Bennington

Still lagging behind.

During the Saratoga week I went to Bennington College on Monday and Tuesday in nearby Vermont. It’s just a short trip and I passed the Saratoga Battle Monument from the Revolutionary war and stopped in the little town of Schuylerville (named after a general in that war) that I also remember from 2004. I had a quick breakfast. The place I ate at looked alright but there was something funny with it. In America you’re not used to being ignored by the waiters. Even foreigners (and Martians) get a hearty: How are you today? But here I didn’t get a menu, and when I had ordered a stack of pancakes I had to wait while folks that came in after me were digging away at their plates. I left without leaving any tip.

Anyway, there was a significant change in the landscape as I passed into Vermont. Very beautiful mountains in fall colors. The college is up in the hills, a mix of barn-like red buildings, conventional white houses and more avant-garde buildings. The college is focused on the humanities and it was the first to include visual and performing arts in a liberal arts education.

I met with Andrew McIntyre. Mathematics is not a big subject at the college and mathematics and science form a faculty together. As Andrew had told me in e-mail conversations, he had spent time re-thinking the mathematics curricula and syllabi. Reading the course descriptions, they are distinctly different from most other descriptions I’ve seen. This made it interesting to me.

The teaching method was also different. It was much more student-focused, more bottom-up, working from examples and exercises (which the students worked on themselves in groups and individually) towards the general theory. But in a guided way, guided by lists of things to do which I thought of as road-maps into the subject. I also talked to a student who is an Astronomy major over lunch. She had been studying at UMass-Amherst, so she could compare the method to the teaching at a large research university. Her comments gave me additional insights into the teaching at Bennington. It made me think …

… that perhaps I should try adopt something of this in my own classes. I thought of the approach as “pedestrian”. I did actually try something like this last spring in a multivariable calculus course where I worked from examples towards the general theory using matlab for visualization. It worked better than a traditional “theory -> examples” approach. What was lacking was supportive course material. I did it on the run out of necessity because standing in front of the students the third time I had the course, I realized I had to communicate. Remember, the students I have are not the equivalent to maths majors. Their knowledge of single-variable calculus, even algebra, is weak.

On Tuesday night I went to a faculty supper where Karen Gover talked about the “Language and Thinking Program” at Bard College in NY that she had taught at. I qoute from the Bard College website to give a feeling for what that is:

“The Language and Thinking Program is an intensive three-week writing program that begins in early August. Students read extensively in several genres, work on many different kinds of writing projects, and meet in small groups to discuss their reading and writing. Through these activities, they learn to read and listen more thoughtfully, to articulate ideas, to review their own work critically, and, most basically, to recognize the link between thought and expression.”

I mention this because of a student comment Karen qouted:

“After this I felt more confident in my writing but less confident in my thinking.”

Isn’t that a beautiful expression of what it means to gain some “bildung”?

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