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The Future of Encounters

Review documents, as well as interviews with numerous faculty, show the philosophical and political stakes of the debates around the future of Whitman College’s “signature program.”

March 8, 2018

Samarah Uribe Mendez

Samarah Uribe Mendez

Last year, three academics studied Whitman’s only required course of study. Every department here must undergo periodical external reviews, but this was the first conducted on the Encounters program.

The resulting report, submitted to the school in May of 2017, was based on interviews with faculty, students and administrators. The Wire obtained a copy of the review and its faculty response. The documents, as well as interviews conducted by The Wire, show the interrelated logistical, pedagogical and political problems that continue to plague this essential component of Whitman’s “first-year experience.”

Encounters, “the faculty’s Obamacare,” as religion professor Courtney Fitzsimmons put it, is a dependable source of controversy among Whitman professors. Mired in a generalized discontent, the program is seen as enacting fundamental questions as to the nature of tradition, community and the liberal arts at this school.

Serious structural change may be on the horizon.


Whitman College’s committee system is “fairly byzantine,” said John Cotts, a history professor and former director of the Encounters program. Part and parcel with life in academia, the committees — centers of academic bureaucracy, collaboration and sometimes, petulant ego — serve diverse and essential roles in campus affairs, including the processing and incubation of ideas to be put forth for approval by the faculty. The Encounters program, in the last year, has been considered by, among others, the Encounters Self-Study Committee, the Encounters Syllabus Committee, the Innovating the Curriculum Strategic Planning Ad Hoc Committee and the General Studies committee.

The current General Studies Committee, usually dedicated to the approval or rejection of appeals to have a certain class meet a general studies requirement (cultural pluralism, for example), is presently the major site of consideration regarding the future of the Encounters program. Chaired by past Encounters director Paul Apostolidis, its present active members include current Encounters director Helen Kim, past Encounters director Gaurav Majumdar, Libby Miller, Kendra Golden, Kurt Hoffman and, in a non-voting capacity, ASWC President AnnaMarie McCorvie.

The committee, which meets irregularly every few weeks in Maxey, does its work in light of the college’s new Strategic Plan and in particular, the external review, which identified among its pressing concerns the lack of tenure-track faculty involvement, and perhaps more fundamentally, the lack of faculty consensus about what Encounters is actually supposed to be doing for students. The committee, to whom the Strategic Planning Ad Hoc Committee passed the torch this semester, is currently working out a vision of concrete goals for what the Encounters program is trying to accomplish, and upon answering this question, will offer specific proposals to the faculty this spring for the most effective way to do it.

Currently, broad consensus exists that the reading list should be trimmed, but even this will be a painful endeavor that leaves some perceived winners and losers.

Further questions regarding the structure of the class give rise to more fundamental questions. Does the class emphasize writing or critical reading? Should it be one semester or two? Interdisciplinary? Rooted in the traditional Western canon or dedicated to encounters with non-traditional texts? Perhaps the most radical idea under consideration involves the dissolution of the common syllabus, long seen as essential to Whitman’s intellectual community, opening up the possibility of class pods with specific and distinct focuses designed to faculty predilections. There is historical precedent.


When religion professor Walt Wyman arrived at Whitman in 1982, the “first-year experience,” was a three-track system in which students could choose between “Classical Greece,” “Great Works” and “Origins of Modernism.” Wyman himself taught for a few years on the “Great Works” track. Under this system professors taught in fields to which their backgrounds were, at least, roughly tailored. Each track had around seven or eight faculty members which determined the syllabus for their sub-group.

“There was a growing dissatisfaction with that system,” Wyman said. David Maxwell, a new president, came on and encouraged the faculty to rethink the curriculum. Wyman served on the resulting Curriculum Review committee.

He said the discussion turned on the notion of a common syllabus. “Shouldn’t students be having the same thing?” he said. “That is, if we’re going to require a course, wouldn’t it be a very good idea if students were studying the same books at the same time, so that it didn’t matter who you sat down with at supper — you could say what do you make of ‘X,’ and then students could continue the conversation out of the classroom.”

