Declaration of Independence

By Curtis, Diane | Dance Teacher, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Declaration of Independence


Curtis, Diane, Dance Teacher


How to start an independent study program in dance

Seventeen years ago, Myra Daleng had been teaching at the University of Richmond in Virginia for three years when two students expressed an interest in learning something that wasn't in the course catalog: how to teach other dancers. "They were really interested in pedagogy," recalls Daleng, who is now director of dance at UR. "They wanted to know if there was something we could do for them." There must be, Daleng thought, and UR's independent study program in dance was born.

Daleng is not alone in her determination to make higher education dance curricula more flexible to fit the needs and interests of individual students. If you want to start an independent study program to better serve your students, read on to learn about the benefits and how to make this experience available to students.

An independent study program can provide a host of advantages: It can supplement the curriculum; lay the groundwork for graduate studies; provide an avenue to explore personal and interdisciplinary interests; help students become independent, self-motivated and organized; and create positive bonds between the college and outside community.

June Vail, professor of dance at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, says that for students, the process of creating an independent study course is as important as the end product. Students gain self-discipline while laying out a project in a limited time. "I think that for people who want to take the initiative, [independent study] gives them a perfect forum to work on something for a whole semester," she says.

College dance instructors say independent study benefits them as well as the students by offering a new perspective on coursework, forcing them to reevaluate the curriculum and creating opportunities to bring them closer to professional dancers and others outside academia. Take the following steps to launch your own program.

* Gauge interest. Meet with faculty to find out if others have been approached by students for classes not currently available. You may decide, collectively, that the needs of a particular student or students are not being met. Independent study might fill these gaps without the hassle of creating new courses. Even if you've had inquiries from only a few students, putting together a plan for this type of program will prepare you for future queries.

* Get approval from your department head. All it takes is the need of one student to convince decision makers that a little creativity and initiative could make the department more appealing to hardworking, enterprising students. For written evidence of interest, ask prospective participants to outline their independent study goals, showing that their plans are feasible and academically beneficial.

* Set admission criteria. Some colleges restrict participation only to majors in their junior or senior years, while other dance departments also allow projects for dance minors at all points in their college careers. At this point, you will need to decide how to allot credits for projects. Most colleges do not state a specific value, but instead provide a range of credits for projects of various levels of difficulty. Finally, you will need to determine how independent study will fit into your course catalog. Will it be listed as an elective or can it be substituted for required courses?

* Work with students to refine projects. Liz Faller, dance instructor at Prescott College in Arizona, an experiential and self-directed learning school, doesn't have to start this process from scratch: For each course at PC, students sign "learning contracts," which require students to describe the course, the background they have that prepares them, the goals they want to attain, the activities they will perform to achieve those goals, the knowledge and skills they hope to acquire, the kind of evaluation they prefer and the readings that will accompany the project. …

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