When Lauren Britt-Elmore led her fellow doctoral candidates as marshal at Commencement, she did so with no regrets. “I first felt [they voted for me] for being here so long…but then I realized I’ve made an impact and it feels great to be acknowledged. Though it does mean I have to wake up early two days in a row,” she jokes, “it will be worth it.”
Britt-Elmore’s journey to a doctorate was also worth it. “I’m leaving feeling proud,” she says. “I have realized how amazing it is that as a Black woman I have a doctorate.”
Before arriving at HGSE, Britt-Elmore was living in New York and working as the director of academic affairs at the New School for Drama. Britt-Elmore, who had a background in theater — particularly dramaturgy, the study of theater and its history — was a great fit for the job, even though she had no formal education experience.
“I was really fascinated that the administrative team at the school was all theater people — few had a background in education or academic management,” she says. “We were doing a lot of flying by the seat of our pants.” She started spending a lot of time in various departments of the university — from the registrar’s office to provost’s office — learning about the basics of higher education, including academic freedom and FERPA. Her desire to learn more about higher education, and work further in the field, brought her to HGSE.
For years, she studied various aspects of higher education with a focus on leadership. Then, in 2013, she took a job working with Professor Robert Kegan and Lecturer Lisa Lahey for HGSE’s first massive open online course (MOOC). Britt-Elmore admits that it began as a way to support her education and use some of her arts background. As a course developer, she was responsible for all video assets of the course — working on scripts, directing the “extras” used in some of the film shoots, and editing footage. What she didn’t realize was that the job would turn her entire world upside down.
“Throughout the process, I kept hearing how MOOCs are going to take over the world. That got me thinking about arts faculty,” Britt-Elmore recalls. “I started to think more and more about the arts. I wondered, what are arts faculty going to do? How can one teach acting online, or a ballet class, or a sculpture class?”
Though she was already writing a dissertation proposal about leadership in fine arts departments, questions about arts and MOOCs lingered in her mind until Britt-Elmore hit the brakes. “I’m sorry, but I have to ask this new question as opposed to the other one,” she remembers thinking. Then she did something that few would have recommended: she stopped working on her original research project and began the new one. Looking back, she says, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I have a dissertation I’m really proud of,” Britt-Elmore says.
Her completed dissertation, “Finding the Balance:” Motivating Factors Behind Arts Faculty’s Choices Regarding Massive Open Online Courses, explores how fine arts faculty come to their decisions as to whether or not to engage with MOOCs. She interviewed 16 faculty members from four colleges and universities across the country, investigating how fine arts faculty are making meaning of their place in this new pedagogical landscape and what their choices might mean for the future of their discipline. The study examines the personal, pedagogical, and political factors that influence their thinking about MOOCs.
What Britt-Elmore discovered is that even though the faculty worked across different disciplines, they all spoke about four “essential elements” required in arts learning and teaching: skill in art making; finding your own voice; creativity; and critical thinking. Additionally, the way faculty executed the teaching of these essentials involved teacher responsiveness and collaboration among fellow students. Many arts faculty struggled to understand how to achieve these essentials through MOOCs. “The basic question is: can we bring these essentials into an online space?” Britt-Elmore says. “And if that’s not possible, can we rethink what is teaching and learning in the arts?”
Elmore plans to continue exploring pedagogical questions facing arts educators, whether they move into online teaching and learning or not. Though Elmore is ready to leave HGSE, she says there are many familiar faces she’ll miss.
“Of course, I will miss the professors who opened my mind and refined my thinking,” she says, naming Professors Judith Block McLaughlin, Bridget Terry Long, Julie Reuben, and Monica Higgins; Senior Lecturers Steve Seidel and Karen Mapp; and Associate Professor Karen Brennan among them.
”There are also a lot of people in my heart who didn’t teach me in a classroom,” Elmore adds. “Valeria Harris in financial aid — I would sit in her office and talk about what it means to be a student who has rent to pay.. Lisa Fischer in operations who let me squat in a teaching fellow’s office to work on my qualifying paper. Dinesh Thapa, the security guard at Gutman Library, who always welcomed me with, ‘Hi Lauren! So nice to see you.’ Carla Lillvik, the best research librarian in the world. Janet Cascarano and Jason DeWaard in IT whom I could always call on for a favor and who made me laugh. Those are the people in my heart — those who support the school every day and you can see how much they care. Those relationships are what I will take away with me.”