Disney may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about political science. But for Professor Becca McBride, it has breathed new life in her approach to teaching at Calvin.

McBride, assistant professor of political science, went on a Disney cruise with her family a few years ago, and she was amazed by how the service she received was consistent across the board regardless of the servers’ nationalities, yet each server was able to preserve his or her own culture.

Coming back from the cruise, she began to think about how she could apply Disney’s outside-the-box strategies into her classes, which tend to be about 40 percent international students. She applied for and received funding from the Calvin Teaching and Learning Network and the Calvin Alumni Association to attend three Disney Institute courses. They completely changed her approach to leadership, student training and innovation in the classroom.

“One of the things that they say in the training I did at Disney that has really stuck with me is the fact that a culture emerges in any environment.”

Not to mention that they spurred the development of a Disney interim class McBride leads called “Disney, Culture and Progress.”

A ‘third culture’

A foundational concept McBride learned in her Disney Institute courses was the idea of creating a “third culture” in order to foster better cross-cultural engagement among students.

“One of the things that they say in the training I did at Disney that has really stuck with me is the fact that a culture emerges in any environment,” she said. “What you have to decide is if you’re going to shape the culture that emerges.

“Disney, when they do their training, they say the culture at Disney is not American, it’s not European, it’s not Mexican—it’s not any one culture; it’s a Disney culture. It’s something that you have to actively choose to buy into. So, I got to thinking about how there are a lot of parallels at Calvin between those concepts. You have a Reformed culture—where you can be Reformed and not be Dutch; you can be Reformed and not have grown up CRC; you can be Reformed and come from any different background. What we hope at Calvin is that you will actively buy into this amazing project we are trying to accomplish.”

In order to foster this idea of a third culture, McBride now gets to class early to arrange the desks in a “U” shape. She said this has helped change her teaching style from top-down to more of a discussion-based style.

Opportunity to surprise

She notes another way she has changed her classroom approach: “I also increasingly have started using assignments that are opportunities for students to surprise and excel. So they’re very creative assignments where there is a high potential for it to fall flat, but there’s low stakes for it doing so. So for instance, in several of my classes, I have what I call class modules, which is where a group of students, about 10, plan an entire hour-and-15-minute course on their own, and they’re in charge of the whole class. The only instructions I give them are 1) there’s a question of the day, 2) I ask that the class is engaging and collaborative, and 3) I ask them to just wow us—create your perfect class.

“I have had amazing, crazy classes [since then]—students doing things I would never have thought about doing. And then there are other classes where it doesn’t work so well. The goal for me, though, is to set up an environment where students are excited about trying out something new, and they’re thinking creatively and collaboratively with each other to do that.”

Kevin den Dulk, professor and chair of the political science department, has observed a number of McBride’s classes since she attended the Disney Institute, and he says she brought back a better way to engage with her international students.

“She was really taken by the customer service aspects of Disney,” he said. “I would frame that in terms of a kind of hospitality. How are we as educators hospitable to our students? I think the Disney experience and the Disney Institute courses gave her some insights into what hospitality looks like in a cross-cultural context.”

Student Andrew Oppong ’18, from Ghana, went on the Disney interim trip and has taken several of McBride’s political science classes. He said he can attest to the hospitality and cross-cultural learning in McBride’s new teaching style.

“I liked the way she structured [class],” he said. “Her classes are very diverse and all-involving, and so you have a taste of everywhere. The world is comprised of different people with different backgrounds and perspectives. And she is able to put that into how she structures her class.”

A lens of hope

Oppong said one of the key things he learned in her classes was how to view the world through a lens of hope. “In international relations, you study conflict, you study refugees, terrorism, but at the end of it, though they may seem bleak and they may seem like there’s no restoration, she has a way of letting us know that there is still hope. Hope is a major theme in all her classes. She inspires us to be hopeful. In doing that she confirms Calvin’s big idea of being agents of renewal in the world.”

Rachel Watson is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.