From Out-sourcing to Class-sourcing

On February 21, 2018, three velociraptors will walk across the The University of Texas Oscar G. Brockett stage. Yeah, like those made famous by Jurassic Park. The “raptors” are supporting characters in Enron, Lucy Prebble’s play about the rise and fall of the infamous Texas energy company. These monsters will eat money, hunt people, and glow in the dark—just like all good energy company executives.  When they walk on stage for the first time, the audience will gasp in amazement. That’s the plan at least.

When costume designer Caitlyn Graham first presented her design for these human-sized puppets, the professional production staff, myself included, exchanged furtive glances. Our arched eyebrows repeated same message, “How?”

On top of the existing production calendar of four plays, two dance concerts, and three operas, how could we possibly deliver three dinosaurs? As Caitlyn continued to enthusiastically present her design, the project managers in the room were already going through their mental rolodexes: Which professional special effects shops could this be jobbed out to? What about bringing in a guest artist? Don’t they make raptor suits in China?

These would be the safe options—paying for professional expertise to ensure success by contractual agreement. But as these options were discussed, it really started to bother me. The raptors are such an exciting project—why should a professional shop get to add this to their portfolio when we are surrounded by energetic, ambitious students who are hungry for exactly this kind of experience?

Why should we send resources off campus to pay someone else and incur the opportunity cost of turning our back on this opportunity to publicly demonstrate the value of a university fine arts education? Why not teach a raptor building class? So my colleague, Karen Maness and I have proposed to do just that.

This more than a class project, this is a class project that people are depending on. The raptors are production elements essential to the storytelling of a main stage production. It’s a project with teeth—giant dinosaur-sized teeth. Opening night is a hard deadline that is already chasing us and classes haven’t even started yet.

If our class is to meet this deadline, everything about the class structure will have to be radically different. The standard model of a university class is too predictable, too slow and depends too much on the expertise of one expert—the instructor. Our impulse as project managers was to pay for expertise by out-sourcing. We still need that expertise but we don’t need to pay for it. Like most all knowledge in the information age, everything we need is on the internet, for free. The challenge to our students’ success will not be the lack of expertise, it will be asking the right questions to define project goals and then asking a different set of questions to gather exactly right knowledge. Instead of out-sourcing, we’ll be “class-sourcing.”

The term class-sourcing was originally proposed by History Professor Gleb Tsipursky as an pedagogical offshoot of crowd-sourcing involving “students building websites, wikis, blogs, videos, podcasts, and other digital artifacts as part of their class activities.” Our class will be engaged with creating these digital artifacts as well, we’re just adding a few physical artifacts to the list—three giant raptor suits.

Because students will be required to blog about their process, they will each have dozens of links to point potential employers to, UT will have an archive of an innovative teaching experiment that demonstrates the continued relevance of higher education to an increasingly skeptical public, and teachers and students from other institutions will have resources to inspire their own class-sourcing initiatives. So in the end, though out-sourcing is the safer option, class-sourcing will produce value greater than the raptor suits alone and influence that lasts well beyond the final performance of Enron.

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