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Getting to the Core of the Matter

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Faculty and students learn together in Lewis & Clark’s latest iteration of the first-year core course, Exploration and Discovery.

Whether critiquing Baudrillard’s postmodern vision of America, scrutinizing Sophocles’ psychologically complex Oedipus, or examining Einstein’s special theory of relativity, Lewis & Clark students dig into some heavy, heady concepts in a new course titled, quite appropriately, Exploration and Discovery.

E&D, as it is known on campus, is a required course for all firstyear undergraduates. Soon to begin its third year, the core course is designed to give students a foundation in the liberal arts–whether they go on to major in art, economics, or computer science–while helping them develop as readers, writers, and speakers. Faculty who teach in E&D represent disciplines from across the academic spectrum.

“I believe in having a ‘freshman experience’ and that it should be an ambitious intellectual experience,” says Kurt Fosso, associate professor of English and director of Exploration and Discovery.

E&D’s description in the Lewis & Clark catalog underscores just how ambitious: “This innovative yearlong course seeks to ground students in humanity’s enduring questions and to model the intellect’s journey outward from these questions into today’s diverse world of ideas… . Exploration and Discovery thereby provides students with a vital foundation for developing the informed and complex perspectives they will need in our changing modern world.”

To be sure, getting undergraduates interested in a mandatory course is a tall order. But despite the “required” tag, E&D is anything but staid, and student reviews have been positive.

 

Exploration and Discovery attracts scholars from a wide variety of disciplines. Pictured here are some of the faculty members who taught in E&D during the 2007-08 academic year.

“I remember thinking, ‘OK, dead white male writers,’ ” says Becca Dierschow, recalling her first-semester experience as she dove into the likes of Plato and Descartes. But the first-year student from the Denver area was in for a shock.

She found the readings engaging and the class discussions stimulating. The course challenged her to learn “new ways of reading and writing,” Dierschow says. She was especially impressed with Virgil’s Aeneid: “I was just blown away by the language and how he created these amazing metaphors.” The unifying experience of E&D has carried on in her other classes, too.

“Because everyone’s reading the same books, we can all connect back to the texts,” she says. “You can say something like, ‘Oh, here’s the same idea Plato had,’ and everyone will know what you’re talking about.”

E&D appears to be a hit with faculty, too.

“I feel completely freed up,” says Bob Mandel, professor of international affairs. “E&D combines the virtue of allowing the faculty to focus on their passions with the notion that first-year students

need some common themes to share ideas.”

In addition to helping students refine their analytical skills, says Mandel, who has taught at the college for 32 years, the course is designed to broaden and deepen their thinking about the world and their own place in it.

“Young adults are into the here and now, the immediate,” he says. “In this course they’re forced to see things in a bigger context. I want them to be constantly reexamining their own values.”

The roster is heavy on classics of Western literature and philosophy, ranging from the Bible to Frankenstein. However, faculty members choose their own themes and approaches to the material, making each section unique.

The fall semester of E&D features a common list of books selected annually by the faculty, though professors are expected to supplement the list with readings of their own choosing. The roster is heavy on classics of Western literature and philosophy, ranging from the Bible to Frankenstein. However, faculty members choose their own themes and approaches to the material, making each section unique.

In the spring, E&D becomes more eclectic, branching off into seminars covering a wide range of subject matter, from the art of war to vamps and vampires. These spring courses are designed to be interdisciplinary, and the faculty teaching them typically cover subject matter on the fringes–and sometimes way outside–of their usual academic repertoire.

Along the way, E&D is supplemented with a lecture series as well as on-campus screenings of course-related movies, from Apocalypto to The Brady Bunch Goes to Hawaii.

The course itself is rigorous. Each fall and spring section, with 19 or fewer students, centers on class discussions. Although content may vary, students can expect to write several papers, compile a spring research project and formal presentation, and take midterm and final exams.

“The reason the course exists, in large part, is to impart the skills necessary to explore big ideas and questions,” says Fosso. “E&D students are always working on their critical reading, writing, and speaking skills.”

The overarching concept is called “general education”–the notion that colleges should give all students a wide-ranging foundation in the liberal arts. At Lewis & Clark, students must pass courses in international studies, scientific and quantitative reasoning, creative arts, and physical education–as well as the two semesters of the core course.

Previous incarnations of Lewis & Clark’s core course include (in reverse chronological order) Inventing America, Basic Inquiry, Society and Culture, Freshman Seminar, and Western Civilization, which dates back at least to the 1950s.

