Note to Whitman first-year students: Take a deep breath, bring all available brain cells, and dive in, young thinkers. Your new college home is about to take you on a year-long intellectual swim through deep waters.
Whitman College’s new first-year cohort has embarked on what many classes before them have — a two-semester foundational course that requires them to mentally grind and polish their way to a new level of critical reading and analysis and writing skills, using some of the world’s most celebrated and complex literary pieces, film and other works.
The course, which spans the sciences, social sciences and the humanities, is organized around a variable theme, says Rebecca Hanrahan, associate professor of philosophy and director of the program, called “Encounters.” The course’s broad topic is the examination of encounters between people and cultures and the formation and transformation of dominant and competing world views. Throughout the course, “the non-Western meets Western, male meets female, ancient meets modern, truth meets doubt,” Hanrahan said.
Writing is a key item on the Encounters agenda. “Encounters is our writing ‘boot camp’ for our first-year students,” Hanrahan said. “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.”
Hannah Lewis ’12 remembers having initial reservations about the course, then called Antiquity and Modernity — and sometimes referred to as “Core.”
But, she said, “As the year progressed my professor definitely pushed my comfort zone to improve my writing and thinking skills. Success in Core required in-depth analysis of literature that went beyond the obvious. The most important lesson for me was that I would excel more by writing about something that I was actually interested in than I would by regurgitating my professor's interests. This is a scary leap to take, but I am glad that I took it, and I now feel more confident in my ability to formulate ideas.
“As a successful high school graduate, it was easy for me to enter college believing that my thinking and writing skills were sufficient to get me through Whitman. The first-year program was a wake-up call to the standard expected at Whitman, and I’m thankful that I got it early on,” she said.
Tim Kaufman-Osborn, Whitman’s provost and dean of the faculty, said the first-year course gives students an “introduction to what is expected of them at (this) liberal arts college.”
“Much of the course is aimed at teaching students the basic intellectual skills they are going to have to put to work in the rest of their educational experience at Whitman,” he said. “It aims to teach students how to think well, how to write well, how to speak well, how to construct an imaginative and logistically persuasive argument — and those are intellectual skills that they are going to require in every course they take at Whitman.”
In addition to gaining writing and general intellectual skills, there is the opportunity to explore, understand and soak in the beauty and depth of about 25 of humanity’s most renowned works.
For the 2009-10 year, after months of work, the Whitman faculty has added even more depth to the syllabus. While in past years the course focused on classics and contemporary works of Western civilization, the 2009-10 program includes classics from other world views. New texts and materials include “The Bhagavad Gita, “The Qur’an,” Gandhi’s “Selected Political Writings” as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.”
Kaufman-Osborn said this is the second major transformation of the seminar since it began in the early 1980s. The newest version, which faculty members started rebuilding in 2007, responds to faculty having “raised very good questions” about whether the focus on Western world views “was entirely consistent with the college’s commitment to its core value of diversity,” he said
Faculty then began meeting to develop a comprehensive syllabus that included non-Western texts. “We all have our favorite texts,” he said. The faculty, trained in different disciplines, had “to argue this out until they came to agreement,” he said. And they eventually crafted three plans that were put to a vote. He said it’s a real tribute to the faculty that they put the time and energy into the process.
Mitch Clearfield, visiting instructor of philosophy and general studies, is one of about 30 faculty members who teaches the course. He said while he liked the former course, he sees benefits to the new syllabus.
“One of the primary benefits of the change is expanding the material that the course can draw on, opening up the world beyond the ‘West’,” he said. “I think it's also helpful that we moved from a strict chronological order to one that's roughly organized by theme. That will help students more easily draw connections across texts and see their complex interrelations.”
Kaufman-Osborn, who taught the demanding course for years, said it is a discussion-based class, and students are “expected to do the reading, to do it well and come to class prepared to discuss….” And that means prepared to cite evidence from the text, construct an argument, exchange opinions and articulate “what they find noteworthy and what they think is not entirely adequate about their peers views.”
Hanrahan, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, believes that “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,” she said.