Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 22, 1996

New Classes Court Freshmen

Amy Hungerford
Special to The Gazette

     It is an unusual day for the students in "The City in
Disciplinary Perspective," but not because of the video screens
and microphones which sit in front of them, or because a woman
stands off to the side focusing a large video camera on the desk
in front of the room. In this class high technology is the norm.
Today is unusual because the students actually recognize the
professor who is lecturing. 

     Robert Kargon, a historian of science and technology, who
designed the course with the help of Matthew Crenson of the
Political Science Department, gets up on the dais. "Today's
speaker really needs no introduction." The students laugh. This
is Crenson's week to lecture about the city from his own
disciplinary perspective, political science. The students will
not hear Kargon's perspective until the very last week of class.
Though on any given day the students will be listening to a
different professor, one thing is certain: the students will be
thinking about that great and ancient social institution, the

     By the time Crenson's lecture is over and the students file
out of the Interactive Television Classroom, Steven Stanley and
his two teaching assistants over in Olin Hall will be collecting
the weekly writing assignments from the 12 students in Stanley's
freshman seminar, "Darwin and the Origin of the Species." 

     On the surface, this course looks far more typical than "The
City." The small seminar format ensures that Stanley knows each
student by name, that he knows their work. The class has the feel
of a humanities seminar at a small liberal arts college. But
Stanley is an eminent paleontologist, used to teaching the ins
and outs of earth science, and to researching the mysteries of
the Ice Age and its impact on human evolution. Now he is teaching
a course whose syllabus includes a week devoted to the painter
Winslow Homer and a class on Steven Crane's "The Open Boat."

     What, one might ask, is becoming of undergraduate education
at Hopkins?

     If you ask Carol Burke, associate dean for academic affairs,
she will say that undergraduate education is becoming more
attuned to the needs of freshmen. These two new courses and
another course which has been offered for several years,
Professor Allen Grossman's "Structuring the Human World,"
constitute the first fruits of a grant Hopkins received last fall
from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. 

     As the grant proposal puts it, Hopkins is seeking to "open
the opportunity for the freshman year to become one in which
students think broadly" through the development of new courses
which would either "establish the multiple contexts for
understanding a single work ... or explore various ways to
comprehend a specific topic." 

     Over the next three years the Hewlett Foundation will
provide matching funds for the development of about 15 new
courses addressing this purpose. The funds contribute toward the
costs of the professors' time, the training of teaching
assistants and a Summer Institute during which Hewlett course
participants will discuss ways of teaching freshmen and designing

     Burke explains that "when students arrive at Hopkins they
may know what the disciplines of biology and English are, but
they rarely know what anthropologists or cognitive scientists
do." Burke notes that freshmen also need to build confidence, a
sense of mastery over a body of material. She suggests that this
kind of confidence will both improve their writing and give them
practice in seminar discussions. From the abstract language of
the grant proposal the Hewlett courses this semester have
produced dramatically different attempts to realize these goals.

     "The City in Disciplinary Perspective" is designed to show
students a number of disciplines in one semester, in a format in
which students can compare their approaches toward a single
subject--in this case, the city. Thus the course acts as an
introduction not only to the scholarly study of cities but also
to the research university. Relying on achievement of scholars
doing research in a number of disciplines, a course such as "The
City" would be difficult to pull off in a small liberal arts

     Crenson, for example, focused his lecture on the city's role
in the development of democracy, while Pier Massimo Forni, of
Hispanic and Italian Studies spent two lectures teaching about
the "Infernal City" in Dante. Kargon emphasizes the fact that the
course is not interdisciplinary but rather multidisciplinary. 
Each discipline has certain ways of approaching a problem, and
asks certain kind of questions, and Kargon aims to show students
the particular strengths of each approach, rather than reducing
all the disciplines to some common intellectual denominator. 

     The high-tech aspect of the course is designed both to
enrich the classroom experience and to extend intellectual
exchange beyond the class's meeting times. Kargon and Crenson
have designed a World Wide Web site for the class
, which includes digitized
samples of city sounds and a "chat room" where students can raise
questions about the lectures and readings. 

     Although this aspect of the course has met with limited
success so far--students do not seem to visit the chat room, and
putting readings on-line raises tricky copyright issues--Kargon
and Crenson think that experimenting with the technology will
eventually make the course more attractive to students. They may
be right: the students certainly have a sense of humor about
whatever snags occur. Kargon's periodic reminders to ask
questions into the microphones, so that students can be heard on
the videotape, have become a running joke in the class.     

     Teaching assistant Greg Downey points out that the
technology can be a distraction for students but notes that the
visiting professors often have more trouble than the students.
The videotaped lectures have been used this semester only by the
lecturing professors, to help them relate their own lectures to
others, but in the future the tapes may be made available to

     "Darwin and The Origin of the Species" relies on the
traditional resources of reading, writing and discussion, and
builds its intellectual coherence from the study of a man and his
important body of work. For three weeks at the start of the
semester the students read and wrote about The Origin of the
Species and Darwin's diaries from the voyage of the Beagle. At
the same time, they were looking at Darwin's autobiography and
the controversial new biography, Darwin, The Life of a Tormented

     As the semester draws to a close the students turn their
attention to social Darwinism and to the phenomenon of Naturalism
in literature, and learn how a scientific idea can play out
beyond the bounds of science. The weekly writing assignments
encourage the students to examine both the content and the
particular approach of each text, and are designed to give
students the confidence in class discussion which they often lack
in larger or more advanced courses.

