Performing Diasporas: Identities in Motion

Several units at Baruch College, including the Schwartz Institute, are planning an initiative for the next two academic years: Performing Diasporas: Identities in Motion. The broad goal of the project is to raise the profile of the Baruch Performing Arts Center while more deeply integrating the performing arts into the curriculum and the life of the College. We are finalists for a Creative Campus Grant, a competition funded by the Doris Duke Foundation, and organized by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The project will proceed even if we don’t get the grant (winners will be announced in August), although the programming will be more robust with the additional resources.

Performing Diasporas is centered around artists-in-residence — in 2010-2011, Maya Lilly; in 2011-2012, Randy Weston; and, both years, Mahayana Landowne — each of whom’s work engages questions of group and individual identity formation. These artists will perform throughout their residencies, and also lead and participate in workshops. Much of the programming, however, will be directed at incoming students. The first year experience for the next two years will revolve in large part around exploration of the project theme: the Freshman Text will be about diasporic identity, the artists-in-residence will perform at August’s Convocation, and significant components of Freshman Seminar and the curricula of selected Learning Communities will be devoted to the theme.

As part of the Steering Committee planning this project, I’m especially excited by a few particulars. Too often the administrative labor of higher education falls into silos whose work is narrowly focused and lacks programmatic coordination with other initiatives at the College. This project is structured to counter that impulse by drawing several partners into a collaborative effort to inject consideration of both the arts and the themes of identity and diaspora into the curriculum. Obviously, this will most directly impact our first year students. But it’s also good for everyone at the College for the various moving administrative parts to find synergies. The project will raise the profile of BPAC, inject the first year experience with a variety of new ideas, and dovetails nicely with Dean Jeff Peck’s Global Studies Initiative.

The project also will also help lead Blogs@Baruch into its next phase. Last Fall, we began supporting Freshman Seminar. 1200 first year students wrote more than 6500 blog posts to 60 weblogs, all of which were aggregated ultimately into a single space. FRO Blogging was a success, if solely because we were able to pull it off with little time to plan. Feedback from last Fall’s students and the Peer Mentors who led the seminars suggested the desire for more creative leeway and fewer required blog posts (students were expected to author at least six reflections on enrichment workshops they attended over the course of the term). The feedback also showed appreciation for the social component of the project; students used their blogging to get to know each other and to form community, something that’s always a challenge at a commuter campus like Baruch.

We’ve redesigned FRO Blogging to incorporate this feedback and to intersect with the goals of Performing Diasporas. There will be three specific components to FRO Blogging in Fall 2010:

  • Students will be required to write blog posts at the beginning and end of the semester reflecting on their adjustment to college and, in the middle of the semester, will post monologues about their own backgrounds that they develop with their Peer Mentors (who will receive training). Selected monologues will be shaped and then performed by professional actors at an end-of-the-semester event: “Baruch’s Voices.” In Spring 2011, students who are interested in performing their own monologues will workshop them and then perform at a series of Coffee Houses.
  • Each seminar will be asked to develop its blog over the course of the Fall semester. We will push this process along by crafting prompts that are distributed weekly and that encourage students to reflect upon and share their own stories. Peer Mentors will guide the process, with assistance, and students will be nudged, but not required. At the end of the semester, the most fully developed sites will be recognized with an award. This is an experiment in voluntary buy-in, and we realize that student investment of effort will be uneven. Yet, the constraints of a non-credit course make this approach necessary, and the goal is less to have students develop polished public spaces than to get their feet wet thinking critically about how to present artistic and intellectual material on the open web.
  • Finally, I’m excited to note that we’ll be rolling out BuddyPress this Fall, which will add a social networking layer to Blogs@Baruch, and afford students additional opportunities to connect with and get to know one another.

Ultimately, what I like most about this project is that it treats our students as creators and makers of knowledge, not merely as consumers. Baruch students are among the most interesting students in the world, and yet few of them seem to realize this (in fact, that’s one of the things that makes them interesting). Performing Diasporas, because it will draw our students inside productive processes and creates multiple opportunities for them to see and share the art in their own lives, is going to be something special to watch.