E&D’s most recent predecessor, Inventing America, focused on U.S. history and thought, with a reading list ranging from Plato’s Republic to the Constitution to de Tocqueville. But the course was controversial from the beginning and considered by many professors to be too narrowly focused. When the faculty decided that Inventing America should end its decade-long run, a lengthy debate ensued over what should take its place.

Some faculty members wanted something akin to a traditional great books/Western civilization–style course, with a set syllabus. Others argued for less, not more, structure, as well as more freedom to teach what they thought was important.

“Certainly it was intense,” says Tom Olsen, associate professor of physics. “Given the divided support for Inventing America, we wanted to create consensus, but it took time.”

A first task force floated a proposal, only to be rejected by their peers. A second task force submitted two concepts for consideration–Enduring Questions, a great books–style course, and World of Ideas, a looser, seminar-style course. Neither of those passed muster. So in the end the faculty took the best from each of the options, creating a hybrid with distinct fall and spring semesters.

Lewis & Clark’s faculty voted unanimously in spring 2005 to approve E&D, with classes to start in fall 2006.

Although Fosso, who had backed the more structured great books approach, was initially “appalled” by the compromise because he felt it could dilute the fall semester’s offerings, he agreed to be the E&D director. He went around campus, department by department, to recruit tenured and tenure-track faculty to teach the course–a challenge given tight staffing and some professors’ reluctance to teach subject matter outside their specialties.

But Fosso says he has encountered nothing but goodwill toward E&D. He notes that the program would fail without the support of faculty. Unlike teaching in Inventing America, which was a contract stipulation for some, participating in E&D is strictly voluntary. About two-thirds of the course sections are taught by full-time faculty, with visiting faculty and adjunct instructors shouldering the remaining workload.

Many faculty members find it invigorating to teach outside their expertise.

“Some may see it as dilettantism, but I find it exciting,” says Olsen, a theoretical physicist who taught the course in the fall. Olsen has taught core courses dating back to Basic Inquiry, which was in place during the 1980s. Last year, he was able to fulfill a long-held wish: teaching one of his favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to E&D students.

Fosso notes that the program would fail without the support of faculty. Unlike teaching in Inventing America, which was a contract stipulation for some, participating in E&D is strictly voluntary.

“I enjoy the dynamic,” Olsen says of teaching outside his discipline. “I like being in the role of the ‘sophisticated learner’ rather than the oracle.”

“This has been one of my favorite courses,” says Bruce Suttmeier, assistant professor of Japanese, who taught a spring course called Letters From Elsewhere: On Travel and Travel Writing.

“I’m absolutely out of my comfort zone a lot of the time, but I’m having so much fun,” he says. His research area is modern Japanese literature, “but in E&D, I’m talking about (French philosopher Jean) Baudrillard.”

Stephen Tufte, who taught Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe, echoes his colleagues. An assistant professor of physics, Tufte devotes his astronomy research to the study of galaxies, but in his E&D course he gets a chance to dabble in cosmology. Running a discussion-based class with term papers is also a nice change of pace from his science courses, in which lectures and problem-set assignments are the norm.

“I thought it would be interesting to expose first-year students to some of the coolest ideas out there,” Tufte says. “The goal is to get students jazzed about science.”

As E&D moves forward, Lewis & Clark has high hopes for its continuing evolution. The fall reading list is up for grabs every year, and the slate of spring courses is always changing.

Next year, Lewis & Clark is experimenting with housing students from three E&D sections together in the Forest complex, creating what’s being called a “living/learning community.”

“The idea is to tie in the campus living experience more closely with the academic experience,” Fosso says. “In a way, students will be living the course.”

How long E&D will endure is anyone’s guess. Lewis & Clark’s previous core courses enjoyed life spans of about a decade, give or take a few years. Fosso believes E&D will last longer than that.

“Maybe it’s hubris,” he jokes, “but I think we’ve got a good thing going.” To him, it’s the flexibility of the course that’s key. “The faculty who teach E&D control the course from year to year.”

What won’t change is Lewis & Clark’s commitment to the proposition that all students should have a well-rounded liberal arts education with a strong core course as its centerpiece.

“This kind of course really speaks to Lewis & Clark’s character and mission,” Fosso says. “What we’re trying to do and who we are.”

Jack Murray, a first-year student from Albuquerque, says E&D “opened doors I never would have opened myself.” An environmental studies major, he was introduced to challenging new texts and ideas in his fall-semester class, which he took with Fosso. He had never seriously read the Bible before, and he got a chance to reread works such as Oedipus the King and Frankenstein in “entirely different ways.”

“I definitely want to take more humanities classes, look more outside my major,” Murray says. “I mean, that’s the beauty of the liberal arts–right? “

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.

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