Ithaca College Will Make You Ready
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Computer science and history are not commonly paired in the classroom. But at Ithaca College, professors Ali Erkan and Michael Smith have begun a collaboration that may help improve the way students learn.
The project began because of computer science professor Ali Erkan’s curiosity. He wanted to look at how students use wikis—websites developed collaboratively by a community of users who can add and delete information—so he could research and create a visual map of the way the students make connections between ideas. He asked himself, If students produce things that can be visualized as structures, will that allow us to understand understanding itself?
“I think computer science allows you to develop the tools to work on that question—but then you need a context,” Ali says. “I thought the humanities would be the best context to explore, and I had to find the right person to work with.”
Ali had just the person in mind—a history professor he had met during a bus ride in Ithaca a couple years earlier and had since interacted with on the IC campus. He emailed Michael Smith to share his idea.
“The fact that Ithaca, both as an institution and a community, is small enough that you can have these kinds of interpersonal connections that can then become more formal collaborations is something I really value,” Michael says. “In some ways I’m an odd choice because I’m a little bit of a digital skeptic, but when Ali approached me with this idea of using wikis as a way of representing knowledge—that you could kind of lift up the hood and see some structures in there—I was intrigued.”
Ali and Michael have been working with students in both their fields to further explore the project’s questions. They created a grant proposal and received a digital humanities start-up grant from the National Endowment for Humanities. They hope that by gaining understanding of how thought connections are formed, they can eventually help students improve how they research and learn.
Ithaca College has given them the support they need to make the project a success. “It is a teaching-oriented institution, so we’re encouraged to be innovative and emphasize teaching excellence in all sorts of ways. So this is a way to remain active as scholars and at the same time improve what happens in our classroom,” says Michael.
“There’s no quota for the amount of papers you have to write or the amount of money you have to bring in. Those things are in place at other institutions so that there’s more research productivity, but I think it ends up being a hindrance on the research,” Ali says. “We both feel liberated by not operating under those constraints, so we can simply follow our curiosity, and that becomes our optimum point of operation. Because we are curious, we are productive.”
>> More on this story: Untangling the Web
Brian Diller had questions and knew where to get answers.
“How can I conduct better? How can I listen better? What am I not even hearing yet? What is the next level for me? It’s those kinds of deeper questions that I went back to school for,” he says. “Ithaca was the place to ask those higher-level questions.”
Brian conducted a high school band for three years after he received his undergraduate degree. During that time he developed as a teacher, learned how to delve into problems, and gained insights into conducting and music. But as those questions emerged, he knew it was time to pursue his graduate degree.
And for help finding the answers he was looking for, Brian had one person in mind: Ithaca College professor Steve Peterson. Brian was aware of Steve’s reputation as a conductor and teacher already. His first chance to meet and work with the renowned instructor came during a weeklong summer workshop that Steve hosts at Ithaca College every year. “It really opened my eyes to a lot of new things about music, teaching, conducting, and everything I wanted to be as a musician,” Brian says.
Brian applied for and was accepted into the graduate program two years later, its small size allowed for plenty of class, practice, and consultation time with professors, as well as continuous opportunities to conduct pieces with the various groups in the School of Music. Brian considers the time spent with the ensembles incredibly meaningful, especially the capstone to the program—the master’s recital.
“Steve gave the wind ensemble to us graduate students for three weeks to do a whole program. We did all the rehearsing, all the planning.” In addition, one of IC’s cello professors performed a solo during the program. “It was a great opportunity to collaborate with the faculty and have a soloist with the group,” Brian says.
Shortly after earning his master’s, Brian was named to a one-year position as an associate lecturer of music at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He’s exploring doctoral programs in music as well. And though he’d love to continue teaching at a college level, he says he’d be perfectly happy to return to the high school level—now that he has those deep questions answered and is equipped with the skillset to answer new ones on his own.
“Professors at Ithaca College weren’t teaching us [graduate students] so much as they were guiding us in our own research and giving us the tools to search for our own answers. And it was done in a really meaningful and effective way by the entire faculty,” Brian says.
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