U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Introduction to the Liberal Arts

I am teaching two sections of something called “Paideia” this semester. Paideia is Greek for “education” and this course introduces freshmen to the skills necessary for a successful liberal arts career–critical thinking, engagement with others, reading comprehension, and writing. The motto for the course is “seeking wisdom in community.”

I’m excited and feeling a tad bit worried. We hit the ground running with a class session during orientation week–before classes have officially begun. According to orientation, we are responsible for 90% of the assessment, but only choose 1 of 7 + texts (7 book length texts plus course packet reading). The theme for the course is the tension between freedom and responsibility to community. We are reading

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Summer read; changes every year)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Open text (I picked The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois)
Utopia
The Rake’s Progress, music by Igor Stravinsky and book by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman accompanied by William Hogarth paintings

Pinjar: The Skeleton and Other Stories by Amrita Pritam
Five Dialogues by Plato.
plus some things in the course reader, like a painting and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution

I’m excited because I like the idea of introducing freshman to the wonderful world of a liberal arts education. I’m also excited because I had a somewhat similar course at the Honors College at Arizona State and it was by far one of my favorite courses there. I’mworried because … well, obvious reasons, like engaging students who are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of reading and writing (the course has quite a reputation on campus–it is required for all incoming freshmen and there is some resistance there). Another reason is teaching writing effectively. I learned a lot in orientation from colleagues who’ve done a lot of writing instruction. I’ve done quite a bit myself, but I was never trained to do it.

Has anyone taught a course like this? Do you have any advice for writing instruction, on the particular works, engaging students, etc?

The Henrietta Lacks book is interesting on many straightforward (but still complicated) levels–genetics research, what is human, what are medical ethics, what right do we have to our body parts once they have left us, etc. But it is also interesting because the author is SUCH a privileged white person, invading the lives of poor black people for the sake of her research. She seems to be replicating some of what was done to the Lacks family, in the pursuit of the higher good of science (writing, in this case). I’m pondering how to help students engage with this part of the text.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren, this post is absolutely fascinating, for many reasons. I am most intrigued by this statement:

    “the course has quite a reputation on campus–it is required for all incoming freshmen and there is some resistance there”

    Do you get the sense that the resistance is coming mostly from students or from faculty? Both? Administrators? Parents? Alumni? In discussions, what are the basic pedagogical/intellectual/political arguments being proffered both in favor of and in opposition to the requirement? I would heartily appreciate any perspective you can provide on this matter.

    On the Rebecca Skloot book…she came to speak at UT Dallas in Spring 2011, and much of her talk and her comments in the Q&A session centered on the ways that race/privilege/knowledge/power intersected both in Henrietta Lacks’s story and in her own research. She’s not unaware of or indifferent to what it means to make others’ stories into a narrative that she tells.

    My suggestion would be to raise these matters as a point of discussion, and ask students to wrestle with the implications. If Skloot’s narrative replicates the instrumentalization/objectification/exploitation of black lives for the sake of knowledge, are there ways in which it also undermines that project? If knowledge cannot be disentangled from power, would it be better to not know? Should Skloot have not written the book? Should she have written it differently? Maybe some counterfactual speculations would help — in what other ways might this story have been told, and by whom?

  2. My advice concerning writing instruction is be prepared to spend much more time than you expect. I don’t know exactly the types of writing you’ll be assigning but whether your assignments are reflection papers, critical book reviews, or the always fun research paper you will have to provide written guidelines and walk them through step by step through a model paper.

    Learning to write well at the collegiate level is like learning a foreign language, the only way your students will become proficient is to write–a lot! You being a diligent scholar will provide individualized constructive feedback. You’ll discover that many cannot write a passable thesis statement nor provide an adequate framework in their writings. You’ll also find that many of your students may not read as well as you might wish, and you’ll have to also provide instruction on how to read a work critically.

    Like a drill instructor during boot camp, you are responsible for providing the cornerstones for your students’ future collegiate survival and success! It is good that your employer provided an orientation to prepare you for this task.

    Snark aside, you’ll find it a satisfying teaching experience, but it will take away from your writing time.

  3. They’re calling it Paideia?!?! Holy smokes, what a find—for me! This is going into my book MSS, post-haste. …I had been looking for a connection between Adler and his community’s early 1980s Paideia program and the increased prominence of great books in college core/liberal arts curricula in the 1980s! Now, to learn when Luther designated this “paideia”? – TL

  4. Well, they may not be getting it from Adler. They may be getting it from Jaeger (perhaps via Cremin), or something like that. Yes, I would guess Adler / “great books” discourse as a likely source, but you’d have to show your math on that.

  5. I’m not sure this is helpful but I’ve taught one of these courses for the past couple of years and am teaching one now. We have a common text that a committee selects each year. Everyone enrolled in the course reads it in addition to all the other stuff we assign.

    Anyhow, our common text last year happened to be the Skloot book. I had some success with it by teaching it against the backdrop of a larger intellectual history of legal-juridical conceptions of personhood and property. We started with stuff from Locke’s Second Treatise, then some William Cronon, puzzled over the 3/5ths Compromise and went into the Dred Scott Case, the 14th Amendment, Santa Clara County, then Plessy and so on. The point was that personhood/property/racial construction are very complicated when one surveys a history like this, and so the Lacks case fits in with/should be understood in light of larger ambiguities over what such ideas mean in US history.

    (This all made Plessy really interesting because of the stuff in there about whether Homer Plessy’s reputation as white was a form of property subject to due process and equal protection, etc.)

  6. For what it’s worth: A few students might be interested in the excerpts from The Rake’s Progress on Youtube. The Wolf Trap Opera just did it this summer; there are a few posts on their web site http://www.wolftrapopera.org/ with excerpts from rehearsals.

    re: Lacks–you might also raise the issue of what agency Henrietta Lacks had, and what agency her descendants had in dealing with Skloot.

  7. Thank you everyone for your excellent advice. Sorry I’m just now getting back to the conversation. Been in orientation sessions all day yesterday and today. I’m really excited to be at Luther. It has such an awesome small liberal arts college feel.

    • Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin. “Honourably Dead: Permissible Violence Against Women,” 32-64. An extract from _Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition_ by Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, published by Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2004. Reprinted by permission of Women Unlimited, New Delhi.

    • Oh, wow. That is powerful stuff. If even for your own perusal, I really wanna recommend Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence, particularly pages 212-216, and Gyanendra Pandey’s Remembering Partition, pages 192-195, to read or be considered alongside the Menon and Bhasin. (All three selections deal with a specific event and its annual commemoration, but offer different interpretations.)
      The issues of communal and gendered violence in the subcontinent, both historical and present-day, are still widely debated. I wonder how that will all square with the course’s theme of seeking wisdom in community.

    • (Oh, the page numbers for the Butalia are from the Penguin India edition; I think in the US Duke U. Press put it out, but I wouldn’t know if the pages correspond. In any case, it’s in the last section before Part III of Chapter 5, ‘Honour.’)

  8. Stravinsky and Auden? Can’t go wrong.

    If you’re studying the tension between individualism and community, you couldn’t pick a better time than Election Year 2012.

    The Republicans reject community; the Dems do not.

  9. I am so glad I came across this blog and society. Thank you. Also, I write on many of the same topics (education, intellectualism, philosophy). And would love it if you also considered reading my blog at Abookunfinished.com

    I’m definitely following you now!

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