Monday, April 09, 2012

Two perspectives on what makes Shimer work

Two insightful perspectives on what makes Shimer work have been posted in recent weeks, one dealing primarily with the community aspect and one primarily with the classroom.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both come from people still in the first year of their Shimer experience.

Here is first-year student blogger Isaac Marchant-Shapiro, introducing the Shimer community while en route to Natural Sciences 2:
I am not simply a student, a replaceable part of a couple classes; I am a member of the Shimer community, and that community is what I would like to talk to you about today. As a whole, Shimer is a very tight-knit group, and there are several factors contributing to that.

For one, Shimer is tiny. When I say "tiny," what do you imagine? One-thousand students? Two-thousand? Try about one-hundred-and-thirty students, and about fifteen facilitators (Shimer word for 'teacher'). So, when I say "tiny," you are now aware that I don't mean the 'comparatively small' kind of tiny. I mean the 'Everybody knows you, greets you, and asks how that one-thing-you-said-you-were-going-to-do went" kind of tiny. I personally consider this a strength, since if you really need to study (and get away from your classmates to do it), you can simply walk a couple hundred feet down the sidewalk to the Galvin Library where the vast majority of people are IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) students, and study there.

Second, there is the Assembly, Shimer's method of shared-governance. It takes the place of a student-government, and consists of the student body, the staff, and the faculty. The Assembly is (on the most basic level) responsible for safeguarding the ethos of Shimer, and everyone involved has an equal stake in that pursuit. At its core, the Assembly stands for equality, truth, and intellectual honesty at Shimer, all of which I think lie in the hearts of Shimerians. The aforementioned pursuit is a serious matter, and I have found in my past year that taking part in it not only helps protect the ideals of the college, but also binds Assembly members together in unique ways.
And from the classroom angle, here is new addition to the Shimer faculty Adam Kotsko, on "The immersion method":

It can be pretty rough in the first-year courses, especially toward the beginning — though the difference between the first and second semester is already remarkable. It’s also the case that not everyone “makes it.” But for those who stick with it, the progress is often amazing. By their third year, students are collaboratively figuring out how to work through texts that I never would have thought they could even find a way into — for instance, some of my best discussions last semester were over Teresa of Avila, which is impressive in a room full of mostly secular students.

The key to the model, it seems to me, is that it is simultaneously text-centered. Shimer is probably one of the most liberal Great Books schools out there, with a much greater emphasis on contemporary texts — for instance, the capstone Humanities course includes more Irigaray than you could possibly imagine — and a greater emphasis on differentiating between disciplines than St. John’s, which is often regarded as the archetypal Great Books school. So we’re not making big ontological claims about the Western Tradition, etc. (not to say that St. John’s is either, but early advocates of the Great Books curriculum certainly were). What the Great Books framing allows us to do is to get past the “why are we reading this” syndrome: students may not “like” Plato, but few are going to be so arrogant as to claim that Plato isn’t worthy of attention. Even if they don’t connect with a text personally, it’s generally going to be the kind of thing that one really “should” read.

More important is what the textual focus does to the classroom: it provides a shared point of reference and a standard of relevance. The things that people hate about discussion sessions is basically the bullshitting, the free-associative nonsense spouted by people concerned primarily with getting their “participation points.” The textual focus gets us away from the students’ own arbitrary opinions and puts us on the track of something that we have in common: a desire to figure out what the hell is going on in this text. Over time, students understand that this is their chance to figure that out, and they begin to hold each other accountable for things like textual support. 

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