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 hard-working, 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. “We really see the students as having their own inner resources and wisdom,” says Faller. “We’re there as guides and facilitators to support them.”

Daleng based the requirements on proposals she had to write as a teaching assistant in graduate school: course description, course objectives, what the students would be doing and why the course would be useful.

She knew her first two independent study participants would be able to teach students because they had taught a company class in the past. She helped them refine their proposal and then took it to the department chair, who agreed that the students could teach a beginning class. “That’s how we got the ball rolling,” she says. Since then, 10 students, most focusing on teaching classes in tap, ballet or jazz to other UR students, have been approved for such self-created instruction—first by Daleng and then by the nine-member department.

Both Daleng and Faller emphasize that independent study is not for everyone. “We do it on a very selective basis,” says Daleng. Vail says that at Bowdoin, only two or three students are involved in independent study at any given time.

• Get the word out. Those dedicated students for whom independent study could be an option need to know it’s available. Make sure independent study is listed in the course catalog and post notices on department bulletin boards to make students aware of this opportunity.

Encourage students who develop a specific interest during class to pursue it with an expanded project. “My primary goal is to help you go where you want to go,” Vail tells students. “Projects are dialogues and require your initiative, motivation and work, as well as whatever guidance, structure and response I can give.”

• Establish community contacts and enlist would-be mentors. Independent study often requires outside help, whether it takes the form of expertise for a research paper or lessons in a genre not available on campus. To recruit potential mentors, network with colleagues at conferences, dance professionals in nearby communities or, for interdisciplinary projects, reach out to professors in other departments. Establishing these relationships early on sets the stage for enthusiastic faculty participation.

Bowdoin artist-in-residence Fritz Grobe, of Celebration Mime Theater, recently worked on a student’s independent study project that focused on Grobe’s areas of expertise, mime and juggling. The student performed a piece based on flamenco dance and music while juggling a top on a string. “He had to choreograph the dance integrating the object so that it wasn’t as if he were doing tricks, but that made movement and aesthetic sense,” says Vail. “A very difficult challenge, and one he brought off beautifully.”

Students at PC often work with outside mentors and experts, too. One student went to San Diego for a quarter to study capoeira. Faller and Delisa Myles, who co-founded the PC dance program 11 years ago, are always on the lookout for possible partners, mentors or experts who may come to campus or host students at their facilities. Because PC doesn’t offer classical dance (its specialty is alternative dance forms, such as dance as a healing art), an independent study project can include ballet or jazz, with students often going next door to Prescott’s Academy of Performing Arts, a private studio. Daleng was also able to send a student to study advanced ballet at Richmond Ballet through the contacts she retained from when she was a principal dancer there.

• Create a rigorous evaluation system. Independent study can take a variety of forms—performance, research, interdisciplinary study or teaching. Therefore, instructors need to be flexible but consistent in evaluations. Even if students are working with outside instructors, the department teacher is responsible for a final grade or evaluation that reflects the university’s standards, not necessarily the mentor’s. You may choose to observe students full-time, such as Daleng, who oversees students teaching other students at UR; you may use also journals or performances to judge whether students meet their objectives.

“It’s different [from regular classwork] to think as the creator and to make decisions that make the whole piece better,” says Bowdoin senior Tara Kohn, who, with English major Emily Hricko, produced a 45-minute suite of five dances called just watch, which addresses the concept of the self by examining issues of gender, body image and conformity. Besides choreographing and directing the work, Hricko and Kohn auditioned 10 dancers, set up rehearsal schedules and oversaw set and costume design. Hricko used her writing skills to create two monologues for the project. Together they met with Vail weekly, kept journals of their progress, wrote a reflection piece and documented the work on video.

Through independent study programs you can allow students to experience what it’s like to be a dance professional and realize a project by drawing on the resources of the greater dance community. “You create your own study and work with a professor from the department you really enjoy. You have more control over what’s happening,” Kohn says. “It takes over your life, but that’s what we wanted.”

Diane Curtis is a freelance writer in Mill Valley, CA. She won numerous journalism awards as an education and editorial writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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