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This is a First-Year Seminar?

by Dominic Moore '05

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It wasn’t your typical fall break for the students in the First-Year Seminar “The Politics of Disaster.”

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“We were working in about six inches of mud and sewage,” says Shena Vagliano-Fielding ’10. “I thought I would be more prepared for what I saw. I had seen the images on TV but this was an overwhelming, life-changing experience.”

Over the break, students from the class flew to the epicenter of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation to tour rebuilding efforts and work on a service learning project. They helped clean and rebuild two ruined houses.

It’s a long way from the shores of Seneca Lake to the Gulf Coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has exposed problems of national and international importance.

“The Politics of Disaster,” examines the myriad social, cultural and political issues surrounding the cleanup and rebuilding of southern Louisiana. Assistant Professor of Political Science Cedric Johnson believes that a hands-on approach is critical to mustering student involvement, so he incorporated the trip as part of the course’s service learning component. “We read about Hurricane Katrina and the history of New Orleans for weeks, but having the opportunity to see the aftermath for ourselves, talk to residents and engage people who are working on post-Katrina issues was incredible.”

Sample Reading List

• Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza
• Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Michael Eric Dyson
• The U.S. Government’s 2005 Complete Guide to the Hurricane Katrina Disaster
• The Urban Land Institute’s A Strategy for Rebuilding New Orleans

Students found that while the parts of the city that rely on the tourist industry, including the French Quarter, are up and running, enormous swaths of the surrounding areas are still in ruins. “Five minutes out and you’re in a ghost town,” says Vagliano-Fielding. “It is infuriating how little has been accomplished.”

Students met Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco in the French Quarter after a Saints game, were able to question a Loyola poverty law professor and, on their last day, met with Jay Horn, the Times-Picayune reporter who covered the hurricane and its aftermath. The seminar placed an emphasis on sociopolitical issues of inequality in the rebuilding process, helping students come to terms with problems and consider potential solutions.

“We looked at what went wrong and how it can be fixed,” says Alex Liscio ’10. “It was a great class and I plan to go back to New Orleans when more trips are offered.”

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Most classes deal with a specific subject matter, a discipline, a concrete idea. Professor of Dance Donna Davenport’s paradigm-busting seminar is more like a meta-course: a class about the process of thinking, creating and learning itself.

“Take something, reinvent it,” says Davenport to a class of animated first-years as the semester begins. They usually start with the classroom itself, reimagining the positions of chairs, desks, tables and even their own beliefs and identities. “Tell me names, identities you heard people call each other in High School,” Davenport asks, and the board fills with a familiar litany: nerd, jock, popular. She wipes them away with a flick of the eraser: “Here, you can be anything you want.”

As students begin to reinvent themselves, old ideas are challenged, destroyed and reborn as something new. The class reads Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, a challenge to the traditional intelligence test.

“We look at definitions of intelligence,” Davenport says, “because most people don’t see intelligence as a plural, but as a singular.” But how do you measure artistic genius or charisma? Where no yardsticks exist, students are challenged to create their own.

Sample Reading List

• On Writing by Stephen King
• Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
• The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
• Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner

Davenport believes the class has practical, as well as theoretical, applications. As her students begin to realize a process of self-discovery, they are asked to apply those lessons, developing models and then teaching in a Geneva Middle School after-school program.

“CEOs want to hire creative people,” Davenport says, “but schools don’t teach creativity.” Instead we live in a world governed by standardized testing, a one-size solution that doesn’t account for complexity, according to Davenport. But in her classes at least, students are asked to visualize a new concept of intelligence and creativity, a process of reimagining the self, the mind, and eventually, the world.


It was important to start small. Before they built a larger model, Scotty Orr, of the mathematics and computer science faculty, asked his class to build model planes with foam and balsa wood, powered by rubber bands. They learned the principles of aerodynamics and control surfaces through experiences with flight simulators.

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He even asked students to play with small remote- controlled planes, using them as teaching tools instead of toys. One student modified the frame of his, removing the lower set of wings to increase its speed, but at the expense of lift and maneuverability. “I wanted them to learn about aerodynamics,” says Orr, “about the science of flight, but also the mechanics of it — how to design and build planes.”

