Merging eLearning and dance worthy of accolades

Academia has taken Bridget Cauthery in directions she never expected, eLearning prominent among them.

Bridget Cauthery

A contract faculty member who teaches cultural studies and dance in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD), Cauthery is one of the five recipients of the 2018 President’s University-wide Teaching Award for imaginative and significant contributions to enhancing the quality of learning for students enrolled at York University. Recognized in the Contract and Adjunct Faculty category for her successful forays into eLearning, she was touched and honoured to receive the award.

“I was hugely surprised,” Cauthery said. “It was a bleak year at York, so to get a call like that was amazing. I was nominated by a graduate student and, at the ceremony, I wore a cap and gown handed down by my mentor.

“It has been a real privilege working with emerging scholars with all these ideas and to know that I am making difference.”

A student of dance beginning at age three, Cauthery danced until a knee injury and two surgeries at the age of 26 forced her to reconsider her options. Afterwards, she earned her master’s degree in dance ethnology at York and a PhD in dance studies at the University of Surrey in England, the latter while simultaneously serving as the company and tour manager for Toronto Dance Theatre. She joined the York faculty in 2008, where she teaches non-studio courses such as Introduction to Dance Studies, Dance History, and Dance, Film and Culture.

Employing eLearning methods

“I was asked to develop a blended learning course (a mix of in-person and online instruction) for 2010-11,” Cauthery said. “I knew nothing about eLearning at the time and was very skeptical about it, which, in retrospect, I think was good because I was extra-careful about how and where I used technology. I didn’t just blindly embrace it.”

Dance, Film and Culture is a large-format course with 270 to 300 students. It has become so popular that in 2017-18, it boasted 670 students. The course lectures are filmed and available online, enhanced by live tutorials. Students also watch eight to 10 dance films (e.g. Flashdance, Cabaret) and consider them within cultural and historical contexts to understand what they contribute in the areas of culture, race, gender and power.

Cauthery turns to social media as a teaching tool in her course Dance Studies in the 21st Century. The course aims to get first-year undergraduate dance majors thinking about dance as a topic of research and help them realize that dance is an agent of culture. Students choose a topic related to dance or the body and find related material, such as images, films and scholarly articles, that they can use to create a Pinterest board.

“After reading an article about how a feminist approach to education can change how a dance form is taught, I ask students to look at the ‘pins’ on their Pinterest board and to understand in what ways gender and power are implicated,” said Cauthery. “I want students to become critical consumers of visual culture.”

After seven years of working with blended learning, Cauthery said she sees “tremendous advances, especially in self-directed learning.”

She continued: “It can be daunting, because the students are the ones making things happen and they must put the time in. We want them to spend more time on the material and come to their tutorials prepared.”

Despite the challenges, Cauthery said she finds that the students appreciate the flexibility that technology provides in coursework, especially on a campus like York’s with so many commuter students.

“They may need to revisit the material more than once, and technology allows them to access course material in the way most suited to their lifestyles and needs, 24-7,” she said.

New directions

Cauthery continues to use technology in new ways in curriculum design. She and Professor Susan Cash, Chair of the Department of Dance, are developing a virtual studio course that will consist of online modules featuring a variety of dance forms that reflect multiculturalism in Ontario, from Philippine folk dance to K-pop to Indigenous dance. It’s a course that echoes her own research interests in dance and culture. Students will choose eight of the modules and learn about the larger cultural and historic contexts for these dance forms, as well as choreography in each style that they will film themselves performing on their smart phones. The course will culminate in a virtual flash mob.

“The idea for the course is it will be very flexible, that students can learn dance with qualified instructors anywhere,” Cauthery said. “We are hoping to partner with other universities to share the cost of producing online modules, with the support of the amazing production team in AMPD.”

Looking ahead, Cauthery has a book coming out in 2019 titled Choreographing the North. It shines a spotlight on works by 12 international choreographers that reference the Arctic and explores their patterns of creation and expression.

She is also working to recover what has been called the first “Aboriginal ballet,” In the Land of the Spirits, created in 1988 by John Kim Bell and Jacques Lemay. References to the work are missing from dance archives, although some of the original cast members will be able to share their memories of the work. Cauthery has applied for funding to research the ballet.

“There are no videos of the performances that I have found so far, just newspaper reviews, but knowledge of the work still exists. I just need to find it,” she said.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus