VOLUME 7, NUMBER 3
of English Christopher Benfey (at desk) and Mount Holyoke
students (represented in color here) will be researching participants
in the Pontigny Colloquia, such as those shown in this 1944
photo, as part of a First-Year Seminar taught by Benfey.
"I think of the
First-Year Seminars as small intellectual communities inside of
a larger intellectual community," says Paula Debnar, director
of First-Year Seminars and associate professor of classics. An
intellectual community--with a dramatic twist--is just what Professor
of English Christopher Benfey has in mind for his First-Year Seminar,
Pontigny at Mount Holyoke, to be offered for the first time next
fall. The class will not only form its own scholarly/investigative
group, but will reenact an extraordinary period in the College's
history, when some of the towering figures of European and American
culture--including Marc Chagall, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and
Wallace Stevens--took up residence at Mount Holyoke.
Modeled after an annual
gathering of intellectuals and artists at the Cistercian abbey
of Pontigny in France, the Pontigny Colloquia took place at Mount
Holyoke during three summers between 1942 and 1944. "During
the final years of World War II," says Benfey, "the
Mount Holyoke campus became the unlikely center of European intellectual
life." With his Pontigny seminar, Benfey is opening up his
own research "at a very early stage" to first-year students
who will help bring to light this near-forgotten chapter of the
College's history. Each student will research a colloquia participant,
using her findings to try to reproduce the kinds of exchanges
that might have taken place at the 1940s colloquia. Some might
choose to study Hannah Arendt and Marianne Moore, imagining what
a conversation between the German philosopher and American poet
might have been like. Perhaps others will investigate Robert Motherwell
and Jacques Hadamard, conjecturing what the American artist and
the French mathematician might have discussed over croissants
and coffee on the lawn of Porter Hall, site of the original colloquia.
While the campus looks
forward to seeing what next fall and spring will bring, this year's
seminars continue to engage the class of 2006 "all over the
curriculum," says Debnar. Among some thirty-five seminars
offered were a rainbow of humanities courses, from Growing Up
in Asian America (an American literature course) and Blood Magic:
A Case Study in Cultural Anthropology to Crown Jewels of Russian
Culture and Voyages to the Past: Real and Fantastic Visions of
Ancient Greece. Interdisciplinary courses such as Economics in
Popular Film, Mathematics in Historical Context, and Galileo (see
sidebar) blurred the perceived boundaries between academic disciplines.
Math and science courses, including Quantitative Reasoning and
Advances in Biology, were also among the offerings.
As varied as First-Year
Seminars are, they share certain key characteristics. Created
by faculty members in areas of special interest to them, "the
seminars are taught by professors who enjoy the kind of energy
that first-year students bring to classes," says Debnar,
who also notes that the majority of seminars are taught by tenured
faculty members. "First-year students have a sense of all
doors opening," says Benfey, who hopes with his course to
"preserve and build on that potential excitement."
aspect of the seminars is that they require students to be active
learners and are purposely kept small so that all participants
can contribute frequently to discussions. To support this, several
of this year's writing- and speaking-intensive seminars involved
student mentors from the College's innovative Speaking, Arguing,
and Writing program. Judy Tan '03 worked with first-year students
in Whiteness and the Construction of Identity, helping them on
speaking and writing assignments as a class and individually.
Tan found her mentoring experience "wonderful. The course
challenged these first-year students to reevaluate their previous
conceptions of race and their identities as they relate to race.
To be a part of that glorious process was invaluable and exciting.
I've grown a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for Mount
Holyoke women who, as well as being smart, are not afraid to ask
hard questions of themselves."
These students, and
others who have profited from the official launch this year of
the First-Year Seminar Program, illustrate the importance of connection
in the first-year experience. That idea comes as no surprise to
Jane Brown, vice president for enrollment and College relations,
who participated on the committee convened in 1999 by President
Joanne V. Creighton to examine the first-year experience at Mount
Holyoke. For Brown and the other members of the committee, it
was clear from the outset that connection was the vital factor.
"We know that the probability of students remaining and graduating
at any institution is closely related to the connections they
make the first year," says Brown. "The nature of our
First-Year Seminars means that students will connect with extraordinary
academic material, and the size of the classes means that they
can easily connect with the professor and their classmates."
