Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Institutional Memory and Urban Liberal Arts

Geez I wish we had had the collective brainstorm of sharing the materials from the "epic Roosevelt Assembly Meeting" sooner! (And thanks so much to Noah for posting them!!) It is amazing how much of that conversation we are rehearsing right now; which might seem alarming to some (in a "history repeats itself," "do they never learn anything" way), but which makes me very proud, in that it shows that there is genuine continuity in the Shimer experience (at least over the span of a generation and four "student life-cycles."

But what really struck me was David's proposal to become a College of Roosevelt University, but remain in Waukegan. In part because this is--to the extent that I understand it--what I would have probably supported at that time (had I not been 14 years old), but I think more because it presented exactly that balance that many of us have been trying to think through: how can we address the significant challenges (though, clearly the challenges then were far greater than the challenges today) the College faces--especially unimpressive recruitment--without undermining the unique (and I say unique, and not distinctive, in that I believe Shimer is not merely remarkable or "different" [a number of places are that], but genuinely unlike anything else, and hence "unique") character of the College.

In this light, I want to share David's conclusion in his motivating memo for his proposal, and ask us (and him specifically, if he wishes to take up this friendly address) what the meaning of this is for us today. He wrote: "The Shimer community has survived, and in many ways thrived, for nearly a century and a half as a geographically independent entity. While it is certainly possible that a move of the main campus to Chicago would enhance the program in certain ways, it would also risk the somehow intangible benefits of this geographical distance. The proposal I have set forth here seems to me to involve the least risk to our community as it currently stands" (roosevelt.pdf, p. 13). This entirely captures the nature of my concern today, and the motivation behind the alternative proposal Erik and I developed: might there be a way for us to see (at least "experimentally") if "we" really feel like "us" somewhere else, before moving the whole Shimer enterprise into the "brave new world" of the Southwest Loop (or elsewhere)?

And one final thing, while I am here. I taught for two years at a "liberal arts college in an urban context" (Eugene Lang College); which is growing propitiously (I mean like 30% a year), and succeeding by any measure. I am grateful for that experience, and especially to my students there. There were engaged, bright, fun, and eager. They were also largely attracted to being in NYC, and not necessarily to what was distinctive (and not unique) about Lang's curriculum or pedagogy; indeed many of them did not even know about the curriculum in much detail (with its seminar classes (capped at 15 when I started teaching there and 18 a year later, but 11 when I considered it as a potential undergrad back in 1993-4), 5 concentrations, rather than majors, and its focus on interdisciplinarity and so on). It seems to me entirely possible, in light of David's 1990 concerns, that Shimer would move to the Loop, increase recruitment significantly, and feel tremendous pressure to serve students wanted more to be in a "liberal arts college" (loosely understood) in Chicago than to be at the unique Shimer college in Waukegan (or wherever). Put another way: be careful what you wish for. Lang wanted like anything to grow. Now it has--it will reach 1000 students soon if it hasn't already, after having been at around 150 when the Assembly made its Roosevelt decision--and it will very soon cease to be truly distinctive (let alone unique), as it keeps raising the class size (now to 20, and soon beyond) and loses the "seminar" brand from its advertising materials and self-understanding. I am not saying this will happen to Shimer should it move, but it seems to me a very realistic possibility.


Cassandra Kaczocha said...

Mike, I'm glad to hear that you're trying to understand "if we really feel like us somewhere else". As you and Erik work on your proposal, I'd like to add my experiences in Oxford into your thoughts. Maybe David Shiner, Katie Harrell and Sara Delezen can add their memories into the mix too.

While in Oxford, we were the first group of Shimer-in-Oxford students to be part of a lease-like agreement with Plater College. Before our group headed over, we all agreed to live at Plater and partake in their meal plan and amenities. I think most of us agreed mainly because it was much easier to go abroad with a defined place to call home. Much easier at least than what we'd heard from other Shimer student's who'd studied in Oxford. I also think that many of us originally grinned at the idea of a meal plan (the grinning didn't last long!)

By November, I moved off of campus. But, my move had little to do with being a part of Plater and more to do with living in a dorm (a first for me). All in all, I felt very much still like Shimer even in the more traditional college environment of Plater. Our core courses were still served up as shared exploration around a table, it was not round. The environment at Plater did not at all diminish from my educational experience.

Having never lived on the Shimer campus in Waukegan, I can't speak to the non-course differences. But, I do believe that we were able to build an extended community of friends with some of the Plater students. Having spent lots of time with the same small group of people, the ability to create a diverse extended network was very much appreciated.

Sandy Kaczocha

Owen Brugh said...


I would agree with you that Shimer is unique. However, I would say that what makes Shimer unique is what happens in the classroom and how students are viewed.

I've (fortunately or unfortunately) attended at least half a dozen colleges for various reasons, eventually coming to Shimer because of the education. What I found was that facilities don't matter a lick if you don't get a real education in critical thought through dialog. I came to Shimer because I was done with the "empty vessel" theory of college education.

