for a different audience. Finally, because projects are conducted in groups, students gain valuable teamwork skills, which are not often emphasized in SS H courses.
In disciplines such as health or social work, courses with a community service learning component typically rely on one partner organization(e.g., a hospital). However, the nature of the arts and culture sector, where organizations are smaller and courses will likely need multiple partner organizations, can create more work for faculty to deliver this type of course. York has a coordinator responsible for organizations interested in taking part in experiential education, which eases the workload of offering experiential courses for faculty members and ensures multiple people are not repeatedly contacting potential partner organizations. Another challenge is that, at times, students have been disappointed because partner organizations are not interested or are unable to work with them within a specific time frame. In particular, larger organizations in the arts and culture sector tend to be more bureaucratic, making them more difficult to partner with, especially within short time frames.
Edge, Jessica, Elizabeth Martin and Matthew McKean. Getting to Work: Career Skills Development for Social Sciences and Humanities Graduates. The Conference Board of Canada, February 22, 2018, pp 59-60.