Getting to the Core

Take 200 female, first-year college students. Put them in a room with 12 professors trained in history, physics, music, art, literature, and other disciplines. Require readings by Descartes, DuBois, Fanon, Wollstonecraft, Kant, Marx, Darwin, and plenty of other heavy hitters. Raise questions such as: Why is it so hard to think for oneself? Is science the Truth or (just) a story? How does language inform knowing? Does a politics of equal respect necessarily homogenize individual differences? Insist that there are no firm answers, only useful questions.

What will the result be?

Beyond the initial shock, student consensus affirms that Scripps’ innovative Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities provides the most frustrating, rewarding, upsetting, and enriching academic experience of today’s Scripps undergraduates.

The Core, as it is known on campus, is a three-course sequence that trains students to think liberally in the very sense espoused by Ellen Browning Scripps, who envisioned “a curriculum fashioned with the objective of developing mental equipment rather than amassing information.” Building on a strong tradition of interdisciplinary humanities training at Scripps, the Core also takes a new pedagogical approach to a college-wide, required curriculum. Although critical thinking skills have always been a prime objective, previous required courses tended to emphasize the transfer from professors to students of the great works of western civilization.

By the 1970s though, both “western” and “civilization” had become contested terms on most college campuses, open to charges of ethnocentrism, elitism, or parochialism. In response, in 1971, the chronologically progressive six-course Humanities program at Scripps (from Greek culture up to the early twentieth century) yielded to a series of seminars, with the noticeable inclusion of non-European topics.

When Scripps faculty convened in 1994 to re-envision the core curriculum, they sought to revise more than the content of the courses already in place. While Scripps’ previous curriculum had successfully spurred students to new levels of intellectual debate and exposed them to interdisciplinary discourses, the Core Program begun in 1996 attempts, above all, to shake up students’ assumptions about their culture and the bases of knowledge itself. Far from being hopelessly radical, fostering this critical and questioning spirit is the bedrock of a liberal education. In the words of Steve Naftilan, a professor of physics who has taught in the Core since its inception, “True intellectual growth cannot result without disturbance.”

Organized around the broad themes of Culture, Representation, and Knowledge, Core I plunges first-year students into many of the major intellectual debates and issues that inform modern culture. Twelve professors from different academic disciplines lecture to the freshman class twice a week and hold weekly discussion sections, with sixteen students each. “They may experience tremendous frustration early on because the course has a new format,” Professor Naftilan says of the typical first-year student’s reaction. “The readings are extremely difficult, and they cover such a broad range of disciplines. Although Core I holds together, there’s no way of seeing the trajectory until about two-thirds of the way through the course when the pieces start to fall into place.”

Jennifer Davis ’02, a humanities and politics major, was one of those students for whom the pieces initially fell into a disjointed jumble. “I had a lot of trouble adjusting to Core I out of high school,” Davis recalls. “I didn’t choose it, and I wasn’t ready for it. It felt overwhelming, but at some point I began to feel really inspired. That was the first time I really began talking in a class, making more educated risks.”

In many ways, Core I resembles boot camp, a testing ground that strengthens those who survive it. “I struggled with Core I in the beginning,” admits Mai Vukcevich ’01, a humanities major and recent student trustee, “specifically the pace of it. It was hard to keep up with since it seemed as if just as I would start to understand something, we would move on to something new.”

As in rigorous physical training, Core I “athletes” eventually reach the stage where their brains have attained enough strength and flexibility to actually begin enjoying their workouts. Many students’ best memories are of self organized study sessions, when the desire to engage in their own intellectual debates was at least as strong as the desire to perform well on a test. “When it came time to study for the Core final,” explains Sophie Lalazarian ’03, an English major, “about twenty of us formed a study group, one that provided some of the most stimulating and enjoyable discussions that I’ve ever had in college. I had always dreamed of being in an environment where ideas were argued and debated. Core stimulated conversation and the free exchange of ideas, which is one reason why it’s right before lunch: so you can end up talking with your classmates from 11:15 till 1:15.”

Convener of the Core, Nathalie Rachlin, in a Core I discussionDiscussions about ideas that spill out of the classroom door are every professor’s dream, and the existence of Core is definitely a draw for talented faculty. David Lloyd, who came to Scripps from the English Department at UC Berkeley and now fills the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair in the Humanities and serves as director of the Humanities Institute, says Core “was very much a factor in [my] coming here. I talked to those who were teaching in it and felt if they can produce such a progressive, interesting program, what else can they do?’ The value of a shared, defining academic experience, Lloyd feels, is especially significant for a women’s college: “Gaining a common experience and a common vocabulary gives the students more than an ethos-lots of colleges have that. But Core teaches them habits of thinking that are not confined to academic work but that play out in the rest of their lives. It’s good for a women’s college, in particular, to have not just an ethos but an intellectual tradition.”

