By George Tatoris
Sitting on a train to New York City, John Kuiphoff, chair of the Interactive Multimedia (IMM) department, overheard a woman having a conversation about social media over the phone. What drew Kuiphoff’s ear was not the subject matter of the conversation, but the impassioned tone with which the woman spoke.
Before disembarking the train, Kuiphoff turned around, introduced himself and asked her if she would like to teach an IMM mini course at the College, handing her a slip of torn paper with his email on it. He didn’t have any business cards on him.
IMM mini courses are an invention of Kuiphoff’s that are going on their third semester. The courses cover specialized topics barely sufficient in content for a semester-long course, but still difficult to learn on one’s own. Each course meets only four times each semester, counts for .25 units and are pass/fail. Any student enrolled at the College can take a mini course. Classes have included digital fabrication, welding, advanced CSS and woodworking (which was taught by Kuiphoff himself).
“We don’t assign a mini course, we just find motivated people,” Kuiphoff said. “It’s about the people, not really about the topics.”
Kuiphoff and the IMM department are always on the hunt for that unbridled passion that indicates a potential mini course professor. When someone piques their interest, they ask if they’d like to teach a mini course, and those interested send in a topic and description of the course they want to teach. If at least six students are interested, the course runs.
The city-bound stranger Kuiphoff overheard turned out to be a social media coordinator at a major news network. She is currently in talks to head a mini course next semester, but her story is an anomaly among mini course professors. Usually, the hunt for professors is limited to alumnis, local business leaders and, occasionally, College professors looking to teach their secret passion. IMM adjunct professor Josh Fishburn, for example, taught a course on GitHub, a web-based repository hosting service.
Sometimes, mini course professors surprise the IMM department by choosing an unexpected topic. Kuiphoff, whose specialty is web design, taught a woodworking course, and alumna Liz Wolfe, an artist, opted to teach a class on game theory.
Given the experimental nature of mini courses, there are bound to be some failures, Kuiphoff said. Certain courses might need extra sessions to be fleshed out properly. Since no degree is required to teach a mini course, professors might not be able to effectively teach their chosen topic. Passion does not always lead to good teaching.
Most of the time, however, the mini courses go well. Digital fabrication was so popular among IMM students that it was turned into a full course.
Professor Donna Shaw, chair of the Journalism and Professional Writing (JPW) department, appreciates the ability to test out new courses.
“I like the idea that we can experiment with the mini courses to see what works, to see what grabs the students,” Shaw said.
Shaw invited JPW students to try two mini courses for the Fall 2016 semester that she felt fit the JPW curriculum — Storytelling for Business and Introduction to Advertising Copywriting. These courses, she said, help fill holes in the oft-neglected professional writing half of the JPW major.
“The skills that are required, when you think about it, are quite similar,” Shaw said. “It requires being able to write something that’s short, succinct, punchy.”
JPW isn’t the only department looking into mini courses. Kuiphoff has been talking to the business and art departments about implementing them, and the communications department is fiddling with the idea, as well.
“If I had an ultimate goal, I’d like to see every major and every school here inside the College offer (mini courses) because they add so much life,” Kuiphoff said.
Mini courses were envisioned as a way for students to further their education in topics they otherwise may not have tried — topics such as Storytelling for Business and Introduction to Advertising Copywriting. Often times, students take away more from four sessions than a full semester course.
Kuiphoff recounted how one senior — who had a high-paying job lined up for him in his major’s field — took the welding mini course and fell in love with it to the point where he wanted to turn it into his career. This, to Kuiphoff, was a success story: a student had found his passion through a mini course.
The School of the Arts & Communication was supportive of the idea — even still, it took a long time and careful planning to implement. The concept questions the norm of having to “slog through” a 14-week semester to receive credit, according to Kuiphoff.
“What if I’m, like, halfway through (a full course) and I don’t like (it) anymore?” Kuiphoff said, echoing the worries of many students. “So, at least (mini courses) allow students to kick the tires and try something new.”
To implement the mini courses, the Office of Records and Registrations had to break many established norms of higher education that didn’t agree with Kuiphoff’s education philosophy. A typical college course has a 10-student minimum, but Kuiphoff believes the optimal number of students in a classroom is between six and eight, so mini courses only need six students. He also insisted on four week courses instead of the usual 14, and he was set on a pass/fail system.
“Pass/fail was imperative,” Kuiphoff said. “I don’t like grades. It doesn’t work in my world.”
Kuiphoff is also toying with the idea of having mini courses taught off-campus. Why not have an art history course at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City?
The idea even went as far as allowing alumni to return and take mini courses, should they choose. Kuiphoff introduced the idea as a way for alumni to continue networking and learning even after graduation. He called it “routine maintenance.” It’s like taking your car back to the shop every few years.
Mini courses aren’t open to alumni just yet, but Kuiphoff hopes to welcome back former students soon. After all, alumni are the foundation upon which mini courses are built and are a largely untapped resource for current students.
Both Shaw and Kuiphoff believe alumni can identify more with students than other professors can.
“(Alumni) can look at the students and say, ‘I was sitting right there in that chair just like you are now and here’s what I learned since then,’” Shaw said.
A college can’t teach its students everything. Alumni can learn a lot from just a few years of living in the real world, which was exemplified when Kuiphoff opened up his laptop. On the screen was a long list of skills from the LinkedIn accounts of IMM alumni — some learned in a classroom and others learned elsewhere.
“Any of these can be a mini course,” Kuiphoff said.