As well as making
connections on campus, the seminars help first-year students forge
links to the Five College area and beyond. Some seminars have
included trips to local museums and events within the Pioneer
Valley or to Boston or New York. This fall, two seminar groups
traveled together to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for
a production of Beethoven's Fidelio.
Trips to the Met notwithstanding,
the heart of the seminars lies in the day-to-day work of honing
reading, writing, and discussion skills. It's a process that was
palpable this fall in Leah Glasser's seminar, A Landscape of One's
Own, which examined the works of women who have written in the
context of the American landscape. Students huddled around a seminar
table as Glasser, dean of first-year studies and lecturer in English,
engaged them in a discussion of Thoreau's description of his relationship
to landscape as a springboard for considering the experience of
women who wrote about landscape in the nineteenth century. Discussion
focused on the use of sensory detail in language. The group then
read along and listened as students shared their written work
for the day. Glasser asked the women to offer constructive feedback.
"We are thoughtful, caring editors," said Glasser, "looking
for the gist of what makes a piece work and what can make it that
much clearer and that much more persuasive for readers."
Scenes similar to
that played out in Glasser's course are taking place in First-Year
Seminars all over campus, as students make the important transition
from high school to college. The seminars help set the stage for
students to explore new fields of study, connect with professors,
make friends, learn to trust their voices on the page and in the
classroom, and, finally, forge their own "interesting groups
of thinkers" within the larger intellectual community of
of Mathematics and Statistics and Physics Mark Peterson
works with First-Year Seminar students Valerie Shepard
'06 (left) and Julia Gabrick '06 to re-create an experiment
designed by Galileo that uses a balance and ideas of
Archimedes to determine the density of a solid. The
density is represented visually by the positioning of
a counterweight when the solid is balanced by water.
Students in Mark Peterson's First-Year Seminar this semester
are coming face- to-face with one of the latest discoveries
about Galileo Galilei. The discovery, in fact, was made
by Peterson as he conducted research in preparation to teach
a course on Galileo--a course from which his seminar evolved.
several obscure lectures by Galileo from the original Italian,
Peterson, Mount Holyoke professor of mathematics and statistics
and physics, realized that one of the sixteenth-century
scientist's best-known contributions--his discovery of scaling
laws--was the result of Galileo's need to correct his own
As an aspiring
young intellectual striving to gain the favor of the Medici
court, Galileo had argued, for largely patriotic reasons,
that a certain model of Dante's Inferno could physically
support itself against collapse. Soon afterward, however,
he noticed a fatal flaw in his argument. But Galileo was
the only one who noticed his mistake. He had argued that
a small-scale model of the Inferno would support itself,
which was true. But the full-size Inferno would be too weak
and would collapse. Realizing that others could use his
mistake against him, Galileo developed an explanation of
the deficiencies of his own position, keeping his new theory
to himself for most of his life.
in an article published last year in the American Journal
of Physics, that it was through Galileo's mistake that the
scientist developed "something truly new, the idea that
mathematical rules govern the scaling of objects, and that
objects would collapse under their own weight if they were
simply scaled up from smaller models."
believes that physics is "central to the liberal arts,"
sees the origins of Gailileo's discovery as "a fine irony,
since the first success of Galileo's mathematical physics,
which is close to being the first success of mathematical
physics at all, was a response to a problem that was not
physical, but rather the collapse of an imaginary structure
in a work of literature."
The desire to
open doors not often used to study matter and energy is
one of the reasons Peterson developed his seminar. The interdisciplinary
course looks at the life and work of Galileo from both historical
and scientific perspectives, using laboratory exercises
that re-create the scientist's own investigations. Peterson
says that the seminar is giving his students, largely nonscience
majors, an opportunity to explore an otherwise not very
accessible area of study, a field that they should know
about. Another aspect that makes the course accessible to
first-year students who are humanities-minded is that Galileo
"is a very attractive person," Peterson says. "We have loads
of primary evidence of his own writings and what people
said about him. Students really get to know him, almost
as well as a living person."
As is the case
in all First-Year Seminars, writing plays a central role
in Peterson's course. He uses weekly labs as the basis for
writing assignments, but instead of reports, students draft
essays based on what they do in lab. The format is open-ended.
Students can make their essays creative exercises if they
like, as long as they "demonstrate that they have thought
about the issues involved," says Peterson.
in part, our view of ourselves in the world," says Peterson.
"First-year students are at that fortunate time when they
can think big." What better way to encourage big thinking
than a course on a big thinker?