A Life of the Mind
Question: What do these classic works have in common: Homer’s The Odyssey, Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film “City Lights” and Galileo’s “Letter to Grand Duchess Christina?”
Answer: First year students have to engage each of these texts in a year long multi-disciplinary required course that spans the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, a course called “Encounters.”
Encounters is Whitman’s two-semester introduction to the liberal arts and the academic construction of knowledge. It is organized around a variable theme that is addressed by multiple fields of study. Its broad topic is the examination of encounters between peoples and cultures and the formation and transformation of dominant and competing world views. Throughout this course “the non-western meets western, male meets female, ancient meets modern, truth meets doubt” according to Rebecca Hanrahan, associate professor of philosophy and director of Encounters. “It’s a course in which we talk both from difference and across differences.”
About 30 Whitman professors, from departments throughout the campus, teach this course. And the texts for the course represent the variety of disciplines that are studied here at Whitman. This means that no professor could possibly be an expert on all the texts that compose this course.
“This is one of the strengths of this course,” says Prof. Hanrahan. “While I’m an expert when it comes to philosophy, I am no expert when it comes to poetry. But I have to teach poetry in Encounters, and when I do it’s like I am handing off the baton to my students. Through discussion, together my students and I figure out how this piece works and what it means. This gives my students the opportunity to take ownership of their own education. And that is exactly what they do and it is exciting to watch and to participate in.”
She adds that writing is a key item on the Encounters agenda. “Encounters is our writing ‘boot camp’ for our first-year students. It’s the only required writing course at Whitman, and it is where students gain the basic skills so that they can begin the process of learning how to write at the college level,” Prof. Hanrahan says. “Learning how to write is a long process, but the writing instruction in Encounters provides our students with a head start on this process and sets them up well for the rest of their time here at Whitman.”
Prof. Hanrahan, who holds her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, reflects on the wider Whitman academic experience as well: “Whitman is a place of academic good will. Professors and students alike come to the table wanting to learn, wanting to not just answer the question at hand but also to find better questions to ask. We are interested in undermining our own prejudices, and Encounters helps to launch that very valuable process.”