|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XXII NUMBER 3 FALL 2007|
Beyond English 101
English professor Lorianne DiSabato and 19 freshmen in their second week of classes sat in the sunny Lantern Room in the Student Center. They had escaped their classroom, a small closed space, to look out the floor-to-ceiling windows.
The reading assignment that week was A Year in Thoreau's Journal, and the students were asked to cultivate what would become a daily practice of observing the world around them.
"Curiosity is your job as a student," she told them. "Be inquisitive, notice, ask questions. Scientists and writers have in common that they record what they observe." Today they were journaling, drawing, and reflecting on what they saw beyond the glass walls. A simple change in location had enabled the students to understand and engage in the assignment.
DiSabato was teaching a pilot course for the new Integrative Studies Program at Keene State. "We think of the College as the structure that contains the thinking and writing that occurs within it," she said, remembering that moment. "But if we get rid of that, dissolve outside the windows, we see learning as something that happens all over the campus. That's what Integrative Studies does – it opens the windows, dissolves the boundaries."
This class, Thinking and Writing: The Art of Natural History, was one of 14 pilot Thinking and Writing courses that launched KSC's new Integrative Studies Program for first-year students last fall. Part of an innovative reshaping of the 36-year-old General Education curriculum, these courses are now required of all incoming students. The program will transform the way students approach learning. Instead of the traditional English 101 essay-writing course, freshmen are introduced to creative and critical ways of thinking that are essential to intellectual inquiry and to success in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
"We have developed courses with specific goals in mind: critical thinking, diversity issues, globalization issues, quantitative literacy," says Provost Mel Netzhammer. "We want to develop a broad-based understanding that will lead to seeing the connections between and among disciplines: How do history and math connect, for example?"
While each of these semester courses culminates in a comprehensive writing project (all students write a 20-page paper), the objective is to make students more purposeful, self-aware, and reflective about how they learn. The point is not merely to study and report; it is to engage in thinking and writing as a way to explore the world around you. Students are encouraged to apply course content to broader social contexts, to make connections between what is learned in the classroom and their community.
To facilitate this, courses cross disciplinary boundaries and link what is not typically connected. This year's offerings include The Evolution of the Little Red Schoolhouse, Love and Marriage, A Brave New World Is Here, Architecture Across American Culture, and Comic Books and Current Events: The Case of Joe Sacco's Palestine. And within each class students are given great latitude, asked only to choose a relevant and complex question to research, analyze, and write about.
"Choose something you are genuinely excited about," Professor Liz Pacilio urged students on the first day of her Love and Marriage course, which explored the legal, theological, and social implications of marriage, sexuality, and family. "You are not going to find an answer and report it to me. You are going to take a position all your own – your ideas, your responses, your opinions. This is not summarizing, this is articulating ideas and advancing an argument. Hello, future scholar!"
Education professor Ellen Nuffer has incorporated new technology such as discussion boards, blogs, and podcasts into the syllabus of The Evolution of the Little Red Schoolhouse, which looks at the historical roots of today's education dilemmas. She finds that the emphasis on the thinking and writing process encourages looking at ways of learning not supported by the traditional research paper. Her students practice writing in a journalistic style by sharing information about readings, class discussions, and their research projects in an anonymous blog, and they stay current on educational topics through weekly RSS feed SmartBriefs from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Nuffer has enjoyed using the Integrative Studies model. "For the first time writing is primary, not one of the sub-plots," she says. "I'm teaching writing as a way of engaging in ideas."
Students in biology professor Susan Whittemore's class A Brave New World Is Here explore ethical issues in biotechnology (DNA testing, stem cell research, genetically engineered plants and animals) while researching a specific issue for the final writing project. They are asked to assemble a writing portfolio of responses to the semester's reading and to write a reflective introduction that addresses what they have learned about thinking and writing and how they will apply this to future study.
"Confused thinking leads to confused writing," she explains to her students. "You've gotten better at writing because you've gotten better at thinking. There's a connection and an evolution to the process."
Keene State's Integrative Studies Program was developed over a three-year period and was approved by the Faculty Senate on April 19, 2006. The Thinking and Writing courses are a component of a new first-year foundation curriculum, which also includes a Quantitative Literacy component.
The changes in the General Education curriculum at Keene State reflect a national trend toward integrative learning in liberal arts colleges. The Association of American Colleges and Universities Greater Expectations report, issued in 2002, noted that while today's incoming students have mastered the basic skills needed to acquire information, they tend not to have the ability to see connections between seemingly disparate information or to see problems from different perspectives and make conceptual links.
At the same time, students are entering a world after college that increasingly demands multilayered thinking skills and integrative approaches to problems in a global environment. To succeed, they will need not fragmented specialized knowledge but creative and critical thinking and the ability to see an integrated, bigger context.
"I often hear: ‘I don't like this essay topic because it has nothing to do with me,'" DiSabato lamented at the opening of the semester. "How do you move beyond that, see things as bigger than that?"
The students whose horizons expanded while looking through the windows in the Lantern Room went on to read more Thoreau and natural histories of phenomena as varied as breast cancer and rats. They kept a nature journal and noted what happened in the neighborhood – observing, as they did that fall day, what was around them. Each completed a comprehensive research paper on an environmental issue. And through noticing and wondering and writing, their world began to expand far beyond the boundaries of the college campus; final semester projects included papers on how music affects the brain, animal cruelty on factory farms, and how global warming affects the skiing industry.