The committee was concerned with fostering an “intellectual community,” and this community was to be founded on a first-year course conceived of as a “foundation for future study. Not that it’s the totality of a liberal arts education–that’s absurd of course–but having certain texts well known in common that one could then work from as one did other things in sophomore, junior and senior years. Wouldn’t that would be a good idea?” Wyman said.

Faculty decided that it was. But the common syllabus would pose its own set of problems. “Whitman began with three tracks because there was no shared agreement on what was truly important for students to learn,” wrote philosophy professor Tom Davis, who arrived at Whitman in 1987. Antiquity & Modernity, which would be in instituted in 1993, “was a political compromise that papered over the lack of common agreement.”


Antiquity & Modernity, or Core, as it also known, was “conceived as Western Intellectual Tradition,” said Wyman. “It was not designed to be global.”

“Can we talk about modernity without talking about Darwin?” asked Wyman. “Bad idea. Can can we talk about modernity without talking about Marx? Bad idea. Some people seem to belong pretty naturally when you start to structure the course that way.”

Despite significant textual overlap with the present-day reading list, Wyman said in spirit, Antiquity & Modernity represented a “very different approach” than Encounters: Transformations as we know it today. He said that when compared to the “designed flux of current course, this syllabus represents the titans, the foundations of stability.”

The new wave of younger faculty that came on in the early aughts disrupted this stability. Many rejected the very notion of a Core because it privileged a narrow selection of texts. Wyman said he can remember a colleague many years ago, saying “Core? There is no Core… We don’t want Core.”

The notion of a certain kind of foundational knowledge that liberal arts students should have at their command became less and less popular. A new vision of the liberal arts emerged, global, “attentive to the multicultural diversity that is America,” Wyman said.

Cotts arrived at Whitman in the fall of 2004, when conversations about changing the “first-year experience” were already well under way. He said the program had a lot of enthusiastic participants but “there was a certain degree of anxiety–quite justified in my view–about having … a Western Civilization course be the ‘Core.’” After all, this was Whitman’s only mandatory class, “and the potential value judgments implied by that were troubling to some.”

Cotts chaired the General Studies Committee when, for the fall of 2009, the faculty approved a replacement program called Encounters, largely intended to address these concerns and to reverse a trend of declining participation of tenure-track faculty in the program.

Philosophy professor Mitch Clearfield identified two changing philosophical assumptions animating the move away from Antiquity & Modernity. The first arose out of the sense that the catalogs we implicitly maintain of the “important” texts of history are relatively recent, and arguably ahistorical constructions. Despite present appearances, these canonical lists in fact were not, said Clearfield, “accumulating as history was actually going on.”

This is not to say the traditional canon as presently conceived is arbitrary. But the basic awareness that the canon is “far more contested than it had earlier seemed … makes it a lot more complicated, if not impossible to identify what would be the kind of Core set of texts,” Clearfield continued. “Core by what standard? Core according do what time period? Or from which perspective? And it might just make you kind of skeptical of the whole idea.”

The second philosophical change, Clearfield noted, was not merely geographical or one of perspective, but conceptual. “I think the sort of premise of Core was ‘even if these are texts or ideas or views that are to be transcended or rejected–you’ve got to learn them first in order to then move past them in whatever way.’”

Though hesitant to make a generalized statement on the faculty as a whole, Clearfield said he suspects “that sentiment is less widely shared now. And so there’s less of a sense of a progression that … a student would need to make, and more of a sense of different sequences paths or progressions that someone could take.”

Although Encounters retained the common syllabus, the year-long structure and the small class sizes of its direct precursor, the program was designed to be fluid, less chronological, teleological or triumphalist, its key and novel feature a moveable theme, a designed un-groundedness that would serve as a safety valve for textual sterility. Cotts said he hoped the changing theme would also encourage faculty to take more of a stake in the program because of the active role they would play in crafting it.

The first theme was called Encounters: Antiquity & Modernity. It was intended as a gradual transition to alleviate fears from faculty, particularly older ones, suspicious of overzealous change.