I would expect that few if any current or former Shimer students came to the school because of the facilities. We came because of the uniqueness of the education. Frankly, during hot or cold weather, having class in 438 can sometimes be like having it in a tent. (I can only imagine what it was like 10 years ago.)

In either case, if Shimer were in a tent city somewhere, I think most of us would still go because of the type of education Shimer provides.

If the school were talking about changing the way it views the student, the size of classes or the construction of the curriculum, we would all be up in arms. And I'd join everybody on the barricades.

But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about whether a different space is more conducive to the continued uniqueness of the college and its indefinite survival. The simple answer is that we could not possibly know. There are too many questions that are unanswerable or haven't even been imagined yet.

The day after visiting the space at IIT, I sat for a long time in 438 trying to figure out if what happens there could happen at 35th and State. I think it can, but I'm not sure it has to. The declining enrollment numbers, increasing maintenance costs and can-no-longer-be-deferred maintenance seem to be an indicator in the other direction, and I do believe it is better to do something when you can rather than when you have to. Still, I’m not totally convinced.

To come back to my point, I believe Shimer will remain unique regardless of where it is.

I came to Shimer in spite of its physical characteristics. I worry that by clinging to the physical, we lose many students (and their parents) who could make a significant contribution to the community. There are costs if we go, but there are also significant costs to staying.

Katie Harrell said...

Thanks Sandy. I began to think about this over the weekend. At Plater, the 8 of us lived in one dorm – boys downstairs and girls upstairs with a couple non-Shimerians thrown in here and there. We had a sink in our rooms (and a toothmug!) and the kitchen had a sink, fridge, and food lockers but no stove or microwave. Refusing to part from our ramen we did sneak in a hotplate that was discovered by a maid and had to be stolen back and hidden in a food locker. I would say our biggest complaints about living at Plater were 1) the food, it was terrible and expensive 2) the absence of heat for 12 hours every night (because “you don’t need to be warm if you’re sleeping” to quote our Plater RA) 3) electric showers with low water pressure. Although the first may be true at IIT, the last two probably aren’t.
Plater was somewhat self-governed. They voted on a student president and vice president and although they did not make huge decisions, they were responsible for getting input from the student body regularly. Somehow I became the elected Shimer advocate at the college. There were only a couple of times when I had to voice our complaints but many times when I was asked to “get the Americans out” for Plater events. This was because, for the most part, Shimer remained Shimer in Oxford. We stayed in our rooms and read a great deal. We converged in the kitchen and drank and smoked and bitched and laughed with our Shimer-selves. We needed to be pushed out to experience where we were. I was probably the most social I have ever been while there. There was a built in group of strangers who were completely non-Shimerian and that provided a much needed healthy escape during the Year of the Thesis. There was a joint commons room where Shimer and Plater students watched tv, listened to music, danced, and did other not so scholarly activities. The Shimerians remained a close-knit group, but we each discovered new friends and interests outside of Shimer as well. We grew. And our sense of home/community was not threatened by Plater because, well, it just wasn’t their thing. And it’s common knowledge around town that Shimer isn’t for most people you come across.
This is not to say that IIT will be a replicated experience but I would say that when we flew over the big water, Shimer came with and we held onto it tightly and identified with it strongly. Plater was where we lived, not who we were.
Mike, Erik, if you would like any help just let me know.

mikeyd723 said...

Thanks to all for such full responses and thoughful reflections; I really feel like I am learning. I have a few ideas that come to mind but before I offer them, I'd love to ask Katie or Sandy to get in touch with Erik (erik@shimer.edu) if you'd like to be a part of whatever we might be contributing to the community's discussion in a formal way. (Erik and not me because he's the fella on campus and speaking with folks who are figuring out the shape of what will be discussed on the 18th.)

First, to Owen. I completely agree that (to paraphrase Clinton) "It's the classroom, stupid." What I meant most to refer to when I asked "if we really feel like us somewhere else" wasn't about the space at IIT vs. the Waukegan campus, but what Chris H. referred to in her recent post--the uncertainty about being a "part" of anything else. I think the whole conversation would be different if we were speaking about "just" moving the college to a new space.

And I want very much, Owen, to believe you are right that "Shimer will remain unique wherever it is." The concern I raised if that we see recruitment improving on the basis of being in Chicago, then my suspicion is that such a spike would be the result of Chicago's draw, not Shimer's. In other words, it is not that we will attract more students who are primarily attracted to Shimer's curriculum and community, but that we will attract more students who are primarily attracted to going to a private college in Chicago--or at best, perhaps, to pursuing a loosely-understood "liberal arts" degree in Chicago. Chris rightly points out that this might open up the community more, and that would lead us to growth in the best sense. I just sense that--through experience with Lang and some other similar-ish places--the more likely result with be dilution of Shimer's uniqueness, until it is successful and solvent, but not the place we are all so passionate about.

