Archive for February, 2012
As the class of 2015 prepared for its first semester as college students, the undergrads had more in common than just their freshman status. All first-year students shared a cross-major reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw: and other adventures as part of a new common reading program at Oglethorpe.
“Several colleges and universities have established common reading programs over the years,” explained Kendra Hunter, director of student leadership and activities. “By introducing this program at Oglethorpe, Campus Life wanted to incorporate an academic component to New Student Orientation that would create a common experience for new students to begin the development of community among them as well as help prepare them for the academic and intellectual experiences they will have.”
Far from the ordinary textbook, What the Dog Saw is a compilation of 19 features written by the Canadian journalist, all of which were first published in The New Yorker magazine. In this collection, Gladwell explores the “back story” of society’s everyday stories, and makes an effort to find a larger meaning in them. The book is divided into three parts which examine: “minor geniuses” (those who find ways to do ordinary things in extraordinary ways); the theories or ways of organizing experience (such as the controversial program found in some big U.S. cities designed to tackle the problem of homelessness by giving the chronically homeless their own apartments, while less severe cases stay on the streets); and lastly, the assumptions and predictions we make about people (“How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well?”).
“Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade,” says Gladwell in the book’s preface. “It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.”
Indeed, Gladwell’s book was selected with the input of first-year instructors for its direct connection to first-year curriculum and its potential to encourage debate and real-life application.
“What the Dog Saw is composed of essays and themes which appeal to a variety of students and can be connected to multiple disciplines,” said Hunter. “Resulting discussions ranged from their thoughts about the book to having a ‘pitching’ contest in which students took an ordinary object and pitched new and unusual uses for it. Currently, we are looking into visiting a homeless shelter and then discussing or debating the ideas from one of the essays, ‘Million Dollar Murray.’”
Throughout the year, students and faculty have found other ways to incorporate the book’s theme, turning what started as a summer reading assignment into a year-long intellectual discussion about the importance of perspective. Hunter said that three freshman classes took a trip to Dialog in the Dark, an exhibition that forces guests to “see” through the eyes of the visually impaired, using a series of darkened galleries created to replicate everyday experiences. “During that trip students gained a different perspective on everyday life with a visual impairment, encouraging them to be open to ideas and viewpoints other than their own,” explained Hunter.
Not surprisingly, others at OU have found ways to adapt the book as well. The OU Theatre department has plans to modify it for the stage. To be created and performed by students, the play will be presented exclusively at Oglethorpe by special permission of the author on April 12-14, 2012.
“What the Dog Saw encourages its readers to think counter-intuitively and to question experiences and the assumptions they make,” said Hunter. “This is exactly what we want our students to do; critical thinking is such a large part of their education and individual development.”
For years, academics and world leaders have strived to understand the origins of war, the causes of peace, and the sources of future conflict. In his “War, Peace, and Security” class, Dr. John Orme invites students to explore just this, by examining the motives and calculations of past statesmen involved in warfare. He says that investigating historical conflict and resolution is beneficial to helping a student understand how the world works, no matter what career lies ahead of him.
“This is really a theoretical course,” explained Dr. Orme. “It is important to know the answers to questions like, ‘Why do states go to war? Why peace?’ [War stems from] a desire for security, which breeds a competition for power. In this class, we are trying to understand those in power.”
The concept of warring nations is certainly nothing new in the 21st century, but the ways in which we war certainly are. Last summer, in an effort to better understand terrorist ideologies and how democratic states combat them, Dr. Orme travelled to Israel as an Academic Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The 10-day fellowship program, taught in conjunction with Tel Aviv University, exposed university professors to the latest trends in terrorists’ operations. While in Israel, Orme and his colleagues engaged in discussions with top diplomats, military, and intelligence officials from around the world, including Ambassador Dore Gold, Israel’s former Ambassador to the UN. They also visited military bases, border zones, and imprisoned terrorists for an up-front view of Israel’s counterterrorism methods.
“The main purpose [of the field excursions] was for Westerners to have some appreciation for what Israel is going through,” remarked Dr. Orme. “I was most impressed by Israel as a people, and especially those who were being recruited into service…Ispecifically recall [at a security fence east of Jerusalem] the face of an Israeli commander. We did not speak to him, but his nonverbal communication spoke to how great a responsibility he has.”
He says that having participated in the seminar has certainly benefited classroom discussion, recently sparking conversation about nuclear proliferation, why states want nuclear weapons, and the differing conclusions about Qaddafi’s fall that those in the Middle East might make versus Americans and Europeans.
“Most of [my students] are not going to end up being practitioners,” said Dr. Orme. “But it prepares them as citizens in the world…if they do end up in a position of power, they’d use it responsibly.”
I was very excited to join Oglethorpe and have a chance to reintroduce computer science courses to our curriculum. My main goal is to help develop and implement a computer science minor (with a major being a longer-term goal). Such a minor program existed in the past but ceased. Computer science courses were offered again to current students beginning in spring 2011. Other faculty and I have the opportunity to shape a computer science minor that is unique to Oglethorpe.
In pursuing this goal, one relevant question is: how does computer science fit into the liberal arts at Oglethorpe? After all, the word “computer” is in the name of my discipline so it seems reasonable to think of the class being about learning the keystrokes to perform an operation in Excel or how to fix a specific piece of computing hardware.
However, addressing computer science in that way is like addressing astronomy as “telescope science,” or molecular biology as “microscope science.” All three disciplines use tools in an essential way, but all three also include the use of multiple paradigms to solve problems, drawing upon reasoning, logic, analysis, hypothesis testing, and formal problem-solving methodologies. As a combination of mathematical theory, experimentation similar to what is used in the sciences, and design methods from engineering, computer science carves out its own niche. It is much less about the tools used than most people realize. In fact, holding some computer science classes in a computer lab is sometimes counterproductive—the students may be tempted to surf the Internet for noncurricular reasons more than we use the computers to write programs!
One definition of a liberal arts environment is an environment that focuses on developing a whole person, to prepare them for a life—not just a job—after college. It’s very difficult to live and work in a world like ours without using or at least encountering computerized devices. Thus, knowing the principles behind them is useful. Much like how the sciences joined the liberal arts when they became more relevant in a scientific society, it’s time to include computer science in our view of a liberal arts experience.
Computer science is fortunate relative to other disciplines in that, after taking a single course in introductory programming, the student is already more valuable to a potential employer. It is not usually because the student learned the exact programming language we teach at OU (Java) or that the employer needs somebody to do what we learned in the class. It is because the student has been introduced to how to work with a computer and utilize techniques of computer science in a variety of new situations.
Most managers realize that a professional computer programmer spends less than half of his or her day actually writing programs on a computer—the rest is spent thinking and discussing ideas with others. A class in computer science and a liberal arts education to back that up is invaluable for this planning and discussion.
On this topic, I highly recommend “Computer Science and the Liberal Arts: A Philosophical Examination,” by Walker and Keleman (at Grinnell and Swarthmore, respectively). I look forward to integrating computer science into the existing exciting areas of study available at OU as I help develop a computer science minor.
Dr. Brian Patterson, assistant professor of computer science & mathematics, joined the OU faculty in fall 2011. He received his BA from Carleton College and his MS and PhD from iowa State University. His teaching and research interests include artificial intelligence, computation and complexity, graph theory, machine learning, probability, and statistics.