Monday, October 26, 2015

Annabolism

In "Seminar in the City" today, the topic was the New School College - The New School's forgotten first stab at a liberal arts college, 49 years ago. The most planned-out curriculum the New School had offered outside graduate programs (which isn't saying much, since the adult ed curriculum was by design free-wheeling), it also took students' demand for "relevance" seriously - it was 1966, after all. At the end of each academic year, students and faculty sat down to revise the curriculum. Under pressure from students one course originally called "Interdisciplinary Concepts" wound up renamed "Innovation and Tradition" with an explosive syllabus including Aristotle, Marx and Engels, Che Guevara, Djilas, Mao, Marcuse, Arendt, Kuhn, T. S. Eliot, Harold Rosenberg and Camus! "Talk about relevance," observed one commentator. J. Kirk Sale, "The Changing Academic Landscape: IV: The New School at Middle Age," Change in Higher Education 1/4 (Jul-Aug 1969): 37-45, 45

But the more interesting case we read about was when students in one of the 1967-68 social science track courses decided to take it over in real time. The instructor (who wrote an article about it which we read) came in one day to find the class had already begun without him. Class discussion proceeded without his ever being asked to participate; he was the students' "hired consultant," they explained, not unkindly. He decided to go with the flow, and over the rest of the semester the students tried to design a class on what they thought the most important problems of the day. At least in the instructor's telling, though, they found their way back to something not so different from the original syllabus and approach - though they'd discovered it for themselves; they "took conventional academic responsibility seriously under the new rules." Joseph S. Lobenthal, Jr., "The Catabolism of a Student Revolt," The Journal of Higher Education 40/9 (Dec 1969): 717-30, 728

When I came to class today I secretly hoped that my students would direct me to sit the class out. For their part, some of them had expected me not to show up, forcing them to take the class into their own hands. All in the room, I proposed a compromise: turning the discussion over to them, answering informational questions only when asked... but the energy flagged after a while. We should have a debate, one student said, but nobody could come up with a resolution to debate. I proposed "that the graduating senior class should determine the next year's first year curriculum," and quite an interesting discussion emerged. Just nine weeks into college, my students didn't trust seniors (perhaps because they so recently were seniors themselves). Maybe sophomores, fresh out of the FY program? Perhaps people choosing majors? But what about "the real world" of jobs and employers? Alumnae/i, maybe, five years out? That faculty might know a thing or two was never considered, at least not explicitly (and when this faculty member suggested "maybe everyone should learn coding!" he was quickly shut down). But nobody else seemed positioned quite right to be able to determine what a curriculum attuned to the present and its challenges might be, either.

So, sobered, we continue with the set syllabus, at least for now...!

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