Finally, Sandy's and Katie's point about being "Shimerians on an island" so to speak (if that is a fair way of paraphrasing you) seems to me exactly what I wonder/fear the entire Shimer community might feel like if it were to move within an existing institution. It was to try to test and see if this might happen that Erik and I first thought of this "pilot program" idea. So I appreciate those stories, and would love to get them into the "motivating documentation" for our proposal (or I think I should say Erik's motion) for Assembly.

Owen Brugh said...

I see what you're saying, but I think I see the location as just a small part of the rationale for such a move.

Yes, Chicago is much cooler than Waukegan. That's why I live in Chicago. But that isn't the beginning or the end of it.

From what I've heard (I really wish we had numbers from people who DIDN'T come.), we miss potential students because they don't know we exist, don't like the facilities, and don't like the lack of specific courses for grad school prep (more science, math, pre-med).

I suspect the largest impediments are the lack of recognition and lack of decent facilities, especially among 18-year-olds trying to talk their parents into this kooky place. The move, in theory, would at least bring the college's facilities up to code (with a loss of some warmness). As for the awareness, well, IIT alone sure as hell will not fix that.

The cross-listing would allow our students to take all the science, math and pre-med they could stomach while still remaining at Shimer. I have no idea how many people would take the dreadful "empty vessel" courses, or how that would affect Shimer. I usually look at the Jim Donavon experience to judge this. Jim took a Shimer-like course at Notre Dame way back when (really, the discussions and all), and it changed his life. I see that happening to a lot of IIT students, and it makes me smile.

In either case, I can see your concerns about rapid growth. Still, I don't think anybody is talking about growing larger than 300 students in 10 years.

The final analysis, I think, is that neither one of us know what will happen if and as the college grows. Shimer used to be larger, (Heck, I think it was about 300 students the first time the BOT voted to close the school.) So such enrollment is not unheard of or unmanageable.

I hope some of the people around during the Mt. Carroll days will still be around when it happens so they can help guide the school through the growth.

And we'll all be keeping a watchful eye.


Katie Harrell said...

I'll contact Erik - thanks. I have the same fear as you Mike about the draw being Chicago, not so much Shimer. Not only because of possible dilution, but also because of a possible increase to the attrition rate once those who came for Chicago get a taste of Shimer.

Cassandra Kaczocha said...

I think it's kind of funny that you referred to what Katie and I described as "Shimerians on an island". Isn't this whole discussion about either remaining an island in Waukegan or becoming an island amongst a larger community on the South side? You worry about the feeling of being an island if we join a larger institution, but don't forget that we're island in Waukegan. We're Shimer, we're always an island. The very uniqueness you've eloquently described is what makes us always an island. We aren't what everyone else is doing and that remains regardless of location.

Back in 1990 David Shiner worried how Shimer would thrive without geographic independence. I think that Shimer thrived at Plater and it's even thriving right now through our discussions in this blog. Shimer may not always have geographic independence, but it will always have metaphysical independence. Being outside of the educational status quo will always give Shimer students a sense of close community amongst themselves. Having a broader community for students to associate with can only be beneficial.

I smile at the thought of Shimer students engaging IIT students in Shimerian discussion in the dorm's common rooms. We did it at Plater and found that we're not so metaphysically isolated as we'd though. People outside of Shimer enjoy our kind of discourse and it's encouraging to sometimes realize that you're not quite an island.

Inspector Michael D . . . said...


In your opinion, and in your role as member of the board, how does the college view the students?


mikeyd723 said...

Sandy, what you say is quite true. Maybe the concern is that with this move to IIT's campus (or a similar move should this one be rejected or not come to pass), Shimerians will be on an island the nature and direction of which is not first and foremost determined by themselves. Giving up autonomy--even in the limited way that this move would--seems to be something to be done only after very careful consideration (which surely is going on now, it seems) and with a clear idea of the benefits (which I am not as sure have been clearly articulated).

But what I hear in what you say--at a metalevel maybe--is a reminder that we are and ought to be motivated by hope and not fear. And that is something it is always worth remembering--and something with which I (at least) wholeheartedly agree.

Owen Brugh said...

Well, in the instance of how the college views the student that I mention above, I'm talking about the belief that the student has the ability to create their own interpretations of the texts without the mediation of a text book or, in some regards, a professor lecturing away.

Most colleges view the student as an empty vessel to be filled by the professor and text books. It's a "what to think" model. Those colleges act from a belief that you have to know the interpritations of others before you can craft your own.

Shimer's style of education trusts that the student will think what is right for him or her. Instead, it advances that it is important to learn how to think.

Now, if you mean the question in some other way, I think there are a variety of answers.

Inspector Michael D . . . said...

Thank you Owen!