Summer course combines best of online and experiential learning

As a lecturer in the music department and director of UVM’s Lane Series, Natalie Neuert’s appreciation of live performance has been shaped by hundreds of theater, music and dance productions she has watched, listened to or participated in as an actor or director. In her “Aesthetics of Live Performance” class this summer, she strives to impart some of these hard-won lessons, giving students the tools and language to evaluate performance.

Neuert notes that her students have very honest and visceral emotional reactions to live performance, but no contextual way of talking about it.

“With this three-credit summer class lasting just four weeks, I was looking for a way to inject some kind of multi-genre live performance into the mix,” she said. “I thought the best way to expose them to a whole lot of experiences would be to go to a festival.”

So Neuert rounded up her virtual group and took them to the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Conn. In the process, she created a model combining the best aspects of online and “live” learning.

Billing itself as “an extravaganza of performing arts, lectures, and conversations,” the festival takes over venues in New Haven for two weeks each June. For her summer section of 12 undergraduate honors students, it served as a week-long total immersion experience in live performance.

“I was in paradise, seeing so many different performances in one place,” said theatre major Caitlin Durkin ’19. “There was a lot of participatory theater which kind of pulled us into the art itself—and some really ‘out there’ performances that broke down barriers between genres.”

Students stayed on campus at Yale University, gathering in the Bass Library with Neuert each morning to discuss the previous day of performances. There was a lot to unpack: the pieces were diverse, emotionally provocative and intellectually challenging.

A stage production “(Be)longing” featured locally cast singers and hip-hop artists exploring the tragedy of gun violence and mass shootings. “Whitman, Melville, Dickinson: Passions of Bloom” was an oratorio (a musical composition combining soloists, a chorus and orchestra) with a score that adopted Harold Bloom, famed critic and Yale humanities professor, as the muse for reflections on three American literary giants. “The End of TV” was a mashup of music, live visuals (think old-school overhead projectors) and shadow puppetry on a stage meant reflect the post-industrial Rust Belt.

Other events called for audience participation, demolishing the barriers between creative director, artist and observer. “Never Stand Still” broke up the audience into four teams and posed a group problem-solving exercise that involved advisors from Hong Kong tuning in on ipads, human mahjong pieces and a simulated SARS outbreak.

“You really had to be there,” laughs Durkin, when she tries to describe the complexity of the piece. “It was very much about who you are as a person and what you brought to the performance, which affected how you interacted,” said Durkin.

The UVM group embraced the challenge, drawing the attention of other festival-goers like Colin McEnroe and Jonathan McNicol, co-hosts of The Nose, a Connecticut Public Radio program. After getting to know the UVM group, they put Neuert, Durkin and student Dan Reinstein on the radio.

“Wherever we went, the students jumped right in, asking great questions. They were very open to the experience and that prompted a lot of great discussions in our morning class sessions,” said Neuert.

Those conversations also added juice to the dialogue as the course continued online.

“The fact that we really got to know each other through this very short but intense experience, I think really has added depth to the conversations,” said Durkin.

Post-festival, the class has followed the traditional online syllabus, with readings and discussions leading up the final project due next week. Neuert agrees that the quality of discussion she sees online is fueled by the group’s live experience.

“Coordinating the live and online aspects is a lot more work but ultimately extremely rewarding for both instructor and students,” she said. “I’d encourage faculty to go for it if they can find ways to incorporate some kind of live experience as part of the online classroom.”



Kevin C. Coburn