     Daphina Mark, a freshman in Stanley's course, says that
studying Darwin this way has helped her think differently about
science. Daphina entered Hopkins wanting to study biology, but is
emphatic that she is not "doing the whole pre-med thing." The
Darwin course made her think about the social context of
scientific discovery, though she has also learned to disagree
with some of the authors about how important that context may be. 

     The primary effect of the course on Daphina appears to be an
increase in admiration--both for Darwin and for Stanley. As a
freshman Daphina has wanted some advising about how to pursue her
interest in the natural sciences, and the relationship she has
been able to develop with Stanley has in part addressed that
need. As she thinks about which major to sign up for next year,
Daphina is still sure that she will choose biology, but says that
she will do so having a broader conception of how science fits
into the culture. Because she is considering the option of
environmental science, the lesson seems particularly apt.

     The wide-ranging intellectual approach the Hewlett courses
epitomize is not the only thing that makes them distinct; they
also require fresh thought about teaching. Carol Burke points out
that the Hewlett grant, unlike other course development grants
Hopkins has received, emphasizes training teaching assistants.
This semester, since it is the first in which Hewlett courses
have been taught, the graduate students did not receive any
formal training and unlike next year's participants, they did not
assist in developing the courses. However, the  experience
effectively raises a basic question: What kind of work must TAs
be trained for? 

     Greg Downey, a first-year graduate student and teaching
assistant for "The City," emphasizes his role in creating
intellectual continuity for the students. The TA-led discussion
sections must draw out comparisons between the lecturers'
approaches and use one disciplinary perspective as a critique.
Such integration is essential if students are to make the most of
the diversity of perspectives which passes before them each week. 

     Kargon, on the other hand, describes his own role in the
course as one of "facilitator." He does not have the opportunity
to get to know his students and their work during the semester
and thus feels he must wait to see the students' final projects
before evaluating the format's effectiveness. 

     According to Downey, the students' projects look promising
and certainly reflect the multidisciplinary commitment. One
student plans to submit a collection of poems, another will
design a virtual tour of Baltimore on the World Wide Web, and yet
another plans to pick up the thread of a lecture Carol Burke gave
on folklore of the city. Students have been encouraged by
professors and teaching assistants alike to contact lecturers who
have sparked their interest, but as of now only a few students
have done so.

     The teaching assistants in the Darwin course have a
dramatically different experience. Their job is simply to grade
the weekly papers and meet occasionally with the students. They
do not run discussion sections or lead the seminar. Ivan
Grabovac, one of the two teaching assistants, notes that other
courses he has participated in provide a more substantive role
for the assistant. While students in this course have the benefit
of a close relationship to the professor--a kind of relationship
that is very difficult to build in "The City"--what the Darwin
course loses is the disciplinary perspective that an assistant
like Grabovac might bring. 

     A third-year graduate student in the Humanities Center, he
studies the history of ecology and looks at science as it relates
to culture; though the students may read about Darwin from a
humanities perspective, the seminar is led from the point of view
of a scientist. Since teaching assistants for the Hewlett courses
are chosen in part to provide complementary points of view, the
issue of their role in teaching is sure to come up again.

     This May the professors and teaching assistants for next
year's courses will convene for the 10-day Summer Institute,
during which they will hear from some of this year's participants
and attend panel discussions on topics such as the freshman year
as transition and the role of writing in the curriculum. 

     The new teaching assistants receive funding for the summer,
which will enable them to work with professors in developing
their course's curriculum. Freshmen will have registration
priority in the Hewlett courses next fall in an effort to rectify
a problem which arose in "The City" this semester, where
upperclassmen filled it to the limit before the freshmen were
registered. The courses will be advertised to enrolling students
through the recently revised Academic Guidebook which now
constitutes the primary tool of pre-registration advising for

     Carol Burke sums up the less tangible effects of the Hewlett
courses when she observes that the anticipation which freshmen
feel as they look forward to their arrival at Hopkins is now
reciprocated here on campus. As the faculty and graduate student
assistants design these new courses over the summer they, too,
become excited about the possibilities that seem to fill the air
in those first few weeks of the fall semester.

     Hewlett courses being offered this fall include "1876:
America 100 Years after Independence," taught by Larzar Ziff, of
the English Department, "Malthus and the Overpopulation
Controversy," taught by David Harvey, of the Department of
Geography and Environmental Engineering; and "Medicine: A
Disciplinary View," a course designed by Robert Kargon and Gert
Brieger, both of the Institute for the History of Science,
Medicine and Technology, along the lines of this semester's "The
City in Disciplinary Perspective." 

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