Out with antiquity: Encounters transforms into new curriculum

Rachel Alexander

Whitman College faculty voted on Wednesday, Feb. 23 to approve a new curriculum for Encounters. Starting in the fall of 2012, Whitman first-years will be enrolled in the new version of the course, which is called Encounters: Transformations. The proposal for a new curriculum was developed by Zahi Zalloua, associated professor of French and general studies, and Gaurav Majumdar, associate professor of English.

Edward Younie '14 leads a discussion on Copenhagen in Professor Claire Valente's Encounters class. Credit: Ethan Parrish

Sharon Alker, assistant professor of English and general studies and chair of the Encounters curriculum subcommittee, said that the Encounters: Transformations proposal was selected because it built and expanded on previous themes of the course.

“Transformations took an extra step,” she said. “It’s not just an encounter; it’s what happens as a result of that encounter.”

Transformations is based around six units which explore common themes between texts. In the fall semester, students will cover origins and beginnings, spiritual and philosophical transformations, and mutability. Spring semester will continue with revolutions, transformation as rewrite and traumatic transformations.

Although the proposed syllabus for the curriculum has several texts in common with Encounters: Antiquity and Modernity, Zalloua said that these units would provide a fresh perspective.

“It’s not merely a cosmetic change when you place a text under a different unit,” he said. “You start asking different questions.”

Every student at Whitman has taken Core or Encounters, and most have strong opinions about the content, themes and texts selected for the course. However, student input was largely absent from the revision process. Although there are two student representatives on the General Studies Committee, no students are part of the Encounters Curriculum Subcommittee, which reviews and selects proposals for curriculum changes.

Junior Bailey Lininger serves as a student representative for the General Studies Committee and said she enjoys the opportunity to provide a student perspective on academic issues. However, she said that student voices are needed on the Encounters Curriculum Subcommittee.

“I feel that students have a lot to say about Encounters,” she said. “We could be a really important resource to the decision-making process.”

Associate Professor of Philosophy Tom Davis said that while student input was important, faculty are better able to provide long-term perspectives on curricular issues than students, who are only at Whitman for four years. Davis said he would not be opposed to students serving in an advisory capacity for Encounters curriculum revisions, but that their role should stop there.

“I am always happy to have student input, but I never want students to have a vote,” he said.

Even within the faculty, the new Encounters curriculum was not universally supported. Davis said that he, along with several other professors, were concerned that the course structure did not allow students to answer questions about the nature of truth and stability for themselves.

“I think it’s important when you’re teaching a required first-year course that you’re not telling students the answer to fundamental questions,” he said.

Specifically, Davis was concerned that the structure of the new curriculum would lead student to conclude that flux is superior to stability and that there is no universal truth. He said that these conclusions are especially problematic for scientists, because science is an “inherited paradigm of stability”.

“The whole activity of science presupposes that you’re working on truth,” he said.

Alker said that disagreement was part of the process of revision.

“We have wonderful faculty members, and they’re all educated in different traditions and different disciplines,” said Alker. “They all have different and very vibrant, well-thought through ideas about how to teach.”

These differences can lead to disagreement, which Alker sees as central to the process of change.

“As a necessity, we all disagree passionately,” she said. “That’s to be expected and encouraged.”

By expressing concerns and disagreement, Alker said that faculty can offer valuable suggestions for improving curriculum. For the current proposal, some faculty raised concerns about the lack of scientific and non-Western texts on the syllabus. The proposal was subsequently revised to incorporate this feedback.

Alker also believes that change is a necessary part of Encounters.

“It’s important to have change, but not change for change’s sake,” she said.

Currently, the Encounters theme can be changed every three years, but if no proposal is approved by the faculty, the course will stay the same. Majumdar said that this allows faculty to stay engaged when teaching the course.

“It helps us to have an occasional jolt of ideas,” he said. “It keeps the discussion fresh.”