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Asking Big Questions

Students toured the Levi Coffin House, a major stop on the Underground Railroad, as part their first-year seminar.

Last fall, Earlham College experimented with a bold, new approach to first–year seminars that challenged all students to begin to answer the question, “How shall I live?” These courses went beyond the typical focus on analytical reading and writing to probe vital ethical questions that inform the paths the students will take through life.

“That an Earlham seminar would even attempt to put students on the path of inquiry to answer that question is distinctive,” says Professor of Theater Arts Mickey White.

The instructors for last fall's seminars, who came from a variety of disciplines, focused a portion of class time on the College’s Principles and Practices, a document that sets out the basic values that inform Earlham’s approach to education: respect for persons, integrity, peace and justice, simplicity and community.

The professors were also asked to collaborate with at least one other colleague during the semester. Many faculty brought their classes together for shared discussions, field trips or activities.

“Most schools have some type of introductory seminar, but I have not seen this type of situation before,” says Professor of English Kari Kalve, who collaborated with Associate Professor of English Scott Hess. “It is unique in its focus on values — the values of the college and the values of the students — and how you shape those values.”

The City and Nature

Kalve’s course was subtitled “Place, The City, Identity” while Hess’s course was subtitled “Place, Nature, Identity.” Except for a three-week period the courses share the same syllabus.

First-year Anna Seifert says the collaboration made it interesting to talk about the same reading through two different but similar lenses.

“To get to talk to the ‘nature’ students brought about whole new ideas in the classroom,” Seifert says. “The collaboration really brought a new light to ‘How Shall I Live?’ simply because the only way that we could answer that question is through hearing about other people’s philosophies. Yes, we could learn through readings, which have been very successful, but to have a whole class sharing their personal philosophies and interpreting the readings was very valuable,”

Kalve says at first she was uncertain about how the classes would work and was especially wary about the joint class sessions she and Hess planned throughout the course.

“We were amazed from the very beginning,” she says. “I was surprised by how much they rose to the challenge, and I was actually moved that they were so open. It could have been chaotic, but instead it felt like genuine deep reflection. Our first joint meeting was wonderfully collaborative, and that was really the first time that I saw what this kind of activity could do in a learning environment. It spread the space of intellectual reflection beyond one classroom. To see what other people were learning and then to learn from each other allowed students to learn at a much more profound level than I anticipated.”

For Winnie Makuru '16, the seminar was an eye-opening experience.

“As we did more readings and discussions, I started making a connection between the title of our seminar class ‘Place, The City, Identity’, and the overall Earlham Seminars this year,” Makuru says. “By understanding my place in society and where I am, my identity, and my identity in different places, I got a sense of how I should live when I am in different places. My identity remains the same, but I express it differently. So this class did answer the question ‘How Shall I Live?’ to a certain extent.”

Choosing a Life

Professor of Religion Mary Garman collaborated with Professor of English and Women’s Studies Barb Caruso, Professor of History Chuck Yates, and Research Professor of Classics Steve Heiny for courses subtitled “Choosing a Life.”

“We had the same reading list and for the most part the same schedule,” Garman says. “The four of us met for an hour and a half each week to strategize. We discussed what each of us was doing and swapped strategies.” The classes had one joint session for each required book, which includes Toni Morrison’s Beloved and chapters from Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. Each class traveled to nearby Fountain City to tour the Levi Coffin House.

“To be in the house and see how the slaves were hidden and how the family worked to hide them is really quite something for the students to experience,” Garman says. “What occurred to my group is that when you are forced to lived under completely oppressive conditions, your choices are quite limited. You have to choose to live with integrity when those around you don’t afford you that integrity.”

First-year students chose from 18 Earlham Seminars and two time slots, which allowed for joint class meetings and gatherings outside of class time. Some professors chose to incorporate Earlham’s Principles and Practices, which is a statement of the values that guide those who work and live at Earlham, as an individual reading with discussion, while others chose to use it throughout the course.

“We spent time with every reading discussing how Earlham’s Principles and Practices are evidenced in each book,” Garman says.

White says the “How Shall We Live?” theme resonates strongly within Principles and Practices and within the College.

“It is in our mission statement and in everything we do we try to set students on a path of inquiry that will remain with them for the next four years and beyond,” he says. “We believe that there are ethical and moral judgments to what we say and do in our everyday exchanges. My sense is that students are trying to find answers; they are trying to find their way to what it means to be human.”

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