What many Scripps students find, in fact, is that Core sets them apart among their peers. “That’s so Core” is a not uncommon response among Scripps students who recognize a critical theory or interdisciplinary approach applied in another classroom. Alison Walker ’01, an English major who has entered a Ph.D. program at UC Riverside, remembers “talking with my good friend who is an English major at Harvard. He was so amazed to hear that we had this program called Core, because Harvard had nothing like it. Core becomes a community and impacts every student at Scripps. I was still hearing about Core in my senior English classes. Professors from other colleges would pick me out as ‘knowing more’ than the other students because of Core.”

As a reaction to their mind-expanding experiences in Core, students approached David Lloyd about creating an interdisciplinary major that would continue and enlarge upon their development as critical thinkers. The Humanities Major: Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture was born, and its first graduates passed through the doors of Denison in 2001. In common parlance, students often refer to this major as “Core IV.”

One of the first graduates in the major, Liz Perlman ’01, began her studies at Scripps in 1994 under the former Humanities Program, took some time off, and returned to find a changed environment when she enrolled in Core II. “The freshmen were all unified, close-knit, all talking about Core I. The level of interest in what they were learning and the types of questions they were asking were definitely different.”

Perlman’s experience in Core II was a turning point in her academic career, and she remembers a particular lecture that inspired her to pursue an interdisciplinary major. Typically taken the second semester of students’ first year at Scripps, Core II classes are team-taught by faculty members from different disciplines and rely on semin
-style instruction to 40 or fewer students. Whereas Core I is a broad intellectual survey that introduces critical thinking skills, Core II asks students to apply that knowledge and those methods of critique to particular cultural phenomena. Courses focus on such topics as “The ’50s High and Low,” “The Female Body as Icon,” “The Nature of Evil,” “Communities of Hate,” and “Representations of Women in Opera.” In the class on women in opera, Perlman remembers a lecture Professor Jane O’Donnell gave on women instrumentalists in the Austrian Symphony. “It was the most inspiring feminist lecture-all about sexism in classical music,” she said. What captivated Perlman was not so much the particular subject matter but the critical, interdisciplinary approaches through which she was learning.

Exposed to team-teaching in Core I, students often relish the interplay between two professors in the Core II classroom. “There was a great dynamic between Nathalie Rachlin, a French professor, and Amy Marcus-Newhall, a psychology professor, in my Core II [‘Communities of Hate’],” notes Hannah Turiansky ’03, a humanities and studio arts major. “They were so different, but they represented two legitimate viewpoints. I think being exposed to that helps you think for yourself.”

Finally, in Core III students really stretch their intellectual wingspan by tackling self-designed projects, often collaborative and/or multimedia in character. Jennifer Davis signed up for what she calls “the activist Core III”: “The Making of History: Work and Race in Greater Los Angeles,” taught by Professor Cindy Forster. In addition to consulting archival sources, students must seek out an internship experience in Los Angeles that will give them access to oral histories of women, people of color, and working people. Davis chose an internship with a labor union that “opened up a whole ‘nother world. The experience ended up changing some of my life directions,” she said. The requirement of a well-documented research paper helped fuse the realms of experience and analysis for Davis.

Faculty also benefit from the flexible boundaries of Core III, the way that individual disciplines can expand and contract to encompass experiential learning and student-directed projects. Art professor T. Kim-Trang Tran finds that Core III provides a unique opportunity to illuminate connections among issues in the academic, public, and private spheres. “I collaborate on public art projects outside of my regular practice or teaching,” Tran explains. “Over the past several years I’ve been involved with groups organizing immigrant women workers to create public art pieces and media. So I developed a Core III course on women, work, and alternative media, ‘Convergence: The Other Independents.’ No other course has allowed me the room for this.”

With a strong emphasis on student initiated learning, Core III classes such as Tran’s may retain the same title semester after semester, but the content of these classes is constantly shifting, based on student interest or even current events. In the Core III class “Visual Coding in Contemporary Hollywood Films,” for example, the focus of much of the class is student-directed. After studying film theory and viewing several films with Professor Susan Rankaitis, students must put on a film festival for their peers, choosing a particular topic to explore through visual analysis. One semester, representations of disability became the organizing theme, while representations of black masculinity and fluid images of family emerged as a topic in other semesters. In order to successfully complete the class, students must not only do the heavy lifting of intellectual work, they must also strive as a group to create a meaningful experience for an audience. “There seems to me to be a much greater respect for difference of opinion since the advent of the Core at Scripps,” says Rankaitis. “In the 12 years that I have been here, the greatest difference that I notice today is that students seem to listen to each other more intently. We have always had intelligent and articulate students, but a larger number now seem interested in analysis by and perception of their peers.”

This circular aspect of the Core, the way that students begin as the recipients of cultural knowledge and conclude as creators and shapers of their own cultural productions, is the secret to its transformative power in students’ lives. In fact, David Lloyd is most proud of the fact that students in his recently taught Core I section staged a rebellion, accusing him of trying to indoctrinate them in postmodernism, or the attitude of questioning everything. “That was healthy resistance,” he explains. “They wanted to find something-an intellectual foundation-for themselves. They didn’t want to be given one.” It is just this desire to forge one’s own intellectual path that fulfills Ellen Browning Scripps’s dream of a college that “should be but an open door to knowledge.”