("Learning, Living, and London," continued)
For the students, the collaboration has gone far beyond the classroom. In one flat, an argument has raged for weeks over whether or not technology has advanced humankind or been its downfall. "It may sound silly," one student explains, "but when you're together all the time, these questions take on depth. It's hard to come to class and calmly discuss The Origin of Species when you know the person who thinks 'X' about Darwin also thinks vivisection is important for civilization." She shrugs. "But I've made friends with people I never would have talked to at Oberlin. It isn't always a big love fest, but it changes you."
Gwyneth Love has been the program's coordinator since its inception in 1983. Born and bred in England, she spent years at Oberlin before taking on the infant Danenberg program. She combines an intimate knowledge of Oberlin and its je ne sais quois with an equally intimate knowledge of all things British. Beloved by students ("I came on the program because I heard about Gwyneth," Carlos Bustamante '98 explains. "Everyone who comes back raves about her."), Gwyneth is devoted to the interdisciplinary philosophy. "Working across subjects isn't easy," she says. "It's different from taking a science class here, a history class there, and an art class over there. In London, the professors and the students are on unfamiliar ground. Since they're in it together, the semester provides a more intense learning environment than the average on-campus semester."
Part of this vitality, she explains, comes from friction and friendly adversaries. Because of its constantly repeated experimental nature, with each semester seeing a new conjunction of disciplines and pedagogies, the London semester isn't ever smooth sailing. Oddly, this contributes to its success. Several years ago politics professor Yakuba Saka and English professor Len Podis led a semester that is now legendary. Their joint class, "Politics and the Colonial Legacy in Literature," was composed of English and politics majors, about half African American and half white. "They fought all the time--students, teachers, everyone," Gwyneth says. "And it was absolutely, unbelievably great. One of the best semesters we've had, by far."
If argument is essential to a Danenberg semester, so is cooperation and compromise. Making the program work involves commitment from everyone and can be emotionally painful. "You wouldn't want to live your whole life at this level of personal and intellectual intensity," Gwyneth says, laughing. "But living and learning for a while in an environment where you can't hide from yourself or others is almost always a good thing. Students tend to realize themselves; they achieve more than they thought they would, and they learn things about themselves they didn't know before. Those kinds of discoveries are exciting, but they're scary as well."
Self-revelation is not confined to the student population, and this fact is perhaps the least recognized benefit of the London program. Four Oberlin professors a year, from all over the college, lead London semesters and collaborate with a colleague. Classes taught by two professors have a different flavor from classes led by just one. For one thing, a professor used to controlling his or her own classroom must learn to share authority. Students sense that change and respond accordingly.
"You can't be an Oberlin faculty member and have a big ego," Bob says. "I got used to the students' irreverence and love of debate a long time ago. But in a strange way Oberlin's characteristics--like sassy, clever students--are magnified here in London. Sharing teaching here is almost more Oberlin than Oberlin, and it means you're sharing learning, as well." Professors return to Oberlin exhausted, but also changed and pedagogically invigorated.
"Their learning curve is as steep as any student's," Gwyneth says of Scott and Bob. "Because they are teaching together and learning all the time, the scope of the class extends far beyond the readings and the discussions. The students come to see the question of science's relationship to art as dynamic, growing, and changing between these two professors as well as between themselves."
Bob has a more nuts-and-bolts perspective on his own learning experience. "Before teaching this class with Scott," he says, "I had taught over 100 college courses, and every single one of them was a lecture. I was a math professor and then a computer science professor. Discussion doesn't come easily to those classrooms. Here in London, after 15 years of teaching, I had to lead my first discussion. It was terrifying and wonderful."
Oberlin's strong English and theater departments blend well with the dynamic and affordable London theater scene, creating a Danenberg program with tight ties to English and theater faculty. One or more theater classes are taught each year, and students see as many as 25 plays in 12 weeks. Shows range from traditional Royal Shakespeare Company productions to experimental drama in London's "fringe" theater district. This kind of intensive theater class is an incredible feat matched by almost no other American college program.
Although a semester in London is an expensive prospect, tuition, room, and board cost no more than a regular Oberlin semester. That price tag includes a weekly allowance, theater tickets, any travel done as a group, and $250 towards airfare. "Unfortunately we can't provide work-study over here," Gwyneth says. "But with careful planning, a London semester shouldn't cost a student much more than a regular semester in Ohio. And that's essential. This program is for every Oberlin student. Not just a moneyed elite, and not just the intellectual elite, either. It's almost always the students who aren't straight A students, and who aren't massively outgoing or sociable, who are most radically changed by a semester over here."