HIP Unbound: A Report from Columbia’s Innovative Teaching Summer Institute

  • Learning
Brady Smith, High Intensity Practice (HIP) Thinking Instructor

This June I took a detour on the way to school and stopped off at Columbia University’s Innovative Teaching Summer Institute (ITSI), a yearly symposium hosted by the Graduate School’s Center for Teaching and Learning. I’d been asked to present on the Fifth Term seminar I was co-teaching at Avenues along with Ryan Misler, Face Your Fears: The Psychology of Horror, which featured a video essay and a short horror film as the final projects. But while my mandate was to talk to the audience of Columbia graduate students about how to teach undergraduates using multimedia assignments, I had another goal as well—to demonstrate how I drew on my role as a HIP Thinking teacher in order to help students build the skills necessary to do film analysis and make one-minute horror films. 

Introducing Columbia students to Fifth Term

Introducing Columbia students to Fifth Term

At Avenues, we have a tendency to think of High Intensity Practice as belonging solely to the HIP Thinking program. However, shifting from HIP Thinking to Face Your Fears made it clear to me how essential the methods we’ve developed in the HIP program can be to helping students quickly develop competency in discipline-based skills as well. Most of the presentation was focused on the idea behind Fifth Term and how we helped students with little formal training in film studies or filmmaking to get to the point where they could do sophisticated video analyses and compelling short horror films. I explained the context of the course at Avenues, how we came up with our projects, what steps we had students take to get there and shared some especially strong examples of student work. But the relevance of High Intensity practice is a theme to which I returned again and again. When asked how we helped students develop basic skills in film analysis and filmmaking, the answer was, in essence, a version of HIP Thinking.

Stills from student video essays

Stills from student video essays

Every time we watched a film, for instance, we started by choosing a few key shots and had students analyze composition for a set amount of time. We repeated the same kind of exercise for scenes, asking students to consider how a director organizes shots in time. And when it came to thinking more globally about how themes work themselves out in and between different films, our process was much the same—a series of questions, always of the same type, that asked students to consider the meaning of movie monsters, the relationship between films and their context, and between the film under consideration and the other movies we watched as part of the course. What students were repeating again and again were, in essence, what we in HIP have come to call “cognitive moves”—the fundamental thought processes that underlay the different kinds of work that students do in our classes. We asked students to develop their filmmaking skills in similar ways. Rather than assigning the video essay and horror film all at once, we gave them a series of shorter filmmaking challenges that helped them build their abilities and work in the genre we wanted them to produce. They had to shoot and edit a 30-second film, for instance, to gain facility at the basics of making movies with our technology, and then shoot and re-shoot 10-minute horror films in order to learn the basics of the genre. Once they gained basic competency in the skills each assignment involved, they were ready to make their final projects on their own.

In the end, the key takeaway from my presentation was the importance of teaching with multimedia assignments in the humanities classroom. Like many people in the audience, when I was a lecturer in English at the college level, I tended to revere the critical essay in (ironically) an uncritical way—to write five pages on Homer’s Odyssey or The Epic of Gilgamesh was to demonstrate the essence of scholarly rigor. One of the things I learned in teaching Face Your Fears was the extent to which creative, collaborative and multidisciplinary projects can fulfill the same pedagogical goals while engaging a much broader set of learners in much more varied ways. But what I also emphasized to my audience of soon-to-be teachers was the importance, when it comes to project-based learning, of using High Intensity Practice to help students develop the skills they need to reach a course’s goals. Completing a complex project requires a wide range of skills that students may not all possess to the same degree. Doing so while maintaining a high level of student engagement also demands that we as teachers not impose a roadmap or run things in an overly linear way. Instead of setting up projects as a series of steps, High Intensity Practice lets teachers build in practice at the different skills students need while letting them decide when and how best to apply them. HIP Thinking, in other words, need not, and should not, exist in its own disciplinary silo. While we in the HIP program do HIP Thinking in order to help students develop the abstract intellectual skills that underlay their discipline-specific work, HIP methods can also be brought into different classrooms in order to help make project-based learning more successful for every student in the room.

  • HIP Thinking