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First-Year Seminars
--Go, Galileo, Go!

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista



  Professor 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."

Another important 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 Mount Holyoke.

Go, Galileo, Go!

By Janet Tobin

  Professor 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.

After translating 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 mistake.

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.

Peterson argues, 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."

Peterson, who 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.

"Physics determines, 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?

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