Which they eventually did, constructing a fully functional model of a World War I-era Sopwith Pup. Orr brought both professional and personal interests to bear on the innovative class, basing the curriculum on his own experiences constructing an ultralight aircraft for personal use. To tackle the Sopwith model, he divided the students into three teams. “One built the biplane’s lower wing,” he explains, “another built the upper wing and the third team constructed the fuselage.”

The culmination of the semester’s work was “Plane-a-Palooza,” which converted Bristol Field House into a temporary aerodrome hosting dozens of flying machines of every description. The final project was proudly on display and took its maiden voyage taxiing down an improvised field house floor runway.

Sample Reading List

• Understanding Flight by David Anderson and Scott Eberhardt
• Developing Quality Technical Information by Gretchen Hargis, Michelle Carey, Ann Kilty Hernandez and Polly Hughes

Tom Harty ’10, who would like to eventually get his pilot’s license, was one of nine students displaying his piloting skills that day. While the foot-long, remote-controlled aircraft buzzed over his head, Harty spoke without breaking his concentration: “This class is so much fun!”

It’s hard not to join in on the students’ enthusiasm. Orr’s vision for the class succeeds because it marries the experience of handson learning with the theory and science of flight.


Looking for a new kind of academic cocktail? Take one part biography, one part history and two parts gender studies. Shake vigorously. This is the unique draught students receive in Associate Dean Chip Capraro’s “Rock Music and American Masculinity,” an unparalled take on gender, music and the American experience.

The class applies gender studies theory to the biographies of famous musicians, analyzing the role of music and masculinity through the lives of icons Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain.

“Through biographies and historical novels, we look at many perspectives on masculinity including conservative, feminist and mythopoetic interpretations,” says Capraro.

While Capraro’s approach to men’s studies has varied in the past, he’s found that rock music is a theme that resonates with first-year students. “It’s a direct, immediate and powerful connection to their lives,” he says. “FoR some men, rock culture provides an alternative route to manhood. Rebelliousness is inherent in rock; rebelliousness against conformity, parents and dominant models of masculinity.”

Sample Reading List

• Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick
• No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton
• Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure by Carol Brightman
• Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross

“We really focused on what ties rock music to men’s studies when we looked at Dylan,” says Emily Sarokin ’10. “Dylan recreated the male model and made the hipster lifestyle acceptable. He left home and found his masculinity through musical experiences. To my surprise it wasn’t fame or individualism that confirmed his manhood but the folksongs he listened to and wrote.”

History walked off the page when Dennis McNally, publicist and chronicler of the Grateful Dead, visited the class to share his experiences on the road with one of rock music’s legendary acts. McNally, perhaps best known as the author of A Long Strange Trip: The History of the Grateful Dead, helped students contextualize and understand the life of Garcia and the role that rock music plays in American culture. “The students really responded to him,” Capraro says. “It made things come alive.”


As students went about their daily schedules this past fall, they were confronted by a provocative poster in the Scandling Center. “What is Yoga?” it asked, and provided ample blank space to write an answer.

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The responses covered the map from the serious to the bizarre, but in general, proved a point: Yoga is misunderstood.

The project was the result of the First-Year seminar “Yoga Journeys,” taught by Professor Sheila Bennett of the Anthropology and Sociology faculty. A licensed Yoga instructor herself, Bennett was interested in teaching “the whole sweep of Yoga,” from the history and philosophy of Ayurvedic medicine to Yoga as “big business,” a consumer product of America’s health clubs.

With an academic background that spans South and Central Asia, Bennett brings a holistic understanding to the practice and philosophy of Yoga and an interest in the cultural traditions that gave it birth.

Sample Reading List

• The Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Svatmarama and Brian Dana Akers
• Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain
• The Upanishads translated by Alistair Shearer and Peter Russell
•Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda

Bennett set out to teach her students, none of whom had ever taken a class in Yoga, the real origin of the ancient spiritual practice and uncover its mysterious roots in ancient Indian philosophy. “This was a rigorous course,” says Bennett. “It involved a tremendous amount of research and writing that really pushed students to a more contextualized understanding of Yoga.”

But “Yoga Journeys” was as much about the body as the mind. The class met three times a week, and one of those sessions was devoted solely to the practice of Yoga. “The hands-on component worked well for first-year students,” says Bennett, who saw the barrier between the students’ personal and academic lives begin to crumble. She recalls looking out an office window one snowy afternoon in late fall to see her students practicing their routine on the Smith Green: education had become a way of life.