After the required three years had passed, professors Gaurav Majumdar and Zahi Zalloua proposed a new theme called Encounters Transformations, which faculty approved, thought not without controversy and disagreement, for fall of 2012.

Its initial syllabus traded on juxtaposition, resonance, dissonance, counterpoint.

“The very notion of Encounters was a reaction against the very idea of a western tradition, and when we were thinking Encounters we were thinking about a theme that would necessarily talk about the interaction of different cultural trajectories,” Cotts said. “And I think that the initial Transformations syllabus really did that pretty well.”

The theme was (and continues to be) based around six units, intended to contextualize a reading list that itself only subtly changed.

“It’s not merely a cosmetic change when you place a text under a different unit,” Zalloua told The Pioneer after the theme’s approval. “You start asking different questions.”

But in the years since, faculty have raised concerns that the theme has not been faithfully enacted to its initial proposal. Students often go through the entire course blissfully unaware of this supposedly undergirding vision. Some professors seem to ignore the units entirely.

One initial curricular pairing in spring 2013, of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and its postcolonial re-reading in Cesaire’s “A Tempest,” was removed for logistical reasons. It was reinstated this year, much to Cotts’ delight, “It’s marvelous,” he exclaimed. “That kind of thing that was”  — he dropped to a whisper — “I would say that that sort of thing was [our] vision.”

In other cases, the vision has lost its luster. “There’s an argument–and this is largely hearsay, but people do approach me with these things–that the current Encounters Transformation syllabus lacks thematic coherence, that the units don’t fit together as well as they should, that people lose sight of the overarching theme,” Cotts said.

Since the theme’s inception, other marvelous juxtapositions have been lost. Clearfield lamented that in “Genealogy of Morals,” first-years read Nietzsche’s rejection of certain kinds of conventional morality, without being exposed to representatives of those traditional views. “So we have an argument against views that we don’t have included,” he said, referring, for example, to the reason-based and morality enacted in Kant, or the Judeo-Christian conception of morality enacted in Augustine from which early incarnations of Encounters drew.

“I don’t think that we need to include everything that [Nietzsche] is arguing against or responding to, but I worry that right now we really don’t have anything that he’s responding to. And that makes it harder to work with the text in a fair and productive way.”

A number of factors may lead to a text’s removal from or addition to the syllabus on any given year. Some concern the capability of professors—for example, many doubt that the Qur’an can be effectively taught given the faculty’s general academic backgrounds. Some factors concern the richness of the text. After a year of teaching Bill Mckibben’s “Earth,” faculty decided it simply wasn’t a very rigorous book.

But other trade-offs are more difficult. It was Du Bois’ “Souls of Black Folk” that replaced Augustine’s “Confessions.” With the push for fewer texts in general, such decisions will not get easier.

For students, the textual content of the syllabus remains a major central critique of the Encounters program on course reviews. And many faculty are on board with the idea of further diversifying a syllabus by which, according to religion professor Courtney Fitzsimmons, all but 18 of 81 classes are spent discussing texts authored by males. Fitzsimmons, who chairs the Encounters Syllabus Committee which handles text and theme proposals, said the canon, by its nature, can reinforce old biases. She stressed the imperative to bring new voices into the fold to make Whitman a more welcoming academic environment.

But, as evidenced by the Kant poster in Fitzsimmons’ office, such critiques of the canon can be more subtle than those often espoused by students. Elyse Semerdjian, an associate professor of Islamic World and Middle East History who arrived at Whitman in 2003, wrote in an op-Ed to The Wire last month that in the Antiquity & Modernity syllabus, “the non-West served as a resting place for ancient religion, a languid, sleepy little place left behind by the rise of Modernity in the West. I knew that this place was far from languid.  I was writing the dynamic history of Syria while teaching texts in a syllabus that actively undermined my own scholarship and pedagogy with its reification of a fictitious ‘West’ and propagation of normative whiteness.” But she also acknowledged that, though she doesn’t see herself in Plato’s work, she “benefited from reading Plato in ways” she “could not have predicted” when she encountered his work as a young liberal-arts student.

