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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 17, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 12
Great books, novel course

Italianist Walter Stephens and classicist Matthew Roller, above, share teaching duties with philosopher Meredith Williams and German scholar Ruediger Campe.

Four humanities profs create interdisciplinary offering for freshmen

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Heard this one yet? An Italianist, a philosopher, a classicist and a professor of German walk into a room... Actually, there's no punch line. These four do walk into the same room, every week.

This fall, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences premiered an interdisciplinary course intended to expose freshmen to the pleasures of reading and to spark their interest in the humanities.

Great Books: The Western Tradition is a three-credit writing-intensive course that examines texts from the eighth century B.C. on up through post-World War I. The class meets twice a week, once for a discussion period and once for a lecture presented by one or more of the four participating faculty.

Walter Stephens, a professor of Italian studies in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, championed the effort. Stephens, who taught a similar course during his days at Dartmouth College, said that what led to the creation of Great Books was his "own wish to do it," coupled with the rising tide of undergraduates entering Johns Hopkins with a bent toward the humanities. The stereotype of the sciences-only Hopkins student is fading, Stephens said, thanks in large part to an active effort on the part of the Undergraduate Admissions Office to address the imbalance between humanities and science majors.

Once they're here, students need to know what's available.

"There are not enough courses out there that get the word out about the humanities, but we're finding out that there are a considerable and growing number of students interested," Stephens said about the need for this offering. In addition, "it was felt that there were not enough courses out there for undergraduates that were interdisciplinary, and that's our big calling card with this course."

Philosophy professor Meredith Williams leading one of the four discussion sections. On Fridays, the professors and their groups convene for a lecture.

Stephens said he and his colleagues "kicked the idea for the course around awhile," but the real opportunity to add it to the curriculum arose after the Center for Educational Resources received a significant grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation to develop Web-based resources to enhance students' critical thinking skills in the humanities. The grant already had helped spawn Introduction to Art History I and II, and Introduction to Fiction and Poetry I and II. Great Books, too, became a perfect fit.

In addition to Stephens, the three other participating faculty are Matthew Roller, associate professor in the Classics Department; Meredith Williams, professor in the Department of Philosophy; and Ruediger Campe, chair of the German Department.

Each faculty member picked two or three texts for the syllabus. The selection of works includes Homer's The Odyssey, Jane Austen's Persuasion, Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals and Franz Kafka's The Trial.

"These are not just great books," Stephens said. "These are books we are excited about and love to teach, and the students, hopefully, feed off that enthusiasm."

The discussion groups are held in four separate rooms, with each faculty member assigned a group of 11 or 12 students for the entire semester. For the Friday lectures, however, all 45 students and four faculty come together in one classroom to discuss a work. The faculty alternate leading the lectures, with the others playing the role of teaching assistants.

The classicist Roller said that part of the joy of the course has been teaching outside his specialty and dissecting books previously unknown to him.

"One of the great things about a course like this is that the profs get to go back to school," he said. "We're reading things that maybe we haven't read since we were freshmen or, in some cases, never read at all. The lectures have been wonderful. It's fun to see how others respond to these texts. Everybody sees something different."

Stephens said that for the discussion groups, the faculty moderate rather than lead.

"We don't legislate discussions at all. They really begin where [the students] want them to begin," Stephens said. "We try to make it as much as possible their discussion, shepherding it only when needed and giving it a nudge if it starts to lag."

An ancillary objective to the course is to create an increased interest in the humanities among science-oriented undergraduates. Stephens said that Great Books came about partly in response to the university's Commission on Undergraduate Education, one of whose recommendations was to encourage efforts to broaden the mix of academic interests and to match student enrollments more closely to academic resources.

To that end, the course relies on the efforts of three academic departments, the Center for Educational Resources and the Expository Writing Program. For their first several papers, students are required to get help from tutors with the Expository Writing Program. Students also interact closely with the course's Web site, where they submit papers electronically, read posted assignments and memos, participate in discussion boards and learn more about the authors and the texts.

The pilot course will be offered a second time next spring, again only to freshmen. Should it continue beyond that term, Stephens said that the course could be opened up to sophomores as well, but the current design of Great Books makes it inherently more valuable to those beginning their college experience.

"What we are going for is a general appeal. We want Hopkins students to have an opportunity to do something that doesn't necessarily fit into a major," Stephens said. "This course might open paths to a major, or it might open paths to an interest that a student doesn't know he or she has."

Stephens said he is cautiously optimistic that the course will become an institution at JHU. Roller said one factor in its favor is the growing clientele of students who are primarily interested in the humanities.

"Those of us in the humanities have always wanted to be fed more undergraduates. Well, guess what — they are coming," he said. "This [course] is a way for us to show off all of our disciplines. Students certainly get a smorgasbord here."


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