Learning, Living, and London
Extending the Classroom with a Semester Away
Story by Bethany Schneider '93
It's a cold, clear November evening. Twenty-two mud-covered Oberlin students pour through the doors of a pub in the middle of Dartmoor, a 365-square-mile wilderness in southern England. A sign on the wall identifies this as the third-highest pub in the UK, and announces that the fire in the fireplace hasn't been extinguished in 80 years.The elevation is no surprise to these weary hikers, and while the fire is welcome, the non-vegetarians among us are more interested in the homemade venison pie. We agree that a pint of Tanglefoot, the local bitter, goes a long way towards mending muscles that have hiked all day across boggy moorland. English professor Scott McMillin and computer science professor Bob Geitz lean back and smile contentedly as the students fall into an argument: does science exist separately from nature? Did Geoff mean to allow Charlotte--the muddiest student of all--to fall backwards into a freezing cold stream?
Mid-debate, Scott holds a bite of venison aloft on his fork. "This is what the London program is all about," he says. It's unclear whether he means good food or good conversation, but after all, isn't appetite at the center of an engaged and balanced education? The Danenberg Oberlin-in-London program, of which these students are a part, is about satisfying a hunger for learning, extending the classroom to the social, physical, and even the gastronomic.
The interdepartmental program was founded in 1983, its primary aim to provide students with an intensive interdisciplinary learning experience that engages them with the subjects they study and the environment in which they live. Two professors from different departments lead the group each semester and teach a joint class.
Sometimes the collaboration involves disciplines more traditionally linked than Scott's English and Bob's computer science; I was a Danenberg student when English professor David Young and art history professor Richard Spear taught a joint class on 17th-century drama and architecture. The common ground was easy to find, yet conversations among literature- and architecture-types were extremely challenging. Nineteen and 20-year-olds, some of whom enjoy novels and others who prefer looking at art, have less in common than one might think. More to the point, the excitement of London itself inspired an intellectual wrestling match; it was a way of exercising the thrilling energy we found in this new, foreign city.
I recognize those same high spirits and collective intellectual excitement in Scott and Bob's group. In fact, they are even more primed for it, given their far greater internal differences. Everyone knows that scientists live on North Campus and think empirically, while artsy types live in co-ops and think about the Meaning of It All. What happens when they live together in a foreign city and are expected to bring their disciplines to a common table? "The students end up arguing, not so much from the position of their particular fields, as from the exciting confusion arising from interdisciplinary concepts, per se," Scott says. "They are disconcerted, in a very good way. Oberlin can be a fairly static place. In spite of the overall diversity, it's fairly homogenous in that living spaces, classrooms, and hang-outs are self-selecting. People with similar ideas find each other."
In the Danenberg program, that unconscious complacency is disrupted. "The classes are interdisciplinary," he says, "and so is the living and breathing. All aspects of communication become charged and different."
Scott and Bob are teaching a joint class called "Orders of Nature" and the collaboration is both thrilling and difficult. "We came to the basic topic easily," Bob says. "How do people think about nature? We wanted to come to Britain and use it as a laboratory. What's going on in the intellectual environment in the 19th century? How are science and literature interacting? "Initially my role was 'The Science Guy,' and Scott was 'The Literature Guy.' He was going to teach Wuthering Heights, Wordsworth The Mill on the Floss, and I was going to teach Newtonian Systems, Darwin, thermodynamics, and conceptions of time. But it didn't work that cleanly, and I'm glad. He's familiar with philosophies of science, and I've read a lot of literature. Pretty soon we realized that this collaboration was between us as teachers as much as it was about throwing material out there and seeing what we could do with it."
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