Majumdar himself, who teaches Victorian literature and a wide range of anti-colonial texts, said he remains wary of political undercurrents that confuse “political representation with aesthetic or intellectual richness.” His criteria of admittance of a text to the program is whether a text is demonstrably influential or demonstrably inventive, and ideally it is both. He said he stands at a crossroads on the issue of the canon. By some, he is implicitly told he is a sellout to the Western canon, and by others implicitly that he is a nihilist or an anarchist for his position favoring the geographical and cultural widening of textual studies. “Canon is a functional inevitability,” he said, adding that the dominant canon “screams” for critique. Majumdar teaches General Studies-245, or Critical Voices, an optional follow-up to Encounters largely dedicated to this task. “But,” he said, “you will have a canon of some kind.”

Furthermore, specific debates about texts are really proxies to the question of what the course’s raison d’etre actually is. The Antiquity & Modernity course description characterized the class as “Western.” A glance at Encounters’ present learning goals, which state that classes will “engage in a wide range of influential ideas,” sets few limits. Without the traditional canon, or thoughtful juxtapositions and co-resonances on which all the faculty can agree, Encounters, as it currently stands, in fact might stand on very little.

And yet the another lingering sense remains that little has changed at all since the inception of Encounters. “I really think that the changeable theme is not something the the faculty have noticed,” Cotts said. Only one new theme–Rethinking Tradition–has been proposed since, and it was rejected by faculty vote. It would have been comparative and introduced more non-Western material. But concerns were familiar: changing would be a lot of work. It would pigeon-hole some cultures. There was significant East Asian material, said Cotts, and some doubted the faculty’s capacity to competently teach the texts. Simply put, faculty, from which the program needed buy-in, would be no more interested in teaching this theme of Encounters than Transformations.

Sometimes Cotts wishes Encounters had taken a more radical departure. “But it probably wouldn’t have passed.”


In the 2016-2017 academic year, a total of one tenure-track Assistant Professor taught in the Encounters program, according to the Encounters Self-Study Group’s report. This spring, there are 27 sections of Encounters. The problem of staffing the classes, particularly with tenure-track professors, remains a major point of contention among the faculty and a persistent bane for administration and Encounters program directors (the term “tenure-track” encompasses both un-tenured “assistant” professors and tenured “associate” professors). Although the initial call for Encounters professors goes out in the fall one year early, in some years, multiple classes have remained without a professor even into the summer before the new academic year began.

Many faculty are contractually obligated to teach in the program. On top of and independent of this, some departments have commitments to contribute a certain amount of professors to the program every year. This number varies by department, and is often a function of ad hoc agreements made with administration wherein, for example, the department will get an extra tenure track slot, but will in turn commit to a new half- or full-year Encounters position. The history department, for example, is required to have four Encounters instructors per year.

In recent years, many departments have not done their agreed-upon share. Cotts said he discovered as director that “department chairs often have very creative and impassioned ways of explaining why they don’t have to fulfill their commitments in any given year.”

Theoretically, said Cotts, if all commitments were adhered to, 18-22 instructors would be guaranteed annually.

The external review says that “the lack of robust tenure-track participation in the program is of considerable concern–to Whitman faculty with whom we spoke and to us as reviewers–especially because Encounters is thought of as a signature program at Whitman, a shared experience, and the only requirement for which there are no choices by students.”

The review recommended a firmer staffing structure to ensure more faculty to whom Whitman has made long-term commitments teach in the required first-year program, but debates persist as to whether this problem is in fact one of substance, a genuine lack of institutional commitment, or mere bad optics. This remains a flash point of contention among the faculty for its loaded implications in the insular and yet strangely charged world of academic politics.

With the recent staffing problems, Whitman has relied more and more on contingent adjunct faculty to teach the course. As the Whitman faculty expanded, some new hires involved academic couples, and the college could not offer both tenure-track positions. In some cases, it offered Encounters teaching positions instead.

