Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Thinking ‘Seminarly’

In Faculty, Teaching on November 7, 2013 at 5:58 pm

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By Renée Tursi, Associate Professor of English

This time the context was Emily Dickinson’s poem “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–” during a 200-level literature course. In the middle of our discussion about what comes of “indirection,” a student burst out with “Oh, that’s just like Plato’s cave!” And there it was again. A student had made a connection back to her QU101 seminar from the year before. Others started to nod and join in, and I switched streams on the spot, pulling up the excerpt from the famous allegory that I hadn’t planned to weave in until the next class.

The student didn’t need me to build the ground for making such a bridge; she needed only her ability to feel associations between course experiences. I wondered how often such connections take place privately, but remain unvoiced.

This experience was a turning-point. Why always wait for the link to the QU seminars to happen on its own, I thought. Why not make it more intentional, as I do with other interdisciplinary approaches?

The next day I attempted a deliberate tack in a first-year course. Through an in-class “writing to think” exercise, impossibly undercooked, I asked students to list five ideas that had resonated with them from their QU 101 seminars to date. Then I asked them to write a paragraph in which they make a connection between one of those ideas and what we had been discussing from our reading, the latter of which had to do with our ontological theme of “how do we come to feel at home in the world” or, in our class shorthand, “homesickness.”

We encountered a happy glitch. It was not that the students couldn’t find an avenue to such a linkage. Rather, they found too many. To be sure, they had been bringing in such connections all semester, a movement I had always enthusiastically welcomed. But I realized how merely reactive about this form of learning I had always been, as evidenced by my Dickinson example.  Just think what could be done if I were to write such opportunities, albeit more considered ones, into my plans.

Our QU seminars have been under intense scrutiny, with pressure on them to meet some Arcadian vision all on their own. Moreover, in our collective university discussion about the goal of urging students to make connections between the seminars and their major, we have been directing our energies primarily to advising, an arena whose purposes seem already overly cargo-laden.

Instead, why don’t we all take responsibility for fostering those connections in our classes? This kind of thinking surely is taking place in our “cluster” courses and “linked” courses. Likewise, our CAS Student Development working group is proposing that we begin to think along “big idea” themes across the disciplines. Why not do the same with our QU seminars?

In his 1904 essay “A World of Pure Experience,” William James points to the “reality” of the in-betweens of our concrete thoughts. “Life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected,” he writes; “often, indeed, it seems to be there more emphatically, as if our spurts and sallies forward were the real firing-line of the battle, were like the thin line of flame advancing across the dry autumnal field which the farmer proceeds to burn.”

Inviting our students to make those “spurts and sallies” between our courses and the QU seminars shouldn’t be difficult to bring about in any discipline, no matter how remote from their content our own expertise may seem to dwell. That’s because we don’t need to find the connection – the student does. And they will find one, if asked to do so within the immediacy of a class context, which can then be reinforced through the more abstract advising one.

Imagine what an ‘advancing flame’ might burn through such approaches, whereby our university seminars are seen to be not only part of a “common core,” but integral to the very process of meaningful synthesis we want our students to net from the whole of our curriculum. Indeed, the design of that whole might carry more coherence as a result. Along the way, I suspect such practices would help students to better understand the difference between robust thinking and surface opinion-making. Which in turn might lead them to benefit more from the complexity of their lives – and lead us to squander it less.

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  1. Renee, This happens often in First-Year Writing, too, where students are welcome to bring almost any source into their papers and try it out. Some wonderful connections result, and because we share our papers within the community of the classroom (each student’s paper is “public” on the class file exchanges), the students often build on connections their peers have unearthed as well. I wish *I* had learned as a college freshman that my courses didn’t belong to discrete disciplines but were all part of the cross-pollination of knowledge-making in the university and out there in the world!

  2. Wonderful to hear, Kathy. Thanks for sharing the important work taking place in First-Year Writing.

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