Some, despite reviewer’s concerns, argue that the reliance on contingent faculty could actually be seen to the program’s advantage, because it means that people teaching for the program have more experience. Devon Wootten, an adjunct assistant professor of General Studies, has been teaching Encounters for six years now. He said that he “wants to push back against this idea that more tenure track equals a sort of ersatz, or stand in euphemism for more institutional commitment.”

He continued, “I think it’s easy to say that ‘well we have a lot of contingent adjunct faculty teaching this. That must mean that we’re not serious about this course.’ But what I think people forget is that contingent adjunct faculty have the most experience teaching this course… If we are student-centric, and we’re evaluating this course, those two things are not necessarily connected, right? So I think we’re misunderstanding the goals. I think we’re skipping over a lot of steps if we stay that oh, more tenure-track people would necessarily lead to the course we want.”

This year, tenure-track faculty shortfalls have been partially alleviated by an enhanced effort by administration to “remind departments of their commitments,” said Dean of Faculty Alzada Tipton. But questions linger as to a sustainable solution.

Dean Tipton, who is herself teaching an Encounters course this year to better understand the program, said, “We want people teaching Encounters who want to be teaching it, rather than being forced to do so. So another big part of this is how to help people understand that teaching Encounters is a good experience, which is absolutely the experience that I’ve had–that it’s something that the college values, that it’s something that college appreciates in important moments like the contract renewal evaluation, or the tenure and promotion evaluation.”

Such emphasis is partially intended to combat a persistent myth. Cotts said that many tenure-track faculty have the “utterly false perceptions that teaching Encounters means they will get less positive student evaluations, and when they get less positive student evaluations they will be denied tenure and thus they will be denied tenure because they chose to teach Encounters. Has never happened. There’s a little mythology of that. The Personnel Committee looks very favorably upon participation in Encounters. I’ve been told this several times.”

Some professors simply say they don’t find the course interesting. Others dislike how increases their workload because they have to learn new texts, or how it takes them out of their element, makes them vulnerable.

I was initially told I could come to the Encounters’ faculty regular Tuesday meetings, wherein they discuss texts, try to get a better grasp on them and work out teaching methods. The offer was rescinded after consultation with the faculty. It’s a supportive and honest and open environment. My presence would have destroyed the ethos of vulnerability, harshed the vibe.

“I’ll lump myself into this. We as professors like to be good at stuff,” Wootten said. “We spend a large portion of our lives educating ourselves in a particular discipline.” He continued, “If we’re teaching in our discipline, we’re comfortable. We’re grounded in this subject. It’s a subject we care about. It’s a subject that animates us, that we’ve dedicated a lot of our lives to. So when asked to teach Encounters, that sort of… intellectual comfort, that sort of discipline-specific knowledge authority is not there.”

Some faculty simply don’t believe teaching Encounters is in their skillset. Cotts thinks everyone should feel like they can teach it and, in particular, he would love to see more diverse faculty involvement, from, for example, the sciences.

Delbert Hutchison, an associate biology professor, taught one Core course 16 years ago. He has wanted to return to the first-year program ever since, but was needed in the biology department because of high enrollment. This year, the department finally let him teach Encounters.

“Bottom-line,” he wrote in an email. “Encounters, at this point in my career, has saved my life. I am renewed and energized. What all of us need, I believe, are those kinds of challenges that wake us up and that usually involved diving into areas about which you know little. As an academic, whether I knew it or not, I have those skills to tease apart difficult texts and benefit from them. I learned them as a scientist, but despite the obvious differences between areas of specialization, at bottom we all use logic and reason.  All you really need is the humility to not know everything and let yourself be vulnerable in order for the light to come in. Best thing I’ve done in a long time.”

“The world is full of wisdom and perspectives,” he continued. “The problem is time and access and our penchant for specialization. The more I know, the more I have to think about and that is just fun.” He enjoys his students, his interactions with other faculty involved in the program: “It is my chance to be directly immersed in a community of learning.”

But if the future of the Encounters program concerns the future of Whitman as an intellectual community, some are concerned that this community is fraying. The motto of Davis’ alma mater was “the pursuit of truth in the company of friends.” He doubts whether this is truly possible among the faculty at Whitman anymore:

“There is not a difference, there is a world of difference between those faculty who believe it’s most important for Whitman students to become agents of social justice, and those who believe that justice left to its own devices inevitably turns tyrannical, where that twist calls for becoming humane, thoughtfully humane… Problem-solving and enigma-facing define radically different conceptions of what is important for students to learn,” he wrote. “Can the ‘first-year experience’ introduce students to both these conceptions of importance in a way that will invite the students to work out the importance of their differences for themselves?”

Debates persist because faculty care about the first-year program, and, after the external review, they have largely entered the meta-agreement that central to the future of Encounters is the establishment of common goals on which all faculty can agree. How does the course function? Why do we require everyone to take it, devote so many resources to it? What makes it so important and what does it say about who we are as a college? How can we provide the best liberal arts education to our students? These questions, as they coalesce in the Encounters program, are central to Whitman’s identity. “If it were not a major issue, that would be wrong,” Wootten said.

Meanwhile, the students, theoretically the telos to all the drama, have their own set of imperatives.

McCorvie said that, on the General Studies Committee, “frequently they’ll be talking about these goals of the program, and I have to be honest and admit to them that I never felt those goals.”

McCorvie continued, “And I’ll be like ‘you know what I liked? That we could all go to lunch together afterwards because it was at the same time. I was really into that.’ And they’re like, ‘AnnaMarie, that’s not part of what we’re talking about here’ and ‘I’m like, ‘that is the only thing that I cared about. I don’t know what Encounters is supposed to do, but I really liked going to lunch.’”

 

 

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “The Future of Encounters”

  1. Kat [email protected] on March 21st, 2018 7:03 pm

    Amazing piece. Read every single line. Let’s go Wire.

    [Reply]

  2. Karl Lee on March 27th, 2018 7:42 pm

    I can only speak as a parent of a Whitman Fyr, but if the purpose of the Encounters program is to create an atmosphere of mutual conceptual exposure and learning through group cognitive processing, then I do believe that the program has validity, but perhaps not a reality based ability to function. I agree that in order to intelligently discuss and analyze the perspectives of the “great works” one has to have prior knowledge of these works, some healthy dose of experience and the ability to perceive patterns and conflicts within the epics. How does one choose which works to study? To omit? to compare? It is a totally subjective decision, one not solved by committee. I suggest a more radical idea. NO PROFESSORS AT ALL. All papers will be accepted and be of merit, as all are of an opinion of an individual. All books to be chosen by the students, from a general list provided by present faculty, past students and other colleges. All papers to be discussed and “graded” by peer group examination OVER LUNCH. FINAL GRADE TO BE GIVEN OVER DINNER. Keep the Encounters program but put it in the hands and MINDS of the students.

    [Reply]

  3. Harrison Berry on March 29th, 2018 9:21 pm

    When the first paper I wrote for Core (as it was called then) was returned to me, it was a mess of red ink. I remember the professor’s gist—that I should cut the cliches. If there were two things I learned in that class, they were to be thoughtful and strive to express my thoughts well.

    Based on the article, it sounds like the first-year program is trying to be all things to all people. I appreciate Majumdar’s comments: good texts should be influential and inventive. Those criteria point to an end user experience. If faculty are looking for a North Star, let them put aside for a moment what materials they want to include in the course and find consensus on what it is they want students to take away from it.

    I’m partial to the antiquity/modernity vibe of my own time at Whitman, but I believe it’s critical to make Encounters inclusive, not to ensure every student sees herself represented, but to represent the world as a wide and conceptually rich place worth exploring and engaging. Whitties pride themselves on being engaged and socially conscious, but those virtues are only valuable if they rest on a foundation of knowledge and a sense of wonder.

    In the decade since I graduated, I’ve attended graduate school and been working as a journalist. I like to think I’ve done my best to fulfill the promise of my education, and hopefully I’ve learned how to resist cliche along the way. My experience would have been worse if the professors teaching me and my cohort disagreed on what they were trying to achieve